“Luna: New Moon” by Ian McDonald

lunanewmoonAs always, I’m behind on my reviews, so I’m keeping this one short.

Luna: New Moon was marketed as “Game of Thrones set on the moon”, and that seemed pretty accurate to me. The Moon has finally been colonized, primarily by the Five Dragons, five powerful industrial families that are constantly battling for supremacy. We’re following the upstart Cortas, led by matriarch Adriana Corta, who’ve made a fortune mining Helium-3, but are finding that their ascension to Dragon stature comes with a whole bunch of complications.

There’s no one protagonist, as is the case with many of McDonald’s novels. We follow pretty much all of the Cortas, and some others, like Marina Calzaghe, a “Jo Moonbeam” (a recent arrival from Earth) who gets thoroughly tangled in the Cortas’ affairs. There doesn’t seem to be plot at first, we dive head first into the Cortas’ lives, what they do, who they love, their struggles with each other, but it’s all extremely compelling. We also learn more about the early days of the moon and its colonization through Adriana’s memoirs, which adds a lot of context to the story and is a lot of fun. There is plot though, and it all makes sense when it comes to fruition.

Some of the other highlights were the evolution of world/national culture (something McDonald specializes in), the development of  interesting AI, and the brutal economics of living on the moon. My only complaint was that I didn’t realize that this was a duology until I reached the end and realized there was no way this story had ended. I’m looking forward to the sequel, though. CBS is also developing a TV show based on the books, which I really hope goes to series.

Luna: New Moon by Ian McDonald (Luna: New Moon, #1)
Tor Books, 2015 | Buy the book
I received a complimentary review copy of this book.

“The Traitor Baru Cormorant” by Seth Dickinson

The Traitor Baru Cormorant coverI was intrigued by the evocative title of The Traitor Baru Cormorant ever since I first heard of it. Then I found out that it was about a woman who wants to take down a ruthless empire by rising within its civil service – as an accountant! Political intrigue and worldbuilding are two of my very favourite things in fantasy, and you can’t really have a story about manipulating the economy to bring down a country without either of those things. And I figured that someone with the audacity to base their debut novel’s premise on fantasy economics has to be good enough to do it well. So yes, I had really high expectations for this book, and I was still blown away.

Baru Cormorant is from the island of Taranoke, which has caught the eye of the Empire of Masks (or the Masquerade as it is called derogatorily). The Masquerade doesn’t do anything as overt as actually invading, though – their strategy is much more subtle, starting with getting the Taranoki dependent on their trade, “helping” with Taranoki defense, and opening schools, and before you know it, half of Taranoke is dead from a plague and most of the customs Baru grew up with are declared anathema. Baru recognizes how helpless she and her people are, and resolves to help her people the only way she can think of – by destroying the Masquerade from the inside. She knows her first assignment is a test, though – to subdue the harsh and rebellious country of Aurdwynn, which has always destroyed those who have tried to rule it.

There are so many ways this book could have been done wrong – the trope of “the road to hell is paved with good intentions” has been done a lot, and it is hard to sympathize with anything that helps an Evil Empire (and the Empire is definitely Evil – eugenics, cultural superiority, no regard for human life, strict laws on sexual preferences). But Baru is a tremendously compelling character,; she haunted me for weeks after I finished this book. She really wants to be ruthless in her quest for vengeance, and she usually succeeds, but no matter how many atrocities she causes, you can’t help but rejoice at her successes. You see how much she suffers with every betrayal and watch her pull herself back together through sheer force of will, and it’s as beautiful as it is terrible. The Masquerade has shaped Baru for longer than her family of “a huntress and a blacksmith and a shield-bearer” has, and even if it kills her, she must work for it to eventually be able to work against it.

Everything else about the book is extraordinary too – the supporting characters (especially the enigmatic Duchess Tain Hu), the settings (complex and organic cultures, but no stereotypes), the plot (the loans and futures trading are fascinating, but there’s a lot more to it too) – but Baru steals the show, as is apropos of book’s title. I absolutely cannot wait for the next book.

