Book Review: Gardens of the Moon

Gardens of the Moon

My original plan was to get all my summer reading and ARC’s out of the way before getting into Malazan so I can read all of them back to back. However, the constant stream of people posting in various fantasy groups on Facebook about how Gardens of the Moon is so confusing and asking whether they should keep on reading stirred up my curiosity to the point of dropping the WoT #4 and everything else and grabbing this, and I am so very glad I did.

Gardens of the Moon has the reputation for being one of the biggest Marmite books of fantasy genre. I didn’t care much for Marmite, but I totally fell in love with Gardens of the Moon and looking forward to reading the rest of the series. Even Erikson laments about it in the foreword, you can see the pangs of regret between the pages. But I think GOTM is just fine the way it is.

People who are used to reading books with a clear beginning-middle-end and linear story arc where the world and magic and how everything works is explained in detail are going to find GOTM confusing as hell. People who have enjoyed ASOIAF books -preferably more than once- won’t have much trouble. I was warned about paying attention to detail so I watched everything like a hawk from the very beginning. Tiniest details and pieces of dialogues from the prologue comes back to you with a bang later on, but if you miss it in the beginning, you miss out and end up getting lost. This is true for everything else, not only the beginning parts. Just pay attention! Even the seemingly insignificant and unimportant minor characters are there for a reason and serve a purpose.

I have read a number of medieval chronicles and some early modern fiction, so I was no stranger to the format of the book. Erikson doesn’t explain things with infodumps, he doesn’t hold your hand, so you figure things out by paying attention. Some people say Gardens of the Moon requires a lot of effort, but I beg to disagree. It requires no effort other than paying attention. It’s just a book, not some rocket science manual as some folk make it out to be, only it is structured in a rather unusual way. Unusual for the fantasy genre, that is.

Gardens of the Moon is more like the medieval chronicles and early modern fiction. Sort of like Gargantua and Pantagruel by Rabeleis, which I highly recommend to fantasy lovers of high brow tastes (there is some irony to be found here) and I talk about in detail in this post here. Gardens of the Moon structure is quite similar to that. It is also somewhat similar to medieval Byzantine chronicles.

Those chronicles start with the reign of the current emperor, maybe his predecessor, but they throw you right into the thick of things without holding your hand. They don’t explain the state institutions and how things work and how the framework of the whole empire is structured, you are supposed to know it. Those books were written as a record of the history, and after 1000 years many things got lost. Historians were not able to make sense of some of the jokes, alliterations and references. Some they deciphered by cross-referencing other books and documents of the period, but what’s lost is lost for good.

I have read the chronicles depicting the city I was born and raised and spent the first few years of my adult life in, but it read more like an alien city in some imaginary fantasy land most of the time. Only because some of the edifices present in the period still stand today it is possible to even recognize the place. There are footnotes in almost every page, explaining names, terms, references, military terminology, government positions, measurements (they used different reckoning of hours, calendar, distance units, weight units, nothing like the stuff we use today.) For example, they talk about the time of the day like “third hour of the night” which would be roughly 9 pm of a couple hours earlier or later depending on the season. They measure all distances with stades, which is about 1/10 of a mile. You read the footnote where it’s used the first time and do the conversion in your head through the rest of the book. You convert all those things in your head to the modern units you are familiar with, and if you forget, you have to go back to the footnotes. Now this is something that requires effort to read. Gardens of the Moon certainly does not fall into that category. There is no math, no calculations. You only need to pay attention to things and remember them, that is all.

If you are having trouble, there is an excellent read-along guide recapping every chapter of every book. You can check with it after you finish a chapter or few. Here is the guide: Malazan Reread of the Fallen.

But like I mentioned, if you are an ASOIAF fan, you should have no trouble comprehending Gardens of the Moon. There is a big cast of characters, but even if you aren’t an ASOIAF veteran you eventually get used to it if you stick around. Chapters are short and POV changes within the same chapter sometimes, so it takes a while to get attached to any of the characters. But once you start following them, you will find your favorites. Some of the best ones don’t show up or start revealing their badassery until later.

The sheer number of main characters may be overwhelming for people who aren’t used to that kind of setup, so here is an excellent guide made by my lovely friend Laura M. Hughes to help out: Laura’s Guide to Malazan Characters (Gardens of the Moon)

Some of those characters start out as ordinary folk, but they turn out to be hell of a lot more than what they seem. It’s great fun to watch it unfold, I’m telling you!

