Genre: Science Fiction
Publisher: Angry Robot Books
Kokoro is the sequel to Keith Yatsuhashi’s book Kojiki and continues where it ended with its masterful blend of Japanese folklore and science fiction. In many ways it is a manga or anime in purely written form and those familiar with that form of storytelling and the tropes that guide that very genre will enjoy it immensely. The difference between the sequel and its predecessor is that Kojiki more felt like an adventure novel, related to tales like Spirited Away, while Kokoro is more reminiscent of Robotech or Knights of Sidonia.
In this fashion Kokoro becomes a high octane story that moves quite fast, sometimes even a bit too fast for its own good. There is a lot going on and at times it can be difficult for the reader to keep up wit everything. The main story line takes place on a planet called Higo where a civil war is raging while Baiyren Tallaenaq, the prince of the planet is exiled away. He gets his hands on one of two giant mechs, here called mah-zin and travels to a different world. THere is naturally other parallel narratives, some involving the female cast, but they all move around the war and political intrigue at court.
As previously mentioned, this story has a lot going on. The reader is quickly thrown into the conflict, with the occasional flashback, and the exposition is quickly executed. As the story progresses it moves to a more leisurely pace, but the damage is already done. This does not mean that Kokoro isn’t an interesting story with the appropriate amount of twists and turns or inferior storytelling, the issue is that it for most readers may become too much, too confusing and too twisty and turny. This book is more geared to those who have a greater understanding of the world of manga or anime and all that comes with it.
At heart there is really just the basic story of a land ravaged by conflict and a family torn apart due to conflicts hidden in more modern tropes that some might just be too unfamiliar with. The language is still good and well adapted to the narrative and the world and relationship development is interesting as well as well executed.
In the end it is the amount of new things that is what would cause a reader to shy away, while those who are familiar with mechs, Asian mysticism and Japanese storytelling might gravitate towards it. There might even be the adventurous type who picks up this book and is introduced to a world well beyond the populist and westernized form of Pokémon, Digimon and Yo-kai Watch and then again the children who are intimately acquainted to those shows would most likely graduate to Kokoro. Whatever the case might be, there is enough proof among the pages to hint that the status of Yatsuhashi’s will grow in esteem as culture and taste catches up to it.
Publisher: Strange Chemistry
It is a widely held belief that no one is interested in reading reviews of older books. That for some reason readers are only interested in what is coming on the horizon and not that which has been. Not so here at the Guild. We do get our fair share of new books to review, but we also come in contact with less recent releases through services like Riffle, Bookperks and Bookbud. There is a bigger need for authors to have their work reviewed at Amazon, Goodreads or Barnes and Noble, to get their names out there. Therefore we at The Guild have instituted Rear View, a forum where we review older titles. Out first is the first installment of the Malediction series: Stolen Songbird by Danielle L. Jensen.
In an alternative France Cécile de Troyes leaves her family to further her singing career when she finds herself kidnapped and sold off to the trolls that live deep under ground. She is forced to marry the heir to the troll throne Tristan in hopes that it will break the curse that keeps them trapped under the rocks. Once bound she finds that there is a juxtaposition between the human hating conservative trolls, represented by the King and the more liberal views of the opposition, represented by her new husband. He, being afraid of what his people might due once freed, is not as eager to break the spell cast by the witch Anushka.
At first her relationship with her young husband is one of hate and dissatisfaction from both sides, but as time goes by and Cécile comes to terms with her new living arrangements and she understands Tristan’s true motives, among them protecting the half human, half troll breeds she begins to investigate what really happened with Anushka and the magic that lives within herself.
Stolen Songbird might appear, at first glance, to be just another young adult romance story and initially it might be true, but there is more to it. Of course the frame of it is deeply steeped in the romance with all of its tropes, such as the dark brooding handsome man who turns out to be a decent guy, the innocent young heroine who finds her inner strength so that she can change her destiny. It is a tale that is as old as genre fiction itself and in order for it to not fall into the trap harlequin swamp such a tale needs to be different. Jensen’s story is as different as it needs to be in order to be quite enjoyable and even though it may seem to be aimed at a certain type of reader it can in reality be enjoyed by all.
