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Project Malazan: The Lees of Laughter’s End by Steven Erikson

Title: The Lees of Laughter’s End

Author: Steven Erikson

Series: Bachelain & Korbal Broach #3

Malazan Ultimate Reading Order: #4

Genre: Fantasy

Rating: 3/5 stars

The Overview: In the wake of their blissful sojourn in the city of Lamentable Moll, the intrepid sorcerors Bauchelain and Korbal Broach — along with their newly hired manservant, Emancipor Reese — have set out on the wide open seas aboard the sturdy Suncurl. Alas, there’s more baggage in the hold than meets the beady eyes of Suncurl’s hapless crew, and once on the cursed sea-lane known as Laughter’s End — the Red Road in which flows the blood of an Elder God — unseemly terrors are prodded awake, to the understated dismay of all. It is said that it is not the destination that counts, but the journey itself. Such a noble, worthy sentiment. Aye, it is the journey that counts, especially when what counts is horror, murder, mischance and mayhem. For Bauchelain, Korbal Broach and Emancipor Reese, it is of course just one more night on the high seas, on a journey without end — and that counts for a lot. -Goodreads

The Review:

Having just read and loved the introduction to Balchelain and Korbal Broach in Blood Follows, Erikson had me hooked and I was eager to continue. This installment took a little of the enthusiasm out of my sails, but I still enjoyed it.

The setting for Lees at Laughter’s End was my favorite element of the novella. Or rather, the atmosphere the author created using a combination of interesting setting, great characters, spooky magickings, and a splash of dark humor. The thing I’m starting to appreciate most from Erikson is his ability to create a totally immersive experience.

What struck me was how curious I still was about the characters at this point. They’re still enigmas and I was absolutely fascinated with some of the things they did in this story. They’re truly unlike any characters I’ve read before, and the combination and execution are downright dazzling.

…but the story was also weird.

I’ll admit I didn’t enjoy this novella quite as much as Blood Follows because it danced on the edge of ridiculous a few times (which is not to my personal taste). It never quite went over the edge, but it was close. The unexpected happenings, while far-fetched, did add a good bit of suspense to the novel (because when anything is possible, no one is safe). And so I can appreciate it for what it was even though it got just a tad wild for me.

Recommendations: this novella would be perfect for Malazan fans who love the fantasy/horror sub-genre. I haven’t read Lovecraft (too creepy), but this reminded me of some elements I’ve heard are prominent in his Cthulhu works. As a completionist, I’d say read all the things. But if you’re trying to determine which to leave out, Blood Follows was a stronger Bachelain/Korbal Broach snippet. That pains me to say though – you should just read all the things too – why make hard decisions?

Other books you might like:

by Niki Hawkes

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Project Malazan: Blood Follows by Steven Erikson

Title: Blood Follows

Author: Steven Erikson

Series: Bachelain & Korbal Broach #1

Malazan Ultimate Reading Order: #3

Genre: Fantasy

Rating: 4/5 stars

The Overview: All is not well in Lamentable Moll. A sinister, diabolical killer stalks the port city’s narrow, barrow-humped streets, and panic grips the citizens like a fever. Emancipor Reese is no exception, and indeed, with his legendary ill luck, it’s worse for him than for most. Not only was his previous employer the unknown killer’s latest victim, but Emancipor is out of work. And, with his dearest wife terminally comfortable with the manner of life to which she asserts she has become accustomed (or at least to which she aspires) — for her and their two whelps — all other terrors grow limp and pale for poor Emancipor. But perhaps his luck has finally changed, for two strangers have come to Lamentable Moll… and they have nailed to the centre post in Fishmonger’s Round a note requesting the services of a manservant. This is surely a remarkable opportunity for the hapless Emancipor Reese… no matter that the note reeks with death-warded magic; no matter that the barrow ghosts themselves howl with fear every night; and certainly no matter that Lamentable Moll itself is about to erupt in a frenzy of terror-inspired anarchy…. -Goodreads

The Review:

Before beginning my Project Malazan: The Ultimate Reading Order, I’d heard these Bachelain and Korbal Broach novellas weren’t worth the effort. As reading just the main Malazan saga is a colossal commitment within itself, I can see why taking precious time away from that undertaking would put one at risk of losing momentum. Personally, I figured if I was willing to take the time to read the little stuff, then I was definitely more committed to seeing this venture through. Good or not, the completionist in me was going to pick them up regardless.

