Review: The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson

7235533Title: The Way of Kings (The Stormlight Archives #1)

Author: Brandon Sanderson

Rating: 5 star

Publisher: Tor Books

Review:

Any fan of fantasy fiction is well acquainted with the name of Brandon Sanderson. Still in his thirties, he is already the author of several YA and adult fantasy novels and made a name for himself by writing the final three books of Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time series.

The first book in the Stormlight Archives, The Way of Kings, was written a few years ago and like most epic fantasy fiction, we’ve had to wait for a long period of time to read the second book. This is understandable given his commitments to finish The Wheel of Time.

There is always a danger in picking up book one of an epic fantasy series. George R.R. Martin has been at his Song and Ice and Fire series for a couple of decades and does not appear to have clear direction. Scott Lynch has battled medical issues and the third book in The Gentleman Bastard series has been postponed countless times.

With Brandon Sanderson, there is little danger of this happening. In his short career thus far, he has proven himself as an expert in the industry in three categories that will be the focus of my review: prolific writing, close third-person narratives, and magic systems.

Prolific Writing

Brandon Sanderson has been quite transparent about his writing process in the podcast, Writing Excuses. Together with Mary Robinette Kowal, Dan Wells, and Howard Taylor, Sanderson shares details from his outlining and revision process to the business side of things and the roles he assigns to his personal assistant. Where other fantasy authors are putting out a book every three years, Sanderson writes up to three books each year. And they are not short, either! The 1001 pages of The Way of Kings worked arm muscles that hadn’t been used in awhile.

Sanderson has also branched out into YA fiction, writing four Alcatraz novels and will be releasing the first in a new series this year. The quantity and breadth of writing is reminiscent of Orson Scott Card (a fellow Mormon and blurber on Sanderson’s covers). I would also maybe compare his quantity and breadth to Daniel Abraham, who is regularly releasing space opera, epic fantasy, urban fantasy, and even graphic novels.

Even though Sanderson is dabbling in several areas within the genre, I do expect The Stormlight Archive to be his magnum opus. It is expected to be a ten-volume body of work and I would be surprised if any of them are shy of the 1000 page mark. With other authors, I would approach this with trepidation. With Sanderson, I feel confident I am in good hands.

Close Third-Person Narrative

Not that long ago, books were typically written with an omniscient viewpoint. The reader was able to jump into one characters thoughts, then another. Frank Herbert’s Dune would be an example of this and it was so commonplace that the reader thought nothing of it.

The trend over the last couple of decades has been to write with a close third-person narrative. We see directly through the eyes of the viewpoint character and know there thoughts just as they do. Sanderson has perfected this art and in The Way of Kings, he makes clear delineations for when the viewpoint character shifts.

There are a number of viewpoint characters in the novel, but I will mention the three that make up a bulk of the first book:

Kaladin is a slave whose story is told in two timelines: the present and in a series of flashbacks telling his coming-of-age. In short, he is the son of a surgeon who joined the military with his brother and was later made a slave for refusing something that no other man would likely refuse. As a slave, he serves as a bridgeman, moving portable bridges in the midst of battle so that the troops can navigate the chasm-filled landscape. The bridgemen’s lives are worth little to highprince Sadeas and several men are killed by arrows in each run. Kaladin leads the men in technique and discipline, making his bridge crew more agile than some of the soldiers. His heroic acts, however, lead him to be seen as a threat by Sadeas.

Shallan Davar is a noble who has fallen out of grace. Her father has died and she has her eyes set on becoming Jasnah’s (King Elhokar’s sister) ward/tutor. While Shallan has a fascination with academia and shows a talent for art, her intentions are not scholarly and she intends on stealing the royal elite’s prized soulcaster.

Dalinar Kholin, like Sadeas, is a highprince and uncle to King Elhokar. He lives by a noble code, following a book known as The Way of Kings. Sadeas finds Dalinar’s methods ineffective, bringing conflict between the two throughout the novel. Dalinar also suffers from hallucinatory fits that could be a sign of him going crazy or a communication from the gods.

Magic Systems

What separates The Way of Kings from a series like Martin’s war-ridden A Song of Ice and Fire is the liberal use of magic. Of course, Sanderson is so enthralled with the concept of magic that one system is not sufficient.

