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Tuesday, June 19, 2018

"The Last Gargoyle" by Paul Durham (Reviewed by Cindy Hannikman)

FORMAT: The Last Gargoyle is the first book in a new children's series. The series has a mix of mystery, action, and mythological creatures. The novel stands at 288 pages and was published January 9, 2018 by Crown Books for Young Readers. 

ANALYSIS: Paul Durham quickly moved to the top of my list of favorite children's writers with his debut novel Luck Uglies. Immediately after reading the first book, I couldn't stop talking about it and recommending it to pretty much anyone who would listen to me. When I found out that 2018 promised a new series from him, I was super excited but a little apprehensive as my expectations were pretty high.

Part of my apprehension was because this series strayed from his original series which was traditional fantasy. The Last Gargoyle has a more historical, dark vibe with some mythology thrown in. Luckily, Paul Durham pulled this off nicely. There is a spooky vibe that carries throughout the novel, but Durham knows how to throw in witty one-liners and some warm 'feel good moments' every now and then to give readers a break from all the doom and gloom.

What really shines in The Last Gargoyle is the setting. It takes place in Boston, but not the Boston everyone is used to. There is this gothic, creepy vibe to this Boston. Readers familiar with the Boston area will definitely be able to picture and imagine the places in the novel, but they will probably see them in a whole new light.

Another element that jumps out is Durham's ability to really flesh out and develop the characters. Durham does an amazing job of creating some characters that have been around for centuries and giving them the ability to appeal to readers. They don't come across as know-it-all or stiff. In fact, there are a number of times where they are still learning and growing which readers don't always encounter in characters who have lived for so long.

The other main character, a young mortal child, in the novel is, at first, a bit harsh and not really likeable. However, as the story goes on and you learn more about what is going on with her, what happened to her, and what she is currently battling, she starts to grow on you. By the end of the story, I really wanted to learn more about her and what happens. I was pleasantly surprised that she grew on me.

I will say the 'big bad' villain is pretty creepy; probably one of the more creepier children's bad guys that I have read recently. Not only are the villain's actions creepy, but his entire description and look is downright frightening. It is this aspect of the novel that moves this story from younger middle grade to a little bit older middle grade. The spooky, creepy bad guy that pretty much preys on children while they sleep and sends things out into the night to capture them is something that the younger age range might not be ready for.

I will warn you though that while the book does wrap up a lot of things, there is still a lot to be explored in future books. It will be fun to see where the series goes from here and what other unique twists and turns Durham can bring to the children's fiction world.

Overall, I loved The Last Gargoyle. I felt it was fresh, unique and wasn't bloated like a lot of books try to be as they are competing to see who can make the biggest/fattest book. If you are looking for something that is an original story but not super long, then this is the book for you. I can't recommend this book enough and it is certain to be one of my top reads for 2018.
Thursday, June 14, 2018

Review/Blog Tour: Wellspring of Chaos (Saga of Recluce Book 12) by L.E. Modesitt Jr. (Reviewed by Cindy Hannikman)

OVERVIEW: ​Kharl's life has been always been as ordered and dependable as the barrels he makes. His trouble begins when he saves saves a rape victim he finds unconscious in an alley, a blackstaffer—a young expatriate mage—from Recluce.

When the blackstaffer is mysteriously murdered in Kharl's cooperage, Kharl is jailed, tried, and flogged, and in a shocking turnaround released—and his wife executed for the murder, which she did not commit. Kharl ends up on the run, taking the slain woman's black staff and her book, The Basis of Order, which explains the principles of its power.

The diligent cooper is about to learn a new, very different skill.

 ANALYSIS: The Saga of Recluce was one of those series that I always promised myself I'd give it a try and read every single book, but after reading books one and two I looked and saw it spanned a good 16 or so more books and my interest waivered. It wasn't until it was brought to my attention and I was given the opportunity to take part in the blog tour leading up to the release of the newest Recluce book that I decided to jump back into the series by reading Wellspring of Chaos which is the 12 (in publishing order) book of the series.

One of the things that jumped out to me almost immediately upon starting Wellspring of Chaos is that it wasn't anything like Modesitt's earlier Recluce books. Sure, it is set up in the same general world and uses the same magical system, but it differs in that it takes place in a different part of the overall timeline, a new section of the world, and even has a main character that isn't your average fantasy novel main character.

