Philadelphia | Member Since 2005
I like the Emperor's Blades, but, given the many new epic fantasy series of the past few years, this isn't at the top of the list. It is clearly in the grimdark (Ambercrombie, not Rothfuss) camp - horrible events, moral ambiguity, lots of death and fighting. While not bad, it doesn't seem to add much interesting to the genre, and has some questionable choices.
Some of the questionable choices are worldbuilding. While there are lots of nice touches (sky ninjas on giant birds!) a lot of the rest falls somewhere between cliche and nonsensical. On the cliche side, this book mostly consists of the training of two different heirs to the throne. One is being trained in a monastery with (surprise!) taciturn, koan-spouting monks and has to find the meaning of their zen-like lessons. The other is being given hardcore military training with (surprise!) taciturn, tough-as-nails officers and has to overcome bullies and physical challenges. On the nonsensical side, apparently neither of the heirs to the throne are trained in anything having to do with ruling the empire that they are inheriting. Instead, they are subject to conditions that, for no really good reason, seem designed to have a very good chance of killing them.
The other questionable choices have to do with tone. There is a third member of the royal family, a daughter. She, like many of the women in the novel, gets a lot less time on the page. And most of the women we encounter get abused, tortured, or worse. It adds to a sense of discomfort throughout the novel.
Nothing here is awful, and the reading is great, but the book seemed rather forced, with motivations seeming muddled and the world not really cohering into a whole. The action was often well-done, but I think there are better new fantasy series to read.
This book reminds me very much of classic "Golden Age" science fiction (Asimov, Clarke, Poul), with some interesting historical twists. Like many Golden Age books it is primarily a novel of ideas, some of which are very technical and others purely philosophic. And, it may be partially due to the translation, but it also feels like it was written by an author who was a scientist first and a writer second. - character interactions, romance, and emotion all take a back seat to the ideas in the book.
And the ideas are really interesting! The setting of the Cultural Revolution is fascinating and horrifying in itself, but it also informs the way in which the book grapples with common SF-tropes (SETI, the advancement of science, environmental degradation) in ways that make these topics feel strange and fresh. At the same time, however, while the structure of the novel (flashbacks, seemingly unusual switches in the focal characters, etc.) helps make the ideas more powerful, it creates a lot of additional alienation from the human side of the story, which was already a bit thin.
The result is a fascinating novel, but one which is not always immediately listenable and compelling. It has taken me a long time to work through this relatively short book, though I have never been particularly bored or regretful of the journey. It is completely worth a listen (or maybe a read? Perhaps some of the problems are less apparent in written form?), but it is not always propulsive. The reader is fine, but adds to the strange drifty quality of which of the work.
In the end, the book offers much of the best of speculative fiction (reflections on big ideas, amazing scenes, a sense of wonder), but has some of the key weaknesses. For me, it was a completely worthwhile trade-off, but you may think differently.
A testament to the Powder Mage Trilogy: I listened to all three books, over 50 hours of it, in a row. While I had issues with some of the series (especially the middle book), it ends on a high note, as The Autumn Republic has many fewer issues -- especially with plotting, token women, and well-rounded relationships -- than either of the former novels. Further, the action remains excellent, the characters get more interesting, and the pace only increases.
It also works well as a final book. In what was a bit of a surprise given the sprawling world-building, almost all of the loose ends of the novels are wrapped up satisfactorily, and the many twists in the novel turn out to evolve naturally from hints laid down in the earlier books. Even better, after a rather grim second book, McClellan finally decides that, despite the low-magic world and constant warfare, he is not really writing grimdark fantasy, but rather the kind of novel where everything works out in satisfying and mostly unambiguous ways. There may be other novels about the powder mages, but this trilogy is a complete work on its own.
This means that, if you haven't read the series, you should. Despite occasional issues, it is engaging trilogy, and one of the best new voices in fantasy in the last couple years. And very well read, as well!
