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Book Review: Red Country by Joe Abercrombie

Title: Red Country

Author: Joe Abercrombie

Series: First Law World #6

Genre: Fantasy

Rating: 4/5 stars

The Overview: They burned her home.
They stole her brother and sister.
But vengeance is following.

Shy South hoped to bury her bloody past and ride away smiling, but she’ll have to sharpen up some bad old ways to get her family back, and she’s not a woman to flinch from what needs doing. She sets off in pursuit with only a pair of oxen and her cowardly old step father Lamb for company. But it turns out Lamb’s buried a bloody past of his own. And out in the lawless Far Country the past never stays buried. Their journey will take them across the barren plains to a frontier town gripped by gold fever, through feud, duel and massacre, high into the unmapped mountains to a reckoning with the Ghosts. Even worse, it will force them into an alliance with Nicomo Cosca, infamous soldier of fortune, and his feckless lawyer Temple, two men no one should ever have to trust . . . -Goodreads

The Review:

I’m becoming an Abercrombie fangirl.

Red Country was probably the biggest offshoot from the main trilogy so far. It had a sort of Wild West/colonial vibe that I didn’t hate. But as offshot as it may have been, it effectively tied up some burning questions I’ve had since the end of the first trilogy. Ahead of most of the books I’ve read lately by a long shot, it ranks somewhere near the upper middle compared to other books in the series so far.

The characters are so rich and vibrant and not a single one of them can be put on a pedestal. I think truly flawed characters might be the magic ingredient to why authors like Abercrombie and Hobb are among my favorites. Maybe it appeals to my growing cynicism, but oftentimes when people act their worst in books it’s more believable and relatable. Even in the most depraved bastards Abercrombie writes about, there’s always a spark, a smidgen of a redeeming quality that makes them feel, well, human. And he’s especially good at putting his characters in such horrid situations that it can’t help but bring out the best or worst in them (usually the worst). It truly is a mastery of characterization that I hope to live up to one day in my own writing.

The way I talk about these books makes them seem like such downers. And in truth they kind of are. But that bleakness is part of their brilliance, because when something good happens, it’s stands out that much more profoundly by contrast. I love each and every one of the characters I’ve read so far and I can’t wait to see what happens to them next.

Recommendations: if you like grimdark fantasy, read all the things Abercrombie. Give the first trilogy a bit to get going, then hang on!

Other books you might like:

by Niki Hawkes

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Audiobook Review: The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison

Title: The Goblin Emperor

Author: Katherine Addison

Series: N/A (I’m not counting the new spinoff… no!! We need more stand-alones lol)

Genre: Fantasy

Rating: 3/5 stars

The Overview: The youngest, half-goblin son of the Emperor has lived his entire life in exile, distant from the Imperial Court and the deadly intrigue that suffuses it. But when his father and three sons in line for the throne are killed in an “accident,” he has no choice but to take his place as the only surviving rightful heir. Entirely unschooled in the art of court politics, he has no friends, no advisors, and the sure knowledge that whoever assassinated his father and brothers could make an attempt on his life at any moment. Surrounded by sycophants eager to curry favor with the naïve new emperor, and overwhelmed by the burdens of his new life, he can trust nobody. Amid the swirl of plots to depose him, offers of arranged marriages, and the specter of the unknown conspirators who lurk in the shadows, he must quickly adjust to life as the Goblin Emperor. All the while, he is alone, and trying to find even a single friend… and hoping for the possibility of romance, yet also vigilant against the unseen enemies that threaten him, lest he lose his throne – or his life. -Goodreads

The Review:

I see now why people refer to The Goblin Emperor as a “feel good” book.

I’ve been wanting to read this since it came out. Many of my peers were raving about it and I even got a personalized recommendation for it. When NetGalley offered a promotional audiobook copy for review, I jumped aboard without hesitation.

Overall, I think my expectations might have been a little high because, while I enjoyed the book, it didn’t blow me away. It’s incredibly character-driven, focusing solely on a half-goblin’s experience as he dons the crown and tries to manage life at court. Every time he dared break social protocol to be kind to someone was satisfying, and I believe that’s a large part of why people enjoyed the story so much. It’s incredibly straightforward, yet the simplicity is very much part of its charm. Unfortunately, I found myself craving a bit more substance.

I can usually roll with stories that don’t have external plot as a main driving force – some of my favorite books in fantasy focus more on the slow-burn relationship development between characters (I don’t mean of the romantic variety), but in this case, where the entire framework was navigating the politics of this court, there wasn’t a whole lot going on. If politics are going to be the focus, I want them to be exciting, intricate, and just complex enough that I’m on my toes but don’t feel completely lost. All of the politicking in Goblin Emperor was simple. Leaving me with nothing to sink my teeth into other than how much I appreciated the main character.

The audio production itself was fantastic. Addison’s prose is very formal, with characters referring to themselves as “we” and each other as “thou,” and included a whole lot of pomp and circumstance (such as addressing the main character as “Serenity” every other sentence). Narrator Kyle McCarley has an accent that fit the spirit of her writing perfectly. He also did a great job bringing out the hesitancy and quirkiness of all the characters. Almost all of the names are mouthfuls, and I’m not sure they lent themselves well for the audiobook. It was a real struggle at the beginning to tell everyone apart, but this is one case where the simplicity of the plot works in its favor because it made it easier to sort everyone out eventually.

Recommendations: if you’re in the mood for a simple, feel-good story and don’t mind the lack of a strong overall plot, this is a great pick. If fantasy had a “take to the beach” category, Goblin Emperor would be in it. I loved the charm of the characters and the overall warm energy of the story.

I’d like to thank Macmillan Audio, Katherine Addison, and NetGalley for the chance to listen to and review this new audiobook adaptation of Goblin Emperor!

Other books you might like:

by Niki Hawkes

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Book Review: Sufficiently Advanced Magic by Andrew Rowe

Title: Sufficiently Advanced Magic

Author: Andrew Rowe

Series: Arcane Ascension #1

Genre: Fantasy

Rating: 3.5/5 stars

The Overview: Five years ago, Corin Cadence’s brother entered the Serpent Spire — a colossal tower with ever-shifting rooms, traps, and monsters. Those who survive the spire’s trials return home with an attunement: a mark granting the bearer magical powers. According to legend, those few who reach the top of the tower will be granted a boon by the spire’s goddess. He never returned. Now, it’s Corin’s turn. He’s headed to the top floor, on a mission to meet the goddess. If he can survive the trials, Corin will earn an attunement, but that won’t be sufficient to survive the dangers on the upper levels. For that, he’s going to need training, allies, and a lot of ingenuity. The journey won’t be easy, but Corin won’t stop until he gets his brother back. -Goodreads

The Review:

This book was completely packed with magic school awesomeness from cover to cover. All of the elements I’m always clamor for more for in other works. But as I approached the last 25% of the book, I (and Carrie) couldn’t help but wonder:

Can you have too much of a good thing?

Probably. Especially if it comes at the sacrifice of sufficiently paced plot advancement. It was amazing to read about the complex magic system, all of the different types of mages, the magical creatures, and the endless stream of practical applications. It’s so much fun to sit in on a magic class and learn alongside the students (my favorite story type, actually). Add on top of that arena-style battles and choose your own adventure towers with puzzles to solve and creature to kill, what’s not to love?! But after a while even those amazing ideas and great execution start to feel like cheap entertainment when there’s not an overall plot of substance driving the story. I will say it did finally wrap up in the last 5% of the book with a series of decent “reveals,” and the payoff was probably worth the wait. Even so, it had me questioning a DNF at about the 80% mark. I’m glad I kept reading.

The main character has a few interesting quirks but unfortunately nothing truly flawed in a way that makes achieving things a problem. He’s overly smart, overly proficient, and overly lucky when it came to academics. Even the things he was supposed to be bad at often turned into admirable accomplishments. I personally found him irritatingly pedantic. Like ::pushes glasses up nose:: “Ummm, yeah how do I know you are who you really say you are? You could’ve listened in at any time to get that info. But I guess asking for reassurance is pointless because if you weren’t you, you’d just tell me what I want to hear anyway. But how am I supposed to trust you? Jump through some hoops for me even though you’re a teacher and my arbitrary worries shouldn’t even technically count for sh$t.” And many other similarly pointless sequences. It speaks of a character who’s desperate to prove how smart he is. Which is an interesting construct but it wasn’t presented as if it were deliberate. And that’s not the only thing I think was slightly over-done.

It’s as if the author anticipated certain plot holes and implausibilities and instead of just embracing it (after all, the entire story is his fabrication, he can do what he wants and we’d more or less go along with it) or dropping in a few subtle counters, he periodically has characters explain ad nauseam in the text why certain things were/were not the case. When this happened it degraded the story down to a YA level with its ever so slight condescending tone.

It may not seem like it at this point, but overall I enjoyed the book. The fun stuff was superb enough to overshadow the negatives by far (I really love the idea of following Corin as he levels-up his magic skills). However if I do decide to continue the series, my expectations for development in the next book are considerably higher.

Recommendations: if you’re like me, you’ll delight at the magic school awesomeness this book contains and be eager to pick it up even though that’s really the entire focus of the story (maybe especially because it’s the entire focus). It’ll still evoke a sense of nostalgia and give you a lot of great magicking to stick your teeth into.

Other books you might like:

by Niki Hawkes

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Book Review: The Blacktongue Thief by Christopher Buehlman

Title: The Blacktongue Thief

Author: Christopher Buehlman

Series: Blacktongue #1

Genre: Fantasy

Rating: 4/5 stars

The Overview: Kinch Na Shannack owes the Takers Guild a small fortune for his education as a thief, which includes (but is not limited to) lock-picking, knife-fighting, wall-scaling, fall-breaking, lie-weaving, trap-making, plus a few small magics. His debt has driven him to lie in wait by the old forest road, planning to rob the next traveler that crosses his path. But today, Kinch Na Shannack has picked the wrong mark. Galva is a knight, a survivor of the brutal goblin wars, and handmaiden of the goddess of death. She is searching for her queen, missing since a distant northern city fell to giants. Unsuccessful in his robbery and lucky to escape with his life, Kinch now finds his fate entangled with Galva’s. Common enemies and uncommon dangers force thief and knight on an epic journey where goblins hunger for human flesh, krakens hunt in dark waters, and honor is a luxury few can afford. -Goodreads

The Review:

When Robin Hobb calls something “Dazzling.” I stop what I’m reading and pick it up.

This book was an absolute delight from start to finish. I laughed out loud so many times, it might now hold the record. It’s that dry, sardonic humor I always appreciate combined with a strong voice that carried the entire story. Definitely unconventional, it was funny without being stupid and animated without being overdone.

I was completely enamored until about the 80% mark, then my evaluation brain kicked on for a bit and I started to wonder if the story was amounting to anything or if was just all about the character and the delivery. The plot was incredibly straightforward and linear, in sharp contrast to a lot of the more complex fantasy novels being written these days. However it was still really interesting, containing some of the best chapter hooks I’ve read in ages. I definitely don’t mind simple as long as it’s done well.

What I do mind is lack of growth, little momentum, and small payoffs. It seemed to me the main character was in the exact same state of mind at the end of the book as he was at the beginning. Showing practically no growth, it made his character come across very surface-level. If not for the brilliant use of humor to show depth (somewhat reminiscent of Abercrombie’s Glokta, but a bit more jovial) I think I would’ve lost patience with him early on.

As it stands, the character voice and witty humor were enough to carry the book and make it incredibly fun to read despite the lack of aforementioned development or any sort of momentum. If those two things improve even a little in the next book while maintaining the elements I loved, I could have a new favorite on my hands. As it is, it’s just loads of irreverent fun.

Audiobook production: I was about halfway through the book, thinking the narrator was doing a great job digging into the nuances of the dialogue and delivering everything in a very conversational manner, before realizing that it was being read by the author himself O_o! To say he did a great job is an understatement. He really brought the text alive with his intimate relationship with the writing and knowledge of how things were supposed to sound. I imagine a few of the more subtle jokes landed because of his delivery that may not have otherwise. The only thing that suffered was the differentiation between characters. I had to pay closer attention to tags to figure out who was speaking because I couldn’t always tell by the voices alone. That was minor though. What was lost in character distinction was more than made up for by his conversational (and hilarious) dialogue. I highly recommend the audiobook. :)

Recommendations: this is a new slightly grimdark fantasy that delivers tenfold on humor and general entertainment. What it lacks in depth it more than makes up for in style. I’d highly recommend this to those who loved my suggested reading below, particularly the Greatcoats series by de Castell.

I’d like to thank Macmillian Audio, Christopher Buelhman, and Netgalley for the chance to read and review an early copy of this title.

Other books you might like:

by Niki Hawkes

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Book Review: Deadhouse Gates by Steven Erikson

Deadhouse Gates by Steven Erikson

Title: Deadhouse Gates

Author: Steven Erickson

Series:  Malazan #2

Genre: Fantasy

Rating: 4.5/5 stars

The Overview: In the vast dominion of Seven Cities, in the Holy Desert Raraku, the seer Sha’ik and her followers prepare for the long-prophesied uprising known as the Whirlwind. Unprecedented in size and savagery, this maelstrom of fanaticism and bloodlust will embroil the Malazan Empire in one of the bloodiest conflicts it has ever known, shaping destinies and giving birth to legends. -Goodreads

The Review:

I started Deadhouse Gates in January… Of 2019.

The writing is dense, no bout a doubt it, but it took a lot longer than it probably should have to get through the book considering how good it is. Part of my problem is that I’m a perfectionist and a completionist, so if I was going to tackle a series like Malazan, I wanted to make sure I got the full experience from it. There are so many characters and places referenced that it really does take a lot of extra concentration to keep it all straight. And I don’t know about you, but as soon as I start to lose focus and get confused on which character I’m reading about, my level of engagement and investment in the story drops significantly. So I read this at a snail’s pace, utilizing kindle’s X-ray feature what seemed like every freaking page to make sure I knew who or where or what was being referenced. Not to mention that the writing itself is very abrupt and succinct, especially surrounding revelations and epiphanies, so I constantly had to reread passages to make sure I understood all of its implications. All in all, a very slow process. And one that is not conducive to dragging out the reading over several, uh, years. I kept putting it down in favor of things that took less effort and eventually, this past January 2021, decided to lay everything else aside and commit fully to Malazan. I restarted the book and overall, with my full attention devoted, it took about three months to read.