That said, I believe Blood Follows is a very enriching accompaniment to the main series.

It’s a fantastic short story that introduced these characters brilliantly. I figured I knew about what I was getting into with this novella and made some predictions early on. None of them were correct. Erikson isn’t afraid to take risks and “go there” with his stories – something that makes them both difficult to read and so worth the effort at the same time. This short was just a tiny snipped into the lives of these characters, but I felt a depth and robustness in their presentation that frankly I can’t remember experiencing with any other author. He always offers complete immersion into his tales.

So, one of the main complaints people have about the Malazan series is that it takes a ton of concentration to read. Erikson throws you straight into the fire without offering one iota of context or explanation. A lot of what he writes feels ambiguous, even when read carefully. I’d wondered if it were a deliberate style choice or if his brain was just on a different wavelength. Probably both are true, but after reading this novella, which was so much more accessibly written and easy to follow, I’ve come to the conclusion that at least the former is accurate and what he’s been doing to us in the Malazan series is deliberate and calculated. At this I am both wildly impressed at his skills and sufficiently irritated haha.

Recommendations: if you want to read Malazan, Blood Follows will enhance the main series. The novellas that come after are a little more difficult to endorse, but I’m confident about the appeal of this one.

Other books you might like:

by Niki Hawkes

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Book Review: The Sword of Kaigen by M.L. Wang

Title: Sword of Kaigen

Author: M.L. Wang

Series: Theonite #1

Genre: Fantasy

Rating: 4.5/5 stars

The Overview: A mother struggling to repress her violent past, a son struggling to grasp his violent future, a father blind to the danger that threatens them all. When the winds of war reach their peninsula, will the Matsuda family have the strength to defend their empire? Or will they tear each other apart before the true enemies even reach their shores? High on a mountainside at the edge of the Kaigenese Empire live the most powerful warriors in the world, superhumans capable of raising the sea and wielding blades of ice. For hundreds of years, the fighters of the Kusanagi Peninsula have held the Empire’s enemies at bay, earning their frozen spit of land the name ‘The Sword of Kaigen.’ Born into Kusanagi’s legendary Matsuda family, fourteen-year-old Mamoru has always known his purpose: to master his family’s fighting techniques and defend his homeland. But when an outsider arrives and pulls back the curtain on Kaigen’s alleged age of peace, Mamoru realizes that he might not have much time to become the fighter he was bred to be. Worse, the empire he was bred to defend may stand on a foundation of lies. Misaki told herself that she left the passions of her youth behind when she married into the Matsuda house. Determined to be a good housewife and mother, she hid away her sword, along with everything from her days as a fighter in a faraway country. But with her growing son asking questions about the outside world, the threat of an impending invasion looming across the sea, and her frigid husband grating on her nerves, Misaki finds the fighter in her clawing its way back to the surface. -Goodreads

The Review:

What started out as a potential DNF eventually evolved into one of the most memorable books I’ve ever read.

The unconventional plot structure was easily one of my favorite things about Sword of Kaigen. Many books these days seem to follow a basic try/fail formula with the climax of the book taking place near the end of the story. It’s a framework that has proven to sell big, so it’s over taught and over produced. I have a few critical opinions of the self-publishing market in general, but found a surprising appreciation for it here, as it allowed this talented author the freedom of creativity without outside mandates, and the ability to take risks not conducive to generating a series and making more money. It was a complete and utter breath of fresh air.

You don’t have to be a mother to fully appreciate this story, but for me it added a heart-wrenching level of poignancy. I felt deeply connected to this character and her children. The author was brilliant at making several scenes in this book a sensory experience and I can still feel the hairs on my neck tingling just thinking about some of the moments within. I was so caught up at one point that I found myself crying with the character. That level of emotional investment in books doesn’t happen to me often, maybe once every couple of years. This is why, even though objectively the book landed at about a 4-star rating I bumped it up to a 4.5. Stupid book, making me feel things.

As amazing as so many elements of this self-published novel were, there were a few areas where the lack of an editor showed through. I mentioned I’d almost DNFed the books and this was around the 20% mark. If it hadn’t been for the half dozen members of FBR on Goodreads who jumped on to our buddy read thread to proclaim their love for the book, I’d have called it quits. The reason for this was the poor pacing and plethora of info dumps. As interesting as the story was, the author spent a ton of time upfront explaining stuff to the reader. For every couple of lines the characters spoke, the conversation was paused for a couple of pages, unpacking what was just said. It slowed the plot progression considerably and made me wonder what magic I was missing.

