Review Amnesty: Big Fat Fantasy Edition

reviewamnestyAfter the hiatus I took last year, I have a huge backlog of books I’ve read and need to review and now I’m trying to get the blog back up and running they are staring me in the face and taunting me, all nineteen of them. Some of them I read over six months ago and it is hard to write a review for them in the usual way, so I’ve decided to declare a review amnesty. There are two books I’m planning to co-review with Wiebe, since they are two of his favourite books, two novellas that I can quickly reread and review, but the other fifteen will be split up into three posts and I’m going to just quickly run down each of them and give my thoughts. And then I’ll be able to move on and *bursts into song* Let It Go…So here is the first of the three posts, the one I dubbed the Big Fat Fantasy edition. 

aliettedebodard-houseofshatteringwingsAliette de Bodard – The House of Shattered Wings

A superb murder mystery, on an epic scale, set against the fall out – literally – of a war in Heaven.<

Paris has survived the Great Houses War – just. Its streets are lined with haunted ruins, Notre-Dame is a burnt-out shell, and the Seine runs black with ashes and rubble. Yet life continues among the wreckage. The citizens continue to live, love, fight and survive in their war-torn city, and The Great Houses still vie for dominion over the once grand capital.

House Silverspires, previously the leader of those power games, lies in disarray. Its magic is ailing; its founder, Morningstar, has been missing for decades; and now something from the shadows stalks its people inside their very own walls.

Within the House, three very different people must come together: a naive but powerful Fallen, a alchemist with a self-destructive addiction, and a resentful young man wielding spells from the Far East. They may be Silverspires’ salvation. They may be the architects of its last, irreversible fall…

2015 was an interesting year for acclaimed short fiction authors coming out with long fiction. Ken Liu published his first novel, as did Zen Cho (whose Sorceror of the Crown is included below). And though Aliette de Bodard has previously published novels, to wit the Obsidian and Blood trilogy, I was only familiar with her award-winning short fiction. But the short fiction I read, I loved, so I was very excited to read her in a longer form. Besides, if you lead off a description of a book with fallen angels in a bombed-out Paris… I’m totally sold!

Magical cities aren’t uncommon in fantasy, especially modern-day urban fantasy – actually, you could almost say that magical London is a trope all on its own – yet I haven’t read that many books set in a magical Paris, in fact I can only think of one series that might pass through Paris once or twice and that is Deborah Harkness’ All Souls series. De Bodard’s gorgeous rendition of a bombed-out, alternate history Paris was absolutely enchanting. Having visited Paris several times, it was wonderful to recognise landmarks and easy to imagine them in De Bodard’s Paris. Having diverged history at the point of the Great War, she draws a city caught in the aesthetic of the Art Nouveau, which is one of my favourite styles. The juxtaposition of the opulence of the Houses and the rubble-strewn environs outside of them was effective, immersive and compelling.

To this stunningly baroque setting De Bodard adds a complex set of political shenanigans, a group of delightful and fascinating main characters, a love story that isn’t your conventional love story, and an exploration of what it means to feel responsible for someone despite yourself. I loved The House of Shattered Wings. I found it immersive, delicious, and full of beautiful visuals. Definitely one I recommend.

bradleybeaulieu-twelvekingsofsharakaiBradley Beaulieu – Twelve Kings
Sharakhai, the great city of the desert, center of commerce and culture, has been ruled from time immemorial by twelve kings—cruel, ruthless, powerful, and immortal. With their army of Silver Spears, their elite company of Blade Maidens, and their holy defenders, the terrifying asirim, the Kings uphold their positions as undisputed, invincible lords of the desert. There is no hope of freedom for any under their rule.

Or so it seems, until Çeda, a brave young woman from the west end slums, defies the Kings’ laws by going outside on the holy night of Beht Zha’ir. What she learns that night sets her on a path that winds through both the terrible truths of the Kings’ mysterious history and the hidden riddles of her own heritage. Together, these secrets could finally break the iron grip of the Kings’ power…if the nigh-omnipotent Kings don’t find her first.