The story is driven through a shared narrative where the readers get to follow both Cécile and Tristan’s thoughts as they have their own separate chapters, but it is mostly the former’s voice that is heard. It is through her that the reader is privy to the world of the trolls and little by little their history and backstory is unraveled. Cécile herself has a story that is simultaneously reveled in steps and in many ways it is as the history of the protagonist is a tragic as the world she finds herself in. Romantic entanglement in all its various forms intermingle with political intrigue as well as class warfare and racism making Stolen Songbird a clear reflection of its time and the turmoil and nationalistic tensions that have plagued the early 2000s.
It is easy to brush off the first Malediction book as romantic fiction for young adults, but there is more of Diana Galbadon here than Jackie Collins. It might start out as such, but as opposed to Anne Rice or Laurell K. Hamilton the story matures and shies away from this oft, unfairly, tainted genre to take a place along side Outlander as an attempt to revamp it, instead of falling into its trap.
Genre: Science Fiction
Publisher: Del Rey
Neuvel’s first installment of the Themis Files, Walking Gods, made quite stir with its intricate plot, case file structure and mysterious protagonist. Now he has returned with the second book about the giant robot and those who are affected by it.
Many years after the discovery of several giant robotic body parts strewn across and the subsequent construction of these into the giant robot Themis another one shows up in London. Larger and with more functions it at first appears to be non threatening, but when Themis confronts it a battle ensues. With the latter victorious a new phase in the situation with the robots is entered. Especially when there are human like aliens found inside. At the same time the mysterious return of the dead Rose Franklin yields even more information, illegal egg harvesting and secret offspring. That ends upp being the least of humanity’s problem when thirteen new robots appear out of the blue and Themis vanishes in the process. The robots kill the population of several major cities and it looks as if man might just become a footnote in the history books.
Neuval continues with the case file form he began in Sleeping Giants and it is a structure that works well. He takes a story that to many may have some familiarity; the alien threat coupled with political and scientific secrecy and relates it in a very innovative style. The narrative consists of a variety of interviews conducted by the mysterious friend, news reports and other various recordings. Very much like the previous books it keeps the reader interested and it keeps a very nice and quick pace to a story that might otherwise be quite heavy on words and difficult to get through. Neuval is brilliant in that he has the ability to capture ones interest with quite meager means. We are not informed of the appearances of any of the characters or their outer goals other than what they might reveal in discussions with each other and this is fine. It creates a tension and interest in the story itself and the events that may come to pass, as well as what the consequences humanity might have to deal with once we come in contact with alien worlds. The question poised at the center of the Themis Files is still where the robots come from and whether they have left more than hardware behind. The plot truly thickens throughout this book and the story becomes more tragic than before.
It is easy to become enamored by Neuvel’s writing and his story of humanity playing with new toys that they do not quite understand, but this second book might answer some of the questions from the first one and leaves you with so many more that it is almost impossible to wait for the next installment.
Series: Book 1 in Dark Gifts series
Publisher: Del Rey Books
Gilded Cage is the first book in Vic James’ series that goes by the name of Dark Gifts. A story that blends human tragedy, oppressive legislature and love in an alternative world.
Luke Hadley’s world changes only days before a big test when his parents and older sister Abi announce they will all be going to Kyneston. That would not be so bad for it is one of the most opulent and grand houses in all of Britain if it was not for the fact that this meant that he was starting his slavedays. In this alternative world the nobles, here known as equals possess a magic they call Skill. As a measure to create free labor as well as to keep the citizens under control people are forced to serve ten years as slaves, working menial jobs at various facilities, in return they are afforded certain rights. Abi, the med student, has arranged for her family; mother, father, Luke, young Daisy and herself, to work at the home of the most important of the equal families: The Jardines. This would entail a cushy ten years without the hard labor others might have to endure, but once everything has been sold or packed away and goodbyes been said the harsh reality sets in. When the bus comes to collect them it is revealed that Luke will not be joining his family at Kyneston, but is instead on his way to the slavetown of Millmoor.