To describe all of the elements of the magical system is premature in the first novel. One of the main forms comes from a source known as stormlight. The world in which the novel takes place suffers from frequent and violent storms that are strong enough to tear down houses and kill men if they are not properly protected. The storms bring stormlight, which is typically stored inside gems. These gems are used in constructing special armor known as shardplate that is quite resilient against bladed attacks. Only repeated strikes in the same area can wear the armor down.

Even more valuable than the shardplate is the shardblade — a magical sword that is so sharp that the user can barely feel it pass through solid matter (including rocks!). A shardbearer calls his sword out of the air like mist and if he lets go it disappears. The sword can only be taken if the shardbearer is killed. A shardblade is said to be more valuable than kingdoms, but it comes at a cost to the bearer of it. Not only are physical attributes (eye color) changed, but there seems to be an emotional change that draws or repels people who seek it.

For a few select people, stormlight can be harnessed from within themselves. This gives them great powers including surgebinding (defying gravity) and super-enhanced fighting prowess. A person with this power can jump from forty feet high and land safely or walk on walls.

Different from stormlight, there is another magic system known as soulcasting. This is a form of magic where one substance can be changed to another. Shallan believes that Jasnah uses her soulcaster to perform this magic.

Finally, Sanderson’s world has fairy-like spirits known as spren. There are many kinds of spren, appearing in response to human emotions (e.g. fearspren) or to physical changes in the world (windspren). They don’t typically speak to humans; however, one spren known as Syl becomes an acquaintance of Kaladin, forming a symbiotic relationship between the two.

Final Remarks

I will say that I enjoyed the novel for the first half of the book, but I didn’t love it until I got into the later parts. Large-scale epic fantasy requires so much character development and world-building that it often takes awhile to get into the groove. Writers such as Patrick Rothfuss and Scott Lynch grab me in the initial paragraphs with their poetic prose. Sanderson has high command of language and strong narrative voice, but his words are used to tell a story and make no attempt to be literary or elegant. This is not a criticism, but rather a description of his writing style.

I was somewhat reluctant to embark on this series, feeling somewhat lost with what to do with George R.R. Martin’s series that has lost its way in the last two volumes. It’s too late now, though — I’m caught hook, line, and sinker. The Way of Kings is a book I grew to love and I will be very eager to pick up the next volume in the series later this year.

Review: Red Seas Under Red Skies by Scott Lynch

887877Title: Red Seas Under Red Skies (Gentlemen Bastard #2)

Author: Scott Lynch

Rating: 5 star

Publisher: Bantam Spectra

Review:

Aarggh!

Don’t confuse my exclamation for a bad pirate imitation. Despite the novel’s swashbuckling theme, my utterance is for having finished a book on a cliff hanger with the sequel yet to be published.

Even though he has published only two novels, I can say without hesitation that Scott Lynch’s writing is something I treasure. He breaks many rules of writing — withholding information, letting side characters drive large parts of the action, and he introduces these ever-intriguing bondsmagi to his world and fails to enlighten us any further into their abilities and culture.

But there ends my complaining — Red Seas Under Red Skies, while not quite living up to the high bar that was set by The Lies of Locke Lamora, was a truly enjoyable read. Locke Lamora and his brawler buddy Jean return with new schemes planned. The story begins at the Sinspire, a popular casino with a supposedly impenetrable vault with a great sum of money that will put Locke and Jean back on the map. For two years, the gentlemen bastards pull sleights of hand and various tricks to build up a hoard of cash. Of course, nickel and diming (or is it Solari chit and silvering?) of suckers at the casino is too amateurish for two master thieves — they have a bigger plan at stake.

Per Locke’s usual method of engagement, nothing goes as planned and the two thieves find themselves sidetracked on the high seas, having to swindle a group of pirates to do their bidding. It doesn’t take long for them to be completely over their heads, trying desperately to stay alive and perhaps make some money in the process.

There are many things to love about this novel despite its inconsistencies. Ezri Delmastro and Zamira Drakasha serve as fearsome pirates that take Jean and Locke aboard when they are stranded aboard an oarless row boat. After risking their lives, Jean and Locke later earn Ezri and Zamira’s respect and a romantic interest later develops between Ezri and Jean. The interaction between Jean and Locke is as witty as ever, with snappy dialog and lurid descriptions of the world around.

