The Sword Saint – CF Iggulden

sword saint cover

“The boy crouched on a ledge, resting his chin on his knees, eyes bright as he watched the old priest pass below.”

I thoroughly enjoyed the first two books in this series, Darien and Shiang, although felt that there was so much more to be explained about all the wondrous things: the powerful stones held by the ruling families of Darien, the few individuals with special abilities, and how the geography might or might not fit with our world as their history. Alas, the series closes out with few answers – and yet it’s still one hell of a ride!

The second book threw me a little, switching cities and focus (at least to begin with), so one of the things I loved here was seeing all those threads from the first and second books pulled together. Truly, this trilogy is meant to be read as a whole, not individual chapters.

We’re back in Darien for the finale, and a new neighbouring king looking to make a trade deal – or, is that really what’s going on? As names start to feel familiar from the prologue, we’re left to wonder just what was being guarded by a priest.

There are a few victories and a few heartbreaking defeats as we follow our band of misfits one last time. It might have been nice to learn more about all the ideas, but perhaps it’s all best shrouded in mystery as we enjoy the series’ final battles.

Start with Darien – but do start!

NetGalley eARC: 384 pages / 26 chapters
First published: 2019
Series: Empire of Salt book 3 (of 3)
Read from 31st July – 8th August 2019

My rating: 9/10

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In the Hand of the Goddess – Tamora Pierce

in the hand of the goddess cover

“The copper-haired rider looked at the black sky and swore.”

If you read my review of Alanna, the first book in this series, you’ll know that I’ve waited several decades (!) to find out what happened to Alanna after those first adventures. So, was it worth the wait?

Usual warning: just mentioning a character in book 2 might be classed as a spoiler as to who survives book 1. Continue at your own peril 😉

Following on from the first book, Alanna’s secret is now known by a few, but all are sworn to keep quiet while she continues in her quest to become a knight. The final test – the Ordeal – is weighing heavy on her mind. Then there’s their new magic tutor – Jon’s cousin, Roger. He’s handsome and charming – and for some reason Alanna cannot stand him. Even if her suspicions are correct, what if anything can she do about them?

I’m kind of glad I didn’t read this back in the day, at the same time as Alanna. It continues the story, but at the same year-skipping pace, so we find our heroine going from child to pretty much an adult. With that creeps in romance – and although she swears she’s against it, there’s a fair amount of slightly creepy behavior from not one but two potential suitors.

So, not quite so much the kid’s book as the previous instalment, but then the writing style hasn’t updated. Big events are covered with a line or two, the plot drives forward in large chunks of time, and Alanna is still gifted and semi-revered, despite being a child amongst adults. Everything seems to be very easy for her.

I still enjoyed the light, easy read to a certain extent, and yes am glad to have finally moved on in the story. But, ho-hum, it’s not aged all that well and the problematic stuff just seems… off-putting. Still, book 3 purchased and I’ll go on.

Kindle: 233 pages / 10 chapters
First published: 1984
Series: The Song of the Lioness book 2 (of 4)
Read from 3rd-6th July 2019

My rating: 6/10

Alanna – Tamora Pierce

alanna cover

“‘That is my decision. We need not discuss it.'”

Back when I was but a tadpole and still book-mad, there was a glorious day at school when a book seller came to call and we all got to buy books. I’m guessing I was about 7 or 8 when I got this, oh, I loved it! The girl taking on the boys and doing what she wanted despite her gender, the magic, the colour-coding of magic and eyes (yup, details like that were a thing for me!). And then it ends, not on a cliffhanger per se, but obviously with so much more story to go.

Whether the second volume just hadn’t been published by then (yes, yes, I’m old 😉 ) or I just didn’t have the resources to track down series (I pre-date the internet), I never got to find out what happened to Alanna. Imagine my surprise – and slight regret – in finding out that there were another three books, and then several more series in the same world!

Even so, I held off any attempt at getting hold of this. How would a book I read and loved in childhood stand up to adult eyes? It was a recent Netgalley of another Tamora Pierce book, Tempests and Slaughter, that allowed me to think maybe I could go back.

Which is a lot of preamble, I apologise, but there are just some books that have more than the story between the covers to them 🙂

Thom and Alanna are twins. She’s about to be sent off to the convent, while he will train to be a squire and then a knight. Problem is, Alanna wants to fight and Thom hates it, preferring to study and learn sorcery. And so a plot is hatched that pretends they are twin boys, and the two swap places.

