Sworn in Steel review

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Sworn in Steel is the second novel in the Kin series (it's a tale of...). It's the follow-up of my favorite Fantasy debut of 2011, Among Thieves. So it's been three years in the making... is it worth the wait?
It’s been three months since Drothe killed a legend, burned down a portion of the imperial capital, and unexpectedly elevated himself into the ranks of the criminal elite. Now, as the newest Gray Prince in the underworld, he’s learning just how good he used to have it. 
With barely the beginnings of an organization to his name, Drothe is already being called out by other Gray Princes. And to make matters worse, when one dies, all signs point to Drothe as wielding the knife. As members of the Kin begin choosing sides – mostly against him – for what looks to be another impending war, Drothe is approached by a man who not only has the solution to Drothe’s most pressing problem, but an offer of redemption. The only problem is the offer isn’t for him. 
Now Drothe finds himself on the way to the Despotate of Djan, the empire’s long-standing enemy, with an offer to make and a price on his head. And the grains of sand in the hour glass are running out, fast...
Among Thieves was the captivating account of a member of the Kin, Drothe, who went from being a Nose for a mob boss in the imperial city of Ildrecca to emerge as one of the heads of the criminal underworld, a Gray Prince.  While the book finished with a glorious new opportunity for Drothe, it also broke the character narrative perspective for the future since he went from street roamer to guarded leader. While I thought that Hulick was going to have to redesign Drothe's angle and interactions, he instead decided to bring the dedicated relic hunter back to the street. What could be more important for the man than his new brittle organisation to make him travel to a new intimidating territory? Let's answer that with an old friend and broken promises. That's enough? No, but don't forget that it's a tale of the Kin and blackmailing, manipulation and profit are just around the corner.

After getting into trouble, as usual, and making new acquaintances he would have preferred to never know, accompanied only by a troupe and his trusted Oak Mistress Fowler, Drothe has to find a way into a city that clearly doesn't want his presence within its inner walls.  The Gray Prince endeavor, still delightfully narrated in the first person perspective this time around, is written with small jumps in narrative between the chapters, probably to cut down on the less compelling or significant moments. Yet, up to his arrival in el-Qaddice, the Djanese capital, the tale contains a lot of explaining of the Kin's world. This wasn't necessary for a second book, even with the Cant involved (the specific vocabulary of the Kin, which again, adds some color to the novel). I don't really like when authors repeat themselves with parts of the story from the previous books but maybe sometimes they feel it's necessary...

From the moment Drothe is inside the city looking for a man he thought never to see again, I was already drawn in by the new setting the Djanese city offered, with its own power struggle just out of earshot, a parallel criminal framework and new factions like the Neyajin, unseen assassins. Mouths (Djanses magic users) and even exiled Imperials are also thrown into the mix. The perfect occasion for Drothe's body to be injured over and over again, a trademark for him alongside the following blackouts or near death states. Funny, cunning and stubborn. An interesting fellow I won't tire of soon.

By then, the table is set and Drothe is far away from his Gray Prince status. Moreover, the quest he is on, related to the mysterious and notorious mercenary order of the Degans doesn't look like a central or even compelling undertaking, but it's driven by the death threat the man behind the request carried out resolutely. Hopefully, when I thought that Hulick's story would remain kind of conventional for a tale of the Kin, he switched gear and the adventure became much more complicated.  Several characters revealed their true nature, identity or intentions, Drothe's night vision became a wanted gift, the Order of the Degans stood out as a fascinating enigma linked to the fate of the reincarnating Emperor, Imperial Magic secrets surfaced and new opportunities and mystical partners emerged.

What more can you ask? I was now more than compelled and couldn't put down the book.  Still, some elements created dents in the usually fluid build-up. The main nemesis of Drothe is sometimes brilliant and sometimes quite an ass. Why does he need to speak his mind in crucial moments? Classic mistake. Moreover, the author use of jumps in time felt like an easy narrative trick to instill more mystery, although none of that is aggravating.

Reaching the conclusion of Sworn in Steel, the less than heroic but more than dedicated sleepless swindler who's still addicted to ahrami seeds succeed in creating a lasting impression. For a second time, he mingled in things way bigger and definitely more dangerous than he could imagine, all for our pleasure. Action, dramatic developments and even healthy measures of fun.  The wait was doubtlessly worth it, the book is a fitting follow-up to Among Thieves.

Cover: Weird... Drothe's principal quality isn't sword fighting.... still, I think I prefer the UK cover (the one at the top of the review)
Release date: May 6th 2014
Map: No
Number of pages: 512 (mass market paperback), 251 in ebook edition
Acquisition method: Bought the ebook myself
Other: A small dramatis personae

I liked...Was disappointed by...
The first person perspectiveThe recaps
The exploration of the Order of the Degans pastThe sometimes dumb 'villain'
Drothe's setbacks and counteractionsSome time jumps
A whole lot of other stuff!

