The Great Ordeal by R. Scott Bakker

the-great-ordealFINALLY. FINALLY THIS BOOK HAS ARRIVED.

For those of you who aren’t rabid Bakker fans like myself, it’s been five years since the previous book was released – an almost Martin-esque wait between novels. From what I gather, it had little to do with Bakker himself, as the manuscript has been written for some time. The decision was eventually made to split the third book of this second of three trilogies into two, and thus The Great Ordeal finally made it to print.

Was it worth the wait?

I would say yes, personally, but I can see where others might say no.

The Great Ordeal picks up with its major characters after the events of The White-Luck Warrior. The Great Ordeal presses toward Golgotterath, but they are now forced to eat Sranc and it’s changing them. Sorweel, Serwe and Moenghus arrive in Ishterebinth, last Mansion of the Nonmen, to find it rotted from the core and falling ever-deeper into damnation in search of redemption. Back in the Three Seas, Esmenet deals with the fallout of Maithanet’s death and Fanim attacks, all while her insane son Kelmomas continues to plot. And Achamian and Mimara arrive in Ishual to find it a ruin, but with a surprise still lurking in its depths.

Bakker’s writing style is heavy and loaded with symbolism, philosophy and history, so I can understand why others might find this book dragging heavily in places. It has far less in the way of action than his previous novels do. Nonetheless, I tore through it in just a few days, because I was starved for the world. Nobody does worldbuilding these days quite like Bakker; I’d say he almost approaches Tolkien’s level.

And boy is there ever plenty to go around. This book is the first time we really get to see the Nonmen in detail. Cleric was in both The Judging Eye and The White-Luck Warrior, but he existed primarily as a mystery and spur to continue onward. Here we get a more nuanced understanding of the Nonmen, their history, their psyches and why so many of them are becoming Erratics. More, we learn the truth – that they are not allies against Golgotterath anymore.

I’ve thought for a while that Bakker would never be able to write a passage that surpassed the Cil-Aujas sequence fromThe Judging Eye, but he comes pretty damn close with Ishterebinth. Everything, from Serwe’s singing to the Amiolas that attaches itself to Sorweel’s soul to the descent into the lower levels of the Mansion, was just spot on for me. It was mysterious, fascinating and grandiose, while also heartbreakingly tragic.

The quality of the rest of the book fluctuates a bit more for me. At this point, I am about as confused as Sorweel whether Kellhus means to save the men of the Three Seas or ally with Golgotterath. We’ve known he’s mad since the end of the previous trilogy, and that madness deepens here in the scenes with Proyas, which were just…bizarre.

But…this storyline does gift us with a really excellent battle scene. I do love the way Bakker narrates his battles, giving us several different viewpoints to appreciate the action. The sorcerers are of particular interest to me, as the magic system Bakker has devised is clever and described with great eloquence and beauty. (And as a musician, I love that the sorcerers sing). What makes this battle unique, however, is the bomb – the Tekne.

It’s one of the best nuances of Bakker’s world, that the villains are actually some sort of aliens whose ship crash-landed in the north. They have technology, unlike the rest of the world, and thus a bit of an edge. We finally finally get to see it in action here, and I love the juxtaposition of technology vs. magic. So few authors that attempt it get it right, but Bakker does.

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Bakker knocks it out of the park with his portrayal of what Sranc meat does to the Ordeal. Over the course of the book, the soldiers become more rash, more brutal, more animalistic – just like the Sranc they eat. Worse, several of them know it, but seem powerless to stop it. It has a big impact on their decisions, while also being horrifying to the reader and characters alike.

Farther south, I was devastated that Bakker killed off Maithanet in the previous novel, and so my interest in Esmenet’s plotline was minimal. It’s very frustrating to watch Kelmomas manipulate her and then watch her make horrible decisions on top of that. I kept waiting for Momemn to collapse only to be marginally disappointed.

