Quick Review: BLACKWING by Ed McDonald (Gollancz/Ace)

A promising debut grimdark fantasy

You think you know Misery? You’ve not seen anything yet…

The republic faces annihilation, despite the vigilance of Galharrow’s Blackwings. When a raven tattoo rips itself from his arm to deliver a desperate message, Galharrow and a mysterious noblewoman must investigate a long dead sorcerer’s legacy. But there is a conspiracy within the citadel: traitors, flesh-eaters and the ghosts of the wastelands seek to destroy them, but if they cannot solve the ancient wizard’s paradox, the Deep Kings will walk the earth again, and all will be lost.

The war with the Eastern Empire ended in stalemate some eighty years ago, thanks to Nall’s ‘Engine’, a wizard-crafted weapon so powerful even the Deep Kings feared it. The strike of the Engine created the Misery — a wasteland full of ghosts and corrupted magic that now forms a No Mans Land along the frontier. But when Galharrow investigates a frontier fortress, he discovers complacency bordering on treason: then the walls are stormed, and the Engine fails to launch. Galharrow only escapes because of the preternatural magical power of the noblewoman he was supposed to be protecting. Together, they race to the capital to unmask the traitors and restore the republic’s defences. Far across the Misery a vast army is on the move, as the Empire prepares to call the republic’s bluff.

Blackwing is one of the most hotly-anticipated debut fantasy novels of the year. Social media and the blogosphere have been filled with glowing reviews, squees and other evidence that suggests the hype has been entirely justified. There’s a lot in here that will certainly appeal to plenty of fantasy fans. However, I ultimately came away from this novel underwhelmed. Continue reading

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Interview with ED McDONALD

McDonaldE-AuthorPicLet’s start with an introduction: Who is Ed McDonald?

Hello! That would be me. I’m an author, swordsman, medieval historian, lecturer, husband, reader, and gamer.

Your debut novel, Blackwing, will be published by Gollancz. It’s been getting quite a bit of pre-publication buzz. How would you introduce it to a potential reader? Is it part of a series?

Blackwing is the first part of The Raven’s Mark series. It’s epic fantasy in scope, but with a tight focus on a single character and the individual part he plays in a wider conflict. The pace is more like a thriller than the usual wander through a fantasy landscape, so I’d say that if you like your fantasy fast paced, character driven, hard hitting, free from gender bias and set on the edge of a post-apocalyptic magical wasteland, then it’s probably for you. Continue reading

Interview with ANNA SMITH SPARK

anna-smith-spark-author-photo-1Let’s start with an introduction: Who is Anna Smith Spark?

I tweet as QueenofGrimdark, I’m an ex-fetish model, and I have a PhD in Victorian occultism.

No, honestly.

I’m a fantasy novelist from London, UK.  I have a background in history and literature: I studied Classical History for my BA, Cultural History for my MA and English Literature for my PhD. Which really was about Victorian occultism, looking at the way it intersected with the physical sciences and with politics. My only real interests in life are history, mythology and literature. I spent several years as an obsessive D&D player, but sadly no longer play. I’m obsessed with Warhammer miniatures as well (Chaos Warriors … oh. Oh oh oh), but don’t actually play Warhammer either. Continue reading

Introducing “Turn back 10” & Another Look at WAY OF SHADOWS by Brent Weeks (Orbit)

TurnBackTimeManOnClockApril 8th will mark the tenth anniversary of Civilian Reader. Which is a surprise. I thought it might be interesting to post one old review per week, working back to the first — which I will re-post on April 8th. I’m going to call these “Turn Back 10” posts. The first three don’t feature content that is actually ten years old — I only wrote three reviews in 2006, after all, which would make this a pretty short exercise. Not to mention a bit dull. Each post will feature a review from the first three years of CR (2006-08). And it’s a nifty title, so I’m sticking with it. The reviews are, of course, mostly terrible in terms of style — I was still figuring out how I wanted to write them. They are often rather more hyperbolic than I would like now.

I will do some minor editing and adjusting, in order to make them fit in with the current style, and fix typos, but other than that they are re-posted as they first appeared. If I enjoy posting them, I may continue the practice after the anniversary, but try to feature reviews more relevant to what I might be reading at the time, or what I’m posting about.

Brent Weeks’s The Way of Shadows was the first fantasy novel I had read in a very long time, which wasn’t set in a shared universe or Discworld. I remember it blowing me away, too: it did things that I had thought one wouldn’t find in fantasy novels (remember, I barely read any fantasy at the time). It was, to use words that have fallen completely out of favour, grim and quite gritty. (Especially the ending, and one storyline in the second book.) Certainly, more grim and gritty than I was familiar with. I remember noticing it because Amazon recommended it because I had also bought Scott Lynch’s The Lies of Locke Lamora.

It was also the first fantasy novel I received from a publisher for review — up until that point, it had been predominantly non-fiction and Star Wars novels. It also marked the point when Civilian Reader started to take off — in terms of readership and also how much time and effort I poured into the site. I also remember, after publishing the review, incessantly pestering Orbit’s publicist for the next two novels in the series… (Thankfully, the then-publicist has the patience of a saint.)

WeeksB-NA1-WayOfShadowsTHE WAY OF SHADOWS by Brent Weeks (Orbit)

The start of something truly fantastic

The perfect killer has no friends. Only targets. 

