Category Archives: high fantasy

The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemisin

THIS IS THE WAY THE WORLD ENDS. AGAIN.

Three terrible things happen in a single day.

Essun, masquerading as an ordinary schoolteacher in a quiet small town, comes home to find that her husband has brutally murdered their son and kidnapped their daughter. Mighty Sanze, the empire whose innovations have been civilization’s bedrock for a thousand years, collapses as its greatest city is destroyed by a madman’s vengeance. And worst of all, across the heartland of the world’s sole continent, a great red rift has been been torn which spews ash enough to darken the sky for years. Or centuries.

But this is the Stillness, a land long familiar with struggle, and where orogenes — those who wield the power of the earth as a weapon — are feared far more than the long cold night. Essun has remembered herself, and she will have her daughter back.

She does not care if the world falls apart around her. Essun will break it herself, if she must, to save her daughter.

fifth seasonI’ve never read a book quite like this one, which is saying something, because I have read A LOT of books. While most of the story was told from Essun’s perspective, she told it in a unique way. Rather than saying, for example, “When I found my son dead, I knew I had to take revenge” the text would read, “When you find your son, your first thoughts are those of revenge.” The story was not exactly told from a second person perspective, but the phrasing drew the reader in and allowed the reader to experience the story in an unusual way.

I struggled a bit with the world-building in this novel. On one hand, I believe this was an intentional choice by the author. The characters did not know everything, in particular information about the history of the world, so the reader did not either. On the other hand, I was well into the novel before I started to understand the system of magic. I generally appreciate authors who show rather than tell, but because this world was so different from any I had read before, I could have used a bit more tell.

As best as I could understand, the premise of the world was this: The people who can use “magic” in the world are called orogenes. Orogenes can control the way the earth moves – for example, they can stop or start an earthquake. They are feared, and are therefore controlled by a group called Guardians. We don’t know much about Guardians, but we know they can nullify the powers of the orogenes, and keep them from using their power to take over the world. People who do not have power, or are not Guardians, are called stills. The world is called The Stillness. Every few decades, the world experiences some sort of natural disaster which brings about a Season. Seasons can last for just a few years, or a century depending on the disaster. Orogenes use their powers to try to prevent Seasons. Orogenes are “recruited” when they are very young and train in the Fulcrum. There are no failures at the Fulcrum. You either learn to control your powers or you die. Orogenes have no lives outside the ones the Fulcrum and Guardians allow them to have. Some orogenes are more powerful than others. The more rings an orogene earns, the more power they wield.

When we meet Essun, a huge natural disaster has just occurred and a Season is about to begin. Essun suspects the Season will last at least a century. She is determined find her daughter–and kill her husband to avenge her son–before the Season really takes over and people begin dying. She is an orogene in hiding, and on top of the loss of her son and missing daughter, she must struggle with the idea of letting her power back out into the open in order to survive. She is not the most likable character, but as a reader you definitely become invested in her story.

4 and a half stars

Four and a half stars for this beautiful piece of high fantasy. Not quite five stars, because the timeline was a bit tricky in this novel. I was about halfway through the novel and considering giving up because I couldn’t put things in order, and felt like things were never going to make sense. It was worth it, but I would have liked things to come together just a bit sooner, since I was getting frustrated. But when the penny dropped, so to speak, I devoured the second half of the book. I keep forgetting I finished it, and want to pick it back up and continue being immersed in the story. There is so much we still don’t know! And what we do know is just so impressive. I am so impressed by this author’s world-building and imagination. I don’t know if I would necessarily want to live in this world, since it does end fairly regularly, but I still loved it. The next book is called The Obelisk Gate, and I want it immediately. I need to know what happens to Essun and her friends next. I can’t wait to get back into this world. If you are fans of high fantasy, like Brandon Sanderson or Mark Lawrence, go out and read this book!

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A Plague of Giants by Kevin Hearne

I am a very lucky human in that not only did my fabulous aunt attend San Diego Comic Con, she happened to be attending the day Del Rey Books gave away free ARCs of Plague of Giants. This is the first time I have ever been able to read a book before it was officially released. *squee!!*

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Me, when I heard my aunt snagged a copy of the book. 

