epic fantasy

The first in an epic fantasy trilogy. It won the Hugo award in 2016. The second book is nominated this year.

Publication year: 2015
Format: print
Page count: 449 + two appendixes and an excerpt from another book
Publisher: Orbit

Much like Jemisin’s Dreamblood duology, I enjoyed this one a lot. It’s got intricate world building, excellent pacing, some revelations I didn’t see coming, and engaging characters. I’ve wanted to read this series but wanted to wait until it’s complete. However, because of the Hugos I’ve plunged in and will be now eagerly waiting for the final book (for a year…). On the negative side, it’s got a culture where people do terrible things to other people routinely, child abuse, and rather horrible stuff happening.

While this is indeed secondary world epic fantasy, it’s not set in a Middle Age world. Instead, the Stillness (as the continent is called) has had many civilizations but most of them are dead now, because of the wrath of Father Earth, or volcanos and earthquakes. They devastate the land irregularly and people try to prepare. Those deadcivs have left artifacts around and also stonelore which will (hopefully) tell the survivors how to continue to survive. The cultures are therefore geared towards survival in ruthless ways. On the other hand, useful info can get lost.

The clearest fantasy elements are the orogenes who use orogeny, or magic (or genetic trait) which allows them to feel and manipulate heat and earth (or rather the energy related to them). Because of this, most of the ordinary people hate and fear them, thinking that they are responsible for earthquakes and volcanos. If an orogene can’t control his or her powers, they can kill people or even destroy whole cities. But if they can control their powers, they can sooth away earthquakes.

The ordinary people kill them, even their own children who manifest this ability. But the Sanzed empire (the dominant nation on the continent) has a way to corral the orogenes: to train them and make them useful. But the Empire has ruled that the orogenes aren’t fully human: therefore, the orogenes they can get their hands on are treated as slaves: trained from a young age to obey their Guardians unquestioningly and they don’t even have a choice on if they have kids or with who. And always, always they need to control themselves.

The book has three POV characters, all female. The first person we encounter in Essun, who has just found her murdered son, who was three years old. She’s an orogene but hasn’t told anyone in her village: she realizes that the boy must have shown his orogeny powers and his father has beaten him to death. Understandably, she devastated. But when she finds out that her husband has left the small community with his and Essun’s daughter, Essun is determined to find them.

The second person is young girl Damaya who has shown her powers in public a couple of weeks ago and her parents have locked her up. She believes that her parents are going to sell her. Instead, they are giving her to a Guardian who will take her to the place where the orogenes are trained. On the way there, the Guardian will teach her a lot about duty and why she must be controlled and be in control.

The third POV character is a young woman Syenite who is very close to being a fully trained Fulcrum orogene. She longs to rise higher in the hierarchy so that she can finally decide even a few things for herself. Instead, she’s sent on a small errant to a coastal city of Allia. But the point of the trip is that she’s making it with another orogene who is one of the most powerful ones alive currently. Even though nobody says it out loud, Syenite has to get a child with him. Problem is that she loathes him on first sight but they both have no choice but to obey. And not, it’s not a romance story.

All of the characters are finding out a lot of new things, about the world and their place in it. We readers also get to explore alongside them. I was fascinated by all the characters and the world. Most of the book is in third person, except for Essun’s chapters, they’re in second person which felt strange at first, but fit the character. And it’s written in present tense. Essun is the only character who clearly wants something and goes for it. To Damaya and Syenite, things happen and they must cope with them.

At first, I was a bit skeptical about how normal people could keep such powerful people in line, but in the end, I think the control was believable. After all, the kids are raise with duty and control pounded into their heads and the Guardians turned out not to be ordinary. There’s a lot of ruthlessness in the book, people doing terrible things because they believe they must do it. All of the POV characters are hurt a lot, so this isn’t a feel-good book by any means. It explores what people do to other people whom they don’t believe are truly human.

The ending leaves everything wide open and raises more questions which will hopefully be answered in the next two books.

Oh yeah, the book has bisexual and gay characters.

The third book in her epic Aztec fantasy series.

