epic fantasy


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).

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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.

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.

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