Review of The Providence of Fire by Brian Staveley

March 6, 2015 by · Leave a Comment
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SFFaudio Review
The Providence of Fire by Brian StaveleyThe Providence of Fire (Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne #2)
By Brian Staveley; Narrated by Simon Vance
Publisher: Brilliance Audio
Publication Date: 13 January 2015
[UNABRIDGED] – 23 hours, 37 minutes

Themes: / fantasy / brothers / monks / assassins / barbarian hordes /

Publisher summary:

Brian Staveley’s The Providence of Fire, the second novel in the Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne, a gripping new epic fantasy series in the tradition of Brandon Sanderson and George R. R. Martin The conspiracy to destroy the ruling family of the Annurian Empire is far from over. Having learned the identity of her father’s assassin, Adare flees the Dawn Palace in search of allies to challenge the coup against her family. Few trust her, but when she is believed to be touched by Intarra, patron goddess of the empire, the people rally to help her retake the capital city. As armies prepare to clash, the threat of invasion from barbarian hordes compels the rival forces to unite against their common enemy. Unknown to Adare, her brother Valyn, renegade member of the empire’s most elite fighting force, has allied with the invading nomads. The terrible choices each of them has made may make war between them inevitable. Between Valyn and Adare is their brother Kaden, rightful heir to the Unhewn Throne, who has infiltrated the Annurian capital with the help of two strange companions. The knowledge they possess of the secret history that shapes these events could save Annur or destroy it.

I gave this book the same rating as The Emperor’s Blades, and I think in many ways it’s better. But I also had higher expectations coming in. I had none for the first book, and found myself pleasantly surprised. So I was looking forward to this.

This book started off slow. With how the last one ended, I guess I was sort of expecting the book to hit the ground running. The last book is largely the “magic school” trope, although there isn’t a whole lot of magic. But there is rigorous training and rivalries and the like. And some of the characters can do magic.

Maybe my love of that trope, or the fact that they were “in training” made me less aware of just how STUPID The Emperor’s kids are. There was no hiding that here. I’m not a big fan of the super smart, super capable protagonist who can’t seem to do any wrong, but I hate the “I’m going to pull a plan out of my ass and somehow things will work out mostly right in the end” protagonist even worse. It would d be bad enough if only one of them did, but all three of them did, and continued to do it. They didn’t learn from their mistakes. They didn’t really seem to grow as characters. They just kept being idiots. And selfish. It got pretty frustrating.

So why did I give this 4 stars? Well two reasons mainly. One the story is interesting. The world building Mr. Staveley does in this book is especially intriguing. The pieces he put in place in this novel look to make for a really interesting third (and final?) book in this series.

Secondly he has some great supporting characters. Some are returning from the first novel, and some are new. In particular I really enjoyed the POV chapters from a former supporting character who was given a chance to shine. They were easily my favorite chapters in the book. I only wish they had started sooner. Maybe even in the last book, but it wouldn’t have made too much sense, so I understand the reasoning.

Overall this book is better, but with higher expectations, I found myself a bit disappointed at the same time. But I’m looking forward to the next book. I think for a middle book there is a lot to like. Hopefully the Emperor’s kids will get a clue by then.

As a narrator, Simon Vance is excellent as always. He was one of the main reasons I decided to try out The Emperor’s Blades. His performance is such that this series remains a must audio for me, even if it means waiting a bit longer to get my hands on the next book.

Review by Rob Zak.

