Another Monday, another Review Amnesty post. This time I decided to focus on three fantasy novels I read this summer. They are all three of them fantastic, two of them are books first published in 2015, while the first I’ll review is a 2016 debut novel. They are also all super different from each other and reminded me while writing their reviews how incredibly varied and versatile the fantasy genre is, which is one of the things I love about it.
Mark de Jager – Infernal
Stratus wakes in an unfamiliar place, with nothing but the knowledge that he is not human, with no memories of his past but possessing great strength, a powerful sorcery and the burning instinct to survive at any cost.
Embarking on a journey of self-discovery, he sets out across a landscape torn apart by the ten year war between the Kingdoms of Krandin and Penullin, now reaching new levels of savagery as a dark magic drives the world to the brink of destruction.
As his personality grows with each step he slowly uncovers the truth of what he has become and the unquenchable thirst for vengeance that has led him there.
Disclaimer: Mark is a dear friend and I went into this book knowing I liked Mark’s writing style and fully hoping I’d love the story, because having to negatively review a friend’s book is never fun. That being said let’s crack on with this review.
Infernal is Mark de Jager’s debut novel and it is one that should make both epic and grim dark fantasy readers sit up and take note. What I really liked about the narration, but what also made it somewhat harder to get into the story, was the fact that it is told in the first person and we’re given no context beyond what the main character Stratus knows and experiences. And since Stratus wakes up not knowing who, what, or where he is, the start of the novel is somewhat disorienting. However, while it takes Stratus the rest of the book to figure out the answers to those questions, the narration soon found its feet and it was easy to want to follow the story of its (anti-)hero.
Stratus isn’t exactly nice. He’s violent, has a somewhat confused moral compass, and did I mention he’s violent? Yet, despite all of this, he is fascinating and his reasoning usually makes a weird sort of sense, even if it is not exactly human. He meets up with a wayward prince and his bodyguard, Lucien and Tatyana. I fell in love with Tatyana in under a chapter. I loved her kicking ass and taking names, but I also loved that she was willing to listen and figure things out. Dealing with the exasperating Lucien gave Tatyana some practice for dealing with Stratus and the interactions between Stratus and Tatyana also allowed for the infusion of some levity in this book, which can be extremely dark at times.
While very character-driven, Infernal also had a lot of political scheming going on. And while what the reader learned about the world was very focused due to Stratus’ first person narration, there seemed to be an underlying depth to the world-building that makes me look forward to the next book to discover more about it.
Infernal has the kind of ending that you either love or hate; it is the cliffiest of cliffhangers. For me it was a perfect ending, but one that left me yelling at Mark on Twitter that I wanted the next part now. I highly recommend Infernal to anyone who likes their fantasy dark and epic. Stratus’s tale not only reminded me how much I love Mark’s writing style, but also what a wonderful storyteller he is.
Naomi Novik – Uprooted
Agnieszka loves her valley home, her quiet village, the forests and the bright shining river. But the corrupted wood stands on the border, full of malevolent power, and its shadow lies over her life.
Her people rely on the cold, ambitious wizard, known only as the Dragon, to keep the wood’s powers at bay. But he demands a terrible price for his help: one young woman must be handed over to serve him for ten years, a fate almost as terrible as being lost to the wood.
The next choosing is fast approaching, and Agnieszka is afraid. She knows – everyone knows – that the Dragon will take Kasia: beautiful, graceful, brave Kasia – all the things Agnieszka isn’t – and her dearest friend in the world. And there is no way to save her.
But no one can predict how or why the Dragon chooses a girl. And when he comes, it is not Kasia he will take with him.
Naomi Novik’s Uprooted was one of the main contenders for many of this year’s awards and while it narrowly missed out on the Hugo, it took home the Nebula, the Locus award, and the Mythopoeic award. It is a novel that doesn’t need me to talk it up any further, because people already know how wonderful it is. Still, I did want to share how much I loved it and the bond between Agnieszka and her best friend Kasia. There are so many fairytale elements to the story, so many tales it is reminiscent off, and yet it is wholly unique. If fairytales and fairy tale retellings are your bag, then you should undoubtedly read Uprooted. Highly recommended!
But this is Celtic Britain, and the dark power of the Roman Empire is gathering in the distance.
As Ailia’s people prepare to face a brutal enemy and an uncertain future, it is Ailia who must embrace the extraordinary power which lies within her… and who must stand, alone, to protect the people she loves from the end of everything they’ve ever known.
When I first learned about Ilka Tampke’s Skin, I immediately knew I wanted to read it as it hits so many of my sweet spots, fantasy combined with historical fiction set in Celtic Britain. Not to mention that Tampke at some point mixes in just a hint of the Arthurian legend that is still in the far future in this book. When I finally managed to snag a copy of the paperback last summer, I just started the first page over coffee at Foyles and I was hooked. I read the book over the course of my Nine Worlds weekend, between panels and socialising.
I loved Ailia’s story of becoming. This story is not about Ailia finding herself or her voice, because even when we meet her at the beginning of the book, she is a strong, assured character, only held back by the fact that she has no skin, no totem to bind her soul. No, Skin is about Ailia becoming who she was meant to be, growing into her role and creating her place in her society.
Skin is also very female-centric. Yes, men are in the book and they drive events in it, but they do not drive the narrative and the women in the book are all about their own agency. No man tells them what to do. From Ailia’s foster mother Cookmother, to the Tribequeen Fraid, to her hearth sisters Bebin, Ianna, and Cah, to the awful Heka… each chooses her own way within the bounds of tribal customs. In this way it reminded me somewhat of the Mists of Avalon, which was centred on the female characters of the Arthurian cycle and also featured the struggle between the old ways and the new (Christian) traditions that were slowly taking over the land.
Despite the fact that the book is so female-centric, or perhaps because of it, Skin also has some fantastic male characters. Ailia falls in love with Taliesin, the mysterious young man she meets in the nearby forest, but she is also bound to the boisterous and somewhat unsympathetic Ruther, who seems to genuinely care for Ailia. I loved the tension between the two relationships, with Ailia having to choose between her heart and her head: each man offering her different options and fulfilment.
Skin is an amazing story and Ailia an amazing protagonist. I fell in love with her world and Tampke’s writing. Even if fantasy isn’t usually your thing, but you like historical fiction, you should definitely give Skin a chance because it is a unique story and a gorgeous portrayal of Celtic Britain. Skin is one of my favourite reads this year.