Then around the 25% mark, stuff started happening. A little less information, a little more action. I started to find a connection to the characters.

Then the shit hit the fan at 50%, and I was absolutely hooked.

Another issue was the underdeveloped world-building and character roles. Initially, this idea that a place for a ninja society to grow untainted by the modern, technologically advanced society surrounding it was a cool juxtaposition. It was giving me very Hogwarts for Ninjas vibe at the beginning, which I loved. However, it did not develop much more beyond that as the book went along. Quite the opposite: it got more confusing and less well-imagined. Several things about the world and the behavior of the peoples within it didn’t make sense. And the roles of a handful of characters still remains very unclear.

And one final note: I have a hard time when awful things happen to children in books. This ultimately didn’t count against my rating, but it is a trigger-warning in case it affects someone else similarly. Several parts were difficult to read.

People are championing this series as a stand-alone, which I admit I find perplexing. There are enough things happening at the end of the book to indicate the author was leaving her options open for a sequel. Just because a sequel hasn’t been written yet and the author is supposedly not working on it doesn’t mean the book is a stand-alone. And I’d argue that not enough external plot points resolved themselves for it to be a satisfying solo novel in any case. I’ll believe it’s a stand alone if 10 years go by and nothing else is written on it. I will say I’m at least content with what I read if that’s all we ever get.

Recommendations: this book’s strengths outweigh its weaknesses, but it takes a good 25-50% in to really start appreciating what it has to offer. After that, hang on to your seat! I’ve heard some negative feedback for the audiobook version but I personally liked the narrator (I pretty much forgot he was there as the story got going, which is an odd compliment lol). There’s a lot of hype surrounding the book for a reason and I consider it worth the read.

Other books you might like:

by Niki Hawkes

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Book Review: Aurian by Maggie Furey

Title: Aurian

Author: Maggie Furey

Series: Artefacts of Power #1

Genre: Fantasy

Rating: 2.5/5 stars

The Overview: In ages past, there had been four magical weapons, fashioned to be used only by the Magefolk. But their history had been lost, together with the Artefacts themselves, in the Cataclysm which had wrought changes on land and water alike. Lost also had been the history of the Magefolk, and the Winged Ones, the Leviathans and Phaerie. Aurian, the child of renegade Mages, finds herself sent to the city of Nexis to join the Academy and then train as a full Mage. Little does she suspect that she will quickly become entwined with a power struggle between Miathan, the Archmage, and the human inhabitants of Nexis. The only person to whom she can turn in Forral, Commander of the city’s military garrison and friend of her dead father. But this friendship infuriates Miathan, and leads to a deadly conflagration, in which the first Artefact is revealed. Aurian’s flight, with her servant Anvar, turns into both odyssey and rite-of-passage as she travels to the little-known Southern Kingdoms and begins to rediscover the history of the weapons which are the only hope against Miathan and Armageddon – The Artefacts of Power! -Goodreads

The Review:

Okay, so this book is not very recommendable… but I still enjoyed it.

The thing I liked most about Aurian was it’s unconventionality. Written in 1994 before writing fantasy novels as a profession was really popular, Furey’s story does not follow a formulaic plot structure in the slightest. I’ve been to the writing conventions. I subscribe to advice newsletters from my favorite authors. The basic writing strategy these days seem to all the same ideas of how to structure your story to make money. While many authors are better at putting their own spin on it than others, it’s hard for me to ignore it some days.

This is why I continued to remain intrigued by Aurian throughout the whole novel: it was so all over the place that I had no f&@$ing idea what was going to happen next, and that was oddly refreshing.

The characters left a lot to be desired. Primarily because their behavior was unrealistic. They would swing from one dramatic emotional state to another at the drop of a hat. Very much like watching the rapid mood swings of a four year old. There was no subtlety or nuance to their behavior at all, just very black and white outlooks on things. They either loved fiercely or hated viciously. Often within the same couple of paragraphs. Then back again. It sort of reminded me of overdramatized classic silent films where the emotion had to be overdone to make sure it was conveyed correctly to the audience. Even though no one really acts that way, there’s no doubt in the readers mind what emotion the author was representing. It was also one of those books where the extreme emotional outbursts made me feel second-hand frustration on behalf of the characters involved, which wasn’t exactly pleasant.

