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!

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.

Book Review: “The Testaments” (by Margaret Atwood)

Warning: Some spoilers for the novel follow.

When I heard that Margaret Atwood was writing a sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, I have to admit that I was a little afraid. Would she be able to pull off returning to this world that she created with such piercing and devastating clarity decades ago? Would it feel a bit stale and warmed-over? These, to me, were the questions and anxieties I had going into The Testaments.

Fortunately for me, and for all of those who enjoyed the first novel, Atwood has crafted a superb sequel that answers some of the questions posed by The Handmaid’s Tale, even while it raises others.

The novel is almost breathlessly paced, drawing you in from the first page and not letting you go until the last. It toggles between three very different perspectives. Agnes is a young woman who has been raised under the Gilead regime and, aside from some distant memories, has no recollection of any life before it. Nicole, on the other hand, has been raised in Canada and is horrified by the abuses that she theocracy to the south continues to perpetrate and becomes part of a mission to bring it down. And, lastly, there is Aunt Lydia herself, who emerges from this story as a potential fifth column from within Gilead.

Nicole and Agnes, each in their different ways, help shed a light on what it’s like for the second generation of those coming of age after the rise of the Sons of Jacob. For her part, Nicole has an outsiders’ perspective and this, combined with her very spiky and prickly nature, means that she views it with nothing but contempt. Agnes, on the other hand, has been raised to believe in its strictures, though she, too, comes to have significant doubts about the rightness and sanctity of it, particularly after she begins her training to become an Aunt. Atwood does a fine job of conveying her divided loyalties, torn as she is between her own independent spirit and the injunction to obedience that is so much a part of Gilead’s culture.

As interesting as both Nicole and Agnes are, however, the most fascinating character in the novel is, as perhaps Atwood intended, Aunt Lydia herself. Lydia has always been one of the figures that towers over all the forms of this story (Anne Dowd’s portrayal of her in the TV series is one of the most terrifying things about it). Here, she is at once more human than her earlier counterparts and also more sympathetic and, in her own voice, we learn about the choices she had to make as she began her ascent into the upper echelons of power.

And yet, there is also something sphinx-like about her. We’re never quite sure about her motivations. Assuming that it is really Lydia–and, given the postscript we can be forgiven for having some doubts about this–we are left to wonder why, exactly, she is doing so much to bring about the end of the order that she helped to bring into being. Is she doing it because the upper echelons have become hopelessly corrupt (which is what she suggests), or does she have some other purpose, some sense of guilt, perhaps, at what she has done and at the lives that she has ruined (and taken) along the way? The novel is rather vague about these points and, to my mind, that is all to the good.

As with its predecessor, we never get a full glimpse of the world of which Gilead is a part. We don’t get a strong sense, for example, of just how far its borders go, though there are tantalizing glimpses of what the country outside of Gilead looks like. We are informed, for example, that there is such a thing as the Republic of Texas (though why a place like Texas wouldn’t jump aboard a theocracy is a little unclear).

As breathlessly paced as it is, The Testaments is even more scathing than its predecessor in showing the essential hypocrisy at the heart of Gilead. Commander Judd, for example, is fond of younger women and, even more unfortunately, has a bad habit of killing his wives when they get too old to stimulate him. And, of course, Aunt Lydia’s fellow Aunts are as vindictive and corrupt as everyone else, and it is only through her own relentless and ruthless manipulation that she is able to stay one step ahead of the game.

The Testaments is, overall, a significantly more optimistic novel than its predecessor, and one gets the sense that this optimism is in part a response to the much bleaker political reality in which it was produced. After all, while its predecessor emerged during the early days of the Religious Right’s rise to prominence, The Testaments has come about in an age in which the future that Atwood originally envisioned has come ever closer to being a lived reality. In allowing these characters to have more agency to change the world in which they live–and in allowing Aunt Lydia the chance to redeem herself–the novel suggests that no one is beyond redemption, that even the most corrupt society can be returned to normalcy.

The Testaments is also like a similarly-themed work of recent vintage, the television series Years and Years. Both works seem to take the view that it is always darkest just before the light, that even in the midst of what seems like hell on earth, there is a brighter future just around the corner. It may seem a little trite to some, but for those of us who sometimes struggle to see a brighter future, novels like The Testaments are a reminder that it is always darkest just before the dawn. When I was finished with the novel, I felt much more optimistic than I had in a very long time indeed. For this, if for nothing else, Atwood’s The Testaments deserves all of the praise that it receives.

