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Half a King by Joe Abercrombie

Half-a-king-uk-mmpbI'm reviewing all ten of the finalists for this year's David Gemmell Legend Awards. You can see the list and my approach here, and vote in the Awards here.

Half a King (2014) is the first entry in a new series from Joe Abercrombie, one of the most well-established modern fantasy authors. It is hard to believe that it was only nine years ago that The Blade Itself hit the shelves or, that after six volumes in that series, the author has moved on to test his mettle in a new world. But, here we are - away from Logan Ninefingers and into the quasi-European world of Prince Yarvi and the Shattered Sea.

Yarvi is, as noted, a prince - the younger son of the King of Gettland. Born with only 'half a hand', Yarvi's ill-suited for combat, and doesn't fit in with the macho Viking culture of Gettland. Fortunately, a scholarly path is available to him, and Yarvi's happily studying to become a minister - a keeper of knowledge, an advisor to royalty, and an innocuous, forgettable nobody that will never have to lift a shield or lead soldiers.

Alas, fate intervenes. Yarvi's father and brother are killed in by the rival pseudo-Nordic Vanstermen. Not only is Yarvi suddenly elevated to the throne but also he's now a king at war. Despite an edict from the High King - the distant figure that owns all their fealty - Yarvi launches a raid on the Vanstermen. 

It doesn't go well.

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The Mirror Empire by Kameron Hurley

The-mirror-empire-by-kameron-hurley-cover-artI'm reviewing all ten of the finalists for this year's David Gemmell Legend Awards. You can see the list and my approach here, and vote in the Awards here.

The Mirror Empire (2014) is the new novel from many-award-winning novelist and essayist Kameron Hurley. The first in a series, The Mirror Empire is an epic that spans - quite literally - worlds.*

On a world rich with predatory vegetation, magic comes from the stars themselves. Each heavenly body comes complete with a package of powers. People born with a connection to a star (or, more rarely, stars), can be trained in their magic. But now a new - or very old - star is ascendent. Oma arrives every few thousand years, and with it, destruction. Every ascension of Oma is timed to coincide with the descent of the other stars, and, historically, a cataclysmic invasion.

As Oma rises, a handful of plots - some in place for centuries - come to fruition. Lilia is a young girl, born in a remote village. When invaders destroy her home, Lilia is cast through a portal to a different land, to be raised in a temple - a simple, innocuous kitchen drudge (as if). The Kai - the ruler of her people - dies under mysterious circumstances, and her brother, an untrained and ill-suited teacher named Ahkio, is called upon to take her place. Meanwhile, Roh, a student at Lilia's temple, is determined to be more than his destiny. He desperately throws himself into one scheme after another, keen to become a hero of some sort. The new Kai attaches him to a curious diplomatic mission, taken to a far-off - and not entirely friendly - kingdom. 

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The Godless by Ben Peek

The GodlessThis is part of a series of of ten reviews, walking through the shortlists for the David Gemmell Legend Awards. You can see the complete list here, as well as a bit about the awards, the books and the criteria I'm using. Voting concludes on 17 July.

Ben Peek's The Godless (2014) is the second of our five Morningstar* finalists, and, as you might expect from a fantasy debut, the first in a  new series. It is a very dense book, in an intriguing new world, with several full and rich themes.

In fact, here's a little game. Here's a book 'blurb' for The Godless:

The gods are dead. The moon is one god's corpse; a mountain range, another. The God-War's cataclysmic conclusion condemned the world as well; the lingering necrosis from the bodies of the divine permeating the soil, the water and the air. Humanity tries to rebuild and move forward, but the world itself has turned against them. Cannibals ravage the hills, settlements are disappearing, entire kingdoms have gone silent... Three outcasts unite in a doomed attempt to defend their home, the last spark of civilisation.

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Valour by John Gwynne

ValorI'm reviewing all ten of the finalists for this year's David Gemmell Legend Awards. You can see the list and my approach here, and vote in the Awards here.

The cauldron was a hulking mass of black iron, tall and wide, squatting upon a dais in the centre of a cavernous room. Torches of blue flame hung on the walls of the chamber, pockets of light punctuating the darkness. In the shadows, circling its edges, long and sinuous shapes moved.... It was utterly black, appearing to suck the torchlight into it, consuming it, reflecting nothing back.

There's a Black Cauldron, and it is really, really black. Very black. Very, very black indeed. Utterly black. 

There are possibly two key traits to Valour (2014), and they are both on display here: it doesn't shy away from tropes and it is more than a little repetitive.

Valour takes place in a sort of vaguely Western European mish-mash of a setting. The land was once ruled by giants, but now they're huddled away in a tiny corner, resenting the human occupiers. The human lands are a mess. They were a series of vaguely interdependent kingdoms with a nominal High King, but the events of Malice, the previous book, have upset the status quo. Now the kingdoms are collapsing into war.

