“The Burning Stone” Kate Elliott

The Burning Stone is the third book in Kate Elliott’s seven book series, The Crown of Stars. As I finished the last one in the series at the end of December last year I was starting to think I should write the rest of them up in one post. But when I looked at my notes, I think I’ve enough to say about each one that I don’t want to miss out that it would end up a huge post and need splitting back into individual posts! So this post will remain a collection of thoughts about The Burning Stone. (Spoilery both forwards and backwards in the series, but it’s not new so I shan’t put spoiler tags.)

At the end of book 2 (The Prince of Dogs, post) the series could’ve stopped with a sense of a “happy ending” albeit not one with all loose ends tied up. Alain has been acknowledged his father’s son, legitimised, become heir and married a princess he actually loves. Liath and Sanglant are reunited, he’s free, she has a place amongst the Eagles, and they have declared their love to each other. And this book takes that potential happy ending and shows you what happens after the story “ends” – not the last time Elliott does that in this series.

Alain’s plotline is the working out of unintended consequences of good (and otherwise) deeds. At the end of the previous book Alain and Levastine had lead the army that defeated Bloodhand, ending the threat to the kingdom (which is what got them their rewards), a good and useful thing to do. But when they killed Bloodhand his curse on his killer was unleashed, and one by one five of the dogs and the Levastine himself succumb. Alain is now Count, but almost immediately his cousin (who would’ve inherited if Alain was not legitimised) brings a case against Alain saying that he’s not really Levastine’s son. At the hearing, everything rests on whether or not his wife will stick up for him. She carries enough clout, and this is a society where having family and kin matter, that she would turn the tide of opinion. But she not only doesn’t stand by him, she lets everyone know that their marriage isn’t really a marriage at all: it’s not consummated. And why isn’t is consummated? Alain was unwilling to rape her, instead he was wooing her and hoping one day she’d love him enough to want to sleep with him. And this now backfires on him, and leads to him ending up stripped of his countship and with his marriage annulled he’s sent to serve with the Lions (the king’s army). Of course, his wife (Tallia) doesn’t get what she wanted either … she naively thought that once single again she’d be sent back to her life as a cleric, whereas she actually gets married off to someone else that her mother wants an alliance with and her plotline in this book ends with her new husband doing what Alain would not, and raping her.

(It’s odd how my reaction to the Marion Zimmer Bradley books is omg-so-rapey, and my reaction to these isn’t despite there still being quite a bit of rape. I’m not sure why, so I’ll just note that and think about it a bit more.)

Tallia is one of the characters that Elliott uses to highlight Alain’s saintliness. I like how she does this – we’re not told that Alain is a saint, but we are shown how people who believe themselves to be saints behave and then that’s juxtaposed with Alain and his unfailing kindness and humility. Tallia has had a revelation about the nature of God, she’s got stigmata and is regarded (by herself and some others) as a pious saint. But Alain discovers the rusty nail she’s using to create the stigmata, and even without that smoking gun her behaviour is clearly that of a zealot and not a holy woman. Which is another way in which the religion in these books is realistically and interestingly messy & complicated – by the end of the series the heresy that Tallia is fanning the flames of becomes orthodox, and there’s an indication that it was the original orthodoxy that was lost over time (tho aren’t they always the “one true way”?). So she might’ve been a fraud but her ideas still took root.

Liath’s plotline in this book parallels Alain’s in many ways, both by being the same and by showing a contrast. The two marriages are the most obvious contrast – there are some similarities, after all Sanglant and Liath didn’t really know each other well before they married. But as compared to Alain and Tallia there is a mutual attraction and a mutual desire to make it work out despite the difficulties. Another of the themes that’s shared between Alain & Liath’s stories is about fathers – the blood relationship is what the world sees as most important but is that really what matters? Alain may’ve met Count Levastine in adolescence, but they form a bond nonetheless and Alain is sad to have that ripped away. Liath’s memories of her childhood are all about being on the run with her father – but she meets a woman in this book who claims to be her mother, and that her father was no such thing. Yet he’s still the man who brought her up and cared for her and loved her, all utterly alien concepts to this cold and severe mother she’s met. And both Alain and Liath end up … elsewhere. The next book shows that this is necessary for both of them in their different ways to learn the things they need to know, but at the end here it’s very much an involuntary severing of bonds.

And I’ve wittered on now for about a thousand words and I’ve only really talked about some of the things from this book. They’ve got great re-read potential for me, on this read through I was most interested in Alain, in Liath and in the magical plotline that’s just starting to take off in this book. But there’s a lot of other stuff going on, for instance the whole religious schism that I’ve only mentioned in passing.

“Prince of Dogs” Kate Elliott

Prince of Dogs is the second book in Kate Elliott’s seven book Crown of Stars series. The first was King’s Dragon (which I wrote about twice, most recently in this post). I know I’ve read Prince of Dogs before but that was a long time ago, probably in the early 00s, and I didn’t remember much about it when I started it this time. As with my post about King’s Dragon, this is not so much a review as a collection of thoughts.

The series is the sort where the books are really sections of one long story published separately so each one picks up pretty much immediately where the last one left off. And as such is both nearly impossible to talk about this one without spoilers for the first one, and the exact boundaries between the books are a little fuzzy in my head at times. In some ways this book is still setting up the epic fantasy “Save the World” plot that is going to come along in the later books – in fact, I’m not sure I realised there was going to be one at this point in the series. This is not in any sense a flaw. All the way through the series I was interested in the big epic plot because I wanted to see how these particular characters were going to deal with it.