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

Warning: Some spoilers follow.

I’ve now finished the second volume of Jacqueline Carey’s third trilogy, Naamah’s Curse. It probably goes without saying, but I really enjoyed this novel and I am, of course, hard at work reading the third.

The novel begins with Moirin setting out on her journey to catch up to her beloved Bao. Though she finds him, she is soon kidnapped and sent north into the vast country of Vralia. What follows is a series of adventures in which she meets a fanatical Yeshuite patriarch, his sensuous and sensitive nephew, a powerful witch who commands a deadly jewel, and a lord of assassins. Through it all, she must rely on her love of Bao to see her through, as well as her native powers and abilities.

Much as I wanted to savour this novel, to take my time and really lose myself in its sumptuous prose, as always I found myself pulled inexorably along by the story. Like its predecessors, it is largely episodic, in that Moirin goes from mishap to mishap, learning more about herself and about the world in which she lives with each iteration. Here, we learn more about the burgeoning power of Vralia, which has continued to grow in power and importance. In particular, we see that the vengeful patriarch has plans to use Moirin to launch a terrible crusade against Terre D’Ange. Given that I’ve often wondered how Carey’s world would look with a Christian nation, I found this development rather exciting and, while Moirin manages to circumvent the zealot’s efforts, it does suggest that there might yet be a confrontation between two of this world’s great powers. This storyline thus serves as a cautionary tale about the destructive power of religious zealotry and the reactionary condemnation of the pleasures of the body.

Like any unwilling epic heroine, Moirin finds herself caught up in forces and events much greater than she can at first imagine, and this is certainly the case when she pursues Bao into this world’s equivalent of the Himalayas. There she must confront a woman known as the Spider Queen, who has managed to take control of a powerful gem that has the power to command desire. There are echoes in this story of Phèdre’s journey into the heart of Drujan. Like her predecessor, Moirin finds herself faced with a truly dark magic, one that, while temporarily locally contained, has the potential to expand and damage the world. And, like her predecessor, she recognizes the fundamental humanity at the heart of this seemingly evil creature, showing us that even those who seem beyond the pale of comprehensibility have their own reasons (both good and bad) for doing what they do.

Much as I liked the stories about both Phèdre and Imriel, I identify with Moirin in ways that I never completely did in the case of the other heroes of the Kushiel saga. Moirin, for better or worse, gives her heart very quickly and easily to those with whom she comes into contact. Whether it is Bao (arguably her one true love) or any one of a dozen others, Moirin always gives freely of herself and of her gifts. Of course, this means that she frequently finds herself in scrapes that it takes quite a lot of effort to escape, but this is part of what makes her such a compelling and sympathetic hero. After all, it’s not necessarily a bad thing to give one’s love freely, even if the costs to oneself are frequently harsh and exacting.

Though the novel is largely full of joy, there are a few moments of genuine sadness, such as when Moirin hears that her beloved Jehanne has died in childbirth. Given that we have already been led to understand just how deeply she feels for the Queen of Terre D’Ange, this is a particularly devastating blow (the fact that it is delivered by the vengeful Vralian patriarch makes it all the more difficult to hear). This is one of those moments in the novel that is a profoundly human and universal one, as we are led to feel Moirin’s anguish that she wasn’t able to be there for the woman that she loved at the end of her life. The fact that Jehanne’s shade manages to visit her in her dreams only partially offsets the tragedy of this storyline, though it is rather nice seeing Moirin get at least a little bit of closure.

I have one minor complaint about the novel, and that it falls a little too much into the white savior narrative that is such a problematic aspect of the west’s relationship with the cultures of the east. In this case, Moirin’s disgust at the caste system that operates in this world’s equivalent of India/Nepal is, from a western perspective, understandable, as is the fact that she is the catalyst that sees the beginning of the undoing of the oppression of the untouchables. As gratifying as this is, however, I do think that we should be wary of these sorts of fantasies that allow western characters to be the primary catalyst for social change.

Despite those flaws, Naamah’s Curse is a stirring reflection on the power of desire to provide a balm to the human spirit. As always, Carey’s command of her prose is powerful, and the sex scenes in this book are even more intense and visceral than in the other installments of the series. However, the true emotional heart of the novel is the relationship between Bao and Moirin. Much as the Kushiel series shows the power of desire, it also shows us how much a part of the human condition love is, and how central it can be to the ultimate triumph of good over evil. Carey excels once again at making us feel just a little bit better about the world.