Now, if you are a big fan of Riftwar books and Elder Scrolls Games, there is a good chance you will totally love Gardens of the Moon (and the rest of Malazan I suppose.) There are thieves, assassins, rooftop wars, heist scenes, alchemists, cool artifacts, and an epic tavern/inn where all the ruffians meet up and hang out. I’m a huge fan of the thieves’ guild and Dark Brotherhood in Elder Scrolls games, as well as the thieves of Krondor in Riftwar books, so all those scenes were more than reason enough for me to love this book to death before even reaching half of it. Oh, and magic. There is awesome, bombastic, kickass magic. The awesomeness of it is slowly revealed, layer by layer.

More than anything, Gardens of the Moon is a political intrigue and military action book. There is a number of political factions and complex political plots. It was hell of a lot of fun to read as a big fan of political intrigue.

Now let’s get to the characters: There are total cunts you will love to hate, as well as some charismatic guys, silly boys, strong women, loveable ruffians, mysterious elder races, funny dudes, sinister politicians and the legendary Bridgeburners. Brigeburners is the elite military squad everyone respects and their enemies are doing everything to decimate them. Those guys are so damn cool and they have epic tricks up their sleeves and some hilarious bickering moments as the icing of the cake. Gardens of the Moon and the Bridgeburners got me so hooked, I ordered a Bridgeburners t-shirt before I even finished reading the book. That should tell you something.

And then there is the glorious Anomander Rake. I didn’t think I would ever fall head over heels for a character and go all fangirl after R. Scott Bakker’s magnificent Cleric character in The Judging Eye, but Anomander Rake totally caught me off guard. He is ambiguous, mysterious, melancholy, supremely charismatic, has a killer magic sword called Dragnipur unlike any magic sword I have ever read in fantasy books, and badassery level off the charts. I’m smitten! Can’t wait to read more.

And then there is Kruppe, who is the funny uncle with the silly ramblings, but he has some neat tricks up his sleeve and some more. That is all I can say to stick with the spoiler free premise.

There is this Deck of Dragons, which is like a magic level +10 version of Tarot cards. If you are into Tarot, you will definitely enjoy it. Another thing I absolutely loved about Gardens of the Moon is the lack of sappy romance and ridiculous love triangles. There is one case of a dude having a crush on a girl, but it’s hilarious rather than sappy. There is no annoying pining and all that jazz.

It might be a bit confusing to some readers who are not used to this kind of structure, but the payoff is massive. Trust me on that! Not only that but there are excellent companion guides to help out if you are having any trouble, which I linked above. If you love fantasy, this book has every element of fantasy without being cliche and derivative. Steven Erikson is a professional anthropologist and it shows in the realism of the cultures and different lands. It’s incredibly rich in detail. If you are a history buff, you will most probably become a fan.
Then again, it’s known as the Marmite book and you might not like it at all. There is only one way to find out!

Book Review: The Last Wish by Andrzej Sapkowski

The Last Wish
Genre: Fantasy/Sword & Sorcery
Series: The Witcher
Author info: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Andrzej_Sapkowski

This is the first book of the renowned Witcher series, which inspired the popular video games. I am a gamer but I never played Witcher cause it was never available on my console, and I didn’t want to crowd my life with another console just to play this game. Reading the book made me consider getting a Ps4 so I can play the glorious Witcher 3 on it.

The Last Wish is a collection of loosely connected short stories, which retell the familiar fairy tales with dark, gritty and bloody twists. I didn’t recognize all of them, but the ones I did recognize were quite twisted and great fun to read.

Many reviewers compared The Last Wish to pulp sword & sorcery classics like Robert Howard’s Conan and Michael Moorcock’s Elric books, and they are right on point. I haven’t read any Conan books yet, but I’ve read a few Elric books and it certainly has the old school pulpy sword and sorcery feel.

Geralt is quite an intriguing and charismatic character, he has legions of fans thanks to the video games, but also many that have read the books. If you head to deviantart and search for Geralt, you will find some fan art by incredibly talented artists. Geralt is a witcher, raised by the Witcher Guild who take kids at young age, erase their memories and mutate them with harsh elixirs, poisons and infections. They hunt monsters for a living, save the people from murderous creatures. Some towns treat them like vermin, some barely tolerate them cause of the job they do, few places show them respect.

