THE SEER KING by Chris Bunch is a book which takes place in a fantasy version of ancient Rome with elements of the British Empire and India thrown in as well. I had this book recommended to me by Steve Caldwell of The BookWyrm Speaks multiple times but never found the time to actually read it. Basically, I just didn't know if I had time to get into a Game of Thrones-esque doorstopper with my reading list already overflowing. In any case, I decided to give it a try and am very glad I did.
The premise of the story is Damastes is a cavalryman for the setting's equivalent to the Roman Legions. Numantia is a proud and powerful civilization but it's reaching the end of its life cycle as it's current leaders, The Ten, have squandered much of its power in the pursuit of wealth. A wizard-general named Tenedos believes they can restore it to greatness by appointing a new king (himself) but the book opens with the two of them imprisoned after a failed coup so there's no doubt things are not going to go well for them.
Much of the book is told as Damastes telling his story to the reader, talking about how he grew up and became a cavalryman as well as his various trials and tribulations. It's a good method for telling us how the culture of Numatia works as well as all of its prejudices as well as problems. We spend a good half of the book with Damastes in a foreign nation occupied by his empire with the locals utterly despising him but our hero having no way to change the situation.
Damastes is an interesting protagonist as he's a mostly likable guy but primarily self-interested and not really one who wants to step out of his culture's attitudes. He wants to benefit from the imperialism and conquest his country engages in but doesn't want to beggar foreign nations either. He's something of a chauvinist but not so much as to make the reader repulsed by him either (or at least most readers).
Tenedos is an interesting character and reminds me of what you might get if you had Senator Palpatine as the protagonist. He's a genius and schemer who makes good arguments for why he should be the one to rule all of Numatia but you also get the sense he's happy to kill millions in order to do it. I like his friendship with Damastes as well with the latter thinking he's a good friend to the former while the former coming off more as a man who knows he can use Damastes as a reliable tool.
A warning to those individuals who are sensitive to such things but The Seer King has a lot of sex. Damastes says he doesn't like to brag but he has a woman in virtually every location across the empire and others falling over him. I don't dislike this sort of thing, personally, even if most of the women kind of blend together and it's not like his actual love interest really stands out by comparison. Still, those who assume this book will be sanitized shall find themselves quite surprised as it follows a much more George R.R. Martin treatment of sex, violence, and archaic attitudes. I don't know if I would call it grimdark fantasy since that genre didn't exist when this was published in 1997 but it's certainly a predecessor to the genre.
In conclusion, this is an older book but definitely one I was glad to pick up the Kindle version of and enjoy. If you like dark adult fantasy with a faux historical bent then this is definitely the work for you.
If you have never read Heinlein's Starship Troopers then Old Man's War is probably a 3.5/5. Without that familiarity, Old Man's War is an extremely entertaining and off-beat sci-fi novel with the quirky premise of a seventy-five year old man signing up for a new lease on life with the Colonial Defense Force. If you're familiar with Starship Troopers, the novel rather than the movie, then it becomes gut-bustingly hilarious.
Basically, Starship Troopers in it's original form is a coming of age drama about how the military life turns a somewhat spoiled and aimless young man into a hardened veteran. It's the classic story of the military sorting him out. It also talks about the benefits of a limited democracy where voting citizens have to serve in either the military or some other social service. Oh and there's the mech suits fighting against the Bugs that are the genocidal inspiration for Zerg, Tyranids, and creatures from Alien.
The first half of the book is easily the best with complicated world-building, interesting characters, and unusual development. The premise of the world is humanity has managed to reach the stars but what they've discovered is a reality where the majority of alien races are relentlessly hostile. In order to fight these opponents, humanity has developed specialized technology that allows consciousness to be transferred to young transhumanist (and green skinned) bodies that will fight these aliens on a thousand worlds.
John Perry is a great protagonist as we follow him as he deals with the death of his wife, the fact he has nothing left to look forward to, and he's somewhat estranged from his son. The future of Earth isn't much changed from today (there's a reason for that) so it's easy to empathize with its inhabitants. Watching the universe unfold through his eyes is both a poignant as well as fascinating experience.
