“The Witchwood Crown” by Tad Williams

I was really looking forward to The Witchwood Crown after I got back into the world of Osten Ard earlier this year with Tad Williams’ excellent short novel The Heart of What Was Lost. It’s properly doorstop-sized and it follows a bunch of characters from the original Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn trilogy!

It’s been about thirty years since the events of the previous books and Osten Ard, ruled by High King and Queen Simon and Miriamele,  has been enjoying peace and stability. Things have been growing steadily worse as the terrible war of the Storm King begins to fade from memory – several kingdoms are facing internal political strife, contact with the Sithi has been lost, and Utuk’ku, the dark queen of the Norns, has woken and once again plots the destruction of humanity.

We follow several protagonists across Osten Ard as events come to a head: Osten Ard’s monarchs (and our old friends) Simon and Miriamele, their grandchildren Prince Morgan and Princess Lillia, other people from the Hayholt including the chancellor Lord Pasevalles, court members (and also old friends) Tiamak and Count Eolair, Norn engineer Viyeki (who we last met in The Heart of What Was Lost), his human concubine Tzoja and half-human daughter Nezeru, a couple of characters from the grasslands of Thrithings, a servant of the Duchess of Nabban, a mysterious Norn-hunter named Jarnulf… I might be forgetting some. This is an epic story affecting the whole world and it’s told through people living through events in a bunch of different places, and only the readers know the whole story of how they may all be connected.

I expected to plow through this book and stay up all night reading it but it was actually slow going. For the first few hundred pages of the book, it didn’t seem like anything was happening, I felt like I was reading a slice of life story, except not as interesting because it was actually about twenty different slice of life stories and we didn’t stick with any viewpoint for enough time for me to develop a real investment in the characters. The last third of the book is much better paced; things start to change rapidly, we get answers to burning questions, and we start to see all those disparate threads come together.

Another thing that disappointed me was how the characters from the first trilogy had aged and how that impacted the plot. Simon and Miri are old and grief-stricken from the loss of their son a few years prior to the events of the book, they seem almost unforgivably gullible to have not noticed all the trouble brewing around them – not a good quality for monarchs. Their grandson and heir Prince Morgan is utterly insufferable, he’s spoiled and petulant, and Simon and Miri don’t seem to know how to deal with him at all – everything they do is obviously going to fail, and I don’t know how they don’t realize that. I’m not saying this is bad writing, in fact it’s probably realistic that Simon and Miri aren’t going to be good at politicking or dealing with people that don’t have the inherent drive to be good (like Morgan), but it’s not very much fun to read about our old heroes being incompetent.

Other than those two (admittedly major) gripes, I thought The Witchwood Crown was a pretty good book. It’s certainly more nuanced the the original trilogy. I’m especially glad that the Norns are being given some definition and not just treated as faceless villains; between Tzoja, Nezeru, and Viyeki, we get a variety of perspectives into their culture and motivations. The prose is good, of course. And by the end of the book, I was intrigued by most of the plotlines enough to eagerly await the next book.  I hope it has better pacing and more competent characters, though.


The Witchwood Crown by Tad Williams (The Last King of Osten Ard, #1)
DAW Books, 2017 | Buy the book
I received a free review copy of this book from the publisher or author.


“Within the Sanctuary of Wings” by Marie Brennan

I’m a huge fan of the Memoirs of Lady Trent series, and I’ve been waiting for this concluding volume, Within the Sanctuary of Wings, for a long time. This series stars Isabella (Lady Trent), pioneering female dragon naturalist, in a secondary world reminiscent of the Victorian era. Isabella has trekked all over the world in pursuit of dragons, and this installment is no exception – she’s chasing a rumor of a new dragon species to the inhospitable Mrtyahaima mountains, home to the tallest peaks in the world. And of course she’s also getting mixed up in international politics along the way.

One of the reasons I like these books so much is that the climax is always about discovery – sure, there’s adventure, action, and near disaster, and maybe the story wouldn’t be so compelling without them, but lots of books have those. Isabella’s drive to learn more about her world is what makes her story stand out. The previous four books have been slowly building up to a great draconic revelation and I was eager to find out what it was. In retrospect, it ended up being obvious (a fact that Isabella alludes to in her narrative), but the author has been doing such a good job of building up the world and the rules that it operates on that I was as amazed as the characters.