Review of Marshall versus the Assassins by M. Harold Page

August 19, 2014 by · Leave a Comment
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SFFaudio Review

Marshal vs. the Assassins by M. Harold PageMarshal versus the Assassins (A Foreworld SideQuest)
By M. Harold Page; Performed by Simon Vance
Publisher: Brilliance Audio
Publication Date: December 2013
[UNABRIDGED] – 3 hours, 13 minutes

Themes: / Foreworld / Mongoliad / crusades / fantasy / assassins /

Publisher summary:

Sir William the Marshal, legend in his own time, has promised to go on crusade, a vow made to his Young King as he lay dying. But when the Oliphant, legendary war horn of Roland, is stolen by the lethal Assassins, he’s charged with returning the relic in order to stop the very thing he’d vowed to undertake—a crusade; this one engineered by the thieves. With his small band of trusted companions—Sir Baldwin, his tourney compatriot; Eustace, his squire; and Henrik, the giant Norseman—William sets out to take back the relic. But treachery abounds, and when William loses two of his companions, he discovers an unlikely ally—Da’ud, an Assassin himself, bent on taking the Oliphant from the heretic faction that has stolen it. The three fight their way across land, sea, and desert, only to find themselves facing an army…and the Oliphant within their grasp.

This is another book in the Foreworld Sidequest world, another story based on the a real-life character in a real-life time. This time, the character is William the Marshal, a knight who served Henry the Young King. The story grounds itself it William’s time with Henry the Young King, about a relic that Henry earned and William’s promise to Henry on Henry’s deathbed. William promised he would lead a crusade, though while trying to gather the funds to do so, the Oliphant (a supposed relic from the time of Charlemagne) that was buried with Henry is stolen by assassins. The Knights Brethren charge William with its recovery, declaring that failure to do so would give rise to a new crusade.

The self-contained story finds William set out on this task, coming across new crosses and double-crosses and creating alliances with some of the most unlikely characters. The tale was entertaining with many fight scenes–indeed, it seemed that William travelled primarily from scuffle to scuffle and had some semi-mystic power to not only survive but survive victoriously in each skirmish. To be fair, in such a short story, it can be difficult to keep track of motives and characters, and sometimes this was the case here, but in general, it was a short and fun story.

Simon Vance narrated this story, another diversion from series regular Luke Daniels. As usual, Vance’s work was not only fantastic, but with his English accent, it felt like he “belonged” in the world. Unlike other stories, this one didn’t reference characters or places mentioned in other books/stories, minimizing the chance for confusion with pronunciation differences. This makes the story more “stand-alone” but may also be frustrating for those hoping for more stories from well-known characters. Regardless, it was an entertaining way to spend a lazy weekend afternoon.

Posted by terpkristin.

Review of Grave Mercy by Robin LaFevers

May 15, 2014 by · 1 Comment
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SFFaudio Review

Cover Art for Grave MercyGrave Mercy
by Robin LaFevers; Read by Erin Moon
Publisher: Recorded Books
Publication Date: 3 April 2012
[UNABRIDGED] – 14 hours 14 minutes
Themes: / historical fiction / assassins / medieval / politics / young adult

Ismae, our protagonist, is a teenage nun assassin in fifteenth-century Brittany. That descriptor alone, issued by a guest on NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast, was enough to hook my attention and reel me into listening to this book. The term “nun assassin” alone, evoking a strong sense of cognitive dissonance, is rife with narrative potential. Mix in some fantastic elements of ancient gods  masquerading as saints and set the whole thing against a late medieval backdrop, and you would seem to have all the ingredients for an entertaining, emotional, and perhaps even thought-provoking novel. Unfortunately, Robin LaFevers’s young adult novel Grave Mercy falls short in almost every regard.

The novel opens with great promise. Ismae finds herself rescued inexplicably from an arranged marriage and whisked away to the convent of Saint Mortain, who, in LaFevers’s universe, is the ancient Britonic god of death who lives on in the guise of a Catholic saint. She quickly gains acceptance as one of Mortain’s servants and begins her training as an assassin. We meet several of her Sisters in training, who show immense promise as complex, complicated characters. Ismae immediately shows promise in the deadly arts, especially in the brewing of poisons. The stage is set for a Potteresque term of training, comeraderie, and schoolyard intrigue. I very much wanted to read that book.

