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: 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: 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: Assassin’s Quest by Robin Hobb

Assassin's Quest
Genre: Fantasy
Series: Farseer Trilogy
Author info: http://www.robinhobb.com/

This is the third book of Farseer Trilogy. See my reviews for the first book and the second book.

I thought Royal Assassin was brutal, but this book ended up being even more gut-wrenching. I’ll say it straight out, this book will rip out your heart and mercilessly stomp on it after it’s done twisting your guts.

In this book, Fitz leaves the Buckkeep Castle to go on a quest to find Verity and the Elderlings. After that gods-awful bastard Regal plundered and looted everything from it and ran to the inner duchies, there’s not much left to stay for anyway. There are also new characters, and some masterfully done character arcs for Nighteyes, Fool and Kettricken.

I’m a huge lover of quests and journeys in fantasy, so I enjoyed the whole big quest thing here. Some reviewers complained about it found parts of it boring, but not me. First of all, tension never lets up and there are constant threats and challenges and some rather brutal things going on. The new characters -the witty minstrel girl Starling and the grumpy old lady Kettle- are pretty darn fun to read. Starling got on my nerves a bit in the beginning, but she’s all right. Kettle’s grumpy granny antics and chastising Fitz was hilarious to read. They bring some fun and giggles in the midst of all that melancholy and the horrible events.

Nighteyes continues to kick butt and his parts were awesome as I expected. Did I say Nighteyes is the best animal character I’d ever read in genre fiction, or any fiction since Jack London books I’ve read when I was younger? Nighteyes kicks arse. Fitz and Nighteyes are such an awesome team.

A tad bit more gets revealed about the ever mysterious Fool, which I think is one of the most fascinating characters I’ve ever seen to date. There is the romance thread between Fitz and Molly, and I promise it’s far from cliché and predictable. One of the best romance subplots I have ever read (and I must mention I am no fan of romance plots in fantasy, unless it’s very minor and unusual sort.)

It’s really difficult to write much more without spoiling anything here, so I will not go into too much detail: Verity’s plot was killer, the emotional depth there got quite impressive, and the mysteries about the Elderlings unfolded very nicely. Robin Hobb is a true master with the plot twists but even more so with the slowly unfolding reveals. It makes such a great read. The Fool also shines even brighter in this book, promising more awesomeness in the following series. I must say I can’t wait to read those. If you like non-binary characters, The Fool turns out to be one, not exactly belonging to male or female gender. I’m a big fan of (charismatic) hermaphrodite, asexual and gender-ambiguous characters so I was quite happy to see this amazing character here. The Fool is the kind of character who gets a special place in my heart like L from Death Note.

One thing that irritated me a bit was that Fitz didn’t get any moment of peace for part of the journey cause of Regal’s henchmen, it got just too stressful and made me paranoid, expecting Regal’s cronies storming into the scene for quite some time. Also, Regal doing all kinds of awful stuff and no one doing a damn thing to stop him got on my nerves. He seemed to be a stupid douchebag in the beginning, he never gave me the impression of a clever villain, but in Royal Assassin and Assassin’s quest he looks like he suddenly got a huge boost of IQ. No one taking any serious action to stop him (other than Fitz) and the dudes with the means to do something being too chicken about it for the fear of committing treason bothered me a lot. But that doesn’t make a dent in the value of the book and the amount of fun I had reading this story. All in all it’s one of the best series I’ve read so far and as I said, I can’t wait to read the rest of the books set in this amazing world.

Verdict: If you don’t read this series, you are missing a HUGE deal. This should be in the mandatory reading list for everyone who call themselves a fantasy fan!

Guest Post by Brandon Draga: Why YA?

– “Why YA? Why Not?”

*Grabs a cup of coffee*
*Sits down*
*Sips*
Hi everyone, my name’s Brandon, and I write Young Adult Fantasy.
Hoo, okay, that felt good to get off my chest.
I guess you could say it started innocently enough, with my sister urging me to write something en vogue, something with a young female protagonist set in a dystopian society. Naturally, my inclination was to figure out how to do this in a fantasy setting.

Also, to make sure that I wasn’t writing a YA novel.
Denial was a huge part of a number of the creative decisions I made with The Summerlark Elf. I made Enna twenty years old solely so she wouldn’t be a teenager. I left out any trace of a romance subplot, never mind even broaching the idea of a love triangle. I kept the female protagonist and the dystopian setting though (sort of).

