The Fires of Heaven picks up where The Shadow Rising left off, largely leaving behind the events in the Two Rivers where Perrin has become the de facto ruler of a small kingdom. There are references to what’s going on there, but that’s not the focus of this book. Rand’s expansion into the world beyond the Aiel Wastes is the primary focus of this novel, as he walks a delicate balance between the diverse and often dissenting factions he’s ruling over as both The Dragon Reborn and Car’a’carn. Wanting nothing to do with the trappings of fate, Mat attempts to escape on multiple occasions, only to find himself more firmly entrenched in the wheel’s design and–much like Rand–dizzied by memories not his own. At the same time, Nynaeve and Elayne are on a collision course with the remnants of the White Tower in hiding, where Siuan, Leane, and Min are also heading. Little do Nynaeve, Elayne, Thom, and Juilin realize that they’ll soon be sharing their journey with an unexpected face from the past. Robert Jordan spends a large portion of this book familiarizing readers with the politics of the various kingdoms, as well as the machinations between individual Forsaken. We also learn more about the world of dreams and the dangers associated with that realm, and we discover some of the previously unknown danger of magic when Rand uses Balefire. This installment in the series provides readers with a lot of action and warfare, both close-up and distant, which keeps the story flowing. Additionally, it showcases the stakes, and reveals that even those we consider pivotal to the narrative are not shielded by plot armor, at least not permanently. As with the previous four volumes in the series, the narration provided by Kate Reading and Michael Kramer is fantastic, fully bringing the narrative to life and fleshing out the characters in the way the best audiobooks do.
Jonathan Maberry brings his fast-paced, high-intensity blend of grit, well-drawn characters, action, and wry humor to the realm of fantasy literature with one hell of a splash. Kagen the Damned is everything readers have loved about the Joe Ledger and Pine Deep novels but transferred to a world of swords and sorcery, complete with an homage to Chambers, Lovecraft, Bloch, and Derleth. Kagen Vale is a broken man, devastated and demoralized by his failure to protect the imperial family he’d been charged with protecting. Possibly the last surviving member of the Vale family, Kagen is driven solely by his need for revenge, forced to wander alone as the gods he’d worshipped have abandoned him. Walking a tightrope between drunkenness and violence, Kagen is hunted by those he hunts, and unless he can find some allies in his quest for vengeance, he’s doomed to fail. As long-forbidden magic and old gods return to the realm of the Silver Empire, the world Kagen was familiar with becomes increasingly strange and threatening, as an unexpected enemy with enigmatic and sinister plans seeks to take a throne that Kagen will die to defend. Fans of Richard K. Morgan and George R.R. Martin are sure to love Maberry’s foray into horror-tinged fantasy, but there’s nothing not to love about this introduction to a must-read trilogy. Ray Porter perfectly captures the character of Kagen in his narration, while bringing the cast of additional characters to life with a blend of accents that are at times both familiar and alien to the listener. Porter was quite likely the best possible choice for the audiobook narration of this novel, and I trust that he’s contracted to provide his services for the remaining two books as well.
