Reckoning of Fallen Gods by R. A. Salvatore

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Publishers: Tor Books and Audible Studios (Audiobook Format – 29 January 2019)

Series: The Coven – Book 2

Length: 14 hours 37 minutes

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Prepare to return to Corona, the world of The DemonWars Saga, for Reckoning of Fallen Gods, the latest book from master fantasy author R. A. Salvatore and the second book in his outstanding new The Coven series.

In the world of Corona, no lands are as harsh or unforgiving as those surrounding the massive Loch Beag.  All manner of dangerous creatures live in and around the loch, including one massive and unseen lake monster that lurks right below the surface.  But for those who live in the fishing villages that eke out a living around the shore of Loch Beag, the biggest danger is more human in origin.  Living at the top of the massive mountain, Fireach Speur, is a barbaric tribe, the Uscar, who constantly raid the fishing villages below.  Enhanced in battle by the crystal magic of their witches, the Uscar are ferocious warriors who consider themselves vastly superior to the inhabitants of the villages they raid.

This cycle of violence and death existed for hundreds of years until a powerful young Uscar witch, Aoelyn, attempted to change her tribe’s ways by destroying the fossa, a demonic creature that haunted the mountain at night.  However, her decision will have terrible consequences, as ambitious members of her tribe turn against her.  As Aoelyn endures the wrath of her tribe, her friend, the slave Bahdlahn, attempts to escape from the Uscar with help from an unexpected ally.  Down at the shore of Loch Beag, the trader Talmadge, who Aoelyn saved from her tribe’s brutality the night she ended the fossa, attempts to find some sort of peace among the fishing villages who have accepted him as a friend.  However, the appearance of a mysterious stranger will bring significant changes to his life.

But while those living around Loch Beag fight among themselves, they are unaware of a much bigger threat growing in the East.  A lost empire of goblinoids, the Xoconai, are on the march, driven by the return of their fallen god.  The Xoconai are determined to conquer all the lands of man, and the first obstacle they must overcome is the people of Fireach Speur and Loch Beag.

R. A. Salvatore is one of the best and most prolific authors of fantasy fiction in the world today, having a written over 60 fantasy books in his career. He is perhaps best known for his work in the established Forgotten Realms universe and the incredibly popular character of Drizzt Do’Urden. However, Salvatore has also written a series of novel set within his own unique fantasy world of Corona.

Salvatore introduced audiences to this new fantasy world in his 1997 release, The Demon Awakens, the first book in his epic The DemonWars Saga, which spanned seven books between 1997 and 2003.  This universe was expanded out in 2004 with The Highwayman, the first book in his Saga of the First King series.  After the Saga of the First King series ended in 2010, Salvatore left the world of Corona untouched for eight years while primarily focusing on his Forgotten Realms series.  However, he returned to Corona in 2018 with Child of a Mad God, the first book in his new The Coven series.  The Coven series is primarily set in a previously unexplored area of Corona, in the lands around the massive Loch Beag, with the first book focusing on a whole new group of characters.

I am a massive fan of Salvatore’s work, having read nearly all the books featuring Drizzt Do’Urden and his companions (click here for my review of the latest Drizzt Do’Urden book Timeless).  However, before last year’s Child of a Mad God, I had not really gotten into his work set in Corona, having only really read The Highwayman back when it was first released in 2004.  While Child of a Mad God was not my favourite of Salvatore’s books, it did a great job introducing this new area of Corona, while also creating an excellent starting point for the series’ overall plotline.

I found that I enjoyed Reckoning of Fallen Gods a lot more than the first book in the series, possibly because the author was able to dive right in and continue several of the more intriguing plot threads from the first book.  I quite enjoyed how the story progressed; all of the storylines contained within were very well paced and entertaining, coming together extremely well towards the book’s conclusion.  I really liked the over-the-top way that the story ended, as it sets up the next book in the series with some massive stakes and makes full use of the intriguing new fantasy elements that were included within this book.  A bit of a warning about this series: is it substantially darker than some of Salvatore’s other works.  This was particularly true of the first book of The Coven series, Child of a Mad God, which contained a fair amount of torture and sexual violence.  While there is a little less sexual violence in this book, several character development elements are based around these original events and are discussed in some detail.  There is also some fairly dark and gruesome action and torture, which might not be enjoyable for some readers.  Overall, though, this is a great follow-up to Child of a Mad God that once again highlights Salvatore’s skill as a master fantasy storyteller.

Some readers may be wary about checking this book out because it is the second book in The Coven series and the 13th overall book set in the world of Corona.  However, I found that this book to be easily accessible to new readers, with the author ensuring that relevant details from the previous book and series were easy to understand and follow nearly right away.  In addition, there are also a lot of elements for established fans of this universe to enjoy, especially as Salvatore includes a substantial character from one of his previous Corona based series in this book.  The inclusion of this character is an excellent way to tie this new series with the author’s existing works in this fantasy universe, which also highlights the importance of this story to the rest of the world of Corona.  The ending of Reckoning of Fallen Gods also hints that characters and locations from the previous series may come into play in the next book in The Coven series.