Readers are introduced to Kharl – a skilled cooper who is satisfied with his life living in relative peace with his wife and two children. He isn't rich by any stretch of the imagination, but he isn't begging in the streets. On the surface this sounds like it would be a pretty dull character to follow. I admit if someone had told me I would be reading a book about a man in his 40s who spends his days making barrels and has a relatively normal family, I'd probably have laughed, but things didn't turn out that way at all.

Kharl is unexpectedly, and very early on in the book, met with a series of unfortunate events. He is forced to choose between doing what is right or ignoring the problem. Kharl decides to do what he feels is right and that leads to a series of events that quickly spiral out of control and lead to unexpected changes in his life. With all of the changes going on, Kharl is forced to go on one of those 'coming of age' quests that the teens always seem to go on in fantasy novels.

This shift of pace of having an older, more mature voice for the series really captured my attention. I found myself drawn to Kharl and his life. I wanted to know more about him. I wanted to follow him on his quests and see what he would do or how he would work things out. I didn't care if Kharl was fighting battles or just sitting and putting together wood to create a barrel that would hold apples for the upcoming harvest. I just wanted to be around Kharl and really just follow his story.

The further along I got in Wellspring of Chaos the more I noticed huge changes from previous novels. First, there was an emphasis more on mystery building, action and adventure. There was still the detailed world-building and development of characters and a focus on what some might view as boring, but there was a lot more action and not so much a focus on weighing good vs. evil or dealing with the really, really boring aspects of the characters' day-to-day lives.

Another thing that stuck out to me was Modesitt's lack of using sounds in the book. Anyone who has read any of the earlier Recluce novels knows exactly what I am talking about. While telling a part of the story, Modesitt would randomly put in something like "splat...... splunk.... splat......plop" instead of describing something that would happen or an action that occurred. This didn't happen once or twice, this happened multiple times and it really was just a personal dislike that I had with the books. I am happy to say this book didn't have that in it.

After completing Wellspring of Chaos I feel I can comfortably evaluate it from two standpoints – people who have never read any of the Recluce books and those that have read some. For those that have read Modesitt and didn't particularly care for the series, you may find Wellspring of Chaos to your liking. It has a different pace, focus, and is honestly better written than the previous books.

For those who have had no experience with Modesitt, this is a great place to start. The amazing thing is almost all the books can be read as a standalone. Sure, it is fun to read them in publishing order or chronological order, but you don't have to do that. If you haven't read any of his books, give this a try especially if you love a well-written story with relatable characters that you find yourself really caring about.

As for my personal opinion, I loved Wellspring of Chaos. I feel if I had read this book first I probably would have been encouraged to continue swiftly reading the series. I find myself drawn to the other books in the Recluce series and look forward to seeing what the future – or past as some of the books go into – holds.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

Author Appreciation: Craig Schaefer (by Lukasz Przywoski)

It doesn’t happen often that I read series of books one immediately after the other. And yet, that’s precisely what happened with Craig Schaefer’s bibliography. I devoured all of his books in one month. It’s embarrassing. The author has spent thousands of hours to craft the books, develop characters and wrap-up plotlines and I consumed them in few weeks.

And what a ride it was!

Now, It has to be said upfront that Craig Schaefer won’t win a Pulitzer, but he’ll sure as hell entertain you. In a loud and violent way.

His world, you see, is not happy. Hell is a concrete, real place. Heaven, as far as anyone knows, is not. The few angelic beings anyone recalls seeing are violently insane, and if there’s any higher power out there, it’s utterly silent.

All Schaefer’s books are interconnected and happen in the same world, although there’s a considerable time gap between events presented in the Revanche Cycle and his urban-fantasy series.

It’s not necessary to read all of them to enjoy others thoroughly.

Schafer debuted in 2014 with The Long Way Down, and he continues to publish three-four books a year since then. The man is a machine. In interviews, he admits that writing is his career of choice and he approaches it seriously. He works at least eight hours every day, Every single day. This may be because he started to publish later in his life – he was forty when he published The Long Way Down. I appreciate this kind of work ethics. It's also worth noting that he develops as a writer and tries new things (by writing in slightly different genres).

