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Book Review: The Last Argument of Kings by Joe Abercrombie

Last Argument of Kings by Joe Abercrombie

Title: The Last Argument of Kings

Author: Joe Abercrombie

Series: First Law #3

Genre: Fantasy

Rating: 4.5/5 stars

The Overview: The end is coming. Logen Ninefingers might only have one more fight in him but it’s going to be a big one. Battle rages across the North, the King of the Northmen still stands firm, and there’s only one man who can stop him. His oldest friend, and his oldest enemy. It’s past time for the Bloody-Nine to come home. With too many masters and too little time, Superior Glokta is fighting a different kind of war. A secret struggle in which no one is safe, and no one can be trusted. His days with a sword are far behind him. It’s a good thing blackmail, threats and torture still work well enough. Jezal dan Luthar has decided that winning glory is far too painful, and turned his back on soldiering for a simple life with the woman he loves. But love can be painful too, and glory has a nasty habit of creeping up on a man when he least expects it. While the King of the Union lies on his deathbead, the peasants revolt and the nobles scramble to steal his crown. No one believes that the shadow of war is falling across the very heart of the Union. The First of the Magi has a plan to save the world, as he always does. But there are risks. There is no risk more terrible, after all, than to break the First Law… -Goodreads

The Review:

This was easily the best one yet!

And I kind of ruined the experience for myself. By not planning ahead well enough to actually get through my library hold before it was due back, I had to stop part way though and wait three months to get it again… I swear I should’ve just bought it then and there, but I’m stubborn). In any case, the fact that I was interrupted right in the middle of all the action and still managed to be just as invested several months later is a testament to how good it was.

The brilliance of this series is in the characters. They’re not just flawed. Oh no, they all, each and every one of them, go beyond just merely flawed into completely f#cked up territory… and that’s why they’re so fascinating. Even Logan, who many highlight as their favorite character, has some deep psychological issues. By far, my favorite character is Sand dan Glokta. I’ve said it before, but I’ll continue to torture you with repetition – I’m in constant awe how a character who, on paper, should be considered completely deplorable manages to not only delight me, but have me rooting for him the entire way. His sardonic, practical views of the world are brilliantly represented, and I find myself laughing out loud at the most inappropriate times (like during torture scenes). It’s really not funny, but at the same time it’s hysterical… Abercrombie’s ability to create such a juxtaposition of emotions within scenes is truly masterful.

I like the culmination of events in this one, and the fact that nothing went the way I was expecting it to. Another of Abercrombie’s strengths is that he doesn’t stick to the formulaic storytelling prominent in the genre. This series is a unique creation told in its unique way, and I love that he stayed consistently true to his perspective through the whole thing. Although I was on the fence after the first book, these last two have convinced me beyond a doubt that this series is worth every bit of praise it gets. I wish I’d read it ages ago (I’ve owned it so long), but at least now I have several other unread Abercrombie novels to look forward to.

Recommendations: this trilogy-ender has convinced me that this series deserves its place as a fantasy genre staple. Not only does it have one of my favorite characters of all-time, it’s completely unapologetic in execution. This is not a feel-good tale. It’s dark, gritty, and violent. Yet I loved it, and I can’t wait to read on.

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by Niki Hawkes

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Book Review: Song of the Risen God by R.A. Salvatore

Song of the Risen God by R.A. Salvatore

Title: Song of the Risen God

Author: R.A. Slavatore

Series: The Coven #3

Genre: Fantasy

Rating: 2/5 stars

The Overview: War has come to Fireach Speur. The once forgotten Xoconai empire has declared war upon the humans west of the mountains, and their first target are the people of Loch Beag. Lead by the peerless general, Tzatzini, all that stands in the way of the God Emperor’s grasp of power is Aoelyn, Talmadge, and their few remaining allies.

But not all hope is lost. Far away from Fireach Speuer, an ancient tomb is uncovered by Brother Thaddeus of the Abellican Church. Within it is the power to stop the onslaught of coming empire and, possibly, reshape the very world itself. –Goodreads

The Review:

I’m finally paying for not reading all the backlist Corona titles. As a result, Song of the Risen God was my least favorite of the trilogy by a landslide.

There wasn’t anything technically wrong with the book, but it didn’t work for me on a few accounts. The beauty of this series so far has been in the slow-burn, intimate development of two or three main characters. The pacing is part of the brilliance because it draws you in and makes you feel every pain and victory with a carefully-constructed poignancy. It was the most in-depth I’ve ever read from Salvatore and speaks to his evolution as a writer. Songs of a Risen God felt like a regression. The plot broadened, which is ideal for the final book in the series, but so did the number of POVs. It bounced around so much, we didn’t get a chance to reimmurse into any of the characters, and as a result, it felt very superficial. I did not care for the inclusion of the enemy’s POVs. It felt too much like an old Drizzt novel (just call them “orcs” and it’s the same formula) and it took away any suspense that comes from the reader not knowing how the enemy thinks and operates. To compound that, the enemy came off almost child-like in their development despite the fact that they were still committing horrendous atrocities.