The Traitor Baru Cormorant by Seth Dickinson (The Traitor Baru Cormorant, #1)
Tor Books, 2015 | Buy the book
I received a complimentary review copy of this book.

“Ancillary Mercy” by Ann Leckie

ancillarymercySpoilers warning: Spoilers for Ancillary Justice and Ancillary Sword.

Ancillary Mercy starts right where Ancillary Sword ended, with everyone at and near Athoek Station recovering from the fallout of the events of the previous book. However, Breq knows that her actions will not end up unnoticed for long, and sure enough, Anaander Mianaai shows up in the system in a very bad mood. Meanwhile, there’s still the issue of the ghost system and the missing ancillaries, the intervention with the Presger, and the fate of various people from Ancillary Sword to deal with.

I wasn’t sure how Leckie would end up wrapping up this series, given that the second book was so much more scaled down than the first (only involving one system), and this book seemed to be set in the Athoek system as well. I’m very happy with the ending, though – it was well set up in the rest of the series, and thoroughly satisfying. The characters continue to be a delight to read about as they discover things in them they didn’t know they had – especially Breq, but also Tisarwat, Seivarden, and Mercy of Kalr. There is still plenty of tea and personal drama, but there are also some really cool action scenes in space.

Ancillary Mercy was one of my most anticipated books this year, and it did not disappoint! This series is sadly over, but there’s going to be a new book set in this universe in 2017, and I’m really, really excited about that.

Ancillary Mercy by Ann Leckie (Imperial Radch, #3)
Orbit Books, 2015 | Buy the book
I received a complimentary review copy of this book.

“Fool’s Quest” by Robin Hobb

foolsquestAs expected, I loved this book. It’s hard to talk about all the things Robin Hobb does right, especially because at this point, I expect her to do them right, so this is going to be a pretty short review.

Spoilers for Fool’s Assassin ensue.

We pick up right where we ended things in Fool’s Assassin, and the pacing of the first half of the book is really slow. This was a bit irritating from the plot perspective considering the cliffhanger at the end of the last book, but Hobb doesn’t waste a single word. Fitz’s usual stubbornness is tempered by a little bit of wisdom, but he’s still very much himself. The Fool’s is not really himself, which is very unpleasant to read about, but makes sense. Bee is not as much of a presence in this book, but she’s a welcome one when she does show up. There are great new characters like Ash, great old characters that I never thought I’d see again, and welcome character development for characters from the first book.

There are a few moments involving Fitz in this book that I never really expected to happen, and some loose ends from the original Farseer trilogy are wrapped up. The last few chapters of the book are especially exciting for those of us who love the whole Realm of the Elderlings universe. All these good things make me scared for Fitz’s fate in the third book (especially as the book is called Asssassin’s Fate, and Robin Hobb doesn’t have a history of leaving her characters happy) but otherwise, I was thrilled.

I really don’t want to wait until this time next year to find out what happens next.

Fool’s Quest by Robin Hobb (The Fitz and the Fool, #2)
Del Rey, 2015 | Buy the book

“Updraft” by Fran Wilde

updraftKirit Densira is only a couple of days away from earning her wings and starting her apprenticeship as a trader. But when she breaks one of her city’s laws by attracting the attention of a monstrous predator, her life changes irrevocably, and she finds herself neck-deep in the city’s secrets.

The real star of Updraft is the setting. A city of living bone towers rising above the clouds, where people live within the hollowed out bone and flight is the only way to get around. It’s one of the most unique worlds that I’ve encountered so far, and the author has thought through a million little details that make it feel real – the availability of resources, the different occupations that people have, the way people eat and sleep, how farming would work – to name a few. The description of the world is what made me pick this book to read, and it was as cool as I was hoping it would be.

