Review: The Dragonoak Trilogy by Sam Farren

I believe I came across this trilogy first on Tumblr, and primarily because the author, Sam Farren, keeps ball/royal pythons, and I followed them for posts about their snakes. On seeing that Farren was also a self-published author, however, and being intrigued by the description of the first book, I decided to give it a try, and was glad I did; this is one of the more unique fantasy worlds that I have read in recent years.

(Some spoilers past this point.)

The series follows Rowan Northwood, a young woman from a rural village who has recently failed to hide the fact that she is a necromancer: someone with the power to snatch death away from or push death into other living beings. While her family stand with her and the local villagers are tolerating her presence as long she stays out on her family’s farm, life is not comfortable for Rowan. Taking a chance when one of her country’s famed Knights comes through the village, Rowan goes with her, following her to the neighboring country of Kastelir.

The title of the first book, The Complete History of Kastelir, struck me as a bit ambitious when I first read it, assuming that it was meant to be taken literally. The entire history of a country in a single book?

But the complete history of the country of Kastelir is exactly what I (and Rowan) learned through the course of the book. As a nation, Kastelir is relatively new, formed only a few decades previously out of a land of warring groups. By the end of the book, Rowan has (just barely) survived Kastelir’s fall, and has lost the woman whom she was beginning to love.

The Sky Beneath the Sun finds Rowan far to the south, in a completely different part of the world, along with the handful of friends and allies who escaped Kastelir at the end. Everything is new (and hot), and Rowan finds it mostly a welcome distraction from her grief. Unexpectedly, it also gives her a chance to learn more about herself, to learn that the commonly-used word “necromancer” does not at all begin to encompass the truth of her powers and the kind of being that she is. Through these revelations, a betrayal, and the eventual realization that their work in the land that was once Kastelir is not done, Rowan must decide where she will set the limits on her own power.

The final book in the series, Gall and Wormwood, sees Rowan and her friends returning north across the sea first to what remains of Kastelir, and then eventually back to her birth country of Felheim, where the heart of the conflict truly lies. It takes not just a better grasp of her own powers for Rowan and her allies to unravel the war that has been going on much longer than any of them realized, but also a rediscovery of their world’s more distant past.

The author of the Dragonoak trilogy created a truly unique world, that has breadth and depth enough that it is easy to feel the weight of its history even as the characters do. Farren’s take on what at first seems like a straightforward fantasy element like necromancy, turns into something unlike any other version of necromancy that I’ve seen. There are dragons and phoenixes, though even they are not quite what one might at first assume. This may be the first time that I have read a story in which the main character is dyslexic (though she does not use that particular term for it), and must work around her inability to read, though it is largely something that she just accepts about herself.

I enjoyed the whole trilogy, and would recommend these books to anyone who likes fantasy stories with original worldbuilding, queer characters, or a good story about the heroes fighting for (and winning) the right to live their lives in peace.

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Quick Review: The Way of Kings by Brandon Sanderson

I recently finished the first of Sanderson’s Stormlight Archive series, and as with his other work that I have read (mostly the Mistborn trilogy) it really pulled me in. It took me a little time to get into it at first, but after that it was difficult to put down, even the supposedly “slower” parts. Sanderson has created a large, complex, and very interesting world, and I’m now eager to read the rest of the series!

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Jasnah Kholin and Kaladin are my two favorite characters so far, although I like Shallan and Dalinar as well. Jasnah is a very interesting person, and I like her thoughts and attitude, her deep love of learning, and her determination to get to the truth about her world. I like Kaladin for his determination to not give up, and to make the most of whatever situation he finds himself in. Revelations at the end of this first book now make me especially eager to know what happens next.

Sanderson does a good job of building different cultures in the different geographical parts of his world, and showing how they vary depending on their distance from some of the world’s dangers (such as the highstorms), and how they interact with each other and have influenced each other over time.

I would recommend this to anyone who like long, epic fantasy stories, with many characters and complex world-building.

“Practical Magic”

It is always exciting to discover that an author you like has written more books than you realized! This is apparently true of Joan Aiken, who wrote The Wolves of Willoughby Chase, one of my favorite children’s stories that I still re-read from time to time.

