Book Mini-Reviews: Red Country and The Man in the High Castle

by Matthew Thompson

It has been a couple of months since my last set of book mini-reviews. I was hoping to include one more of the handful I am partway through reading to create a nice trio of reviews for this post, but I just haven’t had the time to finish anything else up yet. Still I wanted to get these two out while they were fairly fresh in my mind, so here they are Continue reading

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Book Mini-Reviews: The Heroes, Veronica Mars #2, and The Hunger Games

by Matthew Thompson

With a couple of months already behind us in 2015, I’m going to be running through some mini-reviews for things I finished but didn’t have a chance to talk about earlier in the year. Some game and TV reviews will be coming, but I’d like to run through some novels I finished up so far this year. I’m not quite as experienced with talking about books, so the grading process is a little tough for me (I’m just kind of going by how much I enjoyed them), but I still wanted to include them since I usually do with my mini-reviews. Here they are Continue reading

The Best of the Rest in 2014

by Matthew Thompson

I’ve talked a ton about games and TV over the past couple of weeks, so I thought I’d take a quick look at some of my other favorites from 2014 in areas like music, books and so on. Here it goes Continue reading

The Blade Itself Review

by Matthew Thompson

The Blade Itself 1

My journey into the fantasy genre continues with Joe Abercrombie’s First Law Trilogy. It took me a bit to get used to the writing style in Abercrombie’s first novel The Blade Itself and I never came around to all aspects of it, but it was definitely an enjoyable read.

The Blade Itself focuses on three major point of view characters. Logen Ninefingers is by far my favorite. He is a barbarian from the untamed North. A warrior with a dark past known across the region for his killing prowess. It may seem like a fantasy stereotype and at times Logen’s actions and manner of talking back that up, but by getting in this character’s head we see he is more than meets the eye and it is fun to see some of the other characters come to this realization. While this adds an extra layer of intrigue to the character, his ability to fight is a big part of the appeal of his chapters too. One of the review quotes on the back cover of The Blade Itself said it was worth a read for the fight scenes alone and I can’t say I disagree. Logen isn’t the only one involved in memorable brawls, but he certainly is in many of the book’s best.

Another of the primary characters is an arrogant nobleman named Jezal dan Luthar, a Captain in the King’s army. He isn’t very likable. He looks down at those below his status, cares about superficial things and has an all-around shit attitude. But his chapters really managed to grow on me as the book went on. I think a large part of it was his involvement in the capitol city’s prestigious fencing contest. With some of the other things going on in The Blade Itself’s world, a fencing contest seems kind of trivial. And it is, but the build up to this event and the effects it has on Luthar make for compelling reading despite that. I’m also curious how his character will grow throughout the course of the series. He seems like a prime candidate for a hero’s turn, but it is tough to tell if that is Abercrombie’s intentions during this first book or not.

The final of the three main characters is Sand dan Glokta. He was once much like Luthar until time in enemy hands leaves him a cripple. After enduring torture, he ended up becoming a torturer himself as part of the Inquisition. It is certainly an interesting idea for a character, but his sections didn’t do a lot for me and were definitely my least favorite chapters to see pop up. For one, I didn’t love the writing style employed here. Glokta is constantly droning on about the pain he is in and while I do sympathise with him to an extent, it gets a little tiring. The dark sense of humor present in these chapters was hit or miss to me as well and I just didn’t find his plotlines quite as interesting as the others.

Some art from the series comic adaptation.

Some art from the series comic adaptation.

While these three characters make up the bulk of the novel’s POV’s, there are a few others like a former slave, Ferro Maljinn, who finds herself out in the desert looking for revenge while trying to survive and some of Logen’s former compatriots in the North. Legendary wizard Bayaz also factors into all the proceedings in a large way. He is a character whose motivations are tough to get a grasp on, but that is part of what makes him a fun character to see in action.

