Spy, Spy Again, by Mercedes Lackey

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – June 9, 2020

Summary: Thirteen year old Prince Kyril and Mags and Amily’s fourteen-year-old son Tory “share” the Gift of Farsight–although neither of them are Chosen. They are self-trained, though currently, their shared Gift only allows them to see what is happening with their immediate family members.

After much debate, the Herald’s Collegium has decided to test and train them anyway. That’s when the surprises start. They do not share a single Gift; they have two complementary Gifts working together in a way that the Heralds have never seen before. Tory is the Farseer–Kee’s Gift is to extend his range beyond a few dozen feet.

Their Gifts become crucial when Mags gets a desperate message from his cousin Bey, the head of the enigmatic assassin-tribe, the Sleepgivers. Bey’s eldest daughter has been kidnapped, but he doesn’t know why or by whom. He’s calling in the debt Mags owes him to find his daughter before it’s too late.

Tory is certain that if anyone can find her, he can. But that will mean traveling out of Valdemar into an unknown, dangerous country.

And it will mean taking a Royal Prince with him.

Thoughts: I assume this is the final novel in the Family Spies series, since each one focused on one of Mags’s children and with this, all of his children have had a novel to themselves, or at least mostly so. I hope it will at least be the end of titles that are strange puns on phrases with words that rhyme with “spy;” thus far, none of the titles really seem to match up with what happens in the novel, except for having a spy in them. The Hills Have Spies didn’t involve hilly regions that needed spying on or had spies hiding out, Eye Spy was just.. I mean, the pun is obvious but it really doesn’t have much to do with the content, and Spy, Spy Again sounds like it could be a story about a spy getting incorrect information and having to ferret out the truth, but that isn’t actually the case.

Spy, Spy Again focuses its attention on Tory, and Prince Kyril, better known as Kee. The two have a strange Gift that works best when they’re together, and it allows them to Farsee anybody they’re related to. They know who they have to keep an eye on, until one day they received a frightened distress call from an unknown person, in an unknown place. Given their joint Gift, this call could only be from someone on Mags’s side of the family, from the Sleepgiver Nation. Kee feels extremely compelled to rush to the aid of this stranger, dragging Tory along with him, and sending them both on an adventure outside Valdemar’s borders that’s unlike any other.

I have to say, this was probably the most interesting novel in the Family Spies series, largely because it did feel very similar to Valdemar stories I’d read in the past. The grand adventure into the unknown, the discovery of seeing new lands and meeting new peoples, and watching the lives of young people get shaped by what they see outside of their comfort zone. But more than that, readers get to see far more of the assassin nation that Mags descended from, a plot point that starred in a previous novel, got a couple of passing mentions in other novels, but never really had the chance to be explored. What sort of people were they? How did they live, when they weren’t killing people for money? Spy, Spy Again doesn’t just keep the spotlight on Kee and Tory, but also shifts to that of Sira, one of the Nation’s people, and the distant relative of Tory’s who sent out the distress call that prompted Kee and Tory into action. Through her actions and observations, readers get to see life inside the Nation, and this adds a fair bit to what was previously a rather flimsy aspect to Velgarth’s world-building.

Like many of the more recent Valdemar novels, however, this one leaves me with questions. Not the sort of questions that could lead to other novels getting written, but just dangling threads that don’t tie up well. Why does Mags speak normally in The Hills Have Spies and for the first little bit of Eye Spy but then switch back to his “country” accent and continue to speak that way right up to this book? If the border around Valdemar that keeps true magic out also prevents thinking about magic in any practical sense, is Tory going to be able to remember much of what he saw of magic when he was outside Valdemar?

We also see the usual spate of internal contradictions that unfortunately seem to plague Valdemar novels. This isn’t a new thing (I found one as far back as the Last Herald-Mage trilogy), but it is frustrating when what gets established in one book gets contradicted in another. The biggest one I can think of here is declaring that when Vanyel set up the barrier to keep Mages out of Valdemar in the first place, he deliberately made it so that people had a hard time even thinking of magic. It was established many many novels ago that for one, Vanyel established that long-lasting spell not to keep Mages out but to make the vrondi (air spirits that Vanyel used in said spell) alert Herald-Mages whenever magic was used within the borders, and with no Herald-Mages to alert, now the vrondi just watch. Endlessly. Driving mages mad, so they either so insane and die, or flee the country. The unintended effect was mages going mad, since Vanyel didn’t really anticipate a lack of Herald-Mages in Valdemar’s future until after he cast that spell. That people couldn’t even really think about magic as anything other than some legendary storytime ability was a very unintended consequence. Not intentional.

It’s things like that which have turned me excitement over new Valdemar novels to trepidation. I still love the world, I really do, but it seems like with every new book, something new is written into the lore that directly goes again something that was previously written. And it boggles my mind that nobody seems to catch this stuff and point it out to her before, you know, letting the books get published. Sometimes the errors are small, like calling Karse’s god Vkanda instead of Vkandis. Other times, the contradictions are large, or result in a timeline in which the timeline gets horribly muddied and makes no sense anymore.

But as I said, that’s not a problem specific to this novel. That’s been a problem for a while. It’s just that as the contradictions add up over time, I start to feel more cautious about reading new novels in the series, because I know in advance that I’m dealing with the works of an author who can’t keep her world-building straight.

At least when it comes to the assassin Nation, nothing really gets contradicted, so there is that. I guess that’s a benefit to writing about a Nation in a state of change. They’re assassins now, Sleepgivers, dealers in death, but change is being worked slowly, through generations, so that they will no longer be assassins for hire, but bodyguards. Given that they also operate out of a country that Valdemar hasn’t had much call to deal with in previous novels, it’s easy to handwave why no Sleepgivers ever popped up again, especially when foreign assassins did show up in other Valdemar novels. It’s a good way to get around that, as well as to add some additional richness to the world.

As I mentioned previously, a lot of Spy, Spy Again felt a lot like earlier novels in the Valdemar series, with their exciting adventures that ave consequences beyond the moment. It was a fun read, and while I still approached with caution, I found myself turning the pages voraciously, eager to keep reading and to find out what happens next. If you have to pick one single book in the Family Spies series to read, make it this one; it’s the best of the bunch, and makes for a comforting yet entertaining fantasy adventure in a much-beloved world.

(And now maybe we can have some stories that have absolutely nothing to do with Mags…)

(Book received in exchange for an honest review.)

Eye Spy, by Mercedes Lackey

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – July 9, 2019

Summary: Mags, Herald Spy of Valdemar, and his wife, Amily, the King’s Own Herald, are happily married with three kids. Their daughter, Abidela, dreams of building on her parents’ legacy by joining her father’s network of spies, hoping to offset her seeming lack of a Gift.

But when Abi senses the imminent collapse of a bridge only moments before it happens, she saves countless lives, including that of her best friend, Princess Katiana. The experience, though harrowing, uncovers her unique Gift—an ability to sense the physical strains in objects.

Intrigued by the potential of her Gift, the Artificers seek to claim her as their own—but only the Healers can train her. Through training with both of them, Abi discovers unique facets of her Gift, including a synesthetic connection to objects that allows her to “see” as well as feel the strains.