I have to say, though, that I’m approaching the final volume of this series with some trepidation. After all, it will mean the final farewell to this beautiful world and all of its enchanting mystique.

Book Review: “The Rage of Dragons” (by Evan Winter)

Warning: Some spoilers for the novel ahead.

When I saw The Rage of Dragons sitting on the front table at Barnes and Noble some time ago and read the description on the jacket, I knew at once that I had to read it. So, I checked it out from my local library, sat down to read it, and found myself totally entranced. From beginning to end, the book is a ruthless–and at times brutal–exploration of the destructive (and redemptive) power of vengeance set in a world that teeters on the brink of absolute destruction.

When his father is killed at the order of the one of a villainous and callous noble, Tau swears that he will overcome his common blood and upbringing and become the greatest swordsman who ever lived. After he devotes himself to a life of the sword, he finds his loyalties–both political and personal–tested as he unwittingly becomes part of a much grander, and more dangerous, plot than he ever imagined.

The Rage of Dragons is epic fantasy in the vein of Brandon Sanderson, with a complex magic system and a hero who must work through significant trauma. While there is, of course, some attention paid to politics and the doings of the great, for most of the novel we are immersed in Tau’s world, which largely revolves around his training and the brutality that it entails. It thus also fits squarely within that tradition of epic fantasy that emphasizes the gory and violent side of the hero’s journey, and there were a few times when I had to put the novel down to give myself a breather from the unrelenting violence. This is not to say that A Rage of Dragons totally ignores the higher, more noble aspects of the epic tradition, only that it tends to access them through an emphasis on the redemptive power of violent action.

Now, I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Tau is an unpleasant character, but he is definitely one that is sometimes difficult to like. I don’t think this would have been such a significant issue in the book if we’d been given some other characters’ point of view but, for better or worse, the vast majority of the novel is told from Tau’s perspective. This isn’t necessarily a problem, but it does mean that we don’t always get a macro-view of the events that are taking place in this fully-detailed world.

The novel is something of a slow burn, for while it reaches a crisis point quite quickly in the beginning, large swathes of the middle are dedicated to the grueling training that Tau undergoes as he attempts to exceed the limitations imposed by his lower-caste birth. These scenes are definitely not for the faint of heart, as Winter spares no detail his depiction of the brutality of this world. Sometimes, it’a a trifle difficult not to feel overwhelmed, both by the unrelenting depictions of violence in all of its forms and by the relentlessness of Tau’s suffering. That being said, by the time the novel really starts to heat up toward the end, you’ll find that you won’t be able to put it down. Indeed, the novel has one of the best-written climaxes that I’ve read in recent years.

For all of that, The Rage of Dragons does use Tau to show us the fundamental injustices of this world. For most men and women, Tau included (at first, at least), it is almost impossible to move beyond the limitations imposed by caste. While those in power insist that this is to help the Omehi people as a whole survive, Tau’s story reveals just how rotten and unjust the system has become and it leads one to wonder just how noble the Nobles truly are (the answer, I would venture to say, is not very much at all).

As with any great fantasy, The Rage of Dragons uses the hero’s journey to shine a light on issues that are significantly vaster and more complicated than one individual character. In this case, we are asked to think about one of the most uncomfortable (and, I daresay, intractable) issues facing the contemporary world: colonialism and its aftermath. The world of the novel is one in which the Omehi have, for centuries, sought to bring the hedeni (the “savages”) to heel, with increasingly limited results. This is a world that is confronted by a seemingly never-ending war, with a magic system–including a control of dragons–that is essentially dangerous and, quite possibly, destructive.

If I have one minor complaint, it’s that we don’t get the perspective of any of the absolutely fascinating and powerful female characters. While many of them–including Tau’s beloved, Zuri–do great things throughout the novel, we only rarely get their point of view. When we do, however, they crackle with intensity, and so I hope that Winter weaves in more female perspectives in sequel volumes.

By the end of the novel, things are in a state of unrest, and Tau has yet to recover from the wounds (both physical and psychological) that he has endured during the course of the novel. The entire realm has been plunged into chaos and bloodshed, a fragile peace between the hedeni and the Omehi has been shattered by the treachery of nobles. At this point, it remains to be seen whether Tau will be able to overcome his own limitations to become the savior of his country and his queen. There is definitely a lot of room for further plot and character development in the sequel volumes and I, for one, simply cannot wait to read them.

