Minor spoilers for every version of Fullmetal Alchemist.
So you want to write a fantasy story. As a fantasy and sci-fi author, I heartily endorse this.
Fantasy is a huge genre, encompassing a ton of tropes, subgenres, and rules. But a near-universal trait of fantasy is the use of magic. I mean, if a story doesn't have magic, can it even really be considered fantasy?
But writing magic is a bit daunting. So much has already been done, how do you stand out? What rules should you put in your magic system to make it interesting but not constricting? How do you make it fit with the rest of your world?
Those are all big questions, and each of them probably deserves its own blog post. But we're going to tackle all of them here, so buckle up.
Hard vs. Soft
Dalinar Kholin’s Alethi armies won a fleeting victory at a terrible cost: The enemy Parshendi summoned the violent Everstorm, which now sweeps the world with destruction, and in its passing awakens the once peaceful and subservient parshmen to the horror of their millennia-long enslavement by humans. While on a desperate flight to warn his family of the threat, Kaladin Stormblessed must come to grips with the fact that the newly kindled anger of the parshmen may be wholly justified.
Nestled in the mountains high above the storms, in the tower city of Urithiru, Shallan Davar investigates the wonders of the ancient stronghold of the Knights Radiant and unearths dark secrets lurking in its depths. And Dalinar realizes that his holy mission to unite his homeland of Alethkar was too narrow in scope. Unless all the nations of Roshar can put aside Dalinar’s blood-soaked past and stand together―and unless Dalinar himself can confront that past―even the restoration of the Knights Radiant will not prevent the end of civilization.
(Except for Stormlight book 2)
If you're new to The Stormlight Archive, allow me to direct your attention to the review I did for the first book, The Way of Kings, as well as the second book Words of Radiance and the novella Edgedancer. It's a really great series, so check them out if you haven't already.
While Oathbringer stays true to the Archive's overall positive, fantasy adventure genre, it definitely has some darker moments. Permanent character deaths lie ahead. There are even some grimdark moments, which come up when we dig into Dalinar's past, and...yeesh. No wonder the guy used to drink.
One of the hallmarks of grimdark is the moral ambiguity of the characters, and that is definitely a theme in this book. Dalinar gets his magically-erased memories back and remembers the horrible things he did as a soldier that led him to drink. Humans in general and Kaladin in particular have to come to terms with the fact that they have horribly used and abused an entire race of people who are now justifiably fighting back. Venli--one of the Parshendi (Eshonai's sister and the one who helped create the Everstorm)--slowly realizes her mistake in bringing back the old gods and has to decide whether to remain complicit or fight against the evil deity Odium. By the way Odium thinks he himself is a good guy, and that he's helping the world and humanity by destroying it. Similar to King Taravangian, who's working hard to undermine Dalinar's anti-Odium coalition, "for the good of Roshar." Also we see the mess of a human Szeth--the Assassin in White--who's trying to figure out his own life and find redemption, just like his new teacher, the ancient Herald Nin, who's been murdering petty criminals and all other Knights Radiant in a futile attempt to stop the Desolation.
It's a mess. A glorious, awesome mess.
It's not just the line between good and evil that's getting blurred, either. The strict gender norms that have dominated the first two books are starting to break down as a handful of women reject traditional femininity and join Bridge Four; there is, in fact, a major character halfway through the book who is a female military commander. Sanderson throws in a mention of a couple of men in a relationship together (not enough for me to consider this series LGBT friendly, yet, but it's getting there). And Shallan's sanity starts to break down as she hides behind various personalities she's created, namely Veil and Radiant.
I mentioned this in my Edgedancer review, but it bears repeating: Sanderson is getting really good at talking about mental and emotional health with his characters. Kaladin still has his depression. Shallan is basically developing dissociative identity disorder as a way to cope with her own crippling self-worth and abusive history. Teft and Dalinar are both recovering addicts and both of them, at some point in this book, fall off the wagon as their mental health deteriorates.
On a brighter note, Jasnah and all her bitch-ass awesomeness comes back. We also get more development of the Kaladin and Adolin bromance.
That last one was put in jeopardy for a short time, which I was not happy about. It wasn't threatened because of plot development, or Kaladin's prejudice against lighteyes, or even Adolin's "accidentally a murderer" deal--although, since it was Sadeas he murdered, that probably wouldn't have been much of a threat.
No, this beautiful bromance was jeopardized by the most heinous of villains: a love triangle.
I don't like love triangles on a good day. Not only do I find them unrealistic and tropey as all hell, but it's usually a hallmark of lazy writing, and Sanderon is not a lazy writer. Triangles are a way for the writer to whip up some easy drama, a way to ensure that there's tension between certain characters.
But...I mean...there's already drama and tension. So much of it! Adolin's guilt over killing Sadeas, Shallan's deteriorating mental health, Kaladin's depression and own feelings about the parshmen, and, oh yeah, the freaking Desolation happening around them.
There's plenty of drama. Why are we resorting to cheap gimmicks for more?
Taking out the love triangle would have given Sanderson more time to focus on other aspects of the story, like Navani (Jasnah and Elhokar's mom, Dalinar's current wife). Sure, we the audience know that Jasnah is alive. But she doesn't know that. She was told her kid was killed just a few weeks ago. And what does Navani do?
Get married. Help with the politics. Mention it once while keeping the tears at bay.
Bullshit. That is Navani's dead child. And we don't see her grieve at all. Matter of fact, her grief over Dalinar's fake-out death at the end of The Way of Kings is way more realistic and moving than her reaction of Jasnah's fake-out death. After the denial she went through in book two when Shallan first brought her the news, I expected to see other stages of grief: sorrow, anger, and finally acceptance. In fact, Ialai--Sadeas's widow--gets to show her grief for her asshole husband far more convincingly than Navani for Jasnah. And she's the bad guy. I feel more sympathetic for that petty bitch than I ever do for Navani, and that's not good writing.