Her Gift may also grant her a distinct advantage as a spy—there won’t be a building in the entire kingdom of Valdemar with a secret room that she doesn’t know about. With the help of her mentors, she must hone her gift to uncover the hidden secrets in the depths of Valdemar.

Thoughts: It’s nice to read stories about people with Gifts who aren’t Heralds. For the longest time, it seemed like any character that had a Gift in Valdemar was going to be chosen, and for all the author talked in interviews or extra materials about Valdemar that it was most common for Heralds to have no Gifts, we really didn’t get to see much of that actually in the novels themselves. Here, we may not have a Herald with no Gifts, but we do have another characters with Gifts who isn’t a Herald.

Once again we return to Mags’s family, only instead of focusing on Perry, this time the novel focuses on Abi, Mags’s daughter and middle child. Abi is revealed to have a rather unusual Gift, one that allows her to sense, and eventually see, weak points and stresses on constructs, such as buildings or bridges. Not exactly the most useful Gift… unless your job happens to be designing and constructing such things, as Artificers in Valdemar do. Abi studies to become an Artificer, surprising herself with how happy she is with the idea that she’ll be making things that will keep people safe for decades, possibly even centuries. But her story becomes more complex when she’s chosen to travel between a series of villages that are petitioning for entry into Valdemar, and a plot to weaken Valdemar’s reputation is uncovered.

I enjoyed Eye Spy more than I enjoyed The Hills Have Spies. There was far less tension and adventure, but also more insight into how certain under-explored aspects of Valdemaran society worked. Abi’s life may be comfortable but it will never be glamourous, and much of what she did in Eye Spy was almost secondary to her Gift. Her Gift may have gotten her a place to study as an Artificer, but she really only used it a few times through the novel, replying instead on common sense and what she learned about engineering and construction in the tasks placed before her. It was kind of nice to see somebody who had the ability to just say, “No, my magic power says this won’t work,” but who, if she did so, would back that up with the math and science to prove it. Abi’s story could well have been told without her Gift, if she just happened to have a natural aptitude for building and math, and honestly, that’s rather nice to see in a fantasy novel.

Allow me a moment to explain. Sometimes it feels very much like there are two kind of fantasy protagonist. The first is someone who has a particular gift or talent, like magic, or telepathy, or weaponswork, or something of the sort, and they go out and do a job that only they can do. Not necessarily in the sense of being a Chosen One, but in the sense of, “This big thing is happening and it would be great if we had someone who could be there but also quickly relay information back to us, oh hey, look at this guy with strong telepathy!”

The second kind of character is the one who has absolutely nothing extraordinary about them whatsoever, and yet who ends up embroiled in all sorts of adventures because for some reason nobody will leave them alone, or they stumble and fall into something weird.

With Abi, she has a particular talent, but in a practical sense, she needed to back up everything that talent told her with calculations, which required her to learn all the same calculations someone without that talent would learn. She could do a few things more easily than others might, such as finding secret passages built into walls, but most of what she did in Eye Spy wasn’t of that bent. But neither was she a Farm Boy type of character, because she was born to knowledge and privilege and deliberately sought out ways to use what she could do to help people. Her life wasn’t one filled with adventure, or a great calling, but it was useful and full of hard mundane work that was no less important than any other Artificer in the kingdom.

I mentioned in my review of The Hills Have Spies that Lackey has developed this habit of inserting real-world issues into Valdemar novels, not just in ways that are allegories for broader issues, but more in the sense of specific groups or people that she’s sort of porting into Valdemar so that she can have characters comment on them. In one of her previous novels, she had a thing or two to say about the Quiverfull movement. Here, she inserts a character who is described as:

He had a perfectly square face, a shock of blond hair, small eyes, a pouty mouth, and oddly small hands.

Oddly small hands? I… seriously? Is this going where I think it’s going?

He’s later quoted as saying:

“When you’re rich, you can do anything, and they just let you.”

The character’s name is Dudley Remp.

That’s not even close to a subtle way to insert Trump into your fantasy novel.

Don’t get me wrong. I don’t disapprove of taking verbal potshots at a certain president. But this presentation isn’t the sort to make much impact. It’s there for a bit of, “Holy crap, did she really write that?!”, and less there to have readers reflecting on, say, what happens when a person like that comes to power. Remp does try for a power grab toward the end of the novel, by working a plot to destabilize foreign trust in Valdemar’s governance, but that’s as far as his threat goes. He’s thrown out of Haven, his father is jailed for crimes, and he later tries to get revenge by… making people in a few border villages think twice about joining Valdemar?

Which those villages didn’t do anyway, because that would mean kicking out the Mages they’ve grown accustomed to. (True magic doesn’t work within Valdemar’s borders.)

Remp isn’t remotely a threat to Valdemar, not the way his real-world analogue is here. And there the allegory fails, because the two just can’t be compared. There’s part of me that wonders if this entire novel was written around the idea of having Remp as an antagonist, and I very much hope I’m wrong, because he’s not much of one. I was far more interested in Abi’s journey of self-improvement than I was about how somebody might work against a country in a way that couldn’t possibly succeed.

Long-time readers of the Valdemar novels will understand what I mean when I say that Lord Orthallen was a much better antagonist, if destabilizing Valdemar was the intent. He was subtle, he had connections, and he had the mind to work things so that everything he did seemed perfectly normal and above-board. Remp couldn’t hold a candle to the threat that was Orthallen, which again, downplays the threat that his real-world counterpart actually embodies.

I do want to take a moment to comment on Abi’s sexuality. I’m going to assume she’s asexual, since that seems to be what things were leading toward, but again, it was never just outright stated. Just sort of danced around. Establishing that neither men nor women have ever made her particular interested is fine, but similar to the issues I had with Felicity in The Lady’s Guide to Petticoats and Piracy, asexuality is a legitimate orientation in its own right, and it would be kind of nice for people to acknowledge it in ways beyond, “Oh, I guess I just never really thought about it.” That sort of presentation connects asexuality with a kind of naiveté that doesn’t do ace folk any favours.

Though I will give Lackey credit where it’s due, because unlike Lee’s writing of Felicity in The Lady’s Guide, at least Abi wasn’t presented as being “too busy” for relationships and that’s why she wasn’t attracted to people. Abi had her passions and interests, but no more than any other character, regardless of sexuality.

Though there were some sticking points for me in this book, on the whole, I still feel like Eye Spy was a decent Valdemar novel. Far from essential reading if you’re a fan of the series, but it scratched an itch for stories that weren’t just about Heralds. Abi was surprisingly interesting for a character who was so entrenched in many mundane aspects of life, and I was more compelled to read about her than I was about Perry in The Hills Have Spies, despite the comparative lack of action here. Hopefully the final (?) book of the Family Spies novels will be just as interesting.

(Book received in exchange for an honest review.)

The Hills Have Spies, by Mercedes Lackey

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – June 5, 2018

Summary: Mags, Herald Spy of Valdemar, and his wife, Amily, the King’s Own Herald, are happily married with three kids. The oldest, Peregrine, has the Gift of Animal Mindspeech — he can talk to animals and persuade them to act as he wishes. Perry’s dream is to follow in his father’s footsteps as a Herald Spy, but he has yet to be Chosen by a Companion.

Mags is more than happy to teach Perry all he knows. He regularly trains his children, including Perry, with tests and exercises, preparing them for the complicated and dangerous lives they will likely lead. Perry has already held positions in the Royal Palace as a runner and in the kitchen, useful places where he can learn to listen and collect information.