I have to say the novel is spectacular. I loved it. I laughed, I cried, the book had it all. And I’ll be honest, I had my doubts. Well, OK. I didn’t necessarily doubt that the story would be good. I do love Kevin Hearne’s Iron Druid Chronicles. When I saw Hearne speak in Philly a few months ago, he told us about Plague of Giants. He told us it had something like 11 different POVs. I was intrigued, but had serious doubts I would be able to keep everyone straight. And while I did have to cheat and check the character list and (brief) description at the beginning of the book once or twice, each character spoke so eloquently with their own voice that it was not hard to keep track of who was who. And it was a masterful way to tell the story – hearing the same event from multiple perspectives, including battles… But I get ahead of myself.

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In brief, Plague of Giants is exactly what it sounds like – a novel about a land that is invaded by not one but two sets of giants. One group of giants, the Hathrim, are chased from their home by a volcano, and they settle in a land governed by humans without asking permission. Definitely not the best way to win friends and influence people. The leader of this group of Hathrim, Gorin Mogen, is one of the voices for the story. The giants, the Bone Giants, are even less friendly. They destroy everything they encounter, no one has ever seen them before, and no one can speak their language.

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Sophie the Guard Hound felt vindicated when I told her about the meat-eating attack squirrels in the novel. She always knew squirrels are trouble. 

The rest of the characters are citizens of the six countries the giants invade. Each country worships a different god, and each god can grant a specific kenning. A kenning is a type of magic connected to an element. The Hathrim’s kenning allows them to control fire. The Brynts can control water, including the water in the human body. The Fornish are particularly cool – they live in the trees, and their kennings can do things like allow them to move silently, or help plants grow. Not everyone has a kenning – those who do are called blessed. In order to become blessed, a person must go through a trial they will either survive to become blessed, or die in the attempt. Seeking a kenning is not for the faint of heart.

 

Here are a few of my favorite characters:

Fintan, the Raelach bard – Fintan’s kenning allows him to have perfect recall. He tells stories to a city full of people who have survived or fled attacks by the violent Bone Giants. When Fintan tells a story, he becomes the storyteller – he looks like them, and speaks in their voice.

Dervan, the scholar – Dervan does not have a kenning, he is a historian and a scholar. The pelenant, or leader, of his homeland Brynt asks him to keep a written record of Fintan’s stories. Dervan and Fintan become friends as the novel progresses.

Gondel, scholar of language – Gondel is the first person able to translate the Bone Giants’ language, making him a valuable resource in the battle against the invaders. He is the type of scholar who gets so involved in his work he forgets about his husband for weeks at a time.

Tallynd, tidal mariner – Tallynd’s kenning allows her to work with water. She can breathe under water and swim really fast, to describe it in the most simplistic terms possible. She is the first person to discover the Bone Giants’ invasion, and she warns as many cities as she can at great personal sacrifice.

 

These are just a few of the many speakers Hearne uses to tell the story, each with their own voice, personality, and opinions. There were of course some humorous (almost Iron-Druid-esque, if that’s what you are reading for) moments as well. I hesitate to quote any of them, as the book had quite a few warning not to quote anything until the finished book is published. I suppose you will have to take my word for it that though the book contains a dark subject matter, including tragedy and war-related death, the Hearne humor we have come to know and love does sneak in occasionally, lightening the mood and makes the characters more interesting and relatable.

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Imaginary map!

I did miss having a map, which is apparently a drawback to getting an Advanced Reader Copy. I was kinda amused by what I got instead though. I’m sure the map will be lovely in real life. There was quite a bit of traveling in the novel, and that is the sort of thing I am not good at visualizing. Ah well. The important thing is, I got an ARC!

 

There was a lovely moment towards the end of the novel when Dervan realizes he is not going to be able to return to his old job as a teacher and scholar. He has a moment of crisis in which he contemplates the question, “If I am not a teacher, who am I?” This resonated with me, since I recently lost my job as a music teacher. Watching Dervan, along with many other characters, figure out their place in their new world helped me get through a few rough days. Cliche? Probably. But reading and becoming part of their stories made me feel better, and that’s what reading fantasy is all about, isn’t it?

