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“A Veil of Spears” by Bradley P. Beaulieu

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The fantasy saga that Bradley P. Beaulieu started with Twelve Kings in Sharakhai continues in A Veil of Spears, the third book in the series. As the conflict between the Kings and the Moonless Host heats up, the united façade of the Kings begins to crack, and Ҫeda seeks a way to free the enslaved asirim.

As in the previous novels, Beaulieu deftly provides the reader with a mix of action and intrigue. There’s also a hefty dose of magic, as the gods play a more active role than they did in the previous books. Sometimes, the middle books in a series have a tendency to slump, but that’s not a problem here.

In addition to giving Davud a larger role, A Veil of Spears introduces a new viewpoint character: Brama, a former thief who now treats those addicted to an opium-like substance. He gets drawn into the battle for Sharakhai when Meryam and Ramahd plot to steal the magical gem he’s been using in his treatments. The expanded cast does force Beaulieu to give some of them shorter shrift than I would have liked—Davud’s plotline gets dropped about two-thirds of the way through the novel—but overall, I enjoyed the new dimension Brama’s involvement brought to the story.

Brama’s introduction is related to a larger development: the incorporation of material from the Shattered Sands novellas. Brama and “his” ehrekh Rümayesh featured in The Tattered Prince and the Demon Veiled and Of Sand and Malice Made, while Leorah’s backstory was given in The Doors at Dusk and Dawn. The narrative summarizes the major events of those stories, so reading them isn’t necessary to understand A Veil of Spears, but familiarity with those works will make the main story richer. Weaving those elements into the main plot creates the impression that the tale is becoming grander, drawing everyone in Sharakhai and the desert into its orbit, whether they want to be there or not.

I pre-ordered A Veil of Spears as soon as it was available, and it has me eagerly looking forward to the next installment. The one minor disappointment I had involves a major revelation at the end of the book, so beware spoilers below:

 

I was happy to see Sümeya joining Ҫeda, because I liked her in the earlier books. I especially liked that she and Ҫeda had feelings for each other and was hoping that this relationship might be rekindled now that they’re on the same side. Love triangles are a dime a dozen in literature, but they almost always assume heterosexuality on the part of all participants. Such a triangle between Emre, Ҫeda, and Sümeya would have been a refreshing change. (And there was also a possibility of Sümeya feeling torn between two women she loves when she inevitably discovers that Nayyan’s still alive.) But with Ҫeda’s discovery that they’re half-sisters, that seems unlikely to happen. Though I do wonder whether Ihsan was being truthful about Ҫeda’s parentage…

“Black Light” by Elizabeth Hand

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After thoroughly enjoying Elizabeth Hand’s Wylding Hall, I jumped at the chance to buy a paperback copy of one of her older books, Black Light, when I came across it in the dealers’ room at a convention. The story takes place in a fictional upstate New York town dominated by the manor of a reclusive, controversial filmmaker. The main character’s father is an old friend of the filmmaker, and when he hosts an elaborate party at his mansion, she finds herself being drawn into a battle whose origins are as old as humanity itself.

Hand does a masterful job of gradually revealing the arcane goings-on in the town of Kamensic. Charlotte (known as Lit) is portrayed as an intelligent but bored teenager who, when she discovers that she’s at the center of something much bigger and stranger than she could ever have imagined, goes from confused and frightened to determined. The author’s note at the end of the book indicates that Hand did a great deal of research for this novel, and it shows in the elaborate mythology she builds for her world. My one stylistic complaint is that the sequence in which Lit wanders through the party, talking to various people, went on for too long.

One thing I found very interesting is the thematic connection between Black Light and Wylding Hall. In both cases, the arts serve as an initiation into arcane secrets, and artistic virtuosos can (intentionally or not) draw the attention of something beyond the human. The filmmaker in this book and the lead singer of the band in Wylding Hall both tap into forces through their work which they can’t entirely control, and which draw in the people around them.

Another intriguing aspect of the story involves some major spoilers, so beware of reading farther…

 

During the scene where Balthazar explains the conflict between the Benandanti and Malandanti to Lit, she notes that a woman who closely resembles her appears over and over in history and art. She asks him if this means she’s different from the consorts Dionysos has chosen in his previous incarnations, and Balthazar doesn’t answer. Her question made me wonder whether Lit might be an avatar of Cybele/Diana/The Mother in the same way that Axel Kern is of Dionysos/The Hunted God. Based on the Amazon blurb, Hand’s Waking the Moon appears to be set in the same universe, and I’m curious to see whether that book will give a solid answer to this question.

“Cloudbound” by Fran Wilde

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I was amazed by Fran Wilde’s novel Updraft when I read it a few months ago. The sequel, Cloudbound, explores the aftermath of what happened in that book and how Kirit’s society moved forward. Because so much of what happens in Cloudbound hinges on the events of the first book, this review will necessarily contain spoilers.

Like Brian McClellan’s Promise of Blood, Cloudbound depicts a society that has just undergone a revolutionary change. While the good guys have triumphed over great odds, they aren’t being allowed to rest on their laurels. Nat is now one of the city’s leaders, and he has to decide which faction to align himself with and how to deal with the Singers who survived. He and the other main characters are faced with weighty questions: Which of the old laws should be done away with and which kept? Should the members of the different Singer factions be treated differently? Should the practice of Conclave continue—and if not, how should the city be appeased when it roars? For the most part, Wilde presents these dilemmas in an interesting, thought-provoking way, though there are some passages where Nat’s thoughts and feelings are summarized in narration immediately after being shown.

