TV Review: Carnival Row: “Grieve No More” (S1, Ep. 5)

I’m slowly but surely making my way through Carnival Row, and I’m now over halfway done with the first season. Rycroft continues to investigate the brutal deaths, Vignette makes inroads with the Raven, and Imogen schemes with Agreus to earn his money in exchange for her introducing him to society.

I have to admit, I’m getting a little frustrated with this show. The various plot threads are still ambling along, and none of them seem to have any particular destination in mind. That’s fine for a while, but when nothing seems to ever really move forward, it becomes increasingly difficult to care about these characters in the way that we’re presumably supposed to. For the life of me, I still do not care about Imogen and her family’s struggles against poverty, and the Puck Agreus’ motivations remain as inscrutable as ever (and, much as I like David Gyasi, his overly-mannered delivery is becoming almost unwatchable).

Part of the problem is that Carnival Row keeps throwing in more character arcs as it goes along. Whereas before we were basically supposed to be interested in three separate strands: the chancellor and his family; Vignette and Rycroft, and Imogen, now we’re supposedly supposed to also care about the showman and his kobolds as well as a Puck who was fired from the Absalom’s service (who appears to be in the midst of a religious conversion). I’d like to be able to give the series the benefit of the doubt and believe that these stories will end up somewhere, but I’m increasingly finding that a difficult proposition. If, however, the show can do the heavy lifting of making these plot arcs a central part of the final resolution, then I will be very impressed indeed.

Don’t get me wrong. The episode was enjoyable as far as it went. It’s nice to get a little more detail about Rycroft’s background–including some important revelations about his birth and a particularly haunting flashback depicting the amputation of his wings when he was a baby–and the acting continues to be top-notch. There are glimmers of an interesting story with the stuff surrounding the Breakspears and the newly-emergent Sophie Longerbane, but there’s so little detail given to them that it’s hard to really get invested (which is truly a shame, since it appears that they’re wasting the considerable talents of both Jared Harris and Indira Varma).

Of course, this doesn’t mean that I’m not going to finish it out. After all, I’ve only got three episodes left, and I still don’t quite see what the end game is, and I have the sinking feeling that I am going to be left disappointed by the ending (especially since there is already a season two announced, so most likely it will end on a cliffhanger). To my mind, the greatest challenge facing this series is the inescapable conclusion that there is a truly fascinating concept, and maybe even a truly great series, yearning to be born from a rather mediocre one.

Maybe by the end of the season it will succeed, but I’m not holding my breath.

TV Review: Carnival Row: “The Joining of Unlike Things” (S1, Ep. 4)

Warning: Spoilers ahead.

I finally got back into watching Carnival Row last night, so I wanted to share my thoughts on the fourth episode today before I attempt to watch the fifth tonight.

Having established the backstory between Vignette and Rycroft, the story switches back to the present day. Rycroft continues his investigation of the mysterious deaths plaguing the city, and he learns that the deaths might have been caused by an undead amalgam of various Fae creatures. Meanwhile, Vignette must contend with the politics of the Raven and in the process is responsible for the death of another member of the gang. Meanwhile, Imogen plots to attain the financial assistance of Puck Agreus, and Absalom Breakspear finally manages to regain his son.

The episode marked some significant developments in character development and helped to move some parts forward, though not quite enough for my taste. I’m still waiting to see why exactly I should care about Imogen and her impending destitution. Marchant does the most with what she’s been given in the script, but I can honestly say that I find this particular storyline the most tedious to get through. Similarly, while I find the Puck Agreus fascinating as a character, as of yet the show hasn’t developed him enough for me to either understand exactly what his arc is nor why I should.

Now, in terms of both Rycroft and Vignette, things are a little better.

One gets the sense that Vignette’s forced killing of one of the other members of the Raven is going to have significant consequences on her development as a character. Unlike almost everyone else in the Burgue–Fae and human alike–she has managed so far to cling to some vestige of her moral compass. This, however, seems to be changing. Vignette is a bit of a loose canon, devoid of the things that once allowed her to understand her place in the world. And, of course, it’s pretty clear that she still loves Rycroft, and one gets the feeling that he may hold the key to her ultimate salvation.

For me, the highlight of this episode was twofold. One, the advancement of the Chancellor plot, in which the Absalom’s son is finally recovered from his captivity and the son’s realization that his mother was responsible for his kidnapping. The means in which this is revealed–he recognizes the sound of her heels clicking on stone–was, I think, one of the finest scenes the series has yet produced. And, of course, Jared Harris is always a pleasure to watch; I just wish the show would give him a bit more time to stretch his wings and help us to understand what makes him (and his wife Piety) really tick.

