Book Review: Arm of the Sphinx by Josiah Bancroft

Arm of the Sphinx
Genre: Fantasy/Steampunk/Magical Realism
Series: Books of Babel
Author info: http://www.thebooksofbabel.com

This is the second book of Books of babel, here is my review for the first book, Senlin Ascends.

Thomas Senlin’s desperate search for his wife Marya continues and the exciting adventure picks right up where it left off in Senlin Ascends. Now we get to discover the dark side of the tower and get inklings on what kind of purpose it may be serving, more facts of the complex political intrigue and the wars between the ringdoms.

Bancroft takes us to more ringdoms in this book, and they get more bizarre and alien as we climb. Worldbuilding shines here as it does in Senlin Ascends. Each ringdom has its own strange rules, machinations and political schemes, each one a new world if its own.

Arm of the Sphinx features non-Senlin POV’s and we get to see quite a lot from the eyes of the other characters. Getting a whole different perspective of Iren after seeing her as the invincible brute from Senlin’s eyes was great. Voleta’s POV chapters were quite entertaining to read and her relationship with her little pet is adorable.

Many of the mysteries from Senlin Ascends get solved and new mysteries emerge, and we get to meet some enigmatic new characters along the way.

One of my favorite things about this book was the little snippets in the beginning of each chapter, just like Senlin Ascends, and they make some of the best quotes from the book.

All in all, this book is a Steampunk wonder of high literary quality, featuring incredible adventures, top notch character development, beautiful scenes, entrancing imagination and, I must mention, supplemented with marvelous artwork on the author’s site and Instagram account. I highly recommend clicking the author web site and checking out the artwork. I am very much looking forward to the release of the third book, The Hod King. I can’t recommend this series enough, it’s one of the best indie gems that came out of Self Published Fantasy Blog Off (SPFBO) contest and I must thank the bloggers and Mark Lawrence for bringing this awesome series to the spotlight.

Book Review: Senlin Ascends by Josiah Bancroft

Senlin Ascends
Genre: Fantasy/Steampunk/Magical Realism
Series: Books of Babel
Author info: http://www.thebooksofbabel.com

I picked this book up on recommendation from Mark Lawrence and the SPFBO buzz when it made to the semifinals. It didn’t sound like my cup of tea at first (since I prefer pre-modern fantasy settings with lots of magic and epic battles) but I picked it up anyway -interrupting my Wheel of Time marathon- and loved it to death.

Senlin Ascends is a fresh new breath in the genre fiction. If I quote The Wert Zone, “In another universe, Senlin Ascends, which was originally published in 2013, would have already won the Campbell, Hugo, Nebula and Arthur C. Clarke Award.” and I agree with this statement. Senlin Ascends has a steampunk setting, with early modern pistols, airships, goggles and what have you. Steampunk lovers will become fans of it and the sequel, The Arm of the Sphinx.

I think Breaking Bad lovers will also greatly enjoy this book, since the main character is a school headmaster who is trying to survive in a hostile environment full of villains and criminals. He doesn’t become an epic bad guy like Walter White, but there are certain parallels.

The story starts with Senlin and his wife going to the Tower of Babel on their honeymoon trip, only to discover chaos reigns there and Senlin ends up losing his wife Marya in the crowd. He proceeds into the Tower to find her, but discovers the Tower is nothing like what he read in the tourist guides. Each level is a new ringdom, which is a realm with its own rules and unique environment. Some of them are run down, some are pretty and pleasant on the surface but with a dark side. Out of the numerous ringdoms of the Tower, we get to see four in Senlin Ascends and there will be more uncovered in The Arm of the Sphinx. I must say the worldbuilding is amazing and the alien qualities of the ringdoms shows great creativity.

The characters are brilliantly rendered and the prose is exceptional even for the mainstream published books, let alone an indie. The setting was so vivid and the prose so beautiful, I didn’t care the least bit about the lack of magic and fantasy elements. I have given harsh critique to other fantasy books for lacking fantasy stuff, but the steampunk here is so awesome I didn’t miss the high fantasy and magic at all. There are plenty of dark and creepy scenes in this book, which I greatly enjoyed as a grimdark fan. It’s not exactly grimdark, but has a dark atmosphere, with a bit of humor and uplifting moments spicing it up.

