Review: Warlight by Michael Ondaatje

Review: Warlight by Michael OndaatjeWarlight by Michael Ondaatje
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical fiction, literary fiction, World War II
Pages: 304
Published by Knopf Publishing Group on May 8, 2018
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From the internationally acclaimed, best-selling author of The English Patient: a mesmerizing new novel that tells a dramatic story set in the decade after World War II through the lives of a small group of unexpected characters and two teenagers whose lives are indelibly shaped by their unwitting involvement.

In a narrative as beguiling and mysterious as memory itself--shadowed and luminous at once--we read the story of fourteen-year-old Nathaniel, and his older sister, Rachel. In 1945, just after World War II, they stay behind in London when their parents move to Singapore, leaving them in the care of a mysterious figure named The Moth. They suspect he might be a criminal, and they grow both more convinced and less concerned as they come to know his eccentric crew of friends: men and women joined by a shared history of unspecified service during the war, all of whom seem, in some way, determined now to protect, and educate (in rather unusual ways) Rachel and Nathaniel. But are they really what and who they claim to be? And what does it mean when the siblings' mother returns after months of silence without their father, explaining nothing, excusing nothing? A dozen years later, Nathaniel begins to uncover all that he didn't know and understand in that time, and it is this journey--through facts, recollection, and imagination--that he narrates in this masterwork from one of the great writers of our time.

My Review:

I picked this one up because of the World War II angle. It sounded like a combination of coming-of-age and voyage of discovery. At least it sounded like a boy with a murky past grows up and discovers what the murk was all about.

But it isn’t. Or he doesn’t. Perhaps a little bit of both.

The beginning is certainly promising. 14-year-old Nathaniel and his 16-year-old sister Rachel are left in the guardianship of someone who begins as a temporary lodger in their house – at least as far as the children know. It is 1945 and the war is over. But for Nathaniel and Rachel, it seems as if the peace is going to be even more dangerous than the war.

Warlight is the semi-luminous shadowed darkness that existed at night, in Britain, under the blackout of World War II. Things were only seen in shadow, and people acted in that shadow.

In this story, the shadowy deeds conducted in that warlight continue to haunt the post-war period, and it is the warlight of his memory that Nathaniel attempts to navigate.

The first part of the book takes place during that immediate post-war period, when Nathaniel and Rachel are abandoned in the care of a man they nickname ‘The Moth’. They believe he might be a criminal. Certainly the lives that Nathaniel and Rachel lead while under his care are highly irregular, as are the characters that come to inhabit that life.

Those post-war, post-Blitz years are highly chaotic, and so is everything that surrounds them. But our perspective of those years is through Nathaniel’s memories, viewed through the lens of his adulthood in the 1950s, and his work with an unnamed secret agency, probably MI5 or MI6. His job is to sanitize the parts of the war that were conducted in a grey area. Probably in very deep shades of grey. Shades that seemed as if they were conducted ‘for the greater good’ in wartime, but that in peacetime are going to appear pretty damning. If they ever come to light.

It’s part of Nathaniel’s job to see that they don’t.

But his real purpose in the depths of that nameless agency is to hunt for traces of his mother. Because during the war, she was one of those people who operated in that grey. And during the peace, the results of those actions eventually came for her.

Nathaniel wants to learn why. Not just that why, but all the whys. And his search leads him back into his memories – and back into the grey warlight.

Escape Rating B-: I’m not actually sure I escaped anywhere with this one. It’s a weird book. From the description, I expected something more definitive, at least in the part of the book where Nathaniel is an adult and is searching for the past and the truth about that past.

But it doesn’t feel like there are any truly definitive events, at least until the very end when Nathaniel reconstructs what he thinks happened. But even then, he doesn’t really know, he’s only guessing.

And he is a very unreliable narrator. He doesn’t find much in the way of names and dates and places and documentation of any of the above. He finds bits and pieces and suppositions and suggestive blank spaces, both because his mother deliberately tried to erase her past and because the agency she worked for has erased anything murky in its past, and a lot of that murk is wrapped around his mother and her colleagues – many of whom were people that Nathaniel knew and didn’t know, both at the same time.