One of the best parts of the novel is seeing how these disparate storylines dovetail together. Of particular note are a few chapters that flip between some of its point of view characters experiencing the same event, like the aforementioned fencing competition and my personal favorite, the book’s penultimate chapter which features a thrilling fight and chase through the city. This is far from something unique to this book, but that doesn’t make it any less entertaining seeing Abercrombie deftly employ the technique.

I haven’t really touched much on the overall plot of the novel because it is a little tough to describe. There is a war looming, but it is best to just dive in and see where these various characters end up. While I wrote this after completing The Blade Itself, I decided to hold off on posting it until I finished the entire trilogy. This first book definitely feels like part of a larger whole and I wanted to make sure it panned out before I came and recommended it. I think ultimately it does, but you definitely need your expectations in check. This is not a good triumphs over evil kind of fantasy. It is much less black and white and gets pretty dark. It seemed like Abercrombie was really trying to go against expectations in the genre. It definitely makes for some interesting reading, but it isn’t for everyone. I liked the overall ride, but even I had some reservations with some of the choices he made along the way. And for whatever it is worth, I’d also say I didn’t enjoy it as much as my other recent reads in the genre, A Song of Ice and Fire or The Black Company.

But if something darker doesn’t turn you off, there is a lot to like in The Blade Itself and the First Law Trilogy as a whole. For those that have read the series, I will be back with a blog talking the next two books where I dive into spoiler territory to talk about the good, the bad and the very surprising things I ran into as I worked my way through Joe Abercrombie’s first series.

The Black Company Series Review

by Matthew Thompson (This post features cover art for the series by Raymond Swanland. His Official Website can be found here.)

(This review of Glen Cook’s Black Company series is spoiler-free so I could share why I enjoy it so much with my friends and readers and not spoil anything on the off-chance it motivates any of them to give it a try. I did however mention some spoilers when talking about my favorites in the bullet points. They are kind of vague, but if you haven’t read the series they might be worth skipping.)

Chronicles of Black Company

When I got hooked on Game of Thrones and subsequently read the A Song of Ice and Fire novels, I got my first big introduction to fantasy literature and I loved it. When I finished up A Dance with Dragons, I was looking to branch out further into the genre and see what else was on offer. After browsing the web looking for another series to dig into I discovered Glen Cook’s Black Company books. Now a year later, I have finished all ten novels in the series and not only experienced another amazing tale, but fallen further in love with the genre.

The Black Company series is a dark military fantasy story told over course of ten books (with a couple more to come possibly). It follows the exploits of a mercenary group, the titular Black Company, as they take different contracts doing whatever they must to keep their little group of misfits going. The first novel really takes off once they go to work for the Lady, the most powerful sorcerer in the world and the ruler of a vast empire. They aren’t exactly working for the good guy, but a bunch of other factors make them an easy gang to get behind regardless of what their latest employer has them doing.

Those factors definitely begin with a rich, diverse cast of characters. There is the no-nonsense head of the unit simply known as the Captain. There’s the new recruit Raven whose skills in a fight make him a valuable commodity to the group, but whose mysterious past means he is a bit of a wildcard. It includes a couple of small-time wizards named One-Eye and Goblin. Both over a hundred years old, they are long-time members of the company. It is pretty clear all this time spent together means they are great friends, but they live to torment each other using various tricks of sorcery. Their escalating war of practical jokes help to lighten the dark tone of the books. As does my favorite character, Croaker. He is the real heart of the series. As the company annalist, he keeps the history of their exploits and in doing so acts as our narrator and window into the story being told. He isn’t some sword-wielding badass or powerful wizard. He’s the primary physician and historian for the company which makes for a unique viewpoint on the goings-on and he has a great wit about him which again gives the material a much-needed dash of humor.

Another thing that hooked me into the series early on was Croaker’s odd obsession with the Lady. He basically writes fan-fiction about and draws sketches of their never-seen employer. It makes for some fun ribbing from his comrades, but when the all-knowing Lady takes note of his attention it also begins a strange relationship that helps shape the narrative going forward.

