the Little Red Reviewer

Posts Tagged ‘historical fantasy

Firebrand, by Gillian Philip

published February of 2013

where I got it: received review copy from the publisher (thanks Tor!)

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I wanted to write a formal review of Firebrand. I tried to. Really, I did. But nothing I typed was conveying anything I wanted to say. Thus,  this post is more emotional reaction than formal-ish review. Shit happens.

I’m having a tough time coming up with words to describe Firebrand. Words like wonderful and amazing and stunning just aren’t going to do it this time. What’s the word for the taste of a late summer heirloom tomato warmed by the sun? What’s the word for that feeling in your chest when listening to a beautiful piece of music, and the groundedness of the cello and tympani reverberates right through you and reminds you who you are? That word for wanting to trap perfect moments forever in amber, so you can watch the sunlight get caught in them?  Those. those are the words I need for Firebrand. The last book that made me feel this way was The Name of The Wind, by Patrick Rothfuss.  I felt like I was waking up.

Philip effortlessly reached into the recesses of my mind, found the story I most wanted to hear, and then she put it on paper. I was addicted in the first few pages, and the book only got better. Everything you think a fantasy about fae creatures is, everything you expect, throw all of that out the window, right now. Firebrand is something new.

Instead of prattling on and on about the plot, I’m going to tell you the most important thing, and the thing that bound me instantly to Firebrand: Seth MacGregor idolizes his older half-brother Conal.  The first time we meet Seth, he’s readying himself to murder his brother.

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Under Heaven, by Guy Gavriel Kay

published in 2010

where I got it: purchased new

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Under Heaven begins with haunting desolation, visits with imperial opulence, and then finds a sort of balance between them. A fitting journey, as the philosophies of the culture of Kitai focuses on balance in life, balance in all things.

In the western wildernesses of a fictional Tang Dynasty China known as Kitai, Shen Tai honors his late father by spending the requisite mourning period at the battleground, burying the dead of both sides, treating all he comes across with dignity and respect.  A Kitai Princess gives Tai a large gift of precious horses for his work at the battleground.  Understand, that horses are rare in Kitai, and that a man who owns two hundred and fifty of them could easily be seen as wealthier than the Emperor.

Tai’s first challenge is to get home alive. His next challenge is to survive the intrigue and subtleties of the court, where a man can be exiled, or worse, for saying the wrong thing to the wrong person, or having their poetry misinterpreted. Their courtly traditions may seem formal and cold  to Western eyes, but it’s these traditions that have kept Kitai powerful and strong through the generations that shaped it.

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Of Blood and Honey, by Stina Leight

published in Feb/March 2012 by Nightshade Books

where I got it: the library

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Against the backdrop of The Troubles of Northern Ireland in the 1970s, Liam Kelly just wants to live his life.  He’s a teenager at the beginning of the book, and like all teenagers, he finds trouble.  In casual support of the local riots, he’s arrested.  I was addicted to this book on page 2, and less than 30 pages in I was directly invested in Liam Kelly’s future.  In and out of internment camps, and hoping to return to his betrothed, Liam  trust that his Confessor, Father Murray, will help plead his case.

Through little fault of his own, Liam gets a reputation during his time in the camps. His friends at home always knew he was a little off, always knew he had a temper. But now, people who hurt him, people who threaten his safety or the safety of his family are later found dead and mutilated. Liam didn’t hurt them, but somebody did.  And every day, Liam gets closer to turning into that something.

The word that kept coming to mind while I was reading Of Blood and Honey was “sharp”.  Leicht’s prose style is sharp, and I mean in that in the most basic dictionary definition – sharp like a razor. Her words cut and punch and bite at the most vulnerable parts of your body.  And I couldn’t stop reading, I couldn’t stop letting these stabbity little sentences have their way with me.

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Range of Ghosts by Elizabeth Bear

Published in 2012

where I got it: Library

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Would you just look at that cover art? I would have a poster of that artwork on my bedroom wall in a heartbeat.

Strong female characters who kick ass without having to give up an ounce of their femininity? check. Creepy bad guy? check. A protagonist you actually want to root for? check. Worldbuilding that goes the extra mile? check. Mythologies that come alive on the page? double check.  Everyone is going apeshit over this book, and for good reasons.  If anything I mentioned earlier in this paragraph got your attention, Range of Ghosts is probably a book for you.

Our story starts on a battlefield within the Khaganate lands, where Prince Temur has been left for dead. Under The Eternal Sky, a tiny moon shines for every heir. Once, there were over a hundred. But the great Khagan died, and his heirs fight for his throne, shattering alliances and slaughtering brothers, sons, friends. As Temur looks to the Eternal sky, fewer and fewer moons remain. His brother’s moon has gone dim, but his uncle’s still shines bright.

