epic fantasy


The third and final book in the Eternal Sky epic fantasy series.

Publication year: 2014
Format: print
Publisher: TOR
Page count: 430

Steles of the Sky continues right where Shattered Pillars ended. Al-Sepehr and his assassins seem to be even greater threat than before and our intrepid heroes are really struggling to face him and his allies. Also, when the story starts, the characters have all over the map doing their own things.

Overall, was a good ending to the epic fantasy trilogy with some surprises, too. However, there’s definitely room for more adventures to some of the characters, and the setting is also in an intriguing place.

One of the lesser seen secondary characters starts to call themselves Iskandar which greatly amused me, because that’s one of Alexander the Great’s Eastern names.

Quotes:
“Like any weapon, it only takes one mistake for me to turn in a hand.”

“Comforting thoughts should be questioned more stringently than any others. For they are more likely to lead us astray, as we wish to believe them.”

“It was unwise to dwell on eventualities. Here and now was the only world. Anticipation bred misery.”

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The second book in the Eternal Sky epic fantasy series.

Publication year: 2013
Format: print
Publisher: TOR
Page count: 333

Bear plays with lots of epic fantasy troupes here. It’s not my favorite Bear book but it could be because I’m not really that interested in epic fantasy anymore. Please read the first book “Range of Ghosts” first because she doesn’t waste pages recapping what came before (which is good IMHO).

Re Temur who is the grandson of the great but dead Khagan is still in exile, looking for his lover Edene who was kidnapped by ghosts. However, his quest has changed. Now he, and his companions, are also looking for a way to wrest power from Temur’s usurper uncle and to unite the steppe tribes once again. To do that, Temur has to find a band of loyal steppe soldiers. But first, he needs to rescue Edene from Ala-Din, the headquarters of the followers of the Nameless, the Scholar-God. They’re also assassins who are hunting the small group.

Samarkar-la is a wizard and a former princess. She’s only recently come to her power but has studied magic for years. She’s also in love with Temur and follows him loyally. She’s also looking for a way to stop the leader of the assassins. Hsiung is a mute warrior-monk and Hrahima is a warrior from a tiger-like species. They’ve become a tightly knit band of friends who are very capable of facing the challenges of the road and the assassins.

Meanwhile, a terrible plague is sweeping across the lands. The wizards in Tsarepheth are trying to fight it, while struggling with intrigue. Also, the leader of the Assassins, al-Sepehr, has sent one of his people to cement Temur’s uncle’s claim to become the Khagan, the king of all steppe tribes.

Much like in the first book, in “Shattered Pillars” the main group is moving from place to place with disaster and assassins on their heels. The people around them plot and plan and we see glimpses of them. This book has many POV characters, some of them new.

I like particularly two characters: Edene, who was a secondary character at best in the first book, rose to an unexpected prominence in this one. I loved her development. She was a spirited steppe woman in the first book and now she’s heavily pregnant with a magic ring which gives her extraordinary powers. She managed to escape her captors and encounters dog-faced ghulim who seem to worship her as a queen. She’s determined to keep her unborn child safe and also rescue Temur from whatever dangers he’s facing. And the best way to do that is to become the queen of an evil, mythical place! Loved that even though I don’t really see how she can have a happy ending. I also really grew to like Saadet who is the twin of one of the lead assassins. Her situation is very complicated and interesting.

This whole series is set in a world that has clearly been inspired by the Mongols and the Middle-East. There are some twists to the cultures, which I quite liked, too, such as the Scholar-God being female and yet her religion has been twisted into supporting oppression of women. Apparently, women are so holy that they can’t be seen by men or do anything but menial labor…

The series has a lot of women with agency which was great. Bear also plays with the roles that men and women usually play in epic fantasy books.

Quote:
“What was a book? Not just ink and fiber and stitchery: a series of processes. To a wizard, it was not a static object–but a human thought caught and bound, made concrete through sacred technology. Magic, then, and a deep form of it.”

The first book in an epic fantasy series.
I received an ARC copy of The Hidden Face to review.

