Book Reviews – 2021 so far

Hello – a break this week from Irish mythology and history. This blog post is about the books I’ve been reading so far this year.

Just a couple of notes before you get started:

I don’t give books a star rating. In fact, I will not feature any books in my blogs that I’ve not enjoyed. I don’t think that’s particularly fair and I would never want to put you off reading a book just because it’s not my cup of tea.

Also – these reviews don’t contain spoilers. I will mention incidents in maybe the first couple of chapters, just by way of explaining the world/set-up, but I won’t go over any twists or plot points that happen further in.

Anyway – here we go. These are the books that I couldn’t put down in 2021 (so far)!

The Readalong Book

As I was scrolling through Twitter in December, I came across a group that were talking about a discord group for a Malazan readalong. Thinking this was the perfect opportunity to read this epic series, I joined.

Gardens of the Moon by Steven Erikson is referred to as a classic by many within the SFF community – but it comes with warnings. Not for the faint of heart.

This reason for this warning becomes abundantly clear after the prologue. This is a novel that isn’t afraid to swap POV’s multiple times per chapter. Don’t expect to understand what is going on. There is a war… oh yes, so there is…but which characters are on which side?

Don’t worry. Keep going.

In this novel (and I have not read any of the sequels or readalong companions) I really enjoyed being surprised. I enjoyed NOT being spoon-fed. Characters had room to breathe and are so very different. Kruppe’s voice, which at first is startlingly unique quickly becomes endearing and more interesting than I first suspected. Paran’s jaded soldier contrasts nicely with Tattersail’s introspection. War weary Whiskeyjack is a good counter for the other members in his squad – with Sorry, Kalam and Quick Ben being of particular note.

And then there are the Gods – who in the fashion of a certain Homer epic we all know – love to get involved in the human wars. The reason why is unclear – do they truly care about the mortals, or is this a game they are playing amongst each other? Either way the current war has their interest and many are trying to intervene.

Now whether you will love this book or not (and I very much am in the love category) depends on what sort of fantasy reader you are.

For example, I have some friends who loved Game of Thrones because it felt very grounded in reality. Aside from the dragons and whitewalkers, it could have been a reimagined piece of Historical Fiction – and thus the characters reacted to their dilemmas in a rational way. Magical ability was limited to a few characters. There were no wands, elves, or dwarves.

If this is you – then Gardens of the Moon might not be for you (although I’d always push you to give it a try – because it’s so good)

In Malazan, the unexpected can happen at any time. Gods intervene, magical beings appear at a moments notice… and of course, there is always Kruppe and his dreams to contend with. One of the POV’s is a crow – and in the first chapter a dying wizard’s soul is transferred into a puppet. Yep, that’s right. I had to reread those pages quite a few times before I believed it.

If, like me, that sounds interesting and you want to stretch your imagination – then believe me, this book is for you! The prose is amazing, the plot twists and world building unique and rich. I’m actually annoyed I left it so long to start.

The novella

This book is a brand new novella from Aliette De Bodard and is set in an ancient Vietnamese kingdom.

This was a lovely book to read after something like Gardens of the Moon and at 100 pages it made for quick reading. The story is pacy, romantic, and set in a world that was fully engrossing.

Thanh is our protagonist. She’s uncertain, doesn’t quite understand her place within her mother’s palace, and somehow keeps setting things on fire. She’s a thoughtful protagonist to follow; aware of both her flaws and feelings. She is in tune with her desires and questions her motivation, making the 1st person perspective very gripping.

Her day starts with a summons from her mother, the Empress. She arrives at a meeting to find her former secret lover has come to the court… and the consequences of this visit changes Thanh, both in terms of what she wants and who she really is.

Aliette’s writing is so beautiful. It’s one of those books that you start reading and can’t put down.

I would really love this world to be expanded – for the relationships between Thanh, Eldris, Giang, and Mother (aka The Empress of Heaven) to be explored after the events in this novella. I didn’t feel like I’ve spent enough time in this magical kingdom – and I’d very much like to go back.

This book is perfect for those wanting a little escapism and magic but who don’t want to get stuck into a series. If you’ve got into a reading rut – or struggling to get back into the way of reading – this is a perfect place to start.

The ARC

I read Master of Sorrows (the first book in this series) after I attended the Dublin World Con in 2019. This was my first ever World Con – and was able to attend with my children and mum because it was not too far from where I live.

I arrived with my family into the gaming hall, hoping that I could find a game for us all to play and get settled. This is where I met Justin – who is also a game developer – and he very kindly showed me the games that were suitable for my children. That got us to talking about books and writing and he told me that his debut book has just been published.