Senlin Ascends leans more towards magical realism than genre fiction, with high literary quality, but it’s a compelling page turner with plenty of adventures and intrigue. Josiah Bancroft is a genius for writing a book of incredible literary merit without making it boring for the genre fiction readers. I love Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea books, but most of my bookworm friends found it boring, including a couple of literary snobs. But no one can say Senlin Ascends is the least bit boring or dragging. If they do, they are smoking crack.

I can’t recommend this book enough, all the hype is 100% accurate and the most reputable reviewers of the fantasy scene loved it for good reason.

Josiah Bancroft does fantastic chalk art of his characters, you can check them out on his web site: http://www.thebooksofbabel.com/new-gallery/

Book Review: The Tombs of Atuan by Ursula K. Le Guin

Tombs of Atuan
Genre: Fantasy
Series: Earthsea Cycle
Author info: http://www.ursulakleguin.com/

This is the second book of the great classic Earthsea Cycle. See my review for the first book here.

A Wizard of Earthsea was about Ged’s journey to become a sorcerer and his struggle with the evil shadow, this book tells the story of Tenar, a young girl taken away from her family at the tender age of five to be raised as the priestess of the Nameless gods.She is forced to shed her identity and they call her Arha in her new life.

It starts a story of loneliness and continues as a story of courage. Tenar is incredibly lonely despite the high position she holds, a position which is more symbolic than one of real power. She has no close friends other than the eunuch guardian, and learning the ways of the dark labyrinths where no light is allowed is a daunting task.

This is not your typical epic fantasy full of action, but a beautiful tale nonetheless. Ursula K. Le Guin’s prose is amazing and the imagery is vivid. This book explores the limits of faith, loyalty, trust and tradition. The stark contrast between the unyielding religious devotion and the doubts hacking away the faith, the religious authorities bending the faith to their agenda or lacking it altogether, the courage to question everything you have been taught and break through the dogma is brilliantly depicted.

As it is mentioned in the blurb,Ged shows up later as a secondary character, and the relationship between Tenar and Ged starting with suspicion and turnign into mutual admiration and trust is fascinating to read. Tenar’s character development is stellar.

This is a great book. I think even the people who found a Wizard of Earthsea boring will like this book. I liked it a lot, it’s different from most fantasy books I read and I loved both the worldbuilding and the philosophical aspects. Earthsea books are leaning more towards literary fiction than genre fiction, but I highly recommend this book and its prequel, A Wizard of Earthsea, to fantasy lovers out there.

Book Review: The Dragon Reborn by Robert Jordan

The Dragon Reborn
Genre: Fantasy
Series: The Wheel of Time
Author info: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Jordan

This is book #3 of the legendary Wheel of Time series. See my reviews for the first book and the second book.

Warning: Spoilers for the previous books, since it’s inevitable when reviewing series, especially a long one like The Wheel of Time.

I enjoyed reading this book a great deal, I must say it was quite interesting to read a whole book with non-Rand POV’s and getting to know some of the supporting characters better. I didn’t care much for Perrin in the beginning, but he grew on me since he had some great POV chapters showing his internal conflict quite well.

The pacing is excellent, a lot of things are going on, different teams of characters set out on different journeys and deal with serious threats.

The star of the book was Mat without question. He has been a great burden on everyone in the previous book, paralyzed with the curse of the dagger and pretty much out of the game. Once the Aes Sedai cured him of that horrible curse, he started to kick serious arse. His gambling runs and inn-hopping with Thom were some of the most entertaining parts of the book. Mat is awesome and he grabbed the spot for my favorite character in this series so far.

A new character called Faile aka Zarine is introduced in this book and dear Gods she is irritating as hell. She wins the second place for the most annoying female fantasy characters after Denna from the Kingkiller Chronicle, though I’ve been told she cleans up her act and becomes nice in later books. We shall see.

Hopper, Perrin’s wolf familiar is another favorite of mine. He sort of reminds me of Nighteyes from Farseer books, but unlike vigorous and youthful Nighteyes, Hopper is a wise elder wolf type.

We get to know the mysterious Aiel people and their awesome warrior culture. Aiel girls were cool as hell and I loved their witty lines. A Goodreads reviewer wrote Aiel sound like a fantasy version of the Fremen in Dune, and not very original, but it has been many years since I’ve seen the Dune movies and I’ve never read the books, they seemed quite original and awesome to me. They actually sound a bit like the Tuareg tribes in our world.

