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Book Review: Deadhouse Gates by Steven Erikson

Deadhouse Gates by Steven Erikson

Title: Deadhouse Gates

Author: Steven Erickson

Series:  Malazan #2

Genre: Fantasy

Rating: 4.5/5 stars

The Overview: In the vast dominion of Seven Cities, in the Holy Desert Raraku, the seer Sha’ik and her followers prepare for the long-prophesied uprising known as the Whirlwind. Unprecedented in size and savagery, this maelstrom of fanaticism and bloodlust will embroil the Malazan Empire in one of the bloodiest conflicts it has ever known, shaping destinies and giving birth to legends. -Goodreads

The Review:

I started Deadhouse Gates in January… Of 2019.

The writing is dense, no bout a doubt it, but it took a lot longer than it probably should have to get through the book considering how good it is. Part of my problem is that I’m a perfectionist and a completionist, so if I was going to tackle a series like Malazan, I wanted to make sure I got the full experience from it. There are so many characters and places referenced that it really does take a lot of extra concentration to keep it all straight. And I don’t know about you, but as soon as I start to lose focus and get confused on which character I’m reading about, my level of engagement and investment in the story drops significantly. So I read this at a snail’s pace, utilizing kindle’s X-ray feature what seemed like every freaking page to make sure I knew who or where or what was being referenced. Not to mention that the writing itself is very abrupt and succinct, especially surrounding revelations and epiphanies, so I constantly had to reread passages to make sure I understood all of its implications. All in all, a very slow process. And one that is not conducive to dragging out the reading over several, uh, years. I kept putting it down in favor of things that took less effort and eventually, this past January 2021, decided to lay everything else aside and commit fully to Malazan. I restarted the book and overall, with my full attention devoted, it took about three months to read.

It was soooooo worth the effort!

There’s no doubt in my mind that this book and series (as far as I’ve gotten) are masterpieces brilliant in their originality, expansiveness, and execution. The reading experience is unlike anything I’ve come across before (clearly) and the total immersion required almost guarantees you’re going to take a few gut punches. I can see why so many proficient fantasy readers hold Malazan on a pedestal – it’s truly an amazing story.

Believe it or not, DG was actually a little easier to follow than Gardens of the Moon. There were fewer new characters to follow and it seemed like we circled back to them more frequently. I particularly loved the elegant plot construction. It was an intertwined, unfolding “dance” of information and convergence of characters that built to an amazing peak that left my brain wheeling. It was so thoughtful and so well-executed. I truly can’t wait to see what the author has in store for me next. Now that I think I’ve gotten the hang of reading this series, I’m hoping I’ll be able to clip along a bit faster.

So how do I rate something like this? If I’m applying based on merit alone, it’s a solid 5 stars. However I think it’s important to also consider my actual reading experience with the book, and the fact that it took so much time and effort should be represented (even though that’s just as much on me as it is the writing). 4.5 stars it is.

Recommendations: this is one of the most remarkable books I’ve ever read and I consider the series a must-try for fans of the fantasy genre. It’s not for everyone and will require a lot more concentration than most novels, but the payoff is well worth the effort. Maybe try not to be as anal-retentive as I was in keeping the details straight and just enjoy the process (after all, if an element is truly important the author will most assuredly highlight it again at some point). If you can get into the swing of it, get ready for one of the coolest reading experiences you’ll ever have!

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by Niki Hawkes

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Book Review: The Heroes by Joe Abercrombie

The Heroes by Joe Abercrombie

Title: The Heroes

Author: Joe Abercrombie

Series: First Law World #5

Genre: Fantasy

Rating: 4/5 stars

The Overview: They say Black Dow’s killed more men than winter, and clawed his way to the throne of the North up a hill of skulls. The King of the Union, ever a jealous neighbor, is not about to stand smiling by while he claws his way any higher. The orders have been given and the armies are toiling through the northern mud. Thousands of men are converging on a forgotten ring of stones, on a worthless hill, in an unimportant valley, and they’ve brought a lot of sharpened metal with them. For glory, for victory, for staying alive. –Goodreads

The Review:

The Heroes was an entertaining read even though it’s my least favorite of the saga so far.

But not by much. True, it didn’t offer a lot of variety in setting and plot (which I think accounts for why some may not have liked it as much) but it did make up for it considerably with good characters and a really creative execution of the story. It’s essentially a series of battles in the north that take place over the course of just a few days. Bouncing around POVs, it provided insight into what the battle experience was like from every perspective. In that regard I really appreciate the total immersion. There was one battle scene in particular that was done so creatively I’ve never seen anything like it before. Abercrombie’s deft writing style continues to impress me more with every book. He’s definitely solidified among my favorites.