The characters also had very black-and-white thinking and would flip flop between these extremes with frightening ease. There was no subtly or nuance of character, nor any real significant growth because the changes in thoughts/behavior were abrupt and not earned through experience and logic. In some ways it felt like reading about a bunch of children, which kept me from connecting with any of the characters and took away from the maturity of the novel as a whole. As you can imagine, the dialogue followed in line with the character profiles – very basic. All of this did work well to convey the general emotion of the characters. You could definitely always tell exactly what they were feeling.

I mentioned the plot meandered a lot. There seemed to be a lot of setup for certain events in the book, but every time I thought we were getting grounded into the meat of the story, something random would happen and we’d be back to establishing a new scenario. I had an idea what we were working towards by about the 75% mark, but even then it kept going with the tangents up to the very end.

So, basically all of the things that together made it a fun unconventional read also made it hard to support. What’s more, the book is ONLY available in a mass market paperback with the world’s tiniest print or a ridiculously expensive hardcover. No ebook, no audiobook (in the US, anyway). Not that my review is gearing anyone to go pick one up.

Recommendations: this is a great pick if you want a character-driven classic fantasy adventure novel with easy, flowing writing… provided that you don’t mind illogical and over-emotional characters.

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

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DNF Q&A: The Curse of Chalion by Lois McMaster Bujold

Title: The Curse of Chalion

Author: Lois McMaster Bujold

Series: World of the Five Gods #1

Genre: Fantasy

Rating: DNF

The Overview: A man broken in body and spirit, Cazaril, has returned to the noble household he once served as page, and is named, to his great surprise, as the secretary-tutor to the beautiful, strong-willed sister of the impetuous boy who is next in line to rule. It is an assignment Cazaril dreads, for it will ultimately lead him to the place he fears most, the royal court of Cardegoss, where the powerful enemies, who once placed him in chains, now occupy lofty positions. In addition to the traitorous intrigues of villains, Cazaril and the Royesse Iselle, are faced with a sinister curse that hangs like a sword over the entire blighted House of Chalion and all who stand in their circle. Only by employing the darkest, most forbidden of magics, can Cazaril hope to protect his royal charge—an act that will mark the loyal, damaged servant as a tool of the miraculous, and trap him, flesh and soul, in a maze of demonic paradox, damnation, and death. -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), and I think it’s a great way to discuss the book constructively. Here goes:

Did you really give Curse of Chalion a chance?

I went in pretty open-minded and even liked the first chapter or so, but once I started becoming dissatisfied, it became a practice of actively looking for reasons to justify calling a DNF. This is perhaps not fair to the book, but had it been anything other than a pick for a book club I run, I’d have just set it down as soon as it became clear I wasn’t digging it. I think I made it about 35%.

Have you enjoyed other books in the same genre?

Yes! Slow-burn, politically-driven fantasy novels rank among my favorites:

Did you have certain expectations before starting it?

My expectations were hopeful but not too terribly high. I remembered the author’s Sharing Knife (I only read the first one) as a relationship-heavy book with very relaxed and flowy writing. I expected much the same here, but was hoping the romance wouldn’t be quite so prominent (it wasn’t, but it still absorbed too much of the narration for my tastes). I’d also heard so many great things about her scifi Vorkosigan series that I was hoping she was consistently good all around.

What ultimately made you stop reading?

Ultimately, it came down to the childlike, irrational decisions made by the characters. For a novel that was supposed to be ALL about the characters and the politics, the characters came across every surface-level and their actions basic. The politics were equally simple. She lost my faith in her ability to give me something of substance early on and I didn’t find anything to convince me otherwise as I kept reading. None of the happenings in how these characters behaved was realistic to me, and in comparison to dozens of other fantasy novels with similar elements, this one came across very juvenile.

Is there anything you liked about the Curse of Chalion?

The character profiles at the beginning were fun, but they never evolved past just being just profiles. The first chapter was great. The writing was fluid. That’s about it.

Would you read anything else by the author?

I’m still holding out for Vorkosigan, but my enthusiasm has waned considerably. I’m definitely now at peace with not continuing with any of her fantasy works.

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

That strongly depends on how well I can gage what someone wants out of a fantasy novel. If it’s a relaxing, easy read, this one might fit the bill. My personal tastes crave books with a lot of depth and dynamics these days, but I remember back when an easy-flowing fantasy book was just what the doctor ordered. So yes, to the right audience. Particularly those who enjoy romance novels but want something a little more robust. This author is a great hybrid of the two genres.

by Niki Hawkes