Geralt’s friends, high priestess Nenneke and trubadour Dandilion are highly entertaining characters. Their bickering with Geralt is hilarious and adds a bit of good humor to the stories loaded with bloody, brutal fights, plenty of suspense and and hardcore action scenes. Some people find Dandilion annoying as hell but I liked him. He sort of reminded me of the Kender Tasslehoff from Dragonlance, minus the nasty thieving habit. Instead of thieving, he invites trouble with his big mouth and whines too much. He is also a womanizer who eyeballs every attractive female. Geralt eyeballs them too, but doesn’t make it too obvious and acts aloof.

Nenneke on the other hand, plays the nurturing yet snarky mother role for Geralt and patches him up whenever he gets too many cuts on his hide. She also gives hell to Geralt’s enemies who show up at the temple to plague him.

Queen Calanthe is another great supporting character and her banter with Geralt is highly entertaining. Yennefer, Geralt’s love interest I know from all the fan art I’ve seen around is also introduced in this book. She is as dysfunctional and goat-headed as Geralt, and a powerful sorceress with a mercenary personality. She is arrogant and coquettish, and has some hilarious as well as dramatic and violent scenes. I think there will be a lot of fun to be had in the next books featuring her.

I particularly liked the small towns, villages, pastoral settings and Slavic mythology elements. The balance of snarky humor, dark scenes and high-paced action is great. This book makes an excellent light reading material in between intense grimdark books. I am definitely going to read all the rest of them, Geralt pretty much sold me on the whole series.

Naturally the prose Polish friends spoke highly of and a quite a few  jokes got lost in translation, and there are a few rough edges here and there but it is a great read nonetheless.

I highly recommend this book to the fans of Sword and Sorcery, old school pulp fantasy, as well as people looking for settings that are different from medieval Western Europe (it’s Polish setting), ladies who are looking for a bad boy character to have a crush on, fans of fantasy with a bit of humor and hilarious bickering, and people who are looking for a nice light read after nightmare fuel grimdark books.

I sure as hell loved it!

Book Review: Red Sister by Mark Lawrence

Red Sister
Genre: Fantasy/YA Fantasy/Grimdark
Series: Book of the Ancestor
Author info:http://www.marklawrence.buzz/

Release date: April 4th 2017

I was lucky enough to receive an advanced copy of Red Sister from Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.

Warning: This book is going to leave you with severe withdrawal symptoms, but good news is Mark Lawrence is a prolific author and delivers the next books in the series like clockwork, judging from his established track record.

Red Sister completely blew my mind, bringing back the magic school environment I missed from Harry Potter and Kingkiller so much, with a kick and some serious action. It’s not only the magic but the teachers with all kinds of different personalities, friendships, bullies, assassination plots, mysteries, friends sneaking out and cooking up mischief, the whole package. But it’s dark, much darker than any book with magic schools.

Now, I’m a big fan of Mark Lawrence and I’ve read all of his books, but this one is quite different. It’s very much Mark’s style, but written in third person and I think that’s one major element making it different from the others which were all in first person. There is the amazing prose of Mark Lawrence, if you are not familiar with his previous work, let me give you an example from Red Sister:

She left nothing but an echo of her lantern light, soon consumed by a night so ancient that it never truly left such places.

And another:

I have been too young to know, and I have been too old to care. It’s in that oh so narrow slice between that memories are made. So enjoy it.

And my favorite of them all:

A long blade, thin, carrying a slight curve, its edge cruel enough to cut silence and make it scream.

Now if those won’t make you hit that buy button, I don’t know what will! For those who are not familiar, this is the typical Mark Lawrence prose. So beautiful, poetic and magical.

The story is heavily character driven, as Mark Lawrence’s other books, but with an awesome magic system to boot.

The main character, Nona, is the best female lead I have read in the fantasy genre along with Mara from the Empire trilogy. If you love Arya Stark, you will definitely love Nona. Even if you are no fan of Arya Stark, you will still love Nona, cause she is a no-nonsense girl, the kind of character everyone can root for.

Another thing worth mentioning is the friendships between the girls, something that was missing in the Harry Potter books and pretty much every fantasy book I have read except for the Wheel of Time. Friendships, loyalty and betrayal in Red Sister is so realistic, it took me back to the middle school and high school years.

Nona starts off as the bullied outcast but she turns out to be a serious badass who doesn’t take BS from anyone. She had no friends but one until she got sold to a child trader by her mother and village folk, and she values friendship a great deal. I found her reflections on friendship, and her relationship with her closest friends Clera and Hessa quite touching.

