The Boneless Mercies by April Genevieve Tucholke

The Bonless Mercies Cover.jpg

Publisher: Simon & Schuster

Publication Date – 2 October 2018

 

In the dark and cold realm of Vorseland, life is hard and death is easy.  This is especially the case for young women Frey, Ovie, Juniper and Runa, who eke out a living as Boneless Mercies.  Mercies are those people who travel the land exchanging mercy killings for coin in order to alleviate suffering, both mental and physical, in those living in the harsh land.  Only women can become Boneless Mercies, as men cannot do this dark and sad work.

While their roles as Mercies have provided this group of young women with an escape from the horrors or uncertainties of their previous lives, each of them, as well as their young male companion Trigve, seeks something different from this depressing routine of death dealing.  Runa dreams of joining the Quicks, the bands of forest-dwelling hunters and revellers with mastery of the bow; the former Sea Witch Juniper wants to return to her sisters; while Ovie seeks companionship after the trials of her previous life.  But their leader, Frey, wants something very different: fame and glory.

Hearing of a dangerous monster roaming in a far-off land, killing all the men and terrorising the landscape, the girls decide to change their fate and become heroes.  In order to reach their destination, they first have to engage on a dangerous journey through a harsh countryside.  First finding themselves caught up in the middle of a war between rival factions of witches, the Mercies find acceptance and camaraderie in the land they have come to save.  But as the monster they’ve come to face makes an appearance, the girls must finally face up to their destinies.  Will they be able to defeat a creature that so many have already died facing?

The Boneless Mercies is the fourth and latest book from dark fantasy young adult author April Genevieve Tucholke, whose previous works include the two books of the Between series, Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea and Between the Spark and the Burn, as well as her 2016 standalone novel, Wink Poppy Midnight.  All three of these previous novels dealt with a young adult supernatural romance set in a modern-day location.  The Boneless Mercies is Tucholke’s first foray into her own fantasy world, and it is the first book that is not as focused on a major romantic subplot.  The Boneless Mercies serves as a great standalone novel, although it has potential as the first book in a new series that either follows the characters introduced in this volume or that utilises Tucholke’s fantasy landscape.

The overall story of The Boneless Mercies is an interesting creation from Tucholke, as it is a good combination of character development, world building and searches for glory.  The premise of this story is unique.  Four professional mercy killers seeking better lives for themselves through fighting monsters is a fantastic pitch from the author that really drove me to read this story.  The author has made a clear attempt to emulate the sagas of old, and it is easy to note its similarities to Beowulf, especially when it comes to the monster.  The book’s central characters helped reinforce this by reciting several sagas that exist within their fantasy world, even coming up with a few verses for their own adventure.  I was a bit surprised about how only the last third of the book focused on the protagonists’ hunt for the monster; the antagonist that was such a focus of the book’s blurb and publication material, and instead a lot more of the book was spent focusing on the adventure getting there.

This actually works out really well, with the characters’ involvement with the various witch characters serving as the centre of the book.  The protagonists find themselves recruited to fight in a war between two rival factions of witches, which leads to some tough and damaging choices for Frey while the also allowing Tucholke to create a harrowing extended sequence in deadly marsh landscape.  The reversal of gender roles within the story is another great part of the story, and it is intriguing to see women in a more central role of these saga storylines in both the protagonists and antagonist roles.  The Boneless Mercies contains a unique and memorable central story that will prove to be appealing to a huge audience.  With several exciting romps through Tucholke’s new fantasy landscape, the book has an excellent conclusion, as well as several plot threads that could lead to intriguing future stories in the same universe.

Tucholke has woven some wonderful character dynamics into this story and introduced several intriguing protagonists for the reader to enjoy.  The book’s five main characters, Frey, Ovie, Juniper, Runa and Trigve, have all found an escape from their terrible past lives by coming together and following each other down the destructive path of the mercy killing trade.  Each of the characters has their own distinctive traits.  Frey is the big sister and reluctant leader of the group, and must struggle to balance her own desires with the needs of the people under her care.  Runa is the rebellious and free-spirited member of the group, eager to live the carefree life of a Quick in order to escape the horrors of her past.  Juniper is the dreamer, and her minor magical abilities and connection with the Sea Witches are essential to the plot in the middle of the book.  Ovie is the tough, no-nonsense member of the group, and is the group’s main warrior, teaching the others how to fight.  Despite some insights into her past, Ovie is the character who is explored the least out of each of the characters, although she does serve as a bit of a moral compass for Frey’s decision.

