Gates of Stone took me longer than I usually spend with a 500-page fantasy novel, and has left me with mixed feelings. Angus Macallan is the pseudonym of author Angus Donald, whose historical fiction is well-known to historical aficionados; this novel is his first entry in the world of epic fantasy.
I’ve had the hardest time figuring out what to write about Josiah Bancroft’s third instalment in The Books of Babel. This series of books has been one of the most pleasant surprises in my whole life as a bookworm, and I'll be damned if I screw this review up!
Talking about the middle book in a trilogy can sometimes prove difficult. The main characters have been spoken about and covered in the review of Chasing Graves, which got a brilliant 4.8 out of 5. The society built on necromancy has been analysed, a number of its failings pointed out in detail. Yet there is great need to speak about this novel and speak I shall!
Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this novella in return for an honest review. The Delivery of Flesh releases 12/01/2019 (that's January 12th for our American readers).
You know wot I like? Flintlock, that’s wot!
Rob J. Hayes won me over with a little book by the name of City of Kings, published last year. The book in question was among my favourite works of grimdark fantasy for the entirety of the year, and it had a lot going for it, chiefly a gripping ensemble of characters, each of whom was possessed with a unique voice, personality and view of the world. I loved the lot of them to death, and if you’ve somehow missed out on City of Kings, you can read my review of that novel over here.
The band of heroes and anti-heroes in Rob’s latest novel… I love them to life! A statement strange enough, I confess, until you read Never Die’s blurb:
Time is up for the Emperor of Ten Kings and it falls to a murdered eight-year-old boy to render the judgement of a God. Ein knows he can't do it alone, but the empire is rife with heroes. The only problem; in order to serve, they must first die. Ein has four legendary heroes in mind, names from storybooks read to him by his father. Now he must find them and kill them…
In that sense, my love for these heroes is strong enough to bring them back to life. But I am getting ahead of myself. Never Die’s heroes are as different from one another as you might expect from Hayes, if you’ve experienced his previous work. First among these heroes is Itami Cho, known far and wide through the land of Wuxia as Whispering Blade. Itami is an honour-bound warrior of great prowess, whose great fault stems from ever-present guilt -- no matter the oaths she swears, Itami lives to see them turn to dust. She has only ever managed to keep one of her vows; to keep the second of her blades sheathed, no matter what comes. The mystery of that sword is one the author takes his sweet time building up, and its pay-off is…well, I wouldn’t want to spoil the revelations coming your way.
Zhihao, the Emerald Wind, is the second “hero” recruited to Ein’s doomed quest. Unlike Itami, he’s no paragon of justice; all the tales told of his heroic deeds are either bluster or serious misinterpretation of events by second-hand witnesses. Zhihao is little more than a thug with a heart of gold whose wrong choices hound him in his second life (as they probably did during his first). I liked Zhihao despite myself, at first; his humour and search for redemption warmed me to this twin-blade wielding brigand, and his special ability to move through the world certainly helped.
Then we’ve got Iron Gut Chen, Chen Lu to his friends, an extremely fat man who cares for food, drink, and a crowd to listen to his boasts and heroic deeds. I liked him well enough, and the imagery of an extremely fat man with nothing but a loincloth and an umbrella doing all the ridiculous feats of strength this guy pulls of is…well, it’s thoroughly entertaining.
Rounding up this quintet of mostly alive heroes are Roi Astara, Death’s Echo, a mysterious leper viewed both as an assassin and a hero for his many feats; and Bingwei Ma, The Master of Sun Valley, the greatest master of unarmed combat, undefeated and with Batman’s moral code and Superman’s sunny disposition! They come in a bit later than the rest, but I had a particular fondness for Bingwei Ma, in particular.
The setting, as you probably guessed, is inspired by Eastern culture (Chinese history, martial arts and Japanese anime). In fact, I’ve never read a book that felt more like an epic anime! My innermost dream right now is to see someone pick this novel up and turn it into a stunning anime. It certainly deserves the treatment. Hayes’ descriptions are so visual and kinetic, second only to the dialogue he writes.