The plot in this book is still strongly rooted in the intrigues and military matters of a medieval court under seige from without and within. The king’s bastard son – Sanglant – is presumed dead in battle against the Eika invaders. Liath has found a place for herself in the Eagles, but she still can’t tell who it’s wise to trust. Alain’s actually doing pretty well – he’s been acknowledged as son & heir to Count Levastine, which is an incredible change in status. And by the end of the book he’s even betrothed to the King’s neice – perhaps a dubious prize (particularly as she’s the daughter of the woman who had led the opposing side in the recent civil war) but nonetheless a mark of the King’s favour (and Alain even fancies the girl!).

One of the threads running through the book is the two linked pairs of characters. Liath and Sanglant don’t really realise they’re linked as such. But Liath dreams of Sanglant – dreams that as the reader we know are true; and Sanglant’s means of hanging on to sanity is daydreams of Liath. There’d been an attraction between them before his near death and capture, and it gets stronger through this book despite the distance. The other linked pair know they’re linked – Alain and Fifth Son (an Eika) have visions of what the other one is doing, and they know that what they see is real. Alain’s father even uses this when planning an attack on the city the Eika hold. Fifth Son, and the Eika in general, are one of the intriguing puzzles the series has. It’s clear in the first book that they’re a Viking analogue, and that they’re not precisely human. By this book we’re getting more intriguing hints about their biology and their society. In retrospect we also start to see how the link between Alain and Fifth Son is changing Fifth Son.

Another of the threads running through the book is dogs. The title, Prince of Dogs, has an obvious subject: the Prince, Sanglant, is chained up with the Eika dogs and has had to fight his way to being pack leader in order to survive. He’s a prince among dogs and a prince of the dogs. But after having finished the series I could see how it might also at least tangentially apply to Liath, Alain and Fifth Son. I think it’s clear by this book that the Eika dogs and the Eika are biologically closer than we’d expect – and so Fifth Son, as the son of the leader of this pack of Eika, is in some senses the Prince of Dogs. Alain’s status as Levastine’s son hinges round the fact that Levastine’s dogs will obey him – heir to a Count is not exactly a Prince, but nonetheless his high status is because of command of dogs. And as Liath’s heritage is gradually revealed over the series, her status also has links to this same dogs.

One thing that struck me after finishing this book is that it could’ve been wrapped up here as a “happy ending”. Obviously I knew it wasn’t the end as there are another five books – but I think even without that it’d be clear this must be the calm before the storm. Several of the characters have got what they think they want … and in the next book we’ll find out just how well that works out.

“King’s Dragon” Kate Elliott

I’ve read Kate Elliott’s “King’s Dragon” before – at least twice – and both times stalled out on the series before I got to the end, either because I couldn’t get the books at the library or because I hadn’t quite decided whether to buy or borrow them. Last time I read it I reviewed it in this blog too (post). So when I needed to think of some books to get on my kindle to take away with me (last spring!) this series came to mind as unfinished business. I finished reading this one in July 2015, and am writing it up (from notes made at the time) in January 2016 by which point I’ve finished the series, so this is not going to be the post you’d’ve got if I’d been more diligent about writing it! 🙂 It’s also not a review as such (and if you haven’t read the books my previous review gives a bit more detail about the set up and characters), and there will be spoilers ahead for the whole series even tho I’m concentrating on this book in this post.

One of the things I wrote about before, and remembered as particularly liking, is that this series starts out with a fairly familiar set of epic fantasy tropes which it then proceeds to do something more interesting with than what one might expect. Our main point of view characters are a couple of Chosen One archetypes who live in a version of medieval Europe. Alain is a farm boy of uncertain parentage, destined for the Church but yearning for adventure. Liath is on the run with her father, learning philosophy, astronomy and magic but unable to ever settle down for fear they’ll be killed by those who chase them. And the world around them has kings and princes, court intrigue, wars fought on horseback with swords, and a powerful Church. It isn’t, however, generic and nor are any of the characters. One of the things I appreciated about this whole series is that it felt like a real world, and like the implications of the world building had been thought through.

An example of this is the religion of this world – it’s flavoured with Christianity, although with many differences the key of which is that the orthodox opinion is that God is plural and they are both male and female. The senior officials of the Church, the biscops and the skopos (Pope equivalent), are all female. Mayors of towns are female. And there’s a reasonable amount of the sort of casual sexism you’d expect from the characters about how men are unsuited for such roles. But, women still have the biological vulnerabilities that they have in reality – and just because women are “in power” in some arenas doesn’t turn the society into something fluffy and peace loving. Which I appreciated, because every time I see someone say something about “if women ruled the world we wouldn’t have X injustice happening” I wince – women are people too, and setting us up as inherently superior to men is no more right than as inherently inferior. So it was nice to see a world where women did have power and yet the world wasn’t full of magical unicorns.

I felt that family was one of the dominant themes of the book (and series). People didn’t just introduce themselves by name, but also by lineage. Legitimacy or otherwise is also important – bastards don’t inherit, which is one of the key factors in Sanglant’s story. And even though we see the action primarily via Alain and Liath, Sanglant is one of the key characters – the book is named after him, and his relationship with his father is critical to the politics. If his father didn’t love him so much, then a lot of the events throughout the series wouldn’t’ve happened. Returning to the theme of family – Liath and Alain are both set apart by their lack of claimable family. Liath doesn’t know who her parents are related to, and Alain doesn’t even know who his parents are for sure. Liath’s family relationships become one of the linchpins of the entire series, precisely who she is matters more to the world (both everyday and magical) than she realises at this point.