This is a book that I think people are either going to love or hate, but not much in the middle. It is very much literary fiction, in that it meanders a lot and not a lot clearly happens. But underneath that it says a lot of interesting things about what is condoned in war and condemned in peace, and the lengths that people and governments will go to in order to make sure that certain truths don’t ever see the full light of day.

The Sunday Post AKA What’s on my (Mostly Virtual) Nightstand 5-20-18

Sunday Post

This is going to be a very busy week here at chez Reading Reality. In addition to the books you see scheduled for this week, I also have two reviews to write for Library Journal. Although I sometimes do review my LJ books here also, I can’t use the same words in the review. And the LJ reviews are usually prepublication, so even though I’m writing the review now I generally can’t publish it for a couple of months. One of this week’s “extra” books will show up here later, the other is “to be determined.”

I’m also going to finish up listening to Tricked, the fourth book in the Iron Druid Chronicles, sometime this week. And I may use that review instead, just to not drive myself too crazy. I learned something new listening to Tricked, the relative sizes of shitload, buttload and fuckton. You really do learn something new everyday!

Current Giveaways:

$10 Gift Card or $10 Book in the Life’s a Beach Giveaway Hop

Winner Announcements:

The winner of the $10 Gift Card in the May I Suggest Giveaway Hop is Birdie

Blog Recap:

A Review: King of Ashes by Raymond Feist
Life’s a Beach Giveaway Hop
A- Review: By Fire Above by Robyn Bennis
B- Review: Fall of Angels by Barbara Cleverly
B- Review: The Female Persuasion by Meg Wolitzer
Stacking the Shelves (288)

Coming Next Week:

Warlight by Michael Ondaatje (review)
I Met a Traveller in an Antique Land by Connie Willis (review)
Lowcountry Bonfire by Susan M. Boyer (review)
All the Ever Afters by Danielle Teller (blog tour review)
The Rise and Fall of the Dinosaurs by Stephen Brusatte (review)

Stacking the Shelves (288)

Stacking the Shelves

Looking around the shelves in my office (and the piles of books on the floor) I’m starting to think I need a library cart just to, well, cart things around. We got some new furniture last week, including a new desk and hutch in Galen’s office. Which necessitated moving two of the bookshelves out of his office into the spare room. Which necessitated emptying said bookcases before moving. Hence the piles on my office floor. We’ll probably do a bit of a weed before we put them back up, but it’s getting crowded in here.

So many books, so little time, so much fun!

For Review:
Aroused by Randi Hutter Epstein
The Art of Inheriting Secrets by Barbara O’Neal
Becoming Belle by Nuala O’Connor
Census by Jesse Ball
The Clockmaker’s Daughter by Kate Morton
A Gift of Griffins (Faraman Prophecy #2) by V.M. Escalada
High Risers by Ben Austen
The Library Book by Susan Orlean
The Magnificent Esme Wells by Adrienne Sharp
The Proposal by Jasmine Guillory
These Truths by Jill Lepore
Us Against You (Beartown #2) by Fredrik Backman

Review: The Female Persuasion by Meg Wolitzer

Review: The Female Persuasion by Meg WolitzerThe Female Persuasion by Meg Wolitzer
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: literary fiction
Pages: 454
Published by Riverhead Books on April 3, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Greer Kadetsky is a shy college freshman when she meets the woman she hopes will change her life. Faith Frank, dazzlingly persuasive and elegant at sixty-three, has been a central pillar of the women's movement for decades, a figure who inspires others to influence the world. Upon hearing Faith speak for the first time, Greer--madly in love with her boyfriend, Cory, but still full of longing for an ambition that she can't quite place--feels her inner world light up. Then, astonishingly, Faith invites Greer to make something out of that sense of purpose, leading Greer down the most exciting path of her life as it winds toward and away from her meant-to-be love story with Cory and the future she'd always imagined.

My Review:

There was just so much buzz about this book that I couldn’t resist picking it up. But now that I’ve finished it, I have a whole boatload of mixed feelings.

I started this book in the morning, and kept returning to it. In the end, I finished it in one day, all 454 pages of it. It is extremely readable – at least after the first chapter. But once I finished, it just didn’t feel like there was all that much there, there.

As I said, mixed feelings.

