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Book Review: Taltos by Steven Brust

Title: Taltos

Author: Steven Brust

Series: Vlad Taltos (#1 chronologically / #4 traditionally)

Genre: Fantasy

Rating: 3/5 stars

The Overview: Journey to the land of the dead. All expenses paid!

Not my idea of an ideal vacation, but this was work. After all, even an assassin has to earn a living.

The trouble is, everyone knows that a living human cannot walk the Paths of the Dead, and return, alive, to the land of men.

But being an Easterner is not exactly like being human, by Dragaeran standards anyway. Thus, the rule doesn’t apply to me… I hope. -Goodreads

The Review:

Intro: Vlad Taltos is a lot of fun. One of the most unique series I’ve ever read, it’s a great mix of high fantasy elements with an accessible urban fantasy writing style. Each book also has a fairly well-contained mystery, so it kind of reads like a detective novel. Overall, it’s a great hodge-podge of ideas that somehow all work together. The author claims you can read them in any order. I personally can’t stand that lack of organization, so a few of us over at Fantasy Buddy Reads are going the chronological route…

…and Taltos (technically book #4) is first in the lineup.

Ten years ago I read the first three (according to the publisher) Vlad Taltos novels and loved my experience with them. Taltos started out with a bang! Reminding me why I enjoyed the books so much. It had a lot of flashbacks, which were deftly woven into the story to enhance what was going on in the present-day sections. I loved reading about how Vlad came to be the quirky businessman he is. However that strong pacing and careful weaving started to fade near the middle of the book.

At one point in the story, I had to check in with my fellow buddy readers because I no longer knew what the heck the characters were trying to accomplish in the present-day sections. There were a lot of scenes where the author wasn’t clear in his description on what had happened, and the ambiguity made a few of us backtrack thinking we’d missed something. Nope. It was just vague.

As the story neared the end, the flashbacks were a constant interruption to the story (we’re talking every couple of pages) which effectively killed any momentum it had, eventually making me apathetic to the entire thing. I finished it. Barely. But had I not enjoyed the first half so much and had I not read and liked a few others in the series, I might have called it quits there. Yikes.

Series status: we’re moving on to Dragon (chronologically book #2) next, and I’m hoping it’s better.

Recommendations: while I’d almost always recommend the most organized route of reading (i.e. chronologically), I’d say the way the publishers have arranged it (with Jhereg as book #1) is a much stronger introduction to this series. With that route, I remember feeling a bit lost at the many people and events referenced that clearly had more solid backstories somewhere, but at them moment I think that’s preferable to the poor execution of the second half of Taltos. We’ll see if that opinion changes as we continue.

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by Niki Hawkes

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Book Review: Neverwinter by R.A. Salvatore

Title: Neverwinter

Author: R.A. Salvatore

Series: Neverwinter #2, Legend of Drizzt #21

Genre: Fantasy

Rating: 3/5 stars

The Overview: SPOILERS: with the last of his trusted companions having fallen, Drizzt is alone–and free–for the first time in almost a hundred years. Guilt mingles with relief, leaving Drizzt uniquely vulnerable to the persuasions of his newest companion–Dahlia, a darkly alluring elf and the only other member of their party to survive the cataclysm at Mount Hotenow. But traveling with Dahlia is challenging in more ways than one. As the two companions seek revenge on the one responsible for leveling Neverwinter–and nearly Luskan as well–Drizzt finds his usual moral certainty swept away by her unconventional views. Forced to see the dark deeds that the common man may be driven to by circumstance, Drizzt begins to find himself on the wrong side of the law in an effort to protect those the law has failed. Making new enemies, as his old enemies acquire deadly allies, Drizzt and Dahlia quickly find themselves embroiled in battle–a state he’s coming to enjoy a little too much. -Goodreads

The Review:

It feels good to be back with Drizzt.

I set the series aside almost five years ago. Coming off a major high from the brilliance that was The Ghost King, I found myself struggling to get into Gauntlgrym. It was a decent Drizzt novel, but I don’t think I was ready to embark on a new chapter in Drizzt’s world quite yet. So I tabled it, knowing I’d get back to it eventually. What I hadn’t expected was how prolific Salvatore would continue to be in this series – I find myself now at least ten books behind the latest publication. So between series FOMO and a stellar review I read for the most recent release, I found myself eager to dive back in. Even more so since recently reading Child of a Mad God and marveling at how beautifully that was written. It was time.

But I have to admit it was a struggle at first.