Winter joins a remarkable group of young writers of color who are broadening the parameters of epic fantasy. Given how racially problematic (and sometimes outright racist) the genre has historically been, these men and women are embarking on bold new journeys that challenge us to rethink our assumptions about what stories epic fantasy can and should be telling.

The Rage of Dragons marks an extraordinary debut from an extraordinarily talented new voice in fantasy.

Fantasy Classics: “Kushiel’s Mercy” (by Jacqueline Carey)

Note: Some spoilers follow.

And so we come at last to the conclusion of Imriel’s story arc, and what a journey it’s been, full of heartache and dark magic, soaring passion and dark despair, political turmoil and emotional despair. Kushiel’s Mercy begins with Imriel and Sidonie, illicit lovers, opening up to everyone about their love for one another. This, obviously, does not sit well with Sidonie’s mother Queen Ysandre, nor with many peers of the realm, many of whom cannot quite let go of the fact that his mother Melisande cost the lives of many of their families and friends with her acts of treason. Thus, to clear his name and earn the right to marry her, he plans to bring her at last to justice. Unfortunately, matters become significantly more complicated when both Sidonie and the entire City of Elua are placed under a malignant spell by the Carthaginians, and Imriel must do everything in his power–even consulting his mother–to save everyone and everything he loves.

The novel moves at amazingly fast pace while at the same time keeping us ensnared in its narrative twists and coils. It’s one of those books that, once you start reading it, you find yourself pulled inescapably onward. Part of this, certainly, has to do with the intense relationship between Sidonie and Imriel. Carey has a true gift for conveying the power of emotions and for doing so while also emphasizing the sexual side of human relationships. In my opinion, she’s one of the few authors to truly rival Anne Rice in her ability to convey both the fiery sizzle and smoky sensuousness of the act of sex.

The characters, of course, are all the ones that we love, as well as a few (most notably the Carthaginians) that we come to truly hate for what they have done to the people that we have come to care about through the course of this series. Imriel in particular has really grown on me. While I’m not sure that he’ll ever have quite the same place in my heart as his foster-mother Phèdre, there’s no doubt that he is a good man simply trying to live the best life that he can. It’s thus uniquely rewarding to see him finally earn his heart’s desire and wed Sidonie at the end.

If I have one complaint, it’s that we didn’t get the chance to see Melisande one last time after Imriel and Sidonie’s return to the City of Elua. I held out hope there at the end that she might make a surreptitious appearance at their wedding, perhaps in disguise, but alas my hopes were foiled. Still, her reunion with Imriel is touchingly understated and, in a bit of delicious irony, it’s actually her machinations that ultimately prove essential to saving the land that she almost brought to its knees (twice). And, what’s more, these scenes in the novel prove once and for all that, monstrous as she may be in many ways, Melisande is not completely evil, that even in her heart there is still the possibility for love.

Personally, I found this to be by far my favourite of the three books devoted to Imriel. As the story pounded toward its conclusion, I literally felt my pulse getting faster, as Imriel races to try to save the City of Elua from the depths of absolute madness. There were even times where I was uncertain whether all of the main characters were going to survive, until I remembered that I wasn’t reading Game of Thrones.

In fact, I am always pleasantly surprised by how intensely these books believe in the essential goodness of humanity. Kushiel’s Mercy, like its predecessors, takes great pains to show that, even in the darkest of times, there is still something that’s worth believing and worth fighting for. Even though it has become rather popular in fantasy to emphasize the essential darkness and rottenness at the heart of most men and women, Carey’s books seem to take to heart the most important precept of Blessed Elua: “Love as thou wilt.” As a result, you emerge from Kushiel’s Mercy feeling a great deal of optimism. If even a character like Melisande can experience redemption, then who among us is truly doomed?

This isn’t to say that the novel doesn’t have its fair share of villainy, for there is no doubt that the cunning Carthaginians are rapacious and evil, particularly the primary villains. What’s more, this novel takes us into some truly dark places as far as magic goes, which has been true of the last several volumes. Though there isn’t one clear magic system that governs this entire world, it still lives and breathes with its own grounded reality, and you find yourself believing utterly in its workings. And, believe me, these enchantments sometimes become quite intense indeed (how else to describe an spell that ensnares an entire city?)