As a matter of fact, none of the good guys seem to grieve for other good guys who die. There's a part where Szeth--you remember the Assassin in White, the one who killed the previous king, Dalinar's brother--has to work together with Dalinar. And Dalinar...doesn't even mention the assassinations. At all. Even when all the fighting is over and they have a moment to address the huge elephant in the room, nobody says anything. And that's ridiculous! That has huge personal and political ramifications that even someone like Dalinar should be able to see.
This makes no sense because, as previously stated, Sanderson is not a lazy writer. Nor is he a bad one. But sometimes, he focuses on the wrong things when it comes to his characters and their narrative arcs, especially when it comes to non-main characters like Navani. Which is a shame, because she's a great character, and the way Sanderson has been writing her so far hasn't been doing her justice.
The good news is there's still plenty of time to address those issues. There are several more books planned in this series. So the next time a character close to a major character dies, they'll hopefully actually grieve instead of being a robot about it.
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Edgedancer, a novella by Brandon Sanderson
(Book 2.5 of The Stormlight Archive.
Book 1 is The Way of Kings.
Book 2 is Words of Radiance.)
Three years ago, Lift asked a goddess to stop her from growing older--a wish she believed was granted. Now, in Edgedancer, the barely teenage nascent Knight Radiant finds that time stands still for no one. Although the young Azish emperor granted her safe haven from an executioner she knows only as Darkness, court life is suffocating the free-spirited Lift, who can't help heading to Yeddaw when she hears the relentless Darkness is there hunting people like her with budding powers. The downtrodden in Yeddaw have no champion, and Lift knows she must seize this awesome responsibility.
No Spoilers (Promise!)
Unlike all the other books in The Stormlight Archive, Edgedancer is a huge departure from form in that it focuses exclusively on one character, with no detours or side-stories. It's actually kind of nice. Simple in a way this series isn't. And the character Sanderson chose--Lift--is phenomenal. She's extremely whacky, impulsive, and doesn't care about any kind of rules or structure. But she's also kind and compassionate, doing her best to keep people safe even as she goes to great lengths not to get attached to anything or anyone.
If you're reading The Stormlight Archive and are wondering who the hell this Lift character is, she's the thief who can turn Slick, has an obsession with food, and her spren Wyndle is the one that's made out of vines. If you're still drawing a blank, the short story that she first appeared in in Words of Radiance--where she helps a bunch of other thieves break into the Azish palace and ends up accidentally making one of them the new emperor--acts as the prologue to Edgedancer, so you get a nice refresher.
That's one of the things that's a downside to Sanderson's work. This series is incredible, the world-building is insane, and there's so much going on. Too much. More than once I've come across a name or place or concept that we've seen before, and it's supposed to be this big reveal, but I'll be drawing a complete blank because the thing was last seen a thousand pages ago and I have no idea what's going on. When book four comes out, I'm probably going to have to re-read the first three books to have half a chance of keeping everything straight.
Also in Edgedancer, Sanderson touches on mental health. Lift gets some food at an orphanage in the city of Yeddaw and befriends one of the other kids, who has a cognitive disability because of head trauma (i.e. head smacked bad, make brain sad). This is something I've noticed Sanderson doing more and more of, which is really good. Mostly. So far, every physical disability that's popped up--lack of limbs, paralysis, head trauma, etc.--has been fixed via magic. That's kind of a bummer, because we have people running on walls and flying and whatnot, and I would've loved to see a guy in a tricked-out wheelchair doing that, or a deaf bridgeman teaching everyone sign language so all the Windrunners can communicate in the sky, or someone with chronic pain calling the shots at a war meeting. Stuff like that. But no; magic glowing light fixes all that before it can become plot-relevant.
However, mental health has been handled better and more realistically; that is, it doesn't get a quick fix like a missing limb in this world. Kaladin still has seasonal depression, which is a pretty big deal considering the fact that he's one of the main characters. One of the men of Bridge Four is revealed to be an addict who keeps falling off the wagon. Shallan...probably should be more messed up than she is, but her development in light of her abusive family life is pretty true to form.
Anyway. Back to Edgedancer. According to Sanderson, this was more of a fun side-quest than anything else, as he loves the character of Lift and wanted to explore her more in depth. But in the main series, she barely pops up, and when she does it's after most of her character development. So basically, this was an author just having fun showing us the backstory of a minor character in a great series. And it shows. It's probably not critical to read this book to understand the series as a whole, but it's definitely worth the read.
Now, it used to be that summer meant a lot more free time for me. School was out, I didn't have any bills or rent to pay, and only a handful of extra curricular activities to keep me on my toes. Therefore, I had a lot of time to read books that weren't dry, outdated school texts. And I loved it!
These days, at age 23, it's a little different. Namely that I have a job instead of school, which doesn't end just because the weather's nice enough for a beach ball. Summer really just means dodging construction on the way to work.
Still, there's something about summer that calls for a certain kind of book. Most people gravitate toward "cozy" or, as I like to call them, "fluffy" novels. I usually go more toward YA in general, content be damned.
So with that in mind, here are my top seven recommendations for sci-fi and fantasy YA novels (or, I should say, novel series) for you to read this summer. They're in no particular order.
Literally Everything by Rick Riordan
Be warned: while Riordan's stuff is generally funny and light-hearted, each book has some pretty heavy moments. And the series overall gets a bit darker as you go on. This is probably because the characters--and subsequent audience--are all growing up and thus are dealing with more adult things. The latest book, The Burning Maze, even killed off a beloved major character from Heroes of Olympus.
You can read a fuller review of one of the Magnus Chase books here, as well as two Trials of Apollo books here and here.
Throne of Glass series, by Sarah J. Maas
Throne of Glass is also technically adult. It's one of those books that they market as teen and young adult and starts off that way, but right around book five is when you get to definitely adult, so fair warning on that.
Still, all of the books are an excellent read and a great way to hide from the sun this season.
The Spectre War Series by Margaret Fortune
Basically, it's way in the future, with spaceships and stations and whatnot, and some telepaths for kicks and giggles. Each book is an intense mystery that the main character (who that is changes with each book, by the way, which is really cool) has to solve before time runs out and everything goes boom. Literally. This has varying degrees of success; the characters do fail on several occasions, making it extremely intense.