Scott Lynch also has a talent for innovation, designing things such as playing cards that turn into a paste when in contact with alcohol, later hardening into a material harder than steel. The world and the buildings are so intricately crafted that one has the feeling that we are seeing but the tip of an iceberg when reading the novel. While I felt that Jean and Locke were often just along for the ride at parts, the novel was never dull or slow-moving. With most authors, I wouldn’t have faith that the protagonists knew what they were doing. With Locke and Jean, one can never doubt what tricks they have up their sleeves.

Red Seas Under Red Skies is not quite as good as the first novel, but is a stellar read nonetheless. The writing is fantastic and the characters are as likable and clever as ever. I eagerly await the third book in series.

Review: Story of Your Life by Ted Chiang

th_a0580aaeccec739569f2502c0aa86498_lightspeed_31_december_2012Title: Story of Your Life

Author: Ted Chiang

Rating: 5 star

Publisher: Lightspeed Magazine, December 2012 (originally published in the Starlight 2 anthology edited by Patrick Nielsen Hayden)

Review:

 

I am yet to read a Ted Chiang story I haven’t loved. I often long for him to be more prolific than the one novelette that finds its way into an anthology every two years, but perhaps it is his sparse writing that makes each story so special.

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I have read the various stories mostly from anthologies, not from his collection Stories of Your Life and Others, published by Tor in 2002. I don’t believe Ted Chiang is best read one story after the next, but rather one at a time to let the deep themes sink in deep.

The December 2012 issue of Lightspeed magazine featured one of Chiang’s greatest novellas, Story of Your Life, and I decided to give it another read. The premise of the story is that a young linguist by the name of Dr. Louise Banks is enlisted by the government to try and make sense of the language of an alien species, who have just made contact with Earth. The aliens are nothing like humans, being radially symmetrical with seven legs, a breathing hole on top of its body, and a mouth below.

The aliens communicate both orally and hieroglyphically, using a form of icons that cannot be read sequentially — only absorbed as an entire hole. The very first stroke of the first symbol interacts with everything else that the alien language is trying to communicate. The format of their language is crucial to the story because it aligns with how the heptapods view time as a whole.

From the beginning words of the novella, we learn that Louise has adapted to their language and as a consequence is able to foresee her future, experiencing marriage, divorce, the birth of a daughter, and her tragic and untimely death. Two parallel threads interweave throughout the narrative. The first being chronological as she tries to communicate with the heptapods; the second being somewhat, but not exclusively, told reverse-chronologically, speaking to her daughter in the future tense from death until life.

 

 

51Z0N8GB7EL._SL500_AA300_For anyone looking to introduce themselves to Ted Chiang, Story of Your Life is the perfect place to start. Time and fate versus free-will are concepts that are difficult to grasp and Ted Chiang explores them in such a fascinating way. He draws on Fermat’s principle of least time to explain how light itself defies the chronology of time and shows how we make the same decisions even if we know that our future will be filled with pain. This is a theme that is explored later by Chiang in another fantastic novella, The Merchant and the Alchemist’s Gate.

Even though Ted Chiang is yet to pen a novel and has but a dozen short stories to his name, he will go down as one of the great speculative fiction writers. Like Gene Wolfe, his writing is insightful and filled with puzzles. His grasp and application of metaphysical themes make each story a delight to read. If you haven’t read Story of Your Life, please go read it now.

 

 

(A short) Review of The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss

186074Title: The Name of the Wind (The Kingkiller Chronicle #1)

Author: Patrick Rothfuss

Rating: 5 star

Publisher: DAW

Format: Hardcover

Review:

There have already been thousands of reviews of The Name of the Wind and I am not sure how much new I have to add to the discussion, so I will be brief.

The novel tells of a struggling inn keeper named Kvothe who recounts his life to a scribe, known as The Chronicler. It is a coming-of-age story of a orphaned boy who dreams of entering the university to be educated in the ways of magic. The Name of the Wind is filled with fantasy, adventure, death, and even a bit of clumsy love, written with a poetic prose that makes each page a delight to read.

Probably the biggest criticism of the novel is that Kvothe is an unlikable character. He is conceited and recognizes himself as more than brilliant. This pride does not come without consequence and Kvothe often finds his way into trouble because of his over-confidence. His abilities have left him with enemies within the university, giving his primary fault true consequences. Kvothe rarely dwells on his self-aggrandizing, instead fully focused on the task at hand.

