Fantasy

The City of Brass – S. A. Chakraborty

5 stars

I received an eARC of this book from Edelweiss in exchange for my review. 

The City of Brass is S.A. Chakraborty’s absolutely spellbinding debut novel, an epic fantasy set in Cairo and the Middle East.

Here’s the blurb from the publisher:

Nahri has never believed in magic. Certainly, she has power; on the streets of 18th century Cairo, she’s a con woman of unsurpassed talent. But she knows better than anyone that the trade she uses to get by—palm readings, zars, healings—are all tricks, sleights of hand, learned skills; a means to the delightful end of swindling Ottoman nobles. But when Nahri accidentally summons an equally sly, darkly mysterious djinn warrior to her side during one of her cons, she’s forced to accept that the magical world she thought only existed in childhood stories is real. For the warrior tells her a new tale: across hot, windswept sands teeming with creatures of fire, and rivers where the mythical marid sleep; past ruins of once-magnificent human metropolises, and mountains where the circling hawks are not what they seem, lies Daevabad, the legendary city of brass; a city to which Nahri is irrevocably bound. In that city, behind gilded brass walls laced with enchantments, behind the six gates of the six djinn tribes, old resentments are simmering. And when Nahri decides to enter this world, she learns that true power is fierce and brutal. That magic cannot shield her from the dangerous web of court politics. That even the cleverest of schemes can have deadly consequences. After all, there is a reason they say be careful what you wish for . . .

But it wasn’t that description that made me want to read this novel. I came across Chakraborty’s Twitter feed about a month ago and found her tweet-thread about just how much she nerded out over ancient Egyptian and Middle Eastern history and mythology while she wrote The City of Brass and her enthusiasm just oozed out of my screen. I had seen a mention of the book earlier in the day, but after seeing her tweets, I just had to read it. I’m sad to say I couldn’t find the thread again (if I do, I’ll edit a link in here.)

I was absolutely transported by Chakraborty’s descriptive storytelling. She sets the scene so completely that I could hear the noises of bazaars and mobs. I could feel the heat of Cairo on my skin – quite the feat since Seattle has been chilly and damp lately. I could clearly picture the scenes she set and in those scenes, she brings Nahri, Ali, and Dara to life.

Nahri is the magical, unbelieving thief at the center of City of Brass though she doesn’t know it at the start. She’s motivated not by greed, but by a necessary selfishness that comes from scraping out a living on the streets from a very young age. Nahri is Nahri’s number one, and she’s not going to apologize for who and what she is. She felt believable and even when her actions surprised me, ultimately they make sense for her character.

Dara is a broken Daeva man from a broken clan, broken past, and broken family. Just about the only thing unbroken about him is his fierce spirit – but even that fierce spirit is tested. He is untamed fire, a hero and a horror. But Dara is driven by loyalty and duty, which is where he finds his strength.

Ali is the second son of the king in Daevabad, raised in The Citadel in order to become his brother’s security minister when his brother ascends the throne. Ali finds himself at the center of a tangled web he helped others weave around him by playing upon his good intentions, naivete, and religious zeal. Ali was the character I had the hardest time with. For someone raised from childhood in a military setting, he was surprisingly soft-hearted. As someone to be a fixture at court he was surprisingly naive.

Nahri, Dara, and Ali are at the center of the war for the soul of Daevabad, the City of Brass. Battles are fought in a swirling, fast-paced plot that kept me turning the pages until I reached the dreaded end of the novel. Thankfully, The City of Brass is the first book in the Daevabad trilogy, so I have two more novels packed full of their adventures to look forward to. I can only hope Chakraborty takes us to new locations. I’m just aching for new places for her to describe.

The City of Brass is the first novel in the Daevabad trilogy and will be released on November 14, 2017.

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Fantasy

Plague of Giants – Kevin Hearne

5 Stars

I received an eARC of this book from NetGalley in exchange for my honest review. 