The story feels like it sits right on the border between literary fiction and women’s fiction. If it wasn’t for the heaping helpings of feminism and feminist history, I’d be certain it was women’s fiction, because the focus isn’t just on the women in the story, but primarily on their relationships with each other. The few men who feature in the story are very much secondary characters.

Not that the women are not themselves interesting, because they certainly are.

The protagonist of the story is Greer Kadetsky, who is a college freshman when the story begins. Shy, awkward, withdrawn and miserable, at first it seems as if Greer is a character who will not be much fun to follow. That first chapter is all Greer’s perspective, and it is pretty shallow and self-absorbed. She’s eighteen, so while it may be forgivable, it doesn’t make particularly thrilling reading.

But her story really begins when she meets Faith Frank, an icon of second-wave feminism. (If Faith seems modeled on Gloria Steinem, that’s probably close to the mark.) When Greer meets Faith, she is inspired to do more, to be more, to step outside her comfort zone and finally begin speaking up for herself.

There’s no question it’s the making of her.

Fast forward to Greer’s graduation. Her arrival at the offices of Faith’s feminist magazine for an interview occurs on the day the magazine closes. But again, that event galvanizes Greer, and when Faith starts up a new venture, Greer is one of the first people she calls.

Faith’s new venture, Loci, a combination speaker’s bureau, event management company and charitable foundation, all focusing on women, seems too good to be true. When Greer finally discovers that truth, it nearly breaks her. It certainly breaks her relationship with Faith.

And it’s the making of her, all over again.

Escape Rating B-: As I said, a whole boatload of mixed feelings. A boat the size of a container barge might be about right. Or an oil tanker.

While the first chapter almost threw me out of the book, once I got past that point – in other words once Greer stops being so inward-turning and actually starts doing things, she gets less self-absorbed and the story becomes difficult to put down.

At the same time, this is very much in the literary fiction tradition that not a lot happens and when it does it happens offstage. While traumatic events definitely do occur, we see them through the characters chewing them over (and over) and dealing with the aftermaths – with one notable exception, we’re not actually present for the event itself. So the book feels more like its about how the characters feel than about what they do.

For a book that purports to be about feminism, or at least about a feminist icon, or even about said feminist icon passing the torch to a new generation, it still seems very much rooted in second-wave feminism, which was mostly about middle and upper class cisgender white women and didn’t have a whole lot of intersectionality. And while the fact is that Faith’s new foundation definitely has a problem in this regard, that the problem gets lampshaded repeatedly does not actually solve the problem. And while it may not be intended to solve the problem for Faith’s foundation, it remains a problem with the book as a whole, and adds to the ultimate sense of shallowness. At least for this reader.

In the end, The Female Persuasion doesn’t feel so much like a book about feminism as it does feminist-adjacent airport fiction. But it will probably make an excellent movie.

Review: Fall of Angels by Barbara Cleverly

Review: Fall of Angels by Barbara CleverlyFall of Angels (An Inspector Redfyre Mystery) by Barbara Cleverly
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: historical mystery
Series: Inspector Redfyre #1
Pages: 384
Published by Soho Crime on May 15th 2018
Publisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
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Great Britain, 1923: Detective Inspector John Redfyre is a godsend to the Cambridge CID. A handsome young veteran bred among the city’s educated elite, he is no stranger to the set running its esteemed colleges and universities—a society that previously seemed impenetrable to even those at the top of local law enforcement, especially with the force plagued by its own history of corruption.

When Redfyre is invited to attend the annual St. Barnabas College Christmas concert in his Aunt Henrietta’s stead, he is expecting a quiet evening, though perhaps a bit of matchmaking mischief on his aunt’s part. But he arrives to witness a minor scandal: Juno Proudfoot, the trumpeter of the headlining musical duo, is a woman, and a young one at that—practically unheard of in conservative academic circles. When she suffers a near-fatal fall after the close of the show, Redfyre must consider whether someone was trying to kill her. Has her musical talent, her beauty, or perhaps most importantly, her gender, provoked a dangerous criminal to act? Redfyre must both seek advice from and keep an eye on old friends to catch his man before more innocents fall victim.

My Review:

I keep wanting the author’s name to be Beverly Cleverly, but it’s not. Fall of Angels, however, is a very clever little mystery, filled with interesting characters and tempting red herrings – and a few flaws.

