Tuesday, September 16, 2014

City of Stairs by Robert Jackson Bennett

Book Description:

The city of Bulikov once wielded the powers of the gods to conquer the world, enslaving and brutalizing millions—until its divine protectors were killed. Now Bulikov has become just another colonial outpost of the world's new geopolitical power, but the surreal landscape of the city itself—first shaped, now shattered, by the thousands of miracles its guardians once worked upon it—stands as a constant, haunting reminder of its former supremacy.

Into this broken city steps Shara Thivani. Officially, the unassuming young woman is just another junior diplomat sent by Bulikov's oppressors. Unofficially, she is one of her country's most accomplished spies, dispatched to catch a murderer. But as Shara pursues the killer, she starts to suspect that the beings who ruled this terrible place may not be as dead as they seem—and that Bulikov's cruel reign may not yet be over.

I had heard a lot of good things about Robert Jackson Bennett, but City of Stairs was the first book of his I had read.  I understand now why everyone has such good things to say about him.  He’s earned it.  City of Stairs is wonderfully complex, thought-provoking and wildly entertaining.  

City of Stairs takes place in a world that was once dominated from the city of Bulikov and the gods who built it.  The gods have been killed and the people who were formerly enslaved by them now rule in Bulikov.  The city and the country have been devastated and the people are forbidden from acknowledging much of their history or even the existence of lingering magic.  The story centers around the murder of a visiting scholar from the now-ruling empire of Saypur and the enigmatic ambassador sent to investigate, Shara Thivani and her even more enigmatic assistant Sigrud.

The world building in this story is detailed, fascinating and unique.  The political machinations that are revealed throughout make you reexamine the roles of all the principal characters throughout the book.  The characters are layered and the events that take place reveal more and more about them as the story progresses.  There are so many things going on in this book and all of them interesting: the history of the world, the gods themselves, where they came from, what they did and why, how they were killed, if they were killed, the murder, political ambitions on both sides and the various futures that some are trying to stop and others to bring about.

City of Stairs can be enjoyed on many levels.  It entertains as a straightforward mystery in a fantasy setting and it also can be enjoyed for its many deeper layers with political intrigue, magic and fascinating characters.  It’s worth reading the book just to meet the character of Sigrud even if for nothing else.  Do yourself a favor and pick up this book.  Highly recommended.

I was fortunate to receive an advance copy of this book.

Prince of Fools by Mark Lawrence

Book Description:

The Red Queen is old but the kings of the Broken Empire dread her like no other. For all her reign, she has fought the long war, contested in secret, against the powers that stand behind nations, for higher stakes than land or gold. Her greatest weapon is The Silent Sister—unseen by most and unspoken of by all.

The Red Queen’s grandson, Prince Jalan Kendeth—drinker, gambler, seducer of women—is one who can see The Silent Sister. Tenth in line for the throne and content with his role as a minor royal, he pretends that the hideous crone is not there. But war is coming. Witnesses claim an undead army is on the march, and the Red Queen has called on her family to defend the realm. Jal thinks it’s all a rumor—nothing that will affect him—but he is wrong.

After escaping a death trap set by the Silent Sister, Jal finds his fate magically intertwined with a fierce Norse warrior. As the two undertake a journey across the Empire to undo the spell, encountering grave dangers, willing women, and an upstart prince named Jorg Ancrath along the way, Jalan gradually catches a glimmer of the truth: he and the Norseman are but pieces in a game, part of a series of moves in the long war—and the Red Queen controls the board.

There is a new contender for favorite fantasy duo.  Jal and Snorri, the main characters in Mark Lawrence’s newest novel Prince of Fools, book one in The Red Queen’s War, are as mismatched and ultimately complementary pair as you are going to find.

Jal is a minor royal, far enough from the throne not to take anything seriously, close enough to use his connections to further his favorite pastimes of drinking, gambling and seducing women. Snorri is a fierce norse warrior with a strong sense of honor and a single-minded purpose.  When the Queen’s Silent Sister, who appears to be seen by few except Jal, sets a deadly trap that nearly kills Jal, the resulting magic binds Jal and Snorri together.  As the pair quest north, it’s unclear if they will stop a war, or if they are merely pawns in a battle long in the making.

