Book Review: “Star Wars: Thrawn” (by Timothy Zahn)

In the annals of the Star Wars Expanded Universe, perhaps no figure looms larger than Thrawn. Originally introduced in Timothy Zahn’s “Heir to the Empire” series, he subsequently became something of a fan favourite. Though only a neophyte when it comes to the Expanded Universe, I can well imagine the howl of outrage that erupted when Disney announced that all of the works that had already been published in that universe would be rendered noncanon, including Thrawn.

Fortunately, Zahn has successfully wound his beloved Chiss character back into the canon by focusing on his early years and his incorporation into the machinery of the empire. The novel is split among three different perspectives. There is, of course, Thrawn, whose tactical genius allows him to ascend quickly through the ranks. Other chapters are told from the point of view of his assistant Eli Vanto, who finds himself caught up in Thrawn’s wake as he makes his precipitous ascent into the highest ranks of the Imperial Navy. Lastly there is Arihnda Pryce, who begins the novel on the mining world of Loval but gradually manipulates her way into becoming a powerful administrator.

From the opening pages, I found myself irresistibly drawn into this narrative. Certainly, a great deal of this is due to the fact that Thrawn is just such a compelling character, capable of acts of great ruthlessness, his tactical brilliance acknowledged even by his most devout enemies. Zahn has the uncanny ability to give us just enough detail about Thrawn’s back story to keep us engaged, while also keeping enough back to make Thrawn and enigma that we want to solve.

What struck me the most as I read the book, however, was how Thrawn never truly appears evil. True, he is ruthless, and he is definitely cunning, with one of the best military minds of arguably anyone in the entire Star Wars universe. His brain just doesn’t seem to work quite like any other character that we’ve ever et, and this is no doubt due to the fact that he is also the furthest from human. This allows his mind to see the patterns–both in individuals and in collectives–that prove invaluable in his service to the Empire and the imposition of its will.

Of course, all of this allows the book to raise the deeper ethical question: at what point do we finally say enough is enough and work against the forces that we see as evil? For Thrawn, this point has clearly not come yet, for he sees the order and stability of the Empire as a necessary trade-off for the protection it provides against even greater forces of evil that lurk in the Unknown Regions. Though it’s had to imagine why anyone with a shred of integrity of morality would continue serving a creature like the Emperor, Zahn does a great job showing us what motivates Thrawn to do so.

Indeed, one of the things that I’ve really appreciated about so many of the new Star Wars novels is their ability to show us why it is that people would willingly serve an institution such as the Empire (and, later, the First Order). As it turns out, not everyone one who does so is an evil monster. Some do it because they see no alternative, others because they tire of finding their opportunities squashed at every turn. In this novel, Vanto is clearly not someone who is evil. He is merely doing what he can to survive. Pryce is a somewhat more ambiguous character who, while not entirely evil, is still ruthless and cunning and has little sense of personal loyalty. What’s more, she has no compunction about removing those who stand in her way, even if that means killing them.

All in all, I very much enjoyed Thrawn. I truly couldn’t put the book down from the moment I picked it up, and I’d probably go so far as to that it’s my favourite of the new series of books coming out from Disney.

Having finished Thrawn, I’m now diving headfirst into the sequel, Thrawn: Alliances, in which we will finally get to see the complicated relationship between Thrawn and Vader, two of the most valuable servants of the Emperor.

Stay tuned!

Book Review: “Star Wars: Tarkin” (by James Luceno)

As I continue my journey through the expanded Star Wars universe, I continue to find myself drawn to the books about some of its most iconic villains. Thus, I decided to read Tarkin, because I’ve always found him to be a fascinating character. So far we’ve only seen him in two films, and in neither one do we get much of an indication about what makes him tick and why he’s devoted himself so fully to the Empire and its nefarious purposes.

In Luceno’s book, we get a bit more insight into both of those areas, though not as much as I would have liked. The story follows two tracks, one in the present that focuses on Tarkin’s attempt to track down a group of rebels, and the other focuses on his youth and the brutal training he undergoes at the hands of his kinsman Jova.