Another issue I had was the inclusion of so many characters and places from past Corona novels. As a fresh reader, none of these characters had any substance or meaning for me. I think the nostalgia-factor was supposed to make up for their almost casual inclusion of the story, but I found them somewhat unnecessary (although I probably would’ve delighted in seeing some familiar faces had I been current with all the works). But for my personal experience, it resulted in page after endless page of the characters explaining to each other why they’re relevant and rehashing old novels. Then you add the current characters explaining to the old ones countless times about what they’ve been doing over the last two books, and I wanted to slam my head into a wall. It was tedious. And by the time everything culminated to the final chapters and some really cool shit happened, I was so worn out that it didn’t affect me the way it should have.

Overall, what a disappointment. But the good news is that my reading experience and expectations are probably different than most of those inclined to pick up this series, so maybe the masses will have more luck with it. I stand by my recommendations of the first two books, which are textbook in character depth, pacing, and overall writing quality. I just wish it had ended with a bang!

Recommendation: long-time Corona fans wont want to miss this finale, but series-skippers like me might struggle with how different it is from the first two books.

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by Niki Hawkes

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Book Review: Smoke and Stone by Michael R. Fletcher

Smoke and Stone by Michael R. Fletcher

Title: Smoke and Stone

Author: Michael R. Fletcher

Series: City of Sacrifice #1

Genre: Fantasy

Rating: 3/5 stars

The Overview: After a cataclysmic war of the gods, the last of humanity huddles in Bastion, a colossal ringed city. Beyond the outermost wall lies endless desert haunted by the souls of all the world’s dead. Trapped in a rigid caste system, Nuru, a young street sorcerer, lives in the outer ring. She dreams of escape and freedom. When something contacts her from beyond the wall, she risks everything and leaps at the opportunity. Mother Death, a banished god seeking to reclaim her place in Bastion’s patchwork pantheon, has found her way back into the city. Akachi, born to the wealth and splendour of Bastion’s inner rings, is a priest of Cloud Serpent, Lord of the Hunt. A temple-trained sorcerer, he is tasked with bringing peace to the troublesome outer ring. Drawn into a dark and violent world of assassins, gangs, and street sorcerers, he battles the spreading influence of Mother Death in a desperate attempt to save Bastion. The gods are once again at war. -Goodreads

The Review:

I’ve been hearing great things about Michael R. Fletcher for years. Several people in my Goodreads group (Fantasy Buddy Reads) have been raving about his Manifest Delusions series, and he’s even stopped by to do some Q&As (gracious authors rock). When offered a review audiobook of his latest novel, Smoke and Stone, I jumped at the opportunity to give him a try.

The book was definitely grimdark, and I liked how true to the genre it stayed – abundant violence, bleak outlooks, dry humor. It’s usually in these dark reads where you find the most beautiful glimmer of humanity by contrast. Smoke and Stone was no exception on that regard. Subjectively, I think it may have leaned too dark without as much glimmer for my personal taste, but I still enjoyed it.

When venturing in, I expected the dark elements and the dry humor based on FBR feedback about his writing. What I didn’t expect was the personable nature of the characters. They were downright charming, and easily my favorite aspect of the book. There were moments where it dipped its toe into providing more depth – inner motivations and driving forces behind the characters – but it didn’t get below surface-level very often and I think that’s part of the reason why I finished the book not feeling particularly connected to the characters, nor torn up about some of the awful things that happened to some of them.

The concept for the story was interesting, but I felt the culture needed a bit more development. The strict framework of the priests of the Cloud Serpent kind of contradicted the somewhat casual enforcement of their practices. The fact that a lesser sorcerer could even be allowed to question the morality of sacrifices without sever punishment (or at least crippling fear of sever punishment from all the brainwashing) was a bit of a contradiction. If nothing else, hanging a prominent lantern on the discrepancy would’ve helped.

All that said, the main story arc was action-packed and generally badass. I loved the pacing through the whole thing and the quiet moments with the characters were golden – where you learn more about them based on decisions and reactions. It’s a good start to a series with potential to grow.