Publication year: 2017
Format: ebook, kindle
Publisher: the Hive
Page count: 403 at GoodReads, including an excerpt of a prequel

Dayraven is the son of Faustia’s hero Urland who has killed when Dayraven was only six years old. Because his mother was also dead, he was a ward of the emperor. In order to ensure peace, he’s given as a hostage to a potential enemy state. Despites promises of quick return, it’s 15 years later when Dayraven is finally summoned back home. He’s now 30 and lived half his life in an enemy nation. His teacher, a Jaelite scholar Halakh, sent him an urgent message to meet at an abandoned temple. After a meeting with the scatterbrained old emperor in the baths, Dayraven hurries to the temple but too late: someone has murdered Halakh. However, Dayraven meets a possible ally: the young woman Sunniva who has disguised herself as a soldier in order to find her missing father. Together, they have to puzzle out the clues that Halakh and Sunniva’s father have left behind.

Dayraven also meets a couple of enemies: a mysterious hunchback and his old childhood tormentor who is now the emperor’s trusted high priest. He and Sunniva have other enemies as well, who want to get the information that the pair knows.

I liked most of the characters and many of the enemies were great. Unfortunately, I rather disliked the femme fatale, who was a cliché character using her looks to manipulate males, and the story has only two named female characters. I also rather enjoyed the clues and puzzles in the book. The book has several POV characters, most of them bad guys.

Dayraven seems quite a thoughtful fellow. He doesn’t rush into anything, but rather ponders things. This is a rather nice change for all the hot-headed heroes in many books. However, he’s still a great swordsman.

Sunniva is a warrior and an archeologist and something of an architect as well, because her father taught her those things. However, her father has disappeared, and she disguises herself as a soldier to look for him. Unfortunately, men have to rescue her several times in the book.

One of the most unique characters in the book is the Twister who is a hunchback and quite possibly a madman. He’s a character who can change sides depending on his whims and his unpredictably was great. Another character, a mercenary, was also interesting.

There’s also an obligatory romance and that’s how it felt to me rather than an actual attraction between characters.

The world-building was very interesting. The Faustian Empire feels to me like a Roman Empire -type setting because of the baths and the wax tablets that people use. The Jaelites are apparently modeled after Jewish people, especially considering that they use mystical numbers and writing reminiscent of Kabbalah. There are other cultures as well, but we aren’t shown much of them.

The Hidden Face is a sun god type of deity who is hidden most of the time. But when he (or she) shows his face, or manifests among people, one culture will rise to prominence. This happens every 500 years or so. Not surprisingly, people want to know where the Hidden Face will next manifest and know or even manipulate the events that will follow. The finding of the Hidden Face is the central mystery of the book.

Personally, I would have wanted more details. Now, the cultures feel like sketches which we don’t really know much about. Apparently, women can’t be soldiers because Sunniva has to disguise herself. Yet, she has enough fighting skills that she doesn’t stand out and nobody seem outraged about her disguise, so it doesn’t feel like an enormous taboo.

This is clearly a first book in a series. It doesn’t end in a cliffhanger but the main story is left open at the end.

The first book in the Eternal sky fantasy trilogy.

Publication year: 2012
Format: print
Publisher: Tor
Page count: 334+ an excerpt of the next book

This series is set in a Mongol-type culture. However, the book has a lot of traveling and introduces us to other cultures as well, Middle Eastern and a couple of others.

Temur is the grandson of the Great Khagan who conquered large parts of the world around the steppe. However, the Khagan has died and his sons and nephews are now fighting over who will rule. They’ve also brought each their own tribes to war. Temur followed her brother to war and at the start of the book, he is all that’s left of the mighty armies. Alone and severely wounded, he still manages to live and even find a loyal horse, the magnificent mare whom he names Bansh (dumpling).

He finds groups of fleeing civilians, mostly women and children, and managed to tangentially attach himself to one such group because he can guard and hunt a little. One of the young women, Edene, develops an interest to him and they become lovers. However, because Temur’s family is dead, she can’t marry him. After a few weeks, a group of ghosts attacks. They kill some before Edene realizes that they are vulnerable to salt. However, the ghosts capture Edene and carry her off. Temur vows to return her and heads to a city where he thinks he can get help, Qeshqer, which is beyond the Range of Ghosts mountain range.