The main male character, Trigve is also an interesting inclusion, as he fills the role of the assistant and bastion of knowledge that the girls, especially Frey, go out of the way to protect.  This is a noticeable and intriguing change in the traditional gender roles within an adventurer group, and it is interesting to note that Trigve is usually sent away by the girls before any of the big action scenes.  His relationship with Frey is also one of the book’s main romantic subplots, and I liked the complex and mostly unspoken relationship these two characters had.  Overall, all of these main characters are great additions to the book, and Tucholoke spends considerable time exploring how these characters, all of whom have been forced to sever their previous connections, have come together into a surrogate family.  I really appreciated watching the characters’ relationships with each other build, as that worked really well to make the reader connect with each of them and become concerned with their fates.  The slow reveal of each character’s previous lives and the events that drove them to the other Boneless Mercies was also handled wonderfully and worked with the other story elements to create a powerful overarching narrative.

I also enjoyed the great new fantasy world that Tucholke created for this novel.  The author really gets to grips with the harsh, cold and unforgiving scenery of her Norse-inspired landscape of Vorseland, and the reader gets a real idea of why many inhabitants are tempted to employ the Boneless Mercies.  There are also a number of fantastic elements included throughout this world that really help make it an amazing location for this intriguing adventure.  The various bands of different fantasy professionals, such as the Boneless Mercies or the Quicks, give it an interesting flair.  The various groups of witches, including Marsh Witches, Sea Witches and even a group of pig mystics, become deeply entangled in the main story, and will also be significant players in any future books set in this universe.  This is an excellent and creative new fantasy world from Tucholke that works incredibly well for this book’s story.

April Tucholke has created an exciting and intense piece of young adult fiction in her latest novel, The Boneless Mercies.  Creating an intriguing narrative around a group of female former mercy killers embarking on a quest for glory in a dark and saga-rich fantasy landscape is a masterstroke from Tucholke, especially when she combines it with a fantastic story and close-knit and likeable group of protagonists.  The strong female characters make this an excellent one for a young adult audience, and I enjoyed the story’s darker background and storylines.  Special appreciation goes to the book’s great covers as well; the copy I had an iridescent feather design which was cool, but I also really enjoyed the excellent cover with the red wolf and the protagonist’s shadows.  Overall, The Boneless Mercies is a great piece of young adult fiction which presents the reader with something enjoyably different from the classic fantasy adventure.

My Rating:

Four stars

Priest of Bones by Peter McLean

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Publisher: Jo Fletcher Books

Publication Date – 2 October 2018

 

For those looking for some down and dirty fantasy crime, look no further than Priest of Bones, the new release from fantasy author Peter McLean, which provides the reader with a dark, violent and downright entertaining story.

After achieving victory in a devastating war, thousands of soldiers begin the long and weary journey back home through a countryside ravished by war, plague and famine.  Among those soldiers returning to the industrial city of Ellinburg is Thomas Piety, priest of Our Lady of Eternal Sorrows and leader of a small and loyal band of killers.  Thomas has taken his duty as a soldier and a priest seriously, but now it is time for him to return to what he knows best: crime.

A successful crime lord before his conscription, Thomas believed he had left his territory in capable hands.  However, upon his return he discovers that his entire criminal empire has been taken over by a new gang that appears to have origins outside of Ellinburg.  With no choice but to reclaim what is his, Thomas and his soldiers, including his loyal sergeant, Bloody Anne, and his damaged brother, Jochan, do what they do best and go to war.

As Thomas and his gang, the Pious Men, reclaim territory and re-establish themselves in Ellinburg, they begin to realise that they are facing an opponent far more dangerous than the usual gangs and criminals of the city.  Their opponents are organised, have the best weapons money can buy and even have a couple of magic users.  To make matters worse, Thomas finds himself entrapped by one the deadly Queen’s Men, the feared order of spies and assassins loyal to queen, who have some special plans for the Pious Men.  Now, Thomas and his soldiers must embark on a dangerous and bloody crusade against the other gangs of Ellinburg.  Victory will mean control of the city’s crime, while defeat will spell doom for them all.