5 stars

A rare five out of five stars from me for Plague of Giants. It is an amazing piece of high fantasy, with deep, well-developed characters, detailed world-building, and an exciting, involving plot. If you are a fan of authors like Brandon Sanderson, Mark Lawrence, Joe Abercrombie, or Robert Jackson Bennett, you will love this book. If you liked the Iron Druid Chronicles, you will most likely enjoy this book as well, though it is much darker and more intense than Attitcus and Oberon, and of course lacks the pop culture references that Atticus loves to sprinkle into conversation. Plague of Giants releases October 17th. If you can’t pre-order it, ask your local libraries to buy it for you!

Cloudbound by Fran Wilde

Cloudbound is the second book in Fran Wilde’s Bone Universe trilogy. This review will contain MAJOR SPOILERS for Updraft, the first book in the series.

For real. Big spoilers. Turn back now if you don’t want to read them.

LAST CHANCE to avoid spoilers!!

cloudbound coverThe Spire has fallen. The Singers, except for Kirit, have had their wings stripped and are being treated as criminals. The City is trying to govern itself. Kirit’s wing-brother Naton has chosen to take a seat on this new Council to try and help make decisions that help the City. But despite Nat and the Council’s best efforts, the City is dying. Many of the Council members want to hold a Conclave – throwing the former Singers down into the clouds in hopes it will appease the City. Hoping to find an alternative, Nat begins searching lower tiers to see if the City’s history can provide an answer. What he finds instead could change everything.

Yes, that was a very dramatic ending to my summary. But it’s sorta true, and its the best I can do without giving away the ending. This book was quite a bit different than the first, mainly because it was told from Nat’s point-of-view instead of Kirit’s. When I saw Fran Wilde speak down in Philly a few months ago, she indicated that several of her fans were very angry with her for changing the narrator. Not me though! By the end of Updraft, I had enough of Kirit. She was indecisive and whiny, and only more so in this book. For me, Nat was a more relate-able character. He had a rough life, made some tough decisions, and wasn’t afraid to admit when he made a mistake, which for me was very impressive.

We also got to know some characters better in this book that we barely met in Updraft. This added diversity and interest to the story. We learned more about the world, too. The technology in this world is rather incredible. Everyone flies everywhere – like, not in a plane, with wings. The live in living, growing bone towers that reach above the clouds. There are terrifying creatures that live in the sky, though the worst live below the clouds. And no one seems to know all that much about the towers, or where they came from. But not knowing isn’t good enough for most of the citizens anymore, especially not Nat, Kirit and their friends. We learn about the City’s history along with them. We watch them uncover conspiracy and still keep the best interests of the citizens in mind, even when the citizens turn on them. There’s so much betrayal in this novel! And unexpected twists!

The third novel in the series, Horizon, releases in two or three weeks. I’m very excited to see what happens next for Kirit, Nat, and the rest of the City. Will their home continue to die? Will Kirit and Nat find out what happened to the City in the past? Will it matter? Will everyone survive? Plus, I’m willing to bet both Kirit and Nat will be narrating, which will be awesome. Can’t wait to get my hands on this book!

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Cloudbound receives 4 out of 5 stars from me. An excellent fantasy and adventure novel, with a beautifully built world that gets completely turned on its side. And still no distracting love story. Hooray!

 

Updraft by Fran Wilde

UpdraftKirit lives in a city made of bone high above the clouds. Her mother Ezarit is an accomplished trader, who flies between bone towers negotiating trades and delivering anything any of the other people need, including medicine. All Kirit has to do is pass her wing test in a few days, and she can join her. But everything is turned sideways three nights before the wing test when Kirit it sitting on her balcony and is attacked by a skymouth. Kirit screams at the skymouth’s approach, and it flees from her voice. This unusual and rare event is witnessed by a Singer named Wik, a protector of the city. Wik offers Kirit a place as a Singer, and when she refuses, he sabotages her wing test and she fails. In retaliation, Kirit and her best friend Nat fly to the Spire, the home of the Singers, a place forbidden to regular citizens. Kirit is caught and told in order to keep the rest of her family and friends alive, she must become a Singer. Desperate to keep her mother and friends safe, Kirit agrees, moves into the Spire and begins training to become a Singer, the very thing she used to hate. The longer she lives among them, the more secrets Kirit discovers the Singers are hiding, and the more determined she becomes to reveal the truth to everyone.