Reading order

Schaefer’s series can be read independently of each other. However, having in mind many FBC readers’ genre of choice is high/low-fantasy, I’d like to suggest reading his series in the following order:

Revanche Cycle:

Number - Title - Date of publication

1) Winter’s Reach - November 2014

2)  The Instruments of Control - April 2015

3) Terms of Surrender - November 2015

4) Queen of the Night - June 2016

What a fun read! Heroes win, villains die, everybody gets a cake.

Oh, wait.

I’ve mistaken books.

Let’s try again.

The Revanche Cycle is an epic fantasy with multiple viewpoint characters, set in a world reminiscent of the Italian Renaissance. The series deals with conspiracies, political intrigue, the relationship between church and state, how religion is used (and abused) to shape policy. It's also about faith and culture, and overcoming the obstacles society throws in your path. It's a story about women. It is also, as the title hints, a story about revenge. And how a single violent act, buried in the past, can have devastating global consequences.

The story is fast-paced, character-driven and well plotted. The ending of the series is bold and satisfying. Also, heart-wrenching. The only drawback I can see is the fact that none of the books works well as a standalone. As a completed series, though, it’s criminally underread and underrated.

The story is already finished and can be bought in a kindle bundle for $8. Frankly, it’s a steal.

Daniel Faust series:

Number  Title Publication date

1)    The Long Way DownJuly 2014

1.5)   The White Gold Score - February 2016

2)    Redemption Song - June 2014

3)    The Living End - August 2014

4)    A Plain-Dealing Villain - January 2015

5)    The Killing Floor Blues -  July 2015

6)    The Castle Doctrine - September 2016

7)    Double or Nothing - June 2017

8)    The Neon Boneyard - April 2018

Daniel Faust is the main character of the series. He’s a con artist, thief and former gangster living in the shadows of Las Vegas. Daniel uses black magic and bullets to get what he wants. He’s not really a good guy. Because the story is told from his perspective and his voice is enjoyable, it’s easy to forget that he can be stone cold killer with little mercy in his heart. He lives in a noirish world filled with characters whose morality is black or grey. He’s helped by his chosen family – a group of rogues and outlaws. Each of them possesses different magical talents, and their strength lies in cooperation and planning.

Daniel isn’t a powerhouse wizard. He has some tricks up his sleeve, but if you like comparisons, Harry Dresden would destroy him in a fraction of a second (him and half of Las Vegas, the way Harry does). And yet due to his wit, Daniel’s able to win in impossible fights.

Did I mention that his girlfriend is a demon? You know, actual demon. From Hell. Because she is. Caitlin rocks. She can be sweet to Daniel, but she’s not the one to play with unless you like your heart to be broken. Quite literally – after it’s torn up from your ribcage. Also, Caitlin calls Daniel her pet so if you’re ultra-macho you may find this reversal of relationship dynamics unsettling.

The series is loud, fast and violent. It’s strongest part is characterisation. While characters aren’t as developed as the ones portrayed in the Revanche Cycle, they have enough charisma to truly like them and cheer for them.

It’s early in the series when Daniel stumbles on a "The End of the World as We Know It" plot and tries to take down the bad guys. The thing is bad guys are quite terrifying and their schemes remain a bit of mystery.

Harmony Black series:

Number Title Publication date

1)    Harmony Black - February 2016

2)    Red Knight Falling - April 2016

3)    Glass Predator - March 2017

4)    Cold Spectrum - October 2017

The Harmony Black series is a spinoff to the Daniel Faust novels. She was introduced as Daniel's “antagonist” (well, the thing is he’s the bad guy). While she collaborated with him on few occasions like saving the world, her pet project was to see him in prison. Harmony is an FBI agent and a witch. Her spinoff series follows her adventures with her new team, working to take down occult criminals and supernatural threats all over the United States.

I must confess it took me some time to get into the series. Harmony is just too damn straight. Which is funny as she's ready to wreak havoc and kill other people (also those close to her) to reach her team goals (to be fair saving a world is a good goal). The stories are usually fast-paced and each of the books focuses on a different Circus team member.

In Cold Spectrum they uncover a diabolical conspiracy in the highest ranks of the government, it appears that everything Harmony and her friends have worked for, fought for, and risked their lives for might be a lie. And it's the book in which I started to like Harmony as she has to deal not only with treason but also with kind of supernatural addiction that adds a little bent to her character.