In book one, our MC Lia is essentially a human bomb with no memory, sent to blow up a space station, except she turns out to be a dud. Problem is, duds can still go off, you just don't know when. So she has to figure out who she is, why she was sent to destroy the space station, and maybe figure out a way not to blow up.
The School for Good and Evil by Soman Chainani
The idea is that every major figure in fairy tales--Cinderella and her prince, Jack and the giant of the beanstalk, Snow White and the evil queen, etc.--all went to the same school, the School for Good and Evil, where they were explicitly taught how to be good or evil, depending on which side they were on. While that sounds fun on paper, the school itself is cruel and ruthless, eve on the "good" side, where the punishment for failure is cringe-worthy even to the bad guys.
Two girls from the same isolated town--Sophie and Agatha--get snatched up to go to this school (by the way, recruitment isn't exactly voluntary). While Sophie believes herself to be "sugar and spice and everything nice," she ends up on the "evil" side while goth queen Agatha is forced to the Barbie-ized "good" side. While trying to figure out an escape, they end up blurring the lines between the two in more ways than one.
Fullmetal Alchemist by Hiromu Arakwa
In this world, the magic used is a rigid system of alchemy taught to an educated few that are almost all immediately recruited into the military of the dictatorship country of Amestris. The whole thing has a dieselpunk feel to it, and mechanical limbs are a common sight.
The two main characters--the Elric brothers (Ed and Al)--broke a strict taboo in alchemy by trying to bring back their dead mother. The attempt failed, and left Ed down an arm and a leg and Al's soul stuck to a suit of armor. Now they travel all over Amestris trying to find the Philosopher's Stone, which they believe will restore their bodies.
Kind of like Riordan: it's both goofy and heavy. If you like more science-based magic systems, then this is definitely the series for you. You can read it for free at MangaPanda.com.
Dread Nation by Justina Ireland
In the real world, the American Civil War lasted four years, which were then followed by the Reconstruction period. The Reconstruction period was supposed to piece everything back together and move on from the slavery and racism thing, and it failed pretty spectacularly.
In Ireland's world, the American Civil War was interrupted by zombies.
Eighteen years later, and the country is teetering on the brink of collapse, trying to fight armies of the undead while pretending everything is fine. It's very much like the meme:
The Nemesis Series by April Daniels
So far there are only two books, and I'm holding out hope that there will be more. Daniels manages to address several social issues without coming across as preachy, and book two ends with the beginnings of a really promising team of teenage superheroes.
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Jim has generously agreed to share one with this for the following (terrifying) piece of art:
Still, I did get offers of work, in Partann of all places. This area lies to the south of the city; the populace is rustic and unsophisticated. Indeed the further south you travel the more unsophisticated do they become, until finally they lapse into little more than barbarism. My offer of work came from the Tweil family. I didn’t know them; they almost shared a name with a prosperous Port Naain family, the Tweel. From what I could discover the two families may have been connected a couple of centuries back. Still, I received an invitation, on elegantly headed notepaper, to perform some of my latest works to an audience of family and invited guests. The only disadvantage was that their estate was perhaps forty miles out of the city and this was going to take me at least two days to walk. I had to set off immediately.
So I bade my wife Shena a fond farewell, crossed the Paraeba Estuary on the Roskadil ferry and set off, on foot, into Partann. The first day I made good time. I slept in a stable, paying for my keep with a few romantic verses and some help with the chores. Next morning I set off, confident that I was in good time.
It was about noon when I came upon a group of Urlan camped by the site of the road. I like the Urlan, although I confess I am always courteous in their company. Trained from childhood in arms, they are consummate fighters, chivalrous with a strong sense of honour, and if they do take offence, you can be dead before you even understood what exactly you’d said.
Still these were a merry crew, none of them older than twenty, and some of the younger ones barely fifteen or sixteen. As an aside I would recommend the young Urlan to you. They can be so intensely serious, but their innate courtesy means they tend to be polite to artists. So when I mentioned I was a poet travelling to perform, they were genuinely interested. One maiden called Keikel, perhaps the youngest as she had no more than four shrunken heads hanging from her sword belt, asked where I was performing. I mentioned the Tweil estate.
It was then they informed me that I’d spent that day marching in exactly the opposite direction. Instead of being a mere five or six miles from it, I was nearer twenty. I could have wept.
Then the maiden suggested they lend me a horse. Their leader, a knight by the name of Brodan Vect, agreed with her. He pointed out that they were intending to travel in that direction for the hunting. They could camp near the Tweil estate, and when I left, I could meet up with them and regale them with tales of my successes, before leaving the horse with them and returning home.
To be absolutely honest they didn’t actually say, ‘regale them with tales of my successes,' but they certainly said they’d be interested to know how I got on. They even suggested that, if it seemed appropriate, I ask the Tweil family whether they would mind the Urlan hunting across the estate. So I thanked them, mounted the horse I had been loaned, and set off at a canter.
Now others might think that this would be a chance to disappear with the horse and sell it in Port Naain. After all I’d make more money on that than I would entertaining the Tweil household. Still anybody who suggests this course doesn’t know the Urlan. They live for war and for hunting. Hunting horse thieves is considered a particularly honourable pastime. Indeed, if it’s an Urlan’s horse the thief has stolen, that Urlan feels pursuing them to the ends of the earth and slaying them is almost obligatory.
I arrived at the Tweil estate perhaps four hours after noon. I had been musing upon the origins of my horse. The trouble is that some of the Partannese aristocratic families are not enamoured of the Urlan. They feel that the Urlan do not treat them with the respect they deserve. Actually I think the real problem is that the Urlan do treat them with the respect they
deserve. Still, having a mare with Urlan markings might not be tactful. So once I was in the grounds I picked my way slowly through the woodland, watered her at a stream and fastened her behind a spinney where she was screened from view, but had some decent grazing to keep her busy. Then I walked back through the grounds to the house.
I was greeted with almost total disinterest from the maid who opened the door to me. She merely directed me down a corridor to the Morning Parlour. Even as I approached the parlour door I could hear somewhat discordant singing and I looked inside to see perhaps a dozen people standing around the room, clutching tankards whilst a young lady, elegantly attired, kept them all talking and simultaneously kept their drinks topped up as well. She saw me enter and beckoned me across to the table on which stood a punch bowl.