I picked this book up because I was looking for something a bit less weighty than the rest of my books this week. But while it is a bit shorter, after finishing it I’m not so sure that it was actually lighter, at least not in the end.

It feels as if there are two books in one in Fall of Angels, one a rather lightweight between-the-wars mystery, and the other an exploration of the suffragist movement in England in the post-WWI era counterpointed by the rise of misogyny as backlash to that same movement – with a few other even darker things thrown into the not completely well-stirred soup.

I’ve mixed my metaphors. Let me explain.

This is the first book in a new mystery series featuring Detective Inspector John Redfyre of the Cambridge CID. That part of the story feels like an homage to the classic mysteries of the era, with the attitudes of the principals updated a bit to appeal to 21st century readers. Redfyre feels like a combination of Lord Peter Wimsey and the TV version of Jack Robinson from Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries.

Like Wimsey, Redfyre is from the upper-crust, although exactly how is not specified. So throw in a bit of Campion for spice on that score. Likewise, Redfyre is university educated, but Cambridge rather than Wimsey’s Oxford – although Campion was also a Cambridge man. Also like Wimsey, Redfyre served as an officer in the Great War, but seems to have come out relatively unscathed, at least in comparison with Wimsey’s horrific bouts of PTSD.

In his actions, Redfyre reminds me of Phryne’s Jack Robinson – the TV version and not the one in the books. They are both police officers, and even both have the same rank. And they are about the same age, somewhere in their 30s, and both came out of the war relatively unscarred. They are also both methodical investigators, and they are both above reproach as officers. And they are both rather handsome – but handsome is as handsome does, and they both do quite well.

The investigation that Redfyre finds himself in the middle of is dark and deadly. A young female trumpet player is receiving deadly poison pen letters, and an attempt is made on her life after a Christmas concert at the college – an attempt that Redfyre witnesses due to machinations on the part of his redoubtable Aunt Hetty.

As he investigates, he finds himself following a trail of bodies, all of young women who in one way or another challenged the status quo. A status quo that kept most women on their Victorian pedestals and subservient to or chattels of the men in their lives – even after all the changes wrought by the war.

Redfyre discovers that all the victims are members of an unnamed group of women’s suffragists who want universal female suffrage and so much more, and are willing to use rather underhanded means to reach their goals.

While those underhanded means fall short of murder, someone is willing to murder them to stop them from taking what he sees as places that are rightfully and properly reserved for men.

It’s up to Redfyre to figure out whodunnit before the killer gets to his Aunt Hetty’s name on his murder list.

Escape Rating B-: I have mixed feelings about Fall of Angels. I liked John Redfyre, his “beat” in Cambridge, and what looks to be his cast of regulars.

The between-the-wars period is always interesting. The way things used to be was the first casualty of the Great War, and most people are aware that whatever happens next is going to be very different. It is also the period called the “Roaring 20s” when everyone was celebrating hard to forget the war. That it all comes crashing down at the end of the decade is not yet on the horizon in 1923 when this series begins.

University towns, and Cambridge is certainly that, are also hotbeds for mysteries. The college brings in lots of outsiders, and the town vs. gown conflict is ever ready to produce criminal activities, whether violent or not. And the faction rivalry results in a lot of conflicting pointing fingers once the deed has been done.

So there’s a lot to like. But the crime that Redfyre has to solve in his initial outing feels anachronistic, or at least his attitudes do. Or both.

Not that there were not plenty of women agitating for universal suffrage after the war. They were eventually successful in 1928. But much of what this nameless group is proposing feels too serious for the story, while their actions to achieve their ends seem almost farcical. It felt like it should either be melodrama or drama, but not both at the same time. Other readers may feel differently.

So for me, the blend did not quite work. But I liked Redfyre enough that I’ll probably come back for the next book in the series, just to see how things turn out.

Review: By Fire Above by Robyn Bennis

Review: By Fire Above by Robyn BennisBy Fire Above (Signal Airship, #2) by Robyn Bennis
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy, science fiction, steampunk
Series: Signal Airship #2
Pages: 368
Published by Tor Books on May 15, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

"All's fair in love and war," according to airship captain Josette Dupre, until her hometown becomes occupied by the enemy and her mother a prisoner of war. Then it becomes, "Nothing's fair except bombing those Vins to high hell."