Kushiel’s Mercy is about many things: about the ability of love to triumph over all, of the strain of loyalty; of the complex (and often fraught) relationship between desire and duty. It is also a fitting conclusion to the story arc that began so long ago with Phédre and Joscelin attempting to save their beloved country from the machinations of those who would see her brought low. Somehow, Jacqueline Carey manages to make it all come together into a seamless whole, one that, like a good sexual romp, leaves you completely satisfied and yet emotionally exhausted. What more could you ask from a book?

Having finished the two trilogies dealing with Phèdre and Imriel, it’s time now to turn to one of the descendants of Sidonie’s sister Alais. While I’m looking forward to more adventures set in this world, I’d be lying if I didn’t say I was sad to leave behind the characters that I have come to know and love so dearly.

Still, all good things must come to an end, and so I look forward to reading the next trilogy.

Fantasy Classics: “Kushiel’s Justice” (by Jacqueline Carey)

Having survived his ill-fated adventures in Tiberium and Caerdicca Unitas, young Imriel returns to Terre D’Ange hoping to begin life anew. All too soon, however, he finds himself falling desperately, madly, dangerously in love with his cousin Sidonie, the daughter of Queen Ysandre and thus heir to the throne. Desperate to avoid the treason that his mother was infamous for, trying to be the good person that he knows he can be, he agrees to a marriage with Dorelei, an Alban princess. In doing so, however, both he and Sidonie violate Blessed Elua’s most sacred precept, “love as thou wilt,” and in so doing set in motion a series of events that will leave lives ruined and ultimately lead Imriel on a desperate quest into the frozen north in the search for both vengeance and absolution.

The Kushiel books have always been known for their explicit descriptions of sex, and this one is no exception, and the sex scenes between Sidonie and Imriel are particularly graphic. These portions of the book definitely slip into the zone of genuine erotica, and that is definitely a compliment. Carey has an almost uncanny ability to capture both the physical rush of sexual pleasure as well as the deeper emotional and philosophical implications that almost always attend upon the carnal meeting of two bodies. It’s this combination of both the titillating and the deeply meaningful that makes these books such a pleasure to read and that marks them as something unlike almost anything else that has ever been attempted in modern fantasy.

If the original Phédre trilogy was characterized by its notoriously byzantine plotting, Imriel’s story is far more narratively slim than its predecessors, but that doesn’t detract from the pleasures of the story. Indeed, Imriel is as compelling a hero as Phédre, though of course he carries around scars that are significantly different than hers, and of course he has to contend with his heritage as the son of one of the realm’s most notorious traitors and with his bloodline as a scion of Kushiel. Thus, while we might not always agree with or condone Imriel’s actions, we do nevertheless understand them as at least in part a function and result of the tangled skein of his inheritance and his experiences.

That being said, Carey still manages to explore some of the weightier philosophical issues that have always been one of the most enjoyable aspects of the series as a whole. As he always has, Imriel strives to be good, to do the things that everyone wants him to do, even if that means going against his own heart’s desire. The novel constantly asks us to consider how we would respond if we were to be placed in the same situation. Would any one of us be able to put aside true love for the betterment of others, even if in doing so we might inadvertently endanger more lives? More significantly, the novel asks whether there is ever the possibility that knowing the outcome of the future

And, as always, Carey’s world-building is nothing short of flawless. In this novel, we get a more in-depth look at the life and customs of Alba, whose people are deeply proud of their heritage and yet also deeply superstitious. We get glimpses of the dark magic that is a part of their history, particularly among the bear-witches of the Maghuin Dhonn. We also get a deep look at the land of Vralia (an analogue of Russia), in which the Yeshuites have started to establish a kingdom of their own. One of the things that has always fascinated me about Carey’s world is its lack of Christianity as a hegemonic faith. In Kushiel’s Justice, we get the first glimmerings that this might not be the case for much longer, as it is increasingly clear that the Yeshuites wish to create their own nation with its own laws. The real question is how this will impact the doings of Terre D’Ange, as well as the wider world of which they are both a part.

Because, of course, there is as always an element of politics in everything that Imriel does. Though they hover in the background to a greater extent than previous entries in the series, as the novel draws to a close we get the sense that Imriel and Sidonie and all of those that we love will once again find themselves caught up in a maelstrom of intrigue and, just possibly, bloodshed. After all, Imriel’s mother is still abroad and still part of the Guild, and her legacy taints his every move. And, looming over it all, there is the fact that his relationship with Sidonie, whether conducted through marriage or not, could well rip asunder the fragile peace of Terre D’Ange.