I really enjoyed the first book of the Powder Mage trilogy, and was, in many ways, even more impressed by the second. After the ending of the first book, I was a bit worried that this novel would represent the typical weak middle of a fantasy trilogy, especially a trilogy by a new writer, but McClellan does a great job of both upping the stakes and the action, as well as providing many twists without punching too many holes in the plot. In short, if you liked the first book, this one has more magic, more detective work, and more Napoleonic battles, and is generally better in every way.
Except... There were a few annoyances that crept into this novel. The first was purely stylistic. McClellan really likes cutting between his characters, leaving them at cliff-hanger moments to jump to the next POV. While this can sometimes build excitement and suspense, it starts to get a little tiring, as plots are interrupted at key moments, and sometimes only returned to after the action is complete. It isn't terrible, but it did bother me at particular points.
The second problem is a bit deeper. McClellan is not particularly good at writing about relationships. He tells us that people love each other, but it is usually completely unconvincing. For example, the ex-fiancee of one of the main characters is someone we are apparently supposed to care a lot about, but she remains a cypher, as does the relationships between most of the other couples in the novel. Some time is spent on her motivations, but it is hard to really get invested in it, given how little personality or back story she has.
At the root of this, the problem really seems to be that McClellan has trouble writing women, a not altogether unheard-of problem in fantasy. His main female characters are all rather odd and one-dimensional, ranging from mute women to venial generals to the strangely maternal and sketchily-written laundress. With one exception, there really is no overt issue here, it isn't like the author seems to have a problem with women or placing them in positions of authority or power, more that he doesn't feel comfortable using them as characters, which results in some oddness in the novel, especially in relationships. (The exception, by the way, is that in this novel McClellan uses rape, and the threat of rape, quite a bit in ways that seemed unnecessary and uncomfortable).
Don't let these criticisms turn you away from the series, which really is quite good, and better than most epic fantasy. The worldbuilding is terrific, the action is great, and the reading is superb. I am already downloading the next one as I write this review.
Among recent epic fantasies, Promise of Blood does a great job of balancing old high fantasy tropes with elements of more recent, blood-soaked low fantasy of a Martin or an Abercrombie. McClellan's world is one on the cusp of industrialization and revolution, and we actually meet the main characters immediately after a French Revolution-style coup. Magic is generally part of the old world order, with the exception of Powder Mages, wizards whose abilities center around gunpowder. However, the toppling of dynasties set up by ancient gods turns out to be a fraught thing, and the book does an excellent job balancing threats both mystical and practical.
The worldbuilding is remarkably detailed and interesting. McClellan has put a lot of thought into how sorcery would be used in a war of muskets and swords, and even how the economics and politics of the world work out. His three main characters are also fascinating (though they can take a lot of punishment and survive!), and, through their eyes, the story becomes alternately a high fantasy adventure to stop an evil sorceress, a murder mystery, and a political thriller.
If there is a weakness, it is that, in this nuanced world, the bad guys seem a little flat compared to the well-rounded, and interesting flawed, protagonists. They are also often neigh-unkillable, and a little too prone to mustache-twirling acts of cruelty and monologues about their evil plans. This wouldn't have been an issue except that the rest of the book seems so much more sophisticated.
This was well-read and a real winner. I am going to download the next book in the series right after writing this review!
Let me start by saying: I am a huge Sanderson fan, I think I have listened to (and generally liked) almost everything he has written, certainly over 100 hours. I think this book, is in many ways, his weakest. Part of this might be the young adult nature of the story (though I generally like YA SF novels), but I think a lot more has to do with some flabby plotting and rather self-indulgent writing.
While Sanderson's books are always heavily about characters discovering how an elaborately-built fantasy world works, Firefight takes this to a ridiculous extent. Pulled out of the setting of Newcago, we are presented with a flooded New York, where once again David has to figure out a slew of mysteries that look a lot like those in Steelheart: how does the world work? What are the weaknesses of the Epics? What secrets are allies and enemies hiding?
It starts to get a bit tedious, especially as much of the middle of the novel is spent repeatedly pondering these questions and wandering through the (not particularly interesting, once the initial rush has worn out) city. It is compounded by the fact that many questions are unanswered, and some of the ones that are not always particularly satisfying. Finally, the characters (besides David and maybe Firefight) themselves are not very interesting, as most are painted as cyphers in the same way the world is.
