Sarah Beth Durst, Race the Sands (2020)

Race the Sands

Author: Sarah Beth Durst

Title: Race the Sands

Format: Ebook

Pages: 544

Series: –

Sarah Beth Durst’s new book is a curious one. It is a highly entertaining, well-written and engaging book, filled with compelling characters and solid worldbuilding, without question – and yet it also prompted me to consider how exactly I view and rate my reads. So, this time I will share with you a more personal review. If you don’t want to get a glimpse of how my mind works (and I won’t blame you if you don’t, my mind IS a weird place :P), stop reading now and just check the rating 😉.

Race the Sands is an YA fantasy with a slightly Middle Eastern flavor; maybe even a bit more ancient Egyptian or Babylonian than generalized Middle Eastern, as there are emperors and priests, palaces and assassins, life-giving rivers and oddly liberating, yet deadly, swaths of deserts stretching to the horizon – and let us not forget the quite unfriendly neighborhood kingdoms. The emperors for all their power are slaves to tradition, able to rule the citizens of Becar only as much as they are ruled themselves – by the augurs, controlling the population’s religious beliefs and public opinion. There are also kehoks – lethal, horrible beasts which, in a world where reincarnation is a fact of life, are the equivalent of Christian Hell: being reborn as a kehok is a terrible penance for the sins of past lives. It is an ever-lasting punishment, doomed to repeat itself again and again, as kehoks can only be reborn in the same form, but ultimately it is not completely bereft of hope. A tiny light at the end of the tunnel shines in front of those beasts that can be tamed or broken enough to enter the traditional yearly races of Becar: the one that wins, with its rider still alive, will receive a special charm freeing it from the punishment of a kehok’s life and giving it a chance to begin the karmic cycle anew, hopefully with better outcomes.

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Melissa Albert, The Hazel Wood (2018)

The Hazel Wood

Author: Melissa Albert

Title: The Hazel Wood

Format: E-book

Pages: 359

Series: The Hazel Wood #1

So many people recommended this book that I couldn’t not read it at some point. As it was available at my library as an e-book during lockdown, I jumped at the opportunity – and now here we are 😊.

The Hazel Wood tells the story of a seventeen-year-old Alice Crew and her mother, Ella. Finally settling down in New York after years spent on the road, they hope for a change for better – until the ill luck that kept hunting them throughout their whole lives catches up with them. With her mother kidnapped by strange, dangerous creatures, it’s down to Alice and her school friend Ellery Finch to find Ella before it’s too late. And while Ella stubbornly kept Alice away from her grandmother and the sprawling, infamous Hazel Wood estate, now Alice has no choice but to find and visit that tantalizing, mysterious place – for all the answers to the questions that haunted her all her life might await her there.

The Hazel Wood is a curious book, part-fairy-tale, part-YA fantasy, part-modern UF.  And I guess that this hybrid construction is ultimately the reason for the novel’s unevenness; namely, some elements of Albert’s story work better than others. The book can be roughly divided into two parts: the first, taking place in the normal, contemporary world, bereft of magic, and the second, playing out in the Hinterlands – The Hazel Wood’s equivalent of Faerie. The everyday world of The Hazel Wood is a reflection on modern America, with its starkly contrasting social divides – both between the rich and the poor, and between urban and rural areas, all subtly painted by Albert. On that canvas, which could well serve as a basis for all types of books, from thrillers to literary fiction, Albert sketches a plethora of even more disturbing shapes – these of a hidden, dangerous world, filled with ruthless, amoral creatures somehow able to find their way to our world and wreak havoc in the unsuspecting sleepy suburbs. I really admired the little touches of wild fairy-tales, seemingly without beginning or end, without a discernible moral, but with an overabundance of wilful, gory violence. Those snippets brought to my mind the original Grimm tales – similarly violent and bloody, based on a primeval notion of justice: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. And the way Albert wrote about the tales, as of cool, distanced reportages from war, also recalled the curiously impersonal way brothers Grimm applied to their own collation of folklore tales.

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Netflix’s The Witcher (2019 – present)

Piotrek: When I first heard the news in 2017 I was excited. Ola proclaimed:

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Now we’ve both seen the first season, meditated on it for a while, and it’s time for our verdict 😉 We both like the books, a lot, so it’s not going to be a cool review of a random genre TV show. I definitely will be measuring it against my high expectations and a clear vision of who Geralt is and what world he has his adventures in. And against one of the best computer RPGs ever.

And boy, am I conflicted… It’s good they did it, there are many great things about the show, including most of the actors, but the story is butchered in a way that simply does not work for me. That is not to say I won’t be watching next season, there’s not that much solid fantasy on tv.