Recommendations: I’ve heard rave reviews about the Manifest Delusions series and still hope to pick those up soon, regardless of my conservative rating here. Many of my GR buddies (who’s opinions I highly respect) really love this author, so I’m definitely not finished exploring his work. Pick it up for a creative grimdark experience and some interesting characters.

I’d like to thank Michael R. Fletcher for kindly providing a review copy. And thank you, Jon, for orchestrating it. :)

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by Niki Hawkes

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Book Review: Before They Are Hanged by Joe Abercrombie

Before They are Hanged by Joe Abercrombie

Title: Before They Are Hanged

Author: Joe Abercrombie

Series: First Law #2

Genre: Fantasy

Rating: 4.5/5 stars

The Overview: Superior Glokta has a problem. How do you defend a city surrounded by enemies and riddled with traitors, when your allies can by no means be trusted, and your predecessor vanished without a trace? It’s enough to make a torturer want to run – if he could even walk without a stick. Northmen have spilled over the border of Angland and are spreading fire and death across the frozen country. Crown Prince Ladisla is poised to drive them back and win undying glory. There is only one problem – he commands the worst-armed, worst-trained, worst-led army in the world. And Bayaz, the First of the Magi, is leading a party of bold adventurers on a perilous mission through the ruins of the past. The most hated woman in the South, the most feared man in the North, and the most selfish boy in the Union make a strange alliance, but a deadly one. They might even stand a chance of saving mankind from the Eaters. If they didn’t hate each other quite so much. Ancient secrets will be uncovered. Bloody battles will be won and lost. Bitter enemies will be forgiven – but not before they are hanged. –Goodreads

The Review:

The first book was good, with flashes of brilliance… this one was better.

I’ve heard so much about this series. When talking to normal people (those who don’t read more than just casually), Abercrombie’s name comes up a lot. It’s a mainstream series that, for the most part, lives up to all the hype. It’s credited as one of the first Grimdark novels, and that sentiment is much more apparent in this second book than the first. Authors these days are taking things a lot further, but you can definitely see the base influence here. I held off on reading it for several years because said normal people kept talking about how hard the torture scenes were to read. As it happens, almost every other Grimdark series I’ve read so far has been worse (much worse), so don’t let that scare you if you’re holding off for similar reasons (or don’t let it overly entice you haha).

The Blade Itself (book #1) came across very much like a setup novel. The characters were worth spending time with and the overall story was interesting, but when it came down to actual plot-progression, not a whole lot happened. That’s where Before They Are Hanged improved: pivotal moments happened left and right and the story finally caught up with all the other brilliant story components. I loved it. There were a few moments in particular that I’m still thinking about weeks later, which says a lot about the content. I’ll be reading everything I can get my hands on from this author.

My only criticism at this point is the lack of relatable female characters. The women are either conniving, simpering, or so hard they might as well be men with breasts. And so far their contributions to the story has more to do with what they can offer the men rather than instigators of plot advancement. It’s a minor criticism because I still enjoyed the hell out of this book, but it did affect my rating, so that’s why I’m highlighting it. When compared to Brian McClellan (a writer I’ve been reading alongside Abercrombie who has incredibly similar components but ALSO manages to give satisfying characters of both genders), you can see why my current reading experiences would lead me to believe the lack of relatable female characters is was a missed opportunity worth mentioning. However, Glokta might be good enough on his own to compensate tenfold…

Recommendations: Before They are Hanged was a fantastic continuation to the First Law Trilogy – removing all reservations I had about the series from the first one. It has one of the best characters in fantasy (Glokta), some gritty action, and a lot of substance. I’ll happily recommend it as a staple of the genre.

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by Niki Hawkes

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Book Review: Reckoning of Fallen Gods by R.A. Salvatore

Reckoning of the Fallen by R.A. Salvatore

Title: Reckoning of Fallen Gods

Author: R.A. Salvatore

Series: The Coven #2

Genre: Fantasy

Rating: 4/5 stars

The Overview: The winds of change are blowing upon Fireach Speur. Aoelyn risked her life to save the trader Talmadge and it cost her everything that is dear to her, but Talmadge survived and can’t forget the amazing woman that killed a god.

Little do they realize, war is coming to the mountain. Far to west, a fallen empire stirs. One that sees a solar eclipse as a call to war. Their empire once dominated the known world and they want it back. -Goodreads

The Review:

Child of a Mad God was one of the best books I read last year, so this sequel was very high up on my 2019 priority list.

Reckoning of Fallen Gods almost suffered from middle-book syndrome, but the writing is so good that the slight lack of focus didn’t make it feel like an unnecessary drudge. The pacing was on par with the first book – which was slow af but each moment had a lot of depth, so it was never boring. However, because the story in this one spent time with more POV characters, the slow unfolding of events was a lot more noticeable. The more frequent character switches kept it from building the same momentum.