Now I have seen many punch bowls in my time. Most of them are glass and are often very fine, with a matching ladle which will hold enough to fill a small wine glass. This allows even a grasping host to pose as wildly extravagant by offering you a second ladle full. On this occasion, whilst I call it a punch bowl, I’ve seen smaller cauldrons hung over fires cooking stew. The ladle she was using to serve punch with was better suited to serving porridge. She asked me my name, and ran her finger down a list which lay on the table next to the punch. Finally she found me, smiled and offered me a tankard of the punch.
At this point she was called away by one of the other guests and I took the opportunity to glance at the list. Frankly I was a little put out; it was a collection of nobodies. A few of them I’d vaguely heard of. When I looked round I decided I might know some of them slightly, but none of them were persons of solid literary merit. In fact, if she had set out to create a list of those Port Naain would never miss, then with the obvious exception of myself, she had done a excellent job.
I sipped my punch. I’m glad I did; if I had tried to drink off a mouthful or two, then I’d have had a coughing fit. The damned stuff was almost pure alcohol.
I looked inside the bowl. There was a little fruit floating in the liquid, probably enough to flavour it, but not enough to threaten it with dilution. To be fair, it was pleasant enough, but not something to drink on an empty stomach. I moved away from the bowl and made an attempt to join in the nearest conversation. One has to be collegiate.
I’m afraid it wasn’t really worth my while. The others had obviously been hard at the punch for some time and their conversation had frankly suffered.
When the young woman came past to top up our tankards, I asked when we were to dine. Frankly, I was hungry. She glanced towards the clock and said she thought it could be three or four hours.
As she moved to the next group I came to a decision: I had to get something to eat, if only as a defense against the punch. I had noticed that there was a door behind the punch bowl table, and detected it led to the kitchens. So when I could see the lady was caught up in some discussion with another group, I quietly made my way to the table, surreptitiously emptied my tankard back into the bowl, and slipped through the door.
I found myself in a short corridor leading to a large kitchen. Much to my surprise it was empty, and there was no sign of any cooking being done. On occasions like this, the kitchen should be the very centre of activity. Yet this was empty, there was no fire in the grate--indeed, the range was cold.
I looked round. Stacked tidily next to the door there were a dozen empty bottles. I picked one up and read the label. It was ‘Urlan plum brandy,' produced by Grine Halstrop, Brewer and Dyer. Whilst Halstrop may not produce the worst beers in Port Naain, it is rightly a contender for that particular crown. It also produces a range of spirits which are just that, pure spirit. The only thing the Urlan would have done with this stuff was to use it to clean rust off armour.
I looked round the rest of the kitchen, hoping to find something to eat. Eventually I’d assembled a small loaf, some sausage, and four bottles of excellent wine. These latter were so out of place I did wonder how they had come here. Now I felt that morally I owed one bottle to the maiden who’d lent me the horse. The other three could be sold to help me cover my out of pocket expenses; given there was no meal and everybody was drunk, I couldn’t envisage getting paid. So I decided to take the bottles out to my horse, stow them in the pack behind the saddle, eat the bread and sausage, and then return to the house. There, with the others, I could await developments.
The kitchen door opened onto a small kitchen garden. On the other side of that was a low wall and on the other side of that I could see the woods where my horse was. I crossed the garden. To my left, towards the back of the house, there seemed to be a ruined building or two, and there was also a fire burning. I couldn’t see it, but I could smell the smoke.
I left the kitchen garden by the gate which led to the woods, and once in the woods I made my way closer to the ruins. There I could see a considerable number of people, dancing and cavorting around a fire pit covered with a metal grill.
This appeared to be the real party. Even as I watched, the dancing came to a halt, and the participants, in various states of undress, started instead to sing. Or perhaps they started to chant, because there was more rhythm than melody. As I watched and listened, the hairs on my neck started to rise. The whole thing seemed fey and unseemly.
Then, out of the shadows of the ruin came the woman who had been serving punch. I didn’t initially recognize her because now she was dressed only in her shift. She was leading a man who was stark naked and very drunk. She led him to the edge of the fire pit and he stood there, swaying unsteadily, looking round in a confused manner.
Suddenly she stepped behind him, grabbed his hair, pulled his head back and with one swift movement, slashed his throat with a knife. The man’s blood spurted out, and she pushed his body forward so it collapsed onto the grid.
The chanting grew louder and more fervent, and the woman gestured towards the ruins. I saw two women bring out another victim, naked and almost incapacitated by drink.
The crowd emitted a mighty ululation and one loathsome entity stepped forward out of the crowd, seized the victim, and carried him to the fire pit. There it opened its overly wide mouth, bit off the victim’s head and cast the corpse onto the grid.
Making sure I couldn’t be seen, I made my way back through the woods to where my horse was waiting. Behind me the tone of the chanting grew ever more malevolent. Around me the woods seemed to grow darker, and I felt around me a growing sense of evil. I began to sense presences, to feel them rather than see them. I saw strange misshapen creatures, tenebrous in the shadows. They seemed almost but not quite men and women, moving through the trees near me.
The chanting, and the blood poured onto the fire, were drawing them out of the woods and into the light. By the time I got to my horse the poor creature was wild eyed. Something far larger than a man was crashing through to underbrush towards me. I could hear it, but fortunately it was still out of sight. Hastily I mounted the horse, my plans for a meal forgotten. I left the bottles in my coat pockets, reached forward whilst still in the saddle to untie my mount, and then guided it back to towards the house.
Unfortunately, as I came up to the ruins, it was obvious that things were building to a climax. Mixed now with the dancers were other stranger and more repugnant entities. They capered rather than walked, they yammered when they should have been silent.
Indeed, one such burst out of the bushes behind me and lunged for me. The horse skittered sideways away from the threat, and then we were seen from the ruined window. The woman in her shift saw me and threw herself out of the window at me, whilst behind her, something darker and more terrible howled and charged towards me.