Unfortunately, we are soon whisked three years into the future just as Ismae receives her first assignment as a full-fledged assassin. Easily dispatching her first victim, she then undertakes a much more difficult assignment at the behest of the Abbess. This task throws her smack-dab in the middle of Brittany’s courtly circle, where the young Duchess struggles to fend off both French invaders and equally persistent suitors. Under the pretense of serving as mistress to Duval, the Duchess’s bastard brother, Ismae must try to sort out the tangled web of politics and allegiances.

Wait, what? Where’s my Bildungsroman? I was looking forward to a classic coming-of-age story, but instead find myself listening to a book of court intrigue. There’s nothing inherently wrong with court intrigue, of course, except that most of the members of court in Grave Mercy are utterly forgettable, and those who do show a spark of personality don’t receive much stage time. There are no Lannisters or Starks here. Characters from the novel’s tantalizing early chapters hardly receive a second mention. The plot simply doesn’t hold together.

My second complaint is more subjective: the novel just isn’t rooted enough in fantasy. Mortain, the ancient god of death who marks his targets for the sisters of the convent, is potentially a fantastic character, or at least a useful construct, but sadly we learn about him and him only indirectly. Had we been treated to more time at the convent, we might have learned more of his mysterious ways. The novel also hints that other old gods also live in LaFevers’s Brittany, and presumably the remaining novels in the His Fair Assassin series shed more light on their nature. This volume, however, resembles historical fiction more than fantasy.

Despite its medieval setting, there isn’t much in the writing and themes that bear much resemblance to the writing or thought of the Middle Ages. The prose, while capable and at times even captivating, feels thoroughly modern in its tone and diction. The characters converse in a colloquial style that feels sterile and devoid of even the veneer of medieval cultures that most authors apply when setting stories in this time period. Ismae is an empowered young woman of the 21st-century variety, and the undertones of trauma and survival also have a modern ring to them. LaFevers is writing for a young adult audience, which in theory should make these choices easier to swallow. I grew up reading authors like Tolkien and Kipling and even Shakespeare, though, so I don’t buy into the assumption that fiction should be diluted for young readers. I’m not saying that this was necessarily LaFevers’s explicit intension, but rather that the current YA culture subconsciously encourages these trends. The genre’s very existence, to some extent, proves my point.

Erin Moon’s mellifluous narration makes Grave Mercy a pleasant listening experience even if the story itself is uneven. She captures Ismae’s quavering sense of vulnerability, and gives distinct voices to the other characters, at least to the extent the writing allows. Her pronunciation of French place-names, with one or two minor exceptions, is pretty much spot-on. Nothing ruins an otherwise-perfect audiobook like even a few pesky mispronunciations. So even though I wasn’t always captivated by the story, Moon’s performance kept me listening to the end.

As I look back, I’ve tried reading several assassin-themed fantasy novels: Robin Hobb’s Assassin’s Apprentice, Brent Weeks’s The Way of Shadows, and Maria V. Snyder’s Poison Study. This is the first one I’ve actually finished. Assassins should make for compelling, dynamic characters spinning taut webs of dramatic tension. But for some reason they have always fallen short in this reader’s estimation. Maybe my subconscious finds them somehow inherently distasteful, or maybe the kinds of stories they find themselves in just aren’t to my liking. Take that into consideration in my review. If you like assassin stories, you’ll probably find much to enjoy about Grave Mercy.

Posted by Seth Wilson

Review of A Discourse in Steel by Paul S. Kemp

September 22, 2013 by · Leave a Comment
Filed under: Reviews 

SFFaudio Review

discourseA Discourse in Steel (Egil and Nix #2)
By Paul S. Kemp; Read by Nick Podehl
Publisher: Angry Robot on Brilliance Audio
ISBN: 978-1469271750
[UNABRIDGED] 9 CDs

Themes: / buddy sword and sorcery / assassins /

Publisher summary:

Egil and Nix have retired, as they always said they would. No, really – they have! No more sword- and hammer-play for them! But when two recent acquaintances come calling for help, our hapless heroes find themselves up against the might of the entire Thieves Guild. And when kidnapping the leader of the most powerful guild in the land seems like the best course of action, you know you’re in over your head.