Priest of Bones is an excellent example of fantasy crime fiction done right as McLean has produced a story that is action-packed, incredibly intriguing and very enjoyable.  McLean has been writing fantasy for a few years and is probably best known for The Burned Man series, an urban fantasy crime series that focused on a magical hitman.  He also has a few short stories to his name, including some set in the Warhammer 40,000 universe.  Priest of Bones is the first book in his new War for the Rose Throne series, which will continue next year with the highly anticipated Priest of Lies.

The story contained within this first book is an amazing fantasy crime narrative which sees the protagonist work to reclaim his criminal holdings from a powerful new gang that has moved into the city while he was gone.  This starts out exactly as you would expect from this sort of story as the protagonists attempt to regain territory, one business at a time, while their opponents launch counterattacks and raids of their own.  The protagonists come up with some effective plans for taking territory and show what happens when a bunch of soldiers engage in some brutal urban combat.  There is a large amount of action throughout this book, which McLean records in bloody and enthralling detail.  This action mostly takes the form of small skirmishes and battles, although there are some magical battles which do result in some more gory and spectacular deaths.  All of this is incredibly fun, and it works very well with the intriguing side stories and character exploration to create a compelling overall narrative.  As the book progresses, an element of political intrigue takes hold as new players enter the game.  This represents an interesting but subtle change to the pace of the book and doesn’t result in any loss of action or excitement.  In many ways, it appears to be a setup for the next book in the series, which sounds like it’s going to have a much more political focus to it.  McLean wraps this all up with a memorable conclusion that I won’t elaborate on, but is the perfect ending for this outstanding and extremely enjoyable piece of fantasy crime.

The central gang that McLean looked at in the plot, the Pious Men, are a strong bunch of characters who serve as a fantastic focal point for this series.  All of the Pious Men are former soldiers who have recently survived the war and are still haunted by the horrors they experienced, especially at the devastating siege of Abingon.  Quite a few of the characters from this small band of soldiers are explored throughout the book, and while some of these characters only get minor mentions, a number do get expanded roles throughout the book and are shown to have some form of development or are slotted into a role that they make their own.  One of the most interesting features of this book is the way that McLean has focused on just how badly the war has messed up these characters, as pretty much all of them are suffering from PTSD in some way or another, referred to by the characters in the book as battle shock.  This is handled very well and allows for some fantastic scenes, as characters who initially come across as quite amiable for most of the book go berserk when attacked, while other characters who appear quite strong find themselves crippled by these memories.

The leader of this group of former soldiers turned criminals is Thomas Piety, who serves as the book’s main protagonist and only point-of-view character.  Thomas is a good central character to anchor this story, who for the most part comes across as a cold and calculating person who knows how to get what he wants.  As Priest of Bones continues, it is slowly revealed that there is a lot more to Thomas’s character than what is originally believed, as he is trying to hide not only the emotional damage from Abingon but the dark memories from his childhood that are still driving him to this day.  It is interesting to see Thomas try and reconcile his new role as a priest of Our Lady of Eternal Sorrows with his role as a soldier and crime lord.  It is also intriguing to see that one of his deeper motivations is based on his belief that his criminal enterprises not only will make his city a better place but may also save it from a similar fate to Abingon, something he is desperate to never see again.  As the story is completely shown through Thomas’s viewpoint, the reader gets the benefit of his cynical attitude as well as his humorous and accurate insights throughout the book.  This is a great focal character for this book, and I had fun exploring his full depths.

Quite a lot of time is also spent exploring the other members of the Pious Men that follow Thomas back from the war.  The best of these characters is easily Bloody Anne, the hard-as-nails sergeant who is Thomas’s most loyal soldier and friend.  There is detailed examination of Anne’s past which reveals a lot about her current character, including her distrust of magic users.  This turns into quite a nice side story, as Anne finally starts to overcome her past enough to start exploring a relationship with the prostitute Rosie.  Thomas’s brother, Jochan, is also an intriguing character who fits in well with this darker story.  Jochan is your standard unhinged killer, who has some of the funniest lines and can be found in the middle of all the big fight scenes.  His presence results in a lot of the book’s tension, as he and Thomas clash about everything.  McLean has also created a very traumatic backstory for Jochan that not only helps to humanise the character as the reader gets further into the book but also explains a lot about Thomas’s deeper motivation and the guilt he feels whenever he thinks of his brother.  Other great characters that the reader should keep an eye out for are the fake knight Sir Eland, the mysterious barmaid Ailsa and Billy the Boy, the Pious Men’s good luck charm who is clearly going to be a very important character throughout the rest of the series.

