“Words of Radiance, Book Two of the Stormlight Archive” by Brandon Sanderson (Tor, 2014)

Words of Radiance
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It is known as the sophomore slump, where the second book is not as good and simply doesn’t live up to the hype and success of the previous, first book. Generally this applies to a debut author book and its successor, and obviously Words of Radiance is not Brandon Sanderson’s second book (technically it’s his 11th adult novel), it is nevertheless the second book in his Stormlight Archive planned 10-book epic series. This is the series Sanderson has wanted to write since he was a teenager, and since he had well over a decade to work on the first book, it’s now been four years since the release of The Way of Kings, putting a lot of pressure on him in much less time to deliver just as good of a book with the successor.

It seems Brandon didn’t get the memo about the sophomore slump, or if he did, he just laughed at it and threw it away. Words of Radiance is a work of brilliance that is actually better than The Way of Kings in a number of ways.

Firstly, the book is almost a hundred pages longer, putting it at 1088 pages, so what’s not to like about that? The work and dedication the great fantasy publisher, Tor, put into this book is simply stunning. They built on what they did with The Way of Kings, providing a great landscape scene featuring one of the main characters, Shallan, in full resplendent color detail on the inside beginning pages and a full-color captivating map on the ending pages. Throughout the book are wonderful sketches and illustrations linked with the story, as well as ornate chapter headings. And to cap it all off, there is another beautiful wrap-around dust jacket cover by the great Michael Whelan.

And that’s just the physical book. Let’s move on to the story and writing.

The second book of a series, whether it’s a trilogy or a 10-book bonanza, has a lot to prove and impress upon the reader. The first book captivated and hooked them as the reader learned of everything for the first time. The second book has to maintain the reader’s interest with a world and characters they are already familiar with, and kick it up a notch, by introducing new material as well as expanding the complex world. Sanderson does exactly this and more, leaving the reader by the end of the book gasping at its impressive execution, but also comprehending how this can be a 10-book series. It is not that the reader can easily see what is going to happen over the remaