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Book Review: The Dragonbone Chair by Tad Williams

Title: The Dragonbone Chair

Author: Tad Williams

Series: Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn #1

Genre: Fantasy

Rating: 3/5 stars

The Overview: A war fueled by the powers of dark sorcery is about to engulf the peaceful land of Osten Ard—for Prester John, the High King, lies dying. And with his death, the Storm King, the undead ruler of the elf-like Sithi, seizes the chance to regain his lost realm through a pact with the newly ascended king. Knowing the consequences of this bargain, the king’s younger brother joins with a small, scattered group of scholars, the League of the Scroll, to confront the true danger threatening Osten Ard. Simon, a kitchen boy from the royal castle unknowingly apprenticed to a member of this League, will be sent on a quest that offers the only hope of salvation, a deadly riddle concerning long-lost swords of power. Compelled by fate and perilous magics, he must leave the only home he’s ever known and face enemies more terrifying than Osten Ard has ever seen, even as the land itself begins to die. -Goodreads

The Review:

This review is going to be more of a non-spoiler reading log. I hope you enjoy this journey a “tad” more than I did the one in the book.

Merely mentioning Dragonbone Chair in a recent video about all the unread books on my shelves, I was bombarded with a slew of comments saying I needed to read it ASAP. So I bumped it up a few years in the priority list and gave it a go.

Of all the popular classic fantasy, I think Williams is the only one I hadn’t read something from. I was excited to dive in. But I was also aware that classic fantasy has a tendency to be a bit long-winded and that the joy is often in the journey itself rather than in the destination. I’m not a patient reader, so with comments like “it takes a while to get going,” you can see how this may not be a good match for my tastes right from the start.

But it’s a classic. And beloved by many book friends who love a lot of the same stuff I do. So I gave it a go.

Truthfully, the beginning was about what I’d expected. Very slowly paced and all about immersing the reader in the often mundane aspects of castle life. The writing immediately jumped out to me as beautiful, relaxed, and well-flowing. Like getting a warm hug from your book. I really liked that aspect, so I was content to sit back and enjoy the journey for once. Then some amazing stuff happened for about one chapter and I was hooked!

…And then the novel proceeded to take over 120 pages for X character to get from point A to point B, and I was so disengaged that I started asking, “uh.. exactly when does this get better?”

I was truthfully considering a DNF. But remembering how relatively slow Hobb’s initial Farseer Trilogy was at first, and how many people abandon it before the magic really starts happening, I felt like there was a similar situation here, and if I just kept reading, eventually I’d see why so many love this series.

But, you see, there’s one distinct difference between my experience with this series and Hobb’s. I don’t mind slow plot progression in books as long as there’s a lot of deep character exploration. I’m totally on board for that type of story. However, with the Dragonbone Chair, the characters were interesting, but I really didn’t get a ton of depth from them. Their actions went a long ways towards developing character near the end, but for most of the book I liked them but didn’t feel particularly connected to them.

The overall handling of characters was weird for me. So, we get several hundred pages more or less focused on just a handful of people. I enjoyed reading about them quite a bit. And if nothing else got a connection of familiarity with them. However, we went from a handful of characters doing not much of anything but talking, to a massive influx of new people to keep track of without much time at all to build a connection with them. It felt like I’d picked up a totally different book at about the 75% mark. I wasn’t ready to keep track of so many names, and by the time I realized I needed to, I was already a bit lost.

So the story got way more interesting towards the end of the book, but any connection I had to most of the characters got lost in the jumble. To the point where something would happen to someone and my first thought would be, “holy $#%?, I didn’t even realize they were in this scene (or existed at all, in some cases).” Oye.

Perhaps my level of disengagement near the end was a result of how passive I already felt about the book up to that point.

Here’s the thing. I feel like I’m standing back, admiring a painting called “Blue Explosion,” appreciating that it’s a brilliant work of art and more or less enjoying looking at it, but can’t shake the thought, “but, does it really need that much blue?” The Dragonbone Chair is supposed to make you feel like you’re sitting around a campfire getting an epic tale told to you. It’s supposed to be all about the journey and the lore. While I’m over here wishing the plot had been more concise and the pacing more evenly distributed. That was a really long-winded way of saying that it just wasn’t written for my personal tastes but was still very well done.

So where do I go from here? Despite the rapid-fire of characters near the end, I found myself very interested in the politics. The battle scenes were good. I liked the quest aspect, even though I still couldn’t tell you exactly who’s on it or what their individual motives are. I find myself masochisticly willing to dive into the next book to see if my issues carry over. Perhaps it will keep the same decent momentum and all I need to do is care enough to keep the characters straight.

I started this book as a Buddy Read in my Goodreads group with a bunch of people. We lost a few right out the gate, but then they started dropping like flies until only myself and two others remained. Plodding diligently. We’ve agreed we’ll need the commitment of a BR to get to the next one and it’s currently scheduled for April. I’m still not sure I want to work that hard to read hundreds more pages for a series I’m just okay about atm. But that glimmer of potential is keeping me around. For now.

Recommendations: this is a beloved classic fantasy that would be a great match for those who love Tolkien and Jordan (…I’m not one of those people). It’s also the series that inspired George R.R. Martin, and you can totally see bits of influence throughout. The writing is beautiful and it’s more about the journey than the destination. It’s perhaps is a mite less engaging than I want, but I know it will work well for more patient readers.

Other books you might like:

by Niki Hawkes

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Novella Reviews: Wayward Children 1-3 by Seanan McGuire

Book Info: Every Heart a Doorway (book #1)

Rating: 4/5 stars

I’d been eyeballing this series since a friend recommended it to me a couple of years ago. I’d thought they were full-length novels, but was pleased to discover the series as bite-sized novella chunks. Very satisfying.

This first book could’ve taken a lot of directions. One of my favorite things about it is that I was never quite sure where the author was going with the story. Seanan McGuire is, most prominently, an author I look to for the unconventional. I loved that most of this book took place at a boarding school for these wayward children. School settings are my favorite, and this had enough “learning cool new things” components for it to be a good one. Then the tale took on an unexpected murder mystery, and I found myself completely on board.

Granted, the magic of this first book was more in what it promised in future books rather than just on its own merit. It had a lot of great setup, and the anticipation for what’s to come is why I was left feeling really positively about it.

Book Info: Down Among the Sticks and Bones (book #2)

Rating: 2.5/5 stars

So far, this was my least favorite of the series. While I continued to like the writing voice and overall concept, I had a lot of issues with pacing and plot decisions.

I was very interested in the backstory of these two characters, and appreciate the almost nursery-rhyme presentation of the narrative early on. However, the beginning was a bit long-winded, especially considering readers already knew what was going to happen from the first book.

Then we get to the new realm, and that’s really where my disappointment in how it was executed manifested. First off, the world itself wasn’t very well-realized. There were enough atmospheric details and explanations that my brain could sort of create a picture, but the narrow focus on just immediate characters made it feel like we were walking around in little bubbles. It didn’t seem like a real place with a functioning society. It felt like a big old castle with only three occupants and a town with only two or three folk, until the mob scene drew them out of the forest. Or wherever they were hiding. I’m finding it hard to explain, but essentially, the world-building was really thin, and more there for overall atmosphere creation than anything else.

One of the most compelling things about this series is allowing me to psychoanalyze these very troubled characters and try to figure out what circumstances and trauma cause them to behave the way they do. This opportunity is probably why I’m so tickled with the series so far, because it’s giving my brain a lot of extra food for thought (keeping me engaged). Based on what we know about these characters so far in the series, their behavior at the end of the book did not make a lot of sense to me. Both girls felt wildly out of character, and it bothered me enough that in my Buddy Read for the story, we spent a lot of time discussing what would’ve made more sense to have happen. The biggest dock to my rating was from this unsatisfying inconsistency of character.

However, this is just one facet of the story McGuire is building, so I was still eager to pick up the next book, despite some objections with this one.

Book Info: Beneath the Sugar Sky

Rating: 3.5/5 stars

I’d no idea what to expect next. Would the series take all the characters in the first book and use the following novellas to tell their backstories like they did in Down Among the Sticks and Bones? I was okay with that trajectory, but feared I’d miss the boarding school element too much to stay invested. Luckily for me, Book 3 managed to progress the storyline developing at the boarding school while also giving some great backstory tidbits and other world exploration.

It was fantastic.

Or should I say “fantastical” because we got to explore our first nonsense world in this novella.

I, for one, am definitely more at home in the logical worlds, but since the beauty of this installment was more about the characters and the sense of adventure and camaraderie, it didn’t bother me too much (I have a hard time with the ridiculous in books, which is why my stint into Piers Anthony, Pratchett, and Douglass Adams was very, very brief). Overall I love how it progressed the story in multiple worlds and how it started a convergence of realms.

Additionally, Beneath the Sugar Sky had a number of instances where it promoted female body positivity which was integrated naturally, feeling very organic to the character profiles, and 100% freaking fantastic. It also explored the idea that your worth as a person is made up of so many components that aren’t always tangible or visible things, and continually appreciating those things rather than focusing on external appearance and how society indicates you “should” be can be a very powerful shift in mindset. It’s not ignoring the stigmas around you, because that’s nigh impossible in the culture we live in, it’s allowing reality to be what it is and still have a quiet confidence in why you are special. Cora is definitely a character I’ll have my eyes on going forward. Loved.

Overall, this series (so far, books 1-3) has been an absolute highlight to my year, and I can’t wait to explore more. I appreciate that I’m getting much more out of these books than just your basic portal fantasy story. I’ve come away with so much unexpected food for thought, which is incredibly exciting.

Other books you might like:

by Niki Hawkes

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Book Review: Pariah by Anthony Ryan

Title: Pariah

Author: Anthony Ryan

Series: Covenant of Steel #1

Genre: Fantasy

Rating: 2/5 stars

The Overview: Born into the troubled kingdom of Albermaine, Alwyn Scribe is raised as an outlaw. Quick of wit and deft with a blade, Alwyn is content with the freedom of the woods and the comradeship of his fellow thieves. But an act of betrayal sets him on a new path – one of blood and vengeance, which eventually leads him to a soldier’s life in the king’s army. Fighting under the command of Lady Evadine Courlain, a noblewoman beset by visions of a demonic apocalypse, Alwyn must survive war and the deadly intrigues of the nobility if he hopes to claim his vengeance. But as dark forces, both human and arcane, gather to oppose Evadine’s rise, Alwyn faces a choice: can he be a warrior, or will he always be an outlaw? -Goodreads

The Review:

Pariah was my most-anticipated fantasy release of 2021. I was so excited… and I wished I’d liked it more.

A couple of things sort of sapped my enjoyment of this book. Things that may not bother others as much as they did me. For starters, the plot felt like it reset itself a couple of times throughout. Just as I was getting settled in with the characters and the situation, it would flip on its head and I’d have to start over again. Momentum in books is a huge component for me, and I didn’t feel as though this one carried any. It kept me feeling distant from the characters and apathetic about the plot. After all, what’s the point in getting attached to a story if we’re just going to flip directions again!

Even if the plot had maintained a trajectory and built on itself better, I still probably wouldn’t have liked the main character. I have come to realize that I crave characters who are catalysts of their own destiny. People who make things happen for themselves and who aren’t content to constantly drift back and forth on the whims of everyone around them. Now, granted, this is a story about an outcast, who understandably has a hell of a time getting anywhere with all of the obstacles in front of him. But to me, that prospect of a challenge can be even more exciting! I saw plenty of opportunities where the main character could’ve made things happen. Opportunities that wouldn’t have changed the story drastically, but would’ve upped my enjoyment considerably. Alas, that’s just not the character Ryan was shooting for, and it left me wanting.

To be fair, this next complaint is just a personal preference thing, and objectively I don’t hold it against the novel. But I cannot stand stories focused heavily on religious zealotry (a little is fine. Here it completely dominated the plot). Compound that with a passive character extremely susceptible to those ulterior machinations, and I found myself at the end of my patience very early on.

But I stuck with it, even though it was almost a DNF at only 50 pages to go. I finally realized I wasn’t interested in seeing what happened to the characters, I disliked the subject matter, and I was most likely going to pass on picking up the second book. It was hard to keep going. But I love this author for so many things that I made myself see it through to the end. There was some great stuff there for those who’ll like the book more than me, but I couldn’t bring myself to care.

This is very weird. I’ve been boasting Draconius Memoria as my all-time favorite fantasy series ever. Like, compared to literally every other series I’ve read, DM comes out on top. #1. The very best. The one I won’t shut up about.

So not enjoying Pariah makes me feel like I’m going to get kicked out of the Anthony Ryan fan club. I hope not. I still wildly appreciate this author, and I will continue to be excited about new books he has coming out… just maybe not Pariah’s sequel, Martyr, due out next year.

Recommendations: okay, so I didn’t love this one, but I still think it a book others will really dig. If you liked Ryan’s slow-burn character-driven novel like Blood Song and don’t have the same reading quirks I do about character roles, plot structures, and religious zealotry, then you’ll probably enjoy this a lot more than I did. Also, don’t read what the book is about before diving in. The overview does what I hate most and gives major spoilers for things well into the book.

Other books you might like:

by Niki Hawkes

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DNF Q&A: King of Ashes by Raymond E. Feist

Title: King of Ashes

Author: Raymond E. Feist

Series: Firemane #1

Genre: Fantasy

Rating: DNF

The Overview: For centuries, the five greatest kingdoms of North and South Tembria, twin continents on the world of Garn, have coexisted in peace. But the balance of power is destroyed when four of the kingdoms violate an ancient covenant and betray the fifth: Ithrace, the Kingdom of Flames, ruled by Steveren Langene, known as “the Firemane” for his brilliant red hair. As war engulfs the world, Ithrace is destroyed and the Greater Realms of Tembria are thrust into a dangerous struggle for supremacy.
As a Free Lord, Baron Daylon Dumarch owes allegiance to no king. When an abandoned infant is found hidden in Daylon’s pavilion, he realizes that the child must be the missing heir of the slain Steveren. The boy is valuable—and vulnerable. A cunning and patient man, Daylon decides to keep the baby’s existence secret, and sends him to be raised on the Island of Coaltachin, home of the so-called Kingdom of Night, where the powerful and lethal Nocusara, the “Hidden Warriors,” legendary assassins and spies, are trained… (It goes on forever…)
-Goodreads

The Review:

When trying to make a decision on whether or not to read something, it can often be much more helpful to look at the low star ratings than the high ones. To that end I’m going to be including more DNF reviews in my lineup. I have a Q&A format here that I adapted from Nikki at http://www.therewerebooksinvolved.com (with permission…although it might be moot because she’s not blogging anymore), and I think it’s a great way to discuss the book constructively. Here goes:

Did you really give King of Ashes a chance?

Admittedly, I didn’t give it as much as I could have. I did make it to about 30% before tossing it aside, while acknowledging that this is one of those rare cases where it could actually have gotten better. It didn’t, according to what I gleaned from my book club meeting, but I was so fed up, it was a risk I was willing to take.

Have you enjoyed other books in the same genre?

Yes. I’m considering this a more modern fantasy even though it’s written by a classic author, and most of my favorite works come from this genre.

It’s perfect in line with what I’d like to read.

Did you have certain expectations before starting it?

Surprisingly, I went in with low expectations even though I’ve loved a few early works from this author (he’s a family favorite). But his later Riftwar books proved very unsatisfying, so I was wary of starting this one. Truth be told, had it not been a book club selection, I’m not sure I would’ve have ever made time to pick it up.

What ultimately made you stop reading?

Omg. The execution of the story. The basic idea behind the book was actually super interesting. Something I would’ve wanted to read in any other context. The prologue even had me giddy with anticipation, thinking, “this is going to be good.”

The first thing that threw me off was how the writing was very much at an arm’s distance from the story. Take a conversation between two characters as an example: instead of immersing you in the scene with back and forth dialogue, Feist would take you one step back and describe the conversation happening. Using each point brought up to launch into a couple page description of whatever info needing to be dumped at that point before closing the conversation with one or two lines. I noticed this also with setting. He went off on a ten page diatribe about this market setting instead of having his characters interact with it and dropping in details that way. I’ve no idea if this is a habit he had in his early works because it has been some time since I read them, but now I’m afraid to reread because I know I’m going to notice it now and it will irritate me. I highly doubt it was this passive, though.

The thing that ultimately made me put it down was the book’s very odd fixation on sex. I think it’s important to clarify that I don’t care one way or another if there’s sexual content in fantasy novels. Some authors can even use it to enhance character and provide comic relief (Abercrombie). But the very least I ask is that reading it doesn’t feel like I’m reading the sexual fantasies of a 16 year old, and that those fantasies are completely dominating the story. It was so bad. The characters were constantly thinking about and talking about sex, and when they weren’t, the narration picked it up describing why sex wasn’t allowed in the school or why so and so slept with so and so and it wasn’t until I got to the training brothel (because when you have a guild of spies, that’s the only thing women are good for, right?) I finally threw it down in frustration. This is not what I signed up for. And if you’re going to include sexual content in your books ad nausium, at least make it good sex! Holy shit.

Is there anything you liked about the King of Ashes?

The prologue. And the idea behind the story. He lost me completely on the execution.

Would you read anything else by the author?

I’ve read literally everything he has published (20+ novels) minus one co-written trilogy and a random stand-alone. I think the buck stops here though. I may read that outstanding trilogy eventually, but I’m in no hurry.

So you DNFed the book. Would you still recommend it?

No. Normally my constructive analysis allows me to figure out who might be a more appropriate audience for a given title. Or at the very least, I concede that it might be just me who didn’t like it. In this case, I know it bothered me more than most, but I still wouldn’t hand it to anyone and would actively discourage someone from reading it. It was that bad.

by Niki Hawkes

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Book Review: A Little Hatred by Joe Abercrombie

Title: A Little Hatred

Author: Joe Abercrombie

Series: First Law World #8

Genre: Fantasy

Rating: 4.5/5 stars

The Overview: The chimneys of industry rise over Adua and the world seethes with new opportunities. But old scores run deep as ever. On the blood-soaked borders of Angland, Leo dan Brock struggles to win fame on the battlefield, and defeat the marauding armies of Stour Nightfall. He hopes for help from the crown. But King Jezal’s son, the feckless Prince Orso, is a man who specializes in disappointments. Savine dan Glokta – socialite, investor, and daughter of the most feared man in the Union – plans to claw her way to the top of the slag-heap of society by any means necessary. But the slums boil over with a rage that all the money in the world cannot control. The age of the machine dawns, but the age of magic refuses to die. With the help of the mad hillwoman Isern-i-Phail, Rikke struggles to control the blessing, or the curse, of the Long Eye. Glimpsing the future is one thing, but with the guiding hand of the First of the Magi still pulling the strings, changing it will be quite another… -Goodreads

The Review:

Warning: you’re about to witness and Abercrombie fangirl moment.

Aside from The Blade Itself, which I liked but wasn’t blown away by, my appreciation for this author has continued to grow with each passing installment. I think Abercrombie is only getting better with time – his writing has solidified into a distinct, immediately recognizable voice, and he seems to be really embracing the wickedly funny things that come along with being human, and is doing so to my unabashed amusement.

He’s such a brilliant study in character development. It’s not just that his characters are among the best in the genre, but also how he weaves the most unassuming drop-in details about their mannerisms into every iota of text. Constantly poking at each character’s deficiencies, it’s this constant reminder that they’re just people getting along as well as they can that makes them feel so alive. Their character profiles are so strong, even if I lose concentration and miss dialogue/thought tags, I can almost always figure out who’s POV we’re in just from the way things are written. It’s absolutely brilliant.

As a sort of next-gen continuation, A Little Hatred was everything I’d hoped it would be. Unlike with many other authors, I never worry about liking new characters as well as the last – they’re always good, which makes the possibilities of the First Law world endless. I delighted in all of the new faces (as scarred and misshapen as some of them may be) and felt that giddy excitement that I’d get to see what happened in this world next. I’m such a grouch these days. Coming back to a series that makes me feel as excited for a new book as I did back when I was a young bookseller is something to be cherished. I savored every page, felt completely engaged the entire novel, and am eager to pick up the next book.

Ranked against any other book I’ve read, Abercrombie books are solid 5-star reads. When comparing A Little Hatred to other books in the series, I’d say it’s near the top but not quite my favorite. So it gets a 5-stars on Goodreads and every endorsement I can offer, but a 4.5 for my personal records to indicate it’s not my favorite of the series.

Recommendations: this series takes a little time to get going. I read the first one twice before finally continuing and wasn’t sold from the beginning. It has now evolved into one of the funniest, most gut-wrenching, amazing things I’ve ever read, and I can’t wait to read more. Pick him up ASAP. Preferably via audio – Steven Pacey completes the experience.

Other books you might like:

by Niki Hawkes

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Book Review: Empire’s Ruin by Brian Staveley

Title: Empire’s Ruin

Author: Brian Staveley

Series: Ashes of the Unhewn Throne #1

Genre: Fantasy

Rating: 4.5/5stars

The Overview: The Annurian Empire is disintegrating. The advantages it used for millennia have fallen to ruin. The ranks of the Kettral have been decimated from within, and the kenta gates, granting instantaneous travel across the vast lands of the empire, can no longer be used. In order to save the empire, one of the surviving Kettral must voyage beyond the edge of the known world through a land that warps and poisons all living things to find the nesting ground of the giant war hawks. Meanwhile, a monk turned con-artist may hold the secret to the kenta gates. But time is running out. Deep within the southern reaches of the empire and ancient god-like race has begun to stir. What they discover will change them and the Annurian Empire forever. If they can survive. -Goodreads

The Review:

Ever finish an amazing series feeling like there should be more? Know the pure elation at discovering there actually will be more?! That’s how I felt when learning Staveley was continuing in the Annurian Empire.

I left the Unhewn Throne Trilogy happy that I’d read it but found myself ever so slightly dissatisfied with how a few things played out. Empire’s Ruin, continuing the same timeline albeit through different POVs, alleviated all of the uneasy feelings I’d had. I was worried about diving in without a reread, but the story stands solidly enough on its own that I only needed to remember a couple of characters (I recalled two of the three), and major climactic events. Other than that, it jumped right in to a new set of exotic adventures!

The fun world-building is the first thing I highlight when talking about Staveley’s works. His setting is a deadly jungle reminiscent of the Amazon filled with jaguars, snakes, alligators, and pretty much every other man-eating threat the author could think of. He does an amazing job at immersing you in the setting and having the environment play an active role in the story.

The Emperor’s Blade, the first book of the Unhewn Throne, still claims a spot in my very conservative list of all-time favorites. It had the perfect balance of characters, setting, and world-building, but stood out to me for its training sequences. I love when characters learn skills in books, and was wondering if I’d enjoy this continuation as much without that element. As it turns out, the author must share my appreciation for those components because he included more in Empire’s Ruin! Not quite to the same degree, but it did satisfy my craving.

Comparatively, the only thing that kept my rating from solid five star was that the story progression between the three POVs was not very well distributed, especially in the back half of the book. Granted, he focused most of his efforts on the most interesting thread, which was stellar, but did not advance the plots for the other two quickly enough for my satisfaction. I usually don’t notice pacing issues in multiple POV fantasy novels like this (other than in Feast of Crows… don’t get me started), but it struck me that several sittings later and the characters two of the plots were still sitting around arguing about the same things instead of actually doing the things. Had Gwenna’s POV been removed completely I think I would’ve been saying I liked the story but he could’ve done so much more with it. Especially the arena stuff (yes, there’s an arena… the idea was initially so compelling, but not much happened with it). I’m hoping we’ll get more in the next book so it doesn’t feel like those were just filler sections.

Recommendations: overall, Empire’s Ruin was an awesome continuation after the Unhewn Throne Trilogy, but make sure to read that one first unless you don’t care about major spoilers (I don’t know how people can be okay with spoilers, but it’s more common than I realized… freaks. ;P). This is an excellent fantasy adventure series perfect for those who like a lot of action, cool settings, and multiple POV stories.

Other books you might like:

by Niki Hawkes