I loved all the fantasy elements in this book.  The world of Corona is a fantastic setting for the great story that is taking shape within The Coven series.  The main location for most of this book’s plot, the lands around Loch Beag and Fireach Speur, is a substantially dark and rugged area with a large number of natural and unnatural threats.  In Reckoning of Fallen Gods, there are a number of significant developments around several of these locations and creatures, some of which are pretty insane.  Just like in the first book in this series, Child of a Mad God, Salvatore continues to expand on the intriguing gem-based magic that is a feature of the books set in Corona.  The gem magic that was featured in Child of Mad God was somewhat different from the already established gem magic used in some of previous Corona books, such as The DemonWar Saga, and is based around the magic found atop Fireach Speur.  This expansion of the gem magic continues in Reckoning of Fallen Gods with the main character, Aoelyn, developing additional magical abilities.  Many of these abilities are quite spectacular, and Salvatore’s enthralling writing highlights how impressive these abilities are when Aoelyn utilises them in fights or other magical engagements.  At the same time, another character utilises some of the more traditional gemstone powers they had in one of the previous series, and it is interesting to see the differences and similarities this has with the Uscar magic.

One of the more unique and enjoyable fantasy inclusions within Reckoning of a Fallen God is the new antagonist race, the Xocanai.  The Xocanai are a new race of goblinoid creatures that exist in a realm on the other side of the mountains surrounding Fireach Speur.  The Xocanai are somewhat Aztecan in culture and their empire has been rather cut off from the rest of the world for some time.  However, recent actions have allowed them to come together to invade the human lands, and some of the events of Child of a Mad God may be to blame.  I felt that Salvatore did an excellent job of introducing them in the current book, and he was able to build them up as a substantial antagonist in quite short order.  I liked how the reader is able to get a good view of this new race’s culture and religion in only a few short chapters, while in-universe texts present at the start of each section of the book help to establish a historical past for these creatures.  In the end, they are a fantastic new inclusion to the series and the universe and serve as excellent new antagonists.

Salvatore has created some great new characters for this series, and many of the key characters who were introduced in the first book go through some significant and compelling character development throughout Reckoning of Fallen Gods.  The main character development occurs with Aoelyn, who, after the fallout of the events in the first book, develops a stronger sense of independence and rejects the established male hierarchy imposed upon her and all the female members of her tribe.  Her friend Bahdlahn gains the courage to finally flee the Uscar and is finally able to come to terms with his feelings for Aoelyn.  At the same time, the trader Talmadge comes to terms with the tragedies in his life and is finally able to find some semblance of peace with the people living around Loch Beag.  Even the established character from the previous series (who I am still not mentioning for spoiler reasons) has developed somewhat in this book, as he ruminates on the mistakes from his past that were covered in the previous series.

I have to give credit to Salvatore for creating some truly villainous antagonists for this series, especially among the Uscar characters.  The main antagonists are quite despicable, especially in the way that they deal with Aoelyn and Bahdlahn, and the reader is hoping for all sorts of comeuppance for these characters.  Even the Uscar characters that come across as more compassionate members of the tribe can still be quite dislikeable.  For example, there is one character who appears to change his ways in Reckoning of Fallen Gods.  However, he has a sudden and quite unjustified change of heart back to the Uscar ways towards the end of the book, and his complaining about the event that drove him to betray his friends really does not endear him to the reader.  These great antagonists serve as spectacular foils to the protagonists and really add a lot to the overall story.

I chose to listen to the audiobook version of Reckoning of Fallen Gods, narrated by Tim Gerard Reynolds.  This was an interesting change of pace for me, as I had read the physical copy of the first book in The Coven series, so it was cool to hear these characters come to life in the audiobook format.  At 14 hours and 37 minutes, this was not the longest audiobook I have listened to recently, but it still required a little bit of time to get through.  Reynolds is a spectacular narrator, and I really enjoyed listening to him tell this story.  His base narration voice for this book was really good, and I found I was able to absorb a lot of the story through his great narration.  The character voices he came up with were also excellent, and I loved how the distinctive cultural/species groups within Reckoning of Fallen Gods got their own accents.  For example, he ensured that the Uscar characters had a form of Scottish accent, while the other groups that feature in the book, such as the Xocani have a noticeably different way of speaking.  Because of this excellent voice work, I had a lot of fun listening to this book, and I will make sure to get the audiobook versions of this series in the future.

Fantasy icon R. A. Salvatore is in high form once again with Reckoning of Fallen Gods, the second book in his new The Coven series.  Salvatore does an outstanding job continuing the intriguing story he started in the first book of the series, Child of a Mad God, and effortlessly inserts a number of original and familiar elements to create an exciting and epic read.  With some great characters and some inventive new ideas, this is a spectacular new addition to this darker fantasy adventure series.

Cold Iron by Miles Cameron

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Publisher: Hachette Audio (Audiobook Format – 30 August 2018

Series: Masters & Mages – Book 1

Length: 19 hours, 29 minutes

My Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

 

I recently managed to read one of the books that was featured in my Top Ten Books I Wish I Had Read In 2018 list.  I have to say I was quite impressed with this book, Cold Iron by Miles Cameron, as it is one of last year’s most intriguing fantasy reads.