Another thing I really liked about this world was that the religion and the magic felt as solidly real as the politics. I mentioned above about the differences in the Church affecting the society around it, but I also liked that the Church is not a monolith and not stocked solely with either pious clergy or scheming fraudsters. There are differences of opinion on what the scriptures mean and on precisely what people believe in (and a heresy touched on in this book and will have repercussions throughout the series). The clergy are people – some are devout, some are not; some are in their positions because of their secular rank, some are not. And those are two separate axes. It’s a complicated mess of an institution, as you’d expect for a religion that’s a few centuries old.

Magic is officially regarded as evil by the church (as in our world) but it actually works (unlike our world). It’s a very medieval sort of magic – alchemy rather than abracadabra. Liath is learning the theory, and she is learning from books and constructing her own memory palace in her mind where she can walk through to retrieve facts. She’s also learning astronomy, mathematics and so on, which is all linked just like alchemists thought it would be in our world. It’s a magical system based on knowing or intuiting the secrets and fundamental principles of the universe. It’s also not without limitations & flaws. For instance, in practical terms one of the more useful pieces of magic we see is the ability to see through fire for a vision of what’s happening elsewhere to someone. And it’s limited by what you see (literally) when you look – if someone is passed out cold on the floor somewhere with wounds all over him, you’ll probably think he’s dead. So this provides a way of getting more information about far off events more quickly than you can by mundane methods, but it can also provide disinformation.

I’m glad I finally got round to getting the whole series – there’s definitely re-read potential here, just looking stuff up for this post I’ve remembered a few things I thought were background at this point that turn out to be much more important later on.

Eternal Sky Trilogy, Elizabeth Bear

My main present this Christmas was a Kindle – I’ve finally entered the 21st Century 😉 And as part of the present I got three new ebooks to start me off, I chose Elizabeth Bear’s Eternal Sky trilogy which I’ve had on my to-buy list for a while. The three books are Range of Ghosts, Shattered Pillars and Steles of the Sky and they are fantasy, set in a world that is not our own with a strong Asian flavour.

The series opens in the aftermath of a battle. Temur, who is one of the protagonists of the story, is one of the defeated side and lucky to be alive – surviving mostly because he looked dead already. The battle was part of a civil war: Temur’s people are very Mongol-like and this is a succession war that breaks out after the Khagan has died between his successors (much like after Genghis Khan’s death in the real world). Temur is now one of the few claimants left alive. At first he’s not concerned with that, he joins with some of the refugees and seems almost content to settle into anonymity. But it becomes clear that there is more going on than first meets the eye. Edene, the girl Temur is falling in love with, is stolen away from the refugee camp by blood ghosts called up from the dead of the battle by a sorcerer allied with the other side of the civil war. He sets off to rescue her and along the way discovers the sorcerer’s schemes will have a wider impact than just on his own family and his own country, and resolves to stop him.

And so far, that sounds very bog standard epic fantasy – chosen one (male) goes off to rescue girl, take back throne and stop the evil sorcerer. But that’s really not what this series is like. For starters, it’s much more of an ensemble cast than the paragraph above makes it sound and a lot of the ensemble are women. For instance rescuing Edene might be Temur’s initial motivation to set off – but Edene isn’t just a pretty damsel in distress who waits in the fortress for Temur’s arrival. She takes action herself to escape, and she’s very definitely the hero of her own story – even tho at first she is playing into the antagonist’s schemes. Another member of the cast is Hrahima, a female Cho-tse – a sentient tiger (which is a bit like calling a human a sentient monkey). The antagonist is also not just one evil man with minions although I suspect he’d like to think he is – but the “minions” are people who again are the heroes of their own stories.

The other primary protagonist (alongside Temur & Edene) is the wizard Samarkar – she is a Once-Princess of Rasa who has chosen to become part of an order of wizards where the price for power is sterilisation. For men this is a relatively easy operation, but for women it’s at the limits of the medical technology of the day – so we first meet Samarkar as she is discovering she will live and recover from the operation. And it’s only after you pay the price that you discover if you will gain power – one of the other supporting cast is a wizard who never gained her power (but nonetheless she’s still respected as one of the best theoreticians of the order). She meets (and rescues) Temur near the beginning of his journey to find Edene. The wizards are very curious about the world in a scientific way – knowledge is power, knowing how things work lets you figure out how to manipulate them. When Temur swears a blood-vow Samarkar realises no-one has recorded the progress of one of these through from the very start, and so she decides to travel with Temur. Quickly she moves to be a participant rather than merely an observer, as she & Temur become first friends and then more.

As I said at the beginning of this review this is Asian flavoured fantasy. By that I mean it uses the cultures and mythology of various parts of Asia as the underpinnings of the story in the same way that a lot of fantasy uses a sort of medieval European “lords, ladies, castles, knights, damsels” bedrock as its foundation. But it’s not an indistinct mishmash of pseudo-Asian culture – there are several countries in the world and they have distinct cultures which are recognisably riffing off distinct cultures in our world. For instance as I’ve already mentioned Temur’s people are akin to the Mongols – I recognised a China analogue (of the right era) and a very obvious analogue of the Islamic Caliphate (in the same way that pseudo-Euro fantasy often has a religion that is Christianity-in-all-but-name here we have an Islam). I think the Rasa might be Tibetan analogues but I don’t know enough about Tibet’s history to be sure.

