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Fevre Dream
Fevre Dream
by George R.R. Martin
Edition: Mass Market Paperback
Price: CDN$ 9.49
44 used & new from CDN$ 0.93

4.0 out of 5 stars Steamboats and vampires!, Aug. 25 2012
Steamboats and vampires. . . I have to admit that I've always been intrigued by George R. R. Martin's Fevre Dream. So when Bantam Books released a new mass market edition of GRRM's early novel, I decided that it was time to give this work a shot. And I'm sure glad I did, for Fevre Dream is an original and engrossing read!

Here's the blurb:

Abner Marsh, a struggling riverboat captain, suspects that something’s amiss when he is approached by a wealthy aristocrat with a lucrative offer. The hauntingly pale, steely-eyed Joshua York doesn’t care that the icy winter of 1857 has wiped out all but one of Marsh’s dilapidated fleet; nor does he care that he won’t earn back his investment in a decade. York’s reasons for traversing the powerful Mississippi are to be none of Marsh’s concern—no matter how bizarre, arbitrary, or capricious York’s actions may prove. Not until the maiden voyage of Fevre Dream does Marsh realize that he has joined a mission both more sinister, and perhaps more noble, than his most fantastic nightmare—and humankind’s most impossible dream.

As always, Martin excels at creating a genuine and realistic setting. His vivid prose brings the reader back to the Mississippi river runs of the 1800s. The narrative is filled with a wealth of historical details from that period, and the author's love for steamboats adds another dimension to the tale. Inventive, Fevre Dream also offers an explanation regarding vampirism that sets this work apart from all the other vampire novels on the market. All of this put together makes for interesting and original worldbuilding. Indeed, in terms of style, Fevre Dream is quite unique.

As is usually his wont, GRRM's characterization is "top notch" and he created another cast of fascinating protagonists. Most of the POV sections are split between chapters in which we witness events taking place through the eyes of Abner Marsh and the despicable Sour Billy Tipton. Although these two characters are far from likeable, both men grow on you as the story progresses. Understandably, the mysterious Joshua York and Damon Julian are the most captivating protagonists of this book. It will come as no surprise that GRRM has a few surprises up his sleeve. Indeed, the author's different take on vampirism allows him to keep readers on their toes.

The pace is fluid throughout, which makes Fevre Dream a page-turner. George R. R. Martin sure knows how to capture your imagination and suck you into a tale, and Fevre Dream is no different in that regard. The more you read, the more you want to know what happens next. Choosing that particular historical period as a backdrop for the story gives Fevre Dream its unique flavor. Add to that a few chilling and disturbing scenes, as well as superior characterization, and you have something special.

I know that most fans would prefer to get their hands on The Winds of Winter instead of this or any other work by George R. R. Martin. Still, Fevre Dream is a fresh and imaginative read that showcases the length and breadth of the author's talent. It has aged rather well, and at no time does it feel that you are reading a novel that was initially published thirty years ago.

If, like me, the premise has piqued your curiosity, do give GRRM's Fevre Dream a shot. You won't be disappointed!

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Snow Crash
Snow Crash
by Neal Stephenson
Edition: Paperback
Price: CDN$ 12.27
30 used & new from CDN$ 1.53

4.0 out of 5 stars Cool and smart!, Aug. 25 2012
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This review is from: Snow Crash (Paperback)
Given all the rave reviews Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash has received over the years, it's a wonder that the book has been sitting there on my shelf for well over a decade now. I was getting more and more concerned with each passing year, for this work kept receiving such accolades that it raised my expectations to what I felt was an impossible level. I mean, a science fiction novel being selected as one of the 100 books to read in English by Time Magazine? It reached the point where Snow Crash had to be one of the very best books I had ever read, if not the very best, if it had any chance of meeting those lofty expectations.

Understandably, although it is an ambitious, intelligent, and entertaining novel, Snow Crash couldn't possibly live up to my expectations. It is a fun and thrilling read, no question. And yet, as much as I enjoyed it, I don't feel that it's the sort of literary work that lingers within your mind long after you have finished it.

Here's the blurb:

One of Time magazine's 100 all-time best English-language novels.

Only once in a great while does a writer come along who defies comparison—a writer so original he redefines the way we look at the world. Neal Stephenson is such a writer and Snow Crash is such a novel, weaving virtual reality, Sumerian myth, and just about everything in between with a cool, hip cybersensibility to bring us the gigathriller of the information age.

In reality, Hiro Protagonist delivers pizza for Uncle Enzo’s CosoNostra Pizza Inc., but in the Metaverse he’s a warrior prince. Plunging headlong into the enigma of a new computer virus that’s striking down hackers everywhere, he races along the neon-lit streets on a search-and-destroy mission for the shadowy virtual villain threatening to bring about infocalypse. Snow Crash is a mind-altering romp through a future America so bizarre, so outrageous…you’ll recognize it immediately.

The worldbuilding is simply awesome. In a not-so-distant future, the USA has become a fragmented ensembles of smaller Burbclaves and city-states. As is usually the author's wont, the witty narrative is full of satiric social and political commentary. What's even more brilliant is the fact that Snow Crash was written between 1988 and 1991. To realize just how on the money Stephenson turned out to be regarding the information age and virtual reality, it's simply astonishing. The same thing goes for the technology now in use, both in terms of software and hardware. Truly, Neal Stephenson was a visionary.

