Author: Jonathan French
Title: A The Grey Bastards
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?
Author: Charles A. Fletcher
Title: A Boy and His Dog at the End of the World
DNFed at 35% mark
This book has made its rounds in the blogosphere; almost universally praised by many of our fellow bloggers, it was hailed as a unique blending of post-apocalyptic dystopia with a heartfelt reflection on the current state of our world, spiced with an empathic portrayal of the bond between man and dog. It all sounded wonderful. To me, however, this book turned out to be a total hoax.
It is an unremitting diarrhea of words, generated by an old man masquerading himself as a teenager. And here’s the crux of the problem. Nothing in this book seemed even remotely realistic: not the setting, with the mysterious Gelding and a plethora of weird behaviours in response to the realization that end of the humans is near; not the worldbuilding, inconsistent and varying in the amount of details from nearly none to overabundance in just few short paragraphs; and absolutely not the characters. Everything seemed like an elaborate stage setup erected by the author solely for the purpose of expounding – freely and without consequences – on his own opinions on everything. Don’t get me wrong; literature in its entirety is predominantly focused on exactly that, most of the time. Here, though, the smug masquerade incessantly grated on my nerves.
There was nothing honest in this elaborate setup, and while I enjoy my share of subtle sleights of hand, I enjoy them solely on the basis of willing participation on my part, and not because someone sets out to make a fool of me. The total and unchallenged domination of one perspective – not questioned or undermined in any way by others – soon became exceptionally tiresome. For the narrator is a perfect example of der Besserwisser, happy to share with all the world his ruminations in a distinctly Sheldon Cooper-esque way – that it to say: whether the world wants it or not. Doomed to view the world from his viewpoint I soon started to feel deep disenchantment with the whole endeavor; despite that, I tried to finish this book – until I realized that I’m forcing myself to do something I actively dislike.
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.
The second installment in the Echoes of the Fall trilogy follows the events of The Tiger and the Wolf. I promised a review a long time ago, but somehow there were always more important things to write about 😉 The long May break gave me a bit more time and an opportunity to come back to Maniye Many Tracks and her small band of outcasts from different tribes. Unable or unwilling to find her place up north after the events of The Tiger and the Wolf, Maniye decides to accompany Asmander in his return journey to the southern lands.
Asmander’s homeland curiously resembles South Americas/ancient Egypt in its undeniable higher level of civilizational and technical development, paid for with new depths of sheer brutality, political ruthlessness and sophisticated cruelty. The grand viziers of this Southern world are suitably cunning and heartless, the priests mysterious and the warriors brutal, and if I had to voice my reservations I’d say I wished for a less conventional treatment of the topic. Too many old, used tropes to my liking. Thankfully, the Northern events were in typical Czajkowski’s style – engaging, emotional, and superbly written.
In the South, Maniye and her band find themselves in the middle of a highly dangerous conflict, in which the usually smooth ascension of a new ruler is broken by an accident of birth – instead of one heir there are two: twins, each fighting for the doubtful privilege of becoming a pharaoh of sorts. Asmander’s loyalty is torn, and his typical Hamletic behavior is not helped in any way by the fact that Venat leaves him to fulfill the dreams of his youth and claim the terribly uncomfortable throne of the Dragon people. Add to it mysterious and lethal invasion in the lands of the North, the grim destiny awaiting Loud Thunder as an unwilling leader of an unheard-of, all-tribes warband gathering on the shores of northern lands to protect them from an ancient danger, a risky awakening of old myths (fans of Batman, rejoice!) and a deeply dangerous, political play between different Serpent factions… One thing is certain: Czajkowski surely knows how to amp up the tension and the levels of plot convolution.