A friend shared this article about Aiken on Facebook today, which taught me many things that I didn’t know. For example, I did not realize that The Wolves of Willoughby Chase (and the other books in that series) is set in an alternate history for England. As the author of the article describes, the book is certainly full of all kinds of tropes, but Aiken uses them with such obvious delight, and is such a good story-teller, that I can’t say I ever really noticed them.

I think I’ll start by looking up the other books in The Wolves Chronicles, and then try some of Aiken’s other work as well. It all sounds wonderfully imaginative!

~Ethelinda

;_;

I’m extremely sad to learn that Victor Milán passed away earlier this year. I was deeply enjoying his latest series, The Dinosaur Lords, and it’s heartbreaking to know that he had planned at least three more novels, as well as short stories/novellas/etc. in that universe, but didn’t get the chance to finish them. Cancer sucks. If you are a dinosaur and fantasy fan and haven’t read the existing three books yet, do it anyway – they are worth it.

RIP, Mr. Milán, and I wish you a dinosaur-filled Paradise.

~Ethelinda

Review: The Greenland Diaries by Patrick W. Marsh

(“A book that scares you” from the Reading Challenge)

This is a review for the first two books of this series, Days 1-100 and Days 101-140.

These were gripping books! Horror is not my usual genre, but I happened to meet the author at a local convention last year, and this story sounded intriguing. It sucked me in right away; in spite of having told myself I wouldn’t read it in the evenings, I did, and ended up finishing the first book in just a few days. Similarly, I read the second book in just a few days as well. They are difficult to put down! I live in the Twin Cities area of Minnesota, and I think that it makes a story like this more real, and more terrifying, to have it set in an area that you know well, because then you can’t help but picture what is happening to these familiar places, and feel sympathetic to what the main character is going through.

The premise was very different than anything I have read before, and therefore quite interesting. The main character, a bank teller, manages to survive a terrifying night at his bank when strange drums signal the arrival of monsters which kill anyone they encounter out in the open. Being careful and observant, he makes it home, and continues to evade the monsters that appear every night, even as strange green plants begin to slowly grow over everything. The story does a good job of capturing both the hair-raising periods of terror and the in-between tedium that the main character experiences. Both volumes leave off on quite a cliff-hanger, so I’m looking forward to reading the third book. I don’t know how many books the author intends, but it will be satisfying whenever the characters finally learn what has happened to their world and why! I’ll do an update when I’ve read more.

I would recommend this to anyone who likes horror, and particularly horror with a fantasy/fantastical twist to it, or someone who isn’t picky about genre but enjoys stories set in Minnesota.

Review: The Kalevala

(“A book that was originally written in a different language” from the Reading Challenge)

The Kalevala is the national epic of Finland. As with many of the older epics, this one is a modern-ish (early-1800s) written collection of stories that were originally an oral tradition, spoken or sung. And, in this particular case, then also a translation from Finnish into English. I’m sure that some of it gets lost in translation, but overall I found it very interesting and I enjoyed it. It took me a long time to actually read all of it (3 years or so), both because it is very long, and because I could read a good chunk of it at a time, but then would need a break before I would feel like reading more. I read it primarily to get some further inspiration for The Wizard of Suomen, not so much in plot or story-line, but more for the feel of ancient Finland as a place, and for some of the descriptions of things and land and animals. I would say that any inspiration for TWoS is more aesthetic than anything else. (The following is more a collection of my impressions than a proper review, so be forewarned. There are also a few slight spoilers.)

The story traces several heroes, and here I will use that term in the older sense as meaning a great warrior or great master of something, rather than the more modern connotation of “a really good person.” The three main heroes whose stories are told are Väinämöinen, Ilmarinen, and Lemminkäinen. (Or at least, those are their usual names. Sometimes the same character was given multiple names or epithets, so it was a little difficult to follow at times. Don’t ask me about pronunciation, I wouldn’t dare try.)

Inasmuch as there is a main character in the Kalevala, it is definitely Väinämöinen, who is an old wizard and musician of great power. He has many adventures, and uses his very-cool-seeming powers to either accomplish great deeds or to get his way. As a modern person, I found him kind of arrogant and annoying at times, but I think that is partially a symptom of my perspective.

Ilmarinen was the only one of the three that I really liked particularly much. He is a blacksmith of great skill, and seemed to get the short end of the stick in many of the stories, but always pushed through and worked hard anyway. My impression was that he was younger than Väinämöinen, but other comments I have seen about the Kalevala seem to indicate that he is an older man too, so I’m not really sure about that.