And I’m utterly at a loss as to where the Achamian/Mimara storyline is going. While I did very much appreciate the return of a character from the previous trilogy toward the end of their story, I don’t really understand why so much time is lavished on The Survivor. Whereas Achamian and Mimara were the most interesting plotline in the previous two books, their story dwindles in interest for the duration of this book.

All in all, I thought this one was solid – not Bakker’s best perhaps, but still very enjoyable. I look forward to The Unholy Consult hitting shelves soon.

Grade: 4/5

Memorable Quote:

“The Dolour itself is invisible…all you ever see are cracks of fear and incomprehension where before all was seamless…thoughtless…certain. Soon you dwell in perpetual outrage, but are too fearful to voice it, because even though you know everything is the same, you no longer trust those you have loved to agree, so spiteful they have become! Their concern becomes condescension. Their wariness becomes conspiracy.
”And so the Weal becomes the Dolour, so the Intact become the Erratic. Think on it, mortal King, the way melancholy is prone to make you cruel, impatient of weakness. Your soul slowly disassembles, fragments into disconnected traumas, losses, pains. A cowardly word. A lover’s betrayal. An infant’s last, laboured breath. And for the heroes among us, the heartbreak commensurate with their breathtaking glory…”

— The Great Ordeal, pg. 249

-Regina

Originally appeared on Regina’s blog

Ex-Isle by Peter Clines

ex-isleI’ve been a fan of Peter Clines ever since he first blew my mind by putting superheroes and zombies in the same book. His books are witty, funny and good romps that I can tear through without having to invest too much time and energy. His latest addition to the Ex-Heroes series, Ex-Isle, delivers more of the same fun.

Barry/Zzzap discovers a man-made island in the Pacific, consisting of several ships lashed together. The Mount sends a diplomatic mission of Barry, St. George and Madelyn the Corpse Girl, but what they find is not what they expected – a people who believe they are the only ones left, that the Mount heroes are all liars and follow their aquatic leader out of fear. Meanwhile, a PTSD-stricken Danielle travels to the Mount’s newest outpost, Eden, as part of its security detail, taking the still-undergoing-repairs Cerberus suit and Cesar with her. But something’s fishy there too, and Danielle struggles to piece it together as she overcomes her own fears.

The previous book in the series, Ex-Purgatory, was a bit of an oddball, with a very different plot and feel than the prior books. With Ex-Isle, Clines is back to the style of his earlier books – a much more straightforward adventure story. It certainly bolstered my feelings toward the book, which I enjoyed much more than its predecessor.

Its best moments stem from Danielle, which was somewhat unexpected. She has never been my favorite character (I prefer Stealth and Barry), but Clines has painted such a realistic, touching picture of her PTSD. It’s been building quietly in the background of the last few books, but here we see it at its climax. It’s debilitating – the others call Danielle out for never leaving her workshop, and even the faintest sound of exes chattering their teeth makes her cringe. She is eminently sympathetic, because which one of us would not be terrified in her shoes? That half of the plot hinges on her overcoming her fears, with the climax forcing her to confront those fears and reach the realization that she is Cerberus, with or without her suit. Clines executes this flawlessly, in my opinion, and I think it’s the best character work he’s done in the series to date.

The other plotline is a little weaker. I cannot understand why in the world Stealth would agree to let Madelyn go on a diplomatic mission, particularly one to a place so isolated. But having Madelyn along does let us learn a lot more about her powers and abilities (at the same time she discovered them). It turns out she can build new memories over time, though she still loses most of the previous day or so, and she can’t be killed – her nanobots will try to piece her back together (resulting in one grotesque but oddly intriguing scene about midway through the book).

St. George and Barry are as entertaining as ever, but the villain, Maleko/Nautilus, is a bit disappointing. He’s fairly one dimensional, without complex motive – he’s primarily there to serve as an “evil bad guy” to St. George’s “heroic good guy.” He’s definitely not the best villain the series has produced, but he’s serviceable.

Like the rest of Clines’ books, this one is a quick, enjoyable read. Is it the best of the series? No, not by a long shot. But it’s better than Ex-Purgatory and a boatload (hah, get it?) of fun – definitely worth your time and money.

