the Little Red Reviewer

Posts Tagged ‘fantasy

CP5_front-200x300Clockwork Phoenix 5, edited by Mike Allen

Available April 5, 2016

Where I got it: received review copy from the editor

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Some people describe anthologies as a journey.  I’ve been known to compare them to techno music. But  today, I’d like you to think about anthologies as restaurants – the stories are the dishes on the menu, and the editor is the restaurateur.   Some restaurants have great atmosphere, some restaurants you only like a few dishes on their menu, or maybe there is a great Sunday brunch, or maybe it’s just a super convenient location and the food is pretty darn good.  Think about restaurants you’ve returned to again and again. There was a reason, right?

 

Tom's_Bistro_outside

 

Some restaurateurs love attention for one particular dish their restaurant specializes in, or whatever. Maybe they are the King of Deep Fried Butter, or the Home of the Original Whiskey Waffles.  Maybe they did a Taco throwdown with Bobby Flay or something.

 

And then there is that secret restaurant.  The one all the locals know about. It doesn’t look like a fancy place,  but every dish you’ve had there has been amazing. Sometimes the flavors are complex, sometimes they are simple.  You go as often as you can, with the goal of trying every dish on the unique menu before the menu changes, because the chefs and owners are always trying something new and different, because the rules don’t apply here. There are no rules, there is no pretension, there is no ego, there  are no signs proclaiming fame or autographed photos of Food Network personalities.  But, omg, the food! It is perfection on a plate! And you feel better about yourself and your life and the world every time you go there.  Clockwork Phoenix is the name of this restaurant, and Mike Allen is the restaurateur.  One sublime dish after another, and yet I still have my favorites that I keep coming back to.

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ship of magic hobbShip of Magic (Liveship Traders #1),  by Robin Hobb

published in 1998

where I got it: purchased new

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It’s been a while since I read a Robin Hobb. Like many Hobb fans, I devoured the Farseer trilogy, and then wasn’t sure where to go from there. Most of her trilogies  take place in the same universe, and each trilogy follows different characters. Some need to be read in order (read the Farseer trilogy before reading Fitz the Fool, for example), but the Liveship Traders trilogy I think can be read as a complete stand alone.

After Farseer trilogy, I jumped over to the Soldier Son trilogy, which is set in a different universe, but one that feels very much like her primary universe. Hobb has this thing about completely deconstructing her characters – forcing them to a precipice built of self loathing, doubt, and full scale rejection. It forces the character to do something they never would have done otherwise. The horrible things that happen to them give them strength towards what is coming next. Or Something. It’s like tough love to the n’th degree. I couldn’t get past what happens in the second Soldier Son book, Forest Mage. It hit too close to home. It’s been four years since Forest Mage, and I’m finally ready to pick up another Hobb.

Ship of Magic takes place in Bingtown, which is a merchant city. Originally a city of refugees, some families settled in the harbor town of Bingtown, while others settled up the Rain Wilds river, and over the generations a trading empire was born. For the most part, the story follows the Vestrit family, a prominent trading family. On his deathbed, Ephron Vestrit decides his eldest daughter Keffria and her husband Kyle will inherit the family’s Liveship and trading business, leaving his younger daughter, Althea with nearly nothing. It’s a decision that nearly tears the family apart – Althea has sailed with her father, she knows every inch of the family liveship Vivacia, she’s already built relationships with the other ship captains and merchants in other cities, she assumed the ship captaincy would go to her on her father’s death. Kyle on the other hand, knows little of the Bingtown traditions, and he certainly has no understanding of the life cycle of a Liveship or the contracts made to obtain such a ship.

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city of blades RJBCity of Blades, by Robert Jackson Bennett

Published January 2016

where I got it: Received ARC from the publisher (thanks Broadway Books!)

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Two asides, by method of introduction:

 

Robert Jackson Bennett knows how to make a damn good sandwich.

 

I find mythology tragic, yet addictive. It’s like a scab I can’t stop picking at, a trainwreck I can’t look away from. The more we tell these beloved and culturally powerful stories, the more we trap their inhabitants. One of my favorite examples of this is Loki (Fenrir is another).  He is trapped in his destiny, he can’t make other choices or do other things, even if he wanted to. And every time his story is told, the shackles get tighter. As storytellers, we need him to be a particular archetype, we need him to act a certain way, to be a certain lever of the world as we know it. Because otherwise, the myth wouldn’t have the desired effect.

Mythologies are cultural artifacts of incalculable value, and as we gain strength and inspiration from their telling  we enslave the characters within the myth, because we know how the story has to end.

 

Confused yet? Excellent. Let’s talk about City of Blades.