The rest of the book has quite a few rough edges. Kirit is a pretty typical teenager – takes everything that happens far too seriously, utterly convinced that she knows what she wants from life, and incredibly stubborn when the world doesn’t meet her expectations. This works to her advantage for the plot because the people she’s dealing with often aren’t acting with good faith, but it makes her an annoying protagonist, especially because the book is written in first person. It’s hard to empathize with her because we don’t know much about her and what she likes; we just know a lot about what she wants.

The writing style and tone of this book reminded me a lot of Red Rising – lots of short sentences, first person, very determined and serious protagonist with no apparent sense of humour (or at least not one shown in the book). That isn’t bad, but it doesn’t work for me as well because I prefer some fun in my books, especially books where everyone’s flying! I mean, it’s really interesting how the author manages to make flying an everyday, unremarkable part of life, and there are some cool flying scenes, but I wanted a lot more.

One other thing I was disappointed about was that a lot of what happens towards the end is figured out by Kirit’s associates (kind of like the end of Catching Fire and most of Mockingjay, where Katniss has no idea what is going on and people are just telling her to do things) and it’s a bit boring to see events play out from Kirit’s perspective. For instance, most of the plot surrounding the wingbeaters was just hearsay (they think this, now they think that) but was really important to the plot.

I don’t want to imply that this was a bad book, it just didn’t work for me as well I had hoped. I really did enjoy the world, and the characterization was excellent – Kirit’s relationships with her mother and Sellis were particularly well written.

Updraft by Fran Wilde (The Bone Universe, #1)
Tor Books, 2015 | Buy the book
I received a complimentary review copy of this book.

“The Grace of Kings” by Ken Liu

thegraceofkingsThere’s been a lot of anticipation about the release of The Grace of Kings, Ken Liu’s debut novel. If you haven’t heard of Ken Liu, he’s an accomplished writer of short fiction – his story, Paper Menagerie, won the Hugo, the Nebula and the World Fantasy Award. I was very excited to get an advance review copy, and I’m glad to say that it didn’t disappoint.

Emperor Mapidéré has achieved the seemingly impossible dream unifying of the islands of Dara, but he’s dying, and his empire is buckling under the strain of his autocratic rule. In a time ripe for rebellion, Kuni Garu, a charismatic working-class rogue (the “Dandelion”), and Mata Zyndu, the proud son of a fallen aristrocratic family (the “Chrysanthemum”) are determined to see that dream through. At the brink of victory, though, their fast friendship suddenly turns into deadly enmity, and things aren’t quite so clear cut.

The writing style and narrative structure of The Grace of Kings is fairly unique – it is told simply but perceptively, with myth/folktale qualities. I read somewhere that it’s influenced by Chinese pingshu storytelling, but I know nothing about that. There’s no point of view character, instead we get the whole story from a variety of different points of view as the plot demands, sometimes switching to entirely new characters from across the continent from where our protagonists are. None of the scenes lasts very long, the dialogue is economical and direct (but not so much so as to be unrealistic/humorous like the Belgariad, for example) but still conveys immense subtlety.

I ended up comparing The Grace of Kings to The Lions of Al-Rassan (review here), which I read only a few weeks ago, and it’s not really a fair comparison, but I’ll talk about it since I’m sure it influences my review. Both books are about two larger than life men and the conflict that they are forced into, and both have extraordinary but different styles of prose. In The Lions of Al-Rassan, we’re firmly focused on the characters – Rodrigo Belmonte and Ammar ibn Khairan are truly larger than life, incredible, men through the force of their own personalities, representing the best a human can aim to be. The reader cannot help but love them. In The Grace of Kings, the focus is more on the tale that is being told – Kuni Garu and Mata Zyndu are more a product of their circumstances. Their personalities are very much evident, but much of what they do is because of advice, politics, the intervention of the gods. They are certainly extraordinary heroes within their world, but they still act in accordance with their natures, they don’t try to rise above them.