Updraft is the first book in Fran Wilde’s Bone Universe trilogy. It falls somewhere between YA and adult fantasy. The protagonist Kirit is around 17 years old (though Wilde never says specifically), which often indicates YA fiction, but the novel’s themes of secrecy, betrayal, and death are much more “Adult” in nature. The library where I borrowed the book files it with their adult fiction. I snagged the book after I saw Fran Wilde speak in Philly with Kevin Hearne and Chuck Wendig. She was fabulous, and I was intrigued by the novel’s concept of a people who live above the clouds and build their own wings to travel around their city.

Wilde falls firmly into the Show Don’t Tell camp of world building. I never felt like I completely, 100% understood how the world worked, with the bone towers and Spire and how everything connected – and it was perfect. Not knowing everything added to the suspense and drama of the novel, and allowed the reader to better relate to Kirit, since Kirit didn’t know everything about her city either. Finding out along with Kirit really drew the reader into the story – you share her frustrations, fears, and hopes as they happen, and are never sure whether or not things are going to work out. I loved the feeling of not knowing, experiencing genuine fear and concern for characters I liked, hatred for those I disliked, and never quite knowing which side I was on.

Kirit was a well-written character. She was a heroine, but she didn’t have any special powers beyond grit and determination. She stood by her beliefs, but listened to new thoughts and ideas and wasn’t afraid to adjust her worldview when she learned new things. She protected those she loved, and always did what she believed was right. Her actions and choices made sense, and were believable – the reader could buy into the idea that Kirit was a relatively normal young adult and capable of thinking what she thought and doing what she did. Yes, that sentence is rather vague, but this book had too many twists and turns for me to even hint at a spoiler.

Speaking of the twists and turns, there were almost too many. Perhaps it was just because I was so engrossed in the novel, and so desperately needed to know how everything worked out, that I read it in about a day and a half. The slow reveal of all the various relationships between characters certainly added to the suspense, but I did catch myself thinking at one point, “Oh Good Lord, not another betrayal!” It got a little over-whelming to keep track of everything, and who was on which side of the conflict. This was not overly detrimental to the novel though, and I probably wouldn’t have noticed as much if I hadn’t been fatiguing from reading for about 5 hours straight.

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Me, this morning. 

Finally, I must mention, there was no hint of a love triangle. No love story at all really. See, authors everywhere. You can write a successful, thought-provoking, honestly fantastic YA(ish) fantasy novel without a lovesick, tortured female protagonist. There’s a tiny, minuscule, barely worth mentioning possibility one could appear in a later novel. But I find that rather unlikely. There was no cliffhanger either! Are there unanswered questions? Sure. Of course I want to know what happens next – I’m completely invested in Kirit, her friends Nat and Wik, especially since by the end of the novel the City has changed quite a bit since the beginning. But the main plot lines wrapped up fairly neatly, and the ending was satisfying.

4 and a half stars

Fran Wilde’s Updraft receives  4.5 out of 5 stars from me and I highly recommend it to those who love high fantasy, an unusual world, and a realistic, believable heroine. The second book in the trilogy is called Cloudbound, and I’m looking forward to reading it as soon as possible so I can be ready for the release of Horizon, the final book in the trilogy, this September. Go out and enjoy it!

City of Blades by Robert Jackson Bennett

This book was freaking fantastic. Like, so good I almost didn’t want to start another book because I couldn’t recover. Wow.

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Hint: swords are important in this novel.

I love the concept behind the Divine Cities trilogy. The Divinities are dead, killed in the war between the Saypuris and Continentals almost a century ago. The Saypuris, once enslaved by the Continentals and their gods, are now large and in charge and trying to unite both their land and the Continent under the same ruler. Hasn’t been going as planned though, because these Divinities and their powers can’t quite seem to stay as dead as everyone hopes.

Alright. Here’s the synopsis for the second book in the trilogy, City of Blades:

The city of Voortyashtan was once the domain of the goddess of death, war, and destruction, but now it’s little more than a ruin. General Turyin Mulaghesh is called out of retirement and sent to this hellish place to try to find a Saypuri secret agent who’s gone missing in the middle of a mission, but the city of war offers countless threats: not only have the ghosts of her own past battles followed her here, but she soon finds herself wondering what happened to all the souls that were trapped in the afterlife when the Divinities vanished. Do the dead sleep soundly in the land of death? Or do they have plans of their own?

