Leigh Bardugo, The Language of Thorns: Midnight Tales and Dangerous Magic (2017)

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Author: Leigh Bardugo

Title: The Language of Thorns: Midnight Tales and Dangerous Magic

Pages: 288

Format: Hardcover

A collection of fables set in Bardugo’s Grishaverse, The Language of Thorns first came to my attention through Trang’s review on Bookidote. As a novice to Bardugo’s writing, without any reading experience in Grishaverse, but with rather better knowledge in the areas of myth, fairy tale and fable, I can conclude that Language of Thorns is an inventive, pleasurable read, which pleases the eye as much as the mind, owing that to wonderful illustrations by Sara Kipin. Though it would certainly do better without the lengthy and slightly cheesy subtitle, I think I understand the sentiment, especially that this book is advertised to an audience slightly younger than me ;).

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William Golding, The Inheritors (1955)

I’ve read Sapiens by Harari recently, and it rekindled my interest in the earliest history of our species. Shortly after that, a review of Kim Stanley Robinson’s Shaman on Weighing a pig doesn’t fatten it led to me reading that novel and I was very happy it did. Robinson managed to create a believable impression of the culture of people who lived long before anything could be written down. Scientists use the pieces they find to speculate and search the furthest corners of the world for tribes that continue to live the lives of hunter-gatherers… but only a novelist can make me feel a sense of connection with people from so long ago!

In the discussion below his review, Bart mentioned William Golding’s The Inheritors as one of the sources of Robinson’s inspiration, and I was curious. Golding is one of my favourite writers, Lord of the Flies one of the books that influenced me the most. He left his mark on how I think about the nature of evil, its presence in society and individual, the fragility of civilization, and of religion. I’m slightly less pessimistic on these issues now, but I hold Golding in high esteem.

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Tim Powers, Declare (2001)

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Author: Tim Powers

Title: Declare

Pages: 517

Format: Hardcover

Thy story is a marvelous one! If it were graven with needles on the corners of the eye, it would serve as a warning to those that can profit by example.

A Cold War era spy thriller/horror/love story, centered around the life of the infamous Soviet spy Kim Philby, where French, American, British and Soviet secret services are viciously fighting for access to a supernatural power – djinn, or nephilim, or fallen angles, residing in remote wildness of Arabian deserts. And the famous Mount Ararat. So, in short, if you want to know why USSR fell in 1991, read Declare ;).

Tim Powers did it again. He found a nexus of happenstance, coincidence, inexplicable historical facts, and, diligently digging around through archives and his own subconscious, created an improbable, but inherently logical explanation to it all. One that involves Thousand Nights and One Night, T.E Lawrence, British Secret Service, Mount Ararat and Dead Sea scrolls, as well as baptism in Jordan River, a disgraced nun, an inhabited fox, the vagaries of Heaviside Layer and a colony of djinn.

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Brian McClellan, Wrath of Empire (2018)

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Author: Brian McClellan

Title: Wrath of Empire

Pages: 656

Format: Hardcover

A sequel to Sins of Empire, Wrath of Empire picks up where Sins ended. General Vlora Flint leads her Riflejacks turned mercenary army away from Landfall in a doomed effort of protecting refugees. I say “doomed”, because two Dynize armies literally race each other to finish her off more quickly and efficiently, and a Fatrastan army on the other side of the river wants her imprisoned and tried for treason. Mad Ben Styke accompanies Vlora with his own unit, reborn from the ashes of old Mad Lancers, and ponders the difficult dilemmas of vengeance, while Michel Brevis, still in his role as a Gold Rose Blackhat, smuggles families of other Blackhat members from the occupied capital city. Sounds tough, but that’s only the beginning: they all will soon face even greater dangers and more impossible tasks, because, as usual in McClellan’s books, the neck-breaking pace of action doesn’t relent for even a moment.

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Wrath of Empire can be described as an impressive string of pitched battles, deadly ambushes and duels, balanced with a huge amount of politics, internal struggles of various factions, torture, and betrayal. I’d go as far as to say that the military part of the book is the lighter one. The dark, underground maze beneath Landfall, in which insurgent/terrorist cells of Fatrastan Blackhats are hiding and from which they plot bombings and assassinations, is an apt metaphor of McClellan’s vision of politics. It’s as off-putting as it’s dangerous, and yet it remains an integral part of the life of the city above, connected to it through various hidden tunnels and cellars. McClellan seems to maintain a romantic view of war, full of heroic acts of selfless bravery and beautiful cavalry charges, miraculous deliverances in the last second and improbably lucky coincidences. In contrast, there is nothing romantic in the image of political struggle he paints in the Wrath of Empire, where even heroic, selfless deeds are met with suspicion, allegiances change with the speed of light, while the final goal seems at best unattainable and at worst non-existent. Yet more than the pitched battles I enjoyed the descriptions of  tangled politics of the Dynize occupying force, and really appreciated the complexity of the Dynize image, who weren’t portrayed as universally bad guys. Having Michel operate in the midst of the occupying force served very well as an opportunity to show all shades of personalities also among the notional enemy.