Publication year: 2011
Format: print
Page count: 446
Publisher: Angry Robot

The book starts about three months after the end of the previous one. The Mexica Empire has a new ruler, the Revered Speaker, but he hasn’t yet consolidated his rule with the gods. In order to do that, he needs to get lots of war captives and sacrifice them. However, when he gets back from the Coronation War, his warriors have captured only a small amount of enemies and during the welcome ceremony one of the Mexica warriors falls down, dead. Acatl suspects that he died of magic and wants to see Eptli’s body but the new Revered Speaker is a paranoid and arrogant man who seems to care more for ceremony than the health of his warriors.

It turns out that Eptli isn’t well-liked at all and Acatl has more suspects than he really needs. Soon, he finds out that Eptli was indeed slain with a spell. And the magic used is contagious. The city is facing an epidemic. Also, consequences from the decisions done in the previous book comes to haunt Acatl.

Acatl is the same humble man he was in the previous books but he has learned somethings. The rift between him and his former student Teomitl is growing because Teomitl is a royal born warrior who has now taken on the responsibilities of his station. He is also far more liked among the warriors than the current Revered Speaker who doesn’t like that.

This is a great ending to the series. However, the ending leaves possibilities for continuing the series. De Bodard has written some short stories in the same setting.

The second book in her epic Aztec fantasy series.

Publication year: 2011
Format: print
Page count: 416
Publisher: Angry Robot

Acatl-tzin is the High Priest of the Dead, but in the Aztec society where warriors and the glory of warfare is the most valued, he’s not actually in a powerful position. After all, Mitctlantecuhtli governs over people who have not died in battle or as a sacrifice. Even his two fellow high priests look down on Acatl because the Lord of the Dead doesn’t have much influence and Acatl’s parents were peasants. In addition to doing the rites for the dead, Acatl investigates murders.

When the story starts, the ruler of the Mexica empire, the Revered Speaker Axayacatl-tzin, has just died from wounds in battle. The Reverend Speaker is also the representative of his god on Earth which means that his death weakens the magical protections of the capital and in time star-demons can break through to travel to Earth and start killing people.

But the politically (and religiously) powerful people are far more interested in fighting for earthly power than appointing the next ruler before the protections fail. The just dead ruler had been a respected warrior but his chosen heir, his older brother, is a weak man who has wanted the throne his whole life and schemed to get it. Other men desire the throne, too, and poor Acatl is caught in the middle, trying to warn people about the magical consequences if the next ruler isn’t appointed quickly.

Also, the same day when the Revered Speaker dies, another man is found dead, brutally torn to pieces, right in the royal palace. Acatl is convinced that it’s the work of the star-demons which means that someone is summoning these enemies of humanity right inside the palace. The summonings weaken the buckling protections so Acatl wants to find the sorcerer as quickly as possible. Unfortunately, he doesn’t have political clout or diplomatic skills so questioning the most powerful men in the Empire is rather difficult. However, he has a couple of trusted friend he can rely on. One of them is his student Teomitl, the younger brother of the former Revered Speaker.

This is a setting where the gods are very much alive and sometimes even walk among humans. Almost all of them are cruel and hungry for blood; they require blood sacrifices to work magic. I found the explanation for this (near the end) fascinating.

This time we meet the people at the very top of Aztec society – and they’re not nice men. Pretty much all of them scheme and backstab to their heart’s content. (In fact, I felt rather sorry for Axayacatl who seemed like a decent person and had to deal with this lot on a daily basis. Or maybe he fought in wars so often to get away from them?) Also, magical, religious, and political power is intertwined and inseparable. This is quite a dark society and the storyline is also very dark, punctuated by human and animal sacrifice. The Lord of the Dead doesn’t require human sacrifices, though, but Acatl does have to use his own blood for spells and worship.

The Aztec society in this book has just as strong a division between the worlds of men and women as the Greeks did; women don’t participate in public life. I find this curious because I didn’t see similar division between the male and female deities; all seem equally aggressive, cruel, and bloody. But the book has only three named mortal women and I strongly suspect that only one of them (if any) is going to be seen again.

De Bodard has created a fascinating culture. Interesting enough, the book doesn’t have much violence at all but blood rituals are used often. Unfortunately, the omnibus version I’m reading doesn’t have her notes but her website has some background stuff. The mystery is pretty convoluted and because of the unfamiliar setting I don’t think the reader has a chance to solve it before Acatl.