It’s not uncommon to encounter political machinations and glimpses of the underlying bureaucratic structure of the world in fantasy novels. Along with the history of the realms and people in question, understanding something of the politics of those fictional worlds is an important element in making them feel like real places. Daniel Abraham has taken this world-building further than most authors by focusing a great deal of his storytelling attention on the facets of finance and trade within the world of The Dragon’s Path. What’s superbly surprising about Abraham’s novel is how interesting he manages to make the details of this commerce. Of course, it isn’t all banking and trade relations. Abraham has packed this first novel of The Dagger and the Coin series with conflict (both small and large scale), gods and myth, political intrigue, and plenty of witty dialogue. Cithrin is a half-breed orphan raised as a ward of the Medean banking house of Vanai, and she carefully studied under the tutelage of Magister Imaniel. As the armies of Antea approach the city walls, the only way to keep the resources of the bank safe from plunder is to send them away from the city. Cithrin is tasked with escorting the bank’s property to safety as part of a caravan headed by the tragic hero, Marcus Wester. As it happens, Cithrin isn’t the only member of Wester’s party who isn’t who they seem. Marcus has replaced some of his complement with a troupe of actors led by Master Kit, the performers playing the role of soldiers and guards. But Master Kit is more than he seems as well. A past he’d thought he escaped will come back to haunt him again before the tale concludes. In the middle of everything is Sir Geder Palliako, a bookish and weak man who finds himself tossed about by fate and the machinations of those above him in the royal court of Antea. Struggling against forces he only barely recognizes as nudging him along, Geder becomes the key to leading the world down a path from which there will be no turning back. Abrahamson packs this novel with a diverse cast of characters, both sympathetic and flawed in equal measure, and he sends them on a series of adventures as captivating as they are well-thought-out. It would be virtually impossible to reach the end of The Dragon’s Path without wanting to see where this tale will take us. Pete Bradbury’s narration spectacularly breathes life into the vast cast of characters populating this story, setting them apart from one another without any apparent difficulty. His voice propels the listener through the circuitous web of the narrative, leading us to the end far more quickly than we want to arrive.
As much a collection of world-building elements as a story, The Raven Tower contains the same depth of political intrigue, examination of social structures, and mythological explorations one should expect if they’ve read other books from Ann Leckie. Much of the narrative is taken up by historical musings and the interactions of various gods, in particular The Strength and Patience of the Hill and The Myriad, two ancient gods who watched as humanity evolved and developed cultures and language. Relayed to us by that ancient god, The Strength and Patience of the Hill, The Raven Tower is the story of Eolo, a soldier and the aide to Mawat, the next in line to serve as Lease to the Raven, God of Vastai. Upon being called back home from the conflict at the border, Mawat discovers that his father, the previous Lease, has disappeared when he should have sacrificed himself upon the death of the most recent incarnation of the Raven. In his father’s place, Mawat’s uncle is sitting on the bench belonging to the Lease, proclaiming himself as such, in defiance of both custom and Mawat’s wishes. While Mawat mourns the father he believes to be dead and seethes with anger at his uncle’s presumptuousness and betrayal, Eolo sets out to solve the mystery of how any of this could have transpired. The truth, when revealed, might be too costly for those involved and far too dangerous for the kingdom of Iraden. As interesting as the story of court intrigue, murder, and betrayal happens to be, I found myself wanting to hear more about the gods, their machinations, and the history of this world the deeper I delved into the story. Leckie has a knack for creating worlds that beg for the reader’s attention, drawing us in and making us crave more. The Ancillary books had a trilogy that allowed for greater satisfaction of this need, and I’m hoping that this won’t be the last time we visit the world she’s created with The Raven Tower. The casual acceptance of Eolo as a trans-masculine character was a nice touch, without ever seeming shoehorned in or forced. This should come as no surprise to anyone who read the Imperial Radch trilogy, in which it was obvious that Leckie has a knack for exploring non-binary identities and cultures with the same deft hand that Ursula K. Le Guin brought to The Left Hand of Darkness. There are sure to be readers who dismiss this book because of that. But those are the same people who proclaim that they don’t want politics in their fantasy or science fiction, so it’s a simple thing to dismiss their opinions as uninformed, historically ignorant, and irrelevant. Adjoa Andoh’s narration captures a wide breadth of characters and accents with seeming ease, though there were times when certain accents initially seemed a bit silly or cartoonish at first. As the audiobook continues, those accents seem less pronounced as the listener adjusts to hearing them and becomes acclimated to the environment cultivated within the narration. I certainly prefer this over the alternative, where every character sounds approximately the same, and there’s no variation where cultural differences should exist.