When I read The Hammer and the Blade, the first Egil and Nix book, I had a good time with this buddy-sword-and-sorcery (is that redundant?). The characters were entertaining if a bit melodramatic, the action spot-on, and the writing professionally done.

A Discourse in Steel exceeds The Hammer and the Blade on just about every level (probably even the melodrama). I thoroughly enjoyed Discourse and a lot of that could be because I’ve gotten to know the characters that much more.

First, you have to know that A Discourse in Steel is more a second Egil and Nix book than a sequel. Yes, it follows the The Hammer and the Blade in both publication and timeline, but the events in Discourse are self-contained just like those in Hammer. In fact, you don’t need to know anything to jump into this book.

Egil and Nix are just a great pair. I enjoyed them in the first book, but found their relationship and the events a bit cliche at times. Here, I’m convinced they’re cliche and melodramatic, but it’s such a good combination with tons of heart that you can’t help but be won over. I mean, look at this exchange:

“Graduates of the conclave are bungholes,” Nix said absently, and rifled his satchel. He quickly found the tallow sticks and the scribing wand and pulled them out. He also anticipated Egil’s jest and cut it off. “I didn’t graduate priest, as you know.”

“Possibly still a bunghole though.”

“Conceded.” Nix said, with a tilt of his head.

I had to pull over and write that one down. This also means any mistakes are mine although I’m sure I got all the words right.

In Discourse, Egil and Nix are up against an entire guild … and the guild is the one that should be worried. In the first book, they were so powerless, it was a bit frustrating even though it worked for an interesting plot. This one really got me for this reason right here. Their attitude was awesome, I’d recommend not messing with them when they’re even remotely serious. :)

And since I “read” the audio version, I have to comment on Nick Podehl. This was my first read by him and this guy seemed made for the duo that is Egil and Nix. He was hilariously sarcastic and blended the melodrama well too. It’s actually quite interesting because Nick is reading my current book which is very serious. At first, it didn’t work because I was used to the fun and sarcasm, but now I can’t even believe they’re the same person. Nick is an excellent narrator, I’ll be happy seeing his name on audiobooks in the future.

Speaking of that, I’m looking forward to reading more of Kemp’s work in the future too. I can’t believe he balances four kids, a corporate attorney position, and writing. Plus, he finds time to discuss on reddit.com/r/fantasy and other places where fans congregate.

A Discourse in Steel is exactly what it claims to be. It’s tons of fun with plenty of action and while it doesn’t take itself too seriously, it knows when to be serious. Kemp stepped up his game and I’m looking forward to more adventuring with Egil and Nix.

4 out of 5 Stars (highly recommended)

Posted by Bryce L.

Review of The Secret of Ji: Six Heirs

April 4, 2013 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Reviews 

Please welcome one of our new reviewers, Andrew Linke.  He listened and reviewed this audiobook in under a week.  Score!

SFFaudio Review

The Secret of Ji: Six HeirsThe Secret of Ji: Six Heirs
By Pierre Grimbert; Read by Michael Page
Publisher: Brilliance Audio
Published: 19 February 2013 (original French book from 1997)
ISBN: 978-1-4692-0986-9
8 compact discs – 9 hours [UNABRIDGED]

Themes: / assassins / fantasy / magic / barbarians /

Publisher summary:

 The Known World is a sprawling realm ruled by mortals, protected by gods, and plied by magicians and warriors, merchants and beggars, royals and scoundrels. In Kaul, the Council of Mothers upholds the great Ancestress; Odrel, the god of Sadness, unites the suffering of the Upper Kingdoms; and everywhere the lethal minions of Zuïa, the cold-blooded judiciary goddess, do her fearsome bidding. But for all the Known World’s wonders and terrors, what has endured most powerfully is the legacy of Ji. Emissaries from every nation — the grand Goranese Empire; desolate, frozen Arkary; cosmopolitan Lorelia; and beyond — followed an enigmatic summons. Some never returned; others were never the same. Blessed and burdened with a staggering secret, the survivors passed their newfound knowledge down through the generations. But now the last of their heirs — and the surpassing wisdom they possess — face a deadly threat. The time has come to fight for ultimate enlightenment…or fall to infinite darkness.