This makes complete sense if you look at it in terms of Western and Eastern philosophy – the Western tradition focused a lot on improving the self and the role of every individual (The Lions of Al-Rassan is a parallel of Moorish Spain), but Eastern philosophy emphasizes interconnectedness and inevitability (The Grace of Kings is inspired by ancient China). It’s a pretty minor distinction, but it made The Grace of Kings seem grimmer and not have as much heart, although it just comes from using a different storytelling tradition.

Okay, so this book is well-written, but it is also a lot of fun. Ken Liu calls it “silkpunk” – a riff on steampunk that is inspired by East Asian antiquity, and it features some fascinating takes on traditional steampunk technologies – airships, submarines, gliders, and other cool gadgets. There are multiple wars in this book, so there’s plenty of thrilling and often cinematic action. There’s a lot of unexpected humor, and some truly dramatic moments (the one where Mata Zyndu finds his horse, for instance), often aided by the gods.

Speaking of the gods, I loved how they were portrayed. Each of the countries has their own god, and they (of course) swear not to interfere in the affairs of mortals, and manage to sneak a whole bunch of interfering in while keeping to the letter of their agreement. They’re often not any wiser than the mortals, though, and although their motivations can be mysterious, sometimes they are quite petty. I’m familiar with spiteful, squabbling gods from Hindu mythology, and they heightened the mythological feel of the book.

Although the plot of the book was based loosely on the rise of the Han dynasty in ancient China, I appreciated the fact that the world was very different from ancient China. The Islands of Dara are an archipelago, for one, and their customs are not distinctly evocative of any one place (Ken Liu talks about why he decided to do that here). The world seemed organically built based on the geography and the cultural interplay, and that is the best kind of world.

The one thing that I didn’t enjoy about the book was how much of what happened happened because people were greedy and power-hungry. I think this goes back to the same kind of inevitability that I talked about earlier – it almost felt like many of the characters were the same kind of person, and the only reason they acted differently was because of their circumstances. Rebels replaced tyrants and became tyrants themselves, competent men and women let their competency go to their head and ended up destroying everything they’d worked for because they wanted more power. There were exceptions, but even they were tempted. It seemed like a world where ambition was expected, or maybe the story only focused on the ambitious people; I’m not sure – it is a book that’s about empires toppling, after all. I kept wishing for some nice characters, but they all ended up dead. If you’re a fan of A Song of Ice and Fire etc., this may be a feature, not a bug.

I’m uncertain about how I feel about the end of the book. It was a self-contained story, but the way everyone was acting made me uneasy for the future. It does make me excited to read the next book, though – especially because Ken Liu has said that each book will have a different theme, and the next one will focus more on historical misogyny.

The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu (The Dandelion Dynasty, #1)
Saga Press, 2015 | Buy the book
I received a complimentary review copy of this book.

“The Eye of the World” Graphic Novel, Volumes Three and Four

Not surprisingly, after my last post, I read Volumes Three, Four, and Five straight through. I still haven’t read Volume Six, though (primarily because I didn’t have it yet), so I’ll save my review for Volume Five until then to be symmetrical. Anyway. here we go. I’m assuming you’ve read the novel version of The Eye of the World and I might allude to future books, but no  spoilers.

Volume Three

eotwv3The party is forced to retreat to the abandoned and dangerous Mines of Moria Shadar Logoth since they’re surrounded by Orcs Trollocs and there’s nowhere to go. Every time I reread this book, I’m always struck by how many story beats The Eye of the World seems to have borrowed from Lord of the Rings – that’s probably why I wasn’t really interested in reading the series after I read it for the first time (and now I want to reread the series every few months, it seems like). Anyway, Shadar Logoth is creepy, and Mordeth looked very different from how I’d imagined him, but I liked the way he was depicted. I know Mat has to go through his whole insane phase before he becomes awesome, but I was really hoping somehow that he wouldn’t touch that dagger. Unfortunately, he did, although the full effects aren’t apparent in this book.