After leaving the carnage of the battlefield, Temur heads for the safety of the mountains, and meets up with the refugee clans of his people. Many of the families lost all their young men in the battles, so a young man of marriageable age is far more valuable to them than a prince. Happy to live out his life as a simple man, Temur wisely keeps his mouth shut regarding his lineage, and is soon unofficially betrothed to Edene, the great granddaughter of a clan matriarch.  When Edene is stolen away by the ghosts of the battlefield slain, Temur vows to rescue her.

As the Khaganate falls under the weight of too many heirs, far to the West someone is breeding filth. Through the dark arts of a glass book, the Al-Sepehr has learned the magics of binding the dead to his will. The more deaths in the Khaganate lands, the larger of an army of dead he will have under his power. All that is left is to sew more and more discontent and anger among the few remaining heirs to the Khaganate.  Why fight a war of territory with your barbaric neighbors when you can make them kill themselves for you?

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Expedition to the Mountains of the Moon (Burton & Swinburn #3) by Mark Hodder

published in January 2011

where I got it: received review copy from Pyr

why I read it: Highly enjoyed the first two books in the series, The Strange Affair of Spring Heeled Jack and The Curious Case of the Clockwork Man.

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Shortly after starting this book, I had two predictions. and I was right on both of them.

The year is 1863, but not as it should be.  Two decades of unrestrained genetic engineering and eugenics have nearly covered London with the giant hollowed out insects filled with steam powered machinery, foul mouthed messenger birds and fouler breathed messenger dog-things.  Sir Richard Francis Burton has always felt an outsider in London, but things are getting out of control, even for him.

After an attempt on his life, Burton is approached by Prime Minister Palmerston to return to Africa. The trip will be publicized as another attempt to find the source of the Nile, but in reality, Palmerston has tasked Burton with finding the African Eyes of the Naga.  The Eyes, black diamonds that fell as asteroids, had already been found in Cambodia and South America. Connected to an impossible myth, the shards of the diamonds can retain thoughts impressed upon them.  And Burton isn’t the only one searching for the Eyes.

But meanwhile, we have another story line happening.  It’s 1914, and in the trenches of a Great War far more horrific that the one in your history books, a man has lost his memory.  Befriended by a journalist who recognizes him, the man very slowly regains his memories. What he remembers is even more impossible than the Great War his eyes are showing him.

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Fenrir, by M.D. Lachlan

Published in Oct 2011

where I got it: library

why I read it: enjoyed the first book in the series, Wolfsangel

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For no good reason, I had a tough time getting into Fenrir. I think I was expecting a similar opening as Wolfsangel had, with Vikings and raids and witches and such, so I was caught off guard by being introduced to so many characters who were clearly, not Vikings.  Where were Vali and Feileg, the twin brothers I cried for in Wolfsangel? Where was the beautiful Adisla, whom they both swore to protect?  I know my mythological friends are here someplace, for it is their destiny to be reborn, if only to be tortured by the gods again and again and again.  Perhaps they were born into Vikings, or perhaps traders from the East, or perhaps Frankish Christians. Hiding Odin and Fenris in Frankish Christians who haven’t a clue what’s going on? That’s just cruel.

Aelis, a minor Frankish princess, is worth her weight in political marriages. And everyone wants Aelis. Helgi, an Eastern Viking Prince of Constantinople wants to maybe marry her, maybe sacrifice her. Her brother, a Parisian Count, opts to keep her, hoping for a better offer. Multiple Viking factions know she’s worth her weight in ransom, so the new name of the game is kidnap Aelis.

Jehan, oh, poor Jehan. Stricken with paralysis and blindness as a youth, he is now a monk, and seen as a living saint. His timing to Paris couldn’t be worse, and he is trapped in the church when the Vikings attack. The Vikings know all about relics, and the worth of the bones of a saint, so suddenly Jehan is also worth quite a bit in ransom, dead or alive. Years from now, I will still pity Jehan.

And then we have Munin and Hugin, the horrific sibling priests of Odin. More on them later.

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Wolfsangel by M.D. Lachlan

published in March 2011

where I got it: library

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Even in the largest of Viking villages, there isn’t much to do.  Farm, fish, train, raid, repeat, and even the Norse Gods get bored sometimes.  And what better cure for a god’s boredom than having themselves born into a human body and forgetting who and what they are?  As long as Odin, all father, all hater, and ultimate God of War, welcomes his dead warriors to Valhalla, most Vikings don’t really care what he does in his spare time.

Wolfsangel is a brutal and visceral retelling of ancient Norse mythology, and Lachlan had me hooked in the first chapter with teeth didn’t let go until the final page.  Exquisitely violent, this is not a book for the faint of heart. I don’t think Odin would accept anything less.

In desperate need of a male heir, King Authun follows a prophecy to towards a child rumored to be stolen from the Gods. Instead, he finds identical infant twins, and their scarred mother. The Witches of the mountains allow Authun to keep one child, and they keep the mother and the other child for themselves.  One boy is raised as Prince and then ward, the other is raised by the wolfmen in the wilderness.