The problem starts with the first important decision Lauren Schmidt Hissrich had to make, about the show’s structure. Books start with many stories, two volumes of them, concentrating on Geralt and his adventures, often shared with Jaskier/Dandelion. It’s episodic, although some wheels are put in motion that will determine events volumes ahead. Yennefer appears, but is not yet one of the protagonists. Ciri is too young to really matter. The show, by starting the story with three separate timelines, gives us two heroines that are just as important as the hero, and gives us insight into their origins that we only glimpsed at reading the saga. The idea is good, execution flawed. Before I discuss the flaws, let me tell you what I think we missed, and I would miss it even if Hissrich’s idea was executed seamlessly.

Sapkowski’s short stories, stories I value more than the novels, introduced his world in a pretty comprehensive way. Culture, history, religion, politics, prejudices, brewing conflicts that will later erupt into wars. Nilfgaard is mentioned, but not visited, and we get to see the shades of moral grey of this universe before we’re told to hate the big bad. Sapkowski created a post modern cycle, where the bigotry of our own world was the main target. Here we got a cliche about the coming Nazis. I’d argue it’s because there was no time to get to know “our” side. One of the victims of that simplification is Cahir, reduced to a stereotypical Hitlerjugend officer. Whatever you think about the later seasons of the GoT, it’s early episodes showed how to present a complex fantasy world on screen with depth that is simply missing here. Ola?58-Copy

Ola: That’s one mighty rant ;). And an unfortunately justified one, I might add.

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Jonathan French, The Grey Bastards (2015)

The Grey Bastards

Author: Jonathan French

Title: A The Grey Bastards

Format: Hardcover

Pages: 386

The Grey Bastards, French’s first installment in the Lot Lands series and the winner of Mark Lawrence’s Self-Published Fantasy Blog Off 2016, has been steadily making its rounds around the blogosphere for a while, and became especially popular after the publication of the second installment, The True Bastards, earlier this year. The covers of both installments are really neat (I’d say “pretty” but somehow that word doesn’t seem to really fit fanged half-orcs) and give the reader a fair taste of the content. Which is, contrary to the expectations of some, less a story about nasty old pensioners, and more a curious mix of biker gang lore, bastardized Tolkien setting (well, I couldn’t resist) in a RPG-derived form, and some solid wordlbuilding.

The Lot Lands, previously called Ul-wundulas, are a domain ravaged and scarred by a war. The terrible orc Incursion into the greener and more fertile lands of the Hispartha kingdom a generation back had several unintended consequences: a swath of land between the kingdoms of humans and the domains of the orcs had been razed and destroyed, leaving it all but empty – a no-man’s land, vulnerable to another incursion and liable to start another war. In the wake of Incursion, the half-human, half-orc slaves of Hispartha had been freed and allotted a part of the empty lands, under the condition of protecting the border. Divided into several “hoofs”, a cross between a tribe, a warrior-group and a gang, they share the Lot Lands with insular and dangerous elves, unlucky and demoralized soldiers banished from Hispartha to the ungrateful task of manning the castilles along the border, religiously-minded Halflings defended by the world’s Tartars(!), called Unyars, blood-crazy centaurs, and Sludge Man – a dangerous demon inhabiting a fetid marsh and controlling moving masses of black, sticky goo.

Grey Bastards are one such hoof, consisting of several seasoned riders tasked with a double duty of patrolling the lands in the vicinity on the backs of great war hogs and with protecting a village of women and orphans which had symbiotically grown under their fortress. In this world, another conflict seems inevitable – and the protagonists of The Grey Bastards are in the middle of it all. Intrigued yet?

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L. E. Modesitt, Jr., Saga of Recluce (1991-?)

There are many great stand-alones in fantasy, but, arguably, the genre is built on series. I guess, when you create an entire new world, just to place your story there, you’re tempted to re-use it 😉 And it pays better, and readers expect it. So, while Tolkien started with trilogy (that he is quoted to think about LotR as one book), his successors published longer and longer series or various length, renown and quality. For me, Belgariad and Dragonlance were gateways into post-tolkienian fantasy, and, after ca. 25 years of reading fantasy, there are still more huge – and reportedly great – series on my TBR.
Recently, I found myself on an extended business trip abroad, with only one book in my luggage (a 900-page one, but still 😉 ) and I visited an excellent second-hand bookshop that offered a pretty complete collection of one of the longest-going fantasy sagas, L.E. Modesitt’s Saga of Recluce. While not featured in most of the top tens, it’s often mentioned as an interesting series of novels, with carefully thought-through magic system and an innovative approach to the issue of chaos/order balance. I’ve always been interested by this last issue, as a huge fan of Zelazny‘s Amber. I bought the first four volumes, and now, after reading the first two, I reached a preliminary verdict.
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And Tolkien it ain’t 😉

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