There are parts of this book that really work. The scenes that flesh out Tarkin’s past–in particular his brutal survivalist training–were compelling, if only because it’s rather difficult to imagine the buttoned-up Tarkin actually mucking about in the forest. This past allows us to understand why it is that a man like Tarkin would throw his lot in with the Empire and become infamous for his willingness to use the threat of power to intimidate everyone into bowing before Imperial might. In essence, Tarkin has internalized the law of the jungle. While this threatens to drain him of any sort of moral compass, it also allows him to rise high in the Imperial administration.

The portions of the book told from the point of view of Darth Sidious/Emperor Palpatine also draw you in. Anyone who knows me knows that I think that Sidious is one of the best things to ever happen to the Star Wars universe, and I’m glad that we get to see some of the inner workings of his complex mind here. Even though Luceno’s Darth Plagueis has been declared noncanon, it seems that some aspects of it–including the revelation that Darth Plagueis was Sidious’ master–are to remain canon. In this novel, we get a stronger idea of what makes this enigmatic villain tick, including his ultimate desire: to literally bend the fabric of reality to his will.

Other aspects of the novel, however, threaten to drag down the narrative. Luceno is clearly one of those authors who allows himself to get a bit enraptured by the technology of Star Wars. We are thus frequently treated to lengthy descriptions of the various types of ships, as well as catalogues of just what types have appeared at any particular moment. There are also clunky descriptions of ship mechanics and actions. While this might be pleasurable for some people to read, I have to admit that I found it rather a chore, and there were even times when I found myself skimming to get to the good bits (and I rarely do that). Some discussion of technology is fine, of course, but not at the expense of character and development.

Overall, I’d place Tarkin somewhere in the middle rank of the newly-established canon of Star Wars novels. It’s a bit too short to really give us an extensive dive into Tarkin’s psychology, and it too often gets side-tracked with the ostensible “good guys.” This wouldn’t necessarily be a problem if they were given the sort of development that would make them genuinely likable and understandable characters, but as it is they sort of feel like cardboard cut-outs. I continue to find it strange that books that are supposedly about villains spend just as much time in the heads of the heroes. Frankly, if I wanted to hear from the heroes, I’d read one of the dozens of other books set in the Star Wars Universe (or watch the movies, for that matter).

Still, I enjoyed Tarkin, and I’d recommend it to those die-hard fans who want to get a glimpse into an important period in Star Wars history. Other, more casual fans, might be advised to skip this one.

Now it’s on to Timothy Zahn’s new series focused on Thrawn, another of the most iconic villains in Star Wars. Stay tuned!

Book Review: “Star Wars: Phasma” (Delilah S. Dawson)

In my opinion, one of the best things about the sequel Star Wars trilogy was the enigmatic villain known as Captain Phasma. Unlike all of the other villains of the story, we never really learn much about her and, unfortunately, she met a rather premature death in The Last Jedi. For those who were frustrated by the rather cursory way in which she was dispensed with, Delilah S. Dawson’s book, focused on her early life and related through those who knew her, is something of a corrective.

The novel is related primarily through three different characters. One is Vi, a woman who works for the Resistance (but is not part of it); Cardinal, the First Order captain who captures her and forces her to tell him what she knows about Phasma; and Siv, a young woman who was part of Phasma’s clan on the dying planet of Parnassos. Through these three characters, we get some measure of insight into the past events that have shaped Phasma and made her into the ultimate expression of the First Order’s philosophy.

Indeed, what I personally found so compelling about the novel was the insight it provides on the inner workings of the First Order. While the films allow us to imagine this organization as a sort of faceless, amorphous evil, the novels allow us to see it as comprised of a number of individuals–in this case Cardinal and the elder Hux–who do sincerely believe that the First Order is the only way of bringing some level of equality and justice to the Galaxy. They may be woefully and dangerously misguided in the methods that they seek to do this, but they are still human beings, with all of the flaws and foibles that they have.

Dawson has a keen gift of description, and through her words I gained a strong sense of what kind of Parnassos is. She ably captures the sort of life-and-death struggle that characterizes this planet. She leaves you in no doubt that Parnassos is exactly the type of crucible seemingly designed to produce a person like Phasma, committed to their own survival no matter what the cost, no matter how many other lives have to be taken in order for that to be a reality.

