The meek shall inherit

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The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison, is a ridiculously optimistic story with a ridiculously decent protagonist. Good thing then that it’s a fantasy novel, or else, in all our cynicism, we would have dismissed it as being ridiculously unrealistic. That is not to say that we didn’t enjoy the book. We did.

Maia, the half goblin son of the Elf Emperor is too likeable a character, and the book too full of the twists and turns of political intrigue to not be enjoyable. The mixed race Maia, who has been kept in penury away from court, suddenly finds himself the Emperor after his father and all his half brothers die in an accident. Friendless and an outsider, that too of mixed race, he finds himself dealing with all the intrigue and political machinations of those who have been steeped in it their entire lives. And strangely, he comes out each time, doing the right thing for his seemingly ungrateful people.

There are no battles, in this book, with the forces of evil or any sword and sourcery or even dungeons and dragons. All the action comes from the political ambitions and scheming of the characters and Maia learning how to deal with his new situation. We particularly enjoyed his struggles in maintaining all conversation in the royal plural “we” as befits the Emperor.

Maia’s compassionate, non discriminatory, gender equalising, and basically ‘good’ route to power consolidation makes the book a heartening and refreshing read. A fantasy, truly. Just right for Christmas.

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A tale for winter

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A fantasy series based on Russian folklore is unusual and as such The Bear and the Nightingale by Katherine Arden is an intriguing read. Set in medieval Russia when it was still called Rus, the story is about Vasya, a head strong and free spirited girl, gifted with ‘sight’ and growing up in a small village in the northern provinces.

Arden has very atmospherically described the severity of winters, shortage of food, runny noses and chilblains. The freezing cold of winter is offset by the warmth of Vasya’s family kitchen where the entire family sleeps on the flattop of the oven and where Vasya’s nurse tells magical tales. The province is a place where the summer sun is watery at best and winter with its god, known as the winter king or Morozko, one of the old gods, is predominant. But Morozko is more benign than his brother, the bear Medvedev, who is forever in search of supremacy.

The book, through Vasya’s story, is really about the conflict between the old religions and the new. Vasya and those in her village, though Christians, continue to leave out food for the old gods and spirits of home, hearth, land and forest. This brings them up against the newly appointed priest in their area who wants to wipe away all the old beliefs. In the process of taking control and in his arrogance and self righteousness the priest falls under the sway of Medvedev and ends up strengthening the evil of a being he does not believe in. The story is allegorical in the sense that denial of something’s existence is the best way to fall under its sway, being unprepared to counter it. In Yoda’s (Star Wars) words “Named must your fear be, before banish it you can”.

We find that a lot of fantasy books have a combination of ridiculously old men (who look very young) and feisty young girls (who actually are young) developing a relationship. Is this the Twilight effect, we wonder? But it is getting a little creepy now and makes us worry as to what it says about society. At least in this book Arden has left the relationship between Vasya and the winter king ambiguous but the second book is already out and might have more clarity.

Overall a magical fantasy about winter, the old gods, a girl with magical powers and a horse that is more than a horse. We enjoyed it but we did not find it riveting.

Magically Strung Out

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Miracles do happen. Authors do manage to complete a series that they set out to write, without making their readers wait for inordinate lengths of time. V E Schwab‘s, A Conjuring of Light, the third and final book in her Shades of Magic trilogy is one of those rare series concluding books. When we thought about it, we realised that out of all the major, new fantasy series we have started to read in the last decade, or so, this is probably the only one that has actually finished. Just for that V E Schwab deserves to be applauded.

The final book would have been a door stopper had we bought the physical book. As it was, while reading the ebook we didn’t even realise, till we were half way through, that the book didn’t seem to be anywhere near an end. That in itself is an indication of the pace of writing which kept us gripped throughout.

The trilogy is set in parallels worlds with different levels of magic. The only thing they have in common is the city of London which exists on each one of them. People are not supposed to travel between worlds, except the Antari, the rare breed of higher magician born on these worlds. The barrier between the worlds keeps out the poisonous magic from Black London which had been overrun and corrupted by inordinate use of that magic. But, as is the nature of evil, it always manages to find a way of getting out. On the face of it the series abounds with the tropes of fantasy: the magicians drunk on power, the maniacal Rulers as compared with the good King and Queen, the spoilt and wild prince, the dashing pirates, et all. But Schwab’s style of writing provides a lot more. It is not just the descriptions of the various worlds and the characters but also their relationships with each other which are explored. All the relationships, even the friendly ones, are complicated, not just with suspicion but sometimes with the desire to kill. The good are constantly struggling with the temptations of power and their own strengths, and things can go wrong very quickly and very easily where magic is involved.