Other than that, I don’t have much to say about this book. If you haven’t read this series, start at A Natural History of Dragons and keep going. If you have read the series, this is a great conclusion, it’s satisfying and there are no loose ends, so stop reading my review and acquire the book!


Within the Sanctuary of Wings by Marie Brennan (Lady Trent's Memoirs, #5)
Tor Books, 2017 | Buy the book
I received a free review copy of this book from the publisher or author.


The Belgariad by David Eddings

belgariad

The Belgariad is a five book series, and one of the classics of fantasy. I’ve had a copy of the first book, Pawn of Prophecy sitting around for a couple of years after I found it for really cheap at a Half-Price Books, but I just got around to reading it last month, and quickly tore through the rest of the series.

The plot of the Belgariad is pretty stereotypical – an oblivious farmboy is actually the Chosen One of a prophecy and has to go on a quest with a band of flawed heroes and a wise and greying old wizard to retrieve a magical item. The characters and self-awareness really make it a great read, though. I found out afterwards that the series is so entrenched in fantasy tropes on purpose, and the whole thing stemmed from a challenge to write a really cliched series that was also engaging. Here’s Eddings talking about it:

The story itself is fairly elemental – Good vs. Evil, Nice Guys vs. Nasty Guys (or Them vs. Us). It has the usual Quest, the Magic (or Holy) Thingamajig, the Mighty Sorcerer, the Innocent Hero, and the Not Quite So Innocent Heroine — along with a widely varied group of Mighty Warriors with assorted character faults. It wanders around for five books until it finally climaxes with the traditional duel between “Our Hero” and the “Bad Guy.” (Would it spoil anything for you if I tell you that our side wins?)

There are certainly some flaws with the series – the dialogue is very blithe, and everyone just gets straight to the heart of the matter. It’s refreshing in a way, but it sometimes makes it hard to engage with the characters. Also, I wasn’t really a fan of the racial stereotyping – everyone from a particular race acts exactly according to the characteristics of their race – Thulls are stupid, Sendars are practical, Drasnians are sneaky, Tolnedrans are avaricious, Arends are dense. It’s still a good series, though, and I’m looking forward to reading the sequel series, the Mallorean and the companion books, Belgarath the Sorcerer and Polgara the Sorceress.

Anyway, here are my thoughts on each of the books individually – SPOILERS ENSUE.

Pawn of Prophecy

This is pretty much what you’d expect – sinister figures come looking for farmboy Garion just as the all-powerful Orb of Aldur is stolen, and he must go on a quest to retrieve it with his protector, Aunt Pol (who is not-so-secretly Polgara the Sorceress), her father (the aforementioned Wise Wizard) Belgarath, Silk and Barak, nobles of their respective empires, and the regular guy, Durnik. We go through a couple of different countries, where it’s revealed that the long-awaited prophecy is coming to fruition, and Garion is (obliviously) the center of it all. This novel is mainly setup and worldbuilding, the quest gets started and we start to get to know the characters.

Queen of Sorcery

Our Heroes are still on their quest to retrieve the Orb of Aldur – they’re not in any terrible hurry since they keep stopping by the center of government in every country they pass to warn them to muster their armies up for the coming fulfillment of prophecy. The quest also picks up Ce’Nedra, Garion’s intended bride (although neither of them know it) and there’s some awful snake queen with insatiable sexual appetite stuff that’s a cliche I would have been happy to do without. Also, Garion goes through two of the more important Hero phases – whining/sulking/fighting against his destiny, and the development of his obligatory magical powers.

Ce’Nedra is pretty intolerable in this book – she’s very spoilt, I couldn’t believe that she was actually supposed to be the main love interest.

Magician’s Gambit

The first half of the book is pretty similar to the rest of the first two – we tour more countries and pick up more quest members. The story is entirely driven by prophecy, and the series’ self-awareness is taken to a whole new level as we discover that the prophecy is sentient and controls Garion’s actions sometimes. In the second half of the book we finally enter enemy territory and the Orb is recovered. It’s a bit frustrating that Garion still thinks that he’s some unimportant ward of Polgara’s, and everything’s going to go back to the way it was, but Polgara and Silk are awesome characters, so that’s okay. Ce’Nedra continues to be whiny and awful, though.

