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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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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

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Book Review: Sharp Ends by Joe Abercrombie

Title: Sharp Ends

Author: Joe Abercrombie

Series: First Law World #7

Genre: Fantasy

Rating: 5/5 stars!!!

The Overview: Violence explodes, treachery abounds, and the words are as deadly as the weapons in this rogue’s gallery of side-shows, back-stories, and sharp endings from the world of the First Law. The Union army may be full of bastards, but there’s only one who thinks he can save the day single-handed when the Gurkish come calling: the incomparable Colonel Sand dan Glokta. Curnden Craw and his dozen are out to recover a mysterious item from beyond the Crinna. Only one small problem: no one seems to know what the item is. Shevedieh, the self-styled best thief in Styria, lurches from disaster to catastrophe alongside her best friend and greatest enemy, Javre, Lioness of Hoskopp. And after years of bloodshed, the idealistic chieftain Bethod is desperate to bring peace to the North. There’s only one obstacle left — his own lunatic champion, the most feared man in the North: the Bloody-Nine. -Goodreads

The Review:

This was one of the most enjoyable things I’ve ever read!

It’s a short story compilation for the First Law world, and for starters, I usually don’t have patience for short stories unless they’re for series I’m loving (this qualifies). And even then I usually prefer to read them in tandem with the series so I don’t forget details.

The book was hysterical. I laughed too many times to keep count and even felt compelled to share certain passages with other people (my mom is reading it now even though she’s only read the Blade Itself lol). That feeling of reading something I’ve loved and now need to share with others is the compulsion that caused me to start my book blog 10 years ago and there are only a small number of titles that have evoked this reaction. Sharp Ends is now among those all-time favorites. I ordered a hardcover.

I am completely rubbish at remembering character names in series these days. I read so many it’s just not worth the effort to me to retain those details beyond how long it takes me to devour a book. The problem comes when trying to revisit series after a long break or even just when discussing it with others. It’s a trade off… my brain is full. But it struck me as profound while reading this book that I was able to recall almost every single one of Abercrombie’s side characters with vivid clarity, which made the stories just as vibrant as if they’d been included in the series. It’s amazing to me because this author is clearly good enough to bypass my shitty memory and give me the rare experience of feeling truly immeshed in a series. Granted, I read these books fairly back to back compared to most, but even so, I’ve been known to forget names the instance the book gets finished (or even while I’m freaking reading it, so I have to backtrack). It’s just another piece of evidence that Abercrombie belongs on my favorites lists.

Sharp Ends is listed as book 7 even though it bounces around the timeline a lot. There are some series prequel scenes, some alternate viewpoints for memorable scenes throughout the series, an alternating set of stories following the same two characters (my personal favorite of the bunch), and there are a few that take place after the last time we’ve seen some of these characters. It definitely should be read as the 7th installment to avoid spoilers. One of the highlights in the audio format was an interview with Joe Abercrombie and audio narrator Steven Pacey. It was a total delight, and I busted a gut listening to it. The only story I didn’t care for was the satire (the writings from the bloke Costca hired to overinflate his exploits). It was fun, but I usually don’t have patience for the style. But I’ll admit to always wondering what he was writing throughout the story…

Recommendations: clearly, this is an Obsessive Bookseller favorite and I’d highly recommend it if you’ve read the first 6 books in the series. I found it wildly entertaining.

Other books you might like:

by Niki Hawkes

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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