These problems cause the book to drag in the middle. The initial visions of Babylon Restored are great, as is the wham-bam terrific final third (where all the pay-off is), but it is undeniably uneven in tone (seriously, the metaphor thing is getting tedious!) and pacing.
The reading is great, and, ultimately, I was riveted at the end of the story, but this is not the place (or the series) for Sanderson newbies. Start with Mistborn, and then come back to this later.
This was an unexpected treat.
Erikson, who I know from his well-regarded grim and gritty fantasy work, turns out to be a very funny writer with an obvious deep love for science fiction. This book is both parody and pastiche, primarily of Star Trek (mostly Kirk-era Star Trek), but there are nods to other subgenres as well, from military SF to cyberpunk. To get full enjoyment out of this book, a passing knowledge of Star Trek is a must, and the more you know (and love) science fiction in all of its occasionally cheesy glory, the more fun you will have.
The story itself is surprisingly compelling, as are the characters, given that the book is essentially a parody. Erikson somehow manages to send up many genre conventions (the entire bridge crew beaming down to new planets, the tough space marines who shout "hooah" at every challenge, rogue AIs, and more) by having a main character who manages to be in on the joke, but in a more subtle way than the characters in Scalzi's similarly-themed Redshirts. Indeed, the captain is a complete bastard, albeit an endearing one, an over-the-top parody of Kirk that makes even Futurama's version seem well-behaved. Erikson puts his skills to work, ensuring that the plot remains engaging and the characters interesting, even as the story lurches from bizarre encounter to bizarre encounter. At the same time, he doesn't shy away from occasionally sharpening his parody to more biting satire at the expense of some more worn-out SF tropes.
I don't usually laugh at Audible books, but friends have repeatedly stopped me to ask why I was giggling with my headphones on in the street. This is not only due to Erikson's writing, but also the incredible, multi-voiced (and occasionally enhanced) MacLeod Andrews, who delivers the best comedy performance I have heard on Audible.
So, if you are a Star Trek fan, or at least are familiar with it, this is a no-brainer and probably the funniest science fiction since Hitchhiker's Guide. If you aren't as familiar with the conventions of the genre, or have never seen any Star Trek outside of the J J Abrams reboots, I have a feeling that a lot of the humor would pass you by. For the right kind of listener, however, this is pure gold.
This is not a bad story, but it is constantly undermined because the authors make it very clear that they believe their work to be Gritty and Relevant and Political (yes, the capitals are implied), by hitting you over the head with these points repeatedly. At times, the lack of subtlety is distracting to the point where I caught myself actually rolling my eyes while listening.
It is as if the authors took the typical Young Adult dystopian SF tropes and turned them up to 11, sprinkling liberally with random sex and strings of profanity that sound like they are drawn from South Park (seriously: there is a minute long sequence where a character describes everything around him as excrement, using the word dozens of times).
As a result, there is never a chance for the story to breathe. Not only do you get the simplified political divisions of Hunger Games-style SF, but, in case you missed it, there are repeated monologues about the nature of said political system. Ominous new technologies are described, and, in case you missed them, characters repeatedly tell you how ominous they are. Cliches also abound in the characterization, especially the women: the two main female characters are a moody diva and a sex-crazed hooker. These issues may be less apparent in the book, but in the audio, they are obvious and repeated.
Some of the readers (mostly the women) are good, a couple are horrible (oh man, the guy who reads the role of "Doc" is painful!). The story is never bad, and there is some fun world building, but I expected a lot more given the glowing reviews.
I assume you won't listen to this until you have listened to the previous 100+ hours of books in the Commonwealth Universe. That is, I assume you wouldn't even be reading this review unless you were already a fan of Hamilton. If you are, I have good news! This book is great, and shows real evolution in Hamilton's writing.
If that worries you, it shouldn’t: there is a lot of typical Hamilton here: we return again to the Commonwealth Universe, old characters re-appear, the book title is again bad, the worldbuilding is incredible, and the plotting is propulsive. And the man can write action scenes!