It’s not a long book, and yes written for a younger audience, but it makes for a lovely read as an adult, too. The writing isn’t dumbed down, just stripped of unnecessary waffle. We skip through several years but it never feels rushed, just that we aren’t being told unimportant details. And so we deal with Alanna learning to fight, covering up her developing womanhood (I think that was an important chapter to a young girl!), and facing her fears over her magical abilities.

I needed something light and positive to read during a trying time, and this fit the bill perfectly. My only real complaint would be how a child – Alanna’s about 11 – gets to be so good at nearly everything she does, and is treated quite as an adult at times. I imagine that went down a little better when I was about the same age 😉

I’m glad I went back to read this again. It didn’t spoil my memories at all, and – huzzah! – after so many decades I get to find out what happens next!

Kindle: 231 pages / 7 chapters
First published: 1983
Series: The Song of the Lioness book 1 (of 4)
Read from 1st-3rd July 2019

My rating: 8/10

The Binding – Bridget Collins

binding cover

“When the letter came I was out in the fields, binding up my last sheaf of wheat with hands that were shaking so much I could hardly tie the knot.”

Imagine a world where you can have memories taken out of your head, bound into a book and no longer troubling you. Novels are merely cheap fakes, the real stories are people’s lives and will catch you up in their once-reality.

Emmett Farmer is recovering from a long, mysterious illness when he approached to be an apprentice to the local Binder. She teaches him how to make and cover books, each a work of art, but he still doesn’t understand what she does with the visitors who come asking for her help.

I really loved the idea of this world, the books that are so beautiful often housing very dark secrets. The sense of mystery in the opening chapters is just enough to hook you in, waiting to find out what’s going on.

Alas, once we’ve got the world building out of the way, the story takes a turn and I really wasn’t impressed. You have Binding and memory removal – and you turn it into a love story? Urgh. I am not a fan of romances, to be honest. And I’m increasingly not a fan of fantasy that picks up real-world prejudices. I’d rather read about worlds where it doesn’t matter if you’re male or female, gay or straight, black or white. To have the whole story hinge on at least one of those being a Huge Bad Thing just soured it all for me.

That said, the writing is good, and the story is very well presented – although I did get confused, repeatedly, by the switch of first person point of view for the third part. Somehow that never quite clicked in my brain. Still, that it wasn’t the fantasy wonder I was hoping for didn’t stop me reading and enjoying what was there.

NetGalley eARC: 448 pages / 28 chapters
First published: 2019
Series: none
Read from 12th-30th June 2019

My rating: 6/10 – well enough written, but not my cuppa

Aladdin (2019)

aladdin poster

I’m far from convinced about this plan to turn all the Disney cartoons into live-action movies. Beauty and the Beast (2017) sort of summed things up for me: not as good as the original, why did you bother? I ran screaming at the thought of sitting through Dumbo (2019), and the trailer for Lion King (2019) looks like a car crash, quite frankly. And yet, Aladdin (1992) is one of my favs from the House of Mouse, and so triumph or disaster, I was curious to see what they had done to it.

So, you know the story. Street rat and petty thief falls for the princess and winds up being used as a pawn by the evil vizier. But, instead of handing over the magic lamp he’s been tasked to steal, Aladdin ends up with a genie granting him three wishes. Can he improve his life, win the princess, yadda yadda yadda?

There are a few minor deviations in this new version. Princess Jasmine gets a new song and a 21st Century update, now trying to convince her father that a girl can be a ruler, not just a wife. I approve! It also felt very well done, imo, quite organically woven into the script and not just a tacked-on moment of ‘girl power’ (I’m looking at you, Endgame!).

The other big change that hits you the most is the loss of the wonderful Robin Williams as the genie. I can’t imagine anyone being brave enough to step into those shoes – but then, if it was going to be anyone, Will Smith makes a lot of sense. He’s been derided quite harshly for the role, but – perhaps going in with such low expectations – I actually think he manages pretty well. Still, it’s a little jarring mixing the genie we know with the Fresh Prince persona slipping through, and then a sweet if odd choice of adding in a crush on the princess’s handmaiden. Hmm.