As the Hadleys arrive at their new home the Jardines have their own issues. There are three son; the Heir Gavar who has spawned a child with a slave, Jenner who is without skill and Silyen who is looking to end the slavedays. The two families become unavoidably intertwines when Daisy is charged with caring for the bastard Libby and Abi becomes Jenner’s secretary. The world of the equals is filled with intrigue and clandestine affairs as the chancellor is preparing to make his yearly proposal, and Gavar Jardine his impending wedding. The proposal is to end the slavedays, forced by Silyen who is the only one who can wake the man’s fiancé from her coma. Meanwhile Luke is being drafted into a secret organization at the slavetown called the club that stages random incidents.
There are many stories being told here, a full cast of characters each having their own intrigue and plot and in the end, even if there is a resolution it gets to be a bit much. Several of the plotlines are told so briefly or are only hinted at that they do not have time to marinate and they could have been better off in a sequel. For it is quite obvious that Gilded Cage is but the first in a series of books. It’s not like the story isn’t interesting, quite the contrary it is more as if some plot elements would have benefited from being prolonged and moved, while others needed more time in this first installment. The character of Luke, who spends the first part of the book in Millmoor, is moved to Kyneston for reasons best left spoiler free, but his time in the slavetown is so short when it comes to page count that the reader never gets the feeling of the horror of spending ones slavedays there. In truth the plot revolving around the equals is more interesting and more in depth than that of the Hadleys and that is really too bad since they are supposed to have an equal amount of the story.
There is much to be had from Gilded Cage and what James wants to say about the times in which we live. The divide between the wealthier classes, call them one per centers if you will, have everything and others have to slave away to even become part of our society. At times the book is a perfect blend of the romance novels that Abi reads and sometimes it is a political fantasy story that may rival the intrigue of the Tudors or G.R.R. Martin. In the end Gilded Cage is a good launching point for the world James wants to create and it will be interesting to see where it takes us.
Publisher: Daw books
Back in September 2016 we reviewed the prequel to The Twelve Kings in Sharakhai, Of Sand and Malice made, we called for more desert and more of the heroine Çeda and Bradley Beaulieu delivers nearly 600 pages of just that.
REVIEW With Blood Upon the Sand is book number two in the series The Song of the Shattered Sands and the readers once again get to follow the adventures of the once White Wolf Çeda. As to not spoil the first books for those who might become interested after this review we will avoid to delve too much into the plot. In her continued effort to bring about the downfall of the Twelve Kings, legendary tyrants of the desert landscape, Çeda has become one of the Maidens. As such she has the opportunity to fight them from the inside and free the asirim, slaves to the Kings, but loosing to The Moonless Host, a revolutionary type organization has made them vengeful and out for blood.
With Blood Upon the Sand is definitely what Empire Strikes Back was to A New Hope. It manages to delve deeper into the story and characters than the previous books, just like a sequel should, but that might be to simplify things. Even though Twelve Kings was a great read there were points one might have considered a bit too heavy and why not? The first book in a series is often used to set the scene, present the characters and add history. It gives the reader a chance to slowly immerse themselves in the setting, plots and various subplots. With that out of the way Beaulieu shows that he can flex his other muscles and flew them he does. There is a breeziness to the language of this book that was not as present in the first one. That is not to say that said language is simpler, on the contrary, but without the weight of giving detail to background and descriptions Beaulieu can concentrate on character interaction and driving the story forward; and this makes for a thrilling page turner.
What also feels different in the sequel is the fact that the story branches out in an almost vine like fashion. Twelve Kings mostly gave the reader Çeda’s point of view and her story and that was expected, but now Beaulieu flips the script and allows us more insight into the other players in this oriental drama. It is only one of the ways he manages to keep an already intriguing story alive, as well as introducing deeper plot twists, new magic and mythical objects. As stated in other reviews; the strength of a great story is to avoid the hackneyed tropes or at least reuse the same in a new and interesting way and Beaulieu shows us that he is a master of this time and time again.