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Traitor's Blade by Sebastien de Castell

Traitor's BladeAnd we're off! This is the first of ten reviews, as I'll be going through the shortlists for the David Gemmell Legend Awards. You can see the complete list here, as well as a bit about the awards, the books and the criteria I'm using. Voting concludes on 17 July.

Pretend, just for a moment, that you have attained your most deep-seated desire. Not the simple, sensible one you tell your friends about, but the dream that's so close to your heart that even as a child you hesitated to speak it out loud.

Thus begins Traitor's Blade (2014), and the opening lines do an excellent job of capturing the novel's overall tone. These wistful, deliberately florid lines are clearly a set-up for a joke - and, indeed, by the end of the first page, the romantic vision is shattered by a crude interruption. But there's also something genuine in these lines - the speaker might be overwrought and a tiny bit snide, but there's a truth at the core. A real dream, hiding behind sarcasm.

And thus goes Traitor's Blade - a novel that cloaks itself in satire, but has a firmly romantic heart. It is a tricky balance: not everyone can have their tongue in their cheek and their heart on their sleeve, but Traitor's Blade accomplishes it with surprising skill. Not unlike, of course, The Three Musketeers, which clearly inspired this novel in many ways. Dumas' novel is perhaps better known for its romantic side - the swordplay and the sacrifice. But unlike, say, The Count of Monte CristoThe Three Musketeers is a deeply, wonderfully snarky book, one that very rarely takes itself (or its protagonists) seriously.

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New Releases: The Dead Lands by Benjamin Percy

The Dead LandsBenjamin Percy's The Dead Lands (2015) is a post-apocalyptic retelling of the Lewis and Clark story. After a virus and a nuclear holocaust sweep the world, few survive. In the walled colony of St Louis, the memory of civilisation - or even a greater Unites States - is fading. The citizens are more concerned about water, mutated critters and, when they stop to think about it, their increasingly dictatorial 'Mayor'.

Lewis is the town's librarian, mechanic and something more - the lattermost being a side effect of the world's newly irradiated landscape. Clark is one of St Louis's scouts, the few brave people who forage outside the city walls. When Gawea, a stranger from the far West, comes to town, the two see this as an opportunity - proof that there's something more than their insular, decaying city-state. With a few comrades in tow (some more eagerly than others) they set out... 

The Dead Lands is a tough one to puzzle out. Structurally, this is a massive - epic, even - quest, with the future of humanity on the line. There are heroes in search of their powers, Big Bads, little bads (with pointy teeth), fathers with dying wishes, timeless romances, etc. etc.

Certainly there are similarities to the many other post-apocalyptic novels that fill the shelves, but, despite a few recognisable tropes and set-pieces, readers looking for yet another reboot of The Stand will be sorely disappointed. The Dead Lands is a return to a much older story, presented in a way that deliberately inspires - or even provokes - the reader.

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Review Round-up: Half Bad, The Rest of Us and Princess Decomposia

Three recent and upcoming books - all Young Adult (I suppose?) and all recommended (definitely). 

The Rest of UsI'm not going to 'review' Patrick Ness's The Rest of Us Just Live Here (2015) - for reasons that will become immediately clear to anyone reading it. So feel free to add however many grains of salt to this that you want. But... as well as being the typically Nessian magnificence about coming of age and learning to grow comfortable with yourself, The Rest of Us is also a continuation of his crafty conversation about the lessons of genre fiction. 

A Monster Calls described the power of stories to heal; The Crane Wife showed their darker side, arguably a book about the dangers of living a fantasy (literally and figurative). More Than This was, amongst many other things, a beautiful reflection on the role of science fiction, imagination, aspiration and escape. And now The Rest of Us Just Live Here turns to fantasy. By following a group of 'normal' kids in a hilariously stereotypical contemporary fantasy (one where the high school burns down regularly and all the oddly-named 'indie kids' are off saving the universe everyone), Ness nails the point: you are the hero of your own life.

This is a theme that's not only critical to convey to a young adult audience but also a philosophy that's in direct conflict with the subtly objectivist foundation of virtually every fantasy. In real life, there are no sidekicks, no extras, no un-Chosen. We're all special and (unlike the weirdly Randian message of The Incredibles), everyone being special means everyone is. Rather than a book that glamourises accidents of birth and the glory of predestination, The Rest of Us emphasises the unheralded heroism of being 'ordinary' and having, well, agency.

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Review Round-up: Hawkeye, Red One, Giant Days & More

DetailA few highlights from the last month that you should still be able to get from your local comic shop or via publisher apps and Comixology.