Miles Cameron is the pseudonym historical fiction author Christian Cameron uses when he writes fantasy novels.  Cameron debuted in 1999 with Rules of Engagement, the first book in the seven-book long Alan Craik thriller series, which he wrote with his father, Kenneth Cameron, under the joint pseudonym of Gordon Kent.  In addition to this joint series, Cameron started writing his own novels in 2003 when he wrote his first historical fiction novel, Washington and Caesar.  Since then, Cameron has written over 15 historical fiction novels, including the multiple books in his Tyrant, Long War and Chivalry series.  In 2013, Cameron branched off again into a new genre, fantasy, with his five-book long Traitor Son Cycle, which he wrote as Miles Cameron.  Cold Iron is the first book in his brand-new fantasy series, called the Masters & Mages series.

I am mostly familiar with Cameron through his historical fiction works, having read and reviewed a couple of books in his Tyrant and Long War series early in my career.  I particularly enjoyed the first book in his Long War series, Killer of Men, which set a young protagonist from Plataea on an adventure across ancient Greece and Persia.  Unfortunately, I failed to get any of Cameron’s books in the intervening years and was completely unaware that he had written any fantasy books.  So when I came across Cold Iron and recognised the author, I was deeply intrigued and thought it would be an interesting book to check out, especially as it had been receiving some great reviews.  After mentioning it in one of my Top Ten lists, I decided to check out the audiobook version of this book a few weeks ago.  I was especially keen to check it out as the second book in the Masters & Mages series, Dark Forge, has recently been released, although it looks like this second book will be released in a number of different formats throughout the year.

Cold Iron follows Aranthur Timos, a young student at The Academy, a prestigious institute of magic, science and other scholarly pursuits that lies at the heart of a mighty empire.  Aranthur, a poor farmer’s son, is not the best student at The Academy, and aside from some slight skill with the sword, nothing sets him apart from any of the other students.  But fate has something special in store for Aranthur.  Travelling back to his family farm for the holidays, Aranthur stops at a small inn.  When bandits attack the owners of the inn, Aranthur steps in to try and help, and in doing so sets a momentous series of events into play.  His actions that night inadvertently place him in the middle of a vast and terrible conspiracy, as he comes to the attention of the inn’s other guests, including a powerful priest, a master swordsman, a young gentleman spy and an enigmatic and dangerous beauty.

After returning to The Academy, the results of Aranthur’s actions at the inn indirectly introduce him to a number of new friends that help him excel at his studies.  But a series of chaotic events are occurring across the lands.  The city surrounding The Academy is in turmoil, as factions and noble houses fight against each other.  Worse, refugees are flooding in from lands to the east, driven out of their homes by a group known as the Disciples, followers of a shadowy figure known as the Master, who seek to return the world to an ancient status quo where only the nobles have access to magic.  Despite being a simple student, Aranthur keeps finding himself in the centre of the momentous events sweeping the city.  Can Aranthur survive all the mysterious events occurring around him, and, if he does, what sort of person will he become?

I absolutely loved this book; it gets a well-deserved five stars from me.  Cold Iron is an extremely clever coming-of-age fantasy story set within an immensely detailed and inventive new world.  I have found with some of Cameron’s previous works, such as the books in his Chivalry series, that the author has a very particular writing style, such as his propensity to include large amounts of detail in his paragraphs and the utilisation of a somewhat more formal dialogue.  This style has always worked well with the author’s historical fiction work, and I felt that this writing style translated across well to this fantasy book.  It was reminiscent of some of the older classical fantasy stories, although with some more modern language.  This results in the book having a much more unique feel to it, which I found to be quite curious and actually helped draw me into the story.

The overall story of Cold Iron is quite an intriguing fantasy read that places its protagonists and point-of-view character in the centre of a worldwide conspiracy.  There are so many elements to this story to enjoy, including an excellent coming-of-age focus.  Throughout the course of the book, the protagonist, Aranthur, grows from a poor and insignificant student to a central figure in the fight for kingdoms and the freedom of magic.  The story is quite clever as it focuses on a character who, rather than being the dreaded “chosen one” fantasy trope, is instead thrust into events by accidentally being in a certain place at a certain time.  I really enjoyed how everything that happens to Aranthur throughout the book is the direct result of the one tavern fight at the start of the book, and he is drawn into the subsequent events or introduced to key characters through sheer coincidence.  The resultant conspiracy is deeply intriguing and ties in really well with Cameron’s excellent fantasy elements.  I am also a sucker for a storyline involving magical schooling or training, so I loved how this story was set within a magical university and focused quite a bit on the protagonist’s training.  All of these elements work together to produce an incredible overall narrative that I really enjoyed listening to.

For this new series, Cameron has come up with a fun and detailed fantasy world.  The Masters & Mages series is set in a sprawling world that features a number of diverse human nations.  Only a small part of this world is explored within this first book, although there are quite a number of references to nations outside of the central settings, and events occurring in these locations impact on the main story.  This world appears to be in a post-medieval point of its history, with early firearms starting to be utilised, although older technologies such as crossbows are still in use.  The setting comes across a bit like Italy or France during a similar time period, but with a magical edge to it that works quite well.  The main setting is a gigantic and rich city of canals and elaborate architecture that hosts The Academy, and this serves as a perfect location for the intriguing, conspiracy-laden fantasy story.  The city is filled with a huge number of factions, refugees and competing noble houses, creating quite a significant amount of internal political strife which plays into the story quite well.  There are also some examinations of some more rural areas within the world, and Cameron does a spectacular job of presenting the more down-to-earth folk that live in these locations.  The locations featured within this book were very well done and I look forward to seeing what new lands are explored in future books.