But there is growing rural unrest in a community on the border of Valdemar. A report filled with tales of strange disappearances and missing peddlers is sent to Haven by a Herald from the Pelagirs. To let Perry experience life away from home and out in the world, Mags proposes that his son accompany him on an expedition to discover what is really going on.

During their travels, Perry’s Animal Mindspeech allows him to communicate with the local wildlife of the Pelagirs, whose connection to the land aids in their investigation. But the details he gleans from the creatures only deepen the mystery. As Perry, Mags, and their animal companions draw closer to the heart of the danger, they must discover the truth behind the disappearances at the border—before those disappearances turn deadly.

Thoughts: I’ll get this out of the way right from the get-go: I’m getting a little bit tired of the books about Mags. It’s not that he’s a bad character, or uninteresting, or anything like that. He’s fine, as characters go. But as I started to read the first book of the Family Spies series, I began to realize that of all the characters who appear in all the Valdemar novels, I think Mags appears in more than any other single character. Closely followed by Elspeth, who, for those who might not know, is a Herald (as is Mags), is of royal blood, and who was instrumental to bringing true magic back to Valdemar, and whose very birth was part of an international plot to strike at the heart of the kingdom. Mags is a spy and so gets wrapped up in many political affairs, but no more than most Heralds who are the stars of their own books. Lackey’s continued focus on Mags is starting to make me feel like she’s running out of ideas to get readers interested, and so is just sticking to one guy and his family because they’re familiar and don’t require figuring out other sections of the timeline (which, let’s be honest, she’s not that great at keeping straight). She can write stories about a character that readers already know, and so we don’t have to ask ourselves why we’re supposed to care, why this new person and their story is important enough to learn about.

But I am a sucker for this world, and so read I do, even when I consider the latest books to not really be a patch on some of the more classic Valdemar novels, even when I wish she’d start telling more stories about people who aren’t Mags.

The Hills Have Spies involves not just Mags, at least, but also his son Perry, who is training in his father’s footsteps to be a damn good spy and agent for the crown. Perry isn’t a Herald, but he doesn’t let that stop him from doing what he can to be useful. He does have a Gift, though, in the form of particularly strong Animal Mindspeech, so he can communicate with and influence animals around him. When Mags gets word that people on the very borders of Valdemar keep disappearing, he sees an opportunity to test his son’s skills and usefulness, and the two set out to try and unravel the mystery. They’re joined by Herald Arville, Arville’s kyree friend Ryu, along with another kyree who bonds to Perry, named Larral.

I… have extremely mixed feelings about how kyree are handled in this book, and that can be traced back to the short story in which Arville and Ryu are introduced. Lackey decided, at one point, to write a short story about a group of four Heralds encountering a kyree who could use human verbal speech rather than just Mindspeech, and did so, albeit with far more R’s at the beginning of words, and if this is already reminding you of Scooby Doo, that’s intentional. I found that concept pretty ridiculous when I first read the story, and I still find it ridiculous now. Only it’s more annoying, because where most of the short stories have questionable canon value, The Hills Have Spies puts it very firmly as canon. It can’t be ignored.

It turns out Larral can do the same thing. Which surprises nobody in the story, even people who’ve never encountered kyree before. Perry is more surprised that Larral has Mindspeech than he is over Larral’s ability to speak out loud, despite Perry only having just learned about kyree, and presumably nothing in the single book he read on the subject mentioned they could speak. Ryu goes from being an oddity to, “Oh yeah, some kyree can do that now, I guess.”

Two problems with this. One, you’d think this would have been mentioned in one of the other Valdemar novels that take place later on the timeline, because we most certainly encounter kyree in many of those books. None of them ever mention this apparently not-uncommon ability. The downside of writing books that take place in the past after you’ve written books that take place in the future. Heck, there’s no real indication even in this particular book whether Ryu and Larral’s ability is common, uncommon, nothing. No context. Context only comes from having read other books, which has the unfortunate effect of leaving readers wondering what’s even going on, why these kyree are so different from literally every other kyree mentioned elsewhere.

The second problem is that… Well, imagine reading a transcript of a Scooby Doo episode. With all of Scooby’s lines written out exactly as he speaks. Now try to wrap your head around what he might be actually saying, because just replacing initial consonants with R doesn’t always get the point across. Larral’s first words are, “Ry Roose Rerry,” which took me for-freaking-ever to understand as, “I Choose Perry,” and not something else that could equally fit there given those sounds, like, “My goose berry.” Larral doesn’t do this often, thankfully, but the few times he does, it’s ridiculous and rather pointless, and so I cant help but feel it was done for comedic effect.

Which, well, failed. I wasn’t laughing.

The Hills Have Spies is one of those novels that isn’t bad, per se. The story is solid, I was invested in Perry’s adventures and misadventures and I wanted to know just how it was all going to resolve in the end. Knowing this was the first book in a new series, I wanted to see whether this was more of a one-shot story (it was) or whether it was the set-up for some new epic threat to Valdemar (it wasn’t). The Valdemar novels, for all their flaws, are still often novels that I can sink into like a hot bath, and I can enjoy being in the world even if I have issues with some things.

But it was admittedly spoiled by things that are in some ways pretty small, but in other ways reflect what I see as a bit of a come-down from where this whole expansive series used to stand. The general refusal to not write stories that don’t involve Mags in some way, the inconsistencies when comparing them to things established in previous novels, her odd insistence on bringing in more real-world elements in order to make commentary that doesn’t always fit but is clearly something she wants to say something about… While I am going to read the rest of the books, I’ve started viewing them with more trepidation than excitement, and most of the reasons why can be seen in The Hills Have Spies.

And so I’m left in the awkward position of not knowing whether or not to recommend this book. I’d say that fans of the other Valdemar novels will probably want to read it, but I can’t really say that I recommend they do so. Not unless they feel that they absolutely have to read all of the series novels, like I do. While it can absolutely be a fun story in places and there is definitely suspense and intrigue and writing that’s easy enough to engage with, it also adds nothing to Valdemar’s history, and neither does it really expand on Mags’s story all that much. I can’t pretend I’m not disappointed, but I also can’t pretend that I expected this book, or even this series, to make up for the disappointments I saw in other Valdemar novels that Lackey has written over the past decade. In the end, mostly what this book made me want to do is go back and read the earlier novels, the ones that made me fall in love with the world in the first place.

Turning Darkness Into Light, by Marie Brennan

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – August 20, 2019

Summary: As the renowned granddaughter of Isabella Camherst (Lady Trent, of the riveting and daring Draconic adventure memoirs) Audrey Camherst has always known she, too, would want to make her scholarly mark upon a chosen field of study.

When Lord Gleinheigh recruits Audrey to decipher a series of ancient tablets holding the secrets of the ancient Draconean civilization, she has no idea that her research will plunge her into an intricate conspiracy, one meant to incite rebellion and invoke war. Alongside dearest childhood friend and fellow archeologist Kudshayn, Audrey must find proof of the conspiracy before it’s too late.

