Category Archives: high fantasy

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.

truthwitch cover 02

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.

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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

Sacred Scars by Kathleen Duey

Sadima, Franklin, and Somiss, driven out of Limòri by a suspicious fire, are living in a cave hidden within the cliffs that overlook the city. Somiss is convinced the dark passages of the caves were the home of ancient magicians, and his obsession with restoring magic deepens. Sadima dreams of escape — for her, for Franklin, and for the orphaned street boys Somiss has imprisoned in a crowded cage. Somiss claims he will teach these boys magic, that they will become his first students, but Sadima knows he is lying.

Generations later, Hahp is struggling to survive the wizards’ increasingly dangerous classes at the Limòri Academy of Magic. He knows the fragile pact he has forged with his secretive roommate, Gerrard, will not be enough to put an end to the evil. It will take all the students acting together to have any chance of destroying the academy. Building trust, with few chances to speak or plan, will be almost impossible, but there is no choice.

sacred scars coverIn this second book in Duey’s Resurrection of Magic series, all Sadima’s efforts are focused on convincing Franklin to leave Somiss. She, Somiss, and Franklin are living in a cave in the woods where Somiss has been keeping the boys he kidnapped, claiming they will be his first students. Sadima is sure this is a lie, and Somiss’s real purpose for the boys is much more nefarious. Somiss’s mania to find the secrets of magic has increased, and he treats Franklin worse with every passing minute. Something must be done. Meanwhile, in the future, Hahp is busy trying to convince Gerrard that the only way they can truly defeat the wizards is for their entire class to band together both to survive, and eventually destroy everyone else at the Academy.

I ran to my library to get this book almost as soon as I finished the first book in the series, because I just had to know what happened next. Unfortunately, I did not enjoy this book nearly as much as the first one (Skin Hunger, reviewed here). It was soooooooo slow. Sadima spent chapters and chapters and chapters exploring cave tunnels. Hahp spent chapters and chapters and chapters (again) making food or figuring out how to make other random things with the “magic stone.” It droned on and on. I felt like the book could have been 150 pages shorter. Now, it did have some interesting moments. The action that did happen was dramatic and unexpected. Sadima and the boys’ escape attempt was suspenseful (though it would have been even more suspenseful if it had been about 5 chapters shorter). I also thought learning more about the Eridians was interesting, since Somiss and Franklin talked about them all the time in the first novel, but don’t really explain who they were. Towards the end of the novel, I was sure the timelines were about to come together, but whether or not they did was never made clear. I think that was supposed to get me excited for the next book (which, at the time Sacred Scars was published, was not even in the planning stages) but really it just frustrated me. Notice I did not really find anything about Hahp’s story interesting enough to mention here. I desperately wanted to be emotionally invested in Hahp–I felt like I should be–but I just wasn’t.

I give this book 3 out of 5 stars, and recommend it for readers who read and enjoyed the first book, but warn you not to get your hopes up too much. According to Duey’s website, the third book is in the revising stages (though Goodreads doesn’t know anything about it, which is a little suspicious). We can only hope the third book releases soon and is better than the second!

Happy reading,

-Branwen

Skin Hunger by Kathleen Duey

Skin Hunger coverSadima lives in a world where magic has been banned, leaving poor villagers prey to fakes and charlatans. A “magician” stole her family’s few valuables and left Sadima’s mother to die on the day Sadima was born. But vestiges of magic are hidden in old rhymes and hearth tales and in people like Sadima, who conceals her silent communication with animals for fear of rejection and ridicule. When rumors of her gift reach Somiss, a young nobleman obsessed with restoring magic, he sends Franklin, his lifelong servant, to find her. Sadima’s joy at sharing her secret becomes love for the man she shares it with. But Franklin’s irrevocable bond to the brilliant and dangerous Somiss traps her, too, and she faces a heartbreaking decision.Centuries later magic has been restored, but it is available only to the wealthy and is strictly controlled by wizards within a sequestered academy of magic. Hahp, the expendable second son of a rich merchant, is forced into the academy and finds himself paired with Gerrard, a peasant boy inexplicably admitted with nine sons of privilege and wealth. Only one of the ten students will graduate — and the first academic requirement is survival.

Skin Hunger, the first book in Kathleen Duey’s Resurrection of Magic series, follows two separate timelines in the same world. In the first, young lady Sadima has  the magical ability to read the feelings of animals but no one around her believes her. In her time, magicians are feared as charlatans and crooks and all magic has been banned. Needing to escape her farm life, Sadima flees to the city and meets up with wizard friend Franklin, who has promised to help her with her talent and that he and his colleague Somiss are trying to bring magic back safely to the world. Many, many years later, young boy Hahp is sold to the wizard academy by his hateful father. Hahp’s teachers are none other than Franklin and Somiss, who “train” young boys to become wizards by starving them and forcing them to discover their inner magic or die.

