Red Sister (Mark Lawrence)

5 stars

“I was born for killing – the gods made me to ruin”

At the Convent of Sweet Mercy young girls are raised to be killers. In a few the old bloods show, gifting talents rarely seen since the tribes beached their ships on Abeth. Sweet Mercy hones its novices’ skills to deadly effect: it takes ten years to educate a Red Sister in the ways of blade and fist.

But even the mistresses of sword and shadow don’t truly understand what they have purchased when Nona Grey is brought to their halls as a bloodstained child of eight, falsely accused of murder: guilty of worse.”

I wasn’t sure what to expect when I started reading this book. I wasn’t a fan of Lawrence’s ‘Broken Empire’ series, I couldn’t get into the mindset of the protagonist at all. I wasn’t even going to pick up this book initially, but reviews from friends lavished it in praise and I put in a review request, and then, assuming said request had been rejected, bought a copy. A copy arrived in my inbox just as another dropped on my doorstep and, I thought, well, this book and I were just meant to be together.

This book starts with an epilogue of sorts, but I won’t say too much about it, because to do so would be to ruin other parts of the story. The first entree into Nona’s story proper isn’t even through her own eyes, it’s through the eyes of a friend who’s viewing what little is left of their dwindling life from the wooden boards below a noose. Needless to say, the book opens with Nona having been sentenced to death for a crime unknown, and escaping the noose only through the good graces of the Abbess of the Convent of Sweet Mercy.

What follows after is my favourite sort of book. I am a complete sap for schools of magic and violence, all of my favourite books have some kind of place of learning in them. The beauty of this book is that it manages to stay ‘external’ whilst focusing inwards. We learn the stories of Nona’s early life and the history and politics of the world around her. It’s all told in great detail but I never once felt as if the information was simply being dumped upon me.

One thing I have always appreciated about Lawrence’s books is the genre that they lie in. A sort of post-apocalyptic fantasy. In Nona’s world, they are living on a planet watched over by a dying sun, where the feeble light grants them only a narrow corridor of living space between the ice. Moreso, they people of Abeth are not even from that world, having arrived on the planet many hundreds of years ago aboard great ships. I love the interplay between the fantasy and science fiction aspects of the book, how the magic seems to be amplified by the ‘shiphearts’ or reactor cores of the ancient space ships.

Nona, herself, is a wonderful character. She’s courageous and frightened, naive and world weary, stubborn and tentative. Basically, in all aspects, she is a young girl coming of age, a young girl thrust into a dark and unpleasant world and forced to come to terms with it. One of my favourite books when I was growing up was ‘Lirael’ by Garth Nix for many of the same reasons that I’ve come to love this book. We have a curious and introverted protagonist carving herself a niche in an environment that is both fascinating and dangerous. A young girl who has managed to utterly unbalance the world around her just by her existence. The way that Nona is written, and her feuds and friendships with those around her, is just amazing. I had flu for the last couple of days and just being able to curl up with this book was perfect escapism.

This is book filled with shadow, poison and politics. It’s a slow, rich, dark odyssey that, even after almost 500 pages, I felt sad to finish. ‘Grey Sister’, the second book, is due to be published next spring and, honestly, I can see myself reading this a good few times between.

So if you like complicated and truthful heroines, blood and bladework with a hefty dose of darkness then this is definitely a book you should have on your radar and your ‘to be read’ list.

Many many thanks to Harper Voyager for a copy in return for an honest review. What a book!

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The Court of Broken Knives (Anna Smith Spark)

5 stars

“In the richest empire the world has ever known, the city of Sorlost has always stood, eternal and unconquered. But in a city of dreams governed by an imposturous Emperor, decadence has become the true ruler, and has blinded its inhabitants to their vulnerability. The empire is on the verge of invasion – and only one man can see it.

Haunted by dreams of the empire’s demise, Orhan Emmereth has decided to act. On his orders, a company of soldiers cross the desert to reach the city. Once they enter the Palace, they have one mission: kill the Emperor, then all those who remain. Only from ashes can a new empire be built.

The company is a group of good, ordinary soldiers, for whom this is a mission like any other. But the strange boy Marith who walks among them is no ordinary soldier. Marching on Sorlost, Marith thinks he is running away from the past which haunts him. But in the Golden City, his destiny awaits him – beautiful, bloody, and more terrible than anyone could have foreseen.”

Was I expecting, when requesting this on a whim, to find that a book that was one of my favourites of 2017? The answer is no, and I’m so glad that I listened to the feeling in my gut and decided to pick this one up. Because, as much as I love fantasy, sometimes I have a really hard time telling books apart from their blurbs. Large fantasy cities? Mercenaries? Empires? I can name off the top of my head a veritable list of books that contain these components. It’s what an author does with these building blocks that makes them special…

And this is certainly something special.