It was soooooo worth the effort!

There’s no doubt in my mind that this book and series (as far as I’ve gotten) are masterpieces brilliant in their originality, expansiveness, and execution. The reading experience is unlike anything I’ve come across before (clearly) and the total immersion required almost guarantees you’re going to take a few gut punches. I can see why so many proficient fantasy readers hold Malazan on a pedestal – it’s truly an amazing story.

Believe it or not, DG was actually a little easier to follow than Gardens of the Moon. There were fewer new characters to follow and it seemed like we circled back to them more frequently. I particularly loved the elegant plot construction. It was an intertwined, unfolding “dance” of information and convergence of characters that built to an amazing peak that left my brain wheeling. It was so thoughtful and so well-executed. I truly can’t wait to see what the author has in store for me next. Now that I think I’ve gotten the hang of reading this series, I’m hoping I’ll be able to clip along a bit faster.

So how do I rate something like this? If I’m applying based on merit alone, it’s a solid 5 stars. However I think it’s important to also consider my actual reading experience with the book, and the fact that it took so much time and effort should be represented (even though that’s just as much on me as it is the writing). 4.5 stars it is.

Recommendations: this is one of the most remarkable books I’ve ever read and I consider the series a must-try for fans of the fantasy genre. It’s not for everyone and will require a lot more concentration than most novels, but the payoff is well worth the effort. Maybe try not to be as anal-retentive as I was in keeping the details straight and just enjoy the process (after all, if an element is truly important the author will most assuredly highlight it again at some point). If you can get into the swing of it, get ready for one of the coolest reading experiences you’ll ever have!

Other books you might like:

by Niki Hawkes

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Book Review: The Heroes by Joe Abercrombie

The Heroes by Joe Abercrombie

Title: The Heroes

Author: Joe Abercrombie

Series: First Law World #5

Genre: Fantasy

Rating: 4/5 stars

The Overview: They say Black Dow’s killed more men than winter, and clawed his way to the throne of the North up a hill of skulls. The King of the Union, ever a jealous neighbor, is not about to stand smiling by while he claws his way any higher. The orders have been given and the armies are toiling through the northern mud. Thousands of men are converging on a forgotten ring of stones, on a worthless hill, in an unimportant valley, and they’ve brought a lot of sharpened metal with them. For glory, for victory, for staying alive. –Goodreads

The Review:

The Heroes was an entertaining read even though it’s my least favorite of the saga so far.

But not by much. True, it didn’t offer a lot of variety in setting and plot (which I think accounts for why some may not have liked it as much) but it did make up for it considerably with good characters and a really creative execution of the story. It’s essentially a series of battles in the north that take place over the course of just a few days. Bouncing around POVs, it provided insight into what the battle experience was like from every perspective. In that regard I really appreciate the total immersion. There was one battle scene in particular that was done so creatively I’ve never seen anything like it before. Abercrombie’s deft writing style continues to impress me more with every book. He’s definitely solidified among my favorites.

I’ll admit it took me a good 25% to get acclimated with all the characters. I had to use a few more brain cells than normal to keep straight who was on which side. I also thought the POV bounced around too much for me to really get invested at first, but eventually we came back to the same ones often enough that by the halfway point I was super into it. It helped considerably that many of these characters we’ve seen before and I love how Abercrombie expands his reach to give secondary characters a moment to shine. It’s not something you see many authors doing. It’s also cool that some now have a ton of depth and development because we’ve been with them in past novels. It feels like a giddy secret knowing the history behind certain characters when they are still enigmas to those around them. I’m excited to see how Abercrombie ties in the stars of this show in future books. Not surprisingly, Gorst was my favorite here (though they were all good). Reminiscent of Glokta with his many dualities and entertaining inner dialogue, he added that heavy sardonic flair that I’m starting to crave from Abercrombie’s works. I’m not sure how I’m going to cope when I finally get caught up in the series.

This is one of those books which compared to other Abercrombie novels is a bit more modest, but compared to any other book on the market is still superb.

Recommendations: I highly recommend anything Abercrombie as a staple in the fantasy genre. He’s a master of character and writing and the more time I spend with him, the more he solidifies as a new favorite author. Don’t be like me and let the books sit collecting dust for 10 years before picking them up. They’re worth a jump in the TBR.

Other books you might like:

by Niki Hawkes