In order to get all nuances and hints in the Faust and Harmony series, it's good to start Harmony Black after finishing A Plain-Dealing Villain and finish it before getting to Double or Nothing. By reading the series in this order you'll know what's the deal with one million dollar hat or why on earth would Harmony buy a flamethrower from Winslow.

Wisdom’s Grave trilogy:

Number Title Publication date

1)    Sworn to the Night - January 2018

2)   Detonation Boulevard (tentative title) - Fall 2018

The Wisdom’s Grave trilogy is Craig Schaefer 's new trilogy that’s supposed to reveal a lot of secrets about the universe and, above all, my favourite characters from the Revanche Cycle. They’re back in modern times to kick some ass. And I can’t wait to see where the story will go. Both Daniel Faust and Harmony Black make cameos here, and while it’s not necessary to know their series to understand what’s happening, it definitely helps and allows to savour nuances and hints.

Why do I appreciate the guy?

Outside the fact his book brought a lot of fun and entertainment to my life, I appreciate Craig Schaefer for:

* Work ethics - he treats his career and fans seriously and openly communicates his sales, writing progress and problems

* Playing a long game - you remember Lost and X-Files? It was apparent they had no idea where they were going. It was nice to follow them along the way, but none of these stories was wrapped up satisfyingly. So far, Schaefer connects his heroes and plots in satisfying ways.

* Creating intriguing, morally ambiguous characters that I like.

* Writing in different genres (so - he develops his skills as a writer)

* Refreshing urban fantasy scene


ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Lukasz Przywoski is an avid fiction reader from Poland. As a reviewer, he tries to be critical and thoroughly analyze books that he reads. As a result, he rarely gives 5 stars ratings - he reserves them to books that feel special. Apart from being keen on reading and inhabiting imaginary worlds, his biggest passion is the science of movement and movement in multiple forms. Life without sport and books wouldn't be worth living.

While fantasy is his favourite genre, he tends to read pretty broadly and is always eager to try new things.

Favourite authors: Terry Pratchett, Jim Butcher, Mark Lawrence, Craig Schaefer, Seth Skorkowsky, Matt Suddain and many others.. He's also active on r/fantasy as barb4ry1.
Saturday, June 9, 2018

Traitor's Blade by Sebastien de Castell (Reviewed by D. C. Stewart)

Official Author Website
Order the book HERE

FORMAT/INFO: Traitor’s Blade is 384 pages long with a prologue and an epilogue. Narration is in the first-person via Falcio Val Mond. This is the first volume of the Greatcoats series.

Traitor’s Blade is available in hardcover and trade paperback. Cover art and design is by Jo Fletcher.

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: To my great shame, I have never read The Three Musketeers. I have seen and loved multiple movie versions, despite the poor quality of said adaptations (except for “The Man in the Iron Mask,” which is dope). The myth of Athos, Porthos, Aramis, and little baby brother d’Artagnan is one I hold close. I will read Dumas at some point, both for the literary acumen and for the erasure of my shame, but in the interim Sebastien de Castell’s Traitor’s Blade is not a bad substitute. Plus it has magic!

Traitor’s Blade is not a direct fantasy-translation of The Three Musketeers, but it is as close as we are likely to get. Falcio, Brasti, and Kest are Greatcoats – travelling magistrates directed by King Paelis to administer justice to even the lowliest peasant in a land where noble houses claim near universal dominion. The King and his laws are the only thing that keep this hierarchy in check. But the King is dead, murdered by those very nobles, and the Greatcoats are disbanded with unclear missions set them by the King on what to do in case of emergency. Falcio is looking for the mysterious “Chariotes,” gemstones that the King spread about the land and that hold immeasurable value. The King did not tell Falcio where to find these jewels, only that if he looked, he would.

Traitor’s Blade is full of such heady-sounding prophecy, and while it is usually told with a tongue-in-cheek wink, as most of the exposition is, it is still a touch frustrating that Castell tries to cram so many mysteries into his tale. The sheer amount of charm that his characters display can also be heavy on the eyes, and it is only the counter-weight of their hearts that keeps this rampant wit-flourishing from becoming a mess.

As the story emerges, we learn that Falcio is the head of the ex-communicated Greatcoats, and also its founder, or its re-founder. The Greatcoats had existed a hundred years before and been disbanded by a similar group of unlawful nobles. In this way does the history of Castell’s world repeat itself. As we follow The Three Greatcoats along, we learn that their order is one both despised and disrespected, despite their noble intentions and past valorous deeds. This is where the tale strikes the reader as particularly Musketeer-like - disgraced order of justice-warriors roaming the land seek redemption. This is not singular to the Musketeers, but it strikes awfully close to leur maison.