Before she can rescue her town, however, Josette must maneuver her way through the nest of overstuffed vipers that make up the nation's military and royal leaders in order to drum up support. The foppish and mostly tolerated crew member Lord Bernat steps in to advise her, along with his very attractive older brother.

Between noble scheming, under-trained recruits, and supply shortages, Josette and the crew of the Mistral figure out a way to return to Durum―only to discover that when the homefront turns into the frontlines, things are more dangerous than they seem.

My Review:

By Fire Above is the direct sequel to last year’s absolutely awesome The Guns Above. If you enjoy your SF with a hint of steampunk, really snappy dialog and fantastic kick-ass heroines, The Guns Above might just be your jam. It certainly was mine.

That this is a direct sequel to the first book is a zeppelin-sized hint that this book makes no sense whatsoever without having read the first book first. Not only is that where the situation is setup, but it’s also the foundation of all of the important relationships that power this particular series.

By that I mean the all-important frenemy relationship between Captain Josette Dupre and the foppish spy/supernumerary Lord Bernat Hinkal. If you don’t know how they began, you can’t really understand what happens between them here.

In this world where airships are not merely blimps but actual weapons of war not dissimilar to naval ships, Josette Dupre is an anomaly. Women are barely tolerated in the Garnian Signal Corps. She’s not supposed to be a “real” officer, and she’s certainly not supposed to command either ships or men. That she has turned out to be the best captain in the Signal Corps provides no end of embarrassment, consternation, annoyance and downright obstructionism at every turn.

Josette has no idea how the game is played, and she’s no good at playing it. She just wants her ship back in the air and back in the fight. But most of the first half of By Fire Above is tangled up in all the ways that the powers that be try to prevent that from happening.

So Josette spends the first half of the story on the ground playing politics badly and dealing with personal relationships she has no clue about. What makes this part of the situation so incredibly messy is that her hometown of Durum was captured by the enemy Vinz at the end of The Guns Above, with her mother trapped inside. She is desperate to persuade someone, anyone, that Durum can and should be retaken.

To make matters more confusing, Lord Bernat, usually called Bernie, seems to be in love with her mother. While on the ground, Bernie’s older brother Roland begins courting Josette. The relationship between Bernie and Josette was messy enough before their romantic lives became so weirdly intertwined.

The part of this story that focuses on the neverending war between the Garnians and the Vinz is way more compelling, and once the ship lifts, the story moves into high gear. And then it really flies, headlong into danger, trying to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat, and keeps pouring on more power until the absolutely wild conclusion.

And we’ll be back, and that’s the best thing of all.

Escape Rating A-: I absolutely adored The Guns Above. It was my first A+ review of 2017, and definitely made my Hugo ballot for the year – even if it wasn’t nominated.

So I had high hopes for By Fire Above. And those hopes turn out to have been a bit higher than the Mistral can actually fly. Which does not mean that I did not enjoy By Fire Above, or that it is not a good book and a great continuation to a marvelous story.

It just didn’t quite live up to its predecessor.

This story flies highest when the ship is off the ground, even when Josette isn’t actually aboard her. The first part of By Fire Above is all on the ground. The Mistral is in tatters, Josette has to battle the quartermaster to scrounge parts, and she has to spend a lot of time biting her tongue.

Her side is losing the war. It is obvious to all of those fighting it, but to none of the aristocrats and fops back in the capital. It is axiomatic that generals fight the last war, not the current one. Garnia has not lost a war in over 3 centuries. None of the ruling class are able to wrap their tiny minds around the idea that just because it hasn’t happened before does not mean it can’t happen now – especially if that reputation is not backed up by well-trained boots on the ground and strong ships and crews in both the air and the sea. Garnia has been resting on its laurels for far too long, while the Vinz have lost too many times and are determined to win this time – and have the trained soldiers and top-notch equipment to make it not just possible, but downright likely.

A lot of what makes this book interesting is the relationship between Bernie and Josette, and so far at least, that relationship is not a romance and is not veering into “will they, won’t they” territory. Bernie is in love with Josette’s mother, and Josette is falling for Bernie’s brother. Whether those relationships are at least partially about dealing with their feelings for people they can’t have is anyone’s guess.