Grade: 3.75/5

Memorable Quote:

“You’ve gotten worse,” said St. George. He looked her in the eyes when he said it. “I’m sorry, but we both know it. You used to be able to force your way through it, but since Smith messed with our heads you’ve pretty much been trapped in here, haven’t you?”
She snorted and waved his words away. “No. No, it’s not that bad.”
”You don’t even go near the doors if you can avoid it,” said St. George. “Cesar and Gibbs bring you food and supplies. You wash your clothes in the sink.”

— Ex-Isle, pg. 48

-Regina

Originally appeared on Regina’s blog

The Providence of Fire by Brian Staveley

the-providence-of-fireIf you ever read this, Brian Staveley – thank you. Thank you for turning it up to 11 in The Providence of Fire.

You may recall in my review of The Emperor’s Blades, book one of the Chronicle of the Unhewn Throne, that I wanted to love the book but just wasn’t able to get past a few major flaws. I’m happy to say that I do love The Providence of Fire, book two in the series, and that it is a much better outing than its predecessor.

The Providence of Fire picks up where The Emperor’s Blades left off. Kaden and Valyn are reunited but on the run, and the two soon split again, Valyn taking the Skullsworn assassin and his wing into Urghul territory. Kaden and Rampuri Tan undertake a mission to learn more about the Csetriim by visiting the order Tan left, and it doesn’t go as planned. And Adare finds unlikely allies in the Sons of Flame, a religious army that she banished from Annur, as she works her way toward stopping the man who killed her father: Ran il Tornja, who is not what he appears. All of it culminates in one massive battle, a desperate gambit and an earth-shattering revelation.

First of all, let me address the complaints I had against the first book, because it’s worth mentioning how much better this book is on all fronts. I was majorly disappointed by the lack of Adare chapters in The Emperor’s Blades, but I’m pleased to say that Adare is front and center here. Her story is again the most interesting of the three (though a bit more narrowly this time), and we finally get to appreciate Adare as more than just the princess. She struggles with maintaining her alliances, she seizes the throne even though it’s traditionally male, and she makes a lot of hard decisions (including many wrong ones, in my opinion). But we actually get to see her on an even par with her brothers.

I was also right to pin my hopes on Gwenna – about halfway through the book, she becomes a point-of-view character. I’ve seen a lot of complaining about that in various reviews online, but I think it needed to happen; there was a lot of story that couldn’t otherwise be told due to the characters breaking into smaller groups. She too comes into her own as a leader in this book, and together with Pyrre and Annick manages to prevent the climactic battle from being lost before it begins. She is probably the most heroic of the characters in this novel, even if it is unwilling, because she is genuinely good-hearted and not out for vengeance or any other dark motive. Pyrre and Annick make great secondary characters in her plot (Pyrre in particular with her quips and general devil-may-care attitude). Honestly, I could have a story that was just Gwenna, Annick and Pyrre traveling and I’d be happy.

Then there’s Nira. Oh boy. As new characters go, she’s one of my two favorites. The revelation of who she really is comes quite early, but it had to (and this book is so stacked with big revelations that Staveley had to start somewhere). She’s an unconventional character, and she’ll be the one you remember long after you finish the novel. I won’t say any more because I don’t want to spoil her – she’s that good.

Saying all that to say – Staveley has largely fixed his female agency problem. The women in this novel are much stronger, more independent and act on their own desires.*

Also unlike his first book – this one moves. It marches steadily from revelation to revelation, setpiece to setpiece, always pushing forward. The Emperor’s Blades took me a solid week and a half to get through (an awfully long time, for me) due to dragging plotlines; I burned through The Providence of Fire in about two days total. There’s hardly a boring moment to be found, because when we’re not watching a thrilling escape or an epic battle, we’re seeing a huge character reveal or trying to puzzle out what the hell is going on with Triste.