The world, however, is not just a thinly veiled version of our own. It’s not just that magic works, the sky is also very different. What sky you see reflects the ruler of the land you’re in. When a regime changes so does the sky, when you cross a country’s borders the sky changes, Although there are mentions of this being over-ruled sometime by the ideology of the people (rather than their ruler) if it’s deep-seated enough. It’s not necessarily just a change in colour or something petty like that – the sun might rise in a different direction, or be much much brighter. And the night sky will also change. In the land ruled by the Khagan of Temur’s people you see a moon for every potential heir to the throne – as each is born a new moon is also born. As any of them die then their moon dies with them. Which means in the first part of the first book Temur is able to track the progress of the civil war even after he’s left for dead on the battlefield – by counting moons. And obviously so can the other side …

I’ve often read defences of the lack of women with agency in epic fantasy that boil down to “well, it’s a medieval world, women aren’t able to do anything in that sort of society”. And this series demonstrates very well just how much bollocks that is. The vast majority of the societies in the world of the Eternal Sky are patriarchal and the roles women are permitted to fulfil are limited and mostly decorative. In theory. But in practice the women in this story drive a lot of the plot along whether they act openly in their own interests or more indirectly. Even the slave-poetess who is literally inside a box for large chunks of the time she’s present in the story is not just sitting there waiting to be done to, she’s doing.

A criticism I’d make is that the antagonists are from the Islamic analogue culture, and that doesn’t sit well with me. I think I can see why it ended up like that – the whole set up is a sort of mirror of the standard Euro-fantasy with the Asian cultures occupying the role that Western cultures normally do. There’s even mentions in passing of exotic white skinned people from the West in the same way one might find mentions of exotic people from the East. And if you reflect around the centre then the Caliphate will end up playing the same role in both cases. I just don’t like that it plays into the current political demonisation of the Muslim world.

I thoroughly recommend the books (other than that one criticism) – I’ve talked about them all at once because I read them back to back and finished all three within four days, they were very engrossing 🙂 I think they’ll also reward re-reading, and there’s a lot of stuff I didn’t mention in this review about themes & patterns that might well be even clearer on a re-read.

The Hobbit: The Battle of the Five Armies (Film)

The third and final part of the film adaptation of The Hobbit was out over Christmas and we managed to get to the last 3D showing in Ipswich before it went 2D only. Normally I’m a fan of watching films in 3D where possible (not that I see many films …) but in this case I think I might rather’ve seen it in 2D. There were several scenes (including some right near the beginning) where the action seemed to be moving too fast for the projection to keep up – particularly apparent when there were close-up shots panning across lots of people rushing around. And some of the subtitles felt out of focus. So that was a shame. I’m not sure if that was Ipswich Cineworld being crap or a fault of the film itself though.

I’m not going to put a spoiler cut – I think it’s been out for long enough by the time I’m writing, and I suspect by the time this post goes live it won’t even be on at the cinema any more. So this is your warning not to read on if you want to avoid spoilers. The rest of this post is not so much a review but a collection of thoughts about the film.

I continue to think they’ve done a pretty good job with these adaptations. I suspect I might not be quite so in favour if I’d read the book more recently, or more often when I was a kid, but to me it feels like they have the overall plot that I remember plus a flavour of the Lord of the Rings films and so it works for me even when they’ve made changes. The most obvious change that even I notice are that there are some speaking parts for female characters. It’s a shame that Tauriel was mostly there to be the love interest, but at least she also got to kick ass 🙂 In fact there was a bit of a sub-theme of “never piss off an elfwoman” in this film, when you think about Tauriel & Galadriel’s scenes.

I really liked the way they portrayed Thorin’s slide into gold-sickness and madness, particularly the reusing of lines that Smaug had also used. And the way the other dwarves are so visibly caught between knowing he’s off his rocker, but still feeling loyalty and duty towards him as both King and friend. Also good were the few quieter moments where you felt like Bilbo might almost be able to talk him out of it – which means his epiphany about his behaviour later doesn’t come out of nowhere. All those scenes also showed how much Bilbo had changed – whilst he always had a moral compass, you can’t quite imagine the fussy, somewhat prissy hobbit we first met would put himself in danger like that for the sake of doing the right thing. I mean, he’d still’ve known what the right thing was but he’d’ve had some rationale for why someone else needed to do it.

I really liked the way they did the compare and contrast between the dwarves and the elves, I thought there was a real sense that despite their differences there are a lot of similarities between the two races. Like the two juxtaposed scenes of the leaders losing their mount and attacking the surrounding orcs, where there’s a lot of similarity except that Thranduil moves like he’s dancing and Dain headbutts his opponents. (I’d forgotten Billy Connolly was cast as Dain so that was an entertaining surprise.) The film also emphasises that their differences complement each other making them a good team if only either side would see it. Like when the orcs first attack and the dwarves form their shield wall and the elves come charging over to take the orcs by surprise.

I guess the elves/dwarves at loggerheads thing is part of a general theme running through all the films (and perhaps the books too, it’s been a while since I’ve read them): true evil works together towards the common goal (presumably because of coercion) but those who oppose it not. Free will means not everyone is going to choose to do the right thing, but it wouldn’t mean so much if it wasn’t something one had to choose? Not sure I’m articulating that well, but hopefully the idea comes across 🙂

On that sort of note – I saw pointed out elsewhere that one of the threads running through this film is people standing up to their (respected) leaders when they were doing the wrong thing. In stories it’s easy to show people as heroic by making them face off against “the bad guy doing the bad things”, but several of the moments of heroism here are someone going to someone they like and respect and saying “no, this time I think you’ve got it wrong” instead of giving them a pass because they’re normally right.

For the ending – I knew Thorin died from my memory of the book, but I wonder how many people who hadn’t read the book (recently enough) got faked out by the bit where the orc is under the ice? I’d forgotten Fili & Kili died though, so that took me by surprise. I felt a bit sorry for Fili – the other two got a proper death scene with at least one person mourning, Fili just gets chucked off the tower & forgotten.