At the heart of it all the same theme so common to fantasy stays true; The Heart’s Desire and the battle between good and evil, although what this desire might be or who stands on what side may be up for debate. The language is consistently strong, as is the plot, and it balances from everyday training and dialogue mixed in with an almost thriller like quality reminiscent of any Cold War drama. All in all the melding of tropes in a new cauldron brought to the boil truly results in a delicious and easily digested stew.
With Blood Upon the Sand is a perfect transition from the initial act of Twelve Kings to the inevitable climax of the next installment, it sets the stage perfectly and adds the right amount of actors, intrigue and backdrop for something awesome to come down the road.
So the call for more Çeda, more desert is coupled with more intrigue as well as cloak and dagger, bring it on and quickly.
With Blood Upon the Sand is released on February 7th and the first installments The Twelve Kings in Sharakhai and Of Sand and Malice Made are available wherever you might find books.
Genre: Fantasy/Gothic Fantasy
Publisher: Angry Robot Books
Familiarity in a story can be a double edged sword. It may be comforting to the reader like in romance novels purchased at the grocery store, to others it may be annoying and trite; to always know what is coming next, to not be surprised and maybe even at length be talked down to or taken for a simpleton. Naturally this might be dictated by what you read. An experienced fantasy reader with books by Stephen Donaldson, Ursula K. Leguin or Peter Beagle on their shelf might find Rowling’s Harry Potter books repetitive and borderline plagiarism. That isn’t to say that the end goal for most writers is to not turn out something new, it may be more about if the end result matches that very goal.
Eric Scott Fishcl’s Dr. Potter’s Medicine Show begins in a familiar setting, that of a traveling carnival at the end of the 19th century. To most readers a setting we know well, or at least have an idea of. It comes complete with a barker selling snake oil, a strong man, a singer and freaks. That is where the normalcy, if that can be an accurate description for a carnival, ends. The barker is Dr. Potter himself and the medicine he is trying to push is the Chock-a-saw Sagwa, a tonic that supposedly cures most ailments. He has not concocted it himself, instead there is another doctor, a Dr. Morrison Hedwith of Portland, behind the miracle drink. The Sagwa is the centerpiece of this tale of personal misery and broken figures trying to fight their obvious obstacles. As with most tonics of the age the Sagwa that Dr. Potter sells is useless, but there is a formulae that has other, more sinister effects, ones that he, the strongman Oliver, the Chinaman Fan and the proprietor of the show Lyman Rhoades desperately need. All of them are beholden to Dr. Hedwith due to dark events in their pasts and are therefore forced to help him in his twisted experiments rooted in alchemy. The very fragile balance in the medicine show is constantly threatened as the members regret their decisions, but Lyman exacts vengeance upon them regardless of their usefulness to the mission.
Dr. Potter’s Medicine Show is an excellent example of how to use tropes that have worked well in the past, and by disregarding those that have not successfully creating something fresh. The setting is reminiscent of TV shows like Deadwood or Ripper Street, a general melancholy with a sense of not being able to get out of ones current situation. The descriptions and language are used in a masterful way. The reader becomes instantly immersed in the sadness and sorrow of the characters and the world they inhabit, but there is a beauty and serenity in it, very much like the poems by Baudelaire who is oft quoted by singer turned prostitute in the book. The tempo is fast paced without ever feeling rushed, composed like a thriller the story moves along with ease without ever simplifying words or uncomplicating the plot. It speaks to Fischl’s ability to trust the reader and speaking to the reader’s intelligence. He makes no excuses and the characters suffer and go through hell without mercy and it is refreshing.
Fischl is great at using a variety of tropes belonging to just as varied a genre of literature; The western, the Gothic romance, the urban fantasy, the thriller and classic horror and he uses their various strengths like a master craftsman carrying a toolbox filled with the best tools for a job. The characters are easily recognizable as being plucked from Gothic Horror of Victorian style. The crazed and unethical aristocrat, the young innocent damsel, the idealistic young hero, a horrible assistant and a slew of other figures that make up a rich gallery.