After the book was released, I was steadfast in my belief that it was decidedly not a YA book. I made sure to tell everyone who asked that it was meant for an adult audience, though I made sure to add the caveat that it could be read and enjoyed by someone as young as twelve.
Definitely not YA, though. Not at all, thank you kindly.
“But why not?” my girlfriend and cover artist asked on more than one occasion. “What’s wrong with YA?”
“I want to be taken seriously as a fantasy author.” I would reply, with a surprising lack of irony. “I want my books to appeal to a wide range of people!”

And they have, I’m proud to say. I’ve spoken to teens for their library book club, received fan mail from people well into their senior years (of life, not school), been read by the most hardcore genre fans and people who have never read a fantasy book in their life. But then, the same can be said of a lot of people who write books billed as YA, especially genre YA.
J.K. Rowling?
Suzanne Collins?
Veronica Roth?

Hell, look at people like Terry Brooks, David Eddings, or Raymond Feist. You cannot tell me that, had their respective series’ been released today, they would not be pushed as YA titles. Let’s take it further and admit that most post-Tolkien fantasy up until the mid-90s or so fits the most basic tenant of Young Adult fiction, in that the protagonist is a young adult.

Which, if the media is correct (I know), is anyone between 18 and 25. Not unlike Enna Summerlark.

So, that being said, what was my issue, and what changed my mind?
I think we can chalk a lot of it up to me, frankly, being an elitist jerk, and assuming that most fantasy readers are the same.
You see, a funny thing happened when I released The Summerlark Elf. For the first time since I started reading fantasy way back in the before times, I was interacting with other fantasy readers, readers who put my credentials to shame. Readers who, by and large, were perfectly happy to read a YA book, provided it was good. Not just that, but the more people read the book, the more they would tell me it felt like a YA book, and not derisively.

Moreover, something else happened this past year. For a tenure of about eight months, my books were being published by the ultimately ill-fated Realmwalker Publishing Group, and damned if they weren’t selling better that I had hoped. A large part of that, upon careful examination, was the fact that RPG had opted to start billing Summerlark, and its follow-up The Missing Thane’s War as Young Adult Fantasy! Apparently, the best way to broaden my readership was ultimately to narrow my work’s genre classification – who knew?!

It took me longer than I care to admit, but it doesn’t matter who I think my writing is supposed to appeal to, but rather who it does appeal to. Calling my books Young Adult doesn’t change the story in any real way; I’m still writing the books I want to write. And really, YA is a ridiculously large market with a really ridiculously large fan base. If my books sell as Young Adult books, then who am I to say no?
Still not crazy about love triangles, though.
I’m looking at you, Wil Ohmsford…

Author Bio

Brandon Draga was born in 1986, just outside Toronto, Ontario. His love of all things fantasy began at an early age with games like The Legend of Zelda, Heroquest, and Dungeons and Dragons. This affinity for the arcane and archaic led to his studying history at York University from 2005 to 2011. In late 2012, he began writing a D&D campaign setting that would lay the groundwork for the world of Olhean, the setting for his “Four Kingdoms Saga” novel series, compared by critics to the works of Terry Brooks, Michael J. Sullivan, and R.A. Salvatore. Brandon has also proven that SF/F can be made accessible at any age, writing the lauded picture book “Dragon in the Doghouse”. Brandon still lives just outside Toronto, and when he is not writing enjoys skateboarding, playing guitar, and playing tabletop games.

You can learn more about Brandon’s work on his web site: http://www.brandondraga.com/

Book Review: Royal Assassin by Robin Hobb

Royal Assassin
Genre: Fantasy
Series: Farseer Trilogy
Author info: http://www.robinhobb.com/

This is the second book of Farseer Trilgy. See my review for the first book.

This book is huge, more than 700 pages but I gobbled it up in 3 days. Some reviewers complained about it being too slow at places, but I think that’s bollocks. Just because there’s no fast paced action doesn’t mean it’s slow in my book, the whole series is remarkable with its emotional intensity and great characters, so for me internal struggles doesn’t count as slow.

Things start to get brutal here, poor Fitz gets a few days of peace but Robin Hobb has a particular gift for torturing her characters and making you weep. The Fool is enigmatic as ever, more questions about him arise than are answered. He has become my favorite in this book.

Verity exhausts himself physically and mentally by using the Skill to fend off the red Ship raiders, which is a thankless job, no one ever notices what kind of sacrifice he is doing, while his asshole brother Regal pulls all kinds of horrible shenanigans and gains support and followers with his glib tongue. One thing that bothered me about the series is, Regal is brewing treachery out in the open and no one does a damn thing about it. Everyone is so afraid of committing treason against the royalty, they remain passive or do lame passive-aggressive things, letting him run free. It became really outrageous at some point.