I also enjoyed how Cloudbound expanded the setting introduced in the first book. An unsettling discovery forces Nat and his friends to climb down into the clouds. They encounter ancient ruins, terrible monsters, and a nefarious plot along the way. At the end of Updraft, I had a theory about the nature of the city, and I was pleased to be proven right. I also absolutely loved the concept of reverse altitude sickness.

Cloudbound ends with more of a cliffhanger than Updraft did. The third and final book in the trilogy, Horizon, is already out, and I’m looking forward to reading it.

“Promise of Blood” by Brian McClellan

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Brian McClellan’s Powder Mage series falls into a subgenre of fantasy that I haven’t read much of: flintlock fantasy. In the first book, Promise of Blood, the nation of Adria’s powder mages—magic-users who can manipulate gunpowder—initiate a revolution against a corrupt king. The king claims to rule by divine right, a proposition that the main character, Tamas, dismisses as propaganda. But evidence gradually begins to mount that it may be more than that.

McClellan does a good job of gradually increasing the complexity of the world. Both the political situation and the magic system are more complicated than they appear at first glance, and new facets are introduced organically without too much info-dumping. The characters are also interesting, particularly Sabon and Mihali. And finally, the plot sets up a nice cliffhanger for the next volume in the series.

“The Goblin Emperor” by Katherine Addison

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Sarah Monette is known for her horror and dark fantasy novels. Under the name Katherine Addison, she has written a more classical fantasy story in The Goblin Emperor. When the emperor and three of his sons die in an airship crash, his remaining son, Maia, is left to take the throne. Maia is half-goblin and was relegated to a country estate at a very young age. As such, he knows almost nothing of court politics. And as if learning about all the rival factions and issues besetting the nation wasn’t enough, he also has to deal with the question of whether the airship crash was truly as accidental as it seemed.

Addison has done an amazing job with the worldbuilding in this novel. The Elflands have a fully realized culture, with complex social and familial structures. For a book centered on elves and goblins, there’s surprisingly little magic, but we do see airships, and one of the proposals Maia must consider as emperor is a clockwork bridge. This gives the setting a bit of a steampunk feel.

One aspect of the story that some readers might criticize is that keeping track of all the characters at the royal court, and the forms of address used for people of different social stations, can get a bit confusing. But Maia is being thrown in the deep end, and sharing some of that feeling helps the reader to empathize with him.

It was also interesting to read a fantasy novel in which there are no humans. Nations other than those belonging to the elves and goblins are mentioned, but it’s unclear what species inhabits them. The biology of the nonhuman races presented in the story affects their culture, which is a nice touch. For example, elven ears can be raised, lowered, or pressed flat against the sides of the head, and what position they’re in can reveal something about a character’s mental state.

There isn’t much action in the book, but that’s not to say there’s no tension or drama. If you’re interested in a fantasy novel where intrigue and politics take priority over open fighting, The Goblin Emperor has a lot to offer. Personally, I’d love to read a sequel.

“Updraft” by Fran Wilde

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Fran Wilde’s debut novel, Updraft, has rightly earned a great deal of acclaim. Set in a city of bone towers, the story follows a young woman named Kirit. On the eve of her coming-of-age, Kirit displays a remarkable ability that makes her a pawn in an ongoing power struggle.

The worldbuilding in this novel is incredible. The setting is unique on a large scale, but the author also takes care to extrapolate out the small details of how people in such a world would live: what they’d eat, what materials they’d use for crafting, etc. Wilde does a deft job of supplying this information in the course of the story, without resorting to infodumps.

In addition to the physical setting, Updraft also presents the reader with a complex social structure. We’re also shown how this structure derives from the society’s history, which is another nice bit of verisimilitude. As the narrative progresses, we learn about factions and secrets within the society. I found the story compelling and was engaged by the mysteries Kirit discovered. The climax of the story was exciting, and I cared about what happened to Kirit, her mentor Wik, and her friend Nat.

Updraft is the first in a trilogy, and as soon as I finished reading it, I wanted to start in on the next book. I also have a theory about the nature of the setting, and I’m looking forward to seeing if I’m right.

“Lord of Emperors” by Guy Gavriel Kay

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When I reviewed Guy Gavriel Kay’s Sailing to Sarantium, I said that most of what went on in that book was setup. In Lord of Emperors, we get the payoff. The players behind the political machinations we were introduced to in that book become clear, as do their motivations. As in the first book, Crispin gets thrown in the deep end but manages to navigate remarkably well.

One of Kay’s strengths is worldbuilding, and Lord of Emperors broadens the setting we were introduced to in the first book. We get some glimpses of life in Bassania, and a new major character is a doctor from that country who ends up making his way to Sarantium and treating some very important patients. Although he’s coming in halfway through the story, Rustem is quickly integrated into the plot and given meticulous character development.

Overall, this is a worthy conclusion to the story that began in Sailing to Sarantium. It also gave some new richness to Children of Earth and Sky, which takes place in the same setting hundreds of years later.