I was saved by my horse. Whereas I was almost petrified with fear, sheer terror awakened in my gallant mount’s breast the urge to flee.
Clinging desperately to her neck I gave up any attempt to control her. I occasionally risked a glance backwards to discover that the pursuit was close behind. Ahead I could see the gateway onto the road. The gate still stood open.
We passed through at speed and without any prompting on my part the horse turned right, back the way we had come.
Something grabbed my leg. Instinctively I groped for a weapon and pulled a bottle out of one of the deep poacher’s pockets in my coat. I turned and saw the woman in the shift was alongside me, running as fast as the horse. I gave no thought to how she might be achieving this but brought the bottle down on her head. She let go of my leg as she avoided the blow and I hastily abandoned the bottle, clinging once more to my gallant mare’s neck.
Suddenly as we rounded a corner I saw a small force of horsemen across the road. My mare burst through a gap between two of them and stopped dead, quivering and shaking. I fell off her and groggily got to my feet.
The Urlan were here but were dressed for war, not hunting. The late evening sun glinted on mail. Some wore steel helms; others had helmets with bronze face masks. Some, probably the maidens, had long hair hanging down from under the helmets. All wore totems, charms and the shrunken heads of their defeated enemies.
One, in the second rank looked down towards me. “Stick close if you can.” I recognized the voice of Keikel, the maiden who had loaned me the horse in the first place.
Slowly, I mounted the horse again and turned it to follow the others. As I caught up with her she smiled encouragingly at me and handed me a long dagger. I held it clumsily, but tightly.
Now we were riding with lances raised. My pursuers came round the corner in a mob and stopped abruptly as they saw the force awaiting them.
Keikel raised a horn to her lips and blew it. I heard answering calls in the distance, all from well ahead. As the notes of the horn died away a hideous demonic creature stepped forward from the mob. It raised above its head a sword which shone with an otherworldly light.
Brodan Vect shouted, “Now!” and the line of horsemen, lances lowered, crashed forwards.
I cannot claim to have witnessed everything. My horse just kept up with the others, and I did my best to say aboard. When we were moving more slowly I did attempt to keep hold of the reins. The leading demon moved with remarkable rapidity; it sliced through the lance coming towards it, then stepped aside to allow the horseman past. But this merely put it in the path
of another horse which struck it so forcefully is was knocked sprawling.
It leapt to its feet, still holding the sword, but then Brodan Vect started raining blows down on it and it was hard pressed to do more than parry. The rest of the horsemen had swept through the mob, riding many down and were swinging round to ride back.
I had stayed back to avoid the demon. It was as I tried to get my horse to edge round the fight between the two champions that I saw the woman in the shift stand up from amongst the bodies. She had obviously thrown herself to the ground when the horsemen charged, and now she had a dagger drawn and was coming up behind the Urlan. Brodan’s attention was entirely given over to his demonic opponent, who had stopped giving ground and was starting to put in attacks of his own.
I urged my mare towards the woman and swung. When she saw me coming she ducked down to avoid my blow. I lunged at her with the dagger, lost my balance, and fell off my horse on top of her.
As she went to strike me, I grabbed her hand with the knife, and we wrestled in the dirt. She attempted to savage me with her teeth and twice I head-butted her in the face. Finally she manage to wriggle out from under me, turned to strike, and as she did she stiffened and collapsed forward. An arrow had taken her between the shoulder blades.
I glanced round. The rest of the Urlan had returned, two more had joined in the fight against the demon. The creature backed away from them, but only until it had its back to the trunk of a great tree. There it stood at bay. The Urlan landed blows on it, but the creature’s skin was tough. Not only that but it was covered in boils and pustules, and as the blades stuck, the pus which wept out would corrode steel and burn flesh.
The fight continued. It took three warriors to keep the beast in check. The Urlan made no sound, but the demon roared and cursed.
Behind me I heard a voice: “Tallis, step back please.”
It was the maiden Keikel, on horseback, with a great Urlan bow in her hands. Next to her was another Urlan who had discarded her lance but was now carrying what looked to be a great sharpened tree branch. As the creature roared, the Urlan bow sang, and an arrow hit the beast in the mouth, pinning the head to the tree. As her arrow struck, Keikel shouted “Now!" and the three men on foot threw themselves out of the way as the other rider charged through with the sharpened branch held in both her hands.
With the weight of horse and rider behind it, the lance smashed into the creature. Even as it fell the other Urlan returned to the attack, hacking at the neck with their swords and cut the creature’s head off. As they did so, the body faded, leaving nothing but a dark patch on the ground where the grass was dying.
Brodan Vect stepped away from where the corpse should have been, and saw me watching. He grinned at me. “Well, poet, you’ve witnessed an Urlan exorcism.”
I bowed slightly. “Then sir, I thank Aea that I am a poet, not a theologian.”
He laughed. There was genuine humour and good-fellowship in the sound. It heartened me and I think it boosted the others. He gestured and somebody fetched me my mare. As I approached her, I felt she looked at me with an air of reproach. To be fair, she was probably used to more martial riders. I mounted again, as did the rest of the Urlan. Keikel gestured for me to ride next to her.
She gestured ahead. “The other parties are in position, we heard their horns. They will be sweeping through the estate; we’ll take out anything they drive to us.”
It was dawning on me that this was long planned. “So, why are you all here?”
“Last autumn my brother was here on a hunting trip. Some of the peasants approached him with tales about what was happening on the Tweil estate. So he promised to help. We drifted here in small parties in the spring and did our reconnaissance. Then we gathered up the peasants, split them into three parties, each led by a couple of our sergeants, and they would be our beaters.”
She smiled. “You were lucky. If you’d come through any other day, you’d have missed all this.”
We rode forward, but we had no more fighting. By the time we arrived at the house, it was being thoroughly pillaged by the peasantry. I saw women staggering out with piles of bed linen and furniture. At the fire pit, the sergeants had a good fire going and were burning the bodies of the slain. We watched for a while as various creatures, some more or less manlike, were thrown into the flames and more timber was thrown on top.