Initially, I was hesitant to read Skin Hunger because I didn’t understand how the two separate time periods were going to work together. I was pleasantly surprised to see that the two different timelines–almost two entirely different worlds–connected in an interesting way that made logical sense and made the story exciting. I’d never read anything like that before, and thought it was original and well executed.

This book very much read like a first-book-in-the-series type of novel. I realize this is to a certain extent a normal feature of books that are the first in a series: lots of world building, back-story of many characters, leads up to some major action that doesn’t actually take place. I thought this book had a little too much of all that at times. It was slow in sections (how many times did we really need to read about Hahp trying to make food, and the guilt he felt when then he could and others could not?) and I was bored; however, the fact that there were two stories at once helped with this immensely. Where one character’s story was slow, the other was faster, with more interesting details. Overall, the balance was well done. Ultimately, we received just enough about each character’s story–Sadima and Hahp–that I’m going to the library right away to pick up the next book.

3 stars out of 5. I recommend this book for fans of YA fantasy literature involving magic. Happy reading!

-Branwen

Bitterblue by Kristen Cashore

When Queen Bitterblue took the throne of Monsea, she was a child, and her advisers ran the kngdom for her. Now she is beginning to question their decisions, especially how they handle the legacy of her father Leck, who who ruled through his Grace—a special talent for mind-altering—and his taste for darkness and violence. Bitterblue needs to know Monsea’s past to lead it into the future, so she begins exploring the city sreets at night, disguised and alone. As she does, she meets two thieves, who hold a key to the truth of Leck’s reign. And one of them, with a Grace that he hasn’t yet identified, holds a key to her heart.

Bitterblue US coverBitterblue is the third book written in the Graceling Realm. The other books are Graceling (the first) and Fire (the second). Cashore writes on her blog that they do not necessarily need to be read in order, which I agree with, although I was very glad I had read them in order; it made the story much more enjoyable since I knew the back stories.

Bitterblue is a young woman, 18 years of age, who became queen after she helped kill her tyrannical and psychopathic father when she was only 10 years old. Now she is Queen of Monsea, one of the Seven Kingdoms, in which some people are born with Graces, which can best be described as a sort of talent, although they are much stronger than regular talents. Bitterblue’s father Leck’s Grace was mind control, which he used to control and suppress his people, and perform terrible experiments on them. Bitterblue is trying to help her kingdom recover and be prosperous once more. This is easier said than done, as her advisors are trying to pretend the past did not exist and keep Bitterblue too busy to notice that her city is falling apart around her. Bitterblue makes the courageous decision to sneak out at night and learn what’s really happening in her city. She meets two thieves who teach her what’s really going on outside her castle gates, and at the same time teach her about herself.

Bitterblue UK coverMy favorite part of this was how everyone seemed like a real person, especially Bitterblue. Her struggles were so real and easy to understand and sympathize with. She was in one of the worst situation a queen could ask for, and she was trying to recover from her own personal problems as well, like missing memories, her father’s abuse and the murder of her mother when she escaped so long ago. She tries so hard to do the right thing, not just for herself but for her friends and for her people. Some other characters from Graceling appeared as well, like Katsa and Po, along with some of their friends, like the handsome Giddon. They helped Bitterblue with her trouble and added some familiar humor and fun to the novels.

Graceling UK coverLike the other two novels written in the Graceling Realm, this would was so wonderful and magical that I wish I could go visit. I want to walk across the Winged Bridge and stroll into a story room late at night. I would love to visit Death’s (pronounced like “teeth,” apparently) library and pet his cat Lovejoy. I would especially like to meet Katsa, Po, and Giddon. Two days after finishing it, I am still thinking about this book and wishing it hadn’t ended. Fire UK coverKristen Cashore claims on her website that she doesn’t know if she’ll be writing another book; in fact, she never intended to write more than Graceling. I hope she does, though. There were too many unanswered questions and stories left untold for her to stop writing about the Graceling realm. Speaking of which, if you visit Cashore’s blog, you can find a ton of cool stuff, not least of which are the alternate cover images. The US and UK cover images for Bitterblue are above. I have also included the US and UK cover images for Graceling and Fire, because they are beautiful. I think Graceling is my favorite. Exactly how I pictured Katsa.

This book was one of the best I have read in awhile. I read several books I like and enjoy, but this one was literally impossible to put down. I hope Cashore appeases her adoring fans (like me!) and writes more about Bitterblue and her crazy friends.

Happy reading,

-Branwen