Kinda sad there’s not going to be any more films (or at least I’m assuming that’s extremely unlikely!). But then again, there’s going to be new Star Wars films soon, so that probably fills in my “one film a year” slot 😉

“Crown of Renewal” Elizabeth Moon

Crown of Renewal is the fifth & final book in Elizabeth Moon’s Paladin’s Legacy series and so, as she says in her Author’s Note at the beginning, it’s really not an entry point if you haven’t read at least the four other books in this series (and preferably the other 5 in this world). I’ve got them all, and I’ve been looking forward to this instalment in the series since I read the fourth one last autumn (post). And as with that one I’ve read this through at a gallop (not quite in one sitting this time but only because I had other things to do). It’s a satisfying conclusion to this series, and also ties up some of the loose ends from the earlier two series.

To recap a little – these books are secondary world epic fantasy, set in a universe that owes a debt to the Tolkein-esque & D&D flavours of fantasy. There are elves, there are gnomes, there are dragons, there are paladins, and so on. But Moon has taken these archetypes and made them into something her own. I particularly like her gnomes – these are humanoid and live in stone & work with it. And they have a society based around a very strict Law. Moon has managed to make them feel very alien, and very much their own thing. The first series set in this world was the Deed of Paksenarrion, which followed the life of Paksenarrion from her early life as a sheep farmer’s daughter who signs up with a mercenary company, through to her becoming a Paladin of Gird. The next series was a duology set much earlier in this world’s history – about the human life of Gird before he became a sort of demi-god. This current five book series starts not long after the end of the Deed of Paksenarrion, and deals with the events that Paks set in motion – nothing is without consequences after all. Another thread of the story is about why there are such differences between Gird’s teachings and life as we see them in the duology about him, and in the “now” of Paksenarrion’s time. It’s not just a case of chinese whispers across the centuries, although there’s some of that too.

Moon’s antagonists tend to be less nuanced than her other characters – they are generally flat out evil. In some ways this is a weakness in her writing, but I also feel that she does it deliberately as part of portraying a comforting faith in humanity. Her non-antagonist characters (in particular the secondary characters) can be mistaken, misguided, irritating, wrong, and do bad things. But that doesn’t mean they’re bad people – where you step across the line is when you know something is wrong and then do it anyway. These books have a fairly black & white morality and a Good vs Evil struggle, but you don’t have to be perfect to be on the side of light you just have to be doing your best. Which is a comforting way of looking at the world. Even Moon’s paladins aren’t avatars of perfection, they have flaws and make missteps.

This is still one of my favourite worlds to read books in 🙂 It’s a shame this book means no more for a while (if ever) but it was good to get another 5 books series after I’d thought the story was over.

“Chronicles of the Black Company” Glen Cook

Chronicles of the Black Company is an omnibus edition of the first three novels in the Black Company series. I’ve seen these books recommended several times over the last few years and I’ve finally got round to reading them. This book is a secondary world fantasy, of a fairly medieval flavour, where magic exists. Our protagonist is Croaker, the medic and records keeper for the Black Company – a band of mercenaries that have existed for the last few hundred years. As we start the first book they are contracted to protect the ruler of and enforce law and order on a city. This rather less than satisfactory contract is coming to a close and they take on a new contract in a certain amount of haste – this turns out to be working for the Lady, as part of her army putting down a rebellion in her lands in the north.

The Lady is … not nice. In fact she’s on the evil side of the good/evil divide. Once long ago she, her husband (the Dominator) and their chosen/magically bound servants (the Taken) were imprisoned and buried by the forces of the White Rose. The Lady and the Taken were released (some time ago when the story starts) and now rule almost uncontested over the north. They’re not immortal, in that they can die if you stick a sword or an arrow in them, but they aren’t going to die of old age. The only “good” thing about their release, is that the Dominator is still bound … And this is who the Black Company has contracted with.

There is, of course, a prophecy. The White Rose will be reborn, and when the comet returns (as it does every 29 years) fortune will favour her, and presumably she can defeat the Lady and the Taken again. This is what the rebellion is all about – the rebels don’t know who or where the reborn White Rose is, but it’s the year of the comet and they are determined to find her and overthrow the Lady. But things aren’t that simple, this is not that sort of story.

This is a story where everything is shades of grey, the question is just how grey they are. The Dominator and the White Rose do represent the two ends of the spectrum – he’s pretty close to black, she’s pretty close to white. But for the people on the ground – Croaker and the rest of the Black Company, the inhabitants of the land they’re in, the rebels, even the Lady and the Taken – nothing’s black and white. The rebels are, frankly, as bad as the regime they’re fighting against – war’s a dirty business, civil war particularly so. It’s not really a war of pitched battles, either – skirmishes and ambushes and sieges instead. With all the messiness of civilians getting caught up in it too. The Black Company’s honour and pride is bound up in honouring their contract, and so having taken service with the Lady they must fight for her (tho later in these three books that does change). And the Lady herself isn’t wholly evil – through Croaker’s fascination with her we see glimpses of humanity, increasing through the three books. It’s never quite clear, however, how much of that is her manipulating him (and through him the others). She’s also not as bad as the Dominator – her marriage was not a love match, and as well as ruling the north and fighting the rebels she is also making sure that he doesn’t escape his bindings.

Croaker and the others aren’t particularly saint like, either. There are the occasional offhand references by Croaker to the Company troops being let off the leash for a bit of looting, pillaging and raping every now and then when they win a victory. The officers (like Croaker) will step in when it goes too far – they’re an honourable Company – but there’s a certain matter of factness about the brutalities of war. And they do work for the Lady for rather a long time – and it’s self-preservation that drives them over to the other side in the end. Most of the mercenaries probably have a past they’re escaping. We never find out what this is, for any of them, not even Croaker. The slate is wiped clean when you join. Pretty much everyone uses a nickname not their real name. Of course some of this is because the magic of this world has a concept of one’s true name carrying power, but that’s not the whole story.