Thoughts: I put off reading this book for far too long, since I hadn’t had a chance to read Within the Sanctuary of Wings, the book that preceded this one in the series and also capped off the adventures of Lady Trent. I very much loved the first 4 books in the series, with their approach of taking natural science to a fantasy world, and chronicling the journeys of the scientist who defied society in pursuit of her passions. I didn’t know if I wanted to pick up book 6 without having read book 5 first, for reasons that probably seem pretty obvious.

Fortunately, it’s absolutely possible to do so. Turning Darkness Into Light switches perspective from Lady Trent to her granddaughter, Audrey, and her own academic adventures.While I wouldn’t go so far as to suggest that readers can pick up this book without having read any of the previous novels in the series, it is possible to have not read all of the preceding books and to still enjoy this one.

Though go figure, it seems like enough of the world’s understanding of dragons changed after an event in Within the Sanctuary of Wings, and I had to pick up on those from context clues in Turning Darkness Into Light. It wasn’t difficult to put the pieces together, though, and soon enough I was happily turning pages, eager for more of the story to unfold.

Audrey is hired by Lord Gleinleigh to translate the text of what appears to be a large cache of clay tablets from the Draconean culture, and along with a Draconean scholar named Kudshayn and Lord Gleinleigh’s neice Cora, the tablets are revealed to be an epic story telling the beginnings of the Draconean people. Only it’s not quite the story that Kudshayn is familiar with, and to make matters worse, the story turns rather violent over time, echoing fears from a group of people who claim that Draconeans are nothing but mindless beasts who want to burn humanity to the ground. There’s definitely something going on that strikes at the heart of multiple cultures, but the exact nature of that strike remains shadowed and uncertain as the trio work to translate the texts that may well up-end so much that many people hold dear.

I kind of love that in a way, Turning Darkness Into Light is a history of history. It’s styled as a collection of diary entries and articles and notes from people involved in undertaking a massive project with huge cultural implications, detailing their journey and all of the steps they took, their thoughts and feelings, all of the things you’d find in a novel, only with the presentation of a piece of nonfiction. Given that the trio were working on a translation of the tablets with an eye to publication, Turning Darkness Into Light is presented as that very book they eventually published. It’s a similar style to the original Memoirs of Lady Trent novels, fiction presented as nonfiction within a fictional world, and I could gorge myself silly on books with this style and never get tired of it. The anthropologist in me wants more SFF novels done in this style.

All of the characters in this book were compelling, even the ones that were clearly people I wouldn’t want anything to do with in real life. Lord Gleinleigh and Aaron Mornett’s motivations may have been unclear through much of the novel, but it was nevertheless interesting when they made an appearance, adding little bits of information here and there that added to their characters and their roles within the story. Audrey’s hot-headedness and desire to live up to her family’s reputation was something I could very much empathize with; you could feel her passion for her work and her urge to prove herself with every page. Kudshayn was a glimpse into a culture that I’m not familiar with and yet want to become more familiar with. And Cora… Well, Cora was the one I could relate to the most. The one that didn’t fit in, the one that had trouble understanding motivations and social cues and would much rather have been doing her own thing without interruption. She’s definitely a character on the neurodiverse spectrum

Brennan does such a good job at setting the stage for mysteries steeped in archaeology and natural science, taking the fantastical into the realm of underappreciated scientific procedure, the combination of boredom and excitement that permeates investigation and the hope of discovery. This is the sort of book, the sort of series, that you turn to when you love both fantasy and ethnographies, when you want an uncommon approach to the exploration of the reality behind the fantasy. I’m very much a fan of Brennan’s writing, and her highly-detailed world-building, and I highly recommend Turning Darkness Into Light for those who enjoyed the Lady Trent novels or those who are anthropologists and archaeologists at heart. This series has the wings to soar above the rest.

(Book received in exchange for an honest review.)

Kings of the Wyld, by Nicholas Eames

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – February 21, 2017
Note – Initially posted on another blog which no longer exists

Summary: Clay Cooper and his band were once the best of the best — the meanest, dirtiest, most feared crew of mercenaries this side of the Heartwyld.

Their glory days long past, the mercs have grown apart and grown old, fat, drunk – or a combination of the three. Then an ex-bandmate turns up at Clay’s door with a plea for help. His daughter Rose is trapped in a city besieged by an enemy one hundred thousand strong and hungry for blood. Rescuing Rose is the kind of mission that only the very brave or the very stupid would sign up for.

It’s time to get the band back together for one last tour across the Wyld.

Thoughts: There was a time in my life when I used to say quite confidently that I enjoyed “sword and sorcery” fantasy novels. Now I find myself leaning quite heavily toward the “sword” aspect of that, which is a good basic description for Nicholas Eames’s Kings of the Wyld. There is a lot of action, nearly all of it involving fighting or trying to run from fights, with the occasional magical explosion thrown in for good measure.

Ex-mercenary Clay Cooper has settled down, has a wife and child, a mundane job guarding a town against dangers that never actually seem to be there. His life is boring, but safe. Until his old friend and fellow ex-mercenary, Gabe, comes calling, telling Clay that his daughter has grown up and gone off to become a merc herself, right into the heart of a besieged city with almost no hope of survival. Gabe want Clay to help rescue her. It’s a quest they can’t accomplish alone, though, so their first step is to reunite the rest of the band, to seek out their old comrades and convince them to leave their own lives behind to go trekking across the wylds once more.

Right from the beginning, Kings of the Wyld intrigued me with some of the smaller details behind the premise. Had the story been about a group of mercenaries in their prime, it would have been a fun, albeit somewhat standard fantasy novel with some tight action scenes, and that would have been fine. But Eames’s choice to make them all essentially retired from their mercenary days, grown a bit softer and more achy with the passage of time, added a degree of realism to the tale that I find crops up less often than it probably ought to. Joints ache, limbs grow less flexible, stamina diminishes with age. All of that can disappear behind a wall of adrenaline when in the thick of the fray, but once that rush wears off, everything comes rushing back. We repeatedly see Clay, the primary protagonist of the novel, make grumbling comments about aching body parts or not being as young as he used to be, and while it is to some degree played for comedic effect, there’s also an element of truth to it that doesn’t often get addressed when the main characters are 40-something ex-mercenaries on the road once more. The realism was impressive, and as somebody stuck in an aging body with joints that creak and pop and muscles that sometimes hurt for no discernible reason, I found myself empathizing with the reluctant heroes of Saga more than I have for many other such groups in other novels.

It also shows that epic adventures don’t only have to be written about 20-somethings in peak physical condition. The older generation still has something to give, and have honed their skills in ways often different from those who came after. That’s a running subplot in Kings of the Wyld, actually. Where once mercenary bands roamed the wild and took down all manner of beasts and monsters for glory and adventure, now mercenary bands are more likely to fight only in arenas, fighting for the applause of an audience. There’s still skill and courage required of such bands, but it’s a different world than Clay, Gabe, and the others grew up in. Times change, and while many people bemoan that change and reminisce about “the good old days” they knew, they had a hand in changing that world into the thing that it is now. This is often overlooked in real-life discussions, and I was happy to see that the characters themselves discuss it through the book. Bands may fight in arenas instead of out in the wyld, but it was the bands of the past, fighting the monsters in the great world beyond the cities, making the stories that were worth telling, that inspired others to do something similar, but in a way that worked better for them as social systems changed.