The Shadow Rising picks up where The Dragon Reborn left off, with Rand al’Thor wielding his authority from the Stone of Tear after breaching the fortress with the assistance of a cadre of Aiel and taking Callandor in accordance with prophecy. For a brief interval, the companions who set out from the Two Rivers are together in one place again, before the machinations of the Forsaken and Rand’s reluctant determination to embrace his fate forces them to head in separate directions yet again. Mat and Moiraine follow Rand deep into the Aiel Waste, set for the sacred city of Rhuidean where Rand means to fulfill the next prophecy on his path to become The Dragon Reborn. Perrin, Faile, and Loial depart for the Two Rivers, where Perrin hopes to save his family and friends from the Children of the Light, only to discover that things are far worse than his nightmares prepared him to expect. Nynaeve, Elayne, and Thom Merrilin follow the trail of the Black Ajah to Tanchico, desperate to discover the secret weapon the dark sisters are hoping to use against Rand. All of this takes place while Min attempts to sus out the meaning of her prophetic visions at the White Tower, as tumult and upheaval loom on the near horizon. The Shadow Rising was one of my favorite books in Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series when I originally began reading the series years ago. This was primarily because we begin to catch tantalizing glimpses of the world before the breaking as well as insights into the less previously well-explored cultures introduced in the first three books, in particular, the Aiel and Seanchan. Jordan also provided readers with a fascinating look at the dynamic between various Forsaken as well as the Dark Friends operating in the world, and how those various individuals and groups are frequently acting at odds with one another. It isn’t all world-building in this book, though. There’s plenty of action and a whole lot of story along the way. As with the previous three audiobooks, the narration provided by Kate Reading and Michael Kramer is spectacular, at no point taking the listener out of the experience or disrupting the flow of the narrative.
Like most Americans, my first exposure to Geralt of Rivia and the wider world of The Witcher was through video games. It wasn’t until a short while later that I opted to check out the books upon which the video games were adapted. The Last Wish, a collection of seven short stories, was the first I’d read from Andrzej Sapkowski, and the tales were enthralling. Sardonic humor, entertaining dialogue, fast-paced action, captivating characters, and off-beat references to well-known fairy tales made famous through Disney bastardization produced a wholly original fantasy realm in which Geralt plied his trade. Nested within the framing story of Geralt recovering from the injuries sustained in the first of the stories collected in The Last Wish, the stories primarily serve as flashbacks to earlier events in the titular Witcher’s life. The first of those stories, and the source for the injuries, is a tale titled simply The Witcher. A king’s daughter, cursed at birth as a striga from the king’s incestuous union with his sister, has been preying on the population of Temeria. Many had tried to either lift the curse or kill the monster to no avail. Geralt offers his assistance and the assurance that he believes he can end the curse, but Geralt might have more difficulty doing so than he expects. A Grain of Truth finds Geralt wandering off the beaten path, where he discovers two corpses with peculiar wounds. He soon discovers a large manor with an unexpected beast as a host. An interesting riff on the Beauty and the Beast narrative, A Grain of Truth provides the reader with a glimpse of the strange shapes love can take in Sapkowski’s writing. It’s the third story, The Lesser Evil, that provides readers with the explanation for how Geralt obtained the pejorative nickname, the Butcher of Blaviken. Additionally, this story provides readers with a unique twist on the Snow White fairy tale, with a distinctly dark and sinister damsel at its heart. A Question of Price introduces readers to “The Law of Surprise” and Queen Calanthe of Cintra. Another story with a curse at the core of it, we learn the power of destiny within the world of The Witcher, and we witness that love can be both blind and without judgment even in a realm brimming with cynicism like Sapkowski’s creation. The Edge of The World shares with readers the first adventure featuring Geralt and the bard, Dandelion. Tasked with ridding the farmland of Lower Posada of a devil while restricted by a wise woman to inflict no harm on the creature, Geralt and Dandelion discover that there is more going on than the peasant farmers suspect. In the story, The Last Wish, we meet Yennefer of Vengerberg after Dandelion and Geralt accidentally release a genie from its captivity, resulting in Dandelion being grievously injured. Seeking assistance from the sorceress, Yennefer, Geralt finds himself a pawn in a game he knew nothing about. He must find a way to restore control if he hopes to save Dandelion’s life as well as that of the duplicitous sorceress. The framing story, The Voice of Reason, culminates in Geralt and Dandelion leaving the temple only to be waylaid by a company of soldiers who challenge Geralt to a duel. We also receive a glimpse into the fate the surrounds Geralt, one of blood and violence. These stories are in no way chronologically lined up, and many of them will be familiar to those who have watched the Netflix series adapted from Sapkowski’s writing. Similarly, the strangely fluid chronological delivery will feel quite familiar to fans of the series. There are, of course, deviations in the adapted material for the series, but the core elements of the stories are present, which makes what Netflix has done quite spectacular.
