The Bear and the Nightingale: Katherine Arden

★★★★½

Winternight: Book I

This book is made to be read in the long winter nights as the year creeps towards its end. Set in the snowbound forests of northern Russia in the 14th century, it’s a fairy tale for those who haven’t lost their sense of wonder: a brooding story of frost and darkness, of endless black forests and the powers that lie within. And it’s a tale of conflict, between the old, primeval world of nature’s power in the here and now, and the new world of Christianity with its gold, glamour and focus on the life hereafter. Into this uneasy world comes Vasilisa Petrovna, half-wild, passionate and blessed with a growing power of her own. Magical and enchanting, this is one book I found extremely hard to put down.

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Prince of Thorns: Mark Lawrence

★★★★

The Broken Empire: Book I

Apologies for the unintentional hiatus on the blog (The Silent Companions was a scheduled post and rather took me by surprise). I’m in the middle of a frantic time at work and so I’ve neither been reading nor writing as much as I would like. However, I have managed to work my way through a few non-art-related books recently and wanted to share them, because they’re rather good. I’m starting off with my first encounter with Mark Lawrence, the godfather of grimdark, whose name has come up repeatedly since I started reading Joe Abercrombie and Anna Smith Spark. And the recommendations have been absolutely spot-on. I thoroughly enjoyed it. Gripping, bleak and brimming with black humour, it’s a classic revenge story and features a teenage antihero so twisted he’d send Joffrey Baratheon running for the hills.

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Deerskin: Robin McKinley

★★★½

Fairy tales were originally born as dark things, a world away from the pastel-coloured sugar of Disney’s princesses, and they weren’t always meant for children. They were ways of rationalising the brutalities of life, of creating a happy ending beyond the horrific events that might be suffered. Fairy tales deal with infanticide, child mortality, forced marriages, murder and child abuse and yet Robin McKinley’s Deerskin is based on a tale (Donkeyskin) deemed so particularly unpalatable that it’s rarely published, even though it was originally written by Charles Perrault. With grace, sensitivity and compassion, McKinley turns this little-known story into a powerful tale of self-healing.

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Half a War: Joe Abercrombie

★★★½

The Shattered Sea: Book III

I’ve thoroughly enjoyed Joe Abercrombie’s young-adult trilogy, which I’ve used as a way to ease myself into the considerably grimmer and darker world of his adult novels. This concluding instalment of the Shattered Sea trilogy already breaches some more troubling themes than its predecessors. This is a tale of blood and senseless slaughter; of moral decisions taken by the immoral. It’s a story which represents the truly brutalising force of war: not that men and women lose their lives, but that they lose their honour and their humanity in thrall to weapons more powerful than themselves. Inventive to the last, Abercrombie’s world turns established fantasy on its head and left me grinning at its impudent audacity.

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Assassin’s Fate: Robin Hobb

★★★½

My relationship with this final trilogy of the Farseer series hasn’t always been a happy one and this concluding book continued in much the same vein. I’ve been reading it on and off since May and have only now spurred myself to go back to the beginning and read the whole thing cover to cover. It’s an ambitious novel which synthesises storylines from all three of Hobb’s different series set within this world, meaning we encounter many familiar faces and old friends, as they join forces for the final showdown. There is much to enjoy in its action, but I couldn’t help feeling – as I’ve felt through this trilogy – that the tale sacrifices the emotional intensity of the earlier books. A warning now, before we begin. This post contains spoilers for the Farseer, Liveship Traders and Tawny Man trilogies, as well as for the Rain Wild Chronicles and the earlier books in this trilogy.

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The Tropic of Serpents: Marie Brennan

★★★★

A Memoir by Lady Trent: Book II

The irrepressible naturalist and explorer Isabella Camhurst is back for a new adventure. This time she and her fellow researcher Thomas Wilker are planning to set off for the exotic continent of Eriga, funded by their ever-generous patron Lord Hilford, in order to research the draconic fauna of the country of Bayembe. Their aims are, as always, purely scientific, but Isabella is to find herself drawn into a veritable jungle of complications, both diplomatic and political. For Bayembe is a country on the brink of war and, if Isabella is to fulfill her scientific ambitions, she is going to have to make some hard choices about where her loyalties lie. Told in Brennan’s pitch-perfect narrative voice, this is a spirited romp best described as a Victorian Indiana Jones with dragons.

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Now I Rise: Kiersten White

★★★ ½

The Conqueror’s Trilogy: Book II

When looking for a book to read on Halloween, I chanced upon And I Darken, the first novel in this alternative-history trilogy. It was a fitting choice, as the series follows the fortunes of the fierce Lada Draculesti. In our own universe, her male alter ego would go on to make an indelible impact on history and Gothic legend; and Lada looks set to make similar waves in her own world. I discovered the second novel in the series at London Film and Comic Con and devoured it during the course of a quiet afternoon. Now the youthful high spirits of the first book have faded into a stronger sense of purpose. Lada rides north to claim the throne of Wallachia for her own, while her gentle brother Radu stays behind at the Ottoman court. He’s destined to be sucked into the most significant siege of the 15th century, for it is 1453 and the young sultan Mehmed has turned his eyes south, to the walls of Constantinople. Two empires are at stake. Only one can survive.

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Brilliance of the Moon: Lian Hearn

★★★

The Tales of the Otori: Book III

Spurred on by the desire to find out what happens, and by James’s comment on the last Otori post, I moved on to Brilliance of the Moon: the third and final instalment in Hearn’s series. To some extent it lived up to my expectations, as Takeo is confronted with the five prophesied battles that will shape his future (‘four to win and one to lose‘). The plot picked up its heels as we approached the conclusion; though the actual battle scenes felt rushed and anaemic after all the build-up. And that wasn’t the only problem. The characterisation still had issues and I was left feeling, somehow, unsatisfied. In short, this has been an enjoyable but ultimately flawed series, rich in concept but not always completely successful in execution.

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Grass for his Pillow: Lian Hearn

★★★

Tales of the Otori: Book II

After an unconscionable delay of more than a year, I’ve finally got round to reading the second book in this appealing Japanese historical fantasy series. While I didn’t enjoy it quite as much as the first one, this was due to the typical problems facing the middle book of a trilogy. The characters have been separated: the grand opening salvo has already been made; and I presume that Hearn has saved all the set-piece battles for the final novel. Instead, we follow the young lovers Takeo and Kaede on their diverging paths, as Kaede learns to make her way in a male-dominated world, and Takeo seeks to hone his supernatural powers under the guidance of the Tribe.

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Among Thieves: Douglas Hulick

★★★★

A Tale of the Kin: Book I

I hadn’t heard of either the author or the series when I stumbled across this book, but I just couldn’t resist the cover. It’s designed by Larry Rostant, an artist whose work is often informed by some form of historical costume, and which always catches my eye. A brief flick through the novel convinced me it was worth a punt. And it’s been such a delight to read. Full of spies, crime lords, twisted emperors and swashbucklers, it takes you deep into the seething heart of the city of Ildrecca: the kind of place you might come across Locke Lamora having a drink with Don Corleone, Captain Alatriste and Sam Vimes. Best described as historical urban fantasy, it’s a tale of deals and double-crossing, spiced with the smallest hint of magic, and it’s enormous fun.

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