When I saw Plague of Giants pop up on NetGalley I was so excited! I’m a fan of Hearne’s Iron Druid series so I couldn’t wait to see what he thought up next!

I was definitely not disappointed! Plague of Giants is a brand new series – Seven Kennings – set in a brand new universe. Instead of an urban fantasy like Iron Druid, Plague of Giants is more of a traditional high fantasy. Epic adventure, bards, pre-technology society, magic (called kenning), kings, and espionage are all present.

Plague of Giants is a story within a story – a central bard ties different characters’ threads together as he shares the many stories of how the war we’re thrust into at the beginning of the novel came to be.

There are seven societies at the center of our story and each society is built around their own specific form of kenning, and each of those broad kennings has specialist sub-forms of kenning or magic. One has kenning related to water, another to fire, a third to wood and plants, a fourth to earth and a fifth to air. (I do have those out of official order. Fire is referred to as “the first kenning” so there is an order of discovery.) You may recall that the series is called the Seven Kennings. You’ll have to read Plague of Giants for more information about Kenning # 6 and #7.

The kennings and societies built around them feel much like the elemental societies of the Avatar: The Last Airbender or Legend of Korra animated shows on Nickelodeon. If you’re familiar with The Last Airbender, then the quote “Long ago, the four nations lived together in harmony. Then, everything changed when the Fire Nation attacked” will feel very appropriately applied to Plague of Giants. 

Hearne weaves a rich tapestry of complex characters that drive the story forward. He jumps from character to character, fleshing each out with different POV sections. It’s in these different sections that we meet a variety of diverse characters. Hearne has obviously taken some of the general criticism of High Fantasy as a genre – that it’s painfully white and heterosexual – to heart. His cast of characters includes more than one LGBT character and more than one non-white race – including POV sections from characters of those non-white races. It’s heartening to see someone so prominent in the fantasy world do something to address the yawning chasm where diversity should be. Characters are given space to breathe and grow and ponder the ethics of their decisions.

I will admit that I was afraid that in his shift from lighthearted urban fantasy to high fantasy, Hearne would swing too far toward a stiffer storytelling and lose some of his signature humor that charms us all in the Iron Druid series. I am glad to be wrong. Hearne’s humor is deftly applied and just as satisfyingly clever. Many of Hearne’s fans adore the dog Oberon in the Iron Druid series, but I find the dog to be pretty obnoxious and the opposite of charming. (The dog’s obsession with females is kind of gross and sexist.) I’m pleased to find no parallel character in Plague of Giants. Instead, Hearne takes the best of Iron Druid’s wit and humor and injects it into The Seven Kennings. I found myself laughing out loud and rolling my eyes at the best (worst) puns.

Plague of Giants is a masterfully written pivot for Hearne and I’m simply dying for the next installment of the series, A Blight of Blackwings. Do yourself a favor and run right out and buy this for yourself.

Plague of Giants is the first in Kevin Hearne’s new series, Seven Kennings, and will be released October 17, 2017.

Blog Housekeeping · Fantasy · Science Fiction

Why Read Science Fiction or Fantasy?

I keep coming across this question in book groups and it’s one of those questions that just knocks around my head. “Why do you read about things that aren’t real? Why read science fiction or fantasy? (Those are separate genres, for the record… a rant for another day.)

And I just keep coming back to “Why not?”

Non-fiction and general or historical fiction are all well and fine, but they’re planted firmly in reality, which is honestly pretty mundane. Don’t get me wrong, the right memoir or the right historical fiction story might spark something for me, but in general, I’m not drawn to stories about real life.

Simply put, I read for escape. I’m perfectly happy with my normal, drama-free life but I love to live vicariously through the eyes of characters experiencing what is impossible for me to experience. No matter how exciting my life might turn out to be, I’ll never be chased by a dragon or launched into space. I’m never going to dine with fairies or participate in epic battles with magic trees and elves.