Finally word was given to set fire to the house as well. I shared my bread and sausage with Keikel and passed around the wine. We watched as the house burned. It was dawn before the flames died down.
A man, whom I assumed to be some sort of village elder, finally came up to the Urlan. He took his hat off and bowed stiffly. “Our thanks for what you’ve done.”
The Brodan Vect bowed back. “We do what we can.”
The village elder gestured to his people. Four of whom then carried forward two bed sheets. They laid them down on the ground and opened them. Each was filled with the more valuable loot from the house. The elder said, “Take a sheet, the choice is yours.”
Brodan gestured to the nearest. “That one will do.”
The elder nodded and gestured for his people to take the other one away. He turned back to Brodan. “It’s an accursed spot. This house always brings trouble.”
Brodan nodded. “Yes, it’s the second time our kindred have been here.” He pointed to the older ruins around the fire pit. “My mother’s grandfather burned that.”
The elder didn’t look particularly surprised. “I trust we will not bother your family again in the future.”
Brodan watched as two of his sergeants strapped up the sheet full of loot and fastened it to the back of the horse I’d been loaned. He turned back to the elder. “If you want my advice, I’d take the whole lot down, stone by stone, until nothing is left. Get rid of everything and just plough the site.”
The elder half smiled. “And so your mother’s grandfather advised us. This time we will heed the advice.”
The Urlan decided they ought to camp to rest their horses and invited me to join them, which I felt was decent of them. I remember lying down and then I knew no more. When I finally awoke, they’d broken camp and departed, all save for Keikel who they’d left behind to keep an eye on me.
When I awoke she passed me a parcel, and with that she rode off to catch up with the others. I opened the parcel. There was bread, cheese, a good wedge of meat pie and a smaller package. When I opened that I found a necklace, silver set with pearls.
I walked back to Port Naain and gave Shena the necklace. She wears it occasionally. But not often, because it’s worth more than the barge we live on.
But yes, I like the Urlan; they’re honourable and are, after a fashion, polite to artists.
A quick, final word from Jim:
I'm Jim Webster, live in South Cumbria, which is in the North West of England, farm a bit, do a bit of journalism, a bit of writing and generally mind other people's business for them. I'm now nearer sixty-something than fifty-something, married with three daughters, and have no dress sense.
I write Fantasy novels and novellas set in the 'Land of the Three Seas.' Here we have some magic, the first outbreaks of technology, but alas no dragons.
As an aside I've always felt that a good book should be like a holiday. You get to visit somewhere interesting, without having to leave your own favourite chair :-)
Anybody who is interested in seeing what I write can look at my Amazon author page.
So just to say thanks to Christina for having me on the blog. I've wiped my feet and hopefully haven't got dog hairs on the furniture.
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The Devil's Guide to Managing Difficult People by Robyn Bennis
I met the devil at a Motel 6, poolside.
The devil—call her Dee—followed Jordan home, and decided to keep her. Now, while Dee claims to be helping get her life in order, Jordan has to live with a houseguest who complains constantly, eats all her pudding, and can incinerate her in a pillar of hellfire.
It’s super awkward.
No spoilers (Promise)
Of course, I've also only been getting published for the last handful of years, and none of my published works are novels. So, we're pretty much in the same boat, there.
The Signal Airship books are enjoyable for a variety of reasons, and they're hard sci-fi/steampunk military dramas. The Devil's Guide is a huge departure, with Bennis deciding to try her hand at paranormal comedy. Where Signal Airship is a drama with a thread of comedy, Devil's Guide is a comedy with a thread of drama. (Well, more like two or three threads, but you get the general idea.) But while some authors would be completely unable to pull it off, Bennis does a pretty damn good job. Despite the fact that the Devil gives absolutely no instructions on how to manage difficult people.
Jordan has basically lost her passion for life. She's kind of depressed, bored, honestly only looking forward to trying to date a guy that she's pretty sure is a spy (this suspicion is neither confirmed nor denied in the book, which I found kind of funny but also kind of disappointing, because that could have been a pretty good joke, like if he did work for a spy agency but was their accountant, or something). In short, she's leading a fairly unpleasant existence before Dee shows up. And Dee...kind of makes it worse.
Oh, who am I kidding. Dee makes her hide a body within twenty-four hours of meeting her.
In the name of making her life easier, of course.
Each character is unique and goofy in their own way: Jordan has a dark sense of humor to deal with past trauma, her friend Gabby has a soup lawyer (that is, a lawyer who specializes in cases revolving around soup), and Dee is Dee. And they each have their own conflicts. Jordan's is sorting out her conflicted feelings for her late, abusive mother, a task that she would prefer to reschedule for the month of never, which Dee is not having.
It's a page-turner, in part because it's such a fast pace, and in part because the situation gets so bad so quickly that you just have to know how it ends. It's like when a friend is telling a really funny story about the most embarrassing moment of their lives. You kind of don't want to know, but you have to.
Normally I don't read comedies. But I'm glad I read this one. It's not as good as Signal Airship; Bennis set herself a pretty high bar with that one, and if asked whether I wanted her to write another comedy or write a third Signal Airship book, the answer would be a very solid "option B, please." But if you're looking for lighter read, something that will make you laugh at every other page and put your life in perspective, then I do recommend The Devil's Guide to Managing Difficult People.
The Wolf in the Whale by Jordanna Max Brodsky
"There is a very old story, rarely told, of a wolf that runs into the ocean and becomes a whale."
Born with the soul of a hunter and the spirit of the Wolf, Omat is destined to follow in his grandfather's footsteps-invoking the spirits of the land, sea, and sky to protect his people.
But the gods have stopped listening and Omat's family is starving. Alone at the edge of the world, hope is all they have left.
Desperate to save them, Omat journeys across the icy wastes, fighting for survival with every step. When he meets a Viking warrior and his strange new gods, they set in motion a conflict that could shatter Omat's world...or save it.
No spoilers. (Promise)
I actually changed the description up there. The actual description uses female pronouns for Omat, which makes no sense because he spends the majority of the book using male pronouns. In modern culture he'd probably be considered FTM transgender, except that implies that he was assigned female at birth. But despite having a "woman's body," he was raised as a boy, because he inherited his father's soul. The whole thing boils down to "This baby is trans because magic."