The characterization is well-done, especially considering that having teenagers as your principal protagonists can sometimes be quite tricky. Yet both Hiro Protagonist, the Deliverator and katana-wielding hacker, and Y.T., a pesky Kourier, are well-defined characters you just have to root for. When Hiro is involved in an accident and is about to be late delivering a pizza, Y.T. delivers the pie on time, thus earning a favor from the Mafia and joining her fate to Hiro's, though none of them are quite aware of that fact just yet. Although the narrative follows the POVs of these two protagonists for the better part of the book, they are joined by a colorful cast of secondary characters that give Snow Crash its unforgettable flavor. Chief among those include Uncle Enzo, the Librarian, and Raven.

The pace is fluid and the chapters relatively short, making this novel a real page-turner. Indeed, there is never a dull moment. The early portions about the Sumerian myths and their importance are a bit more nebulous and hard to understand, but everything is explained later on in the book. Hence, for a while at least, you are sort of left in the dark as to what this new computer virus is all about. Be that as it may, you just need to buckle up and enjoy the ride. From beginning to end, Snow Crash remains a dense and surreal work of fiction full of humor that will make you think as much as it makes you laugh.

As I mentioned, what is even more impressive is the fact that this novel was initially published two decades ago. Discovering just how right Stephenson was concerning everything that has to do with the information age and virtual reality will have you shaking your head in bewilderment.

Snow Crash is a smart, cool, funny, witty, and action-packed adventure featuring a pair of unlikely heroes who must save the world from infocalypse. If you enjoy roller-coaster rides, Snow Crash is definitely for you! You will never again look at toilet paper quite the same way afterwards. . .

If, like me, you haven't read it yet, Neal Stephenson's Snow Crash could be perfect vacation reading material for you.

Check out Pat's Fantasy Hotlist!

The Coldest War
The Coldest War
by Ian Tregillis
Edition: Hardcover
Price: CDN$ 23.99
15 used & new from CDN$ 3.14

5.0 out of 5 stars Even better than Bitter Seeds!, Aug. 25 2012
This review is from: The Coldest War (Hardcover)
Having thoroughly enjoyed Bitter Seeds, I was shocked when I learned of Tor Books' major screw-up which prevented this second volume from being published in 2011, as it was originally scheduled. The author has expressed some concern on the matter, fearing that readers might not think The Coldest War was worth the long wait.

Well, let me set everyone's mind at ease. Ian Tregillis wrote an awesome sequel to a great debut. Indeed, this one was a doozy! And as things stand, in this house at least, The Coldest War is the very best speculative fiction title of the year!

Here's the blurb:

In Ian Tregillis' The Coldest War, a precarious balance of power maintains the peace between Britain and the USSR. For decades, Britain's warlocks have been all that stands between the British Empire and the Soviet Union—a vast domain stretching from the Pacific Ocean to the shores of the English Channel. Now each wizard's death is another blow to Britain's national security.

Meanwhile, a brother and sister escape from a top-secret facility deep behind the Iron Curtain. Once subjects of a twisted Nazi experiment to imbue ordinary people with superhuman abilities, then prisoners of war in the immense Soviet research effort to reverse-engineer the Nazi technology, they head for England.

Because that's where former spy Raybould Marsh lives. And Gretel, the mad seer, has plans for him.

As Marsh is once again drawn into the world of Milkweed, he discovers that Britain's darkest acts didn't end with the war. And while he strives to protect queen and country, he is forced to confront his own willingness to accept victory at any cost.

The action occurs in the spring of 1963, in the middle of the Cold War. The USSR now controls the entirety of Europe and most of the Asian continent all the way to the Pacific Ocean. The only thing that prevents Great Britain from falling under the Soviet yoke is the generation of warlocks that saved the British Empire during WWII, and they are slowly and inexorably getting mysteriously murdered. Trouble is, the Soviets have spent the last two decades researching and reverse-engineering von Westarp's technology to create their own breed of superhumans. Once they put these super soldiers on the field, everyone knows that nothing will stand against them and the entire world might be conquered by the USSR.

Bitter Seeds was a paranormal alternate history yarn in which Tregillis tinkered with the history of WWII and its genesis. With The Coldest War, he does the same with the Cold War that followed the second World War. The author has an eye for historical details, and once again his prose his evocative. I also enjoyed the political and social ramifications of a Soviet-dominated Europe.

Although there are a few minor POV characters, once more we witness events unfolding through the eyes of the same three principal protagonists: Raybould Marsh, Klaus, and William Beauclerk. As was the case in Bitter Seeds, there is a nice balance between the three POVs. The last two decades have not been kind to Marsh, who has become a shell of a man and whose marriage is falling apart. He gave everything he had to Operation Milkweed, yet the end of WWII did not bring the happiness he so longed for. Klaus, who has spend over twenty years in top secret Soviet research and military facilities with his sister, is no longer the weapon he used to be. Only William, who got kicked out of the operation before the end of the war, enjoys a better life and has finally found love. But this happiness also comes at a price, one that may well break him. Seeing how these characters have changed and evolved over the years demonstrated that Ian Tregillis has a knack for good characterization.