In the end, Kushiel’s Justice is a masterful exploration of the intertwined nature of desire, duty, love, magic, and politics. It is a novel that both calls out to be savoured like the finest wine yet also gulped down in one sitting (though, given its length, that would be a tall order indeed). Once you fall under its hypnotic, sensual spell, you’ll find yourself reaching the last page and wandering how it is that you got there and where the day has gone. You’ll suffer right along with Imriel, but you will also experience the true, searing power of love and desire in all of their myriad joys.

I’m currently diving into the last volume of the Imriel trilogy, Kushiel’s Mercy, and it already feels like it’s going to be at once terribly tragic and tremendously satisfying. If the jacket is any indication, we’re finally going to get to see Melisande again, and I am both dreading and desiring to see how this transpires. And, of course, it goes without saying that I am very much looking forward to seeing how the relationship between Sidonie and Imriel turns out, and whether either of them will be able to enjoy the love they have long sought.

Stay tuned!

Book Review: “A Time of Dread” (by John Gwynne)

As soon as I began reading John Gwynne’s series The Faithful and the Fallen, I fell in love. This was epic fantasy in the finest old tradition, full of nobility and heroism, tragedy and sacrifice. As with all good books, I felt a little devastated at the end, knowing that a truly great fantasy saga had come to an end.

I was, needless to say, very excited indeed to see that he was at work on a sequel series, one that takes place roughly a hundred years later. So excited, in fact, that I was actually able to finish the book in just a few days after receiving it in the mail.

A Time of Dread focuses on four characters: the Bleda, a hostage taken to ensure his mother’s good behaviour; Riv, a hot-headed young woman struggling to become a warrior; Drem, a young man with a mysterious past who lives with his father; and Sig, a giantess and one of the few who can still remember the days of the first series of novels. Each of them finds themselves caught up in the dark times in which they live.

The Banished Lands have changed a great deal since the days when Corban was the Bright Star, struggling against the Black Sun and the forces of the demon lord Asroth. The Ben-Elim, seemingly humanity’s saviours, have turned into brutal dictators. Led by the Lord Protector Israfil and his faithful retainers, they enforce a puritanical rule on all who live under their dominion. Meanwhile, their sworn enemies the Kadoshim are decimated but far from defeated, and they have begun to scheme and plot for their return. Led by their chieftain Gulla, they plan to finish what Asroth began.

The novel is a little more tightly focused than its predecessors, due in part both to the more limited number of characters and the very different world they inhabit. The novel explores what happens after the ending of a traditional epic fantasy, in which the forces of good have managed to defeat those of evil. In Gwynne’s universe, the battle against the forces of darkness is never truly over, for it always tends to regroup, determined to launch a fresh assault. Throughout the novel, all four of the characters must contend with the fact that the stability and rules that have governed the world for over a century are coming to an end.

In many ways, A Time of Dread reminds me a bit of what Tolkien had envisioned as a sequel to The Lord of the Rings, in which men fell once more into dark and sinister designs, with cults rising up and children playing at Orcs. In this new, unsettling, and often quite terrifying world that Gwynne has crafted, men become beasts, humans and their angelic counterparts breed, and everything seems to teeter on a knife’s edge.

The characters are, of course, a little old-fashioned in their heroism. I say that not as a criticism but instead to highlight how refreshing it is to see women and men in a fantasy novel who aren’t completely idiots or shits (I’m looking at you, GRRM). Although there are elements of grimdark in Gwynne’s work–it is called A Time of Dread, after all–the novel never seems to lose sight of the fundamental humanity and nobility at the heart of its characters. These are people that you can actually cheer for and like, ones that you can suffer with, whose joys and sorrows that you can share.

One of the things that I’ve loved about Gwynne’s work is the fact that his heroines are as kickass as the heroes. These are women who know how to hold their own and who can fight just as well as any of the men (and often better). Sig the giantess was probably my favourite character in the entire book, but Riv is definitely a close second. Like any good epic heroine, she has her own journey to take, and there are things about her that set her apart from her fellows, though the most important of those remain unrevealed until almost the very end.

And, of course, no review of Gwynne’s book would be complete without mentioning the crows. Rab the albino is one of the novel’s more rascally characters, and it’s good to see that the wily crow from the original series is both still alive and has managed to produce a rather large and unruly flock of descendants. This particular character, while only tangential to the narrative, offers a moment of brightness and levity to an otherwise very dark setting.