Lawrence’s writing has greatly matured and the narrative in Prince of Fools flows smoothly from beginning to end.  The characters are dynamic, the plot moves forward rapidly and the book is filled with humor and powerfully descriptive, memorable phrases, such as ripping a bear “from groin to growl.”  

While Snorri is an immensely likeable character, it is Jal who is the more complicated one.  He studiously avoids both responsibility and heroism.  He is an accomplished liar, but the person he may be lying to the most might be himself.  There are depths to him and not all the lessons he was taught growing up went as unheeded as he likes to pretend.  His journey with Snorri, and Snorri’s unflagging confidence and sense of purpose, give Jal a sort of confidence or excuse to be a better person.

There is a lot going on in Prince of Fools, a magical binding, a potential war, an undead army and unscrupulous and formidable foes both in front and behind Jal and Snorri.  The battle scenes are fun and intense, but the strength of this story is the characters.

I listened to the audio version of this story.  The narration by Tim Gerard Reynolds was incredible.  The character of Jal walks right up to the edge of obnoxious and unlikeable, but is ultimately endearing.  That sort of character takes great skill to write and equal skill to narrate.  Reynolds does it brilliantly.  The character voices are distinct and he perfectly captures the flow of the narrative, enhancing the enjoyment of the story and never getting in the way of it.

Mark Lawrence is one of the best writers of fantasy working today and I think Prince of Fools is his best book yet.  I am eagerly looking forward to the next installment.  Highly recommended!

I was fortunate to receive an advance copy of the audio recording of this book.

Those Who Wish Me Dead by Michael Koryta

Book Description:

When fourteen-year-old Jace Wilson witnesses a brutal murder, he's plunged into a new life, issued a false identity and hidden in a wilderness skills program for troubled teens. The plan is to get Jace off the grid while police find the two killers. The result is the start of a nightmare.

The killers, known as the Blackwell Brothers, are slaughtering anyone who gets in their way in a methodical quest to reach him. Now all that remains between them and the boy are Ethan and Allison Serbin, who run the wilderness survival program; Hannah Faber, who occupies a lonely fire lookout tower; and endless miles of desolate Montana mountains.

The clock is ticking, the mountains are burning, and those who wish Jace Wilson dead are no longer far behind.

Those Who Wish Me Dead  by Michael Koryta is a different sort of thriller.  Set mainly in the wilderness of Montana, this is the story of a boy who witnesses a murder and needs to hide from the killers in a somewhat unconventional setting.  The killers appear to have a connection to law enforcement which makes normal methods of securing a witness unsafe.

The man selected to safeguard young Jace is a survivalist teacher, Ethan Serbin, whose clients are military, law enforcement and similar types part of the year, and troubled youth the other part of the year.  What’s refreshing is that Ethan is not a supernaturally skilled fighter or marksman.  He teaches survival skills and has an intimate knowledge of the Montana wilderness.

The two brothers on the heels of the young boy entrusted to Ethan’s protection are cold, calculating, cautious, and almost preternaturally skilled killers.  They exude quiet menace.  When they arrive in Montana, the tension and danger ratchet up.  The boy slips away from Ethan and the group of boys with him in the mountain and it becomes a race to find him.  A fire started by the killers threatens the mountain and adds to the danger.  Jace enlists the help of a fire ranger fighting demons of her own and the race is on in earnest to see who will escape and who will die.

One of the best parts of this book is the strength of the characters.  Ethan’s wife Allison and the fire ranger, Hannah, are the equal of any of the men and are not in need of rescuing.  The brother killers are highly skilled, but not overconfident, making the outcome in doubt all the way to the end.  It seems sometimes like they are unrealistically lucky in putting things together, but Koryta explains this in surprising but credulous ways.

There is a lot of writing skill on display in this story.  Not the most conventional thriller, but highly entertaining.  Recommended read.

I listened to the audio version of this book which was done quite well.  The characters were distinct and easy to differentiate.  Narrator Robert Petkoff does a particularly good job of capturing the menace and eerie cadence of the speech of the brothers, Jack and Patrick.

I was fortunate to receive an advance copy of this audiobook.