The other highlight was Rycroft’s encounter with the creature that is probably responsible for all of the murders, as well as the revelation that it is in all likelihood a golem fashioned of dead Fae. The scene with the haruspex, in which he has to provide his seed in order for her to work the magic to create a similar creature, is both disturbing and oddly sensual. This is one of the few times that we’ve seen the workings of magic in this world, and hopefully this means that we’ll see more in the future.

My major complaint with Carnival Row remains the same as it has from the beginning. While I can see some connections among the various disconnected storylines, the series hasn’t done a great deal so far to bring them together into any kind of coherent whole. For the most part, it can’t quite seem to decide which of them is the most important, and so it’s a little difficult to get emotionally invested in any character other than the primary duo of Rycroft/Vignette.

Overall, this was a satisfying episode, though I am starting to wonder just how much of the many mysteries that it has put into play it is going to satisfactorily solve by the time that the season ends.

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.

TV Review: Carnival Row: “Aisling” (S1, Ep. 2)

Warning: Spoilers for the plot follow.

After the bombshell ending of the first episode, in which a former singer was brutally slaughtered by some unknown being from beneath the city, this episode of Amazon’s Carnival Row slowed things down a bit. Rycroft continues on his search for this new killer, while Vignette has to confront the true ugliness of her (truly terrible) employers and ultimately flees into service with a smuggling group. Meanwhile, both Imogen and Ezra (Vignette’s terrible employers) struggle with impending bankruptcy and the presence of a wealthy Puck next door, while Chancellor Absalom contends with the kidnapping of his son, unaware that his wife Piety is responsible.

Bloom and Delevingne continue to turn in solid performances, though it’s still very unclear how they feel about one another now that they have been reunited and, for that matter, what it was that separated them in the first place. They only have one scene where they are together, but there are a few sparks there, an indication that Vignette’s avowed hatred of her husband may not be as sincere as she claims, and it’s clear by Rycroft’s actions (such as paying off Vignette’s bonds to her employers), that he still has feelings for her. I sincerely hope, though, that Carnival Row starts revealing more about their backstory, as know almost nothing about either of their backstories, either individually or as a couple. That’s a bit of a problem when they are, in theory at least, your two main characters.

Varma’s Piety is also still something of an enigma. We now know that she’s staged her own son’s kidnapping, though her motives for doing so are as opaque as ever. One suspects that she bears her husband some significant amount of animosity, and their brief and testy exchange after their son’s kidnapping suggests it may be due to Piety’s exalted family status. I’ve always felt that Indira Varma is a supremely talented actress who always has the misfortune to be cast in roles that underuse her (such as her role as Niobe in HBO’s Rome and as the vengeful but ultimately ineffective Ellaria Sand in Game of Thrones), and I hope that doesn’t prove to be true here as well.

This was, in many ways, a bit of a slow-burn episode, revealing a bit more about the workings of the city of the Burgue and shedding a little more light on the politics and magic that undergird this world. However, it doesn’t really solve any of the enigmas put in place by the first episode, and though I enjoyed the episode (and very badly want to enjoy the series as a whole), I sincerely hope that matters kick into a higher gear going forward.

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: “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.

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

The third novel in Jacqueline Carey’s trilogy about the adventures of the courtesan Phédre picks up ten years after the events of Kushiel’s Chosen. In that time, she has struggled to find the key to releasing her beloved childhood companion Hyacinthe from his forced apprenticeship to the Master of the Straits. In the novel, Phédre must go on two separate but related quests: to save Imriel (son of her enemy and lover Melisande) and to find the Name of God that will enable her to free Hyacinthe. In both instances, she will find herself plunged into ancient and dark places, and she will have to give up a great deal in the process.

As with the earlier two entries, Carey conjures up her world with meticulous detail. We are introduced here to the land of Daršanga, whose ruler, the Mahrkagir, practices a perverted form of Zoroastrianism and in doing so hopes to bring about the corruption of the world by the evil Angra Mainyu. We also journey deep into the heart of Carey’s fictional Africa, to the kingdom of Saba, whose residents have remained cut off from the outside world and who have in their custody the keeping of the Ark of the Covenant.

While the earlier books in the series certainly went to some dark places, in this novel Carey takes this to new levels. The sinister realm of Daršanga, ruled over by the mad Mahrkagir, is one of the most compellingly written sequences in any recent fantasy. Carey immerses us in the despair and madness that Phédre endures as she struggles to survive in this world, ad she helps us to see the extent to which the fate of the entire world hinges on her ability to see to it that the ravenous, destructive force of Angra Mainyu isn’t unleashed on the rest of the world. Though she eventually succeeds, one gets the feeling that the damage that has been done will scar all of the characters for the rest of their lives.

Kushiel’s Avatar shows us the extent to which actions have consequences that often go beyond the immediate future. Melisande’s treachery has earned her the harsh mercy of Kushiel, and though it is unfortunate that the innocent Imriel must bear the brunt of his justice, it is also somewhat fitting. What better way to demonstrate the extent of Kushiel’s cruel mercies than by sending an innocent into the very heart of darkness itself? Indeed, had Melisande not done what she had in her own ruthless pursuit of power, it is entirely possible that the ultimate forces of the void would have swept all before them.