Acatl is mostly comfortable with his life and his position as a humble priest. But now he’s taken far out of his comfort zone and forced to deal with people he comes to despise and distrust. He’s determined to do what he feels is right and to protect the people near him, and also the whole Empire. Teomitl is another honorable character trying to do the right thing, but he can also be arrogant and overconfident. After all, he is a warrior and also part of the emperor’s family. Most of the other characters have their own agendas but because of their high positions they also tend to be rather arrogant.

This is a great continuation to the series. It doesn’t end in a cliffhanger but it’s clear that the solutions are only temporary. I recommend reading the first book, Servant of the Underworld, first because it introduces the characters and the setting.

A retelling of the Norse Edda sagas from Loki’s point of view.

Publication year: 2014
Format: Audio
Running time: 10 hours and 7 minutes
Publisher: Audible
Narrators: Allan Corduner

“Loki, that’s me. Loki, the Light-Bringer, the misunderstood, the elusive, the handsome and modest hero of this particular tissue of lies.”

Apparently, this is a prequel to a YA series which I haven’t read. So it stands alone.

Loki is clearly telling his story to a modern audience because the book is full of modern, USAian sayings which have sometimes been twisted lightly to fit into Loki’s mouth (nobody in Nine Worlds rather than nobody in the world). While the adventures the gods have are from the Eddas, the voice, the motivations, and sometimes the consequences have been changed to a modern view. The stories start with the forming of the world, before Loki’s time, and end with Raknarök.

Some details have been changed, as well. For example, in the Eddas, Loki is the son of a chaos goddess and the god of the frost giants. But here, Loki forms himself from pure chaos and his true form is wildfire. In the Eddas, Loki was married and divorced several times but here he’s married against his will to a goddess he loathes and then he cheats on her repeatedly. The other deities don’t fare much better. Loki insults them as often as he can and goes out of his way to show how stupid they all are. And everything, in the end, is the fault of Loki’s blood brother, Odin.

The voice Harris gives to her Loki is pretty much flawless: arrogant, sly, devious, innocent of almost everything. Wonderful. He thinks of himself as an outsider, a scapegoat for the deities. This makes him feel lonely and justifies his actions, to himself at least.

Some of the stories are very funny, some less so. But our humble narrator is always entertaining.

The reader is also great. He has a conversational style which suits the story very well. Unfortunately, he has the habit of lowering his voice every once in a while which made it sometimes hard to hear those parts when I was driving.

The second book in the Dreamblood duology.

Publication year: 2012
Format: print
Page count: 492+glossary+excerpt from another book
Publisher: Orbit

This book is set about 10 years after the previous book, The Killing Moon, and a few characters return but obviously older. The book has three major cultures: the desert tribes who fight amongst themselves, the Gujareen who value peace above all but are toiling under occupational force, and the Kisuati who have conquered Gujareen and are now occupying it. The Hetawa are the Gujareen’s religious sect whose religion in based on dream magic and peace. They are also unique in that they can heal people physically. They serve the Goddess Hanaja. The Hetawa have four different kinds of priests who are all male: the Gatherers, who bring the peace of death to people judged too corrupt to live, the Sharers who are the healers, the Sentinels, and the Teachers. Women serve the Goddess as Sisters in a separate branch.

The book has lots of POV characters but we spent most of the time with two people: the exiled Prince of the Gujareen, Wanahomeen, and the only female priest among the Hetawa, Hanani.

Wanahomen was a boy when his father, the previous ruler, was killed and the Kisuati conquered the Gujareen. Wana saw a Gatherer kill his father and has hated the priests ever since. He lives now among the desert tribes and is gathering a large enough force to take his city back. To do that, he has also made alliances among the Gujareen. He lives in two cultures but has always wanted to return to the Gujareen. He will do anything and use anyone to free the City of Dreams.

Hanani is the only female priest in Gujareeh and even most of her fellow priests eye her with suspicion and fear. Fear because she represents change to the traditional order of things. In order to fit in, she has become as meek and unthreatening as she can make herself. She’s a Sharer-Apprentice, learning to become a full healer. Like all Sharers, she uses dream magic to heal physical wounds and illnesses. But during her trial, something strange happens: a boy, who is a younger apprentice, dies while performing a routine duty. Hanani set the boy to that task and so she is blamed for his death. Hanani is deeply disturbed and investigates. However, this death was just the beginning of the nightmare plague which spreads quickly. But before she can find out much, the elders of the priesthood send her and her mentor to Wanahomen as hostages to ensure the bargain between the Hetawa and Wanahomen to jointly rise up against the conquerors. Hanani is terrified when she’s sent among the barbarian tribes but she knows that she must endure it in order to show that she’s not corrupt and can be trusted.