There is a lot that Fischl does right with this book. It is a story about broken people, seemingly feeling like they have no hope and a man preying on them for his own sick and twisted reasons. One could easily see the story being picked up by FX or HBO, it’s that kind of story. That is one of the truly interesting aspects, it has a contemporary feel, the way the tale is told. Fischl has his finger on the pulse of what is going culturally be it TV or genre fiction, but in a late 19th century setting. It melds the credibility of human interest with a fantastical element written well enough to suspend ones disbelief. In the end it makes for a great and wonderful read that won’t disappoint those used to fantasy, horror or suspense.
Familiarity is a double edged sword, a trap that an author might fall into if they are not careful. The waters are tricky to navigate when using tropes from genre fiction, but the ship that Fischl commandeers keeps the reader dry and he does not wreck on the reefs of repetitiveness and triteness. Dr. Potter’s Medicine Show takes what is familiar and makes it original and engaging.
Genre: Science Fantasy
Publisher: Angry Robot
One can sum the theme of The Poison Eater with one word: secrets, and if one was interested in exploring more one could say that it’s about protective secrets. Set mostly in the city of Enthait the story centers round Talia, the Poison Eater. Her job is to at regular intervals ingest poison, in the end ten different kinds, and through this see visions of threats while also endangering her own life. Once all the poisons have been taken she will be the Orness, the ruler of the City, and in charge of the aria, an apparently great weapon in her charge. The job of Poison Eater is pivotal for the existence of Enthait and the people, who depend upon the visions in order to send out soldiers to cut off the threat, a ritual that ensures the safety of the community, but that ritual comes with a price; the possible death of the Poison Eater. Talia is well aware of this and has managed to survive seven poisons, a feat not pulled off by many others, even if she has a secret; the fact that she is not the Poison Eater at all.
A stranger to Enthait, arriving alongside a mechbeast named Khee, she has managed to hide her violent past and has taken the position in order to take control of the aria so she can exact revenge on the monsters that haunt her dreams. Living in constant fear of being revealed as the fraud she is it becomes evident that she is not the only one who is keeping secrets, that in fact there are deeper secrets going around in Enthait, and that the reason for her survival so far might not be able to help her anymore.
The Poison Eater is the first fiction based in the role playing world of Numenera, a science fiction world mixing futuristic technology and a fantasy setting, one billion years in the future. Though it takes place on Earth, this is never addressed in the story. It is unclear how much the reader must be aware of this world or is expected to be aware of it. The story in itself is not affected by this knowledge, but Germain does leave quite a few things out; like the terminology the characters use. They make reference to certain objects or jobs that the reader has to guess at, but becomes clearer the farther one reads. It is understandable if some might lose interest in reading when words are not explained and even though holes in a story usually is a good thing it at times can take the reader out of the tale.
The story of Talia the Poison Eater is intriguing enough on its own and the backdrop of Numenera as a setting is not really necessary. That being said, the omission of details pertaining to terminology and the history of Enthait or the so called vordcha is a bit much to overlook. It makes the emotional connection to the main character and the other figures who pass through the story almost non existent and it is difficult to invest the book. Germain has the ability to create and interesting plot and the thought of a futuristic dystopian world where past technology is still being used is fascinating, but unfortunately it never comes together as something the reader gets to sink their teeth into. For the bright spots in the book there are dark ones that take away from them and in the end the latter ones outweigh the former.
Publisher: Angry Robot
Release Date: 3 January 2017
The most common trope in the realm of fantasy literature has to be the battle between god and evil. It is as prevalent as the heart’s desire or the yearning to be more than one is, it is also what gives the protagonist the vehicle to make that change. In The Wood Beyond the World, regarded as the first fantasy novel, the hero Golden Walter battles an evil witch to save a princess and Frodo and his friends need to defeat the vile Sauron by destroying his proxy the one ring in Tolkien’s classic Lord of the Rings. These two books may be the two most important works in the genre and cement the idea of good vs evil. Once the genre moved into the modern era and the rise of a darker version of it began to appear with books like Grunts, where the orcs are heroes and Joe Abercrombie’s The First Law trilogy where those who appear to be the heroes are not quite that. To turn tropes on their ear, flipping the script as it were, is what keeps genre fiction interesting and relevant.
The Last Sacrifice does this as well, and that might just be its core strength, the uncertainty of who to route for. To some readers, those who only read books for the familiarity of themes and tropes, this might break the trust between sender and receiver, but in this case that audience may just find that need satisfied as well.