Black Company Books of the South

That evolving relationship is just one of many things that is fun to see change over the course of the series. The whole saga spans about 40 years. The company ranges from having thousands of men in their employ to being just a handful of wanderers looking for their next job and purpose in life. It isn’t spoiling much to say that some characters die. Some move on. This will leave positions vacant. Others will fill them. Seeing the changes in the Black Company over the years, watching these characters we knew in one way change roles and then seeing them through someone else’s eyes since the narrator switches quite a few times over the course of ten books, it makes for a fascinating read. When I think back on it all, the evolution of these characters and the company as a whole is one of the things that really strikes me about the series.

As I mentioned, this is fantasy with a decidedly military slant to it which means there are plenty of impactful battles on both a large and small scale. Throwing some of its cool magic into the mix makes for some truly thrilling passages as massive armies square off in the battlefield. But the Black Company is not known for besting their opposition through force, but rather guile. Their trademark involves cleverly set traps and watching their devious plans unfold can be just as fun as the big battles. I found myself shaking my head at times when I realized just how they have pulled off their latest stunt. I also think they do a great job of nailing the comradery that develops among a close-knit group like this.

The series feels like it fits into two different parts. The original trilogy tells one overarching story dealing with the Company’s tenor under the Lady and her fight against a rebel uprising. I also appreciate that each individual book within that trilogy tells a story of its own. It makes for a supremely satisfying set which has been bundled into one omnibus called Chronicles of the Black Company.

After the original three, there are six more main entries. These follow more adventures of the company and while they are kind of split into two portions, I find they tell part of another larger story. It is a little more inconsistent than the original trilogy and each one doesn’t have as satisfying of an individual story, but I enjoyed them all and just like the original trilogy, the final book wraps things up well including tying off character arcs that started up back in the early novels.

The Return of the Black Company

There is also a spinoff dealing with some other characters from the first three books which is fun too. Glen Cook is supposedly going to craft two more Black Company novels. It seems like he is tied up with other commitments lately, so I’ll have to see what comes of those. I’m really happy with how things finished up, but I’d certainly welcome more stories in his brilliant dark fantasy world.

The Black Company series was certainly a different take on the genre than A Song of Ice and Fire. Cook’s writing style is quite dissimilar to Martin’s. As much as I enjoy Martin’s writing, he can go a little overboard at times with descriptions. You may have heard jokes about his long-winded, flowery descriptions of food platters. There is definitely some truth in those jabs especially in the later books. Coming off of that, I really appreciated Cook’s more to the point style. The books are shorter, chapters are quicker, and everything moves along at a bit faster pace. It might hurt the world-building in comparison, but the trade-off certainly seems like a even one.

My Black Company Favorites:

  • Favorite Book: I will say The White Rose. I love the conclusion of the struggle between Lady and The White Rose and I thought the Plain of Fear with all its crazy creatures was an awesome new location for the series. The original book and the final one, Soldiers Live, would be right behind it for me.
  • Favorite Character: As I mentioned earlier, Croaker is my favorite, but I loved Lady, Darling, Soulcatcher and Sleepy. This series really had some kickass female characters and wasn’t afraid to put them in charge either which was really cool.
  • Favorite Sequence: The Battle at Charm that closes the first book is really the segment that sold me on the greatness the series was capable of. I was enjoying it up until that point, but that was my first big “Wow!” moment, so I will go with it.
  • Most Shocking Twist: The reveal of who Corbie was in The White Rose is one that really caught me off guard. I should have seen it coming, but I did not. Gave me a whole new appreciation for those sections before the reveal. This series fooled me more times than I can count especially with things like secret identities of characters, but I was proud when I was able to finally see a few of them coming towards the end. However, I did not see how Croaker would make good on his deal with Shivetya. That was pretty nuts too, but I really liked it.