All in all, I really quite enjoyed this new outing from Gwynne. I do feel it is worth noting, though, that this is an incredibly violent and visceral world. While this may not be to everyone’s taste, I do think that it is true to the world-building that he established in his previous series. The Banished Lands are not a place for the weak, and it takes a great deal of strength and violence just to stay alive for another day.

Generically, Of Blood and Bone feels a bit more like a rousing adventure yarn than a sprawling epic, and to me that’s just fine. Gwynne is someone who has a firm grasp of his story and the best way in which to tell it. Reading this, you almost get the sense that you are living in the midst of one of the great tales of the ancient north, full of monster and bitter ice, blood and steel and dark magic, with just a bit of Christian lore (there are angels and demons, after all) thrown into the mix to make things interesting. I can guarantee you that there is not one moment in this novel that is at all boring. It keeps you riveted from the first page to the last, and it leaves you panting for more.

I’m already hard at work reading the follow-up, A Time of Blood, and I love it already. Stay tuned for my review!

Book Review: “The Queens of Innis Lear” (by Tessa Gratton)

I’ve been meaning to read this book for quite a while now. I first saw in the new release section at B&N and though that it sounded like a compelling read.

Boy, I was not wrong.

The Queens of Innis Lear is a high fantasy reimagining of Shakespeare’s tragedy King Lear. Lear is, in this tale, the king of the isle of Innis Lear, utterly devoted to the worship of the stars, so much so that he has forbidden the old forms of magic that once gave the island life. When he command his three daughters–Gaela, Regan, and Elia–to tell him how much they love him, he is enraged when his youngest doesn’t flatter him and he banishes her from his kingdom. In doing so, he sets in motion a chain of events that will tear both the island and his family apart.

The book crackles with a rather strange poetic mystery, and I found myself drawn in with every page. Gratton has a true gift with her prose, one unlike almost anything else I’ve read recently. It’s at times beautiful and yet also unsettling, a fitting means of conveying the profound unease that drives the novel’s plot. Just as Innis Lear struggles under the tyrannical rule of Lear and his fanatical devotion to the stars, so the very prose of the novel struggles under the titanic forces of personal loyalty and betrayal as each of the major characters tries to break free of the ties of destiny and obligation that constantly circumscribe their actions.

The novel is a very dark retelling, which is appropriate, considering that the original play is a tragedy. All of the major characters are significantly flawed, some more than others. In fact, I frequently found myself disliking most, if not all, of the major characters at some point, and while some might find this a bit of a turnoff, I actually found it refreshing. The world that Gratton has created is a harsh and unforgiving one, and this is especially true of Innis Lear. One of the key conflicts of the novel is between the cold destiny of the stars and the more earth-driven magic that is native to the isle, and each of the characters struggles (often with fatal results) with some aspect of this dichotomy.

The women of the novel are, it should be said, incredibly powerful, though each manifests it somewhat differently. Gaela, the eldest, attempts to forge herself into a weapon with which she can rule the isle as its king, while her sister Regan (to whom she is bound by ties deeper than they share with anyone else) is more attuned to the powers of the island. And Elia, once her father’s favourite, must try to strike a balance between the competing forces of her life. What I found particularly compelling about the novel was the fact that all three of them are distinctly non-white, since their mother was from a part of this fictional world that is non-European.

There is no question, however, that the most compelling character is Ban. Like his Shakespearean predecessor, Ban is tortured because of his status as a bastard. Whereas his father has always lavished his love and attention on Ban’s younger brother Rory, Ban has always wanted to be something greater. As clever and crafty as he is, and as talented as he is at harnessing the power of magic, he is always condemned to play a secondary role in the life of those around him. Even his mother, Brona the witch, seems to have other priorities. Like the greatest tragic characters of Shakespeare, Ban is fundamentally broken, and his tragedy is that he realizes this and can do little or nothing to change it. As a result, he sees himself as something of an agent of creative destruction, and while we may rightly regard many of his actions as despicable and sometimes cruel, he does have something of a point.

The world-building throughout the novel decent. One gets the sense that this is a fully fleshed-out world, but much of it remains off-stage. For much of the novel, the action takes place both on the isle of Innis Lear and the country of Aremoria (analogues of the original play’s England and France). Though there are mentions of other countries such as the Third Kingdom (the birthplace of Lear’s wife Dalat and Kayo the Oak Earl), there isn’t much said about them.