And yet, it doesn't matter just how much character growth there is or how well-defined the protagonists turned out to be. For as was the case with its predecessor, it's Gretel who steals the show every time she appears in The Coldest War. This gypsy-born German seer is one of the most fascinating characters I have ever come across. In Bitter Seeds, we were offered a few glimpses of a master plan only Gretel seemed to be aware of. Well, in retrospect, by reading this second volume you realize just how much ground work she was laying down for what would follow. Simply put, it's at times incredible. I found myself shaking my head in wonder on several occasions.

In terms of time frame, The Coldest War is not as sprawling a novel as Tregillis' debut was. The events chronicled within its pages cover only a period of about six weeks, with the bulk of the action taking place in London. Which means that the pace is fluid throughout, with never a dull moment bogging down the narrative.

Intelligent, thought-provoking, inventive, and engrossing, The Coldest War is the kind of work that totally satisfies you and makes you beg for more. I will certainly be lining up to read the final volume, Necessary Evil.

Ian Tregillis did not only write a worthy sequel to Bitter Seeds, he also raised the bar higher and came up with an awesome ending that set the stage for what should be a memorable finale.

The Coldest War is definitely one of the speculative fiction novels to read this year, and as such it deserves the highest possible recommendation.

Check out Pat's Fantasy Hotlist!

Spellbound
Spellbound
by Blake Charlton
Edition: Hardcover
Price: CDN$ 23.19
23 used & new from CDN$ 2.34

3.0 out of 5 stars Superior to its predecessor in all aspects but the characterization, Aug. 25 2012
This review is from: Spellbound (Hardcover)
In 2010, Blake Charlton released an original debut titled Spellwright, a throwback book reminiscent of epic fantasy and sword & sorcery novels from the 80s. In a day and age in which genre authors attempt to subvert traditional fantasy tropes and clichés, Charlton embraced them, making Spellwright some kind of homage to a different era.

Although the author elevates his game in basically every aspect of his craft in this sequel, Spellbound remains the same in style and tone.

Here's the blurb:

In a world where one’s magical prowess is determined by one’s skill with words and ability to spell, Nicodemus is a wizardly apprentice afflicted by a curse that causes him to misspell magical texts. Now, the demon who cursed him has hatched a conspiracy to force Nicodemus to change language and ultimately use it to destroy all human life. As Nico tries to thwart the demon’s plan, he faces challenges from all sides. But his biggest challenge is his own disability, which causes him to create chaos wherever he goes. And the chaos surrounding Nico is affecting the world so profoundly that the kingdom to which he has fled to gather strength is on the brink of civil war, and he suspects that his closest allies—even Francesca, whom he loves more than life itself—may be subject to the demon’s vast powers. As Nico tries to forestall the apocalypse, he realizes that he doesn’t know if he can fully trust anyone, not even the woman he loves. And if he makes one wrong move, not only will his life be forfeit, he may end up destroying all mortal life as well.

Charlton is a world away from the "New Grit" movement spearheaded by authors such as George R. R. Martin, Richard Morgan, Joe Abercrombie, R. Scott Bakker, Steven Erikson, etc. In Spellwright, pretty much everything was black and white. The heroes were good, the villains were evil. The forces of good always beat the odds and somehow managed to come out on top, with secret knowledge or power falling into their lap in the nick of time. The good guys were all handsome and beautiful, while the bad guys weren't. In a nutshell, it was the whole good vs evil shebang. Even though it's more or less the same with Spellbound, the author added a few shades of gray to the plot. Yet in the end, the novel remains a work that will appeal more to fans of more traditional fantasy series written by the all-stars of the 80s and early 90s such as David Eddings, Terry Brooks, Margaret Weis and Tracy Hickman, and Raymond E. Feist.

One facet in which Blake Charlton managed to up his game significantly is the worldbuilding. The structure of a debut is such that Charlton couldn't offer readers more than a glimpse of his universe in Spellwright. I was pleased to learn more about Language Prime, the Chthonic race, the Disjunction, the dragons, and so much more. Readers will also discover more about the world at large, as the action occurs in a variety of localities. Overall, the worldbuilding added quite a few layers to this work.

Once again, the imaginative magical system that Charlton created is a highlight of Spellbound. As was the case in the first book, it can take a while for you to understand how it works. But it remains fascinating and unique.

One aspect which leaves a lot to be desired, I felt, was the characterization. Ten years have passed since the events chronicled in Spellwright, a decade that hardened Nicodemus. The young dyslexic spellwright suffering from cacography wasn't always the sharpest tool in the shed, but the man he became commands respect. What nearly killed the book for me was Francesca DeVega, the novel's main protagonist. Oh my God. . . Where to begin? Think of a strange hybrid between Polgara the Sorceress and Dr. House with a dose of Faile. She is insufferable and I wanted to open my veins every time she appeared in the book. Another thing that readers will either love or despise, with all the bantering and back-and-forth between the characters (most of which often getting in the way of the plot), with Spellbound Blake Charlton firmly established himself as the David Eddings of the 21st century. The supporting cast doesn't play such an important role in the bigger scheme of things, which means that there is an uneven balance between Francesca and Nico's POVs.

You may or may not know that Black Charlton attends the Stanford University School of Medicine. Which explains why there are a few bits of medical porn here and there throughout the book. It's not off-putting in any way, not even the unexpected brain surgery, but it doesn't always have much to do with the storylines. There is also a love story that you can see coming from a mile away. . .