Tear setting was excellent, so different from the other cities -which were also different form each other- with its unique power structure and strange culture. The details of the cities and the different cultures never fails to immerse me in the world and the story.

Only two things bothered me so far about the Wheel of Time series: 1) Nynaeve’s constant braid tugging (the girl will go bald if she keeps that up!) 2) Bad guys’ names being Hebrew demon names (Sammael, Bel’al=Belial) and the Dark One’s name being the same as the Islamic name for Satan (Shaitan), his alias Ba’alzamon sounding too much like the Hebrew demon Beelzebub -it is kind of annoying. I imagine it shouldn’t bother the readers who are not familiar with Middle Eastern demonology.

Verdict: I loved it. Excellent prose, characters, pacing, action, worldbuilding. I can’t wait to dive into book 4!

Book Review: The Great Hunt by Robert Jordan

The Great Hunt
Genre: Fantasy
Series: The Wheel of Time
Author info: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Jordan

This is book #2 of the legendary Wheel of Time series and I enjoyed it even more than book #1. See my review for the first book here.

The plot thickens and Robert Jordan’s amazing worldbuilding starts unfolding for real in this volume. I was happy to finally see some character development with Rand and hear his voice more. Rand felt like a looking glass character in the first book, but in The Great Hunt Rand really starts to shine. His refusal to accept being the Dragon Reborn and inner struggles was quite intriguing to read.

I honestly didn’t care for Egwene in the beginning, but she grew on me later on. My new fav character was introduced here: The Amyrlin Seat, leader of the Aes Sedai in Tar Valon. She is quite a remarkable character. She came from a fishing village background and the way she makes fishing related analogies about everything is brilliant. Robert Jordan is a genius about weaving characters with such fine details. Also I’m always on the lookout for female characters that aren’t pretty princesses or warrior vixens, so I’m quite happy to see an awesome motherly character with a sharp wit.

Lan got on my nerves a bit in The Eye of the World but here he shines with his cool charm.

The Shienarans have a very different and interesting culture, again Robert Jordan’s superb talent for creating believable and richly detailed cultures keeps impressing the hell out of me. Their attitudes and worldview is quite interesting, nothing like the mainland Andor folks.

Children of the Light continue to be a horrible nuisance, I hate them even more than the Darkfriends. They remind me of the Westboro Baptist Church. They are even more irritating than them.

The Great Game of the Houses in Cairhien puts the Game of Thrones court intrigue to shame, though it gets a bit too colorful in places, but those chapters were my favorites nonetheless. Rand’s attitude is brilliant, too.

I was happy to see Min again, she had a very small part in book 1 but she intrigued the hell out of me, the way Robert Jordan brought her back tot he story was superb.

Girls will kick arse, I am hell bent on keeping my reviews spoiler-free but I found the scenes where they pulled serious badassery quite pleasing to read. These are the kinds of female characters I want to read about, they can take care of business and kick arse when needed. After the weakling messed up females of Asoiaf, Robert Jordan’s girls are such a delight to read. I’m a fan!

My search for a crush-worthy male character continues, I think I will settle for Ba’alzamon for the time being, he comes the closest.

Book Review: A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin

A Wizard of Earthsea
Genre: Fantasy
Series: Earthsea Cycle
Author info: http://www.ursulakleguin.com/

This is one of the classics of fantasy. It was written in 1967 when the only example of fantasy literature out there was LOTR. It has wizards and dragons, but it’s nothing remotely like a typical fantasy book. It’s more literary fiction than genre fiction, despite the fantasy elements in it, and also it’s quite original and nothing like any fantasy book I’ve read.

If you read this book with the typical expectations you’d have for genre fiction, you might be disappointed. Quite a few friends who read it found it boring, but I beg to differ. I have read plenty of literary fiction in my younger days and A Wizard of Earthsea has reminded me of The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho and Jonathan Livingston Seagull by Richard Bach -which were written years later- even though it’s quite different. I have read a review in Goodreads saying Ursula K. Le Guin has studied Taoist philosophy and A Wizard of Earthsea has heavy Taoist themes, even though I am not much familiar with Taoism, I can say I noticed the underlying East Asian philosophy in the story.