I’ve waited all this time to get back with Drizzt and was disappointed that the first third of Neverwinter only had a couple of short scenes with him. It was more focused on villain POVs which, even though Salvatore does them well, I often lose patience with. These types of ongoing stories have a tendency to follow the pattern of: meet a villain, fight the villain, kill the villain, then meet a bigger/badder villain, fight and kill it, etc. So when reading endless passages about bad guys, I can’t help but feel uninvested. After all, their fates might already be sealed to perish at the end of a scimitar… every now and then I get surprised, but for the time being, those sections were a struggle to get through.

Somewhere around the middle, things started picking up. There were a couple more of those amazing introspective Drizzt interludes (my favorite component of this whole saga), and the focus shifted more to what he and his companions were doing. It frankly saved a potential DNF.

And then, Salvatore dropped a bomb. And, sir, you now have my full attention.

Yes! This is what I needed. To be surprised. To remember why I loved these novels in the first place. And now I end Neverwinter with a spring in my step – ready to pick up the next book sooner than later.

Overall, this book had a couple of great moments, but it was definitely not the strongest I’ve read from the author. There’s a lot of setup for what looks to be the next era in Drizzt’s life, which takes some time to develop.

Recommendations: Drizzt might seem an intimidating series to start, but it’s unique in that each progressive set of 3 and 4 novels are really self-contained and satisfying, so you can stop at any given point if you feel you’ve had enough and still have that sense of reading a completed story. I’d recommend starting with the Dark Elf Trilogy – one of my favorites and one of the few I’ve reread more than once (a strong endorsement, as I’m not a rereader – I’ve too many amazing titles to get to!).

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by Niki Hawkes

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Project Malazan: The Wurms of Blearmouth by Steven Erikson

Title: The Wurms of Blearmouth

Author: Steven Erikson

Series: Bachelain & Korbal Broach #5

Malazan Ultimate Reading Order: #5

Genre: Fantasy

Rating: 3.5/5 stars

The Overview: Tyranny comes in many guises, and tyrants thrive in palaces and one-room hovels, in back alleys and playgrounds. Tyrants abound on the verges of civilization, where disorder frays the rule of civil conduct and propriety surrenders to brutal imposition. Millions are made to kneel and yet more millions die horrible deaths in a welter of suffering and misery. But leave all that behind and plunge into escapist fantasy of the most irrelevant kind, and in the ragged wake of the tale told in Lees of Laughter’s End, those most civil adventurers, Bauchelain and Korbal Broach, along with their suitably phlegmatic manservant, Emancipor Reese, make gentle landing upon a peaceful beach, beneath a quaint village at the foot of a majestic castle. There they make acquaintance with the soft-hearted and generous folk of Spendrugle, which lies at the mouth of the Blear River and falls under the benign rule of the Lord of Wurms in his lovely keep. Make welcome, then, to Spendrugle’s memorable residents, including the man who should have stayed dead, the woman whose prayers should never have been answered, the tax collector everyone ignores, the ex-husband town militiaman who never married, the beachcomber who lives in his own beard, the now singular lizard cat who used to be plural, and the girl who likes to pee in your lap. And of course, hovering over all, the denizen of the castle keep, Lord–Ah, but there lies this tale. -Goodreads

The Review:

Wurms of Blearmouth was the weirdest of the three Bachelain and Korbal Broach novellas I’ve read towards my Malazan Ultimate Reading Project, which is saying something because Lees at Laughter’s End was a doozy.

Weird as it may have been, the dense writing, bird’s-eye format, and multiple POVs resembled the main Malazan series the most, so in a way the familiarity made it feel more integrated into the series than novellas 1&3 even though the story was most certainly a tangent. There were a couple of story elements that jumped the shark a bit (going outside what had been established as possible thus far in the series), which made me roll my eyes a few times. I have a hard time with ridiculous elements in books, especially in a series as hard-core as Malazan. This one came close to making me want to put it down, but ultimately pulled me back in with other gritty, interesting elements. There are some things that happen here that have already added substance to the background of Memories of Ice (the next book in the Malazan URO), so overall I’m glad I stuck with it.

But would I recommend it with a kindle price at $11.99 USD for just a short story? Perhaps not strongly unless you’re a completionist like me.

Recommendations: this short story goes a few steps further to solidify the backstory of these side characters within the Malazan world. Because it’s pricey and a bit wild, it’s not as recommendable as Blood Follows (a must-read), so if you’re only planning to read a couple of companion works, stick with that one.

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Blacktongue child mad god shadow lost mirror empire

by Niki Hawkes

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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?

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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.

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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.

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by Niki Hawkes