The pace can be a problem in certain portions of the book. Spellbound begins with a bang and the rhythm is fluid for about half of the novel. Then it becomes extremely sluggish at times, before resuming again for the finale. Charlton brings this one to a satisfying close, setting the stage for what should be an interesting final volume.

Spellwright seemed too have a lot of potential and Spellbound demonstrates that there is a lot more to Charlton's creation than meets the eye. If not for the intolerable Francesca, this book would get a much better score. As I mentioned, she nearly killed this one for me. Because in every aspect but the characterization, Spellbound is a much superior tale than Spellwright turned out to be. Which means that if you can put up with Francesca, you might love it.

Check out Pat's Fantasy Hotlist!

The Night Sessions
The Night Sessions
by Ken MacLeod
Edition: Paperback
Price: CDN$ 13.87
31 used & new from CDN$ 1.26

4.0 out of 5 stars Highly recommended!, Aug. 25 2012
This review is from: The Night Sessions (Paperback)
It's more than a little deplorable that such a quality and thought-provoking read took so many years to become available on this side of the Atlantic. Indeed, Ken MacLeod's The Night Sessions originally came out in 2008 in the UK. I'm aware that science fiction doesn't quite sell the way it used to. But considering the amount of genre crap on the market today, one would think that a novel as good as this one would get an American publisher more rapidly.

I wonder if it has anything to do with the fact that the more devout American Christians are portrayed in a negative light. . .

Here's the blurb:

A bishop is dead. As Detective Inspector Adam Ferguson picks through the rubble of the tiny church, he discovers that it was deliberately bombed. That it’s a terrorist act is soon beyond doubt. It’s been a long time since anyone saw anything like this. Terrorism is history.

After the Middle East wars and the rising sea levels, after Armageddon and the Flood, came the Great Rejection. The first Enlightenment separated church from state. The Second Enlightenment has separated religion from politics. In this enlightened age there’s no persecution, but the millions who still believe and worship are a marginal and mistrusted minority. Now someone is killing them.

At first, suspicion falls on atheists more militant than the secular authorities. But when the target list expands to include the godless, it becomes evident that something very old has risen from the ashes. Old and very, very dangerous. . .

I found the premise of the work to be fascinating. In a future in which the Faith Wars resolved the Middle East problem and rid the world of the fundamentalist islamic issue, if at a terrible price, and which led to the First and Second Enlightenment that separated religion from everything else, I feel that Ken MacLeod created a very believable post-war world. The worldbuilding is intelligent, thoughtful, and daring. Add to that a storyline in which self-aware robots find God and you end up with a book that's impossible to put down!

There are no lies in religion. There are apparent facts that are illusions. There are words to be taken figuratively. There are ideas that are symbols of deeper truths. There are no lies. The people who sent me to the Middle East told us we would destroy an evil empire. They didn't lie, either.

For the most part, the characterization is pretty solid. Detective Inspector Adam Ferguson and his robot partner Skulk are at the heart of this investigation, yet the supporting cast of disparate characters gives this work many more layers. One thing that I found off-putting, however, is the author's habit to jump from one POV to the next without any apparent break in the narrative. Still, the plot captures you in such a way that the POV shifts don't take anything away from the overall reading experience.

The pace is great and there is never a dull moment from beginning to end. The Night Sessions is as smart as it is entertaining. MacLeod challenges readers with thought-provoking ideas and never takes the path of least resistance. My only complaint would be that we don't learn enough about the Faith Wars and their aftermath. And yet, that would probably have required a number of info-dumps that would have killed the rhythm of the novel. As things stand, this book is a page-turner.

Considering the social, political, and religious issues the West is currently dealing with, Ken MacLeod offers a look at a potential near future in which mankind realized how different belief systems can corrupt societies.

Highly recommended!

Check out Pat's Fantasy Hotlist!

God's War: Bel Dame Apocrypha Volume 1
God's War: Bel Dame Apocrypha Volume 1
by Kameron Hurley
Edition: Paperback
Price: CDN$ 12.40
43 used & new from CDN$ 0.64

5.0 out of 5 stars Awesome read!, Aug. 25 2012
My curiosity was piqued when I learned that Kameron Hurley's God's War was a nominee for the 2012 Nebula Award for best novel. But since it had been blurbed by Jeff VanderMeer and his taste in books and mine don't often agree, I was a bit reticent to give it a shot. And yet, Night Shade Books has been publishing some killer material for a while now, so I caved in and decided to give it a go.

And hot damn am I happy I did! Indeed, Kameron Hurley's God's War is everything I want a book to be and then some! Had I read it in 2011, it would have tied for my favorite read of the year alongside Steven Erikson's The Crippled God. Yes, your eyes are not deceiving you. Hurley's debut is better than C. S. Friedman's Legacy of Kings, George R. R. Martin's A Dance With Dragons, R. Scott Bakker's The White-Luck Warrior, and James S. A. Corey's Leviathan Wakes!

Here's the blurb:

Nyx had already been to hell. One prayer more or less wouldn't make any difference...

On a ravaged, contaminated world, a centuries-old holy war rages, fought by a bloody mix of mercenaries, magicians, and conscripted soldiers. Though the origins of the war are shady and complex, there's one thing everybody agrees on--

There's not a chance in hell of ending it.

