Review of House of Assassins by Larry Correia

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This novel is epic fantasy published by Baen in February of 2019, and won the 2019 Dragon Award for Best Fantasy Novel. It’s listed as Book 2 in the Saga of the Forgotten Warrior, preceded by Book 1, Son of the Black Sword, and soon to be followed by Book 3, Destroyer of Worlds, projected for release in 2020. This review contains spoilers.

Ashok Vadal has lost his position as a Protector of the Law, and his magical ancestral blade Angruvadal has self-destructed, leaving only a shard of Black Steel in Vadal’s chest. He has learned that he is actually from the casteless, and that he’s been used all his life as a pawn in a political game by the powerful rulers in Lok. He’s responded by leading a rebellion, but now he has lost Thera, a member of the high-ranking Warrior Caste, who has been kidnapped by a powerful wizard and hidden away in the House of Assassins. Ashok sets out to rescue her, and to fulfil his vow to protect the Prophet. This looks to be a difficult task, so he divides his forces, sending part with Keta to hide out in the South, while he leads a force against the wizard assassins. Meanwhile, Thera’s captor is trying to force her to learn magic so she will either be killed in the Trial, or become one of the House. Fighting his way into the House to rescue her, Ashok begins to realize that they are all embroiled in an deeper intrigue they don’t understand. Is there any way out of it? Or are they destined to play out the game?

This is pretty much first class as far as epic fantasy goes. The world building, the plotting and the characters are all downright awesome. The plot is full of intrigue, political maneuverings and gaming on different levels. At this point, we’re getting glimpses of the greater picture, where Ashok has possibly become the tool of the Forgotten Gods, a hero meant to rescue the casteless and restore Lok to a kinder, gentler place without that restrictive caste system and those awful demons that fill the oceans. Of course, a lot of people are going to have to die before we get there—some of them maybe a couple or three times. Corriea has an entertaining writing style, and his characters tend to be smartass, all with endearing little tics that keep them from falling into stereotypes. Thera, for example, tends to collect weapons that she hides under her clothing, and she has absolutely no control of the Prophet Voice. Gutch, the greedy fat merchant, turns out to be actually quite effective in the carnage. Corriea is pretty good at imagery, too, providing us with some highly visual, cinematic scenes.

The only negative I can point out here is the amount of cruelty and violence. And Ashok is, of course, way over the top as a hero, but Corriea justifies it well. Highly recommended for epic fantasy fans.

Five stars.

Cover Reveal

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So, I’ve been traveling. Here’s a shout-out to Marge Simon and Bruce Boston, both great SFF writers and poets. We had lunch on Friday in Ocala under the shadow of Hurricane Barry.

Meanwhile I’m home for a couple of days, so I guess this is a good time for a cover reveal. I’ve had some older short stories available in different e-book collections for a while, but now these will be combined in trade paperback format so they’ll be available in bookstores. Watch for it August 1! Also, keep an eye out for future works.

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Review of “Laws of Night and Silk” by Seth Dickinson

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This short story was published in Beneath Ceaseless Skies. It currently has six recommendations on the Nebula Reading List.

Kavian is a sorcerer of the Cteri, the people of the dams, making war against the Efficate that wants the water they have captured in their reservoirs. The Efficate have wizards, too, but they are weak in comparison to the weapons of the Cteri. These weapons are abused children called abnarch who have been kept in dark, solitary confinement for their whole lifetimes. Kavain is given the abnarch girl, Irasht, to use as a weapon in the war. Her own abnarch daughter, Heurian, is given to another sorcerer, Fereyd Japur. The two use the girls to destroy the Efficate armies. Heurian dies, but Irasht is saved when the Efficate break off the war. Kavian then revolts against the system, challenging the female warlord Absu to release the imprisoned children.

This is a fully developed story, very personal and written in the present tense. Because it’s about abused children meant to be used as vessels, it’s very emotionally charged for our society that protects children so heavily. Absu is very pragmatic, without any apparent feelings clouding her decisions. However, both Kavian and Japur are plagued with guilt and get attached to their charges. By the end of the story Kavian has taught Irasht to talk and think, and uses her to press the revolt.

This is a very competent work meant to be emotional manipulation. I’m impressed at Dickinson’s skill at putting it together–he hits on a lot of current memes, strong females and disadvantaged men, etc. However, I’m a little hard to manipulate emotionally, so this just comes across as offensive because of the child abuse. There are also some other issues: First with the Cteri, who seem to be hogging all the water in the region and then abusing the children as a means of defending their civilization—there’s no mention that maybe they should just share. Next, I doubt very much that sorcerers who have grown up within this system would wallow in guilt or even question how it works—that’s imposed from our culture. Last, children who have been kept in the dark this way will likely be insane and not loving or trainable in any way. It’s also likely they will be blind.