While the plot is not entirely unique (Harry Potter instantly comes to mind and other novels before that), The Name of the Wind is a true joy to read. It is very traditional in the form of epic fantasy, but sets itself apart with the superb writing and compelling world that Rothfuss has formed.

Review: The Stranded (Wool #5) by Hugh Howey


13425846Title: 
The Stranded (Wool#5)

Author: Hugh Howey

Rating: 5 star

Publisher: Broad Reach

Format: Electronic (Kindle)

Silo eighteen is at war. The mechanics have retreated to the lower depths of the silo and the mayor is willing to use lethal force to spare the few. He has entrusted Lukas with all of the secrets of the silo and expects him to execute the silo’s protocol regardless of the consequence.

Juliette, our fearless heroine, has found that she is not alone in neighboring silo seventeen. The lower levels are flooded and there is danger in her midst. Against impossible odds, she must save silo seventeen, stop the war in silo eighteen, and stay alive in the process. Meanwhile, her love interest, Lukas, must ultimately decide where his loyalties lie.

The Stranded was the perfect conclusion to the series. There were many unexpected twists and the action was packed onto every page. We learn so much in this volume — how deep the silos go, how many there are, and why they were designed in the first place. Howey has constructed an interesting world that was not at all like I suspected — one that leaves continual mysteries, even after the series is completed. More answers will likely be told in the prequel trilogy (Wool 6-8), but enough information has been shared to paint a complete picture.

I particularly like the way Howey is able to build the action up and resolve minor conflicts without it being a diversion to the overall story arc. Juliette has many tasks that all contribute to her welfare — draining silo seventeen’s flood, investigating an attack, and resolving the conflict in silo 18. She is abused by what befalls her, but she is tough and each time methodically pieces through her dilemmas. She needs no punk rock hairdo or martial arts expertise to be a cool heroine and is able to fulfill her role by her character alone. This is refreshing for genre fiction, where female protagonists are often devolved into mannish behavior and a gritty disposition.

Wool has been a delight to read and I will most definitely be continuing the series with the next installments. The first volume is free and I would recommend this series to anyone looking for a great adventure.

Review: Swan Song by Robert McCammon

11557Title: Swan Song

Author: Robert McCammon

Rating: 5 star

Publisher: Gallery Books

Format: Trade Paperback

I was first introduced to the writing of Robert McCammon a few years ago. His novel, Boy’s Life, came highly recommended . I thoroughly enjoyed the coming-of-age story and have been meaning to pick up another McCammon novel for quite some time.

Swan Song is the second novel by McCammon that I’ve read. It is often compared to Stephen King’s The Stand, both being post-apocalyptic epics that feature survivors in grand battles of good versus evil. Both novels take care to have characters from diverse walks-of-life and feature a supernatural element that provides a path for good to conquer evil. Despite their similarities, Swan Song is far from a derivative of the more popular novel, The Stand. How could it be? It was published in 1987, three years before King’s tome. [factual error: see comments]

Swan Song takes place in a very near future after the United States and the Soviet Union engage in a devastating nuclear war. Every major city, military base, and even rural areas of the US are destroyed, leaving the country in a radiation-filled nuclear winter.

There are several thousands of survivors (though likely not millions) and there is a mass hoarding of gas and food with the country’s entire infrastructure torn to threads. There is no electricity and many of the survivors begin to die from radiation poisoning. Those left, while not immune to the radiation, have a higher tolerance and some begin to exhibit sores on their faces that grow into a hideous cocoon that becomes known as “Job’s mask.”

A homeless woman named Sister survives the nuclear holocaust and while scavenging for goods, comes across a glass crown (ring) with spikes resembling those on the Statue of Liberty. It illuminates with her touch and she begins to see visions through the power of her artifact.

The girl she sees visions of is named Swan and Sister believes she is the key to the country’s survival. Swan survives the attacks in the company of a large pro wrestler named Josh. Commonly known as “Black Frankenstein,” Josh is a giant, but loving man and is told through a corpse to protect the girl. He travels with Swan across the country to find a new start at life. It doesn’t take Josh long to realize that Swan has very special powers.