Here, again, I’ll draw a comparison between this novel and Hayes’ City of Kings – I vividly recall coming across a few sentences, now and then, which broke my immersion somewhat, in that novel. Very few and far in-between, but they were there; Never Die didn’t have a single one of those. It’s worthwhile noting how many pieces of the dialogue spoken by different characters, especially towards the end of the novel, can be parcelled out and quoted to your fellow fantasy nerds during dinner parties! It would be no lie to point out that Rob J. Hayes’ prose has developed even further over his work on Never Die; like Benedict Patrick, he too seems to grow visibly better with each new novel penned.
Never Die switches gears for its last six-seven chapters. Where before the story had a slightly adventurous feel to it – a band of heroes going from one place to another to increase their number – these last few chapters sketch a wider conflict, brutal and reminiscent of Hayes’ blood-curdling siege in City of Kings. But the personal, gratifying one-on-one battles are not done; far from it. Everything leading to that final showdown is exhilarating, and the bomb-shells keep on dropping ‘till the very last page.
All throughout, Rob treats us readers with one badass fight after another; most of the main characters end up beating the living crap out of each other, or otherwise facing off through some convoluted challenge. The battles--and I can’t stress this enough (try as I might)--are like a shot of adrenaline through the system; if you’ve ever liked an anime battle, they will immediately fill familiar; and if you haven’t, they’ll still be cool as hell. Steel against steel, the sound of rifle fire and the smell of gunpowder, sweat, and metallic taste of blood – these are but a fraction of the images I came away with, after reading this delightful novel.
Books like this deserve to be read by all lovers of fantasy. It’s got just about everything you could ask for in the genre; and a few things you’d never think to ask. And now, onto the score:
Final Score: 94.5/100!
What a great way to start off my indie fantasy experience for 2019! Now, I can’t help but wonder – what’s next for Rob J. Hayes?
Disclaimer: I received an e-ARC from the author in return for an honest review.
I went into Empire of Sand completely blind, without even having read the blurb. What I found was an engrossing story of entrapment, love, and divided loyalties (and not in the way you might think).
Mehr is the illegitimate daughter of the Governor of Irinah, a desert province of the centuries-old Ambhan Empire. Mehr’s life isn’t easy; though she has is the daughter of an Ambhan nobleman, favoured of the Emperor, her mother is Amrithi, a member of nomadic desert peoples hated by nearly everyone in the Empire, and persecuted from birth. The Empire is built on law and faith, you see, and the Amrithi have no respect for contracts, which are the founding block of the “law” bit.
Our heroine doesn’t have it easy, even if she is a noblewoman brought up in comfort and protected from the cruelties of the desert beyond the palace walls.
All people faced hatred. All people suffered. Few had the cushion of wealth and privilege to protect them as Mehr did. She reminded herself of this as she walked over to the bare floor in front of the lattice, pressing her feet against marble warmed by the morning sun. She was very, very lucky.
Mehr lives under the tyranny of a step-mother with a particularly strong disdain for the young protagonist’s heretic Amrithi rituals. And Maryam wields a weapon of the greatest potency – she dictates how often Mehr can see her little sister, Arwa. Anytime Mehr shows herself a willful young woman, the consequences are dire – weeks, months even, without seeing Arwa; and much as Mehr can grovel and ask Maryam for forgiveness over trespasses real and imagined, there are some things she will not bend over.
The Amrithi are children of the daiva, spirits (or perhaps ‘creatures’ is more apt) of the desert, and children of the Gods. A lot of familial relationships to spring on you, to be sure, but this’ll pay off, I promise! The daiva used to walk in human guise, in the Empire’s earliest days, and to speak with human voices and possessed great and horrifying powers. They were feared, and with good reason, by all but the Amrithi, whom the daiva have promised never to hurt.