Anyway, the party finally splits up (I say “finally” because I’m mostly used to everyone being in different places and having their own story – I guess everyone doesn’t diverge fully until The Shadow Rising, but I like the multiple character arcs). Egwene and Perrin head into the woods and run into Elyas (who also looks very different than I thought he would – for some reason, I never imagined him with a beard, although when I thought about it, he’s not really likely to shave living in the woods with wolves…) and the Tinkers. The Tinkers were exactly as I’d pictured them, especially Aram. I forgot all about the dying Aiel speaking of the Eye of the World story, but it was nice to see it illustrated. I was glad to get to the wolves, too – it’s the first sign we get of Perrin’s destiny – he and Mat so much more interesting than Rand.

Although, Mat is not interesting yet – he escapes with Rand and Thom onto Bayle Domon’s ship, heading for Whitebridge. I love Bayle Domon, and I also forgot about how he said the Trollocs seemed to be following him for some reason. The reason won’t become clear until later books, but it’s such a small thing to miss! Also we see the Tower of Ghenjei! Mat is sulking his way through the whole trip, but Rand is finding himself strangely exhilarated. They go into Whitebridge and have the encounter with a Fade, and Thom is awesome. They flee Whitebridge and Rand insists that the rest of their party must be alive, since the Darkfriends are looking for them. Elsewhere, Egwene and Perrin are also affirming to each other that the rest of the party must be alive. It’s a good place to end the volume.

Volume Four

eotwv4Volume Four wasn’t as exciting as the previous one – Mat and Rand are on the road to Caemlyn, and don’t do very much. They have a bunch of encounters with low-level Darkfriends – Howal Gode, Paitr, Mili Skane (although we don’t know that yet) that they narrowly escape from. The dream featuring Ba’alzamon and Howal Gode is particularly gruesome. Also, side note: it’s way clearer who Ba’alzamon is when you actually see him, I didn’t really realize what was going on with him until I reread the series. But when you can compare his face to his other appearance, it makes a lot more sense.

So Rand and Mat play music in inns and work in farms, Rand attracts the eye of a cooped up farmgirl, Mat gets more and more suspicious and scary, and complains a lot. He does not say “my precious” at any point, but he’s basically turning into Gollum. That sequence has always been one of my least favourites (I can’t bear to see Mat like that!), so I was glad to see it done. But they meet some nice people too, and they finally get to Caemlyn, and the grandness of the city is the last panel of the volume.

Egwene and Perrin continue to travel with the Tinkers until Elyas deems it necessary for them to leave. That sign comes fairly suddenly, and they part ways. I like Egwene and Perrin’s friendship, I wish they had more opportunities to explore that, especially given their shared future talent. They make for Caemlyn, but are chased by swarms of ravens intent on pecking them to death. You wouldn’t think that birds would be that scary, but the short scene where a fox is torn apart in seconds is given very effective/disturbing page time. They make for an abandoned Ogier stedding, where a giant statue of Arthur Hawkwing was once built and abandoned. The statue is very well done, and conveyed the eerie atmosphere of the place admirably.

But then the Whitecloaks show up (I really do not like the Whitecloaks, I want to balefire them all, zealots are frustrating) and kill Hopper (HOPPER!) and Perrin goes all berserker, and Egwene and Perrin are captured. The commander, Bornhald seems like a nice guy, but a nice guy who’s a zealot is still not a very nice guy, and Perrin is destined for execution. I don’t even understand why the Whitecloaks started chasing the wolves in the first place; why couldn’t they have just made their camp and left? Anyway, Perrin and Egwene are firmly in Whitecloak hands now.

And yeah, Moiraine, Lan, and Nynaeve are in these two volumes too (I don’t remember which one), and Nynaeve learns that she can channel. Lan and Nynaeve express their mutual admiration for one another in subtle ways (another thing which I totally did not pick up on on my first read) and Moiraine is slightly frustrated. But they’re not in this very much.