For Durzo Blint, assassination is an art. And he is the city’s most accomplished artist, his talents required from alleyway to courtly boudoir.

For Azoth, survival is precarious. Something you never take for granted. As a guild rat, he’s grown up in the slums, and learned the hard way to judge people quickly — and to take risks. Risks like apprenticing himself to Durzo Blint.

But to be accepted, Azoth must turn his back on his old life and embrace a new identity and name. As Kylar Stern, he must learn to navigate the assassins’ world of dangerous politics and strange magics — and cultivate a flair for death.

Fantasy fiction has undertaken a shift in tone and style in recent years. It’s darker, more realistic (oddly), and the characters are less polished, more flawed and human. The fairy-tale feel of older fantasy fiction has been purged from much the genre’s new writing, and the world is better for it. Brent Weeks’ new series not only fits perfectly into this new genre, but it surpasses much of what’s already available. Continue reading

Upcoming: THOSE BELOW by Daniel Polansky (Hodder)

PolanskyD-ET2-ThoseBelowUK

Earlier today, Tor.com shared the cover artwork for Daniel Polansky‘s upcoming new novel, Those Below. It was unveiled earlier by Hodder, although I inexplicably managed to miss that post… The sequel to Those Above, and final novel in the author’s epic fantasy Empty Throne series, it’s due to be published by Hodder in the UK, on March 10th, 2016. I really can’t wait to get my mitts on this one…

Here’s what it’s about:

For centuries beyond counting, humanity has served the Others, god-like Eternals who rule from their cloud-capped mountain-city, building a civilization of unimagined beauty and unchecked viciousness.

But all that is about to change. Bas Alyates, grizzled general of a thousand battles, has assembled a vast army with which to contend with the might of Those Above. Eudokia, Machiavellian matriarch and the power behind the Empty Throne, travels to the Roost, nominally to play peacemaker – but in fact to inspire the human population toward revolt. Deep in the dark byways of the mountain’s lower tiers, the urchin Pyre leads a band of fanatical revolutionaries in acts of terrorism against their inhuman oppressors. Against them, Calla, handmaiden of the Eternals’ king, fights desperately to stave off the rising tide of violence which threatens to destroy her beloved city.

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Upcoming: THE LIAR’S KEY by Mark Lawrence (Ace/Voyager)

LawrenceM-RQW2-LiarsKeyUS

I’m a big fan of Mark Lawrence‘s novels. His debut, Prince of Thorns (published in 2011) blew me away, and I blitzed through it in just two sittings. King of Thorns, the sequel, was a heftier beast, but no less good. I haven’t managed to get around to Emperor of Thorns, just yet, but I do intend to do so ASAP. He has since completed his first trilogy and begun a second, parallel trilogy set in the same world and at the same time. The cover for the second novel in this new trilogy, The Liar’s Key now has UK (below) and US (above) covers.

After harrowing adventure and near-death, Prince Jalan Kendeth and the Viking Snorri ver Snagason find themselves in possession of Loki’s Key, an artefact capable of opening any door, and sought by the most dangerous beings in the Broken Empire — including The Dead King.

Jal wants only to return home to his wine, women, and song, but Snorri has his own purpose for the key: to find the very door into death, throw it wide, and bring his family back into the land of the living.

And as Snorri prepares for his quest to find death’s door, Jal’s grandmother, the Red Queen continues to manipulate kings and pawns towards an endgame of her own design…

The Broken Empire trilogy includes Prince of ThornsKing of Thorns and Emperor of Thorns.

The Red Queen’s War trilogy includes Prince of FoolsThe Liar’s Key and The Wheel of Osheim (2016).

The Liar’s Key is published in the US by Ace Books, on June 2nd, 2015; and in the UK by Voyager, on June 18th, 2015.

Also on CR: Interview with Mark Lawrence

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Review: PRINCE OF FOOLS by Mark Lawrence (Voyager/Ace Books)

LawrenceM-RQW1-PrinceOfFoolsUKA new trilogy and hero, and still just as good…

The Red Queen is old but the kings of the Broken Empire fear her as they fear no other.

Her grandson Jalan Kendeth is a coward, a cheat and a womaniser; and tenth in line to the throne. While his grandmother shapes the destiny of millions, Prince Jalan pursues his debauched pleasures. Until he gets entangled with Snorri ver Snagason, a huge Norse axe man, and dragged against his will to the icy north.

In a journey across half the Broken Empire, Jalan flees minions of the Dead King, agrees to duel an upstart prince named Jorg Ancrath, and meets the ice witch, Skilfar, all the time seeking a way to part company with Snorri before the Norseman’s quest leads them to face his enemies in the black fort on the edge of the Bitter Ice.

Experience does not lend Jalan wisdom; but here and there he unearths a corner of the truth. He discovers that they are all pieces on a board, pieces that may be being played in the long, secret war the Red Queen has waged throughout her reign, against the powers that stand behind thrones and nations, and for higher stakes than land or gold.

Mark Lawrence returns with the first in a great new trilogy set in the same world as his critically-acclaimed Broken Empire trilogy. As long-time readers of the blog will know, I really enjoyed Lawrence’s debut, Prince of Thorns. He is without doubt one of the best new fantasy authors, and if you like your fantasy dark, twisty, and very well-written, then you really do need to give his work a try. Prince of Fools introduces us to a new pair of heroes – Prince Jalan and his Viking companion, Snorri. I really enjoyed this novel. Continue reading