While Phasma is, ostensibly, the center of the narrative, both Cardinal and Siv dominate large parts of the story. Cardinal is a particularly interesting example, as he is one of those who is a true believer in the First Order and is shaken to his core by the mendacity of both Phasma and General Hux (the younger). You can’t help but sympathize with a man who has given his entire soul to an organization and its philosophy, only to discover that it’s rotting from the inside out. Siv is also a sympathetic character, precisely because she shows that it is possible for someone from Parnassos to hold true to their principles and not become a sociopathic monster.

There are a few complaints that I have about the novel, most of which have been noticed by others. Though I enjoyed Siv and Cardinal and Vi as viewpoint characters, I personally would have liked to have seen at least a little bit inside of Phasma’s head. As it is, we only get the briefest glimpse, and that doesn’t happen until the very end. What we do get is very compelling indeed, and it makes you wonder whether the novel might have been stronger with more of her in it.

And yet, I also have to wonder if that is part of the point that the novel is making. Phasma remains something of an enigma, a figure upon whom her enemies and her allies can project their own anxieties and desires. More than that, though, it may just be that Phasma doesn’t have interiority to speak of. To my mind, that makes her all the more terrifying as a villain, a potent reminder that, much as we might like it otherwise, there are some people who we simply cannot understand within our existing frameworks.

All in all, I quite liked Phasma. Though it might not to everyone’s taste, it is, nevertheless, a valuable addition to the new Star Wars canon.

Book Review: “Star Wars: Lords of the Sith (by Paul S. Kemp)

Let me state that outset that I have decidedly mixed feelings about this book. Like many other reviewers, I feel that the title is incredibly deceptive, since it suggests that the book is going to primarily focus on the relationship between Darth Vader and Palpatine. While that is indeed a very prominent storyline, it’s only one of many, and it can sometimes be a bit bewildering trying to keep track of everything that’s happening (to say nothing of becoming actually involved with some of these characters).

The novel takes place some time before the events of A New Hope. Vader and Palpatine find themselves ensnared in the Ryloth resistance movement led by the Twi’lek Cham Syndulla. In the process, they find themselves stranded on the planet Ryloth and have to contend both the native wildlife and with the efforts of the Twi’leks, as well as a renegade Imperial, and their attempts to destroy them.

Of all of the complicated relationships of the Star Wars universe, that between Vader and Palpatine is one that has always hovered at the edge of full comprehensibility. Sure, we get some clues to its nature in the prequel trilogy, but we only occasionally see how they feel about one another. Throughout this book, we get the distinct sense that Vader doesn’t have a great deal of love for his master, and in fact may just be biding his time until he can bring about his destruction. It’s really fascinating to see this little spark of rebellion in this iconic villain, a reminder of how perpetually unstable the relationship between the Sith was and remains.

This novel makes it clear that Vader still struggles to put the darkest parts of his past behind him, that the ghosts of his horrible actions still haunt his waking hours. He thinks back to incidents that fans will recognize from the prequels, such as his notorious slaughtering of the younglings in the Jedi Temple, as well as his murderous rampage after he discovered his mother’s tortured body. The sequences from Vader’s perspective were some of the most compelling parts of the novel, and they really do shed light on his inner psychology. However, each time I read a Vader chapter I’d be left wanting more.

The novel moves along at a brisk pace, but despite that it can sometimes get a bit boring. There were a few times when I found myself getting genuinely invested in the rebelling Ryloth characters, but the novel’s main antagonist, a rebelling Imperial, was both ineffective and frustrating to inhabit as a character. The novel would have been better served, I think, by focusing its attention on the two Sith rather than secondary Imperial characters.

There are some parts of Lords of the Sith that threaten to veer into the ridiculous, most notably the far too extensive battle between Palpatine, Vader, and a nest of creatures known as lyleks. It just felt so strange and out-of-character to see these two giants of the Empire doing battle with strange creatures on an alien planet. I’m also not entirely sure what Kemp was trying to accomplish with this scene, other than to show that both Vader and Palpatine still wield enormous power as users of the Force (as if we didn’t know that anyway).