Nyx is a former government assassin who makes a living cutting off heads for cash. But when a dubious deal between her government and an alien gene pirate goes bad, Nyx's ugly past makes her the top pick for a covert recovery. The head they want her to bring home could end the war--but at what price?

The world is about to find out.

The worldbuilding is top notch. Her vision is quite unique and the world she created comes alive in a manner that is seldom seen. Islam has taken to the stars, but the religion has evolved over the centuries. That facet of the novel was brilliantly done, with so much left to be disclosed. Revelations are few and far between, which only makes reading the book more fascinating. There are no info-dumps, so the various concepts retain a definite mysterious aura that makes you beg for more. Hurley's narrative creates a vivid imagery that makes the ravaged world leap off the pages. I'm looking forward to discovering more about the origins of the long-lasting war and the different societies/religions populating the planet.

Add to that some strange insectile technology and magic, as well as some cool concepts such as the bel dames and alien gene pirates, and what you end up with is nothing short of superb worldbuilding. Kameron Hurley has created something truly special. If you are one of those jaded science-fiction reader who believes to have seen it all, think again. Kameron Hurley might blow your mind!

In a war-torn and contaminated world, you cannot expect goodie-two-shoes men and women. The product of a brutal and unforgiving environment, the characters are what you expect them to be. Hurley's characterization is similar to that of authors such as Joe Abercrombie and George R. R. Martin. Forget black-and-white protagonists, for every single character in God's War has shades of grey. Nothing is as it seems, and the more you read, the more this work continues to resound with depth. Nyx may be a bit too kickass to be fully believable, yet she remains a more or less genuine three-dimensional protagonist. Add to that a phenomenal supporting cast of engrossing men and women, chief among them the magician Rhys, and you have a novel that is well nigh impossible to put down.

This one was paced to perfection. Weighing in at only 288 pages, God's War grabs hold and won't let go. A veritable page-turner, my only complaint was that it ends too quickly. It's a good thing I already have a copy of the sequel, Infidel, awaiting my attention.

Yes, God's War is a violent tale set against the backdrop of a centuries-old holy war. But beyond all the blood and violence, it's a beautifully crafted work of art that keeps astonishing you when you least expect it. The author's prose is dark and brooding, the rhythm often balls-to-the-wall, yet she finds ways to hit you with touching moments that pack a powerful punch in terms of emotional impact. Kameron Hurley is a gifted writer and I'm looking forward to reading the rest of the Bel Dame Apocrypha series.

Brutal, uncompromising, brilliant, enthralling: That's God's War in a nutshell.

Awesome read!

Check out Pat's Fantasy Hotlist!

The Straits of Galahesh: Book Two of The Lays of Anuskaya
The Straits of Galahesh: Book Two of The Lays of Anuskaya
by Bradley P. Beaulieu
Edition: Paperback
Price: CDN$ 14.43
32 used & new from CDN$ 5.34

4.0 out of 5 stars Highly recommended!, Aug. 18 2012
This novel is the sequel to what I considered to be the 2011 speculative fiction debut of the year, The Winds of Khalakovo.Bradley P. Beaulieu made quite an impression on me with his first book, and thus I had rather high expectations for The Straits of Galahesh.

After showing so much potential, I wanted to know if the author could bring this series to another level with the second volume. Well, this sequel delivers on all fronts and is even better than its predecessor! Indeed, Beaulieu managed to iron out most of the kinks that were the shortcomings of The Winds of Khalakovo. In the end, The Straits of Galahesh is an even more ambitious project, one that makes for a wonderful reading experience!

Here's the blurb:

West of the Grand Duchy of Anuskaya lies the Empire of Yrstanla, the Motherland. The Empire has lived at peace with Anuskaya for generations, but with political turmoil brewing and the wasting disease still rampant, opportunists from the mainland have begun to set their sights on the Grand Duchy, seeking to expand their empire.

Five years have passed since Prince Nikandr, heir to the scepter of Khalakovo, was tasked with finding Nasim, the child prodigy behind a deadly summoning that led to a grand clash between the armies of man and elder elemental spirits. Today, that boy has grown into a young man driven to understand his past - and the darkness from which Nikandr awakened him. Nikandr's lover, Atiana, has become a Matra, casting her spirit forth to explore, influence, and protect the Grand Duchy. But when the Al-Aqim, long thought lost to the past, return to the islands and threaten to bring about indaraqiram - a change that means certain destruction for both the Landed and the Landless - bitter enemies must become allies and stand against their horrific plans.

From Bradley P. Beaulieu, author of the critically acclaimed debut novel The Winds of Khalakovo, comes Book Two of The Lays of Anuskaya, The Straits of Galahesh.

The worldbuilding is terrific. Once more, very Russian and/or Eastern European in style and tone, Beaulieu prefers to go for something different than the clichéd European medieval environment that gives this book its distinctive vibe and flavor. The author elaborates a lot more than he did in his debut, and what was just a hint of hidden depth in The Winds of Khalakovo is finally revealed in full. I liked how we learned more about the Motherland and the threats it's facing, but also the way it's tied to the islands of the Grand Duchy. Moreover, the revelations regarding the Al-Aqim, the rifts, the peace-loving Aramahn, the violent sect of the Maharraht, the mysterious Matri, and the entire magic system were fascinating.