In Priest of Bones, Peter McLean has delivered a fast-paced and captivating piece of fantasy crime that is filled with a ton of graphic violence, a number of exhilarating fight scenes and some excellent character driven story work.  This new book is a wonderful introduction to the new War for the Rose Throne series, and I’m already looking forward to the follow-up book in 2019.  Clever, bloody and all sorts of fun, readers will have a blast checking this book out.

My Rating:

Four and a half stars

City of Lies by Sam Hawke

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Publisher: Bantam Press

Publication Date – 3 July 2018

 

Poison, murder, conspiracy, and war are all on the way for readers of City of Lies, one of the best fantasy reads of the year from Canberra author Sam Hawke.

In the country of Sjona, the capital city of Silasta is a glittering beacon of culture and art.  Young nobleman Jovan and his family serve a special role, subtly protecting Sjona’s ruler, the Chancellor, and his heirs from being poisoned.  As a result of his training, Jovan is now capable of detecting and identifying poisons that could be slipped to his charges.  While his uncle and mentor directly protects the Chancellor, Jovan serves the Chancellor’s carefree young heir, Tain.

When Jovan and Tain return to the city following a diplomatic journey, they are soon placed in a terrible situation.  The impossible has happened: an unidentified poison has been slipped to the Chancellor, killing him and Jovan’s uncle.  Without their respective mentors’ guidance both young men are thrust into new roles: Tain as an untested Chancellor, and Jovan now responsible for the safety of his nation’s ruler.

However, things can always get worse.  A mysterious army has arrived undetected at the gates of Silasta, and the city, which has never known anything but peace, is soon besieged.  The army appears to be made up of Sjona’s peasants and contains powerful individuals in control of spirits.  With the majority of the military far away fighting in another conflict, few professional soldiers are left to defend Silasta, and Tain must lead a desperate defence against a superior force.

As the siege continues, it soon becomes apparent that not everything is as it seems.  Why is the city being attacked, and how did no one see this coming?  A deep conspiracy lies across the capital and no one can be trusted, not even Silasta’s ruling council.  It also appears that the person who killed the Chancellor is still at large within the city and is aiming to poison Tain as well.  As Jovan utilises all his skill to protect his friend, his sister Kalina searches for the traitors hiding inside their walls.

City of Lies is Australian author Sam Hawke’s debut novel and represents an outstanding first outing from a remarkable new talent.  This ambitious book contains a fantastic plot, with some unique story elements and an elaborate thriller narrative that combines perfectly with the book’s overarching fantasy narrative.  This is the first book in Hawke’s planned Poison War series, and is focused on two separate point-of-view characters, Jovan and Kalina, who each narrate around half the book.

This book contains an amazing and extremely compelling overarching thriller narrative that sees the protagonist attempt to unravel the conspiracies surrounding their city.  Hawke has put a lot of work into creating an elaborate and multilayered plot that draws the reader in with its significant intrigue.  The is so much for the reader to discover as the protagonists try to work out who the army attacking them is, what their motives are, and how the siege relates to the secrets of the ruling class.  This intrigue-driven storyline is amped up even more once it is revealed that the person who poisoned the chancellor might not be a member of the army camped outside the city.  Hawke presents the reader with a number of likely suspects, most of whom are on the city’s ruling council, as well as a range of interesting and plausible motives for the betrayal.  The full extent of the interwoven conspiracies is quite impressive, and Hawke presents an extremely captivating storyline of the protagonists unravelling the plot that is guaranteed to pull in the reader’s full attention.  This is definitely a high point of this fantastic book.