This book, like the second one in the series, is set largely in the world of Red London where magic abounds. It begins where book two ended – right in the middle of the action. Interestingly enough Schwab intersperses the story of evil magic which now infests Red London with the back story of Holland the Antari from the colourless and vicious White London. While the earlier books had focused more on Kell, the Red London Antari and Lila the thief from Grey London who becomes a pirate, this one deals with the nature of Holland, causing the reader to sympathise with a character who, until now, was more of a villain.

The book has elaborate descriptions and spectacular imagery- what with castles that appear magically in the air, a ship that is a floating market of all varieties of magical contraband and the megalomaniacal personification of magic itself. It is a satisfying conclusion to the series but with perhaps more violence than we were comfortable with; though fairly tame in comparison to the Game of Thrones. V E Schwab does not seem to be particularly partial to any of her main characters and makes them all suffer terribly and equally but perhaps we detected a slight preference for the Pirate captain, Alucard Emery. Or maybe that’s just us. Although the story ties in nicely from the earlier books in the series and many of the questions are answered, there are enough lose ends left for a either a sequel or a prequel. Although we hope Schwab avoids the temptation of either. Sometimes it is best to leave well enough alone.

 

And so it creeps…

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The fourth book in the Lockwood & Co. series is weird and wonderful – magical, swashbuckling, nail biting, humourous and on the edge of the seat terrifying. All at the same time. If you ever wondered if it is possible to be scared out of your wits by a story and yet unable to put the book down, then this series is it.

The ‘Problem’ continues and is expanding. The ghosts and shades and lurkers and poltergeist are out in full force. Only the kids can see them and are employed by the ghost hunting agencies to destroy these spirit manifestations and prevent people from getting ‘ghost touched’ and dying.

Lockwood & Co, the smallest agency in London, lost Lucy, one of its agents, when she decided to quit at the end of book 3. Lucy starts off book 4 as a freelance operative. She hunts ghost in a kind of warped partnership with a talking skull in a jar which only she can hear. And though he is a major irritant for Lucy, his wise crack comments, constant threats and encouragement to Lucy to kill off various people, makes him a wonderfully interesting character. Understandably, when the jar is stolen, Lucy turns to Lockwook & Co for help, thus recreating the atmosphere of the series and bringing into play the interpersonal relations and tensions within the agency. Not to mention the food!  At one point Lucy, after being attacked, makes her way to 24, Portland Row, the Agency/house/Headquarters of Lockwood & Co and is found by Lockwood in the middle of the night, dripping blood on the doorstep. Once Lockwood and George, erring on the side of caution, liberally  bandage her up, they promptly set about making waffles! It is partly to comfort Lucy and partly because that is what they do – eat doughnuts and waffles in the middle of the night, drink tea and banish ghosts. The food is decidedly unhealthy and therefore that much more interesting. In this book, other than the usual hauntings, the team has to deal with and face blackmarketiers, whole haunted villages, and threats from the owners of the two biggest agencies.

Spoiler Alert!

What a shocker about Penelope Fittes, the owner of the huge Fittes Agency! We were left wondering if the activates of the founders of the Fittes and Rotwell Agencies had actually caused the Problem. We presume book 5 (apparently the last in the series) will be about Lockwood & Co solving the mystery behind the Problem. The Creeping Shadow ended leaving the reader with lots of questions, which we presume will all be answered in the next book. In the meantime, Lucy is back in the Agency and reunited with the skull.

The book was funny and scary in equal measures and unputdownable. Read in bed with a huge mug of tea and preferably before dark, unless you are very brave.