This of course leads to excellent conflict and exploration of gender, gender roles, and sexuality. One of the villains is a cis woman who is very masculine. One of the good guys is a cis man who is very soft, gentle, and therefore somewhat feminine. Omat goes from strictly adhering to gender roles in order to claim and verify his manhood to "fuck the rules, I do what I want."
In terms of pacing, the book is a little slow. The first hundred pages are spent establishing Omat's world, the Inuit culture and mythology, and his magic and family dynamics. We don't even meet one of the main villains until page 103.
Once the book gets going, though, shit gets real. Omat has to overcome a tall order of villains and obstacles in order to achieve his goals, which vary from survive to rescue my brother to save my people. There are Inuit villains, Norse villains, godly villains, and nature itself is a bit of a villain at times.
One of the most interesting things about this book is its theme of sexual violence. Thanks to some transphobia and misogyny on the Inuit villain's part, Omat is raped. It's not graphically described, but it's still very upsetting. While it's the only time it happens to Omat, it's not the only time it's talked about in the book. It's also talked about from the other side: a rapist who is trying to seek forgiveness and redemption, and has to work for it. You rarely see that in fiction--or anywhere, really. Needless to say, even the "good guys" in this story are very grey.
The whole cast of characters are amazing. The Inuit are a tight-knit group and adore each other, but they're willing to sacrifice Omat if the alternative is death. The Norse are fierce warriors and mostly considered villains, but many of them are victims themselves. The gods are a mash-up of good and evil, created by humans and in turn affecting humans in both positive and negative ways. (This book adheres to the rules of American Gods to a T.)
I know shamefully little about Inuit culture and even Norse culture, but considering the fact that Harvard grad Brodsky goes ham on research by actually visiting the places she's writing about and (gasp! shock!) talking to people in those cultures, I think we can trust it. Maybe not the part about a vengeful god living on the moon and a massive snake wrapped around the world, but the more historical aspects.
Honestly, my only complaint about this book is that it's exhausting. In a good way, but still. The book hangover is not appreciated. While there is no gratuitous violence, the story itself is brutal. Rape, character deaths, animal deaths all get thrown at Omat like a never-ending parade of misery. The poor kid just can't catch a break, and neither do we. I need a nap.
Dread Nation by Justina Ireland
In this new America, safety for all depends on the work of a few, and laws like the Native and Negro Education Act require certain children attend combat schools to learn to put down the dead.
But there are also opportunities—and Jane is studying to become an Attendant, trained in both weaponry and etiquette to protect the well-to-do. It's a chance for a better life for Negro girls like Jane. After all, not even being the daughter of a wealthy white Southern woman could save her from society’s expectations.
But that’s not a life Jane wants. Almost finished with her education at Miss Preston's School of Combat in Baltimore, Jane is set on returning to her Kentucky home and doesn’t pay much mind to the politics of the eastern cities, with their talk of returning America to the glory of its days before the dead rose.
But when families around Baltimore County begin to go missing, Jane is caught in the middle of a conspiracy, one that finds her in a desperate fight for her life against some powerful enemies.
And the restless dead, it would seem, are the least of her problems
No spoilers (promise)
The other reason I avoid historical fiction is because, as someone who has a bachelor's in history and continues to study it, I usually find half a dozen major problems with the historical setting within the first few chapters. The most common crime is that the time period is very idealized. We're seeing it through the thick lens of nostalgia (specifically, white and/or male nostalgia) rather than how it really was. Basically, the writer just doesn't do their research, which is extremely important even if you're doing an alternative history.
Justina Ireland side-steps these problems very neatly. Firstly she brings zombies into the equation, which is a surefire way to get my attention because I love zombie stories. It's rare that a story cannot be improved by adding a bit of the undead into the mix. Secondly, she definitely did her research on the Reconstruction Era. For those who are drawing a blank on what that is, the Reconstruction Era is that bit of time right after the Civil War when the U.S. tried to piece itself back together, fix up the destroyed South, end the slavery thing, and failed horribly on all accounts. Historians disagree on when, exactly, the Reconstruction Era ended--if indeed it's ended at all--and most agree that it could have gone a lot better, especially for the newly freed slaves, many of whom were forced to become indentured servants employed and abused by the very whites who owned them as property a few years ago.
Ireland takes that time period, adds a healthy dose of zombies, and goes to town. While it's definitely a YA novel--with the teenage protagonist, lightning-fast speed, critical view of authority and government--it's a story that readers of almost any age can enjoy and learn from. She's also got the language down perfectly. Several historical fiction authors have their characters and narrator talk either too contemporary or too blandly. Jane McKeene--who is both the main character and the narrator--talks exactly the way someone raised in 1870 Kentucky and educated in 1880 Maryland would talk.
Jane herself is an awesome character. She's a badass fighter, notorious troublemaker, and is one of those stupidly brave people who you respect for Doing The Thing, but at the same time you kind of want to strangle her because you're going to get yourself killed, you idiot! Kind of like Jon Snow, but more interesting.
Playing her foil and partner is Kate, her fellow classmate who is Jane's opposite in every way. Well, not every way, seeing as Kate isn't a horrible racist with dangerous delusions on how a society should overcome the zombies. That position goes to the villain, who we actually don't meet until halfway through the book. I won't go into detail because spoilers, but I will say that he's the perfectly crafted villain, in that I want to beat him over the head several times with a dictionary. He's the guy who just has to die. And I say that as an anti-death penalty advocate and pacifist.
The other characters are well-written, too: enemies, allies, the crush and ex-boyfriend who both cause an absolute minimum of tension, thank God. Actually, there's not much of a romantic subplot here, for which I'm glad. The ex--named Red Jack--is someone that Jane sees only as a mistake, refuses to get back together with despite his repeated advances, and while she still has some lingering feelings for him and gets jealous whenever someone else gives him goo-goo eyes, she ruthlessly squashes them down to concentrate on the task at hand. That is an attitude sorely lacking in many YA protagonists that I deeply appreciate, especially in a zombie story, where the most common mistake an author makes is focusing on the petty drama rather than the very real threat of imminent doom.