On the other hand, there are some notable action sequences that are worthy of praise, particularly those in which Vader gets to once again put his superior flying skills to use. The battle sequences were depicted very well, and they were some of the rare instances where I actually felt myself engaging with what was going on.

All in all, Lords of the Sith is entertaining enough, but I did emerge feeling somewhat dissatisfied. The many pieces just didn’t seem to fit together very well, and I really do think that if the novel had either been strictly about the two Sith or about the rebels of Ryloth that it would have made a stronger novel. As it is, it’s hard to find a sense of narrative urgency. We know that the efforts to assassinate the two of them are doomed to fail and, since the events precede those of the original films. The novel is an unfortunate reminder of what might have been.

Book Review: “Star Wars: Resistance Reborn” (by Rebecca Roanhorse)

As I’ve said before, I’ve recently become a little bit obsessed with Star Wars. Given that, it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that I’ve thrown myself into the universe with all of the enthusiasm of a recent convert. To that end, I recently checked out Star Wars: Resistance Reborn, and I’m very glad that I did.

The novel moves us along at a brisk pace, showing us the events that transpired between the events of The Last Jedi and The Rise of Skywalker. The Resistance, still reeling from its near-obliteration at the hands of the First Order, struggles to find a place where they can begin to regroup. They eventually end up on Ryloth, and while Leia stays there, she dispatches Poe and a number of others to start drawing far-flung allies to the new Resistance.

One of the things that I’ve come to appreciate about this new spate of Star Wars novels is the fact that they give us so much of Leia’s perspective. The loss of Carrie Fisher in 2016 was truly a tragedy, a loss from which the Star Wars universe will never fully recover. Fortunately, novels like Resistance Reborn allow us glimpses into her psychology and her motivations, allowing us to appreciate just how much of a hero she’s been for the Galaxy, and how much she has sacrificed for the betterment of the downtrodden. If anything, I would have liked to see more of her perspective in the novel.

Of course, one of the other enjoyable parts of the novel was the character of Poe. He is, for me, one of the best things about the new films, and no small part of this has to do with Oscar Isaac’s characterization. Here, we get more insight into his guilt over his actions in The Last Jedi, as well as his determination to make good and redeem himself. This he does to good effect, and I particularly enjoyed seeing the rapport between him and Princess/General Leia. It’s clear, both in the novels and the films, that this was intended to be one of the primary relationships in the films.

The only character who was a bit of a let-down was the cruel bureaucrat Winshur Bratt. I wasn’t really sure what his point in the narrative was, unless it was to show in a more personal and intimate way the fact that the First Order manages to exert its influence by preying on the sort of petty people who are always seeking power at the expense of others. I can’t help thinking, though, that there might have been more effective ways of demonstrating this than with a relatively minor character.

The novel’s great strength, I think, is that it effectively bridges the events of The Last Jedi and The Rise of Skywalker. One of many complaints that people had about the latter was that the arrival of a fleet of ships in response to the distress call from the Resistance seemed too abrupt. Resistance Reborn makes it clear that this is actually the end result of significant sacrifice and planning, both from Leia and from others. While it is, admittedly, a little frustrating to have to rely on extra-filmic material in order to have a film’s narrative make sense, that seems rather par for the course with Star Wars.

All in all, I really liked Star Wars: Resistance Reborn. I disagree with those who see the new canon novels as filler. In my opinion, there’s something to be said for these novels that help us to understand a bit more about the events that transpire between each of the films. Besides, these novels allow us to delve deeper into the psychology of some of our favorite characters in ways that simply isn’t possible on the screen (no matter how good the acting might be). If I have one complaint about this novel, it’s that it’s actually too short, and so we don’t get to see a lot of either Rey or Finn (a rather strange thing, given their centrality to the new films). Nevertheless, Resistance Reborn is a fine addition to the Star Wars universe.

Next up, I’ll be reviewing Lords of the Sith, an interesting novel that sheds light on the fraught relationship between Darth Vader and Emperor Palpatine.