The next volume is a lot of fun – especially introductions to Loial and Elayne. I’m looking forward to reviewing it.

The Eye of the World: The Graphic Novel, Volume Three by Robert Jordan & Chuck Dixon (The Wheel of Time Graphic Novels, #3)
Tor Books, 2013 | Buy the book
I received a complimentary review copy of this book.

The Eye of the World: The Graphic Novel, Volume Four by Robert Jordan & Chuck Dixon (The Wheel of Time Graphic Novels, #4)
Tor Books, 2013 | Buy the book
I received a complimentary review copy of this book.

“The Eye of the World” Graphic Novel, Volumes One and Two

I just started reading the graphic novel version of The Eye of the World by Robert Jordan and adapted by Chuck Dixon. It’s pretty good so far, and left to my own devices, I’m likely to read them so fast that they blur together, so I figured I’d stop and review the two volumes I’ve read now.

I’m assuming you’ve read the novel version of The Eye of the World, so beware of spoilers!

Volume One

eotwv1We start off with the Ravens prologue that’s not actually in The Eye of the World – it was only included in From The Two Rivers, which is the first part of the split up version of the book published for the YA market, I believe. It features a nine year old Egwene at the annual Two Rivers sheep shearing, and handily gives us some background on the Dragon and the Dark One via a story told by Tam al’Thor to the kids, plus hints that the servants of the Dark One are watching the place. I’m glad they included this scene, because we get to see the Two Rivers when it’s normal, but also some foreshadowing that it’s not going to stay that way.

After that, the book follows the novel pretty closely – the creation of Dragonmount, and Rand and his father heading to Emond’s Field for Bel Tine. The volume ends with the flight from the Two Rivers – I thought more would happen by the end, but I’m glad they’re taking the pace slowly.

I don’t read many graphic novels, so I don’t know enough to compare the artwork and storytelling to other ones, but I think it was very well done. It was great to see so many scenes that I’ve only imagined in my head come to life – Moiraine and Lan, especially. The adaptation from the book was pretty faithful – the only discrepancy that I could tell was that Tam reveals the secret of Rand not being his biological son while Rand is dragging him to Emond’s Field, rather than in the inn, but that works better for the graphic novel form because you see Rand’s journey along with the exposition.

Other random thoughts: Nynaeve gets less page time than I thought she would, but she’s certainly mentioned a lot. Moiraine’s Manatheren speech is one of my favourite scenes in the book, and it is given full justice. The concept art at the end of the book is amazing (and covers the whole book, not just this volume) – I particularly loved the one of the thirteen Forsaken, and the Cenn Buie one that has him saying “I’m so tired of thatching theez damn rooves”. There’s also a lovely depiction of Tam finding Rand on Dragonmount.

Volume Two

eotwv2Volume Two covers the party’s journey from the Two Rivers until they leave Baerlon and make the decision to go to Shadar Logoth. I loved the Two Rivers’ folk’s reaction to both Taren Ferry and Baerlon – it was portrayed perfectly. I know the whole “farmboy sees big city and is totally overwhelmed” thing is a massive trope, but I love it anyway, possibly because I really wanted to move to the US from India (my version of wanting adventure), and I did when I was 17, to a place where pretty much no one else was Indian, and I had a really thick accent and had never even crossed a road by myself. It was totally unfamiliar but incredibly awesome but also sometimes the unfamiliarity was scary, and I get the feeling.

Other scenes I loved – Moiraine’s Mask of Mirrors at the gates of Baerlon, scaring the Children of Light away. Also, the ta’veren trio’s Ba’alzamon dreams are vividly horrifying, I don’t remember them making such an impression on me in the book. And Min’s introduction is fantastic, she looks exactly like how I’d imagined she would, and Rand is very puzzled by her. Nynaeve’s arrival and her suspicion are well handled too, I was less irritated by her when I could see her earnestness.