Not only that, but there’s an extra layer of imagination from the author to craft a good science fiction or fantasy novel. Not to knock writers of general fiction, but there’s less imagination required to describe how a middle-class neighborhood and social circle functions than there is to create a functional system of magic or define a new society ruled by technology.

There’s something special about cracking open a book and discovering a new take on elven society or a system of magic that’s unlike anything I’ve read before. I can’t tell you how many books I’ve finished and simply marveled at the amount of imagination it takes to create something like what I just read (Max Gladstone’s Craft Sequence comes to mind.)

I’m not drawn to the fictional tales of people’s sad, broken lives. There are only so many stories of brokenhearted wives discovering their husband cheating on them that I can stand. I lead my own mundane life and while I’m happily married and leading a drama-free life, I find it somewhat voyeuristic to consume the stories of others’ run of the mill unhappiness.

You’ll find the occasional non-fiction or general fiction novel featured on this blog, which will hopefully signal when I’ve found something that does catch my fairly narrow fancy.

That’s why I read science fiction and fantasy – but what about you, Reader? Do you read scifi or fantasy? If so, why? If not, why not?

Fantasy · YA

Nevernight – Jay Kristoff

5 Stars

Reader, I just had to see what all the buzz was about. I’m in a fair number of bookish Facebook groups and one happens to have a focus on YA books and that group has just been absolutely abuzz about Jay Kristoff’s Illuminae Files and Nevernight series. A good friend of mine vouches for Illuminae, so I plan to pick that one up from the library in the near future, but my library hold for Nevernight came first, which is convenient since the second book in the series, Godsgrave just hit shelves earlier in September.

20170917_123638I have no idea how or why, but my library is circulating a signed first edition of Nevernight.

So, what is Nevernight about? Here’s the synopsis from Goodreads:

In a land where three suns almost never set, a fledgling killer joins a school of assassins, seeking vengeance against the powers who destroyed her family.

Daughter of an executed traitor, Mia Corvere is barely able to escape her father’s failed rebellion with her life. Alone and friendless, she hides in a city built from the bones of a dead god, hunted by the Senate and her father’s former comrades. But her gift for speaking with the shadows leads her to the door of a retired killer, and a future she never imagined.

Now, Mia is apprenticed to the deadliest flock of assassins in the entire Republic—the Red Church. If she bests her fellow students in contests of steel, poison and the subtle arts, she’ll be inducted among the Blades of the Lady of Blessed Murder, and one step closer to the vengeance she desires. But a killer is loose within the Church’s halls, the bloody secrets of Mia’s past return to haunt her, and a plot to bring down the entire congregation is unfolding in the shadows she so loves.

Will she even survive to initiation, let alone have her revenge?

Kristoff has built an interesting new universe – one where the Light is dark and the Dark is darker. This universe of his feels like he threw Leigh Bardugo’s Ketterdam (from Six of Crows), the Roman Empire and Renaissance Italy into a blender. It’s dark, unforgiving, classist, full of subterfuge and betrayal, with a dash of occasional kindness and finished with more than a few hard knocks.

Kristoff opens Nevernight with gorgeously lyrical prose and an interesting use of parallel storytelling. He uses this device throughout the book, to an interesting effect. He adds backstory and context through flashbacks and repetition as though Nevernight were an epic poem being recited to an audience, rather than a novel being read silently. This makes me curious about the audiobook; I wonder if that experience is as lovely as reading the book.

The novel itself is peppered with footnotes galore. While I did enjoy the asides and additional backstory and worldbuilding the footnotes offered, I found they broke up the flow of the story quite distractingly. Some of the asides were very funny, but others were basically history lessons that I’d have preferred woven into the actual story itself better.

Kristoff’s Nevernight universe is built well as are his characters. All of the main cast, except for the villains of the series, are multi-dimensional. They’re crafted to have strengths, flaws, backstories, and mysteries of their own. When any of the main cast die (and of course they die, it’s a book about a school for assassins) their deaths hit like a punch to the gut (or in some cases are cause for audible shouting of “YES!”).