Most of all, I want to thank Brian Staveley for his world. THIS was what I wanted from his first book, what I want from all fantasy novels that I read. Here were the details on the various religious sects, the history of the Csetriim and humans, the politics of modern-day Annur. This time, it was more than just the odd curse word – the world had weight to it.

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Part of that came from how much this book travels, but I think part of it was simply that the world was better woven into the story. When the book opened with the ruins of Assare, the first human city, I fist-pumped, I was so excited. And the introduction of a Csetriim character, Kiel, adds even more depth to the world. Kiel ranked highly on my list of favorite things about this novel.

There’s a few things I still didn’t care for – I found Valyn to be overly dramatic and grew to dislike him somewhat over the course of the novel, and I wanted to tear my hair out over some of Adare’s poor decisions, but on the whole this is a much much MUCH better book than The Emperor’s Blades. Just like Pierce Brown with Golden Son, Staveley manages to avoid middle book syndrome and then some – and I couldn’t be happier!

I’ve already been to Barnes & Noble multiple times looking for The Last Mortal Bond (would you believe they aren’t stocking it here? Criminal!). But it’s going first on my to-read list as soon as I order a copy.

Grade: 4.5/5

*Triste is a bit of an exception to this, since she exists mainly as a puzzle for Kaden to solve. Overall, Kaden’s storyline remains the most problematic in this regard (lest we forget Triste’s mother who exists solely to shelter and then betray Kaden and her daughter). But I’m willing to forgive this storyline for the excellence of the others.

Memorable Quote

“The bones spoke clearly enough. Skeletons littered the wide hallways and narrow rooms of the orphanage, skeletons of children, hundreds and hundreds, some on the cusp of adulthood, others no more than infants, their ribs narrower than Kaden’s fingers. The grinding passage of years had dismembered most, but enough of the tiny forms remained intact – huddled in corners, collapsed in hallways, clutching one another beneath the stairs – to speak of some horror sweeping down upon them, sudden and unimagined.
[…]
It could have been a sickness, he told himself, some sort of plague.
Only, victims of plague did not retreat into closets or try to barricade doors. Victims of plague did not have their small skulls hacked in two.”

— The Providence of Fire, pg. 84-85

-Regina

Originally appeared on Regina’s blog

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child

I remember the moment I started reading Harry Potter – as a child, I received Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone as a Christmas gift and tore through it within the next two days. Chamber of Secrets and Prisoner of Azkaban followed, and then I had caught up and had to wait for the next book. Each release was a huge celebration. I dressed as Hermione Granger for Halloween well before the movies came out. Harry Potter was my gateway drug to fantasy and science fiction.

So understand me when I say that I wanted this to be good. I wanted it to knock my socks off. Also understand me when I say I’ve read many plays, and I understand the difference between reading a play and reading a book.

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child was a bit disappointing. It read like a fanfiction, where characters often said and did things because that’s what the writer wanted, rather than what actually made sense for those characters.

The play begins with the epilogue of Deathly Hallows then montages its way forward several years. Albus’s relationship with his father Harry has frayed, and the best thing in his life is his friendship with (of all people) Scorpius Malfoy. Scorpius, meanwhile, is widely rumored to be Voldemort’s son via time travel. After some eavesdropping, the boys decide to try to save Cedric Diggory from dying, stealing a Time Turner and wreaking havoc on time in the process.

Now let’s back up and consider a few of those crazy sentences I just wrote.

“Scorpius, meanwhile, is widely rumored to be Voldemort’s son via time travel.” Um…what? The play introduces this completely seriously, and when I read it, I almost laughed out loud. Who would believe that? The idea that Voldemort had a child seemed wildly implausible in and of itself, let alone one with a time-travelling Astoria Malfoy, future wife of the son of a man who disappointed him. I mean…just no.

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“After some eavesdropping, the boys decide to try to save Cedric Diggory from dying, stealing a Time Turner and wreaking havoc on time in the process.” I appreciate the nod to Cedric, but there went all my hopes for a story that didn’t rely on the events of the series for its plot. I really wanted Voldemort to be out of this story so we could explore other parts of the Wizarding World, but instead we get yanked back into the same circus.