One of the most interesting things about the setting of the book was how several of the issues and plot points have some interesting parallels with modern issues.  For a bit of context, the world that the Masters & Mages series is set within a world where a historical revolution installed a series of reforms that granted magic and education to the lower classes.  Now even quite poor families have access to basic magic that cleanses water, helps create fires and heal people, resulting in a better class of life for the common people.  At the same time, women are able to attend classes at The Academy and learn magic and other skills.  The book’s antagonists are determined to reverse these reforms and return magic to the rich and the nobles and ensure women have no more power.  This has resulted in a number of invasions and wars that have resulted in a huge number of refugees entering the city and other locations, much to dismay of the city’s rich and powerful.  I found the motivations of the antagonists to be very interesting, and it is easy to see some real-life parallels.  Intolerance towards refugees is a major issue at the moment, and it is deeply fascinating to see this reflected in a work of fantasy fiction.  In addition, the book featured quite a lot of intolerance towards people of certain nationalities, including the protagonist’s nationality.

Highlights of Cold Iron the spectacular action sequences that occur throughout the book.  There are a substantial number of fight scenes throughout the book, featuring magic, firearms, crossbows and swordplay.  All of these action elements are pretty impressive, and I especially love some of the larger sequences, where all the above methods of combat are being utilised by both sides.  For the most part, only some basic magical techniques are used within fights, which while intriguing, do not result in any eye-popping scenes.  However, there is one sequence where two powerful magic users fight in front of the protagonist, and he sees the destructive potential of their respective magic abilities.  Without a doubt, the most amazing action element is the swordplay.  There is quite a focus on swords throughout the book as the protagonist spends a large amount of time learning and training with them before using them in a number of duals and fights.  Cameron’s insane attention to detail and incredible knowledge of sword fighting makes these scenes absolutely incredible and produce some amazing fight sequences that feel extremely realistic.  These sword fight scenes are some of the best parts of this book and I really enjoyed having them narrated to me.

I had a lot of fun with several of the characters in this book.  The main character, Aranthur, is a pretty good protagonist who goes through some substantial character development in this book.  Not only does he grow to appreciate different points of view and increase his abilities as a warrior and scholar but he actually learns from his mistakes, although in some cases, such as when it comes to learning about women, it takes a little too long.  The other characters featured within Cold Iron are an interesting group.  My favourites include Ansu, a noble from another land who brings some amusing cultural differences; Tiy Draco, a gentleman spy with unclear allegiances; and Dahlia, the feisty warrior student who highlights the abilities and determination of the female students in The Academy.  My favourite character, however, had to be Sasan, the sarcastic and fatalistic refugee and drug addict who Aranthur attempts to help.  Sasan has some of the best lines in the entire book, and his exclamations and actions when under the effect of an enhancement spell were really funny.  Each of these characters is a lot of fun, and I will be intrigued to see what future development awaits them.

I listened to Cold Iron’s audiobook format, narrated by Mark Meadows, and I had a good time listening to this book.  Clocking in at around 19 and a half hours, this is a fairly long audiobook; however, I found myself really drawn into the story, so I was able to get through it fairly quickly.  I personally thought that the audiobook format was the best way to enjoy this book due to the huge amount of detail and worldbuilding that went into this story.  I was able to focus on all the details a hell of a lot more by listening to them, and I think this helped me follow the plot with a lot less confusion.  Cold Iron’s action sequences are particularly good when narrated, and I found that the intense and elaborate sword sequences were really enhanced by this format.  Mark Meadows does a fantastic job of narrating Cold Iron and I really appreciated his work in bringing the story to life.  I felt that the voice Meadows used for the narration of Cold Iron was very appropriate, and I liked listening to all the descriptions and actions that Cameron had inserted into his story.  Meadows also came up with a range of unique voices for his various characters, each of which did a great job of conveying the character’s emotions and personality.  Part of the reason why I liked the character of Sasan so much was because of the voice that Meadows created for him and used to exclaim some of his best lines.  Overall, I would strongly recommend that readers interested in checking out Cold Iron should try its audiobook format, and I was quite glad that I did.

Before I wrap up, I just wanted to make a quick comment on Cold Iron’s cover art.  Cold Iron has two separate covers: the one I have included at the top of this review, and the one I have placed below.  I loved both of these covers individually, and I felt that they contrasted with each other quite nicely.  The first cover is very classy and really exudes an old-school fantasy vibe, which I think represents Cameron’s storytelling style quite well.  However, I did enjoy the more modern look of the second cover, and I really enjoyed the artist’s use of the simple, but effective black and white colour scheme.  Both are very impressive, and I have to say that the artists did a fantastic job with both of them.

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I was very impressed by my first foray into Cameron’s fantasy writings.  Cold Iron is an exceptional piece of fantasy fiction and an easy five stars from me.  This book’s story was incredibly well written and contained a very compelling plot filled with wide-reaching conspiracies, magic and excellent characters.  Set in a brilliant new fantasy world, Cold Iron is an excellent start to the Masters & Mages series and sets it up as a fantasy series to watch out for.  Some paperback versions of the second book in the series, Dark Forge, came out a short while ago, and I am tempted to order a copy in.  However, I may wait until September, when the audiobook version is released, as I found this was a great way to enjoy the first book.  Cold Iron is an outstanding read, and I am really glad I went back and checked out this excellent 2018 release.