I had a plethora of issues with Traitor’s Blade, despite largely enjoying the novel. Here’s a list:

● It tries to be too witty to the point that it feels desperate;

● The plotting is one continuous surprise reveal after another, each feeling more contrived than the last with every character Falcio has ever met showing up and proving to be some long-lost wizard or royal;

● A few of those many revelations feel downright ludicrous even beyond the surprise secret identities;

● One or two of the villains are so mustache-twirlingly evil as to defy even suspended disbelief;

● I’m pretty sure a blind man recognizes Falcio from across the room at one point in the book, and I’m still not sure how;

● I have a pretty hard time reading any novel that keeps addressing the ‘you’ that is the reader;

● What should have been the greatest sword duel in any book ever is performed off-page! No description at all, just one character wishing another good luck, walking away, and then the winner showing up later a little bloodied (this really pissed me off).

But the truth is that despite my problems with Castell’s debut novel, many of which would not pass an editor’s scrutiny at certain publishers, this book has something that many in the fantasy genre are lacking in these troubled times. Traitor’s Blade has a heart, and it is that pulsing, emotive organ, pumping away within the flowing pages of this novel, that makes it worth reading. Brasti and Kest, and most assuredly Falcio, are fighting for something. There are shades of grey here, no doubt, but when it comes to the core of the matter, the right meets wrong edge of the paper, there are only two sides of the page, and these Greatcoats are on the right one. I needed this kind of story in my life. I think maybe we all do. There might be better written books out there with more cohesive plots and less contrived dialogue, but I have not read much this year that had me rooting for its good guys nearly so much. Falcio and his Greatcoats are beaten bloody, but they never give in on what is right and true. These are the stories that inspire its readers to be better people, to protect the innocent and weak, and uphold what the word noble really means.

I don’t entirely expect the follow up, Knight’s Shadow, to affect me as much (sequels rarely do), but I owe Castell another read for his ability to reach down into my depths and scratch at my emotions. This is why I read books, and sometimes it’s easy to forget that in the need to be overly critical and demand perfection.

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

GUEST POST: How Guitar Magazines Prepared Me for the Traditional vs. Self-Publishing Debate by Samuel Gately

Back in high school, I fell for guitars in a big way. My dad taught me the four chords to Runaround Sue, which I later realized was the full extent of his own expertise, on an old nylon string acoustic we had lying around. That might have been it, me pounding away on a pretty crappy guitar for a week or two before getting bored, but my older brother had also caught the bug at some point. He had gone as far as purchasing a barely-touched Yamaha electric. It was a Stratocaster ripoff. It was black. It looked vastly cooler on me when I finally figured out how to strap it on. A few tentative trips from my bedroom to look in the bathroom mirror was all it took to make this my latest obsession.

Music had always been a love of mine, again most thanks go to the older brother who raised me on a steady diet of metal and hard and alternative rock. But in retrospect the timing of my guitar obsession probably had a lot to do with my fading basketball hopes and dreams. I’d been a grade school star who barely made the lowest tier of high school ball and quickly recognized I was done. I’d spent hours every night practicing on our driveway hoop. That energy had to go somewhere. And it did, big time.

For the next several years, every extra cent I had went to amplifiers, distortion pedals, and concert tickets. Everywhere I went I had a guitar pick in my back pocket. I shoved instruments in the hands of my closest friends and, in the luckiest turn imaginable, one already played some mean drums. And had a basement! We became a proper garage/basement rock band, culminating in the release of a cassette tape creatively entitled Eight Songs. Please don’t look for it. It is not available anywhere aside from the darkest corners of our hard drives.

My high school years were 1993-1997 and the world of guitars and popular music alike were beset with an identity crisis. Nirvana’s Nevermind was released in ’91. I vividly remember my brother walking into our shared bedroom with great urgency and tossing in the CD, telling me “they’re saying this is going to change everything.” A ridiculous but true set up to what was coming, and weighty stuff for an eighth-grader. In no time at all, alternative rock was taking over radiowaves and the hearts and minds of America’s youth. Alice in Chains, Weezer, Pearl Jam, Rage Against the Machine, and Soundgarden are just a few I’m not embarrassed to list today. I was fully on board, at one point going to the extreme of shaving my head like Billy Corgan of the Smashing Pumpkins. Because, you know, I was unique.

