THE TIDES OF MANA by Matt Larkin is the first novel in the Heirs of Mana saga. It is a book that automatically wins points with me because of the fact that it doesn't take place in your typical Medieval European setting. Instead, for the first time I've read in a fantasy series, it is Polynesian-based fantasy with use of the myths of Hawaii and other Pacific Island cultures to form the basis of the story. I'd hate to use the description, "Like Moana except more violent and adult" but that's not a bad place to begin.
The premise is that the world has survived the Deluge but the results have been humanity surviving on tiny island kingdoms while the Mer dominate the underwater lands. Namaka the Sea Queen and Pele the Queen of Flames are dueling sisters that each wield fantastic mystical powers over their element. The Mer are racist and brutal towards humanity but that doesn't mean mankind can put aside its own petty conflicts long enough to repel them.
Matt Larkin dumps the reader square into the elaborate and fantastic world that he's created with little preparation. This is not an idealised or sanitized version of the Pacific peoples but a violent, politically-orientated, complicated and fascinating group of people. There are taboos, political rivalries, pragamtic decisions, and just enough cultural differences to make sure you never know how individual people are going to react.
The rich world that Matt Larkin has created is not always easy to understand as he makes use of many real-life terms that the meaning must be deduced by context. This is meant to make the work feel more authentic and does but is sometimes confusing. There's many non-authentic fully fantasy elements mixed together with the accurate mythology but that's to be expected with a fantasy novel.
The main characters are a pair of fascinating women who are both supremely arrogant, brutal, and not entirely sympathetic but always grandiose. The god queens fight a fairly grueling war across multiple islands and its some truly well-designed action sequences that mere mortals are easily swept up in. There's also some fascinating and hilarious characters as well like a boar god that is as vulgar as the other goddesses are stately.
If I have any complaints about the book, it is all a bit too much at times. Readers will be deluged with a complicated mythology, politics, and character interactions that can threaten a reader's understanding. Namaka and Pele hate each other for several reasons, often referring to past offenses or outrages with each of their scenes. However, their strong personalities are never boring and that gives grounding for the story.
This is definitely worth checking out and I picked up the sequel almost immediately.
CHAOS TRIMS MY BEARD is a noir urban fantasy following the misadventures of Edawyn Sattler. Edawyn is a half-dwarf who, at least, has a beard despite his mixed ancestry and this provides him some magical benefits. Teamed up with a suicidal wind spirit, a talking rat detective, and more oddball characters--he attempts to solve a murderous conspiracy before it ruins his life even worse than it already is.
JACK BLOODFIST: FIXER is a urban fantasy story in the vein of Netflix's recent Will Smith vehicle BRIGHT, which has a urban fantasy setting where orcs live alongside humans as well as elves. I'm a huge fan of orcs, especially orc protagonists, so this was something I was looking forward to. I found myself pleasantly surprised throughout the novel and overall enjoyed it greatly.
Rating: 3.75/5 stars (7.5 out of 10)
The War of Undoing is a great example of why sometimes you should not judge a book by its cover.
Rating: 3/5 stars (6 out of 10)
A sprawling, dark epic fantasy with Gothic horror elements, Devil’s Night Dawning is a good start to a saga.
Disclaimer: The review below was written by Rita, who selected Pilgrimage to Skara as her semi-finalist. While Petros didn't share her strong feelings about the book, he still found it to be better than all other semi-finalists, and chose to send it as BookNest's finalist to the 2nd round of the SPFBO, with a 7/10 score.
The White Tower is a big book at a whopping 624 pages, but it is a page turner in enough parts.It is a sprawling epic fantasy tale with a huge character cast and diverse settings. It starts as a typical run of the mill epic fantasy, which I didn't mind at all cause everything I love about epic fantasy was there. The White Tower features a lot of Point of View characters, but the plots are centered around four of them. These are Ty, the fae-bred youth who seems to be some kind of chosen one, Ayrion the Guardian Protector, the heroic warrior figure, the magic wielding smith Ferrin, and the villain Valtor who is a dark magician hell bent on summoning the long-banished dark lord figure. Ty's point of view scenes have a whimsical quality; I particularly loved the magic displays and the interesting secondary characters there.
Ferrin's and Ty's parts were among my favorites as well as Ayrion's excursions and rather interesting battle scenes with a bit of a magic twist. The action scenes are impressive and the character perspectives get interesting as you progress through the story. Poor quarter and thieves' guild parts were excellent. Another positive aspect is the presence of amazing female characters. These being said, the White Tower has several serious issues.
The biggest problem I have is the excessive info-dumps. I was willing to overlook them in the beginning since the well-paced action scenes and the tension-heavy parts balanced them out, but they piled up rather quick and became an annoyance. I appreciate the rich and highly detailed world-building and the author's love for the world he created, but there are better ways to feed the information to the reader.
The other issue is the logic errors. In one scene, the character falls on his back and ends up with a gash on his forehead. In another, a woman named Saleena is being tortured, but she worries about whether she will be attractive to the men if she survives the ordeal. This was one of the parts which made me face-palm. Then there is a long info-dump telling her life story. The flashback would be fine if it was done in the right place, but it came off quite boring. In contrast, Ferrin's flashbacks during his torture scenes were compelling to read cause they were timed right, kept brief and interesting.
Some of the information is unnecessarily repeated. By page 488, I already knew the High Guard was an elite group protecting the king, but this info is repeated in the middle of a battle action.
The other major issue I have with The White Tower, as with the two others in my SPFBO stack, is the excessive use of modern vocabulary. It simply doesn't belong in epic fantasy with a pre-modern setting and ruins the atmosphere. I can't feel the fantasy world of the book if I'm constantly transported back to the 21st century with words and idioms like faux, socially-awkward, claustrophobic, sadism, beau (seriously?), positive attitude, fecal smell, positive feature, technique, alone time (good grief!), novel (it should have been tome), logical metaphor, get it out of his system, homicidal maniacs, superb (I can recommend some good editors), positive result, shelving unit (this made me put the book down and think of Ikea catalogs.) These are the worst of the modern language examples I have highlighted. There are more. I blame the editor as much as the author here: No self-respecting editor should allow that kind of vocabulary in an epic fantasy book. I can overlook "Yeah, I got it" and "Wow!" but that's about it.
Last, but not least, there are quite a few typos. One example: Cauldron is misspelled as Caldron in four places. My search for Cauldron returned zero results. I can overlook the occasional typo or two, but this kind of pattern sticks out like a sore thumb.
Despite all the shortcomings, the story is compelling and the majority of characters are highly interesting. Lyessa and Sheeva were among the best female characters I've read in fantasy books, even though Sheeva's parts were brief. I am planning to read Shackle, the prequel from Ferrin's point of view and if Mr. Wiseheart published a novella featuring Sheeva, I'd buy it on the spot.
I think The White Tower is overall a great story and could have been easily on par with mainstream published books -if not better- with serious editing and beta readers with higher standards.