In that sense, The Queens of Innis Lear is driven much more by its characters. It’s a searing look at the consequences of fanaticism and unbending adherence to principles over people. Each of the characters, from the highest to the lowest, finds himself or herself caught up in forces that they can barely name or control, each weighed down by the pasts of family and of nation. And, while the novel has a substantially happier ending than the play upon which it is based, we are still left feeling a sense of melancholia at how much has been lost, and we are left to wonder whether Elia will ever fully recover from the destruction that has torn apart everything that she held dear.

The brilliance of The Queens of Innis Lear lies in its ability to seamlessly weave together the Shakespearean and fantastic elements into a coherent whole. One can see the glimmers of the original play in many aspects of it, even as one can marvel at the way that Gratton has bent it into a new shape. This says a great deal not only about the strengths of the novel on its own, but also about Gratton as a storyteller. To be able to take such a famous story and remake it into something terrifying and visceral and beautiful is the mark of a very gifted writer indeed.

It’s already been announced that Gratton has written another fantasy reimagining of Shakespeare, titled Lady Hotspur. Given how much I enjoyed this novel, I can’t wait to what Gratton has in store for us!

Fantasy Classics: “Kushiel’s Scion” (by Jacqueline Carey)

Having finished the original Kushiel series, I found myself longing to immerse myself again in that fascinating and sensual world. I’d tried once before to read the next three volumes in the series, which focus on Imriel, but for some reason just couldn’t get into them as much. This time around, however, I’ve found myself irresistibly drawn to Imriel’s story.

Imriel de la Courcel is a haunted youth. His mother is the most reviled traitor that Terre D’Ange has ever known, and though he tries to be good, the expectations of his fellow nobles (and their scheming) makes it tremendously difficult, if not impossible. When he travels to the ancient and weary city of Tiberium, he finds himself drawn into the clutches of the delicious and erotic noblewoman Claudia Fulvia, who is herself part of the Guild of the Nameless, a sinister group of manipulators. Ultimately, he has to confront his destiny and his responsibilities as a Prince of the Blood.

Part of the pleasure of the novel stems from the way in which Carey manages to make Imriel a fully-fledged character in his own right. This is not, in other words, a re-tread of Phedre’s story, but an entirely different narrative with different stakes and consequences for what happens. Imriel is haunted by his memories from his time as a prisoner of the Mahrkagir in Daršanga, as well as by the legacy of treason left behind by his mother. A great deal of the novel, then, revolves around his desire to be good, to overcome the darkest parts of his past and try to forge his own destiny.

But he is also haunted by something much deeper than that. Though he would rather it were not so, he is a member of the Shahrizai, and as such he has the power and legacy of Kushiel running through his veins. One of the most compelling (and disturbing) parts of the novel occurs when he grabs Phédre by the wrist and, upon seeing the flash of desire go through her eyes, knows that he must get away or risk destroying the genuine love and affection he has for her. As she always does, Carey ably demonstrates the complex, and sometimes contradictory, impulses that govern our actions and our feelings.

While he hopes to find some measure of peace and understanding Tiberium, the opposite turns out to be true as he is drawn first into the orbit of the noblewoman Claudia Fulvia and then into a war involving a minor city-state and, most startling of all, a ghost who inhabits his friend Lucius. The sequences in the city-state of Lucca are at once gritty and terrifying, a testament to Carey’s unique ability to draw us into a scene, whether it’s in the bedroom or on the battlefield.

As was the case with the first three volumes of this series, Carey has a phenomenal ability to capture the beauty and the terror of sexual desire. Imriel is driven by forces that he can barely understand, and the blood of Kushiel beats in his veins. Try as he might to escape this legacy, he finds that sometimes it is better to accept the flaws in one’s nature and to learn to use one’s scars as an opportunity for growth. Kushiel’s Scion demonstrates the extent to which we are shaped by our past experiences and traumas, even as we must also not let them completely confine and define us.

And, of course, hanging over all of this is the shadow of Melisande, Imriel’s beautiful, deadly mother. By this point, we know that she has come to be revered in some parts of Caerdicca Unitas as nothing less than a goddess, and Melisande, with her insightful eye for the main chance, has done little or nothing to discourage this belief and has instead used it to her advantage. It remains to be seen whether Imriel will have the chance to confront her and demand the justice that has long been denied.

By the end of the novel, there are still many things left unresolved, and it remains to be seen how Imriel will continue dealing with the legacy of his mother’s betrayals and his own obligations as a member of the royal family. I can’t wait to see what awaits him in the next volume of the series.