My one and only (small) gripe with this book was that I really could have used a “In the previous novel…” type-thing at the beginning. I read City of Stairs quite awhile ago, and it took me awhile to remember who all the characters are and their relationships, etc. But I figured it out quickly enough, and not remembering all the details from City of Stairs wasn’t a problem.

Turyin Mulaghesh was a fantastic character. She was not your average hero. Having been instrumental in winning the Battle of Bulikov, she has taken her prosthetic arm and retired. She in NOT pleased to be dragged out of retirement by Prime Minister Shara (hero of book one), who uses a glitch in the system to claim Mulaghesh must work a few more months to receive her military pension. Thus, Mulaghesh is sent on a mission to determine if the mysterious white powder being mined in Voortyashtan is Divine, and discover what happened to the spy-scientist Shara sent before who has mysteriously disappeared. The mission is fraught with peril, and not just the physical kind. In charge of the Fort in Voortyashtan is General Biswal, Mulaghesh’s former commander who brings with him a host of terrible memories from the last war that Mulaghesh wishes she could forget. Added to the mystery of the missing scientists are the horrific deaths of the natives happening around the city. Suddenly, the issues facing Mulaghesh are much bigger than just a missing person, and she must race to figure out what is going on in Voortyashtan before everyone’s lives are at stake.

Throughout both this novel and the previous one, author Bennett does a masterful job weaving his world’s history into the present-day plot. His world-building is spectacular. So much detail, so much history, and every bit of it adds to the story. While at times all this information can be over-whelming and difficult to keep straight, Bennett does a skillful job helping his readers determine what is important and remember how everything connects. It’s rather amazing how he brings everything together.

Bennett’s stories are a fabulous, fun mix of mystery and fantasy. Readers of either genre will enjoy his work. It will grab on to your imagination, and won’t let go. I can’t wait to get my hands on the third book in the trilogy, City of Miracles. This book receives a rare 5 out of 5 stars from me, and is recommended to those who enjoy other high fantasy novels, like those of Brandon Sanderson or Sarah J Maas. Read it. You will not be disappointed.

The Novice by Taran Matharu

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Isn’t this cover art spectacular?

Fletcher is a young orphan living in the secluded mountain town of Pelt, a small town in the kingdom of Hominum. Found outside the town gates in the freezing dead of winter , he is taken in by the town blacksmith. Because he is the protagonist in a YA novel, he is bullied by the wealthy teenagers in the town, so life has not been easy for Fletcher. When a old soldier who has been deemed too old to continue fighting the Orcs passes through Pelt on his way to fight the Elves, he gives Fletcher a book he claims belonged to a summoner, a magician who can summon demons and use them for battle. Fletcher is intrigued, sneaks out at night, and reads a spell from the book. He is sure he has no magical talent (of course) but discovers he DOES have magical talent (of course) when a small demon answers his summons. The wealthy bully has coincidentally chosen this night to follow Fletcher out of town and murder him. Fletcher’s new friend the demon takes this badly, attacks The Bully, and Fletcher is forced to flee the town before anyone finds out. He heads towards the capital of Hominum and Vocans, an academy where teens with an affinity for magic and demon-summoning are trained to fight the Orcs. Fletcher makes friends and enemies, learns quite a bit about politics and world history, learns how to use his magic, and struggles to earn a commission into the army to fight in the on-going Orc war.

Overall I thought this was a good book. The world-building was impressive, with at least a 2,000-year history that effected and mattered to the present. The system of magic was particularly interesting, and the way the author chose to give us the “rules” and information about the system of magic really sold the story. Combined, these aspects of the novel made an otherwise fairly formulaic plot and shallow villains work. The questions I have about the next book mostly involve the way the Orcs, enemies of all the other races, use their magic. Not all the humans can use magic–most of the magic users are nobles, due to the complicated way the bloodlines are mixed. Only one elf and one dwarf have magic and therefore a demon. There are quite a bit of difficult politics – dwarves are repressed, but are also the only race that can make guns. Sometimes the elves and humans get along to fight the Orcs, sometimes not. While Fletcher’s story was interesting, and of course you root for him and want to see him succeed, its really all these political battles and questions about the Orc magic that have me wanting to read the next book.