All of this feeds into the novel’s epic ambitions. Indeed, Kushiel’s Avatar comes closest to fitting within the narrative conventions of the epic. Here, the consequences of the story are not just about the politics and fates of a nation–though that is still part of the background–but of the very gods themselves. As their chosen avatar, it is up to Phédre to avert a catastrophe.

Kushiel’s Avatar is also about the terrible choices that one must frequently make on the journey to salvation. From the deeply personal–such as Phédre and Hyactinthe deciding that they cannot, in the end, become a couple–to the Phédre decision to embrace the darkness at the heart of Daršanga, these are the times that try the souls of our heroes. None of these choices are easy, and though the novel does have a happy ending, it also makes it clear that no one–not Phédre, not Joscelin, not Imriel, not Hyacinthe–will emerge unscathed from the things that they have endured. There are some wounds that never fully heal, and all one can do is embrace the small joys that life still brings.

I very much enjoyed Kushiel’s Avatar, and the novel once again demonstrates the extent to which Carey definitely deserves her accolades as one of the finest writers of fantasy working today. Her ability to do new things with the epic fantasy genre, particularly her lush prose and explicit sexuality, really does set her apart from almost anyone else working with the form. I can’t wait to see what the next books hold, as we switch from Phédre’s journeys to those of Imriel, the boy born of traitors and saved from the ultimate darkness.

Book Review: “The Lost Queen” (by Signe Pike)

It’s not easy writing a book that offers a new, fresh, and exciting take on the Arthurian legend. After all, it’s one of the most famous legends in the history of English literature. Somehow, though, Signe Pike has managed to do so, and The Lost Queen is an absolute triumph of storytelling.

Languoreth is the daughter of a powerful Scottish king, and her foremost ambition is to be a Wisdom Keeper, one of a select group of men (and a very few women) tasked with maintaining their ancient religion. That fate, however, has been decreed for her brother Lailoken, while she is destined to marry a powerful prince and help bring stability to her world. Though she does ultimately wed a man for the good of her kingdom, her heart will always belong to the dark and brooding Maelgwn, a warrior whose fate lies to the south.

Throughout the book, Languoreth comes across as a fierce and proud woman determined to seize what bits of happiness she can, despite the limits placed upon her because of both her sex and her status. As the daughter of a king and the brother of a man destined to be a Wise One himself, she knows that she has a duty to perform to her people, yet she is also not afraid to follow her own heart when it suits her. The novel allows us to see inside her mind as she struggles to maintain a balance between her own personal desires and the people she has sworn to protect.

I’ve heard some say that The Lost Queen is the new Mists of Avalon, without all of the ugly baggage of Marion Zimmer Bradley, and I think there’s something to that comparison. The Lost Queen depicts a world on the brink of great social, cultural, and political change, as zealous Christians like Mungo will not rest until they have brought the entire edifice of the ancient way crumbling to the ground. Laguoreth, as a passionate believer in the old religion, attempts to keep the Christian forces at bay, even while she also has to accept that politics sometimes makes personal satisfaction in matters of faith impossible. The Lost Queen is full of evocative scenes in which Languoreth immerses herself in the sensual spirituality of her ancestors.

It’s also a world in which the force of arms is often the only thing standing between the remnants of the British tribes and the hordes of Saxons that seem poised to sweep across the island and make it their own. In Pike’s telling, the Pendragon (which here is a title rather than a surname per se), is headquartered near Hadrian’s Wall, where he leads a group of warriors that are descendants of the Sarmatians brought to Britain by the Romans. It’s an interesting theory, and there’s no doubt that Pike paints this world in bright and vivid colors. She’s one of those exceptional historical fiction authors who can, through her exquisite prose, conjure up the experience of living in a particular historical period.

That being said, I’m not entirely sure that I buy the idea that the real Arthurian legends took place in Scotland, though Pyke does make a compelling case for that notion in her author’s note. It’s a fascinating way of looking at the legends of King Arthur, and if nothing else it makes us look anew at these legends and the men and women who inhabit them.

As fascinating as the politics, are, however, the book is essentially about relationships. Languroeth’s fiery passions draw you in and don’t let you go, from the first page to the last. You yearn with her as she encounters Maelgwn, and you weep with her as she realizes that she must choose duty over her own desire. While you may not always agree with what she does–she’s not a flawless heroine, by any means–Pike at least allows you to understand her desires and motivations.

Having now finished The Lost Queen, I’m finding that I’m very excited indeed for the next volume, which is due out in 2020. I daresay that we are in for a treat, and that Pike is fated to become one of the most respected authors of women’s historical fiction writing today.