I’ll give it some extra credit for the quality of the writing. Excellent imagery, character development and world building.

Four stars.

I think this one is a potential nominee.

Review of Uprooted by Naomi Novik

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FeatherPenClipArtI’ve actually already reviewed Uprooted, but I’ll repeat it here:

This is a young adult fantasy about a land called Polnya in the shadow of a poisoned wood. Agnieszka’s village is one of several protected by the Dragon, an old and powerful wizard who lives in a white tower at the base of the Western mountains. Every ten years, the Dragon chooses a young girl to serve as his domestic, and this year he chooses Agnieszka. This is a surprise choice, as everyone has been sure he would pick the beautiful and capable Kasia. At the tower, Agnieszka find the Dragon to be cold and terrifying. Instead of expecting her to just cook and clean for him, he seems to be trying to teach her magic. In a system where young wizards are identified early and educated in the ways of magic, Agnieszka has somehow escaped notice, and now the Dragon has found her. Her training is only brief, as things are changing in the kingdom. A group arrives from the capital, and Agnieszka is carried off to be tested by a board of wizards. They’re skeptical of her magic, which seems atypical, but her raw power eventually frightens them. The Wood is plotting to take the capital, so Agnieszka is called on to use her barely trained magic in a tense and frightening confrontation.

This is a story apparently based on Russian and Polish folklore, and under pressure, Agnieszka and her friend Kasia grow up fast from untested girls into strong and capable women. The story turns out to be darker than you’d expect, and the Dragon harder to crack. Agnieszka is an intrusion into his solitary world, and only makes a dent in it through the surprising power of her magic. On the negative side, it’s a little hard to believe that Agnieszka could be so effective as a wizard with so little training. Once in bed with the Dragon, she seems awfully experienced for such a young girl. The darkness and sexual content make this likely unsuitable for younger teens, but it’s still a well-constructed and entertaining coming-of-age story for girls. It’s a bit long for young adult, but well worth the read.

Review of Uprooted by Naomi Novik

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FeatherPenClipArt
This is an ordinary review, as there doesn’t seem to be much in the way of social or political messages in Uprooted. It’s a young adult fantasy about a land called Polnya in the shadow of a poisoned wood. Agnieszka’s village is one of several protected by the Dragon, an old and powerful wizard who lives in a white tower at the base of the Western mountains. Every ten years, the Dragon chooses a young girl to serve as his domestic, and this year he chooses Agnieszka. This is a surprise choice, as everyone has been sure he would pick the beautiful and capable Kasia. At the tower, Agnieszka finds the Dragon to be cold and terrifying. Instead of expecting her to just cook and clean for him, he seems to be trying to teach her magic. In a system where young wizards are identified early and educated in the ways of magic, Agnieszka has somehow escaped notice, and now the Dragon Sarkan has found her. Her training is only brief, as things are changing in the kingdom. A group arrives from the capital, and Agnieszka is carried off to be tested by a board of wizards. They’re skeptical of her magic, which seems atypical, but her raw power eventually frightens them. The Wood is plotting to take the capital, so Agnieszka is called on to use her barely trained magic in a tense and frightening confrontation.

This is a story apparently based on Russian and Polish folklore, and under pressure, Agnieszka and her friend Kasia grow up fast from untested girls into strong and capable women. The story turns out to be darker than you’d expect, and the Dragon harder to crack. Agnieszka is an intrusion into his solitary world, and only makes a dent in it through the surprising power of her magic. On the negative side, it feels like several years are missing out of the middle of the book. It’s a little hard to believe that Agnieszka could be so effective as a wizard with so little training. Once in bed with the Dragon, she seems awfully experienced for such a young girl. The darkness and sexual content make this likely unsuitable for younger teens, but it’s still a well-constructed and entertaining coming-of-age story for girls. It’s a bit long for young adult, but well worth the read. Four stars.

Review of The Skin Game, novel by Jim Butcher

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55327_girl-writing_mdThis novel was published by Orbit UK/Roc Books.

Harry Dresden is currently Mab’s Winter Knight. She sends him on an assignment to assist Nicodemus Archleone, the head of the Knights of the Blackened Denarius, in stealing the Holy Grail from Hades’ Underworld. Harry accepts the job, hoping to have a chance to undermine Nicodemus somewhere along the way. Both sides bring in henchmen and the heist goes off, leaving them to fight it out.

This is the fifteenth book of the urban fantasy Dresden Files series. Butcher is more than competent. He aims to be entertaining, and he is. This reads like an action-adventure film. Dresden is an experienced wizard with a rich backstory that he reflects on as the book progresses. He wise-cracks through the confrontations, working hard at being a good guy even though evil forces push him toward the darkness. Because of the wise-cracking approach, this never achieves real depth or drama. There’s a warm, fuzzy ending, but it includes a sharp warning about the future (to be continued next installment). Three stars.

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