Shadows of the Apt, the acclaimed ten book series about the world of the Insect-kinden, took place in an alternate Europe, during alternate World Wars – mostly the second one, to be precise. Shadows of the Apt is an epic tale of the struggle of different kinden, i.e. humans in kin with different types of animals which serve as their metaphysical and physical totems. Those totems can be perceived as ideals holding certain spiritual power, but also as matrices for particular species, influencing genotypes and phenotypes of individuals belonging to different kinden. But Shadows of the Apt is also a gripping tale of deadly rivalry between technical aptitude and ingenuity – and old wisdom and magic. The world of the Apt and Inapt is fully developed and based on an intriguing premise: it is a realm bereft of vertebrate. Their place has been fully taken by invertebrate of every kind and size, from insects through mollusks and crustaceans, to snails, jellyfish and arachnids. And although the reviews of the series are many – and varied – on this blog, there is a reason I make this short summary at the beginning of the review of Czajkowski’s new series, Echoes of the Fall.
With his new post-apocalyptic trilogy, Echoes of the Fall, Czajkowski takes the readers on a seemingly entirely different ride. Tribes from the time of early Iron Age, brought about as a result of an earlier, terrible shattering of their world, vie for domination in an unforgiving part of the world. They too are linked to their animal counterparts – but this time around, vertebrate are the only types of animals that count. Wolves and tigers, hawks and seals, bears and serpents, owls and bats, hyenas and lions, even toads, crocodiles and Comodo dragons (and wolverines! ;)), all of them act as true totems in the sense that they are the emblems of tribes, but they are also spiritual entities, powerful in their own way as non-omniscient, limited god-like beings watching over their chosen peoples.
I haven’t written in a long time – lots and lots of work. Still, I do read, even if swamped with work, so my list of books to be reviewed slowly grows. I completed my read of The Twelve when I was still commuting weekly to Warsaw and had a lot of time to read, and it was a good thing, because otherwise I wouldn’t have finished this book.
But let’s start from the beginning. The Twelve is the second installment in an already finished post-apocalyptic trilogy by Justin Cronin. The review for the first installment, The Passage, can be found here. I enjoyed The Passage quite a bit, enough to jump to the second book as soon as I finished the first. I liked the protagonists of the first novel: mostly Amy and Wolgast, but I was ok also with the latecomers – Peter and Alice, Sarah and Mike, and the rest of the supporting crew.
The second installment shows us a world in a momentary stasis – the first of the Twelve, Babcock, is dead, but the rest of the monstrous serial killer death row inmates is still free to roam the realm of the erstwhile U.S. Worse, the human survivors are not enticed to believe Peter and the rest of his crew that there are other “nodes”, the remaining zero-patients, who are able to control to bloodsucking monstrosities called virals. From the humanity’s point of view getting rid of them would mean much better chance of survival – but humanity has a tendency to look rather to the next day than to the next year, and so the problems of plumbing, food and electricity shortages, and fuel transportation will always be pushed to the fore.
It seems that I have a weakness for post-apocalyptic, anti-utopian stuff with young female leads ;). The Passage reminds me in many ways of The Girl With All The Gifts or McCarthy’s The Road, although the popular comparisons to The Stand are also pretty well-founded.
The Passage received a lot of buzz back in 2010 – compared to work of Michael Crichton and praised by King himself, Cronin’s book quickly wound up on bestsellers’ lists. The filming rights to this book – and two next as well, as The Passage is the first installment in a trilogy – were apparently secured by Scott Free Productions even before the book was finished.
Is the book worth the praise? The answer to this, as usual, is complicated ;). I must confess, my initial enthusiasm was somewhat dampened by the fact that I have already read the second installment. Oh boy, that’s something I will fully review in my next entry, but for now let’s concentrate on the first book, as if it were still the only one, fresh and full of promises.
Because The Passage in itself is actually a good book. It’s a mash-up of genres, a post-apocalyptic horror/sf road novel with vampires, elements of anti-utopia and chunks of a military thriller, and it all works surprisingly well, even dunked in the heavy philosophical/theological sauce Cronin is so fond of.