One of City of Lies’ standout features is Hawke’s substantial focus on poisons and role the main character plays in protecting the city’s ruler from harmful substances.  At the start of the story, the Chancellor and the protagonists’ uncle are both poisoned and killed by an unknown toxin.  Jovan, who already served Tain as his ‘proofer’, a combination food taster, poison master, and trusted personal chef, spends the rest of the book trying to defend Tain from a poisoner he knows is out there, who apparently has access to a poison he has no idea how to detect or cure.  The battle of wits between Jovan and the poisoner is an intense part of the book’s narrative, and the reader can feel the desperation that Jovan feels trying to keep his friend and, by extension, his city alive.  There are some great scenes throughout this book as Jovan attempts to work out how poison could be administered to Tain, as well as trying to work out potential cures and solutions to the poison’s victims.

In addition to examining the tension that the book’s poison elements elicit, Hawke also spends a significant amount of time exploring the various toxins of her universe and the techniques of the book’s poison ‘proofers’.  The descriptions of these skills in training is utterly fascinating, and the author has come up with some amazing ideas that prove to be enthralling for the reader.  In addition, Hawke has chosen to deepen the audience’s interest and knowledge of her universe’s poisons by including a page of the protagonist’s ‘proofer tome’ before each chapter in the book.  These pages contain a description of the poison, what effects it has when administrated and what clues the proofer can use to identify the poison in food, such as taste or texture.  This is a fun addition that also contains some information relevant to the book’s plot, and the readers will find themselves deeply exploring the lore being presented to them.  Another cool feature was the way in which Jovan uses his knowledge and cache of poisons in an offensive manner against his opponents to compensate for his lack of martial skill.  There are some fantastic scenes where Jovan uses a range of different substances in the middle of battles, as well as some excellent sequences where he doses potential opponents in advance of a confrontation.

Special mention should also be given to the wonderful fantasy setting that Hawke has created for City of Lies.  The vast majority of the plot is set within the capital of Silasta, a large city that has a reputation and preference for culture and the arts, whilst viewing violence and warfare as a distasteful profession.  The author does an amazing job describing this city’s many wonders, whilst at the same time creating a unique societal setup that plays brilliantly into the story’s intriguing elements.  While the focus of this book is solely within the nation of Sjona, expect the sequels to follow adventures in other countries mentioned.

The siege elements of this book are also very enjoyable and offer another interesting point to this fantastic book.  I’m always a fan of a good siege storyline, especially when it’s told from the point of view of the defenders.  The parts of the book that focus on the siege are extremely well written and provide the book with some substantial action sequences.  It is also fun to see how a city mostly made up of peace-loving artists and performers can defend itself without an army to help.  Hawke produces some great ideas for her defenders, which also ties into the fantastic poison elements above, when the protagonists use their knowledge to create some defences for their city.

Overall, City of Lies is an intrigue-studded masterpiece of a fantasy novel that combines together a range or magnificent story elements with an excellent setting and an addictive overarching thriller narrative.  Hawke’s use of poisons as a key plot point is just incredible and represents one of the most interesting parts of this book, and I am intrigued to see how she will continue to use poisons in future entries in this series.  This is a five-star debut from Hawke, and I would wholeheartedly recommend City of Lies to any fans of the fantasy genre.

My Rating:

Five Stars

King of Ashes by Raymond E. Feist

King of Ashes Cover

Publisher: Harper Voyager

Australian Publication Date – 5 April 2018

World Publication Date – 8 May 2018

 

For over 30 years, one of the most reliable cornerstones of fantasy fiction has been the books of Raymond E. Feist.  Starting with the 1982 fantasy classic, Magician, Feist has produced 30 books, all set in the worlds of Midkemia and Kelewan, as part of his long running Riftwar CycleKing of Ashes is the first book Feist has written since he ended the Riftwar Cycle in 2013.  It is also the start of The Firemane Saga, a new series which is set in a completely different universe to the Riftwar Cycle and introduces the reader to an exciting new story.

The continent of Garn was once home to five kingdoms, the greatest of which was the Kingdom of Ithrace.  Ruled by the red-haired Firemanes, Ithrace was known for its culture and creativity.  However, following a great betrayal, Ithrace was destroyed and its king executed.  In order to avoid any retribution, the power-hungry King of Sandura ordered the deaths of every member of the Ithrace royal family, and not even their legendary affinity for fire could save them.