In far Tsarepheth Samarkar, who was once a princess, makes ready to become a wizard. Because wizards aren’t allowed to procreate, she has been neutered but survived the process. She doesn’t know if she has magical talent and if not, she can become a scholar or something else. But when her magical talent comes to her, she has a lot to learn and she must investigate what is happening in Qeshqer. She and her teacher, who not a lot of about magic but doesn’t have magical talent herself, are sent through the mountain range to the city.

Meanwhile, the head of the cult of the Nameless is planning to further his plans and begin a war. He will use his own assassins, his giant rokh birds, and of course the ghosts to shape the world into what he wants it to be.

The world-building here is just wonderful. People are from somewhat different cultures, with different languages, and different values. The sky is different depending on the dominant culture of the land. Great!

The book has two kinds of magic. Samarkar uses one kind. Apparently she herself powers it. The main villain uses other people’s death and blood to use magic.

Temur is actually something of a cliché but a well-used one: young, an orphan, related to kings, a warrior with a quest. He’s a very capable man, loves horses and tends them before himself. The horses are also a big part of this book which was great.

Samarkar is somewhat different. She’s been trained in court, in the middle of intrigue and was sent as a bride when she was 15 (I think). Her marriage was not horrible but it wasn’t wonderful either, and ended when she asks her brother to kill her husband. She wants to be free of court and not anyone’s pawn. The only way to do that is to become a wizard. However, she still has to do as her masters bid her so she’s not free. She can change substances, conjure things (like make water from the moisture in the air), and she knows healing plant.

They are joined by other people later in the book. I found the tiger-like magical person to be the most interesting one of the lot. They are all very capable and work well together even after just a short time.

The book doesn’t have a conclusion. It just ends and with a twist that will no doubt influence the rest of the series.

A stand-alone sf/f book.

Publication year: 1993
Format: print
Publisher: ROC
Page count: 384

Traitors has an sf premise: the book is set is another planet which humans colonized centuries ago and the people know it. However, mostly it reads like fantasy. The countries in this setting are islands so you need to have either a ship or an air-born shuttle to go from one country to the next. All high tech is controlled by one nation, Vorgel, and while other nations can use them, the Vorgellians keep tight reins on the tech so nobody else can build anything high tech, anything from laser pistols to shuttles.

The Kingdom is a place where, at the surface anyway, art and artists are regarded highly. However, the Kingdom has a very cruel and rigid caste system. In it, young children are tested for their level of Talent (in any form of art, such as dance, poetry, or music and also in Magic). Those with A-level Talent are then expected to perform so that their performances bring money to the government. Those without A-level Talent are essentially used for scouting rich targets (in foreign countries) and robbing them. Also, a person can have only one Talent and only one A-level Talent in one family. Of course, the Kingdom don’t admit that they steal to anyone outside. Golga is a neighboring country where all frivolous thing, such as fiction and other arts, are forbidden. Supposedly, the Golgans kill all Kingdom members they get their hands on.

Emilio Diante is an A-level Dance Talent. One day, he comes home and finds his family brutally murdered. He knows that the Queen has done it. So, he stows away on a ship, heading for somewhere else, anywhere else. He’s rather become a slave than stay in the Kingdom. However, a mage aboard notices him and the only place where he can stay is Golga. Diante is sure that he will be killed but instead the ruler of Golga, the Golgoth, gives Diante one chance to prove himself and stay. Diante takes that chance. 15 years later, he’s the head of detectives in the Golga capital and one of the ruler’s most trusted advisors. Then, he finds a badly beaten and burned Kingdom woman near the port. He and his closest friend, a wine merchant, take the woman to heal in a resort where they can hopefully rebuild her broken body. On the island resort Diante meets and falls quickly in love with a stunningly beautiful woman. He suspects that she’s from Kingdom but waves away his concerns. That turns out to be a mistake.