Lady Smoke by Laura Sebastian

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Publisher: Pan Macmillan Australia (Trade Paperback Edition – 12 February 2019)

Series: Ash Princess Trilogy

Length: 496 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

 

Bestselling young adult fantasy author Laura Sebastian presents an outstanding follow-up to her 2018 debut with this superb novel which builds on the author’s original book and uses it to create a fantastic story.

For many years, Theodosia was a prisoner in her own palace.  The brutal warrior race, the Kalovaxians conquered Theo’s country of Astrea, enslaving her people and killing her mother, the Fire Queen.  Forced to live as a trophy prisoner and ridiculed as the Ash Princess, Theo eventually rebelled, escaping from the Kalovaxian ruler, the Kaiser.  However, her escape had complications, as she was forced to kidnap the Kaiser’s son, Prinz Soren, and poison her only Kalovaxian friend, Crescentia.

Now freed and claiming her birthright as Queen of Astrea, Theodosia is determined to take her country back.  With no troops of her own and only a handful of followers, Theo is forced to rely on her aunt, the pirate known as Dragonsbane, for support.  However, her aunt believes that the only way to liberate Astrea is for Theo to marry a foreign ruler and use their army to fight the Kalovaxians.  No Astrean Queen has ever married before, but with the desperate situation that Theo finds herself in, she has no choice but to allow Dragonsbane to organise a meeting with a number of potential suitors from the lands not controlled by the Kalovaxian armies.

Descending on the wealthy nation of Sta’Crivero, Theo is thrust into a dangerous hive of foreign royals and nobles, all of whom seek to use the newly released Astrean Queen to their own advantage.  Forced to decide between her heart and the needs of her people, Theo has to play along in order to find a way to defeat the Kalovaxians.  But sinister forces are at work within the Sta’Crivero palace: politicians are playing with her people’s lives, a sinister poisoner is targeting those closest to Theo, and the Kaiser has placed a price on her head.  Theo must rely on those closest to her, but even those she cares about the most could bring her down.

Lady Smoke is Laura Sebastian’s second novel, which follows on from her debut book, Ash PrincessAsh Princess was a fantastic fantasy debut which I enjoyed thanks to its interesting blend of political intrigue and clever fantasy elements.  However, I felt that Lady Smoke was an even better book, as Sebastian creates a much more compelling story while also expanding her fantasy universe and looking at the relationships between her characters.

Sebastian continues to focus on the growth of her protagonist and point-of-view character, Theo, as she rises to become the queen her people need.  In this book, Theo is recovering, both physically and emotionally from her years of captivity in the Kalovaxian court.  She is haunted by her decisions, including her ruthless manipulation and poisoning of Cress, one of the few people who considered Theo to be a friend.  In order to obtain the power she needs to free her kingdom, she must try use a strategic marriage to arrange an alliance with one of the countries outside of Kalovaxian’s influence.  The storyline focusing on her adventures within Sta’Crivero takes up a large portion of the book, and is an interesting piece of political intrigue.  Theo and her companions must attempt to find a political suitable match while also avoiding being manipulated by the rich and powerful rulers who all want to control or exploit her or her country.  There are a variety of layers to this story, as many of the rulers she encounters have their own agendas, and she must try and unravel them while also bringing some other nations to her cause.  Add to that, a mysterious poisoner is at large within the palace, attempting to kill Theo’s favoured suitors and allies while also framing one of her advisers.  Each of these parts of the story is deeply compelling, and I was very curious to see how this part of the story turned out.  These sequences also had some great emotional depth, as Theo is forced to balance her personal desires and opinions about arranged marriages, with the requirements of an army to free her enslaved people.

I thought that the main political intrigue and arranged marriage storyline of Lady Smoke was done amazingly and was one of the most enjoyable parts of the book.  The eventual conclusion of this storyline was handled pretty well, and readers will love the solution that the protagonist came up with.  I really liked the reveal about who the poisoner was, although I kind of saw the twist coming far in advance.  Even though I knew it was coming, I felt that the reveal was done extremely well, and the sinister motivations behind them made for some extremely compelling reading.  The final twists of the book were also very shocking, and I definitely did not see one particular event coming.  Overall, I had an absolute blast with this story, and thought it was substantially better than the awesome first book in the series.

Aside from the great story, one of the things I really enjoyed about Lady Smoke was the author’s superb universe expansion.  While a number of other nations that make up Sebastian’s fantasy world were mentioned within Ash Princess, the entirety of the plot took place within the conquered country of Astrea.  The plot for Lady Smoke, however, takes place in an entirely new setting, the kingdom of Sta’Crivero, which is an extremely wealthy and elitist realm.  While the people of Sta’Crivero initially appear supportive of Theo and the Astreans, it is revealed that they look down on the refugees and treat them as slave labour.  Sebastian does an amazing job of making the Sta’Crivero nobles sound exceedingly arrogant, and her descriptions of the rich and elaborate palace are stunningly decadent.  Once Sta’Crivero has been introduced as an excellent new setting for the story, the author brings in the rulers from all the nations that have not been conquered by the Kalovaxians.  Each of these new rulers is given an introduction, and their countries’ strengths and weaknesses are explored in various degrees of detail.  As Theo interacts with each of these rulers, the reader gets a better idea of the world outside of Astra and Sta’Crivero, resulting in a richer world tapestry for the audience to enjoy.  By the end of the book, Theo has made a number of allies and enemies from amongst these various nations, and it will be extremely fascinating to see how this comes into play within any future books in the series.