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Glen Cook, Water Sleeps (1999)

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Author: Glen Cook

Title: Water Sleeps

Series: The Chronicles of the Black Company

Pages: 359

Format: Paperback Omnibus Edition

The penultimate book in Cook’s famous Black Company sequence, Water Sleeps, is a high-grade urban guerilla handbook. Or at least the first three fifths of it, to be precise ;). The rest is an Eldritch Horror type of novel, with several fantastic revelations, brilliantly prepared and sprung on unsuspecting readers like an exquisitely poisonous trap. Churned out mere two years after the gut-wrenching cliffhanger of She Is The Darkness, Water Sleeps presents a total change of tone and perspective, one more time introducing a completely new POV. But fear not, almost all old hands get a chance if not to shine, then at least to glimmer. And even that new POV is not so new – the Water Sleeps Annalist and strategos is no other than Sleepy, whom the readers met a long time ago as a wispy boy, a follower of the Black Company and Big Bucket’s protégé in the Company’s golden Southern days, before Mogaba’s treason and Soulcatcher’s lethal volte.

 

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El Tres de Mayo Francisco de Goya

Sleepy faces an insanely difficult task: a guerilla warfare in a densely populated southern city, held in a vise grip by the most dangerous of still active sorcerers, would be enough to break sweat on the brightest of the Black Company leaders in the best of times. But these are decidedly not the best of times, with the leadership… rendered helpless and away, to put things mildly and as un-spoiler-y as possible. But that’s actually Sleepy’s other task: the retrieval of the most precious of Black Company assets, i.e. its people.

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Adrian Czajkowski, The Hyena and the Hawk (2018)

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I’ve been delaying writing this review for a while now. The reason is quite simple: I couldn’t make up my mind about the final installment in Czajkowski’s Echoes of the Fall trilogy. But I figured this in itself is a fair indication of my experience with the book so there’s no need to wait until the muddled waters finally clear up :P.

I deeply admired the creativity, sheer scope, and ambition of Shadows of the Apt, as well as Czajkowski’s truly exceptional writing skills and the ability to maintain logical structure on something as immense and prone to sprawling as a series with an over 6k overall page count (not counting the short stories!). Not everything was perfect in a ten book long series, then again – there almost never is. I was truly impressed with Children of Time, a great SF standalone with a mad scientist, a colony ship, and spiders. I enjoyed the Guns of the Dawn, a flintlock spin on Pride and Prejudice. But the Echoes of the Fall, while impeccably written, left me unenthusiastic. All three are good books, there’s no question about it. And yet some vital detail is missing, and I can’t bond with the characters, nor force myself to feel invested in their fate.

But to the point. The third installment in the Echoes of the Fall series leads us back to Maniye Many Tracks and her small band of misfits, preparing to attack the soulless invaders who destroyed the Horse settlement. In the North the united tribes under the leadership of the unwilling, self-doubting recluse Loud Thunder, whose position strengthened after the victory over the Plague People on the ocean shores, prepare to march South. Asman, finally at peace with himself and his place in the world, gathers the army of the River Nation, and Venat, finally free, tries to rouse the Dragon to the oncoming war. Hesprec travels to the fabled kingdom of Serpent, taken over by the usurpers of Pale Shadow millennia earlier, either to find unexpected allies and knowledge necessary to stand a chance against the mysterious Plague People, or else – gruesome death.

 

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Patricia A. McKillip, Winter Rose (1996)

I’ve checked our manifesto to make sure, but we actually never claimed to be a strictly book-review blog. Place dedicated to books we said, and, the way I see it, it doesn’t have to be a weekly exercise in literary criticism. Laying out our yet-unread books to form an inscription, or nominating other bloggers to reveal their top 11 is quite a lot of fun. Still, a book review every now and then is probably a good idea… so, I will postpone my top 11 for now to write a few words about a short novel full of magic and mystery, Winter Rose by Patricia A. McKillip.

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My first encounter with her prose was in 2016, when I’ve read the Riddle-Master trilogy, a simple (but very engaging) high fantasy tale made unique by its wonderful, atmospheric prose. I like the worldbuilding, I follow the events with interest, archetypical characters were written with mastery that made me invested in the outcome, but the most charming thing was McKillip’s style. I’d describe it as a Tolkienian fantasy at its best, not what Brooks practised and Moorcock mocked as Epic Pooh, but a legitimate and worthwhile additions to the genre.

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