The characters in Kings of the Wyld were a bit of a mixed bag when it came to development. Some got a good amount of development and I felt like I knew them fairly well, their sense of humour and priorities and general personality. Others, unfortunately, got less development. Ganelon, in particular, suffered from this lack of development of all the Saga band members. True, he did join the group later than the others, and so had less of a chance to get development than, say, Clay or Gabe. But even at the end, I felt like all I knew of him was that he was a black man with a penchant for violence. He did reveal some depth in a few scenes, but for the most part, the story didn’t really change once his presence was added, and it didn’t seem like he added much to the group dynamic. Matrick added plenty, with the drama of his family life and the subplot in which attempts are made to kidnap him. Moog added a fantastic tone of humour to scenes that featured him, and the grief over his deceased husband was palpable. Ganelon… was just there.

Kings of the Wyld was the fun literary adventure I didn’t realize I needed, full of action and humour and a large degree of misadventures and strange and wondrous side-characters. Some were predictable, others entirely unexpected, and all of them were fun to read about, even if some added more to the story than others. There were many times when I felt as though I were reading a very good novelization of someone’s tabletop RPG sessions (I specify “very good” because I have read some attempts at those in the past, and very rarely does the written version come across as entertaining as playing the game itself; different media don’t always work well to tell certain stories), as the sorts of adventures and misadventures that Saga encountered on their trek to Castia resembled things that I have experienced in games I’ve played in the past.

Eames did a great job of bringing the adventure to life, and I really enjoyed the time I spent reading Kings of the Wyld. Though I know there is a sequel, this novel stands well on its own, and I can’t help but feel the follow-up novel would be like the icing on the cake: the cake itself is great, but if you want to give me more of a good thing, I certainly won’t complain!

Of Honey and Wildfires, by Sarah Chorn

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Author’s website
Publication date – April 28, 2020

Summary: From the moment the first settler dug a well and struck a lode of shine, the world changed. Now, everything revolves around that magical oil.

What began as a simple scouting expedition becomes a life-changing ordeal for Arlen Esco. The son of a powerful mogul, Arlen is kidnapped and forced to confront uncomfortable truths his father has kept hidden. In his hands lies a decision that will determine the fate of everyone he loves—and impact the lives of every person in Shine Territory.

The daughter of an infamous saboteur and outlaw, Cassandra has her own dangerous secrets to protect. When the lives of those she loves are threatened, she realizes that she is uniquely placed to change the balance of power in Shine Territory once and for all.

Secrets breed more secrets. Somehow, Arlen and Cassandra must find their own truths in the middle of a garden of lies.

Thoughts: I’ve been a fan of Chorn’s writing style since reading Seraphina’s Lament in 2019. She has a brilliant evocative style that drew me in, turning emotions into landscapes in a way that felt downright poetic. That same style is evident in Of Honey and Wildfires, though I found that this one had a much stronger focus on the narrative than Seraphina’s Lament. It might be because her first novel dealt with events happening on a massive scale, changing how the very world worked, whereas here, the story has a narrower focus. One small area, a few primary characters. It’s a different scope, but Chorn deals with it just as well.

Of Honey and Wildfires is a fantasy Western, at its heart, taking heavy inspiration from the American West during the 1800s. The setting is Shine Territory, a place where shine is pulled from the world and is infused into everything. Shine is like magic, only with a physical form. Add some shine to food and it will taste better. Use it to make ammunition for guns. Give undiluted shine to a person and grant them temporary psychic powers, but also make them terribly addicted. Shine production and distribution is controlled by Shine Company, and is a blessing and a curse for pretty much everyone involved with it. Life gets better with it, but at the cost of the lives of those who mine it or pulls it up from wells.

Your basic capitalist scheme that values profits over people, basically.

While I don’t think that Chorn intended to write a book about worker exploitation specifically, that element is definitely present in the text, and it’s nearly impossible to ignore. One of the protagonists, Arlen, is the son of the head of Shine Company, sent out to Shine Territory to further company interests, sees firsthand how brutal lives of the company’s workers can be. Children in the mines, company propaganda about how kids working is a good thing because they help take care of their families, the benefits given to the people who agree to become addicts for the company’s sake… It’s not a pretty world, and the company byline clashes with the brutal reality of the situation, and early on the weight of the situation comes crashing down around Arlen’s head. He recognizes that his life has been immensely privileged, living off the benefits of an exploitative system, and the real meaning of that hits home when he sees the people who are being exploited for his comfort.

Arlen’s viewpoint isn’t the only one followed in the novel. There’s also Cassandra, daughter of an outlaw who works to shut down Shine Company, sent to live with extended family to keep her safe. Cassandra’s childhood isn’t an easy one, being markedly different from the people in Shine Territory, and also having a known outlaw for a father, but she’s a fascinating character, strong and stubborn and devoted to the things and people dear to her.

Cassandra’s one of those characters to whom things happen, whereas Arlen is one who has greater impact on the events he takes part in. True, Arlen still gets dragged along for rides now and again, but his is definitely the more action-oriented viewpoint, whereas much of Cassandra’s story involves the simple telling of a complicated life. Her narrative is compelling, to be sure, since she occupies a rather unique place in the world, but in many ways, hers is a more passive role. She could have been removed from the story as very little would have changed, since most of the main story elements were in the hands of Arlen and Chris, Cassandra’s father. The narrative would be poorer for her absence, since her tone and style are quite different from Arlen’s, but if her chapters were removed, most of what readers would lack would be context. Cassandra’s chapters are the emotional connection in many ways.

Now, I’m a bit torn on how I feel about this, to be honest. In one way, Cassandra’s character dips into some problematic territory. Her relationship with her best friend Ianthe ends somewhat tragically (this is foreshadowed heavily early on, so it’s not a massive spoiler to say so, I figure), which adds her to a large list of “queer characters who lose their lover in a tragic fashion.” Combined with her more passive role in the story, especially when compared to Arlen, it’s easy to categorize her as “a woman who isn’t really necessary to anything.”

But as accurate as those criticisms may be, they also do a disservice to Cassandra’s character. She may have a more passive role in the tale, but her parts of the story are still interesting. With her, you get context. You get to see how many people in Shine Territory live, what their lives are like, what their concerns are. I love reading this sort of thing. One of my earliest complaints with learning history in school was that we always got taught the big events, the major players in how things changed, but we never got anything about how the general populace lived out their lives. Wars occurred to determine who sat on a throne, but for your average labourer, their lives went on as they always did, and I wanted to know about those lives. That is, in essence, Cassandra’s viewpoint. She gives that everyday context that provides the counterpoint to Arlen’s experiences, and yes, I know that “woman who exists to further a man’s story” is also a damaging trope, but I don’t think Cassandra quite falls into that one, since she can absolutely carry her own story.

It just happens that her own story had less action and less impact to Shine Territory in the end. But it was no less interesting than Arlen’s, and I think it’s a testament to Chorn’s skill with writing that she can create a character who has less impact but is nevertheless just as compelling to read about.

I don’t know if there’ll be any more to Cassandra and Arlen’s connected story. Of Honey and Wildfires could be a standalone novel and work perfectly, a short glimpse into a fascinating aspect of a fantasy world that isn’t any more than it needs to be. At the same time, the world and characters are interesting enough that I absolutely want to see more, to see what has changed now that this book has ended and Shine Territory isn’t what it was in the beginning. It feels like there could easily be more stories set in the world, and I’m down for reading them. If the true tale is only beginning, I want to be there at the end. But I could still be satisfied with this one novel, if that’s all there needs to be. I do enjoy books that can stand on their own merits without needing to be half finished or give cliffhanger endings to keep me interested, and Of Honey and Wildfires definitely checks that box.