Sorlost is a City built behind towering walls of Bronze, residents comfortable, protected, despite being surrounded by a crumbling Empire of Dust. Orhan Emmereth is Lord of a once powerful house and sometime confidante of the Emperor. He sees the way the tiles are falling, that they are living in the dying ages of the Empire. Along with other high ranking Lords and his charismatic lover, Darath, he devises a coup, hiring mercenaries from across the desert to infiltrate the Palace and take out the Emperor.

This ragged band of mercenaries are much like any ragged band of mercenaries, apart from the cuckoo in their midst, a boy with the face and education of an aristocrat, the dreams of a broken soldier and the bloodlust of a beast.

In the great Temple of the Lord of Living and Dying, a young High Priestess completes her ritual sacrifices to keep the doors between life and death secure. She has no idea how this revolution could affect her temple and how it will change her life forever.

‘A crown of silver. A throne of gold. A sound of weeping. A scent of blood in the air. King Ruin. King of Dust. King of Shadows.’

This book is 100% for people who came out of ‘Game of Thrones’ more interested in the story of the Targaryens than anything else. It has all the trademarks of a dark fantasy, a brutal antihero, gallows humour, dragons…but there’s something else about this book. It’s just so well written. Seriously, it’s so rich and poetic and gorgeous. It’s a tale told by a poet with the mouth of a sailor and the voice of an angel, and it suits the tone of the book so well.

Take the character of Marith, a boy who looks as if he’s been carved from marble and storm clouds, but with an almost demonic killing frenzy. He’s not your classic anti-hero, not perfect in every crooked way; he has flaws that frequently take him to the edge of death, that make him unpredictable. You mourn for Marith, for the life and love that he could have had, for the addictions that plague him and for the lack of sympathy and help extended to him. I mean ‘cool motive, still murder’ is definitely a phrase that comes to mind and he’s not written in a way where you are expected to forgive him his crimes. I honestly felt at times as if we might be watching the end of the world…

Without spoiling much of the story I really loved how Smith Spark handled the story of the our dark hero’s lover. Through reading her sections you can entirely see how the character knows that falling in love with this person is a terrible idea, how they teeter between staying and leaving and yet, somehow, fall under their spell. So many times when reading fantasy novels, I find myself questioning why someone would stay with their despot lover, but this book definitely explored how people can become someone that they never knew they could be.

One thing that I know can make a lot of people uncomfortable whilst reading grimdark fantasy is an over-reliance on gendered violence. ‘A Court of Broken Knives’ seemed to be refreshingly free of this trope. I mean, every single person in this book is at severe risk of being knifed, but the danger of being decapitated by a dragon was higher than being raped. Thumbs up for that. For everyone who is concerned that it indicates a lack of general gory glory, have no fear, it’s bloody enough to make ‘Game of Thrones’ look a kids bed time story, it just decides to make everyone at risk of a gory death, not just women.

Also, the relationship between Orhan and Darath was so unbelievably cute. Established m/m romance in grimdark, that is treated respectfully? I did feel sad that it was a world where, whilst m/m relationships weren’t really frowned upon, a marriage between two high ranking Lords was considered impossible. It did mean that Orhan had to be ostensibly in a loveless sham marriage where neither he nor his wife was happy. But, to be honest, I don’t think there was a happy marriage in the entire book, so it wasn’t entirely out of pattern. The story is young and dark, who knows what is going to happen.

As mentioned earlier in the review, this book is one of my absolute favourites of the year so far. It is just so irreverent but evocative, poetic but also blunt and gory, filled with gorgeous prose and enough cursing to make a soldier blush. I can’t believe I’m going to have to wait ‘who-knows-how-long’ for book two. I can’t wait that long to see how my favourite royally makes a mess of everything.

‘A Court of Broken Knives’ it out on the 29th of June (tomorrow) from the wonderful people over at Harper Voyager, and I know there are some beautiful signed copies available at Goldsboro Books *wink wink*.

Many many thanks to Harper Voyager Books for a copy in return for an honest review. It was a pleasure to read.

A Song for the Story? ‘Under Your Skin’ by Aesthetic Perfection really put me in mind of Marith’s character at multiple points in the book!

 

Godblind (Anna Stephens)

4.5 Stars

“The Mireces worship the bloodthirsty Red Gods. Exiled from Rilpor a thousand years ago, and left to suffer a harsh life in the cold mountains, a new Mireces king now plots an invasion of Rilpor’s thriving cities and fertile earth.

Dom Templeson is a Watcher, a civilian warrior guarding Rilpor’s border. He is also the most powerful seer in generations, plagued with visions and prophecies. His people are devoted followers of the god of light and life, but Dom harbors deep secrets, which threaten to be exposed when Rillirin, an escaped Mireces slave, stumbles broken and bleeding into his village.

Meanwhile, more and more of Rilpor’s most powerful figures are turning to the dark rituals and bloody sacrifices of the Red Gods, including the prince, who plots to wrest the throne from his dying father in the heart of the kingdom. Can Rillirin, with her inside knowledge of the Red Gods and her shocking ties to the Mireces King, help Rilpor win the coming war?”