I quite enjoyed the unique and somewhat subtle magical elements that were shown throughout Ash Princess.  In this second book, the author continues to expand on her interesting magical inclusions by showing her magical characters utilising their powers to a greater and more obvious degree and using their powers in different situations.  I rather liked the exploration of ‘mine madness’, the process by which some Astrean magic users become overloaded with magic, especially those who have spent significant time in their magical mines as slave labour under the Kalovaxians.  Alternate explanations for this condition are given throughout Lady Smoke, and the author also examines the destructive nature of the condition, through several impressive scenes.  Other magical maladies are also featured within this book, and I liked how several unexpected characters were affected by these changes.

Sebastian does an amazing job of exploring the main character’s relationship with her friends and companions, and this forms an intriguing part of the plot.  There is a bit of a focus on her friendships with her companions, Artemisia and Heron.  Due to story reasons (Theo spent most of the first book on the other side of a wall), Theo was unable to build much of a relationship with either of these characters, so I liked how she started to bond with both of them.  This deepening relationship results in some character development of these two interesting side characters, and some interesting explorations of their life are explored, such as Artemisia’s relationship with her mother, the Dragonsbane, and Heron’s homosexuality.

The most compelling character interactions occur between Theo and her two love interests, Blaise and Soren.  Blaise is her oldest friend, her most loyal companion and the man who broke her out of the Astrean palace.  Soren, on the other hand, is the son of the Kaiser, her most hated enemy, and the man who Theo spent the majority of Ash Princess seducing and manipulating for her own ends.  Throughout the course of Lady Smoke, Theo finds herself attracted to both of these men, and must find a way to balance her feelings for them while also having to reconcile the possibility of choosing neither of them in order to secure her country’s freedom.  Adding to this drama, both Blaise and Soren have their own storylines and character development that they must undergo.  Blaise is suffering from mine madness, which has amplified his earth-based magic to a dangerous degree.  As a result, Theo has to spend a significant part of the book as his emotional tether, trying to rein in his temper and creating chaos.  Soren, on the other hand, must reconcile the evils that his countrymen and himself have undertaken while also trying to escape his father’s cruel legacy.  In order to make amends and to get revenge on his father, he finds himself on Theo’s side, but his relationship proves to be more of a liability to Astrea in a number of ways.  All of these issues make for an utterly captivating love triangle that really adds some interesting elements to the story.

In the follow-up to her debut novel, Ash Princess, Laura Sebastian continues her incredible fantasy series.  Lady Smoke is an amazing sequel that really highlights Sebastian’s growth as an author.  Not only does Sebastian successfully expand her fantasy universe, but she further develops her characters and provides the reader with an outstanding story.  I am very much looking forward to the sequel to this book, Ember Queen, which is coming out in 2020, and I am extremely curious to see how several story developments at the end of Lady Smoke take form.  Exceptional fantasy fiction from a creative and talented new author, Lady Smoke comes highly recommended.

Waiting on Wednesday – God of Broken Things by Cameron Johnston

Welcome to my weekly segment, Waiting on Wednesday, where I look at upcoming books that I am planning to order and review in the next few months and which I think I will really enjoy.  Stay tuned to see reviews of these books when I get a copy of them.
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This week I will be looking at God of Broken Things, by Cameron Johnston, the follow-up to one of the best dark fantasy books of 2018.  Last year, Johnston knocked it out of the park with his debut novel, The Traitor God, which featured his delightful rogue magician protagonist, Edrin, embarking on a revenge mission to his old stomping ground.  However, his plans for revenge transformed into a massive battle for the survival of the city of Setharis and set him up against gods and demons.  Needless to say, I found The Traitor God to be pretty epic and I had an absolute blast reading it.  I have been looking forward to the sequel for a while now, especially as God of Broken Things also sounds like it will have another intense and explosive plot.

Goodreads Synopsis:
An outcast magician must risk his body and mind to save the world from horrifying demons, in the heart-pounding epic fantasy sequel to The Traitor God.

Tyrant magus Edrin Walker destroyed the monster sent by the Skallgrim, but not before it laid waste to Setharis, and infested their magical elite with mind-controlling parasites. Edrin’s own Gift to seize the minds of others was cracked by the strain of battle, and he barely survives the interrogation of a captured magus. There’s no time for recovery though: a Skallgrim army is marching on the mountain passes of the Clanhold. Edrin and a coterie of villains race to stop them, but the mountains are filled with gods, daemons, magic, and his hideous past. Walker must stop at nothing to win, even if that means losing his mind. Or worse…


Based on the above synopsis, it looks like this new book will have a number of intriguing plot points to explore.  The protagonist’s loss of his powers will be an interesting change of pace for the character, especially as he spent the entirety of the first book bending everyone he met to his will.  I am hoping that this new limitation will force Edrin to rely on his cunning, tricks and influence.