If you enjoyed Chorn’s other work, then you’ll similarly love this one. It’s an engaging story in an uncommon fantasy setting, and it’s written with the same beautiful and evocative style that I’ve grown accustomed to with Chorn. This is a novel that deserves a place on your bookshelves, with plenty to say and a compelling way of saying it. Do yourself a favour and dip your toes into this Western-inspired shine-soaked world that is sure to make an impression.

(Book received in exchange for an honest review.)

Shattered Pillars, by Elizabeth Bear

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – March 19, 2013

Summary: The Shattered Pillars is the second book of Bear’s The Eternal Sky trilogy and the sequel to Range of Ghosts. Set in a world drawn from our own great Asian Steppes, this saga of magic, politics and war sets Re-Temur, the exiled heir to the great Khagan and his friend Sarmarkar, a Wizard of Tsarepheth, against dark forces determined to conquer all the great Empires along the Celedon Road.

Elizabeth Bear is an astonishing writer, whose prose draws you into strange and wonderful worlds, and makes you care deeply about the people and the stories she tells. The world of The Eternal Sky is broadly and deeply created—her award-nominated novella, “Bone and Jewel Creatures” is also set there.

Thoughts: Shattered Pillars picks up the story very shortly after the end of Range of Ghosts, with Temur still intent on finding and rescuing Edene and overthrowing his uncle, Samarkar still intent on helping him and also uncovering what is occurring with the cult of the Scholar God and al-Sepehr, and Hsiung and Hrahima coming along for reasons of their own. Where character development for most of the characters was slim in Range of Ghosts, Shattered Pillars takes the time to flesh them out, and to give many of them a bigger role within the story. Especially Edene. Previously, she was mostly Temur’s romantic interest who had been kidnapped, a “princess in another castle,” as it were, and the most development she got was in being a pawn in al-Sepehr’s scheme. She wasn’t exactly passive, but she was a character to whom things happened, rather than a character who actively affected things occurring around her. Shattered Pillars changes that a lot, giving her a storyline of her own as she escapes her confines with a magical ring and ends up becoming queen of the ghul.

Beyond that, a plague has come to the wizard city of Tsarepeth, a plague that involves demons gestating within human hosts, sickening and killing them as the demon babies grow. Which is exactly as horrifying as it sounds. The wizards, masters of science and the arcane, aren’t precisely helpless to stop it, but their efforts are experimental and yield little success.

Something that continues to fascinate me in this series is the very concrete way that shifting political lines affects the world. Who rules over an area doesn’t just affect policies or rights, but the very appearance of the sky above them. The shade of blue, how high it appears, all of it is affected by who controls a place, the borders of territory made very obvious because the sky changes when you step out of one region and into another. Normally I like it when the fantastical elements of a story have some scientific cohesion, rules that are followed and are easily understood. “Magic works by manipulating energy flows,” “deities only give power to their worshipers,” that sort of thing. The sky changing depending on shifting political lines doesn’t follow that sort of logic, so you’d think it would bother me, because there’s no science to it that I can grasp. And yet, it doesn’t. I think that’s because the changing-sky aspect of this world feels very mythical, and so do many of the events within the story itself, so it feels like they all go together even if certain aspects don’t make logical sense.

Shifting politics affect more than merely the sky under which people live. I was particularly interested in the plague storyline, and the attempts of the wizards to figure out the cause. So far as they knew, something like a demon infestation could not come within the walls of the city, as the city itself was warded against such things. They should have been safe. But the cause was revealed to be someone within the royal family being tricked into unknowingly giving permission for it to happen, negating the effect of the wards and bringing down a plague upon the populace. Not by saying, “Yes, stranger I’ve never met before, come in and do whatever you please,” but by actively working against the system. People from the Steppes, Temur’s people, are experiencing the same plague due to the political instability caused by Temur’s uncle coup. The health and status of a region’s politics has such far-reaching consequences that can be easily felt by citizens.

It’s easy to think that this is the author’s way of saying, “Don’t buck the status quo.” But it doesn’t read that way to me. To me, it seems more like, “If it’s not broken, don’t try to fix it. If it works, don’t change it just for the sake of changing it.” Stability brought safety. Instability, acting against what has been established purely for personal gain, is what brought the problems, and it’s the people who bear the brunt of their leader’s actions. The situation on the Steppes adds weight to this. Qori Buqa has taken over despite not being heir, not being in the line of succession. If it was merely going along with the status quo that ensured a region’s health and prosperity, then all people would have to do would be nothing at all. Accept that they have a new ruler. After all, the Khaganate absorbed other places into their ruling over generations, gave places a new ruler whether they liked it or not brought people under a new sky, so there should be no problem with an internal takeover. And yet, there is. Because Qori Buqa took something that was not his, sought power for no reason but that he wanted power, and that opened the door to malign influence.

Bear isn’t saying, “Just accept things as they are and everything will be fine.” She’s saying, “Sometimes change happens, but there are limits, and when selfishness and greed drive that change, it invites corruption.”

I really enjoyed the story progression and the development from the previous novel to this one. The greater number of character perspectives added a lot of depth, and allowed readers to see more of the increasingly complex story as it unfolds. Edene’s increase in agency and relevance was great to see, since her passive role was something that did bother me somewhat about Range of Ghosts. It utterly subverts Second Book Syndrome by being far more complex and still keeping the story going at a steady pace. The compelling mix of cultures and mythologies keeps the content fresh and original while avoiding falling into the trap of exoticism. Though people who didn’t enjoy Range of Ghosts are probably unlikely to pick up Shattered Pillars, this book does address many of the concerns I saw regarding the first book, and it might have redeemed the series in the eyes of people who were a bit ambivalent at first.

For my part, I am very invested in this trilogy, and my main regret right now is that my local library doesn’t have a copy of the third book so that I can start reading it right away. Rest assured, though, once I do manage to find a copy, I’ll be turning its pages without delay.

The Queen’s Bargain, by Anne Bishop

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – March 10, 2020

Summary: After a youthful mistake, Lord Dillon’s reputation is in tatters, leaving him vulnerable to aristo girls looking for a bit of fun. To restore his reputation and honor, he needs a handfast–a one-year contract of marriage. He sets his sights on Jillian, a young Eyrien witch from Ebon Rih, who he believes has only a flimsy connection to the noble society that spurned him. Unfortunately for Dillon, he is unaware of Jillian’s true connections until he finds himself facing Lucivar Yaslana, the volatile Warlord Prince of Ebon Rih.

Meanwhile, Surreal SaDiablo’s marriage is crumbling. Daemon Sadi, the Warlord Prince of Dhemlan, recognizes there is something wrong between him and Surreal, but he doesn’t realize that his attempt to suppress his own nature in order to spare his wife is causing his mind to splinter. To save Daemon, and the Realm of Kaeleer if he breaks, help must be sought from someone who no longer exists in any of the Realms–the only Queen powerful enough to control Daemon Sadi. The Queen known as Witch.