Castle of Wizardry

The fellowship escapes with the Orb of Aldur, and Garion is finally told that he is the long-lost descendant of the Rivan King, although not until he’s actually in Riva. There’s a nice scene where Polgara, Garion and Ce’Nedra go back to the farm where Garion grew up, and he realizes that he really doesn’t belong there anymore. Of course, then he’s made the Rivan King, and he is thrust straight back into confusion as he becomes the ruler of a place he knows absolutely nothing about, and he does the only sensible thing – runs away (with Silk and Belgarath). Unfortunately, he’s not actually escaping his responsibilities, though – he’s hastening the fated meeting between himself and the evil god Torak, so that he can save as many innocent lives as possible.

One good thing about Garion’s departure is that Ce’Nedra grows up a bit. She’s pretty hilarious when she realizes that she has to marry him, but just as she’s coming to terms with it, he’s gone to an uncertain future. She pulls together and maneuvers herself into a position of authority and rallies the kingdoms together.

Enchanters’ End Game

This also goes pretty much as you’d predict from the last book of the series – Garion and Torak meet and fight, but really its a duel of Prophecies taking over their bodies. The two opposing hordes meet in several battles, and lives are lost and people are irreparably injured on both sides. Everything ends happily, though, and almost everyone gets paired up – even Polgara, in one of the more touching / hilarious sequences. Silk just gets paired up with a business venture though, which is great.


Pawn of Prophecy by David Eddings (The Belgariad, #1)
Del Rey, 1982 | Buy the book

Queen of Sorcery by David Eddings (The Belgariad, #2)
Del Rey, 1982 | Buy the book

Magician’s Gambit by David Eddings (The Belgariad, #3)
Del Rey, 1983 | Buy the book

Castle of Wizardry by David Eddings (The Belgariad, #4)
Del Rey, 1984 | Buy the book

Enchanters’ End Game by David Eddings (The Belgariad, #5)
Del Rey, 1984 | Buy the book


Wheel of Time Reread #5: The Fires of Heaven

In anticipation of the Jan 8, 2013 release of A Memory of Light, the fourteenth and final book in the Wheel of Time series, I’m rereading the entire series. Each book gets its own spoiler-filled post.

firesofheavenThe Wheel of Time series settles into a good pace with The Fires of Heaven, although this is the first book not to feature one of the ta’veren (See you soon, Perrin!) The story chugs along at a good pace – Rand takes the Aiel to restore peace in Cairhien, which has been made much harder by the Aiel dissenters led by the Shaido. Mat and Egwene tag along. Meanwhile, Nynaeve and Elayne escape from war-torn Tanchico and head for a safe place, but then find out that the White Tower is broken. Siuan, Leane and Min find their way to the rebel Aes Sedai camp (pursued by Gareth Bryne, who’s bored by living in the country) where they struggle to make themselves respected.

Okay, let’s begin with the most awesome parts. Mat! Birgitte! I love those two, and I’m pretty excited that Birigitte made it into real life from Tel’aran’rhiod. I think Mat and Birgitte meet up and get drunk together in some later book, I can’t wait. Mat is not given nearly enough POV time in the book (but he never is!) but he does get the chance to realise that his battle skills are really useful, even if he doesn’t like it. The Band of the Red Hand gets formed (TALMANES! I love Talmanes, especially after reading A Memory of Light‘s prologue), and Rand browbeats Mat into accepting responsibility and leadership, even if Mat does want to run far away. Hopefully now that Mat isn’t hiding from himself anymore, he’ll get more screen time.

Rahvin gets to be the Forsaken of the Book this time (although Asmodean, Lanfear and Moghedien also feature prominently) and a lot of attention is paid to Caemlyn. Morgase finally escapes after she hears word of Manatheren’s banner being raised from Tallanvor (yay Perrin, affecting people even when you’re not in the book or even mentioned by name), and Rahvin declares her dead but claims she proclaimed him King. That ends up really pissing Rand off and ruining the Forsaken’s plan to drive Rand towards Sammael in Illian and trap him there (I guess they didn’t count on Elayne being in love with Rand).