The other POV characters include Tiaanet a young noblewoman among the Gujareen. Her father is one of the schemers against the Kisuati but he also abuses his own family terribly. Another is Sunandi Jeh Kalawe who represents the Kisuati conquerors in Gujareeh. She’s married to the Kisuate general who commands the local troops. Also a couple of the Gatherers are POV characters.

This is a vivid fantasy with deep, rich world-building. Each culture has its own quirks and peculiarities which are natural to the people born into them. They all think the others are weird and barbarians. Among the desert tribes, men are hunters and warriors but they use face veils and the women are the traders who bring the tribes real wealth and are therefore valued by how much they own. Also, the tribes don’t have marriages but have the custom (much like some Native American tribes IIRC had) where the children belong to their mother’s tribe and the mother’s brothers and uncles help raise them. Yet they have slavery but a slave can work his or her way free. Among the Gujareen, there’s no slavery and they are horrified of the who idea but they have strict caste splits and no-one can work their way up from a cast he or she is born in. (The Kisuati also have slavery but we aren’t told much about it, just that it’s very profitable.)

The plot isn’t very fast-paced and doesn’t have many fight scenes but those few have far more weight than in fantasy with a fight scene every 10 pages or so. The focus is on scheming and character interaction. On the other hand, it does have so much implied sexual abuse that if I hadn’t loved the rest of the book, I wouldn’t have finished it.

I loved this book and I’m looking forward to reading Jemisin’s next series, once the final book is out.

Fantasy short story collection.

Publication year: 2010
Format: ebook
Page count: 362
Publisher: Book View Café

A diverse collection ranging from urban fantasy to ancient world historical fantasy. My only complaint is that none of the stories have a dragon lord and only one has a dragon. 🙂 But there are plenty of fierce women and even a female wizard or two.

The book is divided into several sections according to the subgenre of the stories. The first section is High fantasy.

Eagle’s Beak and Wings of Bronze or Something Unusual Happens to Allis by Deborah J. Ross: Everyone says that Allis is a slow and stupid girl and she knows it, too. Everyone in her family can change into a were-creature but her change comes later than most. And a bit stranger.

One Small Detail by Katharine Kerr: Eladana is a wandering wizard. One day, she meets a very kind and friendly innkeeper and his young daughter. She decides to stay, for a while, at least.

Hero by Sherwood Smith. Tam has left his boring home and is searching for a way to become an adored hero. But what is required to become a hero?

The next section is Fantastical Others.

Kind Hunter by Pati Nagle. Torril has been raised to abhor killing anything alive. But now he’s hunting a nightwalker.

The Merrow by Steven Harper. Fisherman Jack Dougherty meets a merrow, a sea creature who claims to have been Jack’s father’s and grandfather’s friend in both life and death. But is he really?

Night Harvest Cuvée Rouge by Vonda N. McIntyre. A very short story about hunting.

Repo Babe by Jennifer Stevenson. Young Jane has gotten a temp job in her aunt Heather’s firm. This story has only dialog so it’s a bit hard to follow in a few places.

The section is Modern fantasy.

Grow your own by Brenda W. Clough. A witch’s familiars are plants. Unfortunately for the witch, the plants have her disagreeable personality, too.

East of the Sun, West of Acousticville by Judith Tarr: The narrator is in a musical afterlife which is a bit strange because he (or she, we never find out) wasn’t interested in music in life. But when music and even sounds just fade away, the souls investigate the situation. This means traveling into other afterlives.

Headless Over Heels
by Chris Dolley: Brenda can see dead people. To her, that’s just an annoyance because they complain a lot. Then one ghost warns her than she will be killed next.

Somewhere in Dreamland Tonight by Madeleine E. Robins: Ruth’s only child Peggy has started to go out a lot, with boys, and Ruth is very worried. She comes across a dress from her “wild summer” and relives the reason why she’s so worried.