As Jillian rides the winds of first love with Dillon, Daemon and Surreal struggle to survive the wounds of a marriage turned stormy–and Lucivar has to find a way to keep everyone in his family safe…even from each other.

Thoughts: From an awkward first read of Daughter of the Blood to the sheer excitement I felt upon hearing that a new Black Jewels novel was being released, I’ve come a long way with this series. Honestly, it’s hard to imagine my life without it at this point. The series has had a positive influence in many areas of my life, and maybe some day I’ll find the words to explain exactly how. And though I’ve had my issues with some aspects of it, I knew that come hell or high water, I was going to have to read The Queen’s Bargain. There was no way I wouldn’t.

There are three main story threads running throughout this book. The first is the relationship between Dillon and Jillian, a budding romance for Jillian and an complex maneuver by Dillon to salvage his reputation after a moment of youthful indiscretion ruined it. The second is Marian’s illness, her lack of recovery after the birth of her third child, which no Healer can provide a treatment or cure for. The third is the strained relationship between Daemon and Surreal, after Daemon shows all of himself to her and Surreal panics, causing Daemon to put tighter control on aspects of his nature than is healthy for him. All three story threads carry a theme of limits. One’s own limits, the limits of others, when to stay within them, when to push past them, and what happens when limits get broken.

I really enjoyed seeing the return of old characters, because I do love them a lot, and their stories are endlessly fascinating to me. I have to admit, though, that some of the characters felt… not quite right. And I don’t just mean when they themselves are going through issues that twist them up inside. Not to put too fine a point on it, but really, I mean Surreal. Surreal… is not the character I read about in previous books. And to some degree, that’s understandable. Her life is quite different now compared to what it used to be. Time has passed, and people change.

But I can’t help but feel that to some degree, nearly every problem that Surreal encounters in this book are brought on by her own poor judgment, while trying to justify that her side is perfectly in the right. Admittedly, Daemon showing her his full possessive and rather sadistic side could be an overload, something she didn’t expect… but she ought to have. She’s dealt with Warlord Princes for the vast majority of her life. She lived with one before marrying Daemon. She got schooled by Jaenelle in how to handle them. But she stepped into Daemon’s private space and got a full demonstration of the more aggressive side of her husband, and there is no reason she wouldn’t have known that was coming. Her subsequent rejection of him caused him to leash that side of himself more tightly than normal, forcing him to not just tone down aspects of his nature but to really suppress them, as well as using and abusing him to relieve her own sexual tensions, all of which had negative consequences that could have been headed off very early on had Surreal just sat down and said, “Okay, sugar, you and I need to have a conversation.”

Only that didn’t happen. Surreal stepped over the line then blamed Daemon for the consequences, and I cannot wrap my head around the idea that she did that in ignorance of what might happen. She’s had centuries to learn, she even had an experience in the past that taught her well what happens when you push a Warlord Prince when he doesn’t want to be pushed, and… Ugh. Given that the one incident with her walking into Daemon’s bedroom was the catalyst for all the hell that followed, I can’t tell if it was poor writing that made it all happen — in the sense that the author wanted a certain situation but couldn’t think of a way to make it happen organically and so manipulated characters to do things they wouldn’t have done –, or if it’s a subtle sign that Daemon and Surreal’s marriage had been problematic for a very very long time, that Surreal had become complacent and so stopped thinking she needed to be concerned with everything she had learned and experienced in the past.

Neither option is particularly great, honestly. One is bad writing, and the other is writing that needs a bit of a tune-up to provide proper context for readers. I know Anne Bishop has a bit of a history in this series for dropping huge revelations on characters (and thus readers) without showing what led up to those events, but it often makes sense, such as finding out in a previous novel that Lucivar was married. We don’t see him meet his wife until a later-written story, so it seems to come out of nowhere, but since we were also seeing from the perspective of a character who didn’t know that either, it was a surprise but also one that made sense. He didn’t know, so why should we? But that doesn’t seem to be the case here. There’s reading between the lines, and then there’s needing to invent some lines to read between in the first place.

But despite that very glaring problem, I still enjoyed reading The Queen’s Bargain. I can say, from the standpoint of a very devoted fan, that this entry into the series was very educational, illustrating many small but important things that happened between certain characters in the past, giving readers more insight into the nature of the Blood in general and Warlord Princes specifically. When an author drops a series for a while and then comes back to it, I get a bit afraid of what might come, since I’ve seen that happen before with other beloved series and it doesn’t always end well. But in this case, I think The Queen’s Bargain is a worthy addition to the Black Jewels series, one that will give fans a solid new story to sink their teeth into. The writing is good (except for what I previously mentioned about Surreal’s characterization), the world just as comfortable and complex as I remember it.

Though it leaves some questions unanswered, it’s still a complete story in its own right. Not one that you can easily pick up without having read at least 4 other books in the series, mind you (newcomers who decide to start with this one because it’s the newest will likely find themselves lost within a couple of chapters), but within that context, it certainly holds up. Even if it may not be my favourite book in the series, I know it’s one that I’ll be picking up again in the future, to step back into the lives of characters I’ve come to know and love and respect, and to see more pieces of a world that has changed me in all the right ways.

(Book provided in exchange for an honest review.)

Range of Ghosts, by Elizabeth Bear

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – March 27, 2012

Summary: Temur, grandson of the Great Khan, is walking away from a battlefield where he was left for dead. All around lie the fallen armies of his cousin and his brother, who made war to rule the Khaganate. Temur is now the legitimate heir by blood to his grandfather’s throne, but he is not the strongest. Going into exile is the only way to survive his ruthless cousin.

Once-Princess Samarkar is climbing the thousand steps of the Citadel of the Wizards of Tsarepheth. She was heir to the Rasan Empire until her father got a son on a new wife. Then she was sent to be the wife of a Prince in Song, but that marriage ended in battle and blood. Now she has renounced her worldly power to seek the magical power of the wizards.

These two will come together to stand against the hidden cult that has so carefully brought all the empires of the Celadon Highway to strife and civil war through guile and deceit and sorcerous power.

Thoughts: While I won’t say that there’s no place left for European-inspired fantasy, I will say that there’s so much European-inspired fantasy out there that coming across a fantasy novel that takes inspiration from another part of the world can feel very refreshing. Range of Ghosts is definitely that sort of novel, drawing inspiration from a variety of cultures, their history and beliefs: Mongolian, Chinese, Arabic, and I believe aspects of Indian culture too, though I can’t say for certain. The variety of sources helps to build a world that feels both familiar and unique at the same time, knowing that it was inspired by this world and this world’s history, but still feeling like something distinct and original.

Range of Ghosts is told mostly from the perspectives or two main characters, though there are other points of view scattered throughout when the story needs them. It begins with Temur, grandson of the Great Khan, survivor of a vicious battle in which his uncle attempted to seize control of the Khaganate. Temur survives the battle but is left somewhat adrift in his own culture, with no family connections he can rely upon, nothing to offer the woman he falls in love with, unable to marry because nobody will be able to pass on his true name. Temur wants revenge against his uncle, but after Edene gets kidnapped, Temur vows to rescue her, adding another task to the list of quests he willingly undertakes.