I also like the idea of Edrin leading a band of ‘villains’ to save his city, especially as I imagine it will lead to some fun character dynamics and some form of betrayal and back stabbing.  A great feature of the first book was the inclusion of several likeable side characters, and I am curious to see if any of these surviving characters (quite a few died in the last book) will accompany him on this mission.  If not, I look forward to some great new relationships with characters I will try not to get too attached to.

Finally, I have to say that the overall storyline of a group of rogue adventurers racing against the clock in an extremely hostile environment sounds like it will be a superb plot in a setting with several imposing obstacles and antagonists.  I am curious to see what the gods outside of Setharis are like, but I also hope we get some more details of the character’s past, perhaps around the years he spent running around the country as a drunk and a con man.

Overall, this sounds like it will be an incredibly fun book, and I am really looking forward to seeing the sequel to The Traitor God, which was one of my favourite books from last year.  God of Broken Things is out in June of this year and will high on my list of books to grab.

The Gutter Prayer by Gareth Hanrahan

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Publisher: Orbit (Paperback Edition – 17 January 2019)

Series: Black Iron Legacy (Book 1)

Length: 512 pages

My Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

 

From debuting author Gareth Hanrahan comes the grimdark fantasy book that everyone has been talking about, The Gutter Prayer.  This debut novel has been getting some serious hype from a lot of fantasy reviewers, so I was very happy when I got my copy earlier in the week, as it will give me a chance to check it out for myself.

For thousands of years, the large, sprawling city of Guerdon has survived against all manner of attacks and calamity.  In recent years, the city’s alchemical industry has taken off, producing powerful weapons and twisted creations to sell to Guerdon’s warring neighbours, involved in the destructive Godswar.  But with the rival nation’s eyes on Guerdon, refugees flooding into the city and the city’s various factions fighting for power, the potential for chaos is great.

In the middle of all this, three mismatched young thieves – stranger to the city, Cari; the Stone Man, Spar; and Rat the ghoul – find their lives changed forever.  Hired by the leader of the city’s criminal element, these three thieves attempt to break into an important civic building, only to be nearly killed by a massive explosion and framed for the crime.  Pursued by the Alchemist Guild’s murderous enforcers, the Tallowmen, and the relentless thief-taker, Jere, the three friends attempt to escape their pursuers, but find themselves entangled in a terrible plot to bring destruction to the city.

Ancient creatures are rising from the city’s bloody past, and the city’s old gods are prepared to rise once again.  As Cari, Spar and Rat uncover the full extent of these gods’ power, they must contend with others who seek to use the chaos for their own ends.  With everything on the line, can the three friends find a way to stop the events unfolding, or will their failure result in the destruction of everything they hold dear?

This is Hanrahan’s first fictional book, although the author has written a number of gaming manuals and fantasy guides over the years.  However, with the evident popularity of The Gutter Prayer among the fantasy community, it seems extremely likely that this will not be Hanrahan’s only book.  Indeed, the author already has plans for a sequel, and The Gutter Prayer will form part of this planned Black Iron Legacy series.

I thought that The Gutter Prayer was an ambitious and intriguing new entry to the fantasy genre, and it is definitely worthy of the hype around it.  Hanrahan presents a wide-ranging and dark story of magic, religion and betrayal, and he sets it within an imaginative new fantasy landscape with a ton of unique fantasy elements and creatures.  The story is then based around several great characters, each of whom has their own compelling arc within the narrative.  The result is an excellent and memorable novel that showcases Hanrahan’s creativity and serves as an amazing introduction into a bold new fantasy universe.

This book contained a fantastic and intense story which focused on a variety of different characters and follows their attempts to investigate and forestall the strange events occurring around them.  I really enjoyed this story, although I had a little bit of a hard time getting into it at the start of the book due to mass of story and fantasy elements I was bombarded with.  However, I am extremely glad that I powered past this first part of the book because once I was able to place all the story elements together I appreciated the book’s wild and intricate plot.  One of the main things that I really loved about this book was the inclusion of a significant number of different characters and factions, each with their own motivations and hidden secrets.  As a result, you have no idea who is going to do what next and who is going to betray the protagonists to serve their own needs, creating an unpredictable story.  The narrative is also extremely dark, and readers should be prepared for characters dying or being altered in some way or another.  This is some fantastic storytelling from Hanrahan, and an overall clever narrative.

One of the most talked-about elements of this book is the author’s use of a huge range of unique fantasy elements.  Hanrahan has come up with and expertly utilised a ton of creative, inventive and at times just plain creepy new fantasy elements.  The best example of this has to be the Tallowmen, humans that have been turned into living candles, often as punishment for crimes.  These creatures are strong, lethal and fast, serving as the guards and law enforcers of the Alchemist Guild.  Their terrifying appearance, distinctive abilities and the glow of their candle flames as they hunt down the protagonists are extremely memorable.  Another terrifying inclusion is the Ravellers, servants of the city’s ancient gods who have the ability to unravel people out of existence and take on their appearance.  There are also the ghouls and Stone Men.  Stone Men are humans infected with a disease that slowly turns them into stone, although their condition can be held back by an alchemical compound.  The depictions of their condition are pretty horrific, and there is the interesting double-edged sword of the disease: they become stronger the more their condition progresses, but they also become less able to live normal lives.  The ghouls, humanoid creatures who feast of the dead flesh of humans, are an element that most fantasy fans will be familiar with, but Hanrahan has made some clever alterations to these creatures by expanding on their life cycle and making them a key part of the city’s history.  Another awesome creation is the Crawling Ones, a sentient hive of worms who take a human shape and are powerful magic users.