I sort of reviewed this one in my contribution to one of SF Signal’s Mind Melds, so here’s what I said on SF Signal:

Beaulieu’s Twelve Kings of Sharakai is epic fantasy at its finest. This year featured some fantastic epic fantasy releases and Twelve Kings definitely ranks high amongst them. Its luscious world-building, fascinating mythology, and complex characters swept me away into the desert city of Sharakai and made the book’s hefty page count seem too small, because I didn’t want to leave.

zencho-sorcerorofthecrownZen Cho – Sorcerer to the Crown

The Royal Society of Unnatural Philosophers, one of the most respected organizations throughout all of England, has long been tasked with maintaining magic within His Majesty’s lands. But lately, the once proper institute has fallen into disgrace, naming an altogether unsuitable gentleman—a freed slave who doesn’t even have a familiar—as their Sorcerer Royal, and allowing England’s once profuse stores of magic to slowly bleed dry. At least they haven’t stooped so low as to allow women to practice what is obviously a man’s profession…

At his wit’s end, Zacharias Wythe, Sorcerer Royal of the Unnatural Philosophers and eminently proficient magician, ventures to the border of Fairyland to discover why England’s magical stocks are drying up. But when his adventure brings him in contact with a most unusual comrade, a woman with immense power and an unfathomable gift, he sets on a path which will alter the nature of sorcery in all of Britain—and the world at large…

I adore Jane Austen, the Brontë sisters, Fanny Burney and their contemporaries, so a Regency-esque fantasy novel is catnip. Zen Cho’s Sorcerer to the Crown has been compared to the style of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, which I’ve never read, but if it is as much fun as Sorcerer to the Crown is, I should probably read it at some point! Cho’s debut is witty, romantic, has some lovely world-building and two enchanting main characters in Zacharias and Prunella, who challenge themselves, each other and the preconceptions of their society and the reader. I loved both of them, but Prunella’s independent spirit made me fall in love with the book. If you’re looking for a fun read with a lot of heart, this is the book for you.

kameronhurley-empireascendantKameron Hurley – Empire Ascendant
In this thrilling sequel to The Mirror Empire, Kameron Hurley transports us back to a land of blood mages, sentient plants, and warfare on a scale that spans worlds.

Every two thousand years, parallel dimensions collide on the world called Raisa, bringing a tide of death and destruction to all worlds but one. Multiple worlds battle their dopplegangers for dominance, and those who survive must contend with friends and enemies newly imbued with violent powers.

Now the pacifist country of Dhai’s only hope for survival lies in the hands of an illegitimate ruler and a scullery maid with a powerful – but unpredictable –magic. As their dopplegangers spread across the world like a disease, a former ally takes up her Empress’s sword again to unseat her, and two enslaved scholars begin a treacherous journey home with a long-lost secret that they hope is the key to the other worlds’ undoing.

But when the enemy shares your own face, who can be trusted?

Kameron Hurley’s Mirror Empire blew me away last year and I was eagerly awaiting Empire Ascendant to see what happened next. I was not disappointed. Hurley manages to break her main characters worlds apart without flinching, never pulling her punches, but without making it feel as if she’s killing of characters for shock value. She makes the adversaries in the book if not sympathetic, at least understandable in their motivations, which makes everything even more complicated in the feelings department. I loved the directions some of the characters developed in and I wonder how this epic conflict will be resolved in the final book next year.

nkjemisin-thefifthseasonN.K. Jemisin – The Fifth Season

This is the way the world ends. Again.

Three terrible things happen in a single day. Essun, a woman living an ordinary life in a small town, comes home to find that her husband has brutally murdered their son and kidnapped their daughter. Meanwhile, mighty Sanze — the world-spanning empire whose innovations have been civilization’s bedrock for a thousand years — collapses as most of its citizens are murdered to serve a madman’s vengeance. And worst of all, across the heart of the vast continent known as the Stillness, a great red rift has been torn into the heart of the earth, spewing ash enough to darken the sky for years. Or centuries.

Now Essun must pursue the wreckage of her family through a deadly, dying land. Without sunlight, clean water, or arable land, and with limited stockpiles of supplies, there will be war all across the Stillness: a battle royale of nations not for power or territory, but simply for the basic resources necessary to get through the long dark night. Essun does not care if the world falls apart around her. She’ll break it herself, if she must, to save her daughter.

The Fifth Season killed me! Every time I want to say something about why people ought to read this book I start with Jemisin does interesting things with narrative structure and voice, move to the brilliance of Essun and the heartbreak of Syen, the fascinating world she’s created in The Stillness, the intricate exploration of class and race issues, not to mention sexuality and gender, and I devolve in a gibbering mess. I can’t seem to coherently put my thoughts down. Jemisin broke my heart several times with this story and yet, I couldn’t stop reading it. The Fifth Season is a brilliant book and I can’t recommend it highly enough.

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