But Josette’s romantic life is certainly a distraction from her true calling as an airship captain, and her continuing battles against the bureaucracy to retain her rank, ship and crew. I found those battles in The Guns Above much more riveting than any digressions into Josette’s love life in By Fire Above.

However, Bernie’s character arc continues to fascinate. He began as a self-absorbed and self-confessed spy for the government, determined to bring Josette down by fair means or foul. But by the end of this book, he has both changed and not changed. He is still a fop, and he is still self-absorbed, although it feels like some of that is an act. He has also discovered that he has found a place where he belongs, whether because or in spite of the violence it requires. Underneath that overdressed exterior lurks the heart of a warrior, and Bernie is just as surprised as anyone to discover it.

One of the things that ties Josette and Bernie together, particularly in By Fire Above, is the way that both of their identities are shaken, and in completely different directions. On the one hand, Josette discovers that everything she knows about herself has been a lie. Whether those revelations will shake her in the present or the future are yet to be determined.

On the other hand, Bernie has spent his life, at least until he first boarded the Mistral, as an example of the dangers of being a second son. He had no purpose, no ambition, and nothing to spend his time on except wasteful frivolity. He was in danger of dying of boredom. Now he isn’t certain of who he is or what he is becoming, not to mention whether he’ll live to see the next morning – but he’s alive for every second of it. It may be the making of him. We’ll see.

The twists and turns of the battle to retake Durum kept me on the edge of my seat. It wasn’t just about war and fighting – so much of that story had a surprising amount of depth and resonance, and definitely set the stage for book 3. This series is clearly not over.

Amazingly, By Fire Above ends on both a bang and a whimper – even if that whimper is coming from the reader. I can’t wait for the next chapter in this saga, hopefully this time next year!

Life’s a Beach Giveaway Hop

Welcome to the third annual Life’s a Beach Giveaway Hop, hosted by The Kids Did It and The Mommy Island.

it is now time for that great summer question – what on earth is a beach read? And how many of them can I cram into my summer?

Everyone has a different idea of what constitutes a good beach read. Based on the annual lists of “best beach reads” and the places one finds such lists, one might believe that there’s a lot of light fluffy reading involved. While you’re baking in the sun, a heavy book just doesn’t seem like the thing.

Although something that puts a chill up your spine on a steamy hot day might be just the ticket. Whatever floats your boat – especially if you are actually floating in a boat!

So here’s your chance to win either a $10 Amazon Gift Card or a $10 Book from the Book Depository – so that you can get started on your own beach reads, no matter where you actually plan to read them.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

And for more fabulous prizes, be sure to visit the other stops on the hop!

Review: King of Ashes by Raymond Feist

Review: King of Ashes by Raymond FeistKing of Ashes (Firemane, #1) by Raymond E. Feist
Format: eARC
Source: publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, paperback, large print, ebook, audiobook
Genres: epic fantasy
Series: Firemane #1
Pages: 512
Published by Harper Voyager on May 8, 2018
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBook Depository
Goodreads

The first volume in legendary master and New York Times bestselling author Raymond E. Feist’s epic heroic fantasy series, The Firemane Saga—an electrifying tale of two young men whose choices will determine a world’s destiny.

For centuries, the five greatest kingdoms of North and South Tembria, twin continents on the world of Garn, have coexisted in peace. But the balance of power is destroyed when four of the kingdoms violate an ancient covenant and betray the fifth: Ithrace, the Kingdom of Flames, ruled by Steveren Langene, known as "the Firemane" for his brilliant red hair. As war engulfs the world, Ithrace is destroyed and the Greater Realms of Tembria are thrust into a dangerous struggle for supremacy.As a Free Lord, Baron Daylon Dumarch owes allegiance to no king. When an abandoned infant is found hidden in Daylon’s pavilion, he realizes that the child must be the missing heir of the slain Steveren. The boy is valuable—and vulnerable. A cunning and patient man, Daylon decides to keep the baby’s existence secret, and sends him to be raised on the Island of Coaltachin, home of the so-called Kingdom of Night, where the powerful and lethal Nocusara, the "Hidden Warriors," legendary assassins and spies, are trained.