In addition to the above unique fantasy creatures, The Gutter Prayer also introduces the author’s great new twist on fantasy gods.  The world of the Dark Iron Legacy is filled with a vast pantheon of powerful gods, which forms a critical part of this universe.  Many of the deities outside of the city are engaged in a massive conflict known as the Godswar, where these gods and their followers are involved in battles against each other for supremacy.  While we get a brief look at this in The Gutter Prayer, most of the focus of this book is on the gods of Guerdon.  While a few other religions are mentioned within the city, the main two pantheons are the Kept Gods and the Black Iron Gods.  Both of these different gods are extremely intriguing, and I particularly loved the concept of the Kept Gods, who are chained and whose intake of prayer is controlled by their church to limit their power and control their actions.  The Black Iron Gods are a darker and more ancient pantheon with a great history, a horde of sinister followers and a captivating physical presence.  I also liked this universe’s concept of saints, those humans gifted power by their connection to the gods.  There are a couple of saints featured throughout the book who form an integral part of the plot, powering through the story with a range of different powers and abilities.  Quite frankly, all of these unique fantasy elements are deeply intriguing, and Hanrahan uses all of them perfectly to enhance his outstanding story.  I do hope that the Godswar will be explored in future books, as that sounded like a really fun concept that I would be deeply interested in.

Guerdon is a decent grimdark fantasy city, and it serves as the primary setting for most of the city.  The city’s range of interesting and unique residence allows for a fascinating overall story and makes this a fantastic setting.  I really like how the city is home to a range of competing factions, such as the Alchemists, the Church, the criminal organisation known as the Brotherhood, politicians and the city’s non-human races, each of whom have different plans for the future of the city.  This is a pretty typical dark, crime-ridden fantasy city, but it works really well as a setting for this story.  The author’s deep exploration of the history of his fantasy city served as a useful plot point, and I love how the city’s past came back to haunt it in a number of ways.

I have to say that I was really impressed with Hanrahan’s character work within this book.  The author introduces a number of amazing characters, most of whom get deep and satisfying story arcs.  The main three characters are particularly great.  I really liked Spar, who is not only the son of one of the city’s most famous criminals, but who is also a Stone Man.  It is through this character’s eyes that we get the best view of the living hell of life as a Stone Man, as Spar is forced to deal with all the unpleasant side effects that his condition brings.  At the same time he must deal with his family legacy as he fights to achieve his father’s dream of a more noble Brotherhood while forced to work for its current corrupt leader.  Rat the ghoul is another interesting character.  As a ghoul, he is generally supposed to live under the city, but he likes living above the streets with his friends.  Rat is constantly conflicted between loyalty to his friends and to his race’s ancient promises, as well as dislike for the traditional ghoul lifestyle.  Finally, there is the mysterious young thief, Cari, who holds a dark secret in her past.  Cari is a rebellious young female protagonist who is developing strange new powers.  The exploration of her past and her abilities is a key part of the book and a good basis for a large portion of this plot.  I liked the way that these three characters cared for each other and how their stories remain interconnected even as they have their own unique adventures within the story.

While these three main characters serve as an extremely powerful narrative base for The Gutter Prayer, the author also focuses on a couple of additional point-of-view characters, including the veteran thief-taker, Jere; Cari’s cousin, Eladora; and the saint of the Kept Gods, Arla.  These characters do not get as large a focus as the book’s three main characters, but their parts of the book are quite significant.  Each of them also has a full character arc within the book, and they all develop or change in substantial ways.  Jere is a grizzled private investigator obsessed with taking down the Brotherhood, and his investigations for the first two-thirds of the book provide the reader with some vital plot detail.  I really liked the end to Jere’s character arc, which was both dark and satisfying.  Eladora is a sheltered scholar who gets a rather rude awakening about life throughout the course of this book.  Eladora is not my favourite character, but I did like her gradual transformation from damsel in distress to something more useful.  Finally, there is Arla, who would have to be my favourite side character.  Arla is a saint of the Kept Gods blessed with fiery powers as a result.  Arla is a badass and entertaining character who spends most of the book fighting her opponents with her fiery sword and generally not acting in a way most people would consider saint-like.  I especially love when she utilises her god-empowered voice to command people, as she is usually swearing while doing this.  This comes up in the text in all caps, and you have to imagine it sounds pretty impressive in this book’s audiobook format.  There were a number of other entertaining side or minor characters throughout the book that the author put to good use, and I will enjoy seeing what role they will play in any future books in the series.

Overall, I truly enjoyed The Gutter Prayer and was impressed by Hanrahan’s magnificent debut.  This was an excellent piece of grimdark fantasy which expertly combined some very inventive fantasy elements together with a fantastic story and some excellent characters.  With this first book Hanrahan has shown some incredible talent as a fantasy storyteller whose outstanding imagination is his biggest asset.  This is a highly recommended book which lives up to the substantial hype surrounding it.  I am already extremely keen for any additional books in the Black Iron Legacy, especially as the interview at the end of the book implies that Hanrahan has some brilliant ideas for the rest of the series.