Book Review: The Tower of Living and Dying by Anna Smith Spark

The Tower of Living and Dying

This is the second book of Empires of Dust series.
Here is my spoiler-free review of the first book, The Court of Broken Knives.

Genre: Fantasy/Grimdark
Series: Empires of Dust
Author info: http://courtofbrokenknives.org/

The Court of Broken Knives was a highly unusual and fantastic book for the fantasy genre, and The Tower of Living and Dying takes all the great things, artistic and evocative prose, stunning battle scenes, conflicts and melancholy, lyrical beauty and brings it to a whole another level with everything dialled up to 11.

The writing style is unique and highly original, and this is probably what made The Court of Broken Knives a marmite book for some fantasy readers. Those who have read literary fiction and classic literature will most certainly appreciate the poetic, evocative and unique style here.

I think the Court of Broken Knives was the most underrated fantasy debut of 2017,but I have faith that this series is going to be among the classics of modern fantasy in good time. The literary quality and the lyrical nature of Anna Smith Spark’s prose is a serious competition to Rothfuss and the worldbuilding is simply amazing. Fantasy elements are aplenty, be it magic, dragons, divine spectral beings, mythological creatures, demons and what have you.

Character conflict is another notable element of awesomeness here. The main POV characters from The Court of Broken Knives are all present, but fraught with new and deeper conflicts -perhaps with the exception of Marith, who was already messed up beyond any redemption from the very beginning. Landra Relast and her tragic storyline evokes empathy for her, if you couldn’t find anyone to root for in the first book, Landra and Tobias might be your guys. They were certainly mine!

Orhan Emmereth is my other favorite character, his parts were some of the most intriguing in the whole book. His perspective shows the spiderweb style politics, court intrigue and the tension of family and relationship issues. I am not a big fan of sappy romance, but give me troubled relationships any day! Orhan and Darath are my fav gay couple and I think slash fanfic writers should write fanfics of them. It’s already slash and they are cute, what’s there not to love?

I am not a big fan of song lyrics and poetry in books -with the exception of great Tolkien- but I found the few poems scattered in The Tower of Living and Dying absolutely mesmerizing.

Sorlost in all its glory and decay, gorgeous nature scenery of the White Islands, harsh beauty of Illyr, all take you away from this world and transport you to another one. Action, thrill and suspense scenes combined with the reflections of massive conflicts made this book an addictive page turner for me, not just the fact that Raeta is my alter ego and evil twin.

Both hand to hand combat and battle parts are glorious and cinematic, you can almost see the glint of swords, hear the clangour of heavy cavalry riding into a charge and smell the blood and guts in the air. Downright some of the best battle scenes I have ever read in fantasy along with Malazan and Bakker’s Second Apocalypse books. If you are into fighting and martial arts, this series might be just your thing.

Non-predictable and non-formulaic nature of the book combined with tornado-like plot twists will leave your head spinning -in a good way.

I almost forgot to mention the most important aspect: This book is even more GDAF (grimdark as fuck) than The Court of Broken Knives, which was pretty damn GDAF to begin with. There is all kinds of horror shows and macabre scenes, not to mention the incredible darkness of some of the characters. Grimdarkiness level is, dare I say, about on par with Bakker. I think even Bakker might agree with me here if I must wager a bet.

Another bonus point goes to Anna for the flies. A lot of gritty stories out there are missing the flies, you see. Quite a few authors describe the stench and disgusting visuals, but totally forget the flies, so you can tell the author is sitting in a sterile suburb writing it and never really seen a latrine pit. Kudos for making sure there are clouds of flies swarming on and above nasty, stinky, dead things at all times and scatter buzzing like hell when you go near it. This is what I call proper hyper-realistic grimdark!

There is a whole lot of things I could write, but I keep my reviews spoiler free so this is about all I can say without giving anything away.

TL; DR: Go buy this and the prequel if you have refined tastes and appreciate stunning, original and poetic prose, and if you are a fan of things like maxed out grimdark, glorius battles and deeply conflicted grey and super dark characters. Thank me later.

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Book Review: Blackwing by Ed McDonald

Blackwing

Genre: Fantasy/Grimdark
Series: Raven’s Mark
Author info: https://edmcdonaldwriting.com/

It has been a couple of weeks since I finished Blackwing, but I am writing the review now since I had been dealing with illness, job change and other personal issues. I wanted to find some quiet time in order to do justice to this excellent debut. There was a lot of hype when it came out, and Blackwing more than lives up to it.

The whole story is told in first person narrative from Ryhalt Galharrow’s perspective. I couldn’t decide whether the guy is likeable or not, but he is quite an intriguing character. Galharrow, a battle-hardened drunkard with nihilistic tendencies, is a Blackwing captain serving one the godlike entities called the Nameless and moonlighting as a bounty hunter. He works with his crew, and two core members stand out as stellar side characters. Nenn is a sharp-tongued badass warrior, and Tnota is an affable navigator from an exotic land. Nenn reminded me of Michael Fletcher’s Stehlen character from the Manifest Delusions books. She takes no shit from anyone and fights like a demon. What’s there not to like?