I’ll admit it took me a good 25% to get acclimated with all the characters. I had to use a few more brain cells than normal to keep straight who was on which side. I also thought the POV bounced around too much for me to really get invested at first, but eventually we came back to the same ones often enough that by the halfway point I was super into it. It helped considerably that many of these characters we’ve seen before and I love how Abercrombie expands his reach to give secondary characters a moment to shine. It’s not something you see many authors doing. It’s also cool that some now have a ton of depth and development because we’ve been with them in past novels. It feels like a giddy secret knowing the history behind certain characters when they are still enigmas to those around them. I’m excited to see how Abercrombie ties in the stars of this show in future books. Not surprisingly, Gorst was my favorite here (though they were all good). Reminiscent of Glokta with his many dualities and entertaining inner dialogue, he added that heavy sardonic flair that I’m starting to crave from Abercrombie’s works. I’m not sure how I’m going to cope when I finally get caught up in the series.

This is one of those books which compared to other Abercrombie novels is a bit more modest, but compared to any other book on the market is still superb.

Recommendations: I highly recommend anything Abercrombie as a staple in the fantasy genre. He’s a master of character and writing and the more time I spend with him, the more he solidifies as a new favorite author. Don’t be like me and let the books sit collecting dust for 10 years before picking them up. They’re worth a jump in the TBR.

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by Niki Hawkes

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Book Review: Best Served Cold by Joe Abercrombie

Best Served Cold by Joe Abercrombie

Title: Best Served Cold

Author: Joe Abercrombie

Series: First Law World #4

Genre: Fantasy

Rating: 5/5 stars!

The Overview: There have been nineteen years of blood. The ruthless Grand Duke Orso is locked in a vicious struggle with the squabbling League of Eight, and between them they have bled the land white. While armies march, heads roll and cities burn, behind the scenes bankers, priests and older, darker powers play adeadly game to choose who will be king. War may be hell but for Monza Murcatto, the Snake of Talins, the most feared and famous mercenary in Duke Orso’s employ, it’s a damn good way of making money too. Her victories have made her popular – a shade too popular for her employer’s taste. Betrayed, thrown down a mountain and left for dead, Murcatto’s reward is a broken body and a burning hunger for vengeance. Whatever the cost, seven men must die. Her allies include Styria’s least reliable drunkard, Styria’s most treacherous poisoner, a mass-murderer obsessed with numbers and a Northman who just wants to do the right thing. Her enemies number the better half of the nation. And that’s all before the most dangerous man in the world is dispatched to hunt her down and finish the job Duke Orso started… Springtime in Styria. And that means revenge. -Goodreads

The Review:

I can’t believe I’m only just now reading this series.

I had my doubts when people told me the books after the initial trilogy were just as good, but if all the others are anywhere as amazing as Best Served Cold then I’m in for a fantastic year of reading. I would be hard-pressed to name anything I didn’t like about it.

I’ve heard mention that BSC is essentially a Count of Monte Cristo type story, and as I’ve made a habit of avoiding classics like the plague since grade school, I can only take their word for it. Presumably the similarity is the relentless pursuit of vengeance at any and all costs. I normally find plot structures like that boring. After all, if you kind of already know where it’s going, where’s the excitement? But I tell you what, Abercrombie added so many interesting characters and dynamics – the story felt anything but a tropey knockoff. I was glued to the pages the entire time and loved every moment of it.

Upon reflection, this may have been my favorite story in the First Law world to date, which is saying something considering Glokta (easily one of the best characters in the genre) doesn’t even make an appearance. It’s an amazing combination of gruesome, funny, heartbreaking, exciting, and depressing all wrapped up in an angry little package. I think I might be adding it to my very short list of all-time favorites.

Overall, this was an excellent tangent novel that did a superb job expanding the world-building of the series and giving us a whole new cast of characters to love/hate. I can’t wait to devour everything Abercrombie has on the market. And to think I was only so-so after reading the first book. This author is now a favorite.

Recommendations: if you loved the First Law trilogy and are wondering if you should keep reading, the answer is an emphatic yes!! Best Served Cold was written brilliantly, with careful care given to all the characters and a plot that will have you cringing and laughing and loving every moment. Consider it a new Obsessive Bookseller favorite!

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by Niki Hawkes

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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