Nynaeve and Egwene continue to be really annoying in this book – I remember liking Egwene a lot more, but maybe that’s just towards the later books? Egwene comes off as really power-hungry (she’s always yelling at Nynaeve) and obnoxious, but she hasn’t really been focused on that much. I guess her maturity will come with her raising to Amyrlin. Nynaeve is annoying through most of the book (angry and hypocritical), but she definitely learns a lot and becomes a much better person by the end, especially because of Birgitte’s removal from Tel’aran’rhiod. Elayne is also growing, but she isn’t as much of a protagonist.

Aludra has to be the character that is met by the most number of main characters… Rand meets her first, then Mat saves her separately, and now Nynaeve and Elayne meet her in Valan Luca’s circus. Anyway, the circus was fun – there was lots of comedy with Valan Luca / Nynaeve and the Seanchan woman with the elephants was also interesting.

There are more Elayne/Min/Aviendha hijinks, but not much is resolved. I especially loved the part where Elayne finds out from Min that there’s an “unknown” woman that she has to share Rand with, and she hopes Aviendha is keeping a close watch on him (It turns out that Aviendha is keeping a very close watch on him). Rand is getting pretty scary – you don’t realise it from being inside his head (except for Lews Therin, who’s definitely getting stronger), but when he’s viewed from other perspectives, you see it right away.

Lanfear continues to be totally psycho, especially once she finds out that Rand’s been sleeping with someone else, and of course, Rand fails to kill her because he can’t deal with hurting women. There’s a lot of issues with Rand and women in this book, coming to a head when he can’t bear to ask the Maidens of the Spear to fight, and they give him a piece of their mind. As I recall, he still has this phobia in later books, though. Bad Rand. Maybe if you weren’t “chivalrous” like that, Moiraine wouldn’t have “died”.

Moiraine “dying” was one of the saddest parts of the books so far – I think I might have sniffled. Her letter to Rand was very touching, especially given that she found a way to counsel him without bullying him. You can see her knowledge of her impending doom colouring her actions throughout the book, and her acceptance of her decision. She’s definitely given up on trying to control Rand, and I can’t believe she knew who Asmodean was! (I guess she was eavesdropping on him). Moiraine is very cool.

Other random things – I forgot that Mat/Aviendha/Asmodean died before Rand balefired Rahvin (of course, Asmodean can’t catch a break) – balefire seemed a bit excessive to me, but since Mat lives and at least Rahvin doesn’t get resurrected – yay balefire! Also, I didn’t realise Egwene being raised Amyrlin was a plot hatched by Siuan – the seeds are set in motion in this book when Siuan and Leane “suggest” to the rebel Aes Sedai that someone strong in the power, easily biddable and not in the Tower when the rebellion happened.

And finally… yay Davram Bashere!


The Fires of Heaven by Robert Jordan (The Wheel of Time, #5)
Tor Books, 1993 | Buy the book


“Kushiel’s Scion”, “Kushiel’s Justice” and “Kushiel’s Mercy” by Jacqueline Carey

I am once again behind on my reviews, so I’ll be reviewing the second Kushiel’s Legacy trilogy (Kushiel’s Scion, Kushiel’s Justice, and Kushiel’s Mercy) in this post. WARNING: Contains spoilers for the first (Phèdre) trilogy – Kushiel’s Dart, Kushiel’s Chosen, and Kushiel’s Avatar.

Kushiel’s Scion

Our protagonist is now Imriel de la Courcel, the son of the infamous Melisande Shahrizai, Terre D’Ange’s greatest traitor, and the foster son of our beloved Phèdre and Joscelin. The story begins with a fourteen year old Imriel, who is being raised by Phèdre and Joscelin, much to Queen Ysandre’s chagrin.

I’m a sucker for good coming of age stories, and this is definitely one of them. Imriel is a complex and sympathetic character, and his character arc is thoroughly satisfying. He starts out as a confused young man, unsure of how to deal with his parentage and the mistrust that that generates, despairing of ever living up to his foster parents – heroes of the realm, sickened by his desires (being Kushiel’s scion and having lived through the zenana of Darsanga do not mix well.) He finds friendship and attraction, maybe even love, and escapes Terre D’Ange, before realising that he can’t run away from who he is. And of course, he ends up saving a few people along the way.