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The Enterprise of Death, by Jesse Bullington

published in March 2011

Where I got it: the library

why I read it:  covered in alchemical symbols, how could I not read it?

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This book was absolutely disgusting. At times gut bustingly funny, and often intriguingly mysterious, it was still pretty disgusting. Weak stomachs need not apply, especially if reading about necrophilia obsessed necromancers didn’t make your bucket list.

The geography at the beginning of the book is purposely a little fuzzy, because as a Harem slave, young Awa is quite ignorant of where she lives (Somewhere in Northern Africa is a good guess).  While she and another house slave are escorting their Mistress Omorose to her new home, bandits strike, and the threesome never makes it where they are going.  Kidnapped by undead bandits and brought to a mountaintop (possibly in Andalusia?) the three offered a choice: become the apprentices of the necromancer who lives there, or die.  Only Awa survives.

Years pass. Awa learns the arts of the necromancer. She grows up unaware of Renissance Europe, unaware of the Inquisition and the punishments exacted on witches.  It’s not long before Awa accidentally uses her newly gained knowledge to do something unspeakable to Omorose’s raised corpse, and soon after she is cursed by the Necromancer. Could her life possibly get any worse? Omorose wants to kill her, and the Necromancer’s curse states that in 10 years he will return to obliterate Awa’s soul, but in that time frame the dead can not harm her.
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Fevre Dream, by George R R Martin

Published in 1982

where I got it: borrowed from a friend

why I read it: been on a GRRMartin kick lately

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I’ve been on a George R R Martin kick lately, along with most of the epic fantasy blogosphere. While everyone else is reading a nearly infamous fifth book, I’ve been hitting the backlist. When a friend offered to lend me his autographed copy of Fevre Dream along with the recently released graphic novel (which I haven’t read yet), I jumped at the chance. George R R Martin writing vampire horror on an antebellum Mississippi River? Sign me up!

beware – spoilers ahead.

Fevre Dream opens with a very depressed steamboat owner. Abner Marsh has had nothing but bad luck. Steamboats crushed in ice, or destroyed by the river. Few want to work with him, some believe he’s cursed. One day he’s approached by a wealthy gentleman named Joshua York who makes Marsh an offer he can’t refuse. Their partnership agreed upon, York supplies massive sums of money, and Marsh hires the best riverboat builders, engineers, and pilots money can buy. Soon, the Fevre Dream is born. She’s over 300 feet long, trimmed in silver, and nearly covered in mirrors. Once you’ve laid eyes on the Fevre Dream, you can never forget her.

It’s not long before Marsh and his crew suspect something strange is going on. York is never seen in the day time, and seems to only drink a homebrew wine. Betraying York’s trust to never enter his room or ask detailed questions, Marsh breaks into his room in an attempt to discover his secret.

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The Cardinal’s Blades, by Pierre Pevel

Published in 2010

Where I got it: library

Why I read it: I like historical fantasy, and how can you say no to that beautiful cover art?

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Over the last few days, Pierre Pevel’s The Cardinal’s Blades has proven very difficult to review.  I think I will make my life a lot easier if I divide The Cardinal’s Blades in half:  beginning, and end.  To be succinct, the beginning was a mess that suffered from severe putdownability and lack of focus. And the end? well, the end more than made up for the problem-addled start to the point where I am actually quite excited to read Pevel’s recently released The Alchemist in the Shadows  which I’m assuming is the 2nd book in this series.

The premise of the story is as other reviewers have been saying:  Three Musketeers (swashbuckling, duels, blackmail, intrigue, secret societies, and more duels and blackmail) plus dragons (humanoid dragons, half breeds and their not as bright cousins used as pets and messengers)  More alt history than historical fantasy, I wish Pevel had done more with the dragon aspects, and I hope he does in future books.

Paris, 1633 and Cardinal Richelieu has called back his favorite dirty jobber – Captain LaFargue, the leader of an elite group of swordsmen (and women!) known as  The Cardinal’s Blades. A man of unshakeable honor, LaFargue will do any task to protect the French crown, even those unsavory kinds of tasks that caused The Blades to be dishonorably disbanded five years ago. Tasked with “getting the band back together”, so to speak, LaFargue must find his Blades, and convince them by force, if necessary, to join him in doing Richelieu’s bidding once more.  He may be a man of honor, but his blades are a different story. They have their own demons and debts to pay.

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About this redhead, etc.

Redhead is a snarky, non-politically correct 30-something who reviews mostly science fiction and fantasy and talks about all sorts of other fun scifi and fantasy geekery. She once wrote a haiku that included the word triskaidekaphobia.

This blog contains adult language and strong opinions. The best way to contact her outside of this blog is twitter, where she is @redhead5318 .

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