The quote on the back of the edition I read is from Steven Erikson (who wrote the Malazan books) and he says (among other stuff) “[it’s] like reading Vietnam War fiction on peyote”. And it does feel very much like modern warfare – this is not a book about a glorious medievaloid battle of Good vs. Evil. This is a mundane and grubby war, where you hope you’re not on the wrong side even though you know you probably are. Where most of the people involved are doing their job – some of that job involves killing people, most of it is tedious and there are occasional moments of sheer terror. It’s epic fantasy as seen from the point of view of mid-ranking characters – not in charge, but a step above pawns. But it’s still an optimistic trilogy overall – there’s no happily-ever-after with Good reigning transcendent (and anyway, there are more books so the story isn’t over) but the arc is a positive arc. And even if our characters weren’t princes and lords they still had agency and could make a difference when it mattered enough.

There were other things I wanted to talk about (like how much I liked the various supporting characters) but I think I’ll wrap up here coz this post is long enough. I’m glad I finally got round to reading this – it was as good as I’d heard it was 🙂

“Mage’s Blood” David Hair

I’ve read a lot of fiction of varying qualities, and generally so long as it’s fun or interesting in some way I’ll overlook a lot of flaws. Sadly sometimes a work has a flaw that keeps popping up in your face and waving its arms around, shouting “Hey, remember me? Don’t you find me annoying? Yoooooohooooo! Over here!”. Mage’s Blood had one of those, and despite feeling that there was something there to appreciate in the story I couldn’t get past the clunky world building.

Mage’s Blood is technically a secondary world fantasy – set in a world that’s not our own, rather than our own world with some fantastical element added. Technically. But it’s full of things like these:

“Have you seen Ramon?”
“Nope. I imagine the Silacian sneak-thief is probably running his village familioso by now.”

I guess Silacian == Sicilian where the mafia come from, get it, get it, get it?? We are hit over the head with this several times, and Ramon even sprinkles Italian words & phrases through his speech … Or how about this:

The Rimoni men were clad in white shirts and black leggings; their hands rested on their knife hilts. The women, wrapped in shawls, were scowling in suspicion. […] the head of the gypsies, Mercellus di Regia,[…]

Well, what do you know, the Rimoni are gypsies, amazing what you can do with a few vowel shifts and a great big helping of stereotypes, isn’t it? The Rimoni also do double duty as the Romans – having had a large empire around a thousand years ago in this world’s past. And so the Rimoni also scatter Italian through their speech.

We’re also at the time of some great wars being fought at intervals between two continents – from the perspective of the cultures mentioned above (plus others on that continent) these are the … wait for it … Crusades. And how about the cultures on the other continent I hear you ask? Would it surprise you to find out that the people there look Arabic or Indian? And one group have a monotheistic religion, greet each other with the phrase “Sal’Ahm” and have a concept of holy war called “shihad” which they have declared against the crusaders – we’ve found our Muslims, I think. And another group wear sarees, have many gods (including Gann, sometimes referred to as Gann-Elephant in case we don’t figure out it’s Ganesha), and the author even says thanks in the acknowledgements to someone for her help with Bengali wedding rituals – I guess these are Bengali Hindus then!

Some stuff was original, but there was enough of this clumsy “oh if I just change the letters a bit no-one will notice” world building, and it was reiterated often enough, to yank me back out of the story over and over again. I wish he’d taken the time to come up with some less obvious equivalences and had the setting feel less like he’d picked a bunch of stereotyped ingredients from our world and mixed them in with his new stuff.

And it’s a shame, to be honest. There were things about the plot and characters that I did enjoy. For instance there’s a plot line with a young woman in an arranged marriage to an immortal mage – she was promised to someone else, but the mage offered unbelievable riches to her family. And her young lover follows to rescue her, and you just know it’s all going to end in tragedy of an almost Shakespearean sort especially as you see (and Hair makes you believe in) the growing affection between her and her husband. And I almost want to know what happens next, but I can’t see myself ever reading the rest of this planned quartet of books.

I’d assumed it was a debut novel, and perhaps one that should’ve been trunked and another one written using the lessons learnt writing this one. But I looked him up, and it seems this is not his first published work – he has a couple of series of YA fantasy novels set in our world. Which makes sense given what I think worked and what I think didn’t work about the book – the secondary world setting is one of the things he hasn’t done before. And sadly the stuff that worked just couldn’t keep me engrossed enough to ignore the clunkyness.

“King’s Dragon” Kate Elliott

King’s Dragon is the first book in Kate Elliott’s seven book Crown of Stars series. I’m pretty sure I read the first few a longish time ago (this one was first published in 97 so there’s a lot of scope for “longish” time here). And then I must’ve caught up with publication or something & lost track and never finished them. A mention somewhere (tor.com, perhaps?) reminded me that I vaguely remembered liking them so I should give the series another go. Glad I did, I really enjoyed this one – now I just have to decide if I’m going to buy them or get the rest from the library one by one.

(Please no spoilers for the rest of the series, I’m enjoying figuring this one out as it goes along.)