Years later, another orphan of mysterious provenance, a young man named Declan, earns his Masters rank as a weapons smith. Blessed with intelligence and skill, he unlocks the secret to forging King’s Steel, the apex of a weapon maker’s trade known by very few. Yet this precious knowledge is also deadly, and Declan is forced to leave his home to safeguard his life. Landing in Lord Daylon’s provinces, he hopes to start anew.

Soon, the two young men—an unknowing rightful heir to a throne and a brilliantly talented young swordsmith—will discover that their fates, and that of Garn, are entwined. The legendary, long-ago War of Betrayal has never truly ended . . . and they must discover the secret of who truly threatens their world.

My Review:

It takes a very special kind of magic to capture lightning in a bottle. Magician had just that kind of magic, but that was a long time ago and world away from Firemane and King of Ashes. In the intervening decades (Magician was originally published in 1982!) the author has been prolific, but all of the books he has written since Magician have been set in Midkemia, the world he created with Magician, with the exception of the standalone Faerie Tale in 1988.

Magician looms very large in my memory. I still have my original copy, a 1982 Science Fiction Book Club edition. I picked up King of Ashes because I wondered if the author had managed to magic that lightning into the bottle again, in this first book in a completely new series that does not hearken back to Midkemia.

King of Ashes begins with a bang. Not quite literally, more like a thwack. That thwack is the sound the headsman’s axe makes when it severs the neck of the last king of Ithrace, Steveren Langene. But Langene’s real cause of death wasn’t the axe – the axe was just the instrument. Truly, he died of betrayal.

Langene’s line, the line of the Firemane, was supposed to have died on that scaffold. It certainly looked like it did, as his wife and all his children were killed before him. But as two of his former barons speculate while standing in the crowd of watchers, there are rumors of a baby, one born not long before this terrible campaign began.

Of course those rumors are true, as one of the barons soon discovers. So even though he couldn’t save his friend without dooming his own people, Baron Dumarch does what he can to save his friend’s only remaining child. He conceals the boy, not in his own household, but in the hidden kingdom of Coaltachin, the country of assassins.

The story in King of Ashes is the story of the coming of age of young Hatushaly who knows that he is different, and not just because of his copper-red hair in a kingdom of mostly dark-haired people. He is raised the same as the masters’ sons, but he knows he will never become a master himself. He feels that he is being protected, even as he undergoes the same grueling training as all children in the Invisible Nation.

He learns to hide, he learns to hunt, he learns to kill. He learns how to lead, how to follow, when to question and when to obey without question. He learns to control the fire inside him, without ever knowing what it is, why it is there, or who he really is. And he learns to control his own anger that secrets are being kept from him that he absolutely needs to know.

When all is finally revealed, he understands everything, but not nearly enough. And his story has only just begun.

Escape Rating A: In answer to the question of whether the author has managed to capture that lightning in the bottle again, the answer is yes. Perhaps not quite as full a bottle as Magician, but nevertheless, the bottle sparks with more than enough magic to make King of Ashes a marvelous read for any epic fantasy lover.

In the best epic fantasy tradition, King of Ashes is a coming of age story. We first meet Hatu as a baby, but the story then fast forwards to Hatu as a young man, nearing the end of his training in the Invisible Nation and learning to master himself and his power.

But it is not just Hatu’s coming of age, and that’s part of what makes the book so good. In spite of their training, Hatu has two friends who stand with him through thick and thin, the master’s grandson Donte and the farmer’s daughter Hava. Together they are the three best students of their year, and it seems as if together they will change their world. If they don’t manage to kill each other first.

It is also, and on the other side of the world, the story of Declan, an young journeyman smith, who gains his mastery and sets out to make his own fortune as the story begins. While Hatu’s training and early missions are fascinating, Declan’s rise from journeyman to master and leader is totally different but equally compelling.

The story switches from one point of view to the other as they are slowly but inexorably drawn together, but the reader is never confused who they are following or what they are witnessing – and why.

I don’t want to give the game away, so I’m trying not to add spoilers, and it’s very hard. This book was pretty damn awesome. The only reason I didn’t finish it in one day (all 500 pages of it!) is that about 2 am I just couldn’t keep my eyes open anymore, no matter how much I wanted to. I finished at breakfast the next morning because I just couldn’t stop.