Speaking of ta’veren, the graphic novel hasn’t gone into that concept yet, I assume it will come up later.  I couldn’t really find any significant omissions, though – the journey from the Two Rivers to Baerlon goes by a lot quicker, although we get the important bits like Moiraine’s One Power lessons to Egwene and Rand’s spying, Bela being mysteriously unfatigued, the scariness of the Draghkar. We don’t get a lot of Mat and Perrin, but I don’t think we did in the book, either.

Okay, I’m going to wrap up this post now, I’m excited to go see Shadar Logoth.

The Eye of the World: The Graphic Novel, Volume One by Robert Jordan & Chuck Dixon (The Wheel of Time Graphic Novels, #1)
Tor Books, 2011 | Buy the book
I received a complimentary review copy of this book.

The Eye of the World: The Graphic Novel, Volume Two by Robert Jordan & Chuck Dixon (The Wheel of Time Graphic Novels, #2)
Tor Books, 2012 | Buy the book
I received a complimentary review copy of this book.

Mini-review: “The Spirit Ring” by Lois McMaster Bujold

thespiritringLois McMaster Bujold is one of my favourite authors, and I’ve been hoarding her remaining books because I don’t really want to get to a point where I have no more new Bujold books to read. I succumbed to The Spirit Ring this week, though.

The Spirit Ring is a pretty straightfoward fantasy story set in Renaissance Italy. Fiametta’s life shatters when she and her mage/artisan father are caught up in the squabbles between two dukedoms, and now she has to find a way to free her town from the invading duke before he is able to use black magic (using her father) to cement his hold on it.

As always with Bujold, the characters have complex emotions and pretty much leap off the page. Fiametta is sad and very scared, but she’s also somewhat relieved by having to fend for herself, having constantly been judged as less capable because of her gender. She’s determined and stubborn, but realistic – she knows exactly how powerless she is as a multiracial woman without a protector. I liked that her story was told in a way that seemed historically accurate to the options that she would have in that time, but it did so without making Fiametta seem any less capable.

Fiametta’s father is another great character; he’s a true Renaissance man – master craftsman and amateur scientist (but with magic), flamboyant and selfish, definitely not the best father, but still very proud of his daughter. Every character in this book is just a person (another thing I love about all of Bujold’s work!), even the occupying “evil” duke and his black-magic using assistant are just people with their own hopes and dreams (albeit ones that are not good for the rest of society), and like most people, they’re usually pretty amiable when their life isn’t being affected directly.

Bujold is great at subtle romances – usually her characters just recognize a similar kind of competence in each other, and at some point realize that they should just join forces. The Spirit Ring does this, but with a healthy addition of Fiametta and Thur’s teenage hormones. Thur is fantastic, and his down to earth practicality matches Fiametta’s temperament very well. I’d love to read a book set a couple of decades later to see how they’ve grown together.

P.S. Yes, I know that cover is incredibly ugly, please don’t judge the book by it. The current cover is better, but I like to match the covers I put up with the edition I read.

The Spirit Ring by Lois McMaster Bujold
Baen Books, 1992 | Buy the book

“The Lions of Al-Rassan” by Guy Gavriel Kay

thelionsofalrassanGuy Gavriel Kay is one of the most consistently praised fantasy authors; for instance, Brandon Sanderson calls him the “the greatest living author of epic fantasy“. I had read the first Fionavar Tapestry book, The Summer Tree, but I didn’t understand what all the fuss was about – I thought it seemed like a cross between a more adult Narnia and The Wheel of Time (“Tapestry” instead of “Pattern”). I figured I should give him another shot though, and I’m glad I did, because now I understand, and only the pile of unread books in the house is keeping me from buying his entire bibliography right now.