Not a Fairy Tale Princess

 

imageWe all grew up with stories of princesses being perfect, beautiful and delicate as flowers. They were so sensitive that they could be disturbed by a single pea through layers of mattresses. They were forever in trouble and required to be rescued either by fairy godmothers or by handsome princes. Basically they were frail and a little empty headed. We don’t know if the fairy tales have changed at all but certainly princesses in fantasy novels are diametrically opposite to the stereotypes. So Kelsey Glynn in Queen of the Tearling by Erika Johansen presents quite a contrast. To start off with, the girl has no claim to beauty and is overweight. She is tough, outspoken, politically astute and rashly brave. The coronation scene in the book encapsulates the new age princess in a way like nothing can; despite being stabbed in the back, literally, she insists on completing the ceremony, bloodied and with the dagger sticking out of her shoulder and only permits herself to faint after it is over.

PS: Princesses, these days, are the ones who do the saving and the traditional saviours seem to be going out of business. I suppose that is an instance of woman power, accepted not just by readers, who had possibly been hankering for it for quite some time, but also by publishers who finally acknowledge that it sells.

LL: Kelsey’s is a fascinating character. Although she has been trained to rule and survive from the very beginning, interestingly the training happens in isolation. Despite that she has considerable empathy for her people.

PS: I like the fact that she is keen to learn bad words from her guards and hankers for books which are hard to come by in her world. I spent a lot of time while reading the first book, wondering exactly where the story was located in place or time. It initially seemed like another world but there were too many references to this one.

LL: I guess that becomes clearer in the next book, Invasion of the Tearling, the second book in the trilogy.

PS: Which I felt was one of those rare middle books that turned out to be better than the first one. It really raised my expectations of the third and final book which is out only at the end of the year.

LL: Well there is an element of magic, of other worldliness, another Queen from a neighbouring kingdom, who is the bad guy, who demands tribute in the form of slaves from Kelsey’s kingdom. And there are references to Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings. Not to mention the fact that despite the troubled kingdom, Kelsey loves to read. All of this provides for a sympathetic heroine and an intriguing story.

PS: It is quite common these days to find that the protagonist likes books. Most authors realise that it means instant likeability with the readers who identify with that aspect of the character.

The Queen of the Tearling has apparently been snapped up for a movie franchise, possibly because the story is relentlessly dramatic. It is a dark and gripping tale and yet it has a protagonist who instantly appeals because of her concern with doing the right thing. The rapid progress of the story however does not give away too much so one is left wondering about a lot of things which are only made clear in the second book. Erika Johansen has however, paced the story fairly well across the trilogy in that, at least so far, the reader does not feel let down at any stage. We would definitely recommend the book to readers of fantasy and post-apocalyptic fiction.

 

The Middle Book Syndrome

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It is said that middle children are always the more difficult ones, neither here nor there. Caught as they are between the adulation of the first and the adoration of the youngest. The same seems to hold good for trilogies of novels. Authors it would appear treat their books in the same way that parents do their middle child. They know that that the middle one is necessary to connect the beginning and the end, to complete the picture, so to speak. But they do not know what else to do with it and the poor child/book ends up somewhat lacking substance.

So we should not have been surprised when upon reading A Gathering of Shadows by V E Schwab we wanted to scream in frustration. After reading the first book, A Darker Shade of Magic, which we reviewed a short while back, we were eagerly awaiting the second installment in the series.

LL: Why is it that the middle book only sets the scene for the third one but does not substantially add to the story?

PS: I feel that The Gathering of Shadows’ saving grace as far as reader interest goes is the introduction of Alucard Emery, captain of the ship the Copper Thief, sometime pirate and now a privateer.

LL: He seems to be the only person other than Lila, getting under everyone’s skin. In varying ways, of course. While the first book was restricted to the different Londons in the parallel worlds, this one has introduced the different races on the Red London world. That was a bit of a surprise.

PS:  We get the impression that even the other Londons come into the story, only to set the scene for what is to come next. A major chunk of the book is taken up with the tournament of magicians in Red London. Somehow there are a lot of tournaments in books these days, unto death or otherwise. A fallout of the Hunger Games?

LL: But seriously, I do not see what purpose the tournament served other than to fill in space and proclaim the now discovered magical capabilities of Lila Bard. There was no conclusion on any level of any part of the storyline in the book.

PS: Other than the tournament, which is anyway a filler. Second books work better for the reader when there is something that happens and concludes within that book while the larger story continues to the next one.