I’d been itching for a good bit of dark fantasy for a while, so when I weirdly ended up with two copies of ‘Godblind’ I had a feeling that it was just ‘meant to be’. I actually took a good two weeks reading this, not because I wasn’t enjoying it, but because I wanted to savour it.

The Rilporins have been favoured by the Gods of the Light, the Dancer and her son, the Fox God. Peace has reigned for many years, with their enemies, the Mireces, and their Red Gods exiled to the inhospitable mountains, held at bay by the powers of the Light. But now the Mireces are on the move, hoping to tear the veil that keeps their Red Gods from the mortal world. The most assured way to break that veil? To spill truly epic amounts of blood in the name of their Gods…

I should probably point out at this moment that this book does fall into the grimdark category. If you haven’t read grimdark in the past, that basically means dark fantasy with characters that are more often than not grey morality or outright amoral. Plots are often ruthless and brutal with much death, and kind of make ‘Game of Thrones’ look positively lighthearted. If that isn’t your thing then you probably won’t enjoy this book very much. As with much grimdark there are quite a few content warnings that I’d like to put out there: violence, torture, religious sacrifice, self injury, internalized homophobia, rape and mutilation. They’re not one time warnings either, they occur multiple times throughout the book, and I don’t say that as criticism, I say that as fact. If you like your fantasy a little more forgiving then this book probably isn’t for you.

If, you know, that does sound like your kind of thing, then please continue.

One of my favourite things about this book was the characters, especially those of Rillirin,Tara, Dom and Crys…though, to be honest, I found all of them interesting in their own way. Rillirin is one of the first characters that we meet, a bed slave of the Mireces King and, honestly, one of my favourite female characters that I’ve read in a while. Seeing her flee from the Mireces, become a stronger person and begin to heal from her trauma, I found it was really great to meet a female character who didn’t have to fit the cookie cutter mold of ‘strong female protagonist’. Rillirin is strong,  but she’s also learning and growing and healing and I can’t wait to see where her story continues in later books.

“Then fuck you all, she thought, I’ll save myself.”

The quotation above is a perfect example of all the great women in this book, from Tara, the excellent Rilporin officer who consistently has to deal with men casting aspersions about how she climbed the ranks, to Gilda, an older woman and priestess who spits in the face of those who come to burn her town, and Lanta, a priestess of the Red Gods who is attempting to seize power for herself from the Mireces Kings. It was really nice to read some grimdark written by a woman, in that the female characters were much more than emotional cannon fodder.

The character of Dom is a fascinating one. I can see a couple of different directions in which his story might go. Out of all the characters in this book, his situation is probably the most tenuous. As a seer he is truly at the mercy of the Gods, who can enter his mind and send him messages and images at any time. Struggling and suffering under a compact that he made in past and trying to desperately avoid losing all sense of reality, I honestly worry for Dom and his tentative relationship with Rillirin. I fear that they might both be harmed by what is to come.

The final character I want to talk about is Crys, who I both adored and had a little bit of trouble with. I should probably preface this by saying that I’m bisexual and that, from what we see in text, Crys also seems to be bisexual. Which is awesome, I love representation and it’s pretty rare to see it in grimdark fantasy, let’s be honest. The problem I have with Crys is the way that him coming to terms with that bisexuality is written. We have a male character who flirts with Crys, and, initially Crys’ response is that he is abhorred, which, well, internalised homophobia is totally a thing, and his response IS explicitly called out on page (which I liked). However, I don’t really feel that we see enough of his mindset changing, of him thinking about his attraction before, boom, it’s the night before a battle and said male character is asking if he wants to kiss him and, suddenly, insta-bi! I also struggled with that scene because it seems as if the other male character is coercing Crys with the whole ‘we might die in battle tomorrow’ and, I totally think it isn’t intentional, but it does play a little into the ‘predatory gay’ trope. So, I’m conflicted, ‘yay’ for a canon mlm relationship in grimdark fantasy but ‘not-so-yay’ for there being some problems in how it was written. I’m hoping that by book two maybe some of those problems might have been ironed out.

Like many people, I went into this book not knowing whether it was a standalone or part of a series. I worked out about half way through that it probably wasn’t a standalone, and I’m actually pretty glad. I think there’s a lot more of this world to see and a lot more story to be told. I’m excited because I’ve sort of been tip-toeing around grimdark recently and I’m glad to see a new voice, especially a female voice! I’m also still kind of shocked that this was a debut, it wasn’t clunky in the slightest and held its own with all the giants of the genre.

So, if you’re looking for something dark and bloody to satisfy your ‘Game of Thrones’ cravings, I suggest picking this up when it comes out a couple of days from now on the 15th of June. The hardback cover looks gorgeous… I’ve also seen some variants with edges sprayed black out there, which, let’s be honest, are absolutely dreamy.

Many many thanks to Harper Voyager for an advanced copy in return for an honest review!!

A song that describes this book to me: The Song of the Sword Dancer (The Witcher: The Wild Hunt OST)