People have asked me what authors Bradley P. Beaulieu reminded me of, and it's a hard question to answer. But in many ways, he appears to be a mix of Steven Erikson and L. E. Modesitt, jr. That's a weird hybrid, I know. But it's the only thing I could come up with. À la Erikson, Beaulieu likes to throw his readers into the heart of the tale without offering much in the way of information. In the first volume, this often resulted in an occasional lack of clarity that left readers wondering what the heck was taking place. Drawing on the material from The Winds of Khalakovo, Beaulieu does it less often in this sequel. But as is the case with Steven Erikson, sometimes you just need to buckle up and be taken along for the ride, hoping that an explanation will be provided down the line.

In terms of characterization and magic system, his approach is very similar to that of L. E. Modesitt, jr. Beaulieu's cast of characters may not be the most flamboyant bunch of people. And yet, for the most part they are solid, genuine, and three-dimensional men and women that remain true to themselves. The same thing goes for the magic, which is consistent and must follow strict rules that make sense. So far, there hasn't been any Deus ex machina moments where magic is concerned. Again, I feel that too little is known about everything that has to do with magic in The Lays of Anuskaya. But instead of finding this off-putting, my curiosity is such that I'm just dying to learn more and see what will occur next.

As was the case with its predecessor, the layered characterization in The Straits of Galahesh was my favorite facet of this novel. The five-year gap between both installments allowed Beaulieu to showcase just how brilliant his character development can be. Nikandr, Atiana, and Nasim are the viewpoint protagonists in this second volume. The structure of the novel is such that each viewpoint always gets two or three chapters at a time, which creates a neat balance between them. Add to that a supporting cast of genuine and interesting men and women, and once again you have a work that really captures your imagination. Special kudos to Beaulieu for letting readers learn more about Soroush and realize that there is much more to him than just being a fundamentalist terrorist leader. All in all, the characterization is top notch.

In addition, I'm not sure Bradley P. Beaulieu sat down and had a beer with George R. R. Martin at a convention in between books, but it looks as though he became fond of creating living and breathing protagonists that readers care about, only to kill them off when you least expect it. Indeed, The Straits of Galahesh features a body count that both GRRM and Joe Abercrombie would approve of. At one point I was left wondering who the hell would be left to make it to the third volume!

In terms of rhythm, there were a few rough spots here and there, the same as in The Winds of Khalakovo. You can see that the author is laying a lot of groundwork for what will follow, but the pace is rarely an issue. In any case, Beaulieu's eye for details and his evocative narrative creates an imagery that never failed to amaze me. There are surprises and shocking moments aplenty throughout the book, making this one extremely unpredictable novel to read.

Dark, ambitious, complex, populated with a great cast of characters that leap off the pages, The Straits of Galahesh is just what the doctor ordered if you are looking for a quality read that's different from everything else on the market today. The Winds of Khalakovo turned out to be one of the very best SFF works of 2011. Somehow, Bradley P. Beaulieu has raised the bar even higher for this sequel, making The Straits of Galahesh a "must read" speculative fiction title for 2012.

Two thumbs way, way up! Do yourself a favor and give Beaulieu's series a shot. You'll thank me. . .

Highly recommended.

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Kings of Morning
Kings of Morning
by Paul Kearney
Edition: Mass Market Paperback
Price: CDN$ 8.57
26 used & new from CDN$ 0.99

5.0 out of 5 stars Great conclusion to a superior series!, Aug. 18 2012
I couldn't wait to discover how Paul Kearney would bring The Macht trilogy to a close. Both The Ten Thousand and Corvus had set the stage for an unforgettable finale, and the author didn't disappoint! Kings of the Morning closes the show with a bang and opens the door for more sequels. A veritable master of military fantasy, Kearney's The Macht trilogy is one of the very best SFF series of the new millennium.

Here's the blurb:

For the first time in recorded history, the ferocious city-states of the Macht now acknowledge a single man as their overlord. Corvus, the strange and brilliant boy-general, is now High King, having united his people in a fearsome, bloody series of battles and sieges. He is not yet thirty years old. A generation ago, ten thousand of the Macht marched into the heart of the ancient Asurian Empire, and fought their way back out again, passing into legend. Corvus’s father was one of those who undertook that march, and his most trusted general, Rictus, was leader of those ten thousand. But he intends to do more. The preparations will take years, but when they are complete, Corvus will lead an invasion the like of which the world of Kuf has never seen. Under him, the Macht will undertake nothing less than the overthrow of the entire Asurian Empire.

Kings of Morning is the thrilling conclusion to Paul Kearney's Macht trilogy.

Once again, this novel is dark and gritty military fantasy at its best. And yet, even though Kings of the Morning is at times all about the stark realism of military campaigns, Paul Kearney delivers more than a few poignant and touching moments that demonstrate just how gifted an author he can be.

It's no secret that Kearney has always been known for his brevity. In the past, his books featured minimal worldbuilding that didn't intrude on the storytelling, and the narrative was never bogged down by frustrating info-dumps or long-winded elaborations. And yet, for the first time, I felt that Kings of the Morning would have worked even better had it been longer. Several storylines converge and are brought together, and though the book makes for an incredible reading experience, I feel that it would have benefited from a higher page count. True, Kearney was able to build on the events of both The Ten Thousand and Corvus, which allowed him to flesh out his world and its people to no small degree. But still, just a bit more depth would have made Kings of the Morning the fantasy novel of the year. As was the case with its predecessor, the narrative is written with tight focus, keeping the pace fluid and making Kings of the Morning impossible to put down.