Book Review: “Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi” (by Jason Fry)

I have to admit that I’ve had mixed feelings about Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi, both at the time it came out and subsequently. While I respect some of the risks that the film took, I still feel frustrated by the way that it sidelined Poe in a way that felt untrue to the character, while also asking us to empathize with characters that came out of nowhere. My ambivalence about TLJ, along with my dissatisfaction with the novelization of The Force Awakens, led me to approach this new novel with no small amount of trepidation.

As it turns out, I needn’t have worried so much. This novelization makes a number of improvements over the previous volume, and one gets the sense that Jason Fry had a lot more investment in actually translating the film into a book form that stands on its own and isn’t just a mere transcription. The novel is well-paced and engaging, and there wasn’t a single point where I felt myself getting bored.

There are some interesting choices in terms of who gets their own perspective in the novel. Somewhat surprisingly, the droid BB-8 gets several chapters dedicated to his POV (which was also true in The Force Awakens). Somehow, Fry manages to capture the sense of whimsy and irascibility that are the hallmarks of the character in the film version, and I found myself looking forward to getting inside of BB-8’s mind. In fact, I continue to find it fascinating the extent to which Star Wars as a franchise continues to lure us into feeling compassion and affection for things that aren’t even human (and arguably don’t have a soul).

Equally surprising as a major POV character is General Hux. In the films, he’s portrayed with almost hysterical intensity by Domhnall Gleeson, who delivers each line at top volume. Here, we get a bit more sense of what makes him tick, and in particular we learn about the ways in which his own subordinates look at him as something of a fool. Nevertheless, he is one of those who is a true believer in the First Order and the sense of righteousness that it seeks to bring to the Galaxy. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that we come to sympathize with him, but we definitely come to understand him in a way that we really don’t in the films.

One of the great strengths of the novel is its pacing. Somehow, it manages to be both fast-paced (it’s really quite a slender volume) and also gives us a strong sense of these characters as characters. One of my major complaints about the novel version of The Force Awakens was that it felt as if even Rey (arguably the central character) was just a cut-out figure going through the motions. Had Fry just phoned in his efforts, I don’t think that this novel would succeed as much as it does. Since he actually seems to have a firm grasp of what it was that Johnson was trying to accomplish, the novel keeps us engaged with these characters.

In particular, the novel helps us understand some of the stranger events that were so upsetting about the film. In particular, we get more insight into Poe Dameron’s mindset. I personally thought one of the biggest missteps of the film, and while the novel doesn’t entirely undo this, but it does at least give us a sense of Poe’s motivations. Likewise, I was glad that Rose Tico also got some more interiority, which greatly helped me to understand her motivations as a character. In fact, some of the most moving parts of the novel were from her perspective, particularly as she struggles to come to terms with her sister’s death and her own obligations to the Resistance.

Lastly, the novelization of The Last Jedi does a better job than The Force Awakens at allowing us inside Rey’s head (as well as that of her reluctant mentor Luke). Of all of the characters of the new films, Rey remains perhaps the most enigmatic. In the novel, we do get a stronger sense of her interiority, about the struggles she faces as she comes to terms with the failings of the Jedi, and of Luke in particular. And, of course, there is also the fact that she has to contend with both her vexed relationship with Kylo Ren and her parentage. Fry does an admirable job bringing out these complexities while not getting bogged down in too much exposition.

All in all, I very much enjoyed the novelization of The Last Jedi. While I still have some very mixed feelings about the film and the directions that it took the franchise, I now feel that I have a better sense of what Jonson was attempting to accomplish.

Book Review: “Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens” (by Alan Dean Foster)

Having recently watched the final installment of the newly-named “Skywalker Saga,” I’ve become more than a little obsessed with everything connected to Star Wars. I decided that it was time that I dip my toes into the huge pool of books that have emerged

I went into this book with rather high hopes. I’ve always thought that the novelizations of the Star Wars films help to smooth away some of the glaring faults one finds in the film versions. Fantasy giants such as Terry Brooks and R.A. Salvtatore, for example, did a fine job of novelizing the prequel trilogy, and I’m sure that many enjoyed their novels more than the films. Though I quite enjoyed The Force Awakens, I was hoping to gain some new insight into the film, the characters, and the world.