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City of Blades is both a very easy book to talk about, and yet a very difficult one.  It easily falls into my favorite category of books, those “that aren’t what they say they are about”, which makes it very easy to talk about without spoiling important plot bits. However, it is hard to talk about, because there are intimacies and honesties in this book that as a reader, I feel I have been trusted with. I do not want to betray that trust by mis-speaking about someone’s experiences.   I just realized I am treating Bennett’s characters as if they are real people. I talk about not wanting to betray someone’s trust, yet that someone is a fictional character, whose life and secrets are available to anyone who wishes to turn the pages of her life. You know what? I like thinking about Turyin Mulaghesh as a real person.  It’s a comfort, to give that kind of weight to her life, and to the lives of the other characters in the book.

 

Both this new novel, and it’s predecessor City of Stairs, reminded me a little of Cordwainer Smith – as in both Smith and Bennett flat out refuse to follow any of the expected and so-called “rules” of the genre in which they are writing. Both authors write as if there simply are no rules or conventions, as if no one ever took them aside and said “you know you’re not supposed to present this type of story this way, right?”. With City of Blades, Bennett takes it one step further and joins Seth Dickinson in dragging an eraser through the genre, erasing the so called rules and conventions.

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end of the storyThe End of the Story, the Collected Fantasies Vol 1, by Clark Ashton Smith. Edited by Scott Connors and Ron Hilger

This collection published Sept 2015

Where I got it:  rec’d ARC from the publisher (Thanks Nightshade!)

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Last summer, I received an advanced reading copy of the new The End of the Story: The Collected Fantasies of Clark Ashton Smith, vol 1, from Nightshade Books.  It’s funny, because these are short stories from the 1930s, yet this is a new printing, with a new introduction, new cover art, etc. It’s lucky this book arrived, as I’ve always heard the name Clark Ashton Smith, but never came across any of his work.

 

Skimming through the introduction and the table of contents, I quickly learned two things – Clark Ashton Smith is known for cosmic horror and weird fiction, writing in the vein of H.P. Lovecraft; and that most of these stories were blessedly short. Don’t get me wrong, I like a meaty short story, but sometimes a super quick 5 page story, one that’s practically flash fiction, is exactly what fits the bill.  These were short stories I could read half a dozen of before bed, or read one while cooking dinner in between steps of stirring occasionally, and seasoning to taste.

 

It’s funny reading stories that were written so long ago, and most of these were written between 1925 and 1935.  Just think, in ten years, these stories will be a hundred years old. So, are they dated? Oh completely. But what’s most fascinating to me, is things that readers would have been horrified at (vampires, waking nightmares, succubi, etc) in the late 1920s, most readers today are completely used to.   Do you remember the skinny “Scary Stories to Read in the Dark” books that were popular with the 3rd to 6th grade crowd in the 80s?  Ghost stories,  stories about people’s heads falling off, all rated G, but totally creepy to any nine year old?  This is not an insult, but many of the Clark Ashton Smith stories felt quite a bit like those.  His literary style is a nicer kind of horror in a way – nothing gruesome, nothing squicky.  Many of his “big reveals” are fairly cheesy by today’s standards, such as the man’s visions were all a dream, or the old person relating the scary story disappeared into thin air, and such.  I’d happily give this collection to any ten year old, and not only would it scare the pants off them (in a fun way, I swear!), but they’d learn all sorts of fun new words, like asphodels, psammite, innominable, obloquy, invultuations, and dilatoriness.

 

So, the stories are dated, the big reveals aren’t at all shocking, but the prose is illuminating, and poetic. Here’s a sample, from the beginning of “The Planet of the Dead”:

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A_Fantasy_Medley_3_edited_by_Yanni_KuzniaA Fantasy Medley 3, edited by Yanni Kuznia

Available Dec 31 2015

where I got it: received review copy from Subterranean Press (Thanks!)

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Out of the four stories in this slim volume of goodness, three of them are connected to the author’s other works. Jaqueline Carey’s powerful peice, “One Hundred Ablutions” is a true standalone, although it could easily be expanded into a full novel or series.   Editor Yanni Kuznia (read my interview with her, here) chose her stories well – each of these features empowered characters, consequences, excellent world building and even a touch of humor at times.  Short fiction is my favorite way to try out authors who are new to me – instead of a 500 page commitment, I’m making a 20 minute commitment. And anyone can do that, right?

 

Kevin Hearne’s “Goddess at the Crossroads” is fun, funny and irreverent. Atticus gets a shiver up his spine when his apprentice quotes a particular Shakespeare play, and so he tells her about his run in with a few witches and the goddess they summoned. Fans of the Iron Druid series will get a kick out of this story, and for folks new to that series (hello!) there is just enough background and information that you won’t feel lost. Although this story takes place later in the series, it was a great introduction to Atticus and his abilities. Am I a terrible person that my favorite part of this story is Atticus’s hilarious dog Oberon?  Of all the great things I’ve heard about Hearne over the last few years (and I’ve heard a lot) the thing that made me say “holy crap! I gotta read this guy!” was the dog.