Almost forgot to mention, no love story!! Woohoo!! I’m not saying there aren’t YA high fantasy books out there that have good love stories. See Sarah J. Maas’s Throne of Glass series for a good example of the right way to write YA Romance in a high fantasy series. After reading so many YA books that are almost completely based on a teenaged-love-triangle and everything else is an afterthought, its always refreshing to read YA lit with no romance whatsoever. This one had no romance AND a successful plot. Way to go, Taran Matharu!

Now for the things I didn’t like so much about the book. One of Fletcher’s teachers, named Rook, absolutely hated Fletcher. This has something to do with Fletcher’s suspected parentage, but we hardly know anything about Rook and his reasons for disliking Fletcher are not serious enough to warrant how horribly he treats him. His character reminded me a bit of Professor Snape – but rather than hating him, I was just annoyed by him. I did not think Rook’s hatred was necessary to advance the plot, and I wonder if his character will become more clear in the next novel.

I would have liked this book to be at least 50 pages longer, with less big jumps in time, skipping several months at a time. I wanted more history and more details of Fletcher’s life. I wouldn’t have minded the book being longer in order to get more detailed character analysis and background. It does make me more excited for the next book though, The Inquisition. Hopefully I will be able to get it from my library soon. The novel has quite the online fandom. There’s some gorgeous fan art out there – I didn’t want to share it from Pinterest without giving credit to the artists, but I highly suggest going to Pinterest and looking for it.

I give this book 3 out of 5 stars, and recommend it for those who enjoy YA high fantasy. I’m looking forward to reading more in the series.

Truthwitch by Susan Dennard

truthwitch cover 01This. Book. Was. AWESOME. High fantasy set in the mythical Witchlands, it follows the story of Threadsisters Safiya and Iseult, Windwitch and Prince Merik, and Bloodwitch and assassin Aeduan. The story focuses mainly on the relationship between Safiya and Iseult, two strong and powerful women bonded by friendship, whose strengths beautifully even out the other’s weaknesses. I typically enjoy any novel with a strong female protagonist, and this novel had two, both interesting and involving, and I loved it.

The world building was excellent in this novel. In the system of magic, witches have a specialty. A Windwitch can control air, even including a person’s “air” (or breath) depending on their level of power. A Truthwitch can tell if a person is telling the truth. A Poisonwitch has poisonous blood and can use it as a weapon. These are just a few of the witches we met in this novel. The land itself is nearing the end of the Twenty Year Truce, which (almost twenty years ago, obviously) ended a Great War. The war destroyed many of the lands belonging to the Witchlands, and now that the Truce is nearing its end, various empires are fighting for power. So Safi and Iseult’s personal struggles occur in the midst of significant political drama, which effects them both directly and indirectly, most notably when Prince Merik becomes involved. He belongs to a land devastated by the War, and seeks to do everything he can to help his nation Nubrevna grow and flourish before the Truce ends. Bloodwitch Aeduan is a more enigmatic character, one who is chasing Safiya at the behest of an emperor. We see part of the story from his POV, but know little about him other than he rejects his lot in life, and his power is considered a myth by most, at least until they meet him. His mysterious father, another king, is referenced but not explained, and presumably we will learn more about him in the next installment of the series. He is possibly the most complex character of the group, with much more story to tell.

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My copy of the book read used cover art above, but when I found this one online I loved it so I included them both. 

The stories of the land and its history are skillfully woven into the tales about the girls’ lives by author Susan Dennard. Clearly the Witchlands have a detailed past and well-thought out religious beliefs, both ancient and current. The world, and strong leading ladies, put me in mind of Sarah J Maas’s Throne of Glass series, which made sense when Dennard mentioned Maas as her best friend in her acknowledgments. If you liked Maas’s writing, you will like Dennard as well.

I discovered this book because I happened to be wandering around Barnes and Noble when the second book in the Witchlands series, Windwitch, released, and the beautiful cover caught my eye. I’m glad it did, and I’m also glad Windwitch is already out and available at my local library, so I don’t have long to wait before I can read more of Safi, Iseult, Merik, and Aeduan’s stories. I give this book a rare 5 out of 5 stars, and recommend it to fans of high fantasy, magic and politics, strong female characters, and very minimal love stories. Go read and enjoy it!