When Brogan McTyre returns home he finds that his family, wife and three kids, are gone. In their place are four gold coins, the calling card of the Grakhul a tribe of people living on the outskirts of civilization. Hidden away in an are known as the Gateway the Grakhul, protected by the Five Kingdoms, sacrifices people to appease the Gods, leaving behind their calling card; one gold coin per person abducted.
Enraged Brogan and his friends raid the Gateway and the keep hidden inside it, but all in vain, his family has already been thrown into the bit. In a fury of revenge he kills all the Grakhul men and takes the women and children to sell them into slavery. The problem is that the dead and captured are not the real threat, they are mere worshipers of the Undying, the He-Kisshi, seemingly inhuman immortals who demand the sacrifices to live, but also to keep balance in the universe. A chase ensues as Brogan and his men hit the road, all the while chased by the Undying who want their followers back.
Moore’s story is an interesting experiment in the fantasy genre. He tells several parallel stories from several different vantage points, each with its own protagonist. There is little judgement from the narrator when it comes to deciding who is in the right here and it makes the reader sit on edge when trying to figure out who to root for. Each character is driven by desire; Brogan to find his family initially and then to escape the He-Kisshi, the He-Kisshi to find their followers and exact revenge, but also to restore balance, Myridia, a Grakhul woman wants to find a new place of sacrifice to continue her work and so on. There are very many different paths to follow and story lines that all intersect in the end. Brogan’s action set in motion such a slew of events that all threaten to culminate in one great climax. In the end it might be so that his need for revenge may destroy the entire world.
Moore plays his cards close to the vest and the information about how the different stories connect literally trickle through the pages creating suspense and thrills. As a reader this isn’t the only thing that immerses the tale in mystery. The fact that there are no real descriptions of the characters’ appearances or clothing and the sparse portrayal of the surroundings. Moore paints a vivid picture of what the characters do, feel or sense and the same is true for the milieu, but not how it appears and it allows the reader to delve deep into the self to conjure up images. It also allows relatively inexperienced readers of the genre to venture into the story without the preconceived ideas about what the genre is.
As stated earlier in this review the battle between good and evil often stand at the center of many a fantasy story, but in The Last Sacrifice it is difficult to pin down who belongs to what side. They all seem to have their own interpretation of who is right and who is wrong, and in the end that is the strength of this book.
Genre: Horror/Western/Dystopian Sci-Fi
Publisher: Crossroad Press
There are few authors who live on in the cultural sphere the way H.P. Lovecraft does, at least within genre fiction. His influence transcends various cultural forms not only literature, but we see his fingerprints on TV, movies, video games, comics, music and even science (just ask Erich von Däniken). One of the reasons for Lovecraft’s longevity is most likely not his use of adjectives, his inability to describe the horrors he envisioned or his overt racism. It is the world and characters he imagined, the great old ones and the figures who interacted with them. The fascination with these nightmarish creatures has spawned a slew of copycat writers both pastiches and parodies. Even during his lifetime authors like August Derleth and Robert Bloch expanded his vast universe with their own creations and stories to such a degree that they today appear canonical, they become a integral part of that shared universe.
C.T. Phipps’ book Cthulhu Armageddon, while not doing exactly that, borrows heavily from the Cthulhu Mythos and everything surrounded it. To an expert in the field like S.T. Joshi or Robert M. Price it is a cornucopia of references and nods to everything Lovecraft and that should be enough to make a fan want to read it.
Billed as a dystopian sci-fi western Cthulhu Armageddon is set one hundred years after the return of the old ones. They have destroyed much of civilization and created a desert landscape with pockets of humanity, living in frontier like towns. There is a Richard Brautigan type quality with a Gothic flavor reminiscent of The Hawkline Monster, but more violent and less noir.