 

My favorite story in the collection was Jaqueline Carey’s “One Hundred Ablutions”. It was a smart move making this the final story in the volume, otherwise I would have been spoiled, and then disappointed that the other stories weren’t as powerful as this one. Dala is a Keren girl, and as such, is offered an opportunity to become an honored handmaiden for a Shaladan family of the ruling class. By “offered an opportunity” I mean she’s never given a choice, and by “honored handmaiden”, I mean slave. But it’s the ruling Shaladan who run this society, and therefore their words are used for things that have different meanings to different people. This story was absolutely gorgeously told, Carey’s prose is transportive. There was no need for me to reread this story to write this review, because Dala’s story was seared into my mind.  In a city on the brink of revolution, is “an eye for an eye” the answer? When violence is answered with violence, who will be left to mourn the innocent dead? Dala was a slave, locked into a ritual she didn’t understand, and the violence she witnesses brings the ritual full circle.   There are no words for the final scene of this story.

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fable heroes hinesFable: Blood of Heroes, by Jim C. Hines

published August 2015

where I got it: purchased new

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My introduction to the Fable videogame series was playing Fable II until I nearly broke the disc. Kicking chickens, shooting gargoyles, solving riddles, completing quests, honing my skills, being friendly or mean to people, getting different clothes, getting rid of pesky highwayman,  increasing my character’s abilities, seeing how different decisions affected the game . . . I spent many a happy hour in Albion.  Fable II spoiled me: I expected all video games to be this fun.

 

If you’ve never played the videogame, there is still plenty for you to enjoy in Jim C. Hines’ new novel Fable: Blood of Heroes. You’ll get a well drawn story with a good balance of action and characterization,  heroes to cheer on and bad guys to hate on. This is not a heavy deep story, it is just pure fun, just like the video game I have fond memories of.  Having recently tackled Cixin Liu’s The Dark Forest,  I needed something that was going to take me for a great ride without frying my brain, and Fable: Blood of Heroes fit the bill.  For those of you have played any or all of the Fable games, you’ll get the in-jokes, recognize videogameisms such as getting information by talking to as many villagers as you can, see the level ups and HP count increases, recognize Will users and Strength users and Skill users, laugh when NPCs tap the fourth wall, and best of all you’ll recognize a fellow Fable fan in Jim Hines.

 

The story starts in the town of Brightlodge, where the young king has summoned four heroes to protect the town’s inhabitants from impending doom. Tipple is the tank of the group, Inga the warrior with an enchanted shield, Rook is the assassin, and Leech the life-force using healer who is a little too interested in how your insides work. A classic D&D adventure team, the heroes’ first quest is to rid the town of a smuggler who harbors more than a few secrets (and a secret identity!), and a boat of attacking redcaps.  The redcaps are foul little bloodthirsty creatures with bloody caps nailed to their heads. They thrive on havoc and on setting things on fire. The plot thickens when the heroes learn of concerns that are far bigger than one pirate and a ship full of redcaps.  In a style that George R R Martin made famous, Hines gives each hero their own point of view chapters, which helps flesh out certain characters and develop their backstories.  With a main cast that soon grows to eight, giving characters their own chapters was a smart move.

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It is just me, or has Epic Fantasy gotten really bloody lately?  More battles depicted, more violence, more people getting run through with varied weapons, more plots that revolve around action, battle scenes, and killing people. Maybe that’s just what is being advertised right now, maybe it’s the sign of the times, maybe publishers see how well Game of Thrones is doing and want to publish more stuff like that.

Don’t get me wrong, I have enjoyed a lot of grimdark, and I certainly don’t mind some violence. I don’t mean to knock battlefield fantasy, but like a brand new sword that’s seen recent use, the shiny has worn off for me.  Ultraviolence was a novelty for me, and now that I’m past it (or maybe I’m just getting old), I find that I prefer fantasy titles that are more in the vein of Hobb’s Assassin’s Apprentice, Rothfuss’s Name of the Wind , Jemisin’s Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, Lynch’s Lies of Locke Lamora, etc. Fantasy that focuses on plot, characters, consequences, adventure, magic, relationships, changes in perspective and such.

 

That said, I recently put the following question to the Twittersphere:

looking for epic fantasy

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some of the books reviewed here were free ARCs supplied by publishers/authors/other groups. Some of the books here I got from the library. the rest I *gasp!* actually paid for. I'll do my best to let you know what's what.