A Torch Against the Night by Sabaa Tahir

torch-against-nightThis book was awesome. Even better than the first in the series, An Ember in the Ashes, reviewed here. This review will contain EPIC SPOILERS for said first book in the series

Elias and Laia are on the run, trying to stay one step ahead of Elias’s former best friend Helene while they travel to the prison Kauf to rescue Laia’s brother. Laia knows the prison break will be almost impossible, but will do anything to save her last living family member. Elias just hopes he lives long enough to help Laia, since he is dying from poison inflicted by his mother when they fought during his escape. The two face plenty of danger, make unexpected allies, suffer tragedy and heartbreak, and at times its difficult to believe either will ever reach anything resembling a happy ending.

Both Elias and Laia go through some significant character development in this book as well. Elias struggles to figure out who he is and where his loyalties lie now that he has escaped the empire and has only months left to live. Laia discovers magic powers have been awakened in her, and she must learn to control them and use them to help her in her quest to free her brother. She also must take a stand and decide whether or not she wants to be part of the Scholar Resistance. Everyone in this novel becomes more than they originally thought they were capable of. Watching the characters grow and struggle with their choices and the consequences of them is captivating.

New to this installment in the series are chapters told from Helene’s perspective. Talk about a conflicted character. Helene’s world is turned completely upside-down, as she finds herself hunting her best friend Elias with orders to kill him. If she fails in her mission, her family will be killed. Everything Helene tries to do feels like the wrong thing for one reason or another, either because of her loyalty to her friend and man she once loved, or her loyalty to her family and the empire. Reading events from her perspective in addition to Elias and Laia really added an extra layer to the novel, and was a brilliant choice by Tahir.

It was nearly impossible to predict how this story would end. From the beginning it was clear everything could not be tied up with a nice neat bow. But the twists and turns were unpredictable and added to the suspense and excitement. Total emotional roller coaster. It’s difficult for me to say more without giving away some major plot points, and trust me this story is better if you don’t know what’s coming.

I give this book a rare 5 out of 5 stars and recommend it to those who enjoy high fantasy, adventure, magic, and suspense. Definitely read the first book in the series before you read this one. It’s going to be a loooooong wait for the next book!

An Ember in the Ashes by Sabaa Tahir

Some days I am good at writing book summaries. Some days I am not. Today is the second sort of day, so I am borrowing the book blurb from Goodreads.com:

Laia is a slave. Elias is a soldier. Neither is free.

Under the Martial Empire, defiance is met with death. Those who do not vow their blood and bodies to the Emperor risk the execution of their loved ones and the destruction of all they hold dear.

It is in this brutal world, inspired by ancient Rome, that Laia lives with her grandparents and older brother. The family ekes out an existence in the Empire’s impoverished backstreets. They do not challenge the Empire. They’ve seen what happens to those who do.

But when Laia’s brother is arrested for treason, Laia is forced to make a decision. In exchange for help from rebels who promise to rescue her brother, she will risk her life to spy for them from within the Empire’s greatest military academy.

There, Laia meets Elias, the school’s finest soldier—and secretly, its most unwilling. Elias wants only to be free of the tyranny he’s being trained to enforce. He and Laia will soon realize that their destinies are intertwined—and that their choices will change the fate of the Empire itself.

an-ember-in-the-ashes

An Ember in the Ashes was excellent. The characters were real and relate-able. I particularly emphasized with Laia, desperate to save her brother but terrified of basically everything. She doesn’t want to be part of the resistance, doesn’t want to become a spy, certainly doesn’t want to constantly withstand abuse from her owner, but her determination overcomes her fear. She is not magically a wonderfully talented fighter, she doesn’t take over the resistance – she is just a regular young woman doing what she has to do to save the only family she has left. She is brilliantly written.

Elias was fabulously written as well. He was a smidgeon more stereotypical for this sort of story – orphan, taken in by the tribesman (the token outsiders) but then brought back to the military and becomes their greatest fighter, all the while hating everything the military stands for. But then Elias is pulled into a game where he can win and take over not just the military but the entire empire, and change it for the better. His internal struggles over whether he should stay and fight or run, his feelings for his oldest friend and his feelings for the new, unusual slave-girl make great, believable reading.