These are deliberately new starts and jumping-on points. If you knew the stuff I waded through to bring you these picks… 

Hawkeye #1 (Marvel Comics): In one week, writer Jeff Lemire had both this and his Image series Descender released. It was a good week for both Jeff Lemire and the people who read comics. The new Hawkeye series actually launched before the end of the Matt Fraction/David Aja run, which has been delayed beyond belief. Lemire’s take on the series, working with artist Ramon Perez, is a conscious exploration of the Hawkeye identity, not just a story of Clint Barton, so in that respect they’re building on the previous run’s inclusion of Kate Bishop and Clint’s brother Barney. The opening story is split between a present day caper for Kate and Clint and flashbacks to the Barton brothers’ childhood, each of which Perez depicts in an utterly different style, both of which work extremely well. The issue one Skottie Young variant cover is a thing of beauty, and on the basis of this package the new Hawkeye is full of promise.

Descender #1 (Image): As noted above, this is Lemire’s other big new launch this month and another winner. A fairly hard-sci fi tale of alien incursion, robotics and a young boy/robot called Tim who could be in a lot of trouble, Descender carries echoes of a lot of other fiction but still manages to feel fresh and interesting. Lemire and artist collaborator Dustin Nguyen achieve a significant amount of worldbuilding through action rather than info-dump, and set up Tim well enough that his peril in the first cliffhanger feels properly worrying. The invading aliens, despite inescapably reminding the reader of Marvel’s Celestials, are properly awesome and utterly enigmatic. I really don’t know where Descender is going, which is part of the reason I like it.

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Review Round-up: Wolf Winter, Day Four and Five Others

Seven books from February that all got tagged for later consideration. Or, barring actual consideration, at least some sort of hastily-assembled round-up.

Read on for Wolf Winter, Day Four, Easy Death, and Don't Even Think About It!

Plus: The Trouble with Bubbles, The Tunnel Under the World, and Steampunk Salmagundi.

The new

WW-UKWolf Winter (2015) by Cecilia Ekbäck - Anne handed this one to me, saying, "this is one of those books that you call fantasy but no one else does. You'll love it.". And, she was right. (It also says something  about me. Of all the windmills to tilt at, this may be the silliest.) 

Wolf Winter is a historical murder mystery set in 18th century Sweden. It is shockingly intense: there's a palpable sense of abandonment that heightens the stakes.. The predators (human and otherwise) feel overwhelmingly, pervasively, inescapably evil. This is also the coldest book I've ever read - even more than, say Dan Simmons' Terror or other novels of Arctic misery. In Wolf Winter, the reader feels every icy droplet of shivering despair - the freezing temperature is exacerbated by the loneliness and isolation. It is less about life feeling cheap than death feeling inevitable, with every new dawn a triumph of survival.

The fantastic elements, a bit like Jenni Fagan's Panopticon, are - uh, well, are they even there? I'd argue (of course) that they are. Whether or not the reader, from our (cozy, cynical) modern position sees the supernatural - the characters certainly do. Witchcraft, visions, shades, these all exist for Maija and her daughter. Whether or not they exist 'objectively' (that is, within the confines of a work of fiction) is beside the point. It helps that Wolf Winter is, in no small way, a discussion about the very role of belief: be that the church, the government or witchcraft - all these systems built on faith come under scrutiny, if not outright attack. It isn't just that humanity (as little bags of quivering meat) has a fragile existence, but our structures do as well. A brilliantly dark, and oddly triumphant, book, and highly recommended.

(And, yes, that's the German cover. The UK and US ones are fine, but I think the German one nails it.)

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New Releases: The Bloodbound by Erin Lindsey

The BloodboundErin Lindsey's The Bloodbound (2014) was published last year as an Ace paperback original. The first in a new series, it is a traditional fantasy epic with a delightfully contemporary twist. 

The Oridian empire is greedily devouring its neighbours. The King of Alden, rather nobly, decided that Alden shouldn't start for that sort of thing (also, there were treaties and such) and leads his country personally into battle. And his reward for doing the honourable thing? The armies of Alden are getting absolutely thumped.

Alix Black, one of the scouts in Alden's forces, has a great perspective on the battle - not only can she see her own side getting thoroughly beaten, she can also spot how the King's brother is very much not riding to his aid. Clearly inspired by her liege's chivalric naivete, Alix sprints headlong down into the fray.

And that's how The Bloodbound starts: treachery, recklessness and mayhem.

Nor does it slow down from there. Granted, the book isn't wall to wall warfare, as the early pages might indicate, but Alix has a wonderful knack for getting into trouble (in her defense, that's apparently a Black family tradition). After the initial battle, Alix is reappointed as a member of Erik's (the King's) bodyguard. Through her eyes the reader gets a front-row view of the political and military action, as Erik tries to juggle an invading army, his own retreating army, and the betrayal of his brother (and his army). Add to that assassination attempts, espionage and a hint of black magic, Erik and Alix have their hands full.

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