The prose is beautiful, there are no plot holes at all, and none of the typical tropes and cliches. The twists are masterful and a delight to read. Where everyone copied from Tolkien, even decades after LOTR, Le Guin wrote a completely original story when there was no example of fantasy fiction other than LOTR. That alone makes it worth a read. It’s not even 200 pages anyway, for those of us who are used to 600-700 page fantasy books, it should take a day or two day to read this book.

I didn’t find it boring at all and loved the philosophy in it. If you read it like literary fiction with fantasy themes, you will most probably love it.

Book Review: The Eye of the World by Robert Jordan

The Eye of The World
Genre: Fantasy
Series: The Wheel of Time
Author info: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Jordan

Everyone, including my editor, roommate and my first beta reader has been bugging me to read the Wheel of Time for the longest time. The sheer size of the series made me push it to the back of the TBR stack cause I had other review commitments and ARC’s, but I finally got into it now. This is the first book of this magnificent series and I must say I read it until I fell asleep at night, it’s very hard to put it down.

First of all, it’s a damn good read and a 3 am in the morning page turner with top notch worldbuilding and intriguing characters, even after reading all that modern fantasy by Mark Lawrence, R. Scott Bakker, Joe Abercrombie, Patrick Rothfuss etc. That alone should say something.

Some folk told me the first book has a bit too much Tolkien influence and similarities to the LOTR plot lines, but I found that hardly noticable. There are a few parallels but the rich details, diverse cultures and cities, awesome original fantasy elements and the finely woven plot threads make the LOTR influence fade away quickly.

Supporting characters are incredibly well done and I liked them a lot. Another thing I must mention is the female characters. Nynaeve and Moiraine are some of the best I’ve read in fantasy so far. Their battle of wills was damn entertaining to read. Jordan’s female characters are brilliant, they have important roles and they aren’t there to look pretty and stand as the important male characters’ love interests. Also I love how they can be powerful and badass and yet still be feminine. They aren’t fighting men with breasts or immature girls pining over some dude half the time, they can take care of themselves and the others.

The main hero Rand felt like a looking glass character throughout the first book until the last few chapters. Now that I’m 3/4 through the second book, I must say Rand is one of the most impressive slow character development cases I have seen to date. One thing I have heard a lot about the Wheel of Time is the brilliant delayed gratification and how it pays off huge to stay patient and keep reading. I have already seen what they mean, and slow character development is realistic as hell.

The bard character Thom Merrilin was my favorite along with Moiraine, Lan and Nynaeve. He is a grumpy old man but funny as hell, and saves the day in quite a few places. I love it how it’s the greybeard bard saving the hero’s neck, and not the big muscular warrior wielding the sword. One of the many great details in this amazing book.

The intricate political plots were well done and I think the Game of Houses/Great Game concept might have influenced the game of Thrones, but it is a bit more colorful and exaggerated in places, yet quite entertaining to read. I have a feeling the political intrigue will get even more complex and epic as the story unfolds.

Another thing I really like about this book is how Robert Jordan establishes such a strong and detailed lore and feeds it to the reader without doing boring infodumps. One thing I can’t stand in books is the outdated wall of text style infodumps, I take pains to avoid it in my own writing. Robert Jordan did such an impressive job of it, all the lore and world info unfolds thread by thread, we get to see it through the characters’ eyes as we go along, not hit by gods-awful walls of text distracting from the story. I think every aspiring fantasy writer needs to read Patrick Rothfuss and Robert Jordan to learn how to convey lore and worldbuilding without slapping the readers with the horrendous infodumps.

Plot twists you don’t see coming and the brilliant foreshadowing is another thing that impressed me about this book, like I said even after reading all that modern fantasy and realistic grimdark books, The Eye of The World still managed to drop my jaw.

My only criticism is the name of the bad guy (sort of a fallen god) is the Islamic name of Satan and his main alias is too similar to a Solomonic demon’s name. With all the original elements and names in the book, that was a bit of a disappointment, albeit a minor one.

Long story short: You are missing out a LOT if you haven’t read this book (and the rest of the series!) I highly recommend it. In fact don’t call yourself a fantasy reader if you haven’t read Robert Jordan.