I’d never finished reading Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea Cycle when I was growing up. I’d somehow just never gotten around to it. Waiting for the final novel of Patrick Rothfuss’s Kingkiller Chronicle trilogy got me in the mood to revisit this series–and hopefully finish it–as it was one of Rothfuss’s major influences when he began writing The Name of the Wind. I’d forgotten how much I enjoyed Le Guin’s capacity to blend minimalism with exquisite prose, crafting a streamlined narrative that never bogs itself down with minutiae and long-winded deviations from the main story. In that and her sheer imaginative quality, Le Guin remains an iconoclast in the realm of fantasy literature. We join Ged on his journey from childhood through young adulthood as he finds his place in the larger world of Earthsea. We experience his mistakes and misplaced pride as if they’re our own, and we feel both his terror and exultation as he travels to lands familiar and far distant in his quest to evade and subdue the shadow he set loose on the world. The narration provided by Rob Inglis made the audiobook a vastly different experience from simply reading the book decades ago, and I’m pleased to see that he continues as narrator for the subsequent volumes in this epic series.
The Dragon Reborn, I recalled quite correctly, was one of my favorite installments in what I’d previously read of The Wheel of Time series by Robert Jordan. This is the book in which we receive a much clearer glimpse of the effect Rand al’Thor has on the world and people around him, largely through the events witnessed by his friends rather than from Rand’s perspective. It was a daring move, shifting the focus of the third novel in a series away from the protagonist, allowing the bulk of the tale to be told from the perspectives of Perrin, Mat, and Egwene. Though Perrin is the only one who knowingly pursues Rand, Mat, Egwene, and the others are drawn by the gravity of Rand pulling at the weave. What we do witness of Rand’s journey to Tear–where he intends to prove himself and to embrace the prophecy that marks him as the Dragon Reborn–causes some small amount of concern that he is indeed going mad. While little attention is paid to the day-to-day travels as Rand journeys to take hold of his destiny, we are far from kept in the dark as to what he’s been doing as he manages to remain ahead of the pursuit from Perrin, Moiraine, Loial, and Lan. As we bounce from one location to another, we are provided with a much greater perspective of what is happening throughout the world. We discover that the Forsaken have escaped from their imprisonment and taken up positions of power throughout the world. We learn that the corruption of the Black Ajah has grown within the Aes Sedai in Tar Valon. We learn of darkhounds and the soulless. We also discover that the Aiel have left the wastes and ventured secretly into the world that fears them, in search of the answer to a prophecy of their own. The Dragon Reborn is a spectacular book, the best of the original trilogy, for sure. It is filled with intrigue, action, and suspense that marked Robert Jordan as a great storyteller. The narration of this book is no less spot-on than the previous two installments of the series.