There are also those who seek to stop peace — Colonel Macklin, a Viet Nam vet who heads up an army to gain control of the country by force. Roland Croninger serves as his hand, a brilliant young mind that is even more conniving than his maniacal leader. Then there’s Lord Alvin, a crazy, but intelligent villain who later joins forces with Macklin. But the biggest threat to the survivors isn’t any of these men. It’s a man with no name. In fact, he isn’t even a man at all.

I wasn’t certain how I was going to review Swan Song. There is a part of me that was very frustrated with the novel. In The Stand, the survivors are truly immune to the epidemic that strikes the country, but not so with Swan Song. It is snowing in August and several people don’t even have gloves. They are eating the radioactive snow and dying due to the nuclear fallout. Why aren’t people hiding out in silos or multi-level basements like in Hugh Howey’s Wool? Or why aren’t they traveling toward the equator for warmth and to escape the radiation like in Cormac McCarthy’s The Road? It makes no sense that people would be randomly roaming the country east and west when it is a well-known fact that they are contaminating themselves.

But I put all of that aside, because McCammon has done a magnificent job of creating rich characters that intertwine in wonderful ways. Like Frodo of Lord of the Rings, Sister has an object that she must protect from the hand of evil. Her mission is not to destroy the ring, but to bring it to Swan, who in many ways resembles a messianic character. The spikes on the ring are like a crown of thorns and Swan brings life to the landscape like a root out of dry ground. She is a healer and ultimately the fate of humanity rests on her shoulders.

The biblical imagery runs deep in this novel. It is not a Christian novel, but rather focuses on the age-old theme of good versus evil. Swan, who bears gifts that require responsibility, does not desire to be a leader. Others, such as Macklin and Lord Alvin are maimed (physically and mentally), but covet the highest power. They want to be worshipped like gods.

Swan Song is a great story that builds upon a classic theme. The characters are likable and the story always kept me wanting to read more. Post-apocalyptic fiction has been done many times before, but this is definitely one of the better ones and while somewhat dated, the heart of the story remains timeless.

Review of Casting Off (Wool #3) by Hugh Howey

Wool3Title: Casting Off (Wool#3)

Author: Hugh Howey

Rating: 5 star

Publisher: Broad Reach

Format: Electronic (Kindle)

(Note: minor spoilers below)

The self-published serial sensation continues in the third book with a new sheriff in town. Juliette has been recruited from the depths of the silo to serve as sheriff of the subterranean city. Before she can become acclimated to her new role, she finds herself on the case of investigating the death of Mayor Marnes. She also becomes intrigued with the previous sheriff’s decision to step outside of the silo, bringing certain death due to the toxic wasteland that occupies the outer world.

In the midst of her investigation, Marnes’s deputy commits suicide, apparently over a broken heart from his friend’s (lover’s?) assassination. But there seems something is afoul. There’s a conspiracy brewing in the IT department and it has something to do with an 8×2 inch viewing screen. Can Juliette uphold the law and get to the bottom of this conspiracy or will she suffer the same fate as the Mayor, the deputy, or the previous sheriff?

After a slight letdown of the second Wool book, Casting Off comes back with a fantastic episode. I am really not aware of anything else like this series in fiction. It is different from a television series of episodes in that no character’s life is safe. Already we have the three main characters from the first Wool book killed off. Moderate time spans occur through each of these novellas, giving the reader a fast-moving plot with a sense of wonder and uniqueness.

The third book was good in many respects. It dug deeper into the broad conspiracy taking place in Silo 18, it brought emotion and a little romance to the underground dwelling, and ultimately left the reader with a new understanding of who is in control in the vast political network in this post-apocalyptic dystopia.

Juliette’s character was portrayed very well and I loved the moment where she was able to share a moment with an amateur astronomer as they looked up through the toxic cloud sky and spot a lone star shimmering. It was symbolic in terms of hope that people could form new relationships again after a devastating disaster and that perhaps, one day, the air would clear and they could lie beneath a cloudless sky and gaze out at the expanse of stars.

Hugh Howey pulled off another great book in the series and like many other readers, he has me completely hooked.