The Lions of Al-Rassan is set in the equivalent of the Iberian peninsula in the era of Moorish Spain. The Asharite city-states of the south and the Jaddite kingdoms of the north have had a tenuous peace despite their religious differences, but the winds are changing. Rodrigo Belmonte, the celebrated Jaddite captain, and Ammar ibn Khairan, the notorious right-hand man of the Asharite King Almalik of Cartada both find themselves driven away from their countries, and end up in the same city. Jehane, a Kindath physician, finds that her life is increasingly interwoven with theirs, as the world that she knows slowly begins to fall apart around her.

Despite being set in a secondary world, The Lions of Al-Rassan is clearly meant to evoke history – the names of the countries are different, and the religions are based on the celestial bodies of their world – but the map of the world is the same, and the Asharites, Jaddites, and Kindath represent the Muslims, Christians, and Jews, respectively. I wasn’t sure how I felt about that at first, but it’s a brilliant way for the author to take readers into how it felt like to live in that world without having to be too closely tied to historical accuracy.

Rodrigo Belmonte and Ammar ibn Khairan are the heart and soul of this book. They’re from very different worlds, but have a lot in common – both are larger than life, principled, intelligent, compassionate – heroes that actually deserve their reputation. When they finally meet, the world itself shivers a little bit. We see their story play out from many points of view, but the most important (and third protagonist) is Jehane, who is exceptional in her own right, but not as relevant to history. These three break the barriers of faith and country to develop an enduring friendship, but even the greatest of men are just men, and cannot resist the inexorable pressure of history waiting to be made.

The characterization of this book is exemplary – I’ve already talked about Rodrigo and Ammar a little bit, but Kay takes what would have been trite and cloying in less subtle hands and makes you truly believe in their legend. They’re not flawless – Rodrigo is somewhat reckless, and Ammar is a master of manipulation, but they still manage to make you believe in the ultimate goodness of humanity. I loved Jehane – the book blurb describes her as “increasingly torn by her feelings” which made me dread some sort of love triangle, but thankfully there’s none of that – she’s capable, intelligent, mature, and extremely skilled at what she does. I was pleasantly surprised to find that she’s also fully in control of her own sexuality. The supporting characters were fantastic, too – Alvar, one of Rodrigo’s young soldiers who gradually opens his eyes to the complexities of the world around him, and Rodrigo’s long-suffering, loving, and frankly, impressive wife Miranda were two of my favourites.

One of the biggest themes in this book is conflicting loyalties – to king, country, church, and family/friends. Rodrigo and Ammar are exiled by their respective monarchs, but they still don’t lose their love for where they’re from. Alvar loves where he’s from, but when he realizes what the world is actually like, he makes very different choices from what he would have imagined when setting out as a young soldier. Ramiro’s wife, Ines, is loyal to her god and her church, but that is tested when it endangers her country. Even the Belmonte’s cleric, Ibero, makes a terrible choice, and ends up regretting it dearly. Many of the choices made could have almost gone the other way, and are sometimes influenced by almost-random events (like Ramiro’s decision after the meeting with his fellow Espereñan monarchs) and it ends up making the coming war and its effects seem even more tragic.

Kay is an incredible writer –  he uses the common themes of honor, loyalty, and sacrifice but elevates them to a whole different level – I thought I was beyond being moved by those things. He’s also tricky sometimes; there are several scenes in which you think you know exactly what’s going on but his cunning phrases and slight omissions mean that what actually happens is a complete surprise. The scene at the end of the Carnival in Ragosa, and the epilogue are two examples. I don’t think I could read his books all in a row if they’re all this intense, but I’m so glad I have them to look forward to.

I could keep going on, but I don’t think I could convey any better how amazing The Lions of Al-Rassan is, so I’ll stop here. I highly recommend it, I think it’s one of the masterpieces of fantasy.

The Lions of Al-Rassan by Guy Gavriel Kay
Harper Prism, 1995 | Buy the book