I really hated Lemminkäinen, who struck me very much as a spoiled, whiny brat who only wanted to get his own way and whose mother very much enabled him. I was pleased to reach the point in the story where he is killed on a quest to the underworld, because by that point I really felt like he deserved it. But then of course he turned out to be the one who got the “my mother will gather my body parts, put me back together, and bring me back to life” story arc, so my relief was short-lived.

The fourth character who gets a large arc, Kullervo, is pretty much just straight-up evil. I think it was prophesized at or before his birth that he would be evil and do lots of horrible things, and he then spent much of his life turning that into a self-fulfilling prophecy, so I liked him even less than Lemminkäinen. Granted, he was also treated very poorly by almost everyone around him, so it’s understandable why he would be angry at everything, but still. (Tolkien apparently found this character fascinating, and his story of Túrin Turambar in The Silmarillion is based on this character Kullervo in the Kalevala.)

There was a lot of interesting repetition and exaggeration, which may or may not have come through the translation well, but fits with what I would expect from an oral tradition. One of my favorites was the description of an ox that was “neither the largest nor the smallest,” but its size was given by stating something like it would take a weasel seven days to run around its head.

The land called Pohjola (possibly the area we know as Lapland today) is always described as “ever-dismal Northland,” which I found very amusing (and again, not surprising!)

The last Rune was the strange story of a young maiden who becomes impregnated by a lingonberry and does this strange virgin-birth thing, which I strongly suspect was added to the tradition after the introduction of Christianity. I often wonder what changes have been made to these traditional stories and epics since the introduction of Christianity into those lands; it would be interesting to know what they were like prior to that time, but of course nothing was recorded in those days, so we will likely never know.

While I didn’t always like the characters, the Kalevala as a whole was an interesting and enjoyable read! I don’t have much to say about the specific stories/adventures, I guess, but they were fun to read. The Wikipedia entry about it seems decent, and I might go through the summary of the story at some point, just to clean up my knowledge of it; there were a few things that I was never quite clear on. There is also interesting discussion there about the man who wrote it down originally and the translations and that sort of thing. I would recommend it to anyone who likes the old epic sagas, who is interested in Finland/Finnish culture, or who is interested in a source that Tolkien drew some of his inspiration from.

Review: The Orc of Many Questions by Shane Michael Murray

(“A book with nonhuman characters” from the Reading Challenge)

I got this book specifically because it seemed like it would have an unorthodox take on orcs, and I was not disappointed.

The story follows a young orc (a “blunc”) who unusually has a fairly sharp mind and a very inquisitive nature; not attributes that are looked on favorably in his tribe. Large, powerful orcs who can be successful in raids against the humans, elves, and dwarves of the world are the ideal, this being the only way that the orcs can procure food, weapons, goods, and “entertainment.” Talking-Wind wants to know why his people are stuck in this life of constant raiding, and even has some hints that life was not always like this for orcs, but he has more questions than answers, and little time to search for them. Talking-Wind’s curiosity draws unwanted attention not only from the other young orcs, who are all too happy to bully someone smaller and weaker, but also from the dragon that demands regular tribute from the orc clan. When the dragon comes for him, Talking-Wind needs all his wits in order to have a hope of surviving long enough to get all of his many questions answered!

This book was a lot grosser than I was expecting, which perhaps should not have surprised me given the subject of the story; there is some gore, but mainly a lot of unpleasant bodily functions! This does not detract from the story, but might be something to be aware of.

It also does a good job with starting to break down the standard fantasy trope of “orcs are evil because they are evil,” which has bothered me more and more in recent years. A certain well-known fantasy series that shall not be named recently doubled-down on this, after spending several books/years looking like they too might be reversing or at least questioning the trope, which annoyed me. Partly for that reason, I’ve been looking for stories that do better and don’t automatically go the route of saying that some races are actually evil by nature. To me, that makes for much less interesting villains/enemies. Easier to kill with a clean conscience, perhaps, but not much else.

There is a sequel which I have not gotten to yet, but do hope to read soon! I would recommend this one to anyone who is interested in a subversion of typical fantasy tropes, anyone who likes a very down-to-earth-complete-with-bodily-fluids type of story, or anyone who happens to be interested in orcs as a fantasy race.