Candace Nola’s Breach drags us along with Laraya Jamison into a disorienting and terrifying battle for survival in a world alien from our own. The gradual revelation of a world that feels as fantastic and dreamlike as it is sinister and dangerous is a thrilling adventure for readers/listeners, even as beleaguered Laraya struggles to learn the rules of this new world and means to find her way home. A camping trip with her boyfriend and two closest friends descends into a violent and horrific disaster as a creature defying comprehension slaughters the others, forcing Laraya into an exhausting race for her life through a forest that transitions into something unfamiliar. Growing up in these woods, she knows she’s far from home, but Laraya has no idea how she arrived in this strange place or how to return to the world she knows. Laraya’s journey of discovery through this new world is equal parts fantasy and horror. The true journey is of self-discovery as she learns of her connection to this realm and the extraordinary allies in her battle against monstrous beings who seek to destroy her or follow her through the breach and back to our world. Jessica McEvoy’s narration brings Laraya to life, filling the character’s account of events with emotion that conveys the harrowing nature of her experiences.
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.
Bel, The Last Dragon begins in the Land East-of-Nod, a dizzying and unreal metropolis populated by beings that defy easy description. Not altogether dissimilar from Barker’s Midian–though the nature and scope of this story is far more grand than Cabal–there’s a certain flair and beauty from which one definitely feels a Barker-ish flourish as Bel wanders the streets of this hidden city. Bel, long believed dead, believed himself to be deceased as well. During the American Civil War, he’d sacrificed himself in the centuries-long War of Dictates between the Sheydim and the Watchers (fallen angels bent on molding the human world to their twisted whims). Following that sacrifice, Bel’s fellow dragons sacrificed themselves in retaliation, each falling in turn, though the tide of the long war only marginally swayed in the direction of the Sheydim. No longer solely the first, Bel awakens outside the Land East-of-Nod as the last dragon. Enraged and distraught by the loss of his brethren and the minimal benefit gained by their sacrifices, Bel wants revenge. Advances and knowledge gleaned during his centuries of restorative slumber have provided Bel with a chance to obtain the revenge he seeks. A series of islands existing in a strange tangential space separate from the human world is ruled over by Watchers who seek dominion, independent of their brethren. Here, the Sheydim and their allies have a chance to strike profound blows against the power of the fallen angels, to gain strength and the expertise necessary to ultimately assault the Watchers divying up the human world. In this place, Bel will mete out the bloody, fiery vengeance that drives him as he learns to work with those who have fought this war while he slumbered in near-death. The first target is the jungle island ruled over by Habbiel and his forces. Whether you’ve read the epic poem, War of Dictates, you’ll benefit from diving into this tale of cosmic horror and fantasy crafted by Baltisberger. If you’ve had the pleasure of reading War of Dictates, you’ll be pleased to see familiar faces in a format more conducive to truly getting to know them. If you haven’t read the poem, this can be your introduction into the realm of War of Dictates and a primer of sorts that can make your journey through that twisted and violent epic all the more complete.
This title comes out in May of 2022. A link will be added once it becomes available.
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.
My first exposure to Ken Liu was through his superbly readable translation of Liu Cixin’s The Three Body Problem and the third novel of the Remembrance of Earth’s Past trilogy, Death’s End. To have translated those information dense and character rich narratives from Chinese to English required an impressive literary skill on the part of the translator. When The Grace of Kings, the first novel of Ken Liu’s The Dandelion Dynasty series was released, it was a given that I had to pick that massive book up for myself. The Armies of Those I Love is definitely a smaller story than the books Liu has been releasing, though only in page count. The size of the story packed into this relatively brief tale is a huge one, taking us to a post apocalyptic Earth that is both familiar and impressively original. On the surface, one can see similarities to stories like Mortal Engines and The Matrix as the narrative unfolds, but Liu molds those familiar elements into something thoroughly his own. Franny lives on BOS, a massive roaming city that prowls the war torn and ravaged landscape of what was once North America. An orphan, she exists on the outskirts of the rigid society most BOS residents fall into, and this is fine for her. Franny has an unwelcome fascination with old world artifacts and remnants of the world before the Pilots set the major cities adrift to wander. When a stranger, escaped from LAX, stumbles upon her home and sends her world spiraling out of control, Franny embraces the opportunity to learn more about the world in which she lives as she and the fugitive struggle to escape the BOS citizens hunting them while evading the biomechanical Guardians who protect the city from internal and external threats. Though it may be best not to seek answers to the questions Franny has been dying to resolve, there’s something magnificent and beautiful in the hope and faith the young woman exhibits even in the face of nightmarish truths. Auli’i Cravalho’s narration seems perfectly suited for Franny and the story of her adventure. She captures the innocence and desperate hunger for knowledge quite expertly.
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.