While I enjoyed this novelization, I tend to agree with those critics who see it as a rather bare-bones approach to this process. We don’t get much more plot than what happened in the film, and while this isn’t necessarily a problem, it does raise the question of why one would write a novelization if one wasn’t going to at least try to flesh out the material a bit more.

Particularly frustrating in this regard are two of the film’s key players: Rey and Kylo Ren. Reading this novel, one would be forgiven for thinking that they were bit players at best, so thin is the characterization. Admittedly, it would be tremendously difficult to capture the rich layers of characterization that Daisy Ridley and Adam Driver brought to their screen performances, but one could hope that a novel would help us to understand their drives and motivations a bit more. Unfortunately, Foster doesn’t really dwell on their interiority too much. While this might be forgive in Kylo’s case (sometimes its more effective to leave the villain off the main stage as much as possible), it really does hamper the novel to not give us any more insight in Rey. As it is, she’s really just a stock character who goes through the motions without much interior motivation, which is really a missed opportunity.

There were a few standout scenes that I enjoyed and that I felt added a touch of depth to what the film provided. The novel really shines when it adopts Finn’s perspective, and it does give us some insight as to why it is that a man raised from childhood to be blindly obedient to the dictates of the First Order would turn aside from that training to take up with the uncertainties of the Resistance. We get some truly interesting introspection on Finn’s part as he comes to terms with what it means to be an individual, and one gets the feeling that if Foster had applied this same strategy to the other characters in the book, it would have made for a more compelling narrative. Unfortunately, the only other character who gets nearly as much development as Finn is Poe, and we at least get some behind-the-scenes explanations for how he survived that crash landing.

Overall, the novelization of The Force Awakens is fine enough for what it is. It’s workmanlike and gets the job done, but that’s about as much as can be said for it. Those looking for more depth to their love of The Force Awakens can skip it, while those who just want to enjoy all things Star Wars will find it at least somewhat rewarding.

I’m already almost halfway through the novelization of The Last Jedi, and I have to say that I already enjoy it considerably more. Stay tuned for my review!

Book Review: The Dark Powers of Tolkien (by David Day)

As I do every year at this time, I find myself wanting to read anything and everything I can about Tolkien, his worlds, and his philosophy. When I saw David Days The Dark Powers of Tolkien in a bookshop in Edinburgh, I knew at once that I had to have it. Well, I started reading it and, a day later, I’m finished and ready to share my thoughts with all of you.

It’s a slender book, but Day manages to pack quite a lot into it despite that. He gives us a pretty good overview of the various incarnations of evil that appear in all of the ages of Middle-earth, ranging from the titanic force of Morgoth in the First and Sauron in the Second and Third to the rather lesser evils of Saruman, Orcs, Trolls, and sundry dragons and other monsters. The book is arranged chronologically, so that the reader gets a good sense of how evil incarnates in each Age of Middle-earth.

In the process, he shows us how, for Tolkien, evil is nothing more nor less than the absence of good. In other words, it is a nothingness that can only ever be self-defeating. We see this time and time again in his work. Melkor/Morgoth, for all of his grand ambitions, finds that he lacks the power to make something out of nothing, and so must content himself with damaging and corrupting the work of others, and his efforts ultimately end up being self-defeating. The same is true of Sauron who, in his arrogance and desire to dominate, sows the seeds of his own undoing.

Day draws some interesting parallels between Tolkien’s work and the various threads and cultures that he drew upon, some of which even I wasn’t aware of. In doing so, Day helps us to appreciate the deep wells of Tolkien’s own mind. Those who aren’t as familiar with his work and his influences will definitely find some valuable gems. Day is particularly successful at showing how Tolkien drew on the various myths and legends of northern Europe, though he also does some cross-cultural exploration that I found intriguing. Day also provides some interesting glosses on nomenclature and how, in Tolkien’s fiction, the name of a person or thing reveals something about its essential nature.