So, the magazines. Part of my obsession was a subscription to Guitar World, which I read cover to cover every month. Usually I would pick up a copy of Guitar Player before the month was done, depending on who was on the cover or which songs they’d transcribed. They had interviews, songs, deep technical discussions about equipment, and so very many ads. I was deeply drawn to the Letters to the Editor section, which was ground zero for the alternative rock versus metal/hard rock debate. Great drama.

My world had been, to date, largely debate free. Our current obsession with national politics was at a lower simmer or at least of no interest to the high school students of the time. No one cared about my opinion on anything and that was mostly fine by me. I did what I was told, except when I didn’t, and just fought to be left alone with my guitar.

The notes of that raging guitar magazine debate were almost always the same, delivered via scathing letters. Alternative rock sucks. Kurt Cobain can barely play his guitar. Anyone could do that. On the other side: Metal is for boring wankers with no emotional depth. No one wants to see you run scales. If you could do it, do it. The magazine helpfully fanned the flames by providing cartoon renderings of guitarists drooling and peeing themselves or nerdishly pushing glasses up their noses to accompanying the flying insults.

I was fascinated by the depth of emotion on both sides, and the fact that they were so certain while being so diametrically opposed. I’m almost certain this same debate continues today in different forms, not that I really have interest in reentering it. And that disinterest is partly because I finally realized what it was all about.

It was probably my first real adult thought, which is why it has stuck with me ever since, when I finally understood what was being said between the lines. "My skillset is the best. Yours is dumb. Admit defeat. And, for the love of God, stop competing with me. I’m working on a dream here and you’re WRECKING IT!" The arguments managed to be rational while being totally irrational. They came from a place of self-interest and it was that origin rooted in self-interest and self-justification that defined them more than their content. It was possible for two sides to be both right and opposing. Heavy stuff to draw from a magazine about guitars, yes. I was also into pot during those years.

Writing is my latest obsession, having long been painfully disabused of my guitar dreams. I’m a latecomer to the game. The first thing I ever wrote was The Night of the Chalk. I gleefully ignored advice to not publish your first and Fantasy Book Critic was generous enough to name a semifinalist in the SPFBO (hell yeah). I’m now nearing completion of my fifth, all self-published. I’ve flirted with traditional publishing but largely abandoned the prospect after close to total radio silence on my initial round of queries.

The writing world is a startling one to enter. On the whole, I would deem it more friendly and inviting than the music world, which really has a strain of toxic masculinity running through at least its rock section. The writing world is just as focused on fleecing newcomers, but there’s a comradery and mutual respect at its core. Good stuff. Just don’t open up the traditional versus self-published debate. Then the fangs come out.

I am traditionally published. Therefore I am better at writing than you. Stop pretending you are a writer (and stop competing with me). Counterpoint: You are a sheep/dinosaur/sucker and are not making money. I have more direct control and marketing acumen and am winning this game. Take your accolades and stuff them (but introduce me to your agent).

It doesn’t matter who’s right. We live in a world where we all make the best decision for ourselves. The arguments are only of value when one considers his or her own path. As much as one side would love the other to fall over and admit defeat, it is a pointless exercise. But it is one that will continue as long as it makes us feel good to validate our own path and denigrate others. And that’s fine. I won’t wrap up with a call to action to end this debate and all hold hands or something. The debate is fine. I just hope everyone can recognize it for what it is and not lose any sleep over incurring the wrath and scorn of a significant portion of the highly-educated, verbose writing community, whatever path you chose. They mean well until they don’t. And then screw them. You’ve got to make up your own mind and do your own thing. Shave your head like Billy Corgan. Let’s all be unique.


Official Author Website
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of The Night Of The Chalk

AUTHOR INFORMATION: Samuel Gately is a fantasy writer. His Spies of Dragon and Chalk series imagines a world where James Bond carries a sword and works for a dragon army.