The setup for The Secret of Ji: Six Heirs sounds almost like an overly complex joke: “A barbarian, a mage, a bard, a warrior, and two confused teenagers walk into a tavern filled with assassins…” Some might say that this makes for a bad story, but in this case the fantasy tropes serve as helpful guides as the author introduces his readers to a broad cast of characters. This book isn’t the most original or captivating fantasy tale you will ever read, but it is more than sufficient to fill the gap while you await the next epic fantasy novel from your favorite author.

The novel gets off to a great start by introducing the history of the heirs to the secret of Ji. Many generations ago, representatives from across the world gathered on this small island to witness a mysterious event. Not all who attended this meeting survived, and of those who did, all resolved to never reveal the secret of what they witnessed to anyone except their heirs, who were sworn to secrecy. Now, somebody has hired the most deadly assassins in the known world to kill every person who is an heir to the secret of Ji.

That is where our prototypical characters come in. Six of the heirs to the secret of Ji survive the assassination attempts and, eventually, band together to try and find out who wants them dead, and why. Corenn is a leader the matriarchal government of her homeland who also happens to be a mage, though her skills as a politician and diplomat are more significant than her magical powers. Her niece, Léti, is a frustratingly unpredictable teenage girl, who is pursued by an equally flakey, but more determined fisherman named Yan. These three are all guarded by Grigan, a solid warrior who could have come from virtually any fantasy novel, but serves well in his roll as protector and sometimes mentor. Rounding out the group are Rey, a delightfully roguish actor, and Bowbaq, a gigantic, pacifist barbarian who can communicate with animals.

The author’s narrative style is very comfortable to listen to, with the close third-person perspective of the narrative slipping easily from one character’s mind to the next, depending on the dramatic needs of each scene. This fluidity of narration was a little surprising to me after the several first person, or strictly focused third person, stories I have read recently, but it serves the story well. Other than Léti, who I feel was underused except in the introduction and final pages of the book, each character has a distinct voice and perspective. The passages which follow Rey and Bowbaq are particularly delightful.

Now for the complaints, which are thankfully few. The story begins with a first person narration from Léti, which recounts the history of the secret of Ji in the form of a memoir or letter. This tale is interrupted at several points by scenes that set up the assassination attempts on the heirs to the secret which, while well written, feel completely out of place. Better to have put these scenes together in a second prologue, or in the first chapter, than to have them interrupt what should have been an unbroken narrative. As I mentioned before, most of the characters are well-written and distinct, but I do feel that Léti was underused for much of the story. This is clearly the first book in a series, which will likely follow her as she grows more mature, but that does not excuse her changeable, even vapid, attitudes throughout the middle of the story. Finally, the author describes the world as using a somewhat metric calendar in which weeks, days, and even hours are broken into units of ten. The depth of world building here is quite good, and as I turn to a text version of the book to check my spelling of names, I find that the words are not so distracting in print, but in the audio version the frequent use of phrases like dékades (weeks of nine or ten days), decidays (hours), centidays (minutes) is distracting.

The Secret of Ji: Six Heirs is a recent translation of a French fantasy novel from 1997, which might explain some of the dated feel of the story, as well as the few awkward phrases that pepper the book. While it is not perfect, and the ending is clearly setting up a sequel, it is certainly an enjoyable fantasy adventure centered around a truly mysterious event. I look forward to the remaining volumes in the series being translated into English and will certainly find time to read them while awaiting new entries in more recent series.

The audiobook which I listened to was produced by Brilliance Audio and, other than the aforementioned frustrations with hearing certain phrases spoken aloud, was excellent. The narrator used distinct voices for each character, but avoided overly gravel, faux-feminine, or accented tones. Each disc opened and closed with a brief piece of music, which lasted just long enough to cue the listener that the time had come to change discs. I also appreciated that the last ten seconds of each disc were repeated at the beginning of the next disc, to draw the listener comfortably back into the story.