Hessa is disabled, left with a withered leg after an infectious disease. She is such a sweetheart and a smart cookie, also incredibly heroic, which made her one of my favorite supporting characters.

One thing I loved about Red Sister was how even the minor characters were fleshed out so well. The teachers all have their distinct personalities, and some of them reminded me of teachers I had in school back in the days of my youth. The classes were great fun to read, but my favorite was the martial training parts.

The magic system is quite original and intriguing as I mentioned. The migrants who populated this world had four tribes with different kinds of traits, and those of them with magic could wield the different sorts of magic powers depending on their bloodline. The tribes had to intermarry and mix their blood to survive the harsh conditions of this alien world. Children showing the traits of more than one bloodline are highly prized by the people who train them as fighters, assassins, battle nuns and what have you.

Another thing I loved was how Nona’s mysterious backstory slowly unfolded along with the mysteries of the strange world Abeth. The curiosity kept me turning the pages well into the wee hours. Last few chapters of the book are outstanding with superb action and plot twists.

Abeth is an alien world, but the characters being so realistic makes you forget that at times. It has its own rules, strange laws of nature, a dying sun and a falling moon, and is covered with glaciers except for the fifty mile corridor at its equator. There are mysterious remnants of an older and seemingly extinct civilization, I suspect we might find out more about it in the next book.

The fight scenes are quite original, though I can’t say much cause it would be a spoiler, but as someone who is easily bored of typical fighting scenes, I loved these since they are from a completely different perspective. Kind of like the special effects in movies, but the book version, which is something very difficult to do in writing. I think that was one of the things where you realize what a master wordsmith Mark Lawrence is.

Another thing I absolutely love about Red Sister is the lack of irritating love triangle cliches and the forced romance plots you see in the overwhelming majority of YA books and coming of age storylines. No sir, no romance here, and no love triangles. These girls literally kick arse left and right and have serious things to worry about, and Red Sister gets the big bonus points from me for the awesome political intrigue with the female villains having motivations stemming from political ambitions not involving shallow romance drama.

There is another kickass thing here which I can’t mention cause it would be a spoiler, but it should suffice to say I enjoyed reading -with a huge grin in my face- how Mark Lawrence upended some of the most annoying coming-of-age cliches and showed the real girl power here.

My other favorite supporting character was Abbess Glass, who is a snarky and sharp-witted middle aged female character. This sort of character is so rare in fantasy -at least the books I’ve read so far. She reminded me of Olenna Tyrell from A Song of Ice and Fire/Game of Thrones and queen Alica Kendeth from Red Queen’s War, she’s awesome like them. I have a feeling she will do serious damage in the next book.

And the ending… Gods above, what an ending that was! I really, really hope this series becomes a mainstream hit and they make movies or TV series of it, cause this story with its superb action scenes would be so great to see on the screen.

I highly recommend this book if you are looking for a superb fantasy novel featuring amazing characters -especially female characters!- an awesome magic system, great plot twists, killer action, political intrigue, sans the annoying love triangles and tired cliches. Such a great book with a fresh new perspective and impressive depth.

I really don’t have time to re-read books with my rather massive TBR, but I put this in my re-read list cause it’s the special kind of great. I have to thank Mark Lawrence for bringing back my youth with such a mind-blowing magnificent story.

Luckily I have such a massive TBR, or else it would be painful to wait for the next book, which I know will be even better judging from Mark’s established track record.

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.

Waiting on Wednesday: Red Sister by Mark Lawrence

new-wow
Waiting on Wednesday is a weekly meme hosted at Breaking the Spine.
I am waiting for Red Sister by Mark Lawrence, to be released on April 4, 2017.

Red Sister

Here is the blurb:

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.

Stolen from the shadow of the noose, Nona is sought by powerful enemies, and for good reason. Despite the security and isolation of the convent her secret and violent past will find her out. Beneath a dying sun that shines upon a crumbling empire, Nona Grey must come to terms with her demons and learn to become a deadly assassin if she is to survive…

I’m looking forward to this one because:

I’m a huge fan of Mark Lawrence and I’m reading the e-ARC at the moment. It’s totally different from the other books he has written and it’s truly glorious. Even though I have the e-ARC, it would be real nice to have the hardcover copy on my shelf.

What new release are you looking forward to? Share your post in the comments below!

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.