The world they’re set in is not ours nor is it a one-to-one analogue of ours, but it’s flavoured by English history – it partly reminds me of the Anarchy (the 12th Century English civil war), and partly of Anglo-Saxon England in the time of the Viking raids. There’s a religion that’s analogous to Christianity, with a saviour figure that died for mankind in some sense. A major difference is that instead of God the Father, there’s Our Lord and Our Lady – and the two have equal billing. This is extrapolated through the society, women have a much better place in this world than in the analogous medieval England. In particular women can be biscops (analogous to bishops) and perhaps that’s only women that can be, I’m not sure – the two we see most are. Women can also inherit titles & crowns in their own right with no questions about ability. They go to war as soldiers too. There’s even a respected (although not mainstream for the kingdom we’re in) strand of thinking that inheritance should pass solely down the female line because it ensures you know the heir is a true heir.

Inheritance to the throne is also interesting in that it requires fertility – when the monarch’s children get to adulthood one will be sent out on an heir’s progress for a year, and will only become heir if they get pregnant or get a woman pregnant during that year. The central political conflict in this book hinges on that – Sabella, the King’s sister, went out on her heir’s progress first but failed to become pregnant. Henry got a bastard son on his subsequent heir’s progress and has inherited the throne. Now Sabella is raising a rebellion against him (as she finally has a child). Another of the conflicts in the book also has this custom as its starting point – the King’s favourite child is his bastard son who proved his fertility, yet that son cannot inherit only the subsequent legitimate children can do that.

The characters whose eyes we see all this through aren’t the major players in the political dance. Instead one of the central characters is Alain, a bastard child destined for the church. He’s brought up in a village, by the man he believes to be his father, and while he yearns for adventure his path seems set. And over the course of the book it feels like it would’ve been a good path for him – there’s something a bit saintlike about him (although he’s also still a very realistic boy), he’s paid attention to the teachings of the church & tries his best to follow them, particularly where compassion is concerned. But he gets caught up in the chaos of both the rebellion, and the raids by the non-human Eika. Being a bastard child he seems set to be The Chosen One whose origins aren’t what they seem & one of the suggested “true stories” of his birth seems to be validated by events towards the end of the book. But I’m not sure that’s the true answer – it feels like Elliott is doing something more clever to play with the trope than that.

The other central character is Liath. Her father is a sorcerer – magic is real in this world, and perhaps forbidden by the church depending on which bit of the church you ask. Actually that’s something else I like about this story, “the church” is not a monolith – it has schisms & heresies & councils that decide on what’s orthodox & what’s not and so on. Anyway, Liath has been on the run with her father since early childhood after her mother died, and her story opens with her father’s death. Liath doesn’t have much coherent idea about who her parents are/were nor why they’re on the run – but clearly someone or something was after them. I felt a bit like her father should’ve told her more because he should’ve realised his death was a high risk, but the justification of protecting her through her ignorance does seem realistic. Liath is initially sold into slavery, as she can’t pay her father’s debts (well, it’s engineered so that this is the case). She’s another Chosen One archetype and again Elliott isn’t retreading the well worn path with this story – for instance when Liath meets a man who fits the mentor slot she doesn’t trust him because of what’s gone before. The Eagles, the branch of the King’s army/messengers that Liath & her friend Hanna join, feel like a more realistic version of Mercedes Lackey’s Heralds of Valdemar. No telepathic spirit horses, no special mind powers and most importantly no sudden spiritual healing and family-formation to make up for the abuses of the joiner’s childhood. But nonetheless there’s something reminiscent about them.

There’s a host of secondary characters as well, both male & female. All the characters in the book felt like people to me, but there’s some that stand out as a second tier of protagonists. There’s Hanna, Liath’s friend who also joins the Eagles. There’s Rosvita, a cleric who is perhaps an analogue of the Venerable Bede or Geoffrey of Monmouth – certainly now she’s in her old age she’s writing a history of the country. And there’s also Sanglant, bastard son of the King, whose origins we know are otherworldly from the prologue. That prologue also sets up an expectation that he & Alain and Liath are somehow in opposition – agents of different otherworldly factions. But so far the pawns don’t seem to be quite marching to their master’s tunes. Again I think Elliott is setting up the “standard” tropes of epic fantasy and then doing something much more interesting with them.

And now I really want to know where the story is going. Best decide on buy or borrow first though! 🙂

“A Memory of Light” Robert Jordan & Brandon Sanderson

The end of the Wheel of Time. Something I wasn’t quite sure would ever happen – not just because Robert Jordan died (although obviously that put a spanner in the works until they organised Brandon Sanderson to finish it off using Jordan’s notes), but also because the series seemed to get a bit out of control in the middle (books 8-10 in my opinion). But here it is, book 14 and The End. And Sanderson has done a bloody good job of writing 3 books by Robert Jordan (if that makes sense).

The first few paragraphs of this post are looking back over the series as a whole and are spoiler free, later there are massive spoilers for book 14 so read past the spoiler warning at your own risk.

The overall plot of the series is the quintessential epic fantasy plot – farmboy discovers he’s the chosen one who will save the world from evil. And Jordan takes that simple structure and makes something more complex and more real feeling out of it. For instance there are prophecies, as you’d expect, but some of them are wrong. Some of them are twisted by repetition through history into something that no longer resembles the truth, even tho they were true prophecy. Some of them are true, but not how you’d expect. Some of them are prophecies for the other side’s victory. None of them are intuitively obvious and true at first glance.

Another example is magic use – and obviously our farmboy is capable of using it and needs to use it, but the source of power for men is tainted by the evil he’s going to fight and will send him mad. And that doesn’t just have implications for him personally, it’s been like that for over three thousand years and the societies of the world are shaped by the knowledge that eventually a male channeller will go mad and will be capable of unleashing unspeakable destruction when he does.