Specifically, there was a lot less time spent with Aoleyn and Talmadge (which I missed) and their story arcs basically just maintained status quo, which in turn kept my emotional investment pretty even-keel. There was also fewer grimdark gut-punch scenes, which the masochistic reader in me missed a little. As much as I didn’t like those visceral scenes in the first book, at least they constantly evoked something. And there was a lot more focus on the broader “bad guys” component which made the story less intimate. None of this was particularly detrimental, but it definitely had a different feel.

Overall, I’m by no means disappointed in what I read here, but it’s clear this book was more to shape the next chapter than it was a fulfilling read within itself. It’s still one of the better reads I’ve had this year (a fantastic ending really saved the experience for me – I want to know what happens next!!). It’s more well written than earlier Corona works (this author has grown leaps and bounds since the 90s) and it’s darker and grittier than the Drizzt novels. As a huge fan of Salvatore, I can’t wait to see what he churns out next.

Recommendations: this story is perfect for dark fantasy fans who don’t mind a character-driven, slow-paced plot. The first book especially has a lot of truly compelling moments, and I can tell that Reckoning of Fallen Gods is an important installment in what I think is going to be a killer series overall. You can pick it up without having read anything in the Corona universe, but he definitely has a bit of crossover references that might be bigger spoilers if you care. I’m normally a completionist, but I’m enjoying this so much more than the DemonWars that I don’t mind already knowing big picture stuff if I ever get back to reading the earlier works.

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by Niki Hawkes

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Book Review: Grey Sister by Mark Lawrence

Grey Sister by Mark Lawrence

Title: Grey Sister

Author: Mark Lawrence

Series: Book of Ancestor #2

Genre: Fantasy

Rating: 2.5/5 stars

The Overview: Behind its walls, the Convent of Sweet Mercy has trained young girls to hone their skills for centuries. In Mystic Class, Novice Nona Grey has begun to learn the secrets of the universe. But so often even the deepest truths just make our choices harder. Before she leaves the convent, Nona must choose which order to dedicate herself to—and whether her path will lead to a life of prayer and service or one of the blade and the fist. All that stands between her and these choices are the pride of a thwarted assassin, the designs of a would-be empress wielding the Inquisition like a knife, and the vengeance of the empire’s richest lord. As the world narrows around her, and her enemies attack her through the system she is sworn to, Nona must find her own path despite the competing pulls of friendship, revenge, ambition, and loyalty. And in all this only one thing is certain: there will be blood. -Goodreads

The Review:

I hate to say it, but I think Grey Sister suffered from middle-book syndrome.

It kind of did the opposite of Red Sister, which started out slow and gained momentum. Grey Sister started out with a bang and engaged me with all the things I look for in a good fantasy. It was a nice continuation of the story that took place primarily in a school setting (I never get tired of school settings). There were also a lot of great character dynamics and some really interesting training scenes. Nona was testing her boundaries to see if she had the makings to be a “grey sister,” which was easily the highlight of the book for me.

The trouble is, none of those awesome things had anything to do with the second half of the book. By about the 75% I was seriously considering a DNF. What ultimately kept me reading was a general appreciation for the complex world and interesting cast of characters. And a mild curiosity over where the story would go next. I also really like Nona as a main character. She’s smart and resourceful without feeling too superhuman. It’s nice to finally see her start to open up her heart.

Although the last 50% had quick pacing and a lot of action scenes, it didn’t feel like anything was happing to advance the overall plot of the series. It felt like we were on one big tangent with no purpose other than as filler content. I acknowledge that it may serve a purpose in the greater scheme at some point (after all, I’ve no idea what’s planned next), but unfortunately for me it felt inconsequential and was a struggle to get through.

The world really has a lot of things going on – so many ideas left and right that it’s on the cusp of throwing in the kitchen sink. However they’re woven together well enough that it all seems to work. This last book has me feeling a slight Fifth Season (Jemisin) vibe and I really like where the overall story is developing. I think my profound interest in that is both why I want to continue reading, but also why I was so disappointed in the lack of expansion.

Series status: downgraded. I’d like to see where the story goes next, but have to admit I’m no longer eager to pick it up asap.

Recommendations: I think there are a lot of cool elements to this series. It currently lands itself in the middle of my recommendation spectrum. I buddy read this with my Goodreads group and, while most agreed it lost momentum in the second half, I think they all liked it more than I did, so take my rating with a grain of salt. ;P [I wrote this review and assigned a rating, then I checked how others rated it on Goodreads… I’m definitely the anomaly here].

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by Niki Hawkes