This book had several twists and turns, and nothing turned out the way you would expect. It left me excited for the second book in the series, without a cliffhanger ending that just made me angry and left too many loose ends. And it never got bogged down my romance. I give it 5 out of 5 stars, and recommend it to fans of high fantasy and books centered around slave resistance/revolt. The second book in the series is also available as well: A Torch Against the Night.

Words of Radiance by Brandon Sanderson

This review will contain some SPOILERS for The Way of Kings, the first book in the Stormlight Archive by Brandon Sanderson. This is a spectacular series and trust me, you don’t want a second of it spoiled for you. Go read  The Way of Kings before you read this review.

Here’s the synopsis from the front cover flap, which was posted on brandonsanderson.com:

words of radiance coverSix years ago, the Assassin in White, a hireling of the inscrutable Parshendi, assassinated the Alethi king on the very night a treaty between men and Parshendi was being celebrated. So began the Vengeance Pact among the highprinces of Alethkar and the War of Reckoning against the Parshendi.

Now the Assassin is active again, murdering rulers all over the world, using his baffling powers to thwart every bodyguard and elude all pursuers. Among his prime targets is Highprince Dalinar, widely considered the power behind the Alethi throne. His leading role in the war would seem reason enough, but the Assassin’s master has much deeper motives.

Expected by his enemies to die the miserable death of a military slave, Kaladin survived to be given command of the royal bodyguards, a controversial first for a low-status darkeyes.  Now he must protect the king and Dalinar from every common peril as well as the distinctly uncommon threat of the Assassin, all while secretly struggling to master remarkable new powers that are somehow linked to his honorspren, Syl.

Brilliant but troubled Shallan strives along a parallel path. Despite being broken in ways she refuses to acknowledge, she bears a terrible burden: to somehow prevent the return of the legendary Voidbringers and their civilization-ending Desolation. The secrets she needs can be found at the Shattered Plains, but even arriving there proves more difficult than she imagined.

Meanwhile, at the heart of the Shattered Plains, the Parshendi are making an epochal decision. Hard pressed by years of Alethi attacks, their numbers ever shrinking, they are convinced by their war leader, Eshonai, to risk everything on a desperate gamble with the very supernatural forces they once fled. The consequences for Parshendi and humans alike—indeed, for Roshar itself—are as dangerous as they are incalculable.

This novel by Brandon Sanderson–actually, both novels in his Stormlight Archive series–have definitely become two of my favorite books. They are both masterpieces of high fantasy, with incredible world building, intriguing and creative uses of magic, leading characters it is easy to fall in love with, and villains you love to hate. My favorite character by far is Kaladin–a bitter, angry, too-young-to-be-so-cynical darkeyes (low class) man who constantly defies the odds and not only stays alive when several people try to see him dead, but becomes a leader and confidant of one of the most powerful men in the land. Watching him grow and change and learn about himself is for me the most interesting part of the novel–and it is just one small part of a novel filled with intrigue, war, magic, technology, and even some romance.

The complete cover image. I LOVE this artwork.

The complete cover image. I LOVE this artwork.

One of the impressive things about Sanderson’s work is how all the characters, from a variety of backgrounds, weave together to create one story. When I started reading, I was sure everything was not all going to fit together, at least not by the end of the (granted, very long) book. But they did, while revealing more of each character’s past, purpose, and even the lore and past of Roshar and the Alethi kingdom itself. All the characters are diverse and speak with their own unique voice, and often tell the same event from very different perspectives. Even more interesting are the occasional interludes narrated by “side” characters who we have often never met before and there were a few whose place in the story I can’t even guess at yet.

Sanderson’s plots, while complex, are easy to follow and understand, and seem perfectly logical and believable. I never see the twists coming, especially those right at the end of the novel, just when you think everything is going to calm down and you finally know what’s going on. Sanderson is a fast writer, which is great news, because I’m already dying for the next book.

5 stars out of 5, and highly recommended to fans of George R. R. Martin’s The Song of Ice and Fire series, Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time series, Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen, and Glenn Cook’s Black Comapny series, and Sanderson’s Mistborn series (though I have read the first Mistborn book and I like the Stormlight Archive better). And if you haven’t tried any epic fantasy yet, this is a great place to start. Happy reading!

-Branwen