And then there’s the other part, the glaring, huge, MIND-BOGGLINGLY CONTRADICTORY piece: that using a Time-Turner allows you to change time. Rowling established in Prisoner of Azkaban that Harry and Hermione only did what they had already done: Buckbeak had never been killed, and the man Harry thought was his father was actually himself. Cursed Child laughs maniacally in the face of that canon and then vomits all over it. Each time the boys use the Time Turner to try to save Cedric, they cause ripple effects in the future, from the minor (Ron and Hermione don’t get married) to the ridiculously major (Cedric Diggory became a Death Eater and prevented Neville from killing Nagini? Really? REALLY?). While I appreciated the brief exploration of what could have happened had Voldemort won…ugh.

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Sure, you can probably explain your way around the continuity error with some work (my husband pointed out that this is a SPECIAL Time Turner – so so SPECIAL, as is pointed out numerous times). But it’s a clumsy, annoying McGuffin to balance the entire play on.

There are other small holes and inconsistencies in the play, but I think the biggest one demonstrates my point, so I won’t dwell on it.

That’s not to say everything about the play is bad. Rowling’s strength has always been in her characters, and she and Jack Thorne handle several of the characters quite well. There’s a beautiful moment between Scorpius and alternative universe Severus Snape, where Scorpius reveals how highly Harry ended up thinking of Snape, and Snape is actually a little touched. I had endless empathy for the geeky Scorpius, whom I quite liked, and even Albus was well done, even if he was a bit moody and needlessly reckless for my taste.*

But my personal favorite, and the highlight of the play for me, was seeing adult Draco Malfoy. In the play, we really get a taste of what he covered with snark and arrogance in the books: his jealousy over how easily Harry made close friends, when he only had flunkies; his distaste for the acts he committed as a Death Eater; his heartbreak over his wife’s death and how much his only son means to him. It continues the journey his character began in Half-Blood Prince, and his teaming up with Harry & co to save their children at the end tugged on my heartstrings.

There are the odd characters that don’t float well – Delphi just didn’t sit right with me the entire time, and I thought Rose was a perfect example of forcing a character to behave a certain way (even when it didn’t make sense) because the plot demanded it. Ron becomes a one-dimensional jokester, when he was arguably the most complex of the three leads in the original seven books. But on the whole, the characters keep the plot faults from tanking the story.

And to be honest – seeing the play on stage may very well cover the script’s flaws. There are moments in this script that are undeniably cool and are probably tremendous onstage – Hermione’s library trap springs to mind, as do the last stands by Hermione, Ron and Snape in the alternate universe. As of right now, I’m planning to see the play in November, so I may post another review once I’ve seen it.

The verdict? Entertaining maybe, and enjoyable enough for its characters, but the plotholes make it a drag in places. Speaking from an honest place – don’t read the script. Just try to see the play. I think you’ll feel better about it in the end.

Grade: 3/5

Memorable Quote

“Draco: I always envied you them, you know – Weasley and Granger. I had –
Ginny: Crabbe and Goyle.
Draco: Two lunks who wouldn’t know one end of a broomstick from another. You – the three of you – you shone, you know? You liked each other. You had fun. I envied you those friendships more than anything else.
[…]
Draco: My father thought he was protecting me. Most of the time. I think you have to make a choice – at a certain point – of the man you want to be. And I tell you that at that time you need a parent or a friend. And if you’ve learnt to hate your parent by then and you have no friends…then you’re all alone. And being alone – that’s so hard. I was alone. And it sent me to a truly dark place. For a long time. Tom Riddle was also a lonely child. You may not understand that, Harry, but I do…”

— Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, Act II, Scene 15

*There was an undeniable current of something that went beyond friendship between these two in their dialogue and the stage directions, so Scorpius asking Rose out at the end made NO GODDAMN SENSE UGH.