Scalzi does an excellent job of justifying each of the elements which makes this bizarre situation. The transhumanist humans are all sterile and chosen from the elderly because the vast majority of them are going to die in battle. The elderly are people who have families and loved ones who they want to protect, which motivates them to want to fight harder while also being expendable since they were going to die anyway. Following the protagonist as he experiences a return to youth and the sudden violence of his new life is all very interesting.
The parody of Starship Troopers is this is a "returning of age" drama which also critically analyzes a lot of the elements of the original book. While the Colonial Defense Force portrays itself in the rousing jingoistic terms of the Federation as well as almost all aliens as mindlessly evil, the truth is far more complicated and horrifying. Paul Verhoven touched upon some of these themes in his controversial adaptation of the novel but Scalzi does it with a more deft hand. Even the narrator's "voice" is similar despite one being a teenager and the other being a septuagenarian.
Unfortunately, the second half of the book isn't nearly as original as the first so it starts to resemble other, less original, military science fiction. The love story between our protagonist and a clone of his wife is also creepy rather than endearing. Even so, there's some genuinely crazy and hilarious moments spread throughout. One of them involves the protagonists stomping through a colony of tiny aliens like Godzilla.
In conclusion, I have to say Old Man's War is an entertaining novel. It's not a great novel, though, because it requires a bit more familiarity with Starship Troopers than perhaps necessary and the second half is weaker than the first. Still, I recommend readers give it a try--especially if they are familiar with the original work. It isn't a perfect novel but it's certainly an entertaining one and sometimes that's all you need.
THE COLLAPSING EMPIRE by John Scalzi is yet another semi-humorous space opera novel by the man who did a magnificent parody of STARSHIP TROOPERS with his OLD MAN'S WAR series. This one seems to be a vague parody of the ideas behind DUNE except instead of feuding noble houses of quiet dignity or perversity, we have a bunch of spoiled idiots. It has a lot of Buffy-esque quips and fun going on and is a work with both highs as well as lows.
The premise of the series is Earth has been forgotten by a space-dwelling humanity who has settled thousands of worlds using a hyperspace-esque dimension called the Flow. Peace is maintained by the fact all planets are independent on one another, creating the on-the-nose titled Interdependency that is ruled by a holy Emperox (pronounced "Empero"). Unfortunately, the Flow is about to collapse and every single human not living on a viable world is going to die.
Despite this grim premise, the book is absolutely hilarious with the three main characters pathologically unable to take any of their situations seriously. Much of the humor in the book is how they're always snarking at one another. None of them seem especially panicked by the imminent end of humanity and might genuinely just be too selfish to care. Which makes them not at all sympathetic and hurts the pacing of the book a bit as we can only take events as seriously as the heroes (which is to say, not at all).
I can't say I disliked any of the characters either with Kiva being easily my favorite of them. She's a bisexual noblewoman and starship captain who is oversexed, underambitious, and totally the worst person qualified to be the Emperox's biggest ally for saving humanity. Her putting down a mutiny in the start of the book is far from her most entertaining scene (which usually involves seducing one of the cast) but it shows she does know her job. Her mouth is foul, her behavior vulgar, and there's not a single page which would not be improved by her being present.
The closest thing the book has to a "serious" protagonist is Empress Cardenia, who is the illegitimate daughter of the former Emperor. It's through her we discover the various politics and historical details which are the building blocks of the Interdependency and why humanity is probably doomed. Honestly, even she fails to show much emotion about either the end of everything or the discovery (which is not a spoiler) her empire was built on a scam designed to keep her family rich for millennium.
I confess, I'm more than a bit uncomfortable with the fact the Interdependency created a fake religion as part of said scam but I suppose I should be outraged--just more than I suspect the book expected for a bunch of "lovable" rogues. It's just another of the issues where there's something awful done which our characters have a subdued reaction to. This pushes the book a bit over the line from comedy to farce.