Review: Wool, #1 by Hugh Howey

Wool1Title: Wool, #1

Author: Hugh Howey

Rating: 

Publisher: Broad Reach

Format: Electronic (Kindle)

I am late to the game in discovering Hugh Howey’s Wool series. The premise is that in a post-apocalyptic future, citizens live in a silo that extends many levels below the earth. Their only interaction with the outside world is through a camera that overlooks the decayed landscape.

The first volume is the shortest, with a word count that categorizes it as a novelette (~12k words). The story is straight-forward. Holston, the sheriff of the underground city, spends years watching criminals and willful participants climb the grated steel steps to the outside world. Their death sentence serves an even higher motive than justice — to clean the dust and grime off of the camera lens before succumbing to the toxic air.

Holston cringes when his wife, Allison, utters the binding and fateful words, “I want to go outside.” It’s not a passing thought to make such a statement, but a legal contract of sorts, and her utterance places her in the queue to die, cleaning the camera lens. As Holston argues with her, he learns that she has become absolutely convinced that their worldview is a farce — that the outside world is no longer toxic and that a march up the fateful steps is actually a march to freedom. She has evidence to prove it and is convinced she will see Holston there one day. Three years after her death (escape?) is where this story takes place and Holston contemplates climbing these steps, not knowing what result it will bring.

This story (and the following series) has gotten glowing reviews. I will say that they are justified — to a point. What you shouldn’t expect with Wool is a literary masterpiece or a story that transcends the current trend of dystopian fiction. In many ways this is just another post-apocalyptic novel. What you get in the first volume is a gripping narrative that hooks the reader from beginning to end. Each word and each page are devoured to answer one question — is the outside world deadly or not? There are a few characters that we begin to learn and appreciate, some of which continue into the subsequent series.

The title of the series, for which there is no better name, is taken from steel wool, which is used by the criminals in their penetrable HAZMAT suits to clean the lens. The first story is really just a hook for the following books in the series. It answers one big question, but leaves many more remaining. It is a good story in its own right and accomplished with me just what it is intended to do — get the reader to go buy additional books (#1-5 are collected in an omnibus edition). It took me less than a minute to do so.

For those who enjoy dystopian fiction or have a curiosity for the psychology and political interaction of people when they are thrown into desperate situations, this is the book for you. Hey, the first book is free, so give it a shot. But I must warn you — you likely won’t stop there.

Review: The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle by Haruki Murakami

Title: The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle

Author: Haruki Murakami

Rating: 

Publisher: Knopf

Format: Trade Paperback

Toru Okada, by most standards, is a bum. He has forsaken his legal career to be a stay-at-home husband while his wife, Kumiko, serves as the breadwinner. With no job prospects, Kumiko gives her husband the task of tracking down their missing cat.

A forsaken career and missing pet are the least of Toru’s problems. Despite his wife’s assurances, their marriage is failing and she begins to work long hours, leaving Toru with idle time to dwell in his thoughts. Upon Kumiko’s encouragement, he enlists two sister psychics to help find the missing cat. Their abilities transcend their normal occupation and they visit Toru in his dreams as well as in real life. In addition, a mysterious woman begins to call him on the phone, neglecting to identify herself, but seems to have intimate knowledge of Toru. Then there is May Kasahara, a teenage neighbor, who has a profound interest in death.

Soon, Toru finds that Kumiko has gone missing, presumably with another man, but the facts don’t add up. Kumiko’s brother, a politician whose stardom seems rooted in the occult, warns Toru to lay off. He sees Toru as a deadbeat husband with rocks in his head and is adamant that Kumiko has no desire to see him again.

Toru refuses to give up on his quest for Kumiko and finds himself in a strange hotel room and for many days at the bottom of a well. Just as the psychics meet Toru in reality and in his dreams, Toru seems to have the ability to transcend into another plane of existence. By traveling through the well, Toru escapes to a surreal world that bears resemblance to the physical world from which he came, but is in many ways different. It is here that Toru hopes to find his missing wife.

The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle is a tremendous achievement, rich in character and complete with the hyperbolic world both Toru and Kumiko occupy. When Kumiko disappeared, I saw this book as being the antithesis of John Updike’s Rabbit, Run. Instead of following the antihero, Rabbit Angstrom, who decidedly leaves his family on a wayward journey, we follow Toru, the remnant that remains, uncertain of what has happened. But unlike Rabbit’s wife, who finds her solace in alcohol, Toru searches to restore his family. Even when all of the facts suggest that their marriage is not repairable, Toru continues on, unafraid of death or the reality which he might encounter.