Posted by Andrew Linke

Review of The King of Plagues by Jonathan Maberry

July 27, 2012 by · 1 Comment
Filed under: Reviews 

SFFaudio Review

Horror Audiobook - The King of Plagues by Jonathan MaberryThe King of Plagues
By Jonathan Maberry; Read by Ray Porter
15.5 Hours – [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: Blackstone Audio
Published: 2011
Themes: / Horror / Assassins / Virus / Bio-engineering / Thriller /
 
 

… He paused. “Tell me again what Scofield said to you. About the river of blood.”

I closed my eyes and found the words. “‘They said that if the rivers didn’t run red with blood, then the blood of my family would run like a river.'”

“Yes. That troubles me.”

“All of it troubles me. The phrasing doesn’t match the rest of what he said. He was clearly quoting, or attempting to quote, something that was said to him. It has a distinctly biblical structure to it. Rivers running red with blood. You’re going to need a different kind of specialist to sort that out. Not my kind of job … I’m a shooter.”

When a huge London hospital is rocked by bomb blasts, thousands are dead or injured. Joe Ledger arrives to investigate and within hours is attacked by assassins and then sent into a viral hot zone during an Ebola outbreak.

Joe has tangled with zombies and he’s battled with dragons. Now he’s up against the seven plagues of Egypt, the best that bio-engineering can provide. What would the seven plagues be without a secret society concocting them for our doom? Not much, of course, and The Seven Kings have a worldwide conspiracy that will test Joe to his utmost.

I especially enjoyed the fact that, unlike the previous two books, readers do not know what the terrorists are planning. Each new attack is experienced along with Joe Ledger as unthinkable plagues descend first upon one place and then another.

That said, the book is still fairly straight-forward about most of the “mysteries” Joe encounters. A young researcher’s family connections seem obvious, as does the source of the final attack that Joe and his team must stop to save the world. Misdirection may be the hallmark of the Seven Kings but it isn’t something that Maberry seems to worry about too much. If it works, then it works. If not, well there is still a ripping good thriller to read.

Interestingly, Maberry includes a henchman with more of a conscience than one expects in a conspiracy of unfathomable evil. This follows the trend of The Dragon Factory where Paris, though capable of committing abominable individual acts, draws the line at mass destruction or EVIL as Maberry would call it. Does this mean there is lesser evil and greater EVIL? Or is it rather like saying that Hitler loved dogs so he had a good side to his personality? I’m not sure just what Maberry is getting at, but it is a very interesting development in his villains.

Villains aside, there is not a lot of character development because it simply isn’t that sort of book, although we do get a bit more light shed on the mysterious Mr. Church. I also enjoyed the addition of Joe’s dog, Ghost, who seems to have almost supernatural abilities of his own as the most perfectly trained attack dog ever. (But, let’s be fair. What other sort of attack dog could keep up with Joe?)

On the negative side, an audio book is not the ideal way to experience some of the torture used on the people forced to help The Seven Kings. It is what one expects from this sort of thriller, but one description was enough and we were treated to several. Also, the description of the Biblical plagues and the contest between Moses and the court magicians was one of the worst I’ve ever heard. It wouldn’t have taken much to remove the idea of “God teaching Moses magic” and tell the original story. It certainly would have taken nothing away from the book. However, this is quibbling and not something that is going to dampen most people’s enjoyment.

Ray Porter continues to do a pitch perfect job narratin the Joe Ledger books. His narration is a key part of the “Joe Ledger experience” for me and, as I’ve noted in other reviews, is the reason I prefer the narration to reading the book myself.

Fast paced and tightly written, The King of Plagues just might be the perfect summer superhero book. If you like your superhero as a hard-bitten shooter, with a white dog named Ghost, who likes nothing better than slaying monsters, that is.

Posted by Julie D.