But some things have changed, nearly all for the better. For example, the two dozen character perspectives that Hamilton typically uses are reduced to just a few, allowing the reader to better settle into the characters and the story. This is combined with a slightly shorter overall book (closer to 20 hours than the usual 30+) which makes the plot feel tighter and more focused without losing the worldbuilding and detail that Hamilton is famous for. Also, the way Hamilton has traditionally built up the central mysteries in his books is by having characters with secrets in their backgrounds that are only revealed gradually as the book goes on. Here, he greatly reduces his use of that crutch, making the twists and turns in the plot involve less unexpected slight-of-hand, which helped me engage with the plot.
Finally, Hamilton does some very clever things with the plot of the book, building up expectations based on the previous Void Trilogy that are subverted in interesting ways. The end result is that this feels like the best written Hamilton book to date, while keeping all of the usual cool elements - hard(ish) science fiction worldbuilding, universe-scale action, and tight plotting – that have made his books so great. And Lee, as usual, is awesome.
Honestly, if you have spent 100+ hours with Lee and Hamilton, you probably are going to get this. Just be ready to find excuses to listen to your audio book, because it is excellent…
The original trilogy of Old Kingdom novels are some of my absolute favorite "young adult (but really for adults)" fantasy novels. The world building is terrific, the characters wonderful, and the writing style helps bring everything to life with appropriate mystery and majesty. In this new novel, Nix finds his inner George Lucas, presenting a prequel explaining the background of a character in the original series, though to much better results than Lucas achieved.The return to the Old Kingdom is welcome, and this book has some very clever elements that I won't reveal so as not to ruin surprises, but it never quite hits the heights of the prior three books.
Part of both the cleverness and slight difficulty engaging with the book is is due to the fact that it turns many of the tropes of YA fantasy novels on its head - the main heroine is asocial, not interested in romance, and generally aloof. But that isn't all. The book is full of YA tropes: we are taken early on to a magical academy full of potential enemies and allies (obvious shades of Hogwarts) or we are introduced to Parents Who Don't Understand the Heroine (shades of every YA book ever) or we are made aware of the character's special destiny. But the book turns every one of these tropes on its head, in ways that are sometimes satisfying, but also occasionally off-putting. Still, it is never boring, and I very much enjoyed the experience.
The reading is great, and, if you have read the other Old Kingdom books, you should certainly read this as well. Otherwise, you really, really should read Sabriel now - it is excellent, and, in its sequels Lireal and Abhorsen, sets up mysteries that Clariel answers, even if not always in the most ultimately satisfying way.
I am surprised at the relatively small number of people who appear to have read/reviewed this Audible book - Max Gladstone is, for my money, one of the most inventive writers of fantasy working today, and this book is excellent. It draws on both the urban fantasy (Noirish twists! A bit of romance!) and the epic fantasy (Undead wizards! World-threatening events!) genres while adding more than a bit of the New Weird mentality of Melville and Vandeermer. Set in a richly imagined world that somewhat parallels our own, but where gods were real, and eventually overthrown by once-human wizards, the books takes its setting seriously while never losing focus on creating living, breathing characters and exciting action scenes.
Even without the fantasy elements, this books well as a tale of nationalist unrest, religious fanaticism, corporate intrigue, and, yes, parkour - but the magic matters too. While the action is interesting and the relationships between characters feel real, Gladstone has created a very unique magic system, and seems to have a knack for describing magical wonders and horrors in ways that feel both fresh and literary. As an added element of originality, though the previous novel was set in a very Western setting, this one takes place in an Aztec-like city, filled with pyramids and with a history of human sacrifice. It is rare to see a setting inspired by Mesoamerican myths, and this was very well done.
I read the first book in the series before listening to this one, but I think Two Serpents Rise could stand on its own as well. Excellently read, and very different from anything else out there, I strongly recommend it to fantasy fans who might be tired of either epic swords-and-sorcery or urban vampires and wizards.
Report Inappropriate Content