Sworn in Steel review rating :

The Barrow review

Monday, October 20, 2014

The Barrow is the first novel by author Mark Smylie, who's also the author and illustrator behind the comic book series, Artesia. The main character for The Barrow, Stjepan Black-Heart is the brother of the heroine of Smylie's comics and namesake of his series, Artesia. The book is a stand-alone but with an ending clearly leaving an opening for a follow-up.
To find the Sword, unearth the Barrow. To unearth the Barrow, follow the Map. 
When a small crew of scoundrels, would-be heroes, deviants, and ruffians discover a map that they believe will lead them to a fabled sword buried in the barrow of a long-dead wizard, they think they've struck it rich. But their hopes are dashed when the map turns out to be cursed and then is destroyed in a magical ritual. The loss of the map leaves them dreaming of what might have been, until they rediscover the map in a most unusual and unexpected place. 
Stjepan Black-Heart, suspected murderer and renegade royal cartographer; Erim, a young woman masquerading as a man; Gilgwyr, brothel owner extraordinaire; Leigh, an exiled magus under an ignominious cloud; Godewyn Red-Hand, mercenary and troublemaker; Arduin Orwain, scion of a noble family brought low by scandal; and Arduin's sister Annwyn, the beautiful cause of that scandal: together they form a cross-section of the Middle Kingdoms of the Known World, brought together by accident and dark design, on a quest that will either get them all in the history books, or get them all killed.
The Barrow starts with a bang.  As the synopsis mentions, we follow Erim, a young woman full of doubts about herself but trying to find work within a team of some respect, pretending to be a man who was recruited to help in the unearthing of an unknown relic, the aforementioned map, with a motley collection of tomb robbers. Imagine Indiana Jones in a medieval Fantasy setting. A great and intense prologue forging great expectations for things to come.

Right after that adrenaline rush, we are introduced with the other two main protagonists, Stjepan Black-Heart, an Athairi (human mixed with the blood of Fae) who's much more than a simple cartographer and Gilgwyr, the owner of a brothel or I should say a house of particularly twisted entertainment. They will be the characters of utmost importance to the tale and in Stjepan's case, the most interesting one, even when seen through the eyes of the more banal Erim. Tagging along and interwoven sparingly within the narrative, are Annwyn, a dashing women who's falling out from the nobility and serve a strange new purpose and Leigh Myradim, a mad and exiled sorcerer making a vengeful comeback. Quite the colorful cast on paper.

In coming together, the group has to go through forbidden libraries and dark magic, sex rituals planning and evade a mob trying to lynch them for murder while they sit in Annwyn's brother manor. When the dust has settled and the group finally safely take hold of the map they went to such trouble to catch hold of, they depart on a journey that will take them through all of the Middle Kingdoms. From that point, up until the arrival at the barrow where lies the sword they are looking for, the pace becomes more erratic and a pattern of slow going and rather monotonous events forms up between action sequences, some inspired dialogues and mostly a discovery journey with frequent info-dumps for Erim.

Mark Smylie's previous career can clearly be seen as an influence in his writing (even if he was already a writer working within another canvas). The illustrator in him stands out when he starts describing in details, mostly so for the clothing of his characters. I don't think I ever read something so vivid ''portrayal-wise". However, there's a small drawback to this and it all comes down to dosing. While it's a first full length novel for him, there are slightly too much of it but nothing to make you pull out from the plot.

On a different note, another aspect of the author's writing stands out. I'm not a prude reader but as John R. Fultz's quote on the cover of the book mentions: "Genuinely inspired, shockingly erotic, and completely fantastic... It is bloody beautiful.".  The erotic part is quite right.  There's a lot of sex or sex related scenes or references.  I wasn't offended and it reflects reality more than we're used to in this type of Epic/adventurous Fantasy but still, I felt it was a bit much and not that helpful in moving the plot forward, at least for my personal taste.

Even if the setting is ultimately truly medieval with a significant touch of magic, there is great world-building to be found in The Barrow with much, much lore. I have to admit I was really drawn in by Smylie creation. That set-up alone isn't enough to create a great novel but it's an excellent basis. His experience in Artesia is clearly showing, for the better, aside from Stjepan lecturing Erim.

When the barrow finally present itself as a setting for the crew falling action and denouement, the surprises and betrayals finally add a layer of complexity to the plot and that was much needed to keep the main protagonists compelling. The ending, while the novel could remain a stand-alone book, is a nice opener for a future story of grander proportion.

There you have it.  The Barrow is a fair debut with a great background for Smylie to work with. However, the quality of the story isn't consistent and some elements could use some work. It's a novel worth picking up for a large specter of Fantasy readers, not simply the gritty and grimy crowd. It's not a mesmerizing novel but it's an entertaining one.