Perhaps the book’s most interesting contribution to an understanding of Tolkien’s work is his comparison of Tolkien to Milton. The two men are, arguably, the greatest crafters of epic in English, and each of them has a particularly keen eye of how to create evil characters that are at once deeply repugnant yet utterly comprehensible.

Lastly, a word on the illustrations. The book is lavishly illustrated with various styles of image. Some of them are truly disturbing in their ability to capture the grandeur and terror of Tolkien’s evil creations. While some of them may not be to everyone’s taste, many of them are very extraordinary indeed.

Overall, I think this book will be enjoyed by those, like me, who have a voracious appetite for everything Tolkien. There’s not necessarily anything truly groundbreaking in the book, it does provide a good overview of the types of evil creatures that populate Tolkien’s fiction.

Book Review: “The Ruin of Kings” (by Jenn Lyons)

As readers of this blog know, I’m always on the lookout for a new fantasy to really sink my teeth into, one that would allow me to lose myself in its world while also keeping the pace moving. I remembered seeing Jenn Lyons’ The Ruin of Kings at Barnes and Noble some time ago, but it was some time before I could actually sit down and read it, and even more time after that until I’d finished it.

The novel follows Kihrin as he struggles to come to terms with a destiny that is far grander–and far more dangerous–than he’d ever imagined. It toggles between three different timelines, as well as several characters, before they all come together in the sort of climaxes that are the hallmark of much epic fantasy. The novel ends with Kirhin fleeing into exile, while a horde of demons has been unleashed upon the land.

The Ruin of Kings has all of the ingredients that I love about epic fantasy. Kihrin is a very sympathetic hero, and there are enough side characters with their own personalities to flesh out the story. There’s an extensive cosmogony, and the world that the characters inhabit is a once beautiful, deadly, and cruel. This is the sort of novel in which you can truly lose yourself, as you become invested both in the hero’s journey and in the world in which it takes place.

What’s more, it’s told in a very lively and engaging fashion that actually had me laughing out loud a couple of times. It’s not just that Kihrin is an irreverent character–though that is true–it’s also that the other characters are as well. What’s more, there are footnotes scattered throughout, all of which come from the compiler of Kihrin’s story. While these sometimes provide useful context for what’s happening in the story, just as often they’re witty or amusing asides and commentary about what is happening. They are very amusing, but they can also be a bit distracting at times (as is often the case when people choose to use footnotes in fiction).

Much as I enjoyed this book, however, I do think that sometimes it does get a bit self-indulgent with its complexity. It can sometimes get a little bewildering trying to sort through the various social structures, magic systems, and goddesses. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that so many of them have very similar-sounding names, which can get a bit bewildering at times. Just as importantly, there are some aspects of the narrative itself that can get a bit bewildering, as there are quite a few twists and turns along the way. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, mind you, but it is definitely something to keep in mind as you start to read.

While some reviewers have really come down hard on the choice to have the novel toggle between three different periods of time–the time of the compiler, the frame narrative, and the time of the main action of the story–I think that this is actually one of the novel’s more interesting moves. Admittedly, it does get a bit confusing at times, trying to piece together this fragmented story, and I’m not entirely sure I understand the point of telling the story in this way.

However, since ornateness is hardly unique to Lyons (Brandon Sanderson comes to mind as someone else who gets a little indulgent in this regard), I won’t hold her to account too much. It just means that, as you read, you want to either keep a running tab of the various mentions of characters (the book contains a glossary, but sometimes it’s helpful to keep your own notes), or actually outline what’s going on. Alternatively, you can follow my method, which is to just keep moving forward and assume (rightly, I think) that the numerous conundrums will be resolved in the end.

Overall, I very much enjoyed The Ruin of Kings. By the time that the novel ended, I was left hungering for more. Lucky for me, the sequel, The Name of All Things, has already been released, so I can’t wait to devour it and report back to you on my findings.

Stay tuned!

Fantasy Classics: “Naamah’s Blessing” (by Jacqueline Carey)

Warning: Some spoilers for the novel follow.

And so we come at last to the finale of the Kushiel books (at least, those that have been written so far), in which Moirin finds herself faced with yet another challenge, this time to pursue the missing Prince Thierry to the lands known as Terra Nova, where he has disappeared into the jungle, along with several of his fellows. Throughout the book, Moirin must confront the consequences of her previous actions, and she must at last come face-to-face with her one-time lover and now enemy Raphael.