(We also find out about three-quarters of the way through the book that Jane is bisexual, or at least fluid and flexible enough to have made out with a pretty girl. Yay, diverse characters!)
My only complaint about this book is that there are a couple of loose ends, namely the fate of one of Jane's friends who goes missing. She spends a good amount of energy looking for him before she's forced to leave, so it's not like Ireland forgot he existed. She just refuses to tell us where he went off to, which is frustrating. Though I think she plans on bringing him back if she ever publishes a sequel, which is a distinct possibility. Watch me not complain about that.
So, yeah. Welcome to the Favorites page, Dread Nation! Please don't eat my brains.
The Poppy War by R. F. Kuang
But surprises aren’t always good.
Because being a dark-skinned peasant girl from the south is not an easy thing at Sinegard. Targeted from the outset by rival classmates for her color, poverty, and gender, Rin discovers she possesses a lethal, unearthly power—an aptitude for the nearly-mythical art of shamanism. Exploring the depths of her gift with the help of a seemingly insane teacher and psychoactive substances, Rin learns that gods long thought dead are very much alive—and that mastering control over those powers could mean more than just surviving school.
For while the Nikara Empire is at peace, the Federation of Mugen still lurks across a narrow sea. The militarily advanced Federation occupied Nikan for decades after the First Poppy War, and only barely lost the continent in the Second. And while most of the people are complacent to go about their lives, a few are aware that a Third Poppy War is just a spark away . . .
Rin’s shamanic powers may be the only way to save her people. But as she finds out more about the god that has chosen her, the vengeful Phoenix, she fears that winning the war may cost her humanity . . . and that it may already be too late.
No Spoilers! (Promise)
This was largely because of the book's ending, which I will not get into because I have a strict no-spoiler rule on this blog. Suffice to say, even though the entire book has been leading up to that specific decision of the main character's, it still caught me off-guard. Because I'd never seen a book go that direction without warning before.
The Poppy War centers around Rin, and is told almost exclusively from her point of view (third person limited). Right from the start she's an extremely captivating character, despite the fact that most of what she does is react, making her a passive character. Her taking the test, going to Sinegard, becoming a soldier and fighting in a war, all of those are her reactions to what the world throws at her. It's not until the very end that she acts first, forcing the world to react to her.
Normally, I hate passive characters. They're boring. Best case scenario, they get dragged along with the plot and their primary function is to complain about how horrible the world is. But Rin is different, and it's the way she reacts that sets her apart. We learn very early that she doesn't do anything half-assed. Her foster parents tell her she's to marry someone three times her age for their criminal enterprise? She risks her life to steal opium to bribe a local tutor to help her study for the exam. Her period cramps are so bad that she's going to miss at least three days of school every month? Better drink a potion to make herself infertile so she doesn't have to deal with it. Enemies attacking the school? Burn the whole place down with newly-discovered magical powers!
Rin is impossible not to watch. Half of the time, she knows the thing she's about to do is a horrible decision, but she does it anyway because, in her mind, the alternative is even worse. She's very self-aware, even though, as a teenager, she can still be kind of stupid.
She's supported by a wide variety of supporting characters: her teachers, her rivals, and the few friends she manages to make. Several of these people die, because this book is definitely grimdark, and they're all very well crafted. I do wish that I could see more of Rin's young foster brother, largely because she feels guilty for leaving him when she goes to Sinegard and thinks about him later in the book. But we only get one scene with him, and that's when she leaves for the academy. Another scene or two showing them together would have gone a long way toward showing Rin's more human side that she becomes in danger of losing.
The worldbuilding leaves something to be desired. Not the magic or the gods, those are fine, but the history and political climate need work. I'm not as well-versed in Chinese history as I should be, but even I knew after one glance that this "fantasy world" is basically 19th-century China. The real world saw two Opium Wars; this world has two Poppy Wars (poppy being the plant that opium is made from). Japan used to be militarily aggressive and constantly fought with China; in this universe they're the Federation of Mugen. China had an ancient strategist named Sun Tzu who wrote The Art of War; Rin studies a guy named Sunzi who wrote The Philosophy of War, whose lessons and parables match Sun Tzu word-for-word.
I am all for using history as a stepping stone in worldbuilding. Hell, I do that all the time! The most famous example is George R. R. Martin, who based his Game of Thrones series off of the Wars of the Roses. But there's a difference between using something for inspiration like Martin and just copy-and-pasting like Kuang.
But that's honestly my only real complaint about this book. The characters and plot are both more than strong enough to carry the otherwise weak worldbuilding. The theme is also very well done. Kuang does not shy away from the horrors committed by the supposed "good guys." Considering the atrocities that Rin's nation and, eventually, Rin herself commits, the overall message is "war, oppression, and drugs really suck, guys, so maybe let's not?"
But while Kuang's book laments the horrible conditions that war brings out, she doesn't use it as an excuse to dismiss the negative aspects of her characters. She puts the responsibility for the characters' actions squarely on the characters, not letting them fall into the "oh, it was just a bad time, so it doesn't really count as my fault" mindset. Rin herself admits that her actions are inexcusable, morally atrocious, while also, in her mind, necessary.
One last thing, and this is probably one of the best things about this book: THERE'S NO ROMANTIC SUBPLOT. You could argue that Rin has a crush on one of her classmates, but that's a lot less romantic and a lot more hero-worship. I mentioned earlier: she destroys her own uterus as a teenager just to stay in school. Romance and family are the last things on her mind.
The Poppy War is landing solidly on my Favorites page. I would recommend it to anyone who's looking for a non-traditional military fantasy story, and/or is looking for a femme protagonist of color, and/or likes it when things get set on fire, because that happens a lot.
The first Dragons, Zombies and Aliens blog was started in 2015. Somewhere between college coursework, paying rent with door-to-door sales, and keeping up with my sorority sisters, I wrote reviews, rants and commentaries on books, TV shows, and movies. Now, this blog has moved, improved, and the sky's the limit!