John Scalzi does a great job setting up an interesting science fiction problem for our heroes, which is the most valuable resource which all of their civilization depends on is about to go away. The only solution for humanity to survive is to return to a non-space faring civilization by moving as much of humanity to a Earth-like planet as possible. It's a logistical nightmare made worse by the fact it's a one-way trip due to the Flow already collapsing.
The book kind of works at odds to itself, though. Again, billions of people are going to die no matter what happens and humanity as a species is going to lose space travel. This is too dark a subject matter for casual flippancy and it's not the kind of story which really needs a "villain" like the story gives us. The villains have to be idiots to not put aside their ambitions for as long as it takes to guarantee humanity to survive (which is something done in Dawn Chapman's THE SECRET KING to great effect). Given they're portrayed as geniuses, that also warps the narrative.
Overall, I found the book entertaining and will read the sequel. I just more feel this book is Chicken McNuggets rather than a well-prepared steak. It's quite good while you're eating it but doesn't stand up afterward.
THE LAST WISH by Andrzej Sapkowski is a short story collection featuring the adventures of witch hunter (a.k.a Witcher) Geralt of Rivia. It is the beginning of a series of one more short story collection and several novels which became the basis for the much better known video game series. Indeed, the video games were written as "fix fic" fanfic which attempted to provide the series with a different ending. For those only familiar with the video games, it should be noted this is the beginning of the series and where most of the characters found in them originated.
Michael R. Fletcher remains one of the most underrated authors of fantasy today and I am continually impressed by his amazing achievements in terms of making stories which are both rich, well-characterized, and pardon my French but fucked up. He is one of the voices of independent grimdark and we are all the better for his work. Interestingly, my favorite of his works isn't dark fantasy but something much more modern in the stylized hyper-violent GHOSTS OF TOMORROW.
A GATHERING OF RAVENS is a novel set in the Bernard Cornwell-esque world of Vikings, Christians, and the conflict between their faiths. The big difference here is the supernatural is explicitly real in Scott Oden's world where all of Norse Mythology is true but so is Celtic and Christian. The White Christ is conquering the world and his symbol repels the magic of the Old Gods even as they fight with their own followers over mass conversions. It is a violent, dark, cynical, and thoroughly fascinating novel I recommend to all fans of true grimdark.
THE FIFTH EMPIRE OF MAN is the sequel to Rob J. Hayes WHERE LOYALTIES LIE and they are some of the few fantasy pirate novels on the market today. Unlike the Pirates of the Carribean movies, the Best Laid Plans series is a hard R series with murder, mayhem, cussing, and the kind of behavior you'd expect from a collection of pirates. It's grimdark fiction and that's something I like a great deal, especially as George R.R. Martin doesn't seem to be finishing his books anytime soon and I hate what they did to the Iron Islands in the television show.
The Easytown series by Brian Parker is one of the most underrated cyberpunk series presently in production. Cyberpunk hit its heyday in the late 80s/early 90s with William Gibson popularizing the genre with Neuromancer before the Matrix sequels effectively killed it. Actually, I have another theory that technology, the internet, black hat hackers, corporate control, government surveillance, and tranhumanism made the subject no longer science fiction but just an accurate description of 21st century life.
I've already reviewed the first volume of this series and I stated my disappointment the majority of volume one was work by Frank Miller the artist versus Frank Miller the writer. While there were some classic issues in volume one like the introduction of Elektra and the Kingpin's transition from being a Spiderman villain to a Daredevil one, it didn't have the real heart of what I was looking for. That changes with volume two, which contains not only the introduction of the Hand but the classic Elektra and Matt Murdock arcs.
I'm a huge fan of the Carol Danvers incarnation of Ms. Marvel and really need to catch myself up to what she's been doing since becoming Captain Marvel. Then again, given it apparently involves leading the fascist side of "Civil War II" I might be better off just sticking with her legacy character. I refer, of course, to Kamala Khan the Pakistani American erstwhile heroine who decides she's going to call herself Ms. Marvel since Carol Danvers isn't using the name.