epic fantasy

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.

The first book in the Tide Lords trilogy.

Publication year: 2007
Format: Audio
Running time: 19 hours, 24 minutes
Publisher: Audible
Narrator: John Telfer

The series starts with a prolog where a group of humans is under attack from a Tide Lord. The immensely powerful immortal threatens to destroy the humans completely. There’s only one thing that can help future humans fight against the Tide Lords: a tarot deck. One human is sworn in to protect the cards at all cost and tell about their power to humans. He abandons his family and escapes.

The story starts 1000 years later when a criminal is sentenced to death. But instead of the expected beheading, he gets a hanging which upsets him a great deal. Because he’s an immortal and can’t die. He is hanged and his neck is broken but he doesn’t die; instead he heals. He claims to be Cayal the Tide Lord but nobody has believed in Tide Lords for hundreds of years.

The king’s spy master Declan Hawks wants to get to bottom of things and to do so he contacts a childhood friend and talks her into speaking with Cayal.

Arkady Desean is an academic and an expert on the legends of the Crasii (half-human and half-animal species) slaves and so also an expert of the legends about the Tide Lords. Originally, she intends to unmask Cayal as a liar in just a couple of hours of talking about history with him. However, Cayal knows a lot more than Arkady believed and so she visits him for months, getting Cayal to tell her stories about his life and how he became an immortal. Arkady was born a poor doctor’s daughter but she’s now a duchess. Usually, women aren’t allowed to have any sort of careers in this country but Arkady’s husband allows it.

Arkady’s husband Stellan is gay but since that’s punishable with death or exile, he doesn’t want anyone to know that. Arkady knows and that suits her just fine. Arkady and Stellan are friends, though. Stellan has had several lovers through the six years they’ve been married but Arkady apparently hasn’t. Stellan treats his Crasii slaves better than most owners – he even allows them to live in village type communities instead of slave pens. He’s an even tempered man and loyal to his king who is also his cousin.

Jackson Aranville is Stellan’s lover. He’s minor nobility and part of Stellan’s household as a Crasii trainer. He’s very calculating man who only cares about getting an easy living. Apparently, he would sleep with anyone go get what he wants.

Warlock is a canine Crasii and he’s in prison for killing a human (who raped his sister). He is quite young but knows already that as a Crasii his life can’t become much better. However, when Cayal is placed on the cell next to Warlock, Warlock realizes that he doesn’t have to obey Cayal’s orders, like most Crasii.

According to legends, which any well-schooled human will scoff at, the Crasii were created by the Tide Lords to serve the lords as warriors and servants. The Tide lords created the Crasii by blending humans and animals with magic. The world has canine Crasii, who work as servants and are very eager to please their masters, feline Crasii, who are solders, and amphibians who apparently assist with ships and dive for stuff. All of the Crasii are slaves and most people treat them with competent. They can clearly understand speech and they can talk, too, but most humans till call them animals. However, they driven by their instincts far more than humans.

I enjoyed the setting quite a lot but unfortunately, the plot didn’t draw me in. It’s centered on Arkady visiting Cayal in prison where Cayal tells her about his life. So, most of the plot on the first half of the book is trying (and failing) to convince Arkady of something the reader already knows is true. There’s also some court intrigue: Arkady loathes Jackson and Stellan’s young, orphan niece is visiting him. Also, the king’s eldest son invites him to visit Stellan and immediately the naive young nice catches his eye.

The biggest problem with the first half of the book is that we readers know that Cayal is really a Tide Lords so I was left wondering about how dense Arkady and everyone else is. (And yes I realize that it’s the equivalent of finding out that faeries are actually real so of course Arkady couldn’t believe it immediately. But several hundred pages was just too long.) Apparently, they don’t think that healing from a broken neck in just a few days is a remarkable thing. Instead they continued to stubbornly believe that Cayal is a plant from a hostile nation who wants to stir up the local Crasii. Granted, Arkady didn’t see Cayal healing. However, the guards and the warden of the prison saw it with their own eyes and still don’t believe that Cayal is immortal! None of them even mention this healing to Arkady! Arkady even suggests that lopping off a few fingers would disprove Cayal’s claim and still nobody bothers to mention to her that he has already healed from a broken neck!!

Arkady is an academic who only believes what she can see. Unfortunately, this makes her seem like stupid in the eyes of at least this reader. She’ also very compassionate and believe in the rights of everyone, including the Crasii.

To put it bluntly, Cayal is an arrogant asshole and he knows it. It seems that pretty much all immortals are the same. He’s also very, very bored and simply just wants to die, which he can’t do. He wanted to be a convicted murderer because then his head would be cut off and even though his head would grow back, he would forget his previous life completely. Unfortunately for him, he wasn’t beheaded. He slowly grows to admire and care for Arkady, which is apparently only the second time in his life and he’s over 8000 years old.

While I liked the world and the Crasii, I doubt I’ll continue with the series.

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