Perhaps the biggest fault of the novel lies in its stream-of-consciousness nature. The premise is simple, but the plot is scattered. There were times in the middle where I felt the story became bogged down and without direction, but my frustration soon subsided as familiar threads began to come together.

Not having read a lot of Murakami, I cannot say what novel the reader should begin with. Having read it, I can say that I am eager to read more (I am currently halfway through 1Q84). Despite the looseness of the narrative, the characters and surreal depiction of the human condition struck a chord with me. It is an intelligent read with enough puzzles to keep the reader guessing.

Review: The Hammer and the Blade by Paul S. Kemp

Title: The Hammer and the Blade

Author: Paul S. Kemp

Rating:

Publisher: Angry Robot

Format: Kindle eBook

Review:

I must admit my shallow reasons for first turning to this book. After listening to Mr. Kemp on The Functional Nerds, I learned that like me, he is a father of twins and is also a fellow Michigander. Additionally he is the author of three Star Wars novels (none of which I have read, but consider myself a closet fan). Bearing these facts in mind, I decided to give his new series a chance.

The Hammer and the Blade is a novel about two thieves, Egil and Nix. Nix is the leader of the two, a witty, smart-assed treasure hunter with questionable skills in sorcery. Egil is the priest to a dead god with unquestionable skills using his twin hammers. Each knows the other like a brother and they play off of each other’s talents as they invade booby-trapped tombs to collect their prizes.

The novel starts out in similar fashion to Raiders of the Lost Ark. The two men are in a tomb, heavily guarded with enchantments. With strength and magic, they are able to overcome a pool of acid and an attack by a ferocious demon. With their treasure in hand, they return home to a run-down tavern they had recently purchased, contemplating their retirement from the grave-robbing business. But it seems that the demon they killed had made a pact with the House of Norristru. Rakon, the House’s male heir, reacts to the news by forcibly employing the two thieves to rob a hidden tomb with greater dangers than they have ever faced.

If I were to describe my reaction to the novel with one word, it would be “fun.” It is not a particularly complex novel and it makes no claims to try and be serious literature. It is a traditional Sword and Sorcery tale with smart writing, good humor (on occasion I laughed out loud), interesting characters, and great action. There are no prevailing themes or obscure references to ponder upon after reading the book, but it was a true pleasure to read.

Nix’s character is an archetype seen often in fantasy literature. His confidence overflows the brim of his talents and when facing death, he often resorts to chiding his enemy. One particularly humorous moment occurred around a campfire when one of the “doltish” guards asked Nix to tell a story of one of his past adventures. Nix, not wanting to make small talk with a man holding him prisoner, responded,

Once, Egil and I were forced to travel the Demon Wastes with some guards of a doltish cast. One of these, a young whoreson who couldn’t grow a respectable beard, insisted on hearing stories from me. I strangled him while he slept.

Nix is a jack-of-all trades, using his mind, his blade, and a little magic to get them out of the hairiest of situations. In the thieving profession, having a broad blend of talents is a prerequisite.

Egil, on the other hand, is more contemplative and peaceable in his dealings with their enemies. He is the stronger and more intimidating of the two (I know if I crossed a burly priest with the tattoo of an eye on his forehead, I’d be scared), but is also a sort of moral compass, alerting Nix when they are straying too far off the beaten path. He provides unconditional loyalty to both Nix and often to strangers, even when it is to his own detriment. Egil’s physical prowess is his greatest attribute. When facing enemies, he is merciless with his hammers and can fight off multiple foes at a time.

The strength of the novel is in the richness of these two characters. In contrast, I longed for more depth in the antagonists. I never truly came to grips with Rakon’s motivations and his two sorceress sisters remain a mystery (perhaps with more to follow in subsequent books?). The sisters were drugged throughout much of the novel, but we were given hints about their telepathic and coercive powers.

Despite my quibbles, The Hammer and the Blade reminded me once again why I enjoy reading fantasy — it is pure, escapist fun. Even though the novel was not particularly deep, it was far from shallow and the writing was excellent. For anyone looking for a fast-paced adventure with a little of magic and mayhem, this is the novel for you.