NOTE: Dragon fantasy art courtesy of TacoSauceNinja.
Thursday, May 10, 2018

The Traitor Baru Cormorant by Seth Dickinson (An Exploration by D.C. Stewart)

Official Author Website

Order the book HERE

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: I do not think I have ever read a book with a more appropriate title, nor one so multi-layered, as Seth Dickinson’s The Traitor Baru Cormorant. Before even cracking the cover, a reader knows that this person, this Baru, will betray someone. They do not know the extent of the betrayal, nor who or why it will come about, but it colors this character immediately, and it is upon learning that she is the protagonist that something occurs to a reader - this person is not to be trusted. The unreliable narrator is a common trope in fiction, but not often is it made so transparent right from the start.

But Baru is about as transparent as a brick wall, and after nearly 400 pages, I was left as puzzled by her as I was from the beginning.

The story of The Traitor Baru Cormorant is one familiar to any of us prescient about U.S. history. A large empire invades the rest of the world, bringing with it disease and economy, and gentrifies it. Dickinson places a particular emphasis on the economy portion of this takeover, stressing the Falcresti Empire’s ability to replace foreign currency with its own, and thus control all trade, as its means to success. Money is every bit as insidious as the plagues that the Masquerade (a nickname for the Empire, so given because their soldiers wear expressionless masks into battle) sows amongst less civilized populations and likely kills nearly as many. Baru Cormorant is a young girl from Taranoke when the story begins, and she watches the Masquerade invade and take over her beloved homeland without so much as a battle. Determined early on to somehow topple this regime, she demonstrates an out-of-the-ordinary genius and is noticed by one of the most powerful men of Falcrest who just happens to be posing as a merchant in her local market. She is fast tracked through the education system of the Masquerade, and upon graduation is shipped off to quell rumors of rebellion in northern Aurdwynn.

Baru is a difficult character to love or hate. As the novel progresses, we watch her plot and maneuver in ways that even the blackhearted might find a little squeamish. She does so, ultimately, for the love of her homeland. To Baru, any means justify the recovery of Taranoke, and this is where we see the true nature of the book’s title. Baru is The Traitor to everyone but herself, and it is a nerve- and mind-wracking game that she plays in juggling all the many masks that she is forced to don and shed as she plots her way into the heart of the Empire. In the end, I could respect Baru Cormorant for being one of the most cunning and manipulative characters I have ever read, but I could never like her. As book two of this series would suggest, Baru is a monster in all but appearance.

I take notes while I am reading, and as I was reading through The Traitor Baru Cormorant, I kept writing down questions, as though I were asking Seth Dickinson why this was happening, or where was this character while all of this was playing out. By the last page of this book, my questions had been answered, every one, and I am unsure whether or not I am impressed by Dickinson’s ability to sow confusion or angered by it. Part of the reason for this confusion lies in the somewhat un-satisfying conclusion to Baru’s betrayal of the Aurdwynni rebellion. There is no doubt that this floored me and that I did not see it coming (despite the book’s title). However, after a battle scene that reads like “The Song of Roland,” with all of its tempo and lyricism, Baru’s escape seems like a deflated balloon. She rides away, with a half-hearted chase by Duke Oathsfire, and then washes up on a personal island with a malady that removes half the world from her sight.

Because of the method of narration here, we are never able to see what Baru is actually thinking, and further, because of Dickinson’s unwillingness to ever show any transparency with this story, it is not feasible that such an ending could have the emotional impact that it deserves. The portion with Tain Hu on the island did have that, and it is raw and painful, but aside from that we do not feel a true sense of betrayal from Baru. Perhaps in the end, when the series is wrapped up and we see whether or not Baru Cormorant has toppled an Empire, when we see what lies behind the mask and whether it was worth all of this pain and strife, perhaps then an emotional anvil will descend and leave us all flattened. Seth Dickinson’s first novel is more than good enough to hold out for that.

CONCLUSION: Despite some misgivings about the book, there is no doubt that The Traitor Baru Cormorant is something special. It is unique in fantasy literature, and in literature as a whole. I have never read a book with such geopolitical maneuvering, the kind that puts such hornet’s nests like A Game of Thrones to shame, nor one that uses currency and economic control so much to its benefit. Dickinson’s prose splits between the workmanlike and the poetic while never firmly establishing itself in either, but it works.. His use of sexual politics is also fascinating and deeply human. In short, The Traitor Baru Cormorant is an eye-opening experience, fresh and bold, and sets a course for Baru Cormorant that is both thrilling and terrifying.

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