Though it ultimately does have a happy ending, there are a few sacrifices made along the way. There is, of course, Queen Jeanne, whose death in the previous novel continues to cast a long shadow. And, in this novel, we unfortunately witness the suicide of King Daniel who, falling into despair at the news of his son’s supposed death, takes his own life, leaving behind his beautiful young daughter. As a result of Daniel’s death, Moirin finds herself one of the few in the realm who genuinely has the young princess’s well-being at heart, and the scenes between them are some of the most heartwarming in the entire novel.

Of course, the central tragedy of the novel belongs to Raphael who, afflicted by his guilt over his mother and sister’s death–along with the shred of the fallen spirit Focalor that still inhabits his flesh–tries to set himself up as a god-king in Terra Nova, and it is only Moirin’s timely intervention that stops him. Raphael’s tragedy is that, ambitious and brilliant as he is, he seems unable to realize (or accept) his own limits. As a result, he continues to push at the boundaries of the possible and the acceptable, plunging so far into madness that there is ultimately no salvation for him except through death.

As with the other entries in the Kushiel series, this book probes as some of the most vexing questions with which humanity has to contend: do the gods have a purpose for us, and if so, what is it? How do we know what to do in any given circumstance? In this case, Moirin can gain only small glimpses of her destiny, granted to her by Jeanne, who has been given a slight ability to change and shape events as they transpire in the world of the living. Time and again, however, Moirin has to make her own choices and how that they do not lead her astray.

What I’ve always appreciated about this series is the way in which Carey continues, throughout its run, to expand her lens to take in almost every continent of this fictional world. In this case, she takes us to Terra Nova, most of which has obvious influences from both Aztec and Incan cultures. Given that those have always been particularly fascinating to me, I’m glad that we got to see their equivalent in this fantasy universe.

And, I’ll be honest, while at times the novel does fall a bit into the white savior narrative pattern (Carey is hardly alone in falling into this trap; see also: George RR Martin), it is refreshing to see a depiction of the ancient cultures of Mexico and South America that doesn’t simply exoticize the or focus on their blood sacrifices to the exclusion of all else. This is not to say that Carey glosses over them, however. Even Moirin, who feels a measure of revulsion at what she sees as barbarian practices, finally has to contend with the fact that there may well be times when the gods call for blood and that in such times the only things humans can do is to offer it.

And, just as importantly, she also paints us a portrait of a world in which the dark and terrible forces of colonialism were allowed to follow a different path. Thanks to the influence of those from Terre D’Ange, there is now a possibility that there can be friendly relations between the two continents. Indeed, one of the good things that Raphael does is to ensure that Old World diseases do not decimate New World populations. It’s nice to think that, in some point in the distant future in this world, there might be a more peaceful and verdant future than the one that we inhabit in ours.

Perhaps most importantly, the novel finally gives Moirin the happy ending that she’s longed for, reunited with her family in Alba yet also with one foot remaining in Terre D’Ange. As with its predecessors, this novel is very much about the power of female desire and female friendships. And, once again, it is the essential power of these things that saves Terra Nova, and perhaps the very world itself, from calamity.

As I’ve said before, I’ve been dreading reading this novel for a while, because it would mean that I’d finally come to the chronological end of the saga. Now that I’m here, I have to say that I do feel completely satisfied with the way that things have transpired, both for Moirin and for the realms of which she is a part. It’s always so nice to read a book in which the main character ends up happy, her grand destiny fulfilled. Grimdark has its place, but so do novels like these.

I’d be lying, though, if I said I didn’t harbor some hope that Carey will one day return to this world, perhaps with either a prequel series of a sequel. Though, as far a I know, she hasn’t said she’ll do either of those things, I continue to think about the many issues that these novels have raised. While I might have finished them, I have no doubt that these will be some of the books that I return to again and again, whenever I feel the need to immerse myself in a world of beauty and desire and of terrible destinies fulfilled.

I can offer no higher praise than that.