Fitz gets a new animal companion, who turned out to be a bit annoying in the beginning but became a real badass. I must say Nighteyes is the best animal character I’ve ever read in fantasy or any book for the matter, except for Jack London’s White Fang and Call of the Wild. His blunt animal wisdom and point of view is quite interesting and he manages to talk some sense into Fitz where everyone else fails.

I really liked Patience and Kettricken, especially Kettricken’s character development. She pulls a badass act and if you like strong female characters, it will make you cheer for her. Burrich and Chade continue to be great as usual, I wish Fitz was nicer to them.

Overall this is a great book, a lot of things happen, there are a few moments of great fun and action, but the whole atmosphere is very melancholy and sad as the first book.

Book Review: Assassin’s Apprentice by Robin Hobb

Assassin's Apprentice
Genre: Fantasy
Series: Farseer Trilogy
Author info: http://www.robinhobb.com/

Where do I start? It has been such an intense experience for me to read this series, I’m having a hard time putting it into words. I have been pretty much living in the Farseer world for the past week, unable to put it down and completely immersed into the story.

The worldbulding is done in such rich detail, I didn’t miss playing Skyrim while reading this book. It’s incredibly realistic and vivid. What’s even more vivid is the characters and the relationships between them. The book is written in first person, from the point of view of Fitz. It starts with Fitz being dumped at his father’s doorstep by his maternal grandfather at age six. Fitz is a royal bastard born from the illegitimate union between the crown prince Chivalry and a common woman.

The society has very strict rules and bastards are treated as vermin even if they have royal blood. Fitz is taken under the care of his father’s stablemaster Burrich, where he also discovers he can communicate with animals by a mind magic called the Wit. But this is seen as an abomination and people with Wit magic are heavily persecuted, even lynched. Bummer for poor Fitz. His father abdicates in favor of his younger brother Verity out of shame for fathering a bastard and moves away, which places Fitz in an even more difficult position.

Stablemaster Burrich becomes a father figure for Fitz and the relationship between the two is one of the most emotionally intense things I’ve ever read. Burrich is a complex character, you don’t realize it at first but as the book progresses and layer after layer is revealed, he became one of my favorites. He is one of the best fantasy characters I’ve read to date. The life in the stables was so good to read, with everything so alive, I could almost smell the fresh straw.

Fitz ends up becoming the apprentice for King’s assassin, Chade, as the title of the book suggests (therefore I don’t count this as a spoiler) and Chade is the character to fall in love with. He is quite enigmatic, living in the shadows, no one even knows he exists other than the king himself. Chade’s secret chamber reminded me of the alchemist labs from old Renaissance paintings. I loved, loved, loved the detail of it. Chade has many secrets and is shrouded in mystery. If you love assassins and enigmatic characters, you will love Chade. He is also kind of a great spymaster, with eyes and ears everywhere and hardly anything escapes his notice.

The other stunning character to mention is the king’s fool, who talks in riddles and makes awful jests with his sharp tongue. He becomes a friend to Fitz and annoys him with his strange talk making no sense. But then some events unfold and it starts making sense, and you get those ‘holy cow!’ moments. The Fool is something more than a court jester, full of mysteries and puzzles. I had a feeling he will become a pivotal character later on in the series and I wasn’t wrong.

The kingdom of six duchies faces an outside threat soon enough, Red Ship raiders fro the Outislands start ravaging the coasts and laying the villages to waste, killing some of the folk and turning some into creepy husks of humans, something even worse than zombies. But this is more of a nuisance than a major threat, at least at first, the real vileness is to be found in the internal politics and court intrigue. If you love political intrigue, you will be a fan.

One other thing I really loved about this book is that each chapter starts with snippets of information about the history of the world, relevant to the events taking place in the chapters, each time another intriguing mystery being uncovered and leaves you aching for the next.

The magic system is very simple but wonderful, it’s mainly different kinds of telepathy with interesting aspects.

This book is solid with astonishing character development, impressive plot and incredibly detailed worldbuilding. Everything is so vivid and alive, the main characters are so real and likeable, I got detached from the real world while reading it. It’s a sad story, a lot of depressing things happen and life is so damn harsh, which makes you cherish the precious moments of peace and happiness when they happen.

Verdict: You will love me forever if you take my word and read this book (and its badass sequels!)

Robin Hobb is a master wordsmith, she created the best heroic characters I have read since The Empire Trilogy, and I made a promise to myself to read all fantasy books she has written.