Cover: The Pyr cover by Gene Mollica isn't bad for a photo-realistic cover but has a feel of too-serious for its own good...
Release date: March 4th 2014
Map: Indeed, more than one and by the authors himself!
Number of pages: 587 (trade edition)
Acquisition method: courtesy of Pyr
Other: Maps, maps, maps and a glossary

I liked...Was disappointed by...
The hero Stjepan (however you pronounce that..)The uneven middle of the book
The world-buildingThe info-dumping cruise around the world for the bland Erim
A dose of the detailed clothing descriptionsThe amount of erotic parts
The prologue and the ending

The Barrow review rating :

A Round of Covers

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Gather around fellow readers and enjoy or despise the mightily beautiful and... dubious choices of covers in this round!


First up is the cover for Tom Lloyd's Old Man's Ghosts, the second book in the Empire of a Hundred Houses series, follow-up to Moon's Artifice (which I still have to pick up soon!!!). That cover looks awesome!


Another great new cover art unveiled recently is for Daniel Polansky's Those Above, first book in the Empty Throne series.


Next is the cover for Brian Staveley's second book, The Providence of Fire (follow-up to The Emperor's Blades in the Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne series). This is the UK cover art (the US one is posted below). Both covers look nice but I prefer the US one. What about you?


Brandon Sanderson's covers for the UK, be it for his Mistborn, Reckoners or Stormlight Archives series, have all been illustrated with the same original style. Firefight is now one of them. Not bad.


Trial of Intentions, the Vault of Heaven second book (after The Unremembered) has been a long time in coming but the cover is now unveiled. It's less interesting that the amazing Kotaki cover for the first book and I didn't find who's the artist for this one...


Finally for this round.... Peter V. Brett novella Messenger's Legacy. Is it just me or.... ouch!

R. Scott Bakker's Second apocalypse short and update

Thursday, October 2, 2014

R. Scott Bakker posted an update about the editing of the last novel of the Second Apocalypse series and second trilogy, The Aspect Emperor, titled The Unholy Consult. Sadly for avid readers waiting patiently for the novel : 
 I’ve received feedback from several readers now, but nothing officially editorial. I’m in the process of cleaning up the issues emerging from the feedback I’ve received now.
Hopefully, we may read more from the world of history of Earwa with a short story Bakker wrote called The Knife of Many Hands that will be published in the Grimdark Magazine in a near future (split into two parts). We don't know if that future will be before the final opus but it looks like it.  What is it about you ask?
[...] a short-story set in Carythusal on the eve of the Scholastic Wars.
Sounds interesting don't you think?

October releases

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

October 2014 isn't the biggest month in term of Fantasy releases and my spolight list seems quite short. But it's all quality!

Also, The Scarlet Tides, book 2 of the Moontide Quartet by David Hair is released this month (on October 7th) in the US.


The Dark Defiles
Land Fit for Heroes book 3
Richard Morgan
October 7th
Ringil Eskiath, a reluctant hero viewed as a corrupt degenerate by the very people who demand his help, has traveled far in search of the Illwrack Changeling, a deathless human sorcerer-warrior raised by the bloodthirsty Aldrain, former rulers of the world. Separated from his companions—Egar the Dragonbane and Archeth—Ringil risks his soul to master a deadly magic that alone can challenge the might of the Changeling. While Archeth and the Dragonbane embark on a trail of blood and tears that ends up exposing long-buried secrets, Ringil finds himself tested as never before, with his life and all existence hanging in the balance.

The Free
Brian Ruckley
October 14th
From the bestselling author of Winterbirth comes a magnificent new epic fantasy about The Free - the most feared and revered band of mercenaries the kingdom has ever known . . .
They are the most feared mercenary company the kingdom has ever known. 
Led by Yulan, their charismatic captain, the Free have spent years selling their martial and magical skills to the highest bidder - winning countless victories that shook the foundations of the world. Now they finally plan to lay down their swords. 
Yet when Yulan is offered a final contract, he cannot refuse - for the mission offers him the chance to erase the memories of the Free's darkest hour, which have haunted him for years. 
As The Free embark on their last mission, a potent mix of loyalty and vengeance is building to a storm. Freedom, it seems, carries a deadly price.

The Slow Regard of Silent Things
Patrick Rothfuss
October 28th
Deep below the University, there is a dark place. Few people know of it: a broken web of ancient passageways and abandoned rooms. A young woman lives there, tucked among the sprawling tunnels of the Underthing, snug in the heart of this forgotten place. 
Her name is Auri, and she is full of mysteries. 
The Slow Regard of Silent Things is a brief, bittersweet glimpse of Auri’s life, a small adventure all her own. At once joyous and haunting, this story offers a chance to see the world through Auri’s eyes. And it gives the reader a chance to learn things that only Auri knows....

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