The other well-written female character is Ezabeth, Galharrow’s old girlfriend from his teenage years he is still madly in love with. She is quite enigmatic for most of the story, kind of mysterious and distant from the POV of Galharrow. She is a damn good example of a first class badass female character that is not a warrior princess type. Ezabeth is a 45 kilo nothing skinny gal, but boy does she kick arse left and right!

The setting is cool and the place called Misery is one of the most impressive settings I have read so far. Hats off to Ed for creating such a novel, spooky, weird ass place. You never know what will hit you in Misery, you feel the terror along with the characters walking on eggshells. The villains and mutant creatures that are spawn out of Misery are pretty unusual and creepy as hell.

There are a ot of mysteries in Blackwing, and their beautifully paced resolutions and reveals make it a page turner you can’t put down until you drop (or finish the book.)
I gotta say people are right to compare it to Abercrombie’s work, it has the grimdark, the humor, the gore, the battle scenes and the plot twists. Oh and Ed McDonald’s HEMA mastery shows. I’m easily bored with prolonged swordfighting scenes (Raymond E. Feist, I’m looking at you!) but McDonald manages to put just the right dose of sword porn, keeping it highly engaging and neat. There’s matchlock and sword fights, both are excellent.

The only thing I’ll complain about is that the relationship development between Galharrow and Ezabeth in the last part of the book didn’t sit right with me and felt rushed. But that’s not a big deal considering the book is a damn good read overall.

All in all Blackwing is a pretty solid debut (I know, I know, everyone is saying the same on Goodreads but that is a fact!) with a top notch post apocalyptic grimdark setting, kickass grimdark characters, super cool magic system, copious doses of originality and creative talent. You are missing a lot if you aren’t reading it -I know I slapped myself for being so late to pick it up.

Book Review: Faithless by Graham Austin-King

Faithless
Genre: Dark Fantasy/Grimdark
Author info: http://www.grahamaustin-king.com/

This book is as solid and kickass as the cover promises and then some. I loved Riven Wyrde Saga, which is the debut trilogy by Graham Austin-King. I expected high quality from this book, but Faithless exceeded my expectations by far. Riven Wyrde Saga books were great reads, and already on my re-read list (I can afford to re-read very few books given my swamped schedule) but Faithless is at a totally different level. I must give the trigger warning though: There are scenes involving child sexual abuse. Nothing graphic, but might be disturbing for survivors. Read at your own discretion.

The editing is top notch and superior to no small number of mainstream published fantasy books for one. The worldbuilding, realism, characters and action scenes blew me away.

The story is told from the perspective of two main characters, Wynn and Kharios. Both are compelling characters who grow and change through the book. The tale starts with Wynn being sold into slavery at the Temple of Forgefather and dumped into the underground mining city called Aspiration to do hard labor.

The Aspiration is a living nightmare. Law of the jungle, survival of the fittest. Wynn joins the first crew he encounters, it’s impossible to survive in this harsh place alone. Life is hard. The whole town is ruled by vicious tyrant. If you can’t make the tally,you are screwed. Sometimes crews who are unable to meet their tally go around robbing others. It’s the law of the jungle all the way. The place is fascinating to read with all the cool details, and the stark realism of it gives you the feeling of being trapped there along with poor Wynn.

The only way to get out of this hell is to go through difficult tests to become a temple novice. Few can qualify to apply for the test. Out of thousands, less than a handful can make it. But in the Kharios point of view chapters, it seems the temple isn’t so much better. Corruption, degeneracy and tyranny rule supreme, only it’s not filthy like the mines and the living conditions are better. But are they really? A different kind of evil plagues the temple and the bad gut feeling never leaves you.

Faithless is a gritty fantasy story, but it reads like horror in places. The story takes a sharp turn halfway through and the haunting darkness gives way to breathtaking action scenes. It would make such a great movie!

One thing I loved about Faithless is the exquisite detail about the mining work and smithing. Graham Austin-King has done an insane amount of research and it shows. The world is so realistic, not only the hyper-realistic setting but with its myths and religious beliefs, customs, culture and way of life.

The other thing I loved is the male-female friendship without romance. That was a real nice thing to see. I’m sick of every male-female friendship turning into romance, I have been wondering why the fantasy authors can’t take a page from the police procedurals where men and women work together as just colleagues, with absolutely no romantic interest. When I see such things in fantasy, I bounce with joy. Kudos to Graham Austin-King for that nice touch!

The smithing parts, with the touch of magic and religious rituals, were my favorite parts after the kickass action. They had just the right amount of suspense and tension, making the incredibly well detailed forge work so much fun to read.

The ending leaves the door open for a second book, I truly hope there will be a second book!

Faithless is a high quality book with amazing worldbuilding, neat character development, fast-paced action balanced with suspense and a bit of horror, well-written and realistic side characters. A great read overall, I highly recommend it. I think people looking for dark fantasy that isn’t too grimdark, fantasy books without romance, books with underground settings and religion politics.

As far as indie published books go, Faithless belongs to the top shelf with highly engaging storytelling, realistic characters, flawless editing and brilliant setting.