With these two fantasy series being so enjoyable to me, I plan to delve into the genre a lot more going forward to see what else it has to offer. I have started Joe Abercrombie’s First Law Trilogy and ordered the first books in Glen Cook’s Dread Empire series to get a feel for more of his work in the genre and The Way of Kings, the critically acclaimed first entry in Brandon Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive series. I also hope this post is the start of many more novel reviews here on the blog (hopefully individual ones, so I don’t have to try to cover so much like I did in this one!). Well that is all for now. Thank you very much for reading!

“The Princess and the Queen” (Spoiler-Free) Impressions

by Matthew Thompson

(I purposely avoided any spoilers for any A Song of Ice and Fire readers or Game of Thrones watchers who are curious what this is about that haven’t had the chance to read it yet. I do talk in vague terms about what the book is about and how it was written though or this wouldn’t be much of a blog!)

Dangerous Women

For Christmas I got myself the new anthology, Dangerous Women, a collection of short stories across many genres with the theme of… well… dangerous women. They range anywhere from 20-80 pages long. I’ve read a few including a fun little western by Joe Abercrombie and it should be nice to try out some new authors and genres than I’m not accustomed to reading. The main selling point though was a new novella by Geroge R.R. Martin set in the world of A Song of Ice and Fire.

“The Princess and the Queen” takes place more than 150 years before the start of the Game of Thrones novel and TV show. It’s a time when the Targaryens ruled and dragons were still plentiful in Westeros. When King Viserys I Targaryen dies, both Rhaenyra, his daughter and only surviving child from his first wife, and Aegon, the eldest son of his wife and current queen, made claims to the throne. What resulted became known as The Dance of the Dragons, a bloody civil war amongst the ruling family and the other inhabitants of the Seven Kingdoms who decided to fight on one side or the other (it’s worth noting you’ll see plenty of other family names you are familiar with besides Targaryen). Over the course of about 80 pages “The Princess and the Queen” describes how this war played out both in the battlefield and in the council rooms that helped decide its outcome.

One thing that makes it a little different is the way it is written. Instead of the third-person point of view style that the main books employ, this is written more like a historical text from a crotchety old Maester of the Citadel in Oldtown. As such, it comes off much more dry and lacking a bit of the flavor that readers of the series are accustomed to. And yet, the Maester has some nice traits of his own. For instance, I like how he groused about the way singers and stories have distorted history with more appealing and romantic endings.

GoT FIgures

Bonus Picture: I got these three little figures on the left (Tyrion, Jon and Arya) as Christmas gifts to go with my Dany one (right) from last year!

Regardless of how you warm to the new voice, there is a lot to like here especially for those that enjoy digging into the history of Westeros. The biggest selling point though has to be the dragons. This tale gives us a great look at the kind of things these beasts can do in battle as well as how fights between them play out. There is also some insight into the relationships between a dragon and its rider. All of these things should play into the stories we’ve been reading and watching before it’s all said and done which is an added plus.

If you are a sucker for all things Ice and Fire, this definitely seems like something you’d want to check out. Whether it is worth plopping down twenty dollars for it is another issue, though personally I’m happy with my purchase so far. It’s too bad “The Princess and the Queen” isn’t readily available on its own because I think it’d be a fun read for show watchers who never got into the books. It wouldn’t be a 5,000+ page investment and since it is a prequel, it wouldn’t spoil anything for those that just want to see everything unfold on their TV screens. And while the writing style wouldn’t be a great preview of series at large (there are always sample chapters for that), it does give some insight into the history of the show’s world which is something that the small screen adaptation has never been able to dig into in the way the books do because of the different approach and perspective.

Overall I enjoyed diving back into a world I have really grown to love in recent years, regardless of how brief this new piece of fiction was. It was especially fun for a big fan of Daenerys and her dragons like I am. Have you read “The Princess and the Queen”? Let me know what you thought. I’m also open to any questions you might have, so feel free to ask in the comments below. Thanks for reading!