Otherwise, it feels like the aim was to match the cartoon as closely as possible, and this might have been a flaw. The rooftop chase parkour looks like CGI not gone entirely right, and a few other scenes too end up looking cartoonish – and not in a good way, often running at a slightly odd speed or just looking juddery.

So… I dunno. It wasn’t awful, even while it wasn’t great. I was entertained enough but would rather watch the original. On the other hand, it was far more successful than e.g. B&tB, and more than I expected. I’m glad I quenched my curiosity, I’m mildly impressed that they translated as much of the animation as they did, and if nothing else, Friend Like Me and Prince Ali are fab songs – and Will Smith does them well.

Released: 22nd May 2019
Viewed: 8th June 2019
Running time: 128 minutes
Rated: PG

My rating: 6.5/10

Holy Sister – Mark Lawrence

holy sister cover

“The roar of a crowd invades you like a living thing, reverberating in your chest, taking its answer from your lips without permission.”

(Usual warning: while I try to avoid spoilers, mentioning a character here could serve as a spoiler of who survives earlier novels. The series rocks – go start at book 1! :))

We’ve followed Nona Grey from a scrawny waif to a powerful fighter. But as her strength and abilities have grown, so too have the threats: the ice is closing the corridor, the Empire is under attack from both sides, and powerful people have personal grudges against ‘little’ Nona.

Holy Sister is split into two timelines, one picking up straight after the events at the end of Grey Sister, and the other three years later – so, echoing the jump in the previous book. The short story, Boundserves as a good little bridge between the two time periods, without being necessary.

At first I thought this style might be irritating, but it works really well. We know certain things have happened, but have to find out how. And in the later timeline – oh my goodness, there is so much to find out! This isn’t just a wrapping up of events, this is an explosion of everything! What the shiphearts might be, all about the focus moon, and of course: what kind of Sister Nona will choose to be.

Assassin nuns with magical abilities is a fab premise for a book. But the characters – Apple and Kettle, Nona and Ara, Abbess Glass – these make the story. And what a story – and what an ending! Definitely recommended.

NetGalley eARC: 368 pages / 30 chapters
First published: 2019
Series: Book of the Ancestor book 3 (of 3)
Read from 16th April – 4th May 2019

My rating: 9/10

Preludes and Nocturnes – Neil Gaiman

preludes and nocturnes cover

Graphic novels should, it feels, appeal to me a whole lot more than they do. As it is, I read so fast the artwork tends to get lost, and it’s tough to make myself slow down enough to savour it. It works, then, to go back for rereads – like this, of a series that I rather adore.

I love Neil Gaiman’s work anyway, but never more so than with his tales of the Endless: Death, Dream, Desire, et al. The first collected volume is wholly centred on Morpheus, the ‘Sandman’, the King of Dreams.

We start when a cult’s ritual to summon and bind Death (Dream’s big sister) goes awry, and it’s the dreamlord who ends up trapped in a bubble for decades. Meanwhile more than one world starts to fall apart. Fair enough to assume Morpheus will escape, but can he fix everything his absence has caused in the worlds?

And so we set off on an extremely dark and bloody tale that takes our hero to hell and worse. There’s no shortage of cameos, tying this into the wider DC universe: from Arkham Asylum and a few familiar inmates, to a certain John Constantine, and a character that would go on to spawn (pun intended) further comics and a whole TV series: Lucifer Morningstar (looking not very much like Tom Ellis, and a great deal like David Bowie, as it happens…!).

Talking of looks, the artwork… to be honest, doesn’t do a great deal for me here. It’s fine, but it’s not as special as my brain remembers or I think the series deserves. It does improve, but at this point in both the series and the decade, it’s all just a bit so-so.

The story, however, is where it’s at. Gaiman also draws heavily from myth, from Cain and Abel to the Fates, and much more. It makes a lot of sense that Dream is so key to story telling, and all stories are part of it. I love the interplay, the different strands, the way all these realities clash and combine.

Much as I adore the overreaching story (in 11 volumes or so) I’d have to agree with the author in his afterword that these opening chapters are him finding his feet. It’s only towards the end that I really felt we were starting to settle into the characters.

But, the best is very definitely still ahead, so well worth dipping a toe into the beginnings…!

Trade Paperback: 240 pages / 8 sections
First published: 1989
Series: Sandman book 1
Read from 31st March – 6th April 2019

My rating: 7/10 – and so much more love for the rest of the series