To the everyday Ambhan of the present, however, the daiva are a superstitious fool’s belief, something to mock the provincial Irin with. So when Mehr gets in trouble for using her blood to pacify a daiva that somehow got into her sister’s room, of course no one believes her. So it is that Mehr begins spiralling down a dangerous road, dejected and isolated in her own home; so it is that Mehr, in desperation, dances alone when a great storm comes to Irinah. So it is that the most dangerous servants in the Empire set their eyes on the half-blood noblewoman.
Soon enough, Mehr is bound to a husband from among the ranks of the Empire’s most secretive servants, the mystics of the Maha. Remember how I mentioned that the Empire is built not only on law but also on faith? Enter the Maha, the master-puppeteer behind the Empire’s ever-expanding influence. This chief antagonist, I would like to talk about—but if I do, I would be going into spoiler territory! Gah, the dilemma, the dilemma! Very well, I will stay mum on this subject.
Magic rests in the Amrithi blood. It’s powerful, but not too flashy; rather, it’s steeped in ritual, empowered by the movements of the Amrithi’s body, by different sigils. There’s something almost druidic about it, in the quiet respect towards nature. And seeing the author play with characters’ perception of these different Rites is very interesting and takes some of our main characters through a moral whirlwind.
I really enjoyed the ending of Empire of Sand. Although author Tasha Suri plans to write more in this setting, by book’s end, we have a solid conclusion to Mehr and Amun’s story. In an age of cliff-hangers as maddening as a Lovecraftian horror, I can really appreciate a novel that not only introduces a fantastic setting but also tells a self-contained story.
Alright! Now then, onto scoring this gem:
· Setting: 9/10 The Ambhan Empire with its millennium of prosperity provides an excellent backdrop to not only this story, but many more. I’m nowhere near close to having enough of this dense, bountiful world. Inspired by the Mughal era of India, this is a fantastic non-western fantasy that I highly recommend to all.
· Characters: 10/10 I’ve mentioned but a handful of the characters that appear within the pages of this excellent novel – there’s Mehr’s mentor, the beautiful concubine Irina; half a dozen fascinating mystics, whose faith in and service to the Maha is haunting in its fanaticism…oh, and did I mention Amun? Oh, I haven’t? Well, far be it for me to spoil one of my favourite male characters of 2018!
· Love story: 10/10 This was one of the most authentic love stories I’ve ever read. I’ll say no more for fear of spoiling it, but…it’s a damn masterpiece, I swear it.
· Antagonist: 9/10 Oh, Maha. This villain manages to be so much more than human while holding onto the very worst of what humanity has to offer.
· Pacing: 7/10 If there’s one critique I’d like to level at Empire of Sand, ‘tis this. The book is a slow burner, almost too slow. If you’re not okay with that, you might have some trouble with this, especially towards the middle. I burned through it after a short pause but not everyone might be as engaged by the world and characters as I was.
With this in mind, the book gets a rating of 4.5 out of 5! This will translate to 5 stars on Goodreads, 5 Stars on Amazon, and my very own, “Best Cover with a Dagger on It” reward! Additionally, you might fancy this book if any of the following appeal to you:
I truly enjoyed my time with Empire of Sand; it has given me yet another author to whose work I’ll look forward to, come 2019. It’s been a fantastic year, ladies and gents; I’ve never read so many novels from such a wide array of differing voices. But, as 2018 hasn’t ended quite yet, there are yet a few more cards in my hand. Next up, I’ll be posting a review of Torn by Rowenna Miller!
I’ve taken the exploration of flintlock fantasy to heart over this last year. From exploring Brian McLellan’s original Powder Mage trilogy, to Bulletproof Witches, all the way to Wax and Wayne’s part-Victorian, part Wild West adventures, some of the novels I most enjoyed spending my time with, evoke more than just a sniff of gunpowder as I run my eyes over page after page.
In “The Elder Ice,” the first of the Harry Stubbs novellas, David Hambling delivers an excellent mystery framed in the ever-sinister Cthulhu Mythos. A good deal to enjoy in this 88-page read, and I reckon I’ll get on with it!