Daddy’s Big Girl by Ursula K. Le Guin: Jewel Ann is the narrator’s younger sister. Everyone is so happy when she’s born but when she continues to grow quickly, people start to treat her like a freak.

Fantastic Merlin has two stories inspired by the ancient wizard.

Taco Del and the Fabled Tree of Destiny: A merlin’s tale by Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff: Taco Del is the merlin of Hismajesty. Tale set after the modern civilization has mostly fallen.

The Thief of Stones by Sarah Zettel: Uther Pendragon sends Merlin Ambrosius to Eire to King Berach Ui Neill. But Merlin is there for his own machinations, looking for a way to get more power.

The stories in the Ancient Fantastics section have something to do with the Ancient world.

Not My Knot by Irene Radford: Monica is an archeologist working for her Ph.D. She has already had experiences with magic and now when she finds a Celtic knot design etched on the ground, she’s willing to try her luck and see where it will lead her.

Dusty Wings by Nancy Jane Moore: When she was writing her dissertation Corinne went to Guatemala and what she learned there shook her badly. Now, when she sleeps she often has nightmares about what happened.

Heart of Jade by Amy Sterling Casil: Great Lord of the Mayan City of Coban has only one child, a Daughter who is called the Lady. She comes to Two Frog with a curious request: to carve a jade amulet for her father and make him a god. Two Frog is a lowly jade carver but he knows some magic although not that kind. Still, he must obey.

Feather of the Phoenix by Katharine Eliska Kimbriel: The story of Sinbad’s youngest daughter Laylah who has inherited her father’s love of adventure.

The Natural History and Extinction of the People of the Sea by Vonda N. McIntyre and illustrated by Ursula K. LeGuin: An essay about the sea people who were called sea monsters for a time.

I liked a lot several of the stories, such as the very first one, Smith’s, Clough’s, Tarr’s, Casil’s and Kimbriel’s stories. Most of them have clever twists and some have unusual settings, too. Very good for people looking for diverse fantasy collection.

Self-contained historical fantasy book set mostly in Alexander the Great’s camp.

Publication year: 2004
Format: print
Page count: 320
Publisher: TOR

Selene is an Amazon warrior and close to the Queen Hippolyta. When the Queen gives birth to a daughter without a soul, almost everyone wants to kill her, except the Queen and Selene. Selene is kin to the Seer, a woman who has given up her own name and become the instrument of the Goddess. Selene also sees visions but she doesn’t want to become the next Seer; she wants to be a warrior and so she stubbornly refuses the calling. When it’s clear that the Queen’s daughter needs a guard, Selene vows to take up that duty. The Queen declares her daughter the heir and in defiance, a group of Amazons leaves.

The daughter remains nameless but everyone starts to call her Etta, which means “that thing”. Etta behaves like an animal, eating when she’s hungry and hunting when she wants to. She never speaks and her eyes are empty, her face devoid of expression. When Selene is near her, she doesn’t get any visions from the Goddess anymore. Selene is the captain of Etta’s guard.

The Amazons who left the queen try to take over the tribe once but fail. Soon afterwards, Etta begins a ride that takes, in the end, several months. Selene, Hippolyta, and a small group of warriors follow Etta who rides relentlessly to Alexander’s camp. Etta wants to be as close to Alexander as she can and the king graciously accepts that. Selene and Etta stay with Alexander and follow him for years.

Despite presence of the conqueror of the then know world, the book isn’t centered on violence. Instead, Selene is finding her own place in the world. She spends a lot of time away from her own people, among the men in Alexander’s camp. She comes from a very different world: among the Amazons, women are hunters and warriors while the men live in villages farming the land and keeping cattle. The women visit the men in spring for a month; so it’s no surprise that they don’t have marriage and women are encouraged to love only other women. Among the Persians women (at least upper-class women) are sequestered away from men and public life and guarded by eunuchs. Greeks also kept women tightly in the home; they weren’t considered really human. Yet, the Amazons are considered a special case and nobody tries to harass them.

I hesitate to call this a coming of age story because it takes place over a decade. It’s grand and epic and a sweeping adventure, it has bittersweet romances which don’t take over the rest of the story. At the center of it the charismatic conqueror with a shining spirit.

I loved this novel; far too few fantasy books are set in the Ancient world. I guessed earlier what would happen but that didn’t diminish the book for me.

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