As with all of Carey’s stories, the plot just flows and is beautifully written. It’s fascinating to see Phèdre viewed through third party eyes, as well as others, like Nicola L’Envers y Aragon and Queen Ysandre, who Imriel does not like, and the Shahrizais, who Phèdre has always mistrusted (but Imriel gets along with.) Phèdre and Joscelin make great parents, and it’s a joy to see them in this role.

I also enjoyed the quintessential coming-of-age experience – university. Traveling to yet another part of Carey’s Earth was terrific – especially a city as iconic as Rome. Imriel’s relationships, both friendships and romances were also very believable. And of course, there’s the Unseen Guild, which I couldn’t wait to learn more about.

The climax in Lucca – both the problem and  the resolution were not what I expected, although they were foreshadowed heavily. Carey seems to be using more and more magic as the series progresses, but that’s not a bad thing.

Overall – great characters, great world, great writing, great story. The end is especially touching.

Kushiel’s Justice

After the events of Kushiel’s Scion, Imriel nó Montrève de la Courcel has realised that he must accept who he is and his position in life. In light of this, he agrees to Ysandre and Drustan’s proposal that he wed Dorelei, an Alban princess, so that his children can inherit the Alban throne and Terre D’Ange’s ties with Alba are solidified. However, he doesn’t account for his crush on Sidonie – his cousin and heir to the throne of Terre D’Ange – developing into a torrid (mutual) love which must be kept secret.

This book is a further coming of age for Imriel – he’s accepted his parentage and his personal desires, but he does not yet understand what it means to be D’Angeline, especially of Elua and Kushiel’s lines. He weds Dorelei in the name of duty, but this violates Elua’s one precept, “Love as thou wilt“. Alba’s great magicians, the Maghuin Dhonn (people of the brown bear), oppose Imriel and Dorelei’s union, and bind him magically with his desire for Sidonie. Things go downhill from there.

In the end, at great personal cost, Imriel learns that he should not defy the will of the gods (especially when it is also his own will) for the sake of duty, and also truly accepts Kushiel’s gift of merciful justice. This book is tremendously sad, but a good read – Carey is truly a skilled writer. All my compliments for Kushiel’s Scion apply here as well.

Kushiel’s Mercy

Imriel has survived the events of Kushiel’s Justice and is finally fully at peace with himself. His relationship with Sidonie has been publicly revealed, and Queen Ysandre is beside herself with anger. She cannot openly forbid their love – that would be against Elua’s precept, but she has threatened to disinherit Sidonie if she marries Imriel – unless he can track down Melisande Shahrizai and bring her to Terre D’Ange to be executed.

Imriel has no great love for his mother, but he doesn’t really want to see her executed. However, he loves Sidonie, so he resolves to fulfill Ysandre’s condition anyway. Before he can begin, however, Terre D’Ange faces a greater threat – one which could drive it to destruction.

This is probably my least favourite of the Imriel books (it’s still very very good) – I would’ve loved the straight up story of Imriel having to find his mother. I loved that portion of the story – Melisande meeting Imriel, and her redemption, and the full circle that the characters came to.

However, a large portion of the book is dedicated to magic, memory loss and effects of arcane arts, which wasn’t nearly as interesting. The thing about Carey’s magic is that it doesn’t have any rules – magic can do anything, and there’s no described system. It can be a deus ex machina or a huge obstacle.I think her strongest writing is to do with characters and their motivations and their actions – that seems to follow a logical pattern, at least. The magic does afford Imriel the chance to save Terre D’Ange and be reckoned a hero, though – the populace finally loves him.

It was heartbreaking to see Phèdre and Joscelin be deluded by magic – that’s just not done. However, deluded-Imriel and deluded-Sidonie falling in love again made for a more compelling romance than their actual romance.

A fairly good end to the trilogy.


Kushiel’s Scion by Jacqueline Carey (Kushiel's Legacy, #4)
Tor Books, 2006 | Buy the book

Kushiel’s Justice by Jacqueline Carey (Kushiel's Legacy, #5)
Tor Books, 2007 | Buy the book

Kushiel’s Mercy by Jacqueline Carey (Kushiel's Legacy, #6)
Tor Books, 2008 | Buy the book