John Henry Booth is a ranger out of New Arkham, one of the new city-states and on a mission to The Black Cathedral to retrieve some kidnapped children when his crew get more than they bargained for. Cultists who become reanimated eradicate his squadron and Booth himself is cursed by the necromancer Ward. Ostracized by his community and seen as the one to blame for the failed mission Booth ventures into the wasteland to avenge his men, find the children and locate one of his missing rangers. His adventures take him through the dreaded Dreamlands and confronts Nyarlathotep and fights night gaunts, with the aid of a doctor and young girl.
The difference between Phipps’ book and those of Derleth, Bosch or Lumley is that while inspiration is a key element the constant threat of destruction brought on by Cthulhu and his ilk has happened and man must live with those consequences. Cthulhu Armageddon is a fast paced tale that blends science-fiction, horror with western tropes. Phipps’ protagonist Booth narrates the tale in a hard boiled style reminiscent of Spillane or Ennis and gives the darkness and melancholy it needs. There are several nods, as previously stated, to classic Lovecraft tales, as well as some of the man’s friends; Clark Ashton Smith makes an appearance and Chambers’ book The King in Yellow.
The book may not further the Cthulhu Mythos as such, but it is a fun read for fans and is an interesting take on what the future may hold for us all.
Fantasy is one of the genres that a lot of people have issues with. The reasons for this may be the fantastical elements, the shattering of the suspension of disbelief that may occur when a farm boy can slay dragons or the mere fact that the desire of the heart displayed in the tale is difficult to relate to. The best, of any genre fiction, are the stories that create something new, something different. In some fantasy novels it can be a strong sense of reality like the books by Joe Abercrombie, a female hero who puts a common myths on its ear like Zimmer Bradley’s Mists of Avalon or it may, while still using the genre specific tropes and themes, place the setting in an inventive area like Beaulieu’s Twelve Kings or Lays of Anuskaya, and that is what Will Panzo does in the Burning Isle.
The spellcaster Cassius shows up on the island of Scipio, a hotbed, described as a slum, of criminal activity mostly due to the fact that the inhabitants are unable to live in other parts of the Republic. The council that is supposed to run the island are more or less for show as the power is divided by the gang leaders Piso and Cinna. They, themselves are at war for the ultimate power of the island. Cassius is unknown when he comes to Scipio, having spent years in training at another island. He displays great power of the runes, that spellcasters control through gauntlets, the magical source in this world when he manages to kill a man during a prizefight. This catches the eye of Piso and they form a relationship wherein Cassius begins doing jobs for the mobster. It becomes more and more clear that Cassius has more plans than just running errands and he begins to stir the pot by doing jobs for Cinna as well. The violence begins to escalate until it surely must boil over.
There are a lot of things to enjoy in Panzo’s tale of treason and conflict in the underworld. Firstly he places the story in the new setting of a sort of Roman world, complete with words and classifications used during that era and when one initially reads the book it easy to believe that it’s a historic fiction. It creates a link between the reader and the author as a lot of the terms and concepts are easily recognizable and most everyone has an image of Rome and the people therein. Panzo’s language is also sharp and would appeal to a great spectrum of readers and not much is lost between sender and receiver among the pages. The plot in itself is simple enough, yet the actual goal of the protagonist is not revealed until half way through the story and this is good, although the first half reads like a sandbox type of game in the vein of Skyrim or Grand Theft Auto. This does get tiresome at times as it feels like Cassius only moves from place to place aimlessly, but as it advances his agenda and reasons become clear, and this is done in a very clever way. Though the Republic as such is never really revealed the history of Scipio is dealt with and the reader is privy to the background of the gangs on the island. Scipio, home to those rejected by society on other islands, becomes a representation of nations today where the government is no more than a faceless puppet and those who actually rule threaten to tear it apart due to their own petty personalities and egos. Cassius becomes a kind of vigilante in the den of corruption and violence, a representative of the people, the anti hero reminiscent of the old hard boiled detective of yore. As such he isn’t all powerful, he may be a great spellcaster, but he is often injured or hurt and this way he retains his humanity and Panzo manages to keep the suspension of disbelief intact.
There is so much that is good in The Burning Isle, from its language, to its setting and to the character development. We recognize the tropes, the people, the intrigue and the setting, but from different places. It’s all so familiar, yet we have seldom witnessed it in this constellation and that is what makes it unique and a great read.