I've said it before and I'll say it again: Paul Kearney doesn't get the credit he deserves for his characterization. Once more, the man came up with a disparate yet amazing cast of characters for this one. Much like in Corvus, there is also a great balance between the various POV sections, with the novel focusing in turn on Rictus, the slave boy Kurun, the Great King Ashurnan, Lady Orsana, and Prince Kouros. Seeing events unfold through the eyes of such different protagonists imbues this book with a human touch that elevates this work far above what is the norm in military fantasy offerings.

I doubted that the author could outdo himself and top Corvus. And yet, he did just that! Kings of the Morning delivers on all fronts. As is usually Kearney's wont, the book features terrific pace, a grim and stark setting, superb characterization, and bloody and violent battles. Doubtless, Kings of the Morning definitely is Paul Kearney writing at the top of his game.

A brutal and uncompromising, yet surprisingly touching, tale of warfare and conquest written by what could well be the most underrated talent in genre. That's Kings of the Morning in a nutshell.

Paul Kearney has written one of the fantasy novels to read this year. Kings of the Morning is a sure candidate for the best fantasy book of 2012!

Along with C. S. Friedman's the Magister trilogy and R. Scott Bakker's Prince of Nothing, Paul Kearney's The Macht trilogy can stand tall as one of the best speculative fiction series to have been published since the turn of the millennium. And like these aforementioned series, Kearney's latest creation remains inexplicably underrated and criminally unread. . .

An awesome conclusion to a superior fantasy series.

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City Of Dragons: Volume Three of the Rain Wilds Chronicles
City Of Dragons: Volume Three of the Rain Wilds Chronicles
by Robin Hobb
Edition: Paperback
16 used & new from CDN$ 7.16

4.0 out of 5 stars Half of the story..., Aug. 18 2012
When she first intended to write a book about dragons set in the Rain Wilds, the original manuscript Robin Hobb turned in was too long to be published as a single novel. Hence, the story was split into Dragon Keeper and Dragon Haven.

A while back, the author informed us that the same thing had happened, forcing her publishers to once again split the story into two halves, City of Dragons and Blood of Dragons. Problem is, given the relatively small size of City of Dragons, unless Blood of Dragons is a veritable doorstopper of a novel similar to works from Robert Jordan, George R. R. Martin, and Steven Erikson, it does appear that Harper Voyager is sticking it to readers by forcing them two buy two volumes instead of one. And you know how I feel about the proliferation of unnecessary sequels to string readers along. . .

Here's the blurb:

Return to the world of the Liveships Traders and journey along the Rain Wild River in the third instalment of high adventure from the author of the internationally acclaimed Farseer trilogy.

Kelsingra awaits for those brave enough to enter…

The dragons and their keepers have discovered Kelsingra but so far only Heeby has succeeded in flying over the river to enter the fabled city. The other dragons, with their deformed wings and feeble muscles, are afraid to risk failure and humiliation.

But wondrous things await in Kelsingra, a city built for dragons and their Elderling keepers. Alise, overwhelmed by the treasures she finds there, records her finds for posterity. Once the rest of the world knows about the riches the city contains, nothing will ever be the same again.

Already, rumours of the city’s discovery have floated down the Rain Wild River and reached envious ears in Bingtown and beyond. Adventurers, pirates and fortune hunters are coming in droves to pillage what they can from the city. As is Hest Finbok, Alise’s husband…

Meanwhile, Selden Vestrit finds himself a prisoner of the ailing Duke of Chalced, who believes him to be some sort of dragon-man whose flesh and blood may work miracle cures.

Where is Tintaglia, the great sapphire-blue dragon, when all have such need of her? Has she really abandoned her beloved Selden and the fledgling dragons forever? Or will she too return to seek the wonders of Kelsingra?

As was the case with the last Rain Wilds novel, the worldbuilding was the most fascinating aspect of City of Dragons. Once again, we get more insight into the lives of dragons, Elderlings and their secrets, and the Rain Wilds in general. Revelations about Kelsingra were engrossing, giving us a few glimpses about the past lives of dragons and Elderlings.

As is usually her wont, Hobb's characterization remains her strong suit. The emancipation of women and society's acceptance of gay people are once again themes that lie at the heart of the tale, as was the one focusing on how individuals shunned by society strive to find their own place in the world. Thymara, Alise, and Sedric take center stage once more, but the storylines also focus on other characters. Leftrin's return to Cassarick brings a number of new plotlines to the fore, many of them quite surprising. Malta and Reyn Khuprus' storyline was the most unanticipated and most interesting. Selden's plotline is also quite intriguing. All in all, Robin Hobb takes this story in new and unforeseen directions.

The pace is fluid throughout, and all too quickly one reaches the end of the book. Trouble is, as this is only the first half of what was a single manuscript, there is no resolution whatsoever and the end lacks the usual Robin Hobb punch. The novel is brought to a close at the point where it probably made the most sense, but the reading experience fails to generate any satisfaction. Hence, one can't help but feel a bit disappointed by it all.

City of Dragons doesn't feel like a novel in the true sense of the word. Indeed, it feels more like a single piece in a multilayered whole. As was the case with the last two Rain Wilds installments, until we read the entire story, it's impossible to judge the inherent quality of this work on its own merit. Too much remains missing. . .