Although enjoyable in the character development, introduction of one or two newer characters and the psychological impact of the bond formed between Kell and Prince Rhy at the end of the previous book, The Gathering of Shadows left us with considerable irritation. And it is a long wait till next year for the third book. Yet we live in hope with each middle book that we pick up, we hope that the writer would be considerate to the readers.

 

Epicly Satisfying

A world, a wall, a hero, a sword, a helm and a shattered shield. The stuff of epic fantasy in a truly traditional style. But is it? Helen Lowe’s Wall of Night series comprising of Heir of Night, The Gathering of the Lost and the latest instalment, Daughter of Blood have all the necessary ingredients but woven into a wonderfully complex and surprising tapestry of characters and events. The Derai are a race who have settled on the world of Haarth, after an inter-planetary struggle with their traditional enemy, the Swarm. The nine houses of the Derai hold the Swarm back by guarding the Wall of Night and thereby protecting the rest of the planet and its indigenous population from it. And of course there is a prophecy about a hero who will unite the Derai and ultimately destroy the Swarm.

LL: The story has so many facets to it that you need to read it over and over again.
PS: But the good thing is that you don’t get bored of doing that. The complexity keeps you engaged. I am amazed at how Helen Lowe has managed so many layers in the books. And yet it is not just the story but also the language and descriptions which are almost lyrical.
LL: At first glance it may seem like a typical good versus evil story but after a while you start questioning whether there is any such thing as evil and that ultimately it is a question of survival and the hard decisions you need to take.
PS: But the heroes stay true to their nature. What I really liked about the books is that so many of the warriors and heroes, including the protagonist, Malian, are women and that Derai society, although bigoted in other ways, doesn’t prescribe separate roles for women.
LL: The Commander of the House of Night is one of the coolest characters ever written and she is a woman.
PS: So is the legendary hero with the unpronounceable name, who, though dead, keeps popping in to talk to Malian once in a while. It is her helm, sword and shield which Malian must find in order to fight the Swarm effectively.
LL: I know it is fashionable to compare books with other more popular series but I think it is unfair to compare Wall of Night with Game of Thrones as some people have done. Despite the presence of so many characters in GRR Martin’s book, Helen Lowe has written a more subtle and surprising series which isn’t just about sudden deaths and blood and gore.
PS: It truly is epic storytelling and doesn’t look to scandals and shocks to hold up the reader’s interest.
LL: Although there is going to be one more book in the series, at no time in the Daughter of Blood does the reader feel the middle book or penultimate book syndrome. At all times the book retains the pace and continues to hold interest.
PS: I just wish there was more of Malian in the third book. Although there are so many things that have been explained, in the explaining, the reader has been left with more questions. That, I suppose, is the true mark of a gripping series but I do not like the idea of waiting to find out.
LL: I don’t know if I can wait for another two years for The Chaos Gate to be published. I don’t think I am going to ever again start an ongoing series. It is not good for my health. I am so glad I read Lord of the Rings when all three books had been published!

So here are the questions we have to live with while waiting for the last book (spoiler alert)
1. Who named Malian?
2. Is the next book going to jump seven years so that Faro can come back and claim his inheritance?
3. There is some mystery behind Asantir, what is it? You can’t be so cool and just be a supporting character.
4. Is the shield not going to be remade?
5. Can Raven/Aravenor just be a supporting character?
6. Is Taly really Kalan’s sister?
7. Why does Tirael feel an affinity with Kalan?
8. Will Kalan manage to free Myrathis?
9. What form will the Golden Fire take?
10. What role will the rest of Haarth play?
11. Will the Heralds join the fight again?
12. We really, really hope that Malian and Kalan survive.

What strikes the reader through the books is Helen Lowe’s ability to simply and yet appealingly describe the natural world: the countryside, the woodlands, the hoot of the owl, the march of the stars across the night sky, the song of the earth. We wondered if that is because she is from New Zealand and therefore in some ways more connected with nature. Had she lived in Bangalore it is more likely she would have ended up describing traffic, traffic, noise and pollution.

As is evident, we are quite caught up in the series. Most fantasy these days depends on blood and gore and sex in order to stand out but Helen Lowe has written a series about people who, despite being flawed, want to do the right thing. In a world where there is power and maybe even the planet is sentient, the true magic comes from the dignity displayed by the characters who are willing to live and act for a larger purpose.