I didn’t blow through Nevernight as quickly as I have other, similar novels from Leigh Bardugo and Sarah J Maas, but I really enjoyed the journey and definitely understand what all that buzz has been about. Kristoff has built an interesting universe and set his characters up with a hard road ahead.

I’m very much looking forward to picking up Godsgrave when my hold comes in at the library.

Nevernight was released August 9, 2016 and the next in the series Godsgrave was released on September 5, 2017.

Fantasy

Brother’s Ruin – Emma Newman

4 Stars

I picked this book up at the library on a whim.

I love stories where industry is magical and young magicians are whisked away into training. I love stories where women defy the rules to do what they want to do with their lives, in pursuit of their own happiness. I love stories that have intrigue, mystery, and conspiracy. I love when stories combine all three. Brother’s Ruin by Emma Newman does just that.

Set in 1850, Brother’s Ruin is the story of Charlotte Gunn and her desires to have a successful career of her own choosing, have a happy marriage to the man she’s engaged to, keep her family whole and hale, and to keep her darkest secret. Of course, in her quest to accomplish all that very little goes her way. (It wouldn’t be fun to read any other way, now would it?)

Being found as a Latent and forced to join the institution of magicians, called The Royal Society in Brother’s Ruin, is a frightening fate for many, including Charlotte and her family. Magi aren’t allowed to do any of what Charlotte hopes – no careers outside of what they decree, no marriage, and while her family would be compensated for her absence she wouldn’t consider it whole.

Where The Paper Magician by Charlie Holmberg has all the same elements, Brother’s Ruin is darker, less peppy and hopeful, and less lovesick. The story is fun and compelling and I can’t wait to read more!

Thankfully, Brother’s Ruin is the first in Emma Newman’s gaslamp fantasy series Industrial Magic. The second book in the series Weaver’s Lament is slated to hit shelves October 17, 2017.

 

Fantasy

Memories of Ash – Intisar Khanani

5 Stars

My one and only complaint about the first book in this series, Sunbolt, was that it was too short. Thankfully, Memories of Ash has rectified that problem and is fully novel-length. 

Hitomi adventures through forest and sand, and performs feats of magic. cunning and cleverness that surprise even her. She finds allies in surprising places.

Memories of Ash was another fantastic read, and I am now going to go find and devour everything else by Ms. Khanani while I wait for the unnamed book 3.

Hitomi’s adventures are a fun read. The central theme of “honor” that runs throughout the story is a strong driving force both for the character(s) and the plot. I can’t wait to see where the rest of the story goes.

Memories of Ash is the second in The Sunbolt Chronicles.

A version of this review was first published to Goodreads on April 24, 2017.

Fantasy

Sunbolt – Intisar Khanani

4 Stars

Absolutely lovely. A familiar feeling fantasy, Khanani has built an interesting world with fleshed out characters. Sunbolt is just so short and I’m dying to pick up the next in the series, I’d gladly read hundreds of pages more.

I mean just look at this synopsis (from Goodreads):

The winding streets and narrow alleys of Karolene hide many secrets, and Hitomi is one of them. Orphaned at a young age, Hitomi has learned to hide her magical aptitude and who her parents really were. Most of all, she must conceal her role in the Shadow League, an underground movement working to undermine the powerful and corrupt Arch Mage Wilhelm Blackflame.

When the League gets word that Blackflame intends to detain—and execute—a leading political family, Hitomi volunteers to help the family escape. But there are more secrets at play than Hitomi’s, and much worse fates than execution. When Hitomi finds herself captured along with her charges, it will take everything she can summon to escape with her life.

I don’t know how Khanani does it, but in just 142 short pages she builds up an interesting world, interesting characters and ends the book on a satisfying enough note to call it the end of a book. Magic!

The main character and cast of Sunbolt are people of color and it’s set in a non-Westernized setting, which is a refreshing change of pace.

Sunbolt is the first in The Sunbolt Chronicles.

A version of this review first appeared on Goodreads on April 23.