Robert Jordan’s The Great Hunt has always been one of the greatest follow-up novels to a series introduction. It could be argued that it’s the best installment of The Wheel of Time. As I indicated in my review of the audiobook for The Eye of the World, I haven’t read the whole series, so I can’t say for sure that this remains true throughout, but of what I’ve read, it is the best of the bunch. At its core, The Great Hunt is a story of acceptance amidst transformation…recognition of the changes taking place and the role one must play in this changing world. We see Perrin finally coming to terms with what he is, embracing his status as a wolf brother when it becomes the only way to continue the search for the Horn of Valere. While in Tar Valon and after, we watch Nynaeve learning to embrace her role as Aes Sedai as well as her burgeoning feelings for Lan. Even Rand begins to accept who and what he is, though in action and deed more than in word. Though he spends the bulk of the novel insisting he is nothing more than a shepherd, he slips into the guise of a leader and a lord with increasingly greater ease. I think that’s the aspect of this story that makes it my favorite of the portions I’ve read. There’s a vitality and realness just beneath the surface of the fantasy tale being woven, focusing on the nature of identity, diving into the differences between the versions of ourselves we know–or believe we know–and those others around us see and acknowledge. Of course, there’s also a great deal of action and adventure to this story, and that certainly helps to make it one of the best fantasy tales I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading–or, in this case, listening to. We get to explore the potential of divergent realities, where events play out with lesser or greater similarities to the way we know they’re playing out. We have the introduction of the Seanchan and the horrific creatures they use as beasts of burden and war, along with their hideous practices of forcing dedication from people they encounter and enslaving women with the capacity to channel the One Power. We have the rising of legendary heroes from the mists of time as the horn is sounded. Of course, we also have that fantastic duel between Rand and Ba’alzamon that changes everything going forward, forcing him into an unhappy acknowledgment of his place as Dragon Reborn. For books as old as these, and as popular, I don’t feel quite the aversion to providing spoilers, but I’ll try to keep it at what I’ve already given away. As one could expect, knowing how this story plays out, Kate Reading has more of a part to play in the narration than she did in the previous volume. I’m pleased to see that she and Michael Kramer appear to have narrated every volume of the series. I had known they narrated the first five books since I already had them purchased…but I looked ahead at the remaining Wheel of Time audiobooks and felt a bit of relief at seeing those names again and again throughout.
Thirty years after its original publication, Robert Jordan’s The Eye of the World remains as timeless and captivating as it was when it first came out while I was still in my pre-teens. Following in the footsteps laid by previous epic fantasy series from authors like J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, and Terry Brooks, Jordan’s Wheel Of Time stands as a someday classic series of epic fantasy in its own right, though it does borrow elements from those earlier works. That’s a petty complaint to level against Jordan’s books since his doing so was far less dramatic and obvious than Terry Brooks’s borrowing from Tolkien with major elements of The Sword of Shannara. Nothing we read is truly original and written in absolute isolation from the books and stories that inspired the author. It’s this same understanding that makes it easy for me to also enjoy Terry Goodkind’s series, The Sword of Truth, which transparently borrows some elements from The Wheel of Time as well as from those earlier epic fantasy series. Following Rand and his friends from their humble but auspicious origins in Emond’s Field in the Two Rivers district to the horrific landscape of the Blight as they’re led by Moiraine and Lan is as exciting now as when I was a child, though I find myself relating more to characters I’d not related to as strongly when I was a younger reader. That is a sign of a great author indeed, that the novel can still appeal to readers (albeit differently) when they’re young men and when they’re adults in middle-age. This book (and the subsequent series) is a coming of age tale as much as it is a thoroughly engaging fantasy, exploring the nature of fate/destiny and the cyclic nature of civilization, society, and (within the series) time itself. I’ve never read the concluding few novels of this series nor the prequel to The Eye of the World, and I thought it might be appropriate to listen through the audiobook recordings of the books I’ve already read, to catch myself up to where I need to be. The narration provided primarily by Michael Kramer and occasionally by Kate Reading (when Nynaeve is the focal point of the chapter) is immersive and successfully propels the story forward. It’s a different experience to hear this book in a different voice than the ones in my head. Michael Kramer manages to breathe life into the characters of Rand al’Thor, Matrim Cauthon, and Perrin Aybara in the way they deserve. This is a relief, seeing as how he and Kate Reading are the narrators for at least the first five books of the series (those are the ones I’ve purchased from Audible so far).