As usual with Rusch, I loved the setting. However, this is one of her earlier books and it shows a little.

The various nations we’re given a glimpse of are fascinating. Apparently, the people who founded them, made them opposites of each other. For example, Golga was once part of the Kingdom but the future Golgans rebelled and when they founded their own country, they forbade anything resembling the Kingdom, namely the arts.

Diante is the only POV character so his opinions color everything. He’s a very serious and duty-focused man. He’s only loyal to the Golgoth who trusts Diante. But few others trust Diante. The wine merchant is his only friend and he’s closed himself off from other people so much that he hasn’t had a romantic relationship until he meets the woman at the resort. Also, when he gives someone his loyalty, he has very hard time letting go.

Sheba, the woman Diante falls for, remains a mystery. We don’t see her reasons for her choices. The other major characters change through the story. The Golgoth is another very duty-bound man who will do anything for betterment of his country. He’s also quite different from his reputation in the Kingdom. The wine merchant starts out like a plot device (urging Diante to do something he normally wouldn’t do: take a vacation) but gets deeper during the story. The same thing happens to the wounded woman.

I rather enjoyed this book but it’s not one of Rusch’s best, even though it has some quite unusual twists which I quite enjoyed and the ending was also somewhat unusual (for fantasy).

Book two of the Broken Earth fantasy series.

Publication year: 2016
Format: Audio
Running time: 13 hours and 19 minutes
Narrator: Robin Miles

Now we find out some of the things that were left unsaid in the first book. Obelisk Gate starts somewhat before the beginning of Fifth Season to show us what happened to Essun’s surviving family: her daughter Nassun and her husband Jija. Nassun’s father took her away, looking for place where she could be cured of orogeny. Nassun is a very smart little girl and she knows her father. But when she found him with her young brother’s body, she realizes that she will have to be very careful with him. So, she goes with him and together they endure traveling and all the dangers. But she can never trust him again; all the time, she has to be on guard and manipulate him. She knows that she can’t be cured and yet she doesn’t want to let go of him.

Meanwhile, Essun story continues from the end of the previous book. She has found a community, Castrima. It’s a strange one, which accepts orogeny and even uses their talents. The comm lives underground and is very selective about their members. Now, she finds out that her former friend and mentor lives there. But he’s in terrible condition; barely alive. He’s still determined to teach to Essun what he knows about orogeny, the obelisks, and history. He brought with him a Stone Eater, a non-human creature and we found out more about them.

The book has one other POV character: a Guardian. We find out more about Guardians as a group and about this Guardian personally. It takes away the mystique the Guardians had in the Fifth Season, of course.

Once again, Essun’s story is written in the second person and the others in first person. The whole book is written in present tense.
At the heart of the story are really the characters and their relationships. Essun is a bitter woman and it’s hard for her to trust. For a long time, she has kept her powers a secret and now she’s in a comm where she can live openly. Indeed, her most useful trait is orogeny. Costrima is far from on ideal place because it’s filled with people who have conflicting feelings and upbringings. They’ve been thrown together because the world is in an upheaval and their own comms have been destroyed. Also, every person has to be useful in order to secure his or her place in the comm.

But Nassun is really at the center of conflicting emotions. She loves her father but also is afraid of him. We also get to know more about her upbringing: Essun was a harsh mother because she thought that she had to teach her daughter to control the power. Essun knows too well what happens when an orogene can’t control herself. Also, Essun herself was brought up just as harshly. But still, I felt very sorry for Nassun who has to grow up too soon and started to loath Essun for what she did to her daughter. At least, she could have explained things better to poor Nassun.

So, I have mixed feelings about this book. Of course, the characters are very well written and the setting is still superb. We get to know more about pretty much everything and I predict that we’ll see a rather emotional ending to the series in the next book (assuming it will end in the next book).

Like the Fifth Season, the Obelisk Gate ends in a cliffhanger. It’s really one long story in in several parts.

Audio wasn’t the best format for this story, at least for me, because I tend to do other things while listening and this book is so complex that it needs full concentration.

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.

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