Something Jordan does well is creating an actual world for this all to take place in. The area the action takes place in (the Westlands) is vaguely Renaissance Europe in culture – a patchwork of kingdoms and city states of various sizes, mostly but not all monarchies. All with superficially the same culture, but with differences. The various leaders bicker & posture & argue about relatively petty details – the world might be ending but it’s still politics as usual. It’s not even like most people believe the world is about to end until it gets pretty late on in the story. This area isn’t the whole world, either – there are other cultures like the Aiel (a desert warrior culture who regard wetlanders as weak) or the Seanchan who invade from over the sea because they believe themselves to be the true rulers of the Westlands due to descent from a colony sent out by a King who ruled a thousand years ago. And their prophecies back that up.

Having all these different cultures and factions within them means that nothing ever goes smoothly – even when everyone’s trying to communicate there are misunderstandings because of alien viewpoints. And just about everyone thinks that their place of origin does things right and everyone else is misguided at best and should be educated in the proper way of doing things, which obviously causes friction. Even within a culture people bring their own history and experience along with them, and their own blindspots. It feels real, even though (because?) it also occasionally makes you want to shake people and tell them to stop being so stupid. The Aes Sedai (the organised female magic users) in particular fall into this category – they are generally arrogantly sure they know exactly how things should be done and sometimes their manipulations just make things worse.

It’s not just the characters on the side of the Light who argue amongst themselves and find it hard to agree on a common goal let alone focus on it. The characters on the side of the Dark are even worse – as you’d expect, really. I think a large part of the characterisation of evil in the story is that it’s a desire for personal power. The characters of the Light might want power but those that do generally want to use it to do good or to shape society in a way they think will be good for people (although frequently the theory & practice of what is good don’t match up terribly well). But the major players on the side of the Dark, the Forsaken, want power to make their own lives better and revel in the idea that this is at the cost of other people’s lives & happiness.

It’s certainly not without it’s flaws. As I said above the story gets somewhat carried away with itself in the middle. Part of this is down to point-of-view creep. The series starts off with a few people whose eyes we see through, and gradually more & more are added as events take place in different places. If I was asked to name the primary characters of the series as a whole I’d list half a dozen immediately and then there’s another half a dozen or so to consider if they’re primary or not, and several more who’re definitely not primary characters but are still pretty important. And the net result feels like Jordan ended up with too many balls to juggle, and too many things he thought were too important to skip over. But in book 11 (the last one Jordan wrote) he pulls it back together and re-focuses the story, and from there on they feel big because there’s a lot of story rather than a lot of padding.

SPOILERS AHEAD! Hover mouse over text to read, or read on entry page:

I’m not kidding, if you haven’t read the whole series don’t read any further – there’s stuff that happens in book 14 that’s worth coming to unspoilt. The rest of this is going to be a bit more stream of consciousness reactions to the book itself.

I liked the way that the last battle both was & wasn’t important in terms of the actual conflict with the Dark One. I mean, really what was important was Rand & the Dark One outside the Pattern with their almost philosophical debate creating visions (proof-of-concept models) of the way the world would be afterwards. And then Rand managing to use the One Power & the True Power to remake the Pattern to seal in the Dark One rather than just patch it up. But if there had been no battle going on, then the Dark forces could’ve interrupted that conflict, so the battle had its purpose.

I was a bit confused by the body switch at the end, but I think from reading other commentary (in particular posts associated with Leigh Butler’s re-read of the whole series on tor.com) that I’ve mostly suffered from having not re-read everything just before reading this book as well as just reading this one too fast. Basically I think the mingling between Moridin & Rand was starting to happen already. Moridin is by this stage practically an avatar of the Dark One and he is killed as (or before?) the Dark One is sealed up, and Rand’s soul is pretty much in both bodies by that point. And his original body is more damaged, so that dies & he remains in Moridin’s body.

I liked how Rand pretty much becomes an avatar of the Creator in the conflict at the end, and that this stays in some ways once he is back in the Pattern. And it’s good that he “dies” as far as the general population is concerned, much more chance of him enjoying life – he’s done his bit, he should be able to retire in peace. Rather tough for people like his father though.

It was a bit of a surprise that Demandred really had been off somewhere on his “own” for the last 13 books, but once he appears to lead the Dark forces in the last battle I liked the way his desire not to play second fiddle to the Dragon again has warped his plans. I also liked the fact that he really is as badass as he thinks he is – Gawyn goes to duel him, and loses, Galad ditto. And then Lan, and Lan only wins by the one move Demandred wouldn’t’ve anticipated because Demandred wouldn’t conceive of winning a fight at the expense of one’s own life. (Well, Lan survives, but only barely.)

I spent a chunk of the first half of the book thinking “it’s all going awfully smoothly … this can’t be right”, but I still didn’t anticipate the generals being under a subtle Compulsion to just make lots of sub-optimal decisions. Now that was an insidious and sneaky plan. And in retrospect I can see the signs were there through the bit where I was wondering when the other shoe was going to drop.

One thing that the cast of hundreds turned out to be good for is that once the last battle got under way and people started dying they were people I cared about rather than just Footsoldier A or a high level view of Army A taking losses. In terms of main character death the body count isn’t all that large, but I thought those that happened were well done. After Gawyn dies I wasn’t too surprised that Egwene also died. And she went out in a blaze of glory, doing as much as she could without worrying about the price she would pay. And that just fits so well with her character & her story through the whole series. And you could see in the scenes with the treaty how Egwene & Rand between them were the centres of the forces & peoples on the side of the Light – balanced and needing to work together despite their differences. Which ties into one of the major themes of the series, after all, so it also seems fitting (from a story telling perspective) that as far as the world is concerned they both died saving the world.

I’m looking forward to re-reading this once I get to it in my giant re-read of all the fiction. And by then the paperback should be out so I’ll have my own copy not just a library book.