I bought it later that day – and immediately was impressed with its scope, magical system, world-building, and characterisation.

So when Justin asked his twitter friends if anyone wanted to proofread the U.K. edition for the sequel, I put my hand up!

A review of a second book is hard to do – as I don’t want to spoil the first book, in case anyone here is about it read it but I’ll try not to give anything too major away.

Master of Sorrows introduces us to Annev. He lives in a small town called Chaenbalu where an ancient academy trains students to find and retrieve magical objects – which they then place into secret vaults within the academy.

In this world, magic is dangerous and forbidden, and only those who become avatars are trusted to resist the lure of magic. Annev longs to become an avatar, but there are many obstacles in his way.

The first book is focused almost entirely around Annev, his friends, and the academy. We learn about the cult-like religion and the members who follow it. The masters and wit-wives hate magic and also search for children born with missing limbs – as this marks them out as “children of Keos” who is an evil god. But we also get tastes of a larger world… perhaps not everyone agrees with these views. Why do the masters truly lock away these magical artefacts? Can they really be trusted not to use them?

Annev, who hides the fact he was born without an arm (which is punishable by death) with a magical prosthetic, starts to question the things he’s been taught – with the help of his mentor, Sodar. It turns out, the avatars are not the only ones searching for magical artefacts.

This all makes for a compelling story. Most fantasy books I read are about protagonists who are fighting an invading/external evil force. But Annev is living in the middle of a cult who don’t have his best interests at heart. He was born into this environment – and it takes a lot of strength to question what he’s always known.

Master Artificer is a MUCH longer book than the first. The reason why is immediately clear. While the first book took place in Chaenbalu – this book takes place in several places. Cities replace the academy – the world has grown, and so must the book.

The religious views we were taught in Master of Sorrows are now well and truly challenged and Annev and his friends must suddenly learn how to live in a world that is full of the magic they were brought up to despise.

We learn a lot more about the artefacts that were locked away, about the magical system, and the gods and monsters who inhabit the world. These newfound magical abilities and various artifacts attract enemies, including the gods themselves – and Annev and his friends must learn how to defend themselves.

Another interesting change is that we have more POV’s this time. Some of them are Annev’s friends, others are his enemies, and some are becoming twisted by magic. One character’s story arc could actually be classed as horror. I haven’t read anything like Myjun’s chapters before. They are gory, horrific, and completely engrossing – and I’m very intrigued to see what happens next for her.

Master Artificer is merely the start of an epic series. I believe there are quite a few books to come. Again, I feel we have only touched on how this world operates and who the main players are. The ending of this book was incredible – the last 100 pages full of excitement, dilemma, and cliffhangers – and I am eagerly awaiting Justin to ask me to proofread the next book in the series.

This book isn’t out until May – however if this sounds up your street, do think about reading Master of Sorrows and pre-ordering Master Artificer. You won’t regret it.

The Self Published Book

I’ve read quite a few self-published/independent press releases recently. Seriously, there are some great books out there that are being missed by the traditional publishers.

One such book is Fall of the Pheonix by Daniel Kelly, which tells the story of Homer’s Illiad – but from the soldiers point of view.

There was a little bit of irony – given that I read it after Garden’s of the Moon – that in this version of the Trojan invasion – there are NO meddling gods.

This book actually removes the fantastical. The Homer epic is Greek propaganda and this version of the Trojan invasion is the real one, told from the various POV’s of the warriors and kings who fought. By moving POV characters throughout the novel, we can see perspectives from both camps. One character even moves between camps and so we get to see famous characters (Achilles, Hector, Priam and Agamemnon) through various eyes.

It’s also surprising – don’t expect everything that happened in The Iliad to happen here, that’s just propaganda after all. The differences certainly make for a more interesting read – and also sets the ground work for a very intriguing sequel.

This book would make a good read for those that enjoy books like The Last Kingdom – who like epic battles and historical detail, but are not so fussed on magic and fantasy.

The TBR List

These are the next books on my TBR!

The Readalong – Deadhouse Gates by Steven Erikson (Book 2 in the Malazan readalong)

The Kindle Buy – The Rage of Dragons by Evan Winter

The Self Published Book – The Sword of Kaigen by M.L Wang

The Historical Fiction – War Lord by Bernard Cornwell (the last book in The Last Kingdom series – I’m a little sad at the prospect of saying goodbye to Uhtred son of Uhtred)

Hopefully more books will join the next book review blog post. Maybe once the kids go back to school I’ll have more time on my hands!

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