Now, 17 years later, war is returning to Garn.  Ancient pacts of peace are failing, and the four kingdoms are out of balance.  As the kingdoms and the independent baronies prepare for a new conflict, rumours of a hidden heir to Ithrace’s throne begin to surface.

In the previously peaceful Covenant Lands, Declan, a young and talented blacksmith, is forced to flee slavers raiding his village.  Carrying the rare knowledge of crafting the legendary jewel-steel, Declan flees to the Barony of Marquensas, where he hopes to create a new life for himself.

Meanwhile, in the feared and hidden island nation of Coaltachin, three youths, Donte, Hava and Hatu, are being trained in the way of the Quelli Nascosti assassins, learning how to spy, steal and kill.  All three of the young agents are eager to explore the world outside of their island home, but they quickly find themselves under attack.  The mysterious group of assailants seem to have been trained in a similar way to the assassins of Coaltachin.  Whoever these attackers are, they are unafraid of the young assassins and have a particular interest in capturing Hatu, an orphan with red hair and a fiery temper.  As events transpire, these young people find themselves in the heart of events that will transform Garn forever.

Feist delivers a fantastic and absorbing read that once again illustrates why he is one of the preeminent writers of fantasy fiction in the world today.  His latest book is a classic fantasy tale set within another unique and memorable universe and is one of the most thrilling and addictive releases so far this year.

King of Ashes is the first book in a brand new trilogy that has definite potential to expand out into another long-running series.  As a result, Feist presented this book as a set up for the rest of the series, rather than a stand-alone book.  Substantial time was spent establishing the characters, world and overall story, and introducing elements to be further explored in future instalments of the series.  While some questions are answered towards the end of the book, a number of mysteries still remain.  King of Ashes proved very hard to put down—an impressive feat, considering it was 545 pages long in the hardcover edition.

Feist has done a lot of work building up this new fantasy location, producing some amazing settings and locations.  The characters venture to large cities, small towns, fortified keeps, grasslands, forests and various islands.  There are also several scenes set on the ocean, which allow for some intricate sequences involving ships and naval combat.  It also appears that, despite how far many of the characters travel, they have only just brushed the surface of the continent mapped out in the front of the book.  This area of land appears to be less than half of the entire continent of Garn, which indicates wider adventures in future books.  There were also some brief mentions of other continents existing on this new world, which may be a possible indication of plans to expand this series past its initial trilogy.

While Feist introduces a number of new kingdoms and peoples throughout his story, many readers will really enjoy his inclusion of the Quelli Nascosti assassins on the island nation of Coaltachin.  In the story, the nation of Coaltachin, also known as the Invisible Nation, is ruled by the Quelli Nascosti assassins, who work throughout the continent as assassins, spies and informants.  Feist spends a significant amount of time focusing on this group of assassins, displaying various aspects of their society, operations, influence throughout Garn and varied training techniques.  As a result, they are the most fleshed-out group of characters within King of Ashes and are a definite highlight of the book.  Readers will really enjoy the significant focus Feist puts on this group, as this results in a number of high-intensity scenes with covert activities and exciting action.

Feist tells most of the story through three prominent characters, Declan, Hava and Hatu.  All three of these characters have fascinating and unique accounts to follow, although all of them could be considered to be coming-of-age stories.  Hava and Hatu are both members of the Quelli Nascosti, and it is through their eyes that we see most of the secretive nation and their actions.  Hatu is involved in action throughout the continent, encountering mysterious foes and discovering his hidden destiny, while Hava’s story focuses on more specialised training and a secret side mission.  Declan’s story is a classic fantasy story of a young man trying to find his way in life while overcoming destructive elements.  There are some more classic fight scenes in this storyline, and some very detailed descriptions of blacksmithing.  Each of these storylines is extremely enjoyable to read and provides different insights into this exhilarating new fantasy universe.

King of Ashes is the latest book from fantasy legend Raymond E. Feist and represents an outstanding start to a fantastic new series.  Featuring multiple coming-of-age stories, this is a pure fantasy tale set within an intriguing and detailed new universe.  This is mandatory reading for fans of Feist’s previous work and comes highly recommended for all fans of the fantasy genre.  I cannot wait for the next book in this series.

My Rating:

Five Stars