We also have the perspective of Samarkar, once-princess who sacrifices her title and fertility to become a wizard of Tsarepeth, essentially escaping the confinement of her previous royal life. One of her earliest assignments as a wizard is to investigate strange reports of the city of Qeshqer, also called Kashe. Samarkar arrives at Qeshqer to find if stripped of life, with only piles of bones left behind. On her way back to Tsarepeth to make her report, she encounters Temur, ill with fever, and she makes the decision to bring him back with her so that he can be healed. The two strike up an alliance that turns to friendship, with two dissimilar goals meeting along a similar path.

We do get a third perspective slipping in quite often, that of al-Sepehr, adherent of a cult devoted to the Scholar-God, man who orchestrated Edene’s kidnapping. Though he propels a lot of the story forward by means of instigating things for Temur and Samarkar to deal with, he seems very much a secondary character at this point in the series, which feels a bit off. He masterminds great things, he’s definitely a driving force behind much of what happens through the book, but he feels very much in the background, someone who exists mostly to do things that motivate other characters. It’s an odd position for such a powerful character to occupy, and I hope to see more of him in the future. I’m very curious as to his end-game.

Bear’s world-building in Range of Ghosts is exquisite, with loads of little details that bring things to life and make everything feel real, properly developed and fleshed out. Being able to pull a lot of these details from real-world cultures helps a lot, since there’s a strong foundation to work with, which I think shows the sheer amount of research that Bear must have put into this work, to have everything come across so clearly and realistically. It’s the sort of book that transports the reader into it, rather than just telling them a story.

I will say that despite how much I love the world that Range of Ghosts presents, and the characters within the story, it does feel like very little actually happens here. Range of Ghosts definitely comes across like it’s the beginning of something much larger, but also like the meat of the tale has yet to really start. There’s a lot of set-up, with Edene being kidnapped, with Temur and Samarkar joining forces, with the introduction of characters like Hsiung and Hrahima (who I can’t help but picture looking like Tigress from the Kung Fu Panda movies), with the establishment of the political coup on the steppes, but it all feels like the beginning of many different stories. Ones that all connect, yes, but a lot of beginnings regardless.

That being said, the events in Range of Ghosts did make me want to keep reading the trilogy, so I suppose I can say the set-up and the hints of what’s to come did their job of capturing a reader’s attention. Bear’s writing is first-rate, her ability to tell a compelling story nothing short of remarkable, and I’m very impressed with all that she did here. I look forward to continuing to read the Eternal Sky trilogy.

Children of Blood and Bone, by Tomi Adeyemi

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Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – March 6, 2018

Summary: They killed my mother.
They took our magic.
They tried to bury us.

Now we rise.

Zélie Adebola remembers when the soil of Orïsha hummed with magic. Burners ignited flames, Tiders beckoned waves, and Zélie’s Reaper mother summoned forth souls.

But everything changed the night magic disappeared. Under the orders of a ruthless king, maji were killed, leaving Zélie without a mother and her people without hope.

Now Zélie has one chance to bring back magic and strike against the monarchy. With the help of a rogue princess, Zélie must outwit and outrun the crown prince, who is hell-bent on eradicating magic for good.

Danger lurks in Orïsha, where snow leoponaires prowl and vengeful spirits wait in the waters. Yet the greatest danger may be Zélie herself as she struggles to control her powers and her growing feelings for an enemy.

Thoughts: In this African-inspired novel, magic has been eradicated fairly recently, but the physical signs that would once have marked someone as a magic-user remain, drawing ire and violence from many and making them outcasts. Children of Blood and Bone sees a hot-headed young woman, her reluctant brother, and a runaway princess on a quest to restore magic to the people, to revolt against the king who killed and ruined so many lives, and to take back the power that the people once held for themselves.

I wanted to like this book a lot more than I ended up liking it. I mean, it wasn’t a bad book, and it definitely had a lot going for it, but I found myself often growing bored with some of the repetitive narrative. The protagonists go somewhere, the antagonist finds them, the protagonists make a narrow escape. Repeat that at least 2 more times in the first half of the book alone. At first there was tension in that, because narrow escapes almost always bring tension. But after multiple narrow escapes, it lost any edge it might have had. Combined with the second half of the book having a lot of, “Is this the truth? Yes, it must be! Oh no wait maybe things aren’t like I thought! It must be lies! Oh but I want it to be truth, so it must be truth!”…

I’m sure a lot of it was meant to be tense for readers too, dealing with the unknown and trying to muddle your way through a complicated situation where you don’t know all the variables, but for my part, he constant flipping back and forth once again started to get boring, grating on my nerves after a time.

The characters, at least, were great to read about. I loved Zelie’s hot-headed impulsive nature, which got her into trouble more often than not. She had to deal with consequences of her actions, though admittedly a lot of them boiled down to, “Dangit, Zelie, you need to be more considerate of people, you’re causing so much trouble!” but then it gets overlooked until the next impulsive action because the trio had to run away from something. Her brother’s constant frustration over the way Zelie reacts without thinking, the way she frequently brings trouble down around her, was one of the most relatable things to me, not because of a sibling connection (I have none), but because good lord, don’t we all wish, at times, that we could just snap at the people who act without giving a damn to the consequences and seem to keep getting away with it? His frustration and anger were eminently understandable!

But also where the characters were concerned… The romance. Amari and Tzain I can get behind, because their budding romance was pretty adorable to read. But with Zelie and Inan? Nope. I’m very much over the whole, “They’re enemies so they must fall in love” trope; it was stale in the 90s and it’s not any fresher now. Attraction, I could maybe see. Fascination, sure. Inan’s eye-opening experiences regarding Zelie’s life, yes, absolutely, I can understand that. But Inan turned from hated enemy to guy-I-love-because-he-understands-me very quickly, and a lot of that understanding was borderline noncon because Inan had access to Zelie’s thoughts and emotions, and that whole dynamic made the whole, “Is he good or is he bad?” thing even more painful to read. Zelie doubting Inan’s commitment to her and her cause gets questioned so often, and usually for good reasons, that it’s a wonder to me why Zelie kept fanning flames for him. It felt contrived, and I’m not on board with contrived romances.

I did enjoy the premise of the story, when when Children of Blood and Bone focused on that aspect, I found myself quite attentive. Those who can use magic have been systematically killed or had their heritage and training denied to them, so that they can’t rise up and overthrow a ruler who despises it. Since this happened less than a generation ago, the wounds are still open, discontent festering within them. Through circumstance, Zelie and her group are tasked with bringing back magic to the people, to take down an oppressive government and to restore the history and culture of her people. Not a small task to put on the shoulders of a young woman who, while wanting to raise her people up, finds it understandably daunting. With very little information about just how she’s supposed to do this, she sets off on her journey, gaining companions along the way, finding pockets of resistance fighters to aid her, and having her world turned upside down in the process. This aspect of the story, I enjoyed, and even though the inspiration for it all came from a culture and events that are not personally familiar to me, it was easy to feel the fire of resilience and resistance burning, that light inside that tells you to counter injustice in small and large ways.

But in the end, I had too many issues with Children of Blood and Bone to consider it worth recommending strongly, and I really did want to enjoy it more than I ended up doing. The world-building is very interesting, and there’s definitely some good stuff here, but that appreciation was overshadowed by the problems, and in the end I didn’t find it that enjoyable a read, and I’m kind of disappointed by that.