There are elements of other epic fantasies, because these are classic tropes. The hidden prince story goes all the way back to King Arthur and the story of Excalibur in the stone. For a more contemporary parallel, the Codex Alera by Jim Butcher also has a similar feel. The loss and destruction of Ithrace has parallels to Guy Gavriel Kay’s Tigana, but that seam has also been mined time and again. The hidden kingdom of assassins also has its parallels in Jon Courtenay Grimwood’s Assassini and even in the assassin kingdom of Antiva in the Dragon Age video game series.

But putting those elements together with Declan’s considerably more prosaic but still fascinating transition from journeyman to master to leader makes for a magically tasty read. I am also happy to say that although the focus is on Hatu, Hava’s story arc is not reduced to merely sidekick/love interest. It is clear from the very beginning that she is going to be a mover and shaker in this story in her own right as it continues.

And there’s the rub. Unlike Magician, King of Ashes is far from a finished arc for these characters. As the Baron Dumarch puts it, this is only the first chapter, and it is a long game for him and a long first chapter for readers, albeit a very satisfying one.

The author appears to be committing trilogy, with the succeeding volumes very tentatively titled King of Embers and King of Flames. And I can’t wait.

The Sunday Post AKA What’s on my (Mostly Virtual) Nightstand 5-13-18

Sunday Post

Today’s edition of The Sunday Post brought to you by “Round Tuit”, otherwise known as the hurrieder I go, the behindeder I get. Weekends are just not long enough.

You might have noticed that King of Ashes by Raymond Feist was listed as “Coming Next Week” on last week’s Sunday Post, and that it is repeating itself here. I didn’t have quite enough time this past week, but I finished it this morning and it is awesome. Review tomorrow.

And speaking of getting ’round to things, the May I Suggest Giveaway Hop ends on Tuesday, just as the Life’s A Beach Giveaway Hop begins.

And a Happy Mother’s Day to all the mothers out there, whether your children have two feet or four feet, skin, fur, feathers or scales! Freddie and Lucifer are firmly convinced that they don’t need to give me anything for Mothers’ Day except their sweet selves – and they’re right!

Current Giveaways:

$10 Gift Card or $10 Book in the May I Suggest Giveaway Hop (ends TUESDAY!)

Blog Recap:

A- Review: Obscura by Joe Hart
B+ Review: Two Steps Forward by Graeme Simsion and Anne Buist
B+ Review: Hell Squad: Manu by Anna Hackett
B+ Review: The Other Lady Vanishes by Amanda Quick
B+ Review: Sin and Tonic by Rhys Ford
Stacking the Shelves (287)

Coming Next Week:

King of Ashes by Raymond Feist (review)
Life’s a Beach Giveaway Hop
By Fire Above by Robyn Bennis (review)
The Fall of Angels by Barbara Cleverly (review)
The Female Persuasion by Meg Wolitzer (review)

Stacking the Shelves (287)

Stacking the Shelves

This seems to be the season for long STS lists. Quite a few of these won’t be out until October, so it feels like there ought to be a ten-yard penalty for rushing the season imposed by someone, somewhere. It’s just barely summer, even here, but the fall books are already raining down!

For Review:
Born to Be Wilde (Wildes of Ludlow Castle #3) by Eloisa James
An Elderly Lady is Up to No Good by Helene Tursten
Her Rocky Mountain Defender (Rocky Mountain Justice #2) by Jennifer D. Bokal
The High Season by Judy Blundell
The Kill Chain (Jamie Sinclair #6) by Nichole Christoff
The Little Shop of Found Things by Paula Brackston
The Memory Tree (Carson Chronicles #2) by John A. Heldt
Not Quite Over You (Happily Inc. #4) by Susan Mallery
Shattered Silence (Echo Falls #3) by Marta Perry
Trial by Treason (Enchanter General #2) by Dave Duncan
Unsheltered by Barbara Kingsolver
Welcome to Lagos by Chibundu Onuzo
When We Found Home by Susan Mallery
Whiskey Sharp: Torn (Whiskey Sharp #3) by Lauren Dane
Why Not Tonight (Happily Inc. #3) by Susan Mallery