Which is too bad, for based on City of Dragons, Hobb's latest manuscript appears to be her very best work since Fool's Fate. . .

Check out Pat's Fantasy Hotlist!

The Book Of Transformations
The Book Of Transformations
by Mark C Newton
Edition: Paperback
Price: CDN$ 11.67
18 used & new from CDN$ 5.17

3.0 out of 5 stars Sets the stage for what should be a good 4th volume, Aug. 18 2012
The Book of Transformations is the third installment in the Legends of the Red Sun series, sequel to Nights of Villjamur and City of Ruin. The second volume was an improvement on the first and set the stage for what appeared to be an exciting book three.

Here's the blurb:

A new and corrupt Emperor seeks to rebuild the ancient structures of Villjamur to give the people of the city hope in the face of great upheaval and an oppressing ice age. But when a stranger called Shalev arrives, empowering a militant underground movement, crime and terror becomes rampant.

The Inquisition is always one step behind, and military resources are spread thinly across the Empire. So Emperor Urtica calls upon cultists to help construct a group to eliminate those involved with the uprising, and calm the populace – the Villjamur Knights. But there’s more to Knights than just phenomenal skills and abilities – each have a secret that, if exposed, could destroy everything they represent.

Investigator Fulcrom of the Villjamur Inquisition is given the unenviable task of managing the Knights, but his own skills are tested when a mysterious priest, who has travelled from beyond the fringes of the Empire, seeks his help. The priest’s existence threatens the church, and his quest promises to unravel the fabric of the world. And in a distant corner of the Empire, the enigmatic cultist Dartun Súr steps back into this world, having witnessed horrors beyond his imagination. Broken, altered, he and the remnants of his order are heading back to Villjamur.

And all eyes turn to the Sanctuary City, for Villjamur’s ancient legends are about to be shattered...

Peter F. Hamilton once claimed that genre labels just don't apply to Mark Charan Newton. And that's certainly true for this novel as much as for the previous two installments. Problem is, by daring to be different from the norm in several ways, the author often puts himself in a position in which the habitual genre points of reference don't apply. At times, this can result in unanticipated originality and rewarding scenes. Unfortunately, other sequences can be off-putting or failures to launch for the very same reasons.

In the past, I always felt that the aspect at which Newton excels the most was the worldbuilding. His evocative narrative made Villjamur and Villiren come alive, both cities becoming characters in their own right. I was disappointed that this facet of the author's talent was not exploited in The Book of Transformations. Indeed, as was the case in Nights of Villjamur, the characters' introspection and the often heavy-handed social commentary got in the way of what was essentially a very good tale.

I was happy to discover more about the Cultists devoting their lives to the study of ancient artifacts and technology. More revelations about the alien invading forces were also welcome, yet in retrospect not much was gleaned in the end. Which, truth to tell, was more than a little odd. With the coming ice age and aliens coming from another dimension, one would think that these storylines would have taken center stage instead of being relegated to secondary plotlines to be explored in the fourth volume.

Let it not be said that Mark Charan Newton is not a daring author! After making one of the main characters gay, in The Book of Transformations one of the principal POV protagonists is a transsexual circus entertainer. Overall, I felt that Brynd's homosexuality was well-portrayed in City of Ruin and it added another dimension to a multilayered novel. I'm afraid the same cannot be said of Lan's portrayal in this book. Not that it isn't well-done, though I don't possess enough knowledge on the subject of transgender folk to judge whether or not Newton did as good a job with Lan as he did with Brynd. It's just that Lan's storyline and the introspection associated with it took way too much space in this novel. And with what appears to be the end of the world coming, I felt that there were bigger fish to fry as far as storylines are concerned.

As was the case with its predecessors, Newton's noirish prose once again works well and sets the mood just right. The pace, however, is sluggish throughout but at the very end, with too much instrospection bogging down the narrative at every turn. Having said that, Mark Charan Newton, as always, remains true to himself. Social and political commentary and the exploration of themes such as humanitarian issues, equality, etc, will always be present in his work. Hence, if one doesn't necessarily share the author's political views, then certain aspects of his work might occasionally put them off.

The characterization was uneven. Some characters are well-defined and genuine. Investigator Fulcrom is a good example of a three-dimensional protagonist, but we spend too much time inside his head and the inevitable love story that takes place was too predictable for my taste. The Villjamur Knights was an incredibly cool idea, but in the end the execution left a bit to be desired. I loved the idea of creating genetically improved superheroes, but they did very little for the most part. I felt that Shalev, who is so important to the overall plot of The Book of Transformations, was underused and should have been fleshed out more. The same goes for Ulryk, whose actions will shape the way the rest of the series will go.

I opined that City of Ruin demonstrated that there is much more to the Legends of the Red Sun than met the eye. Revelations and mysteries hinted at a blend of fantasy and science fiction elements that could set this series apart from its peers. Although The Book of Transformations failed to live up to that potential, Mark Charan Newton ends the novel with a bang, making me quite eager to discover what comes next. I can only hope that cool ideas and fascinating concepts will trump the introspection and the social and political commentary that plagued this books. If Newton can achieve the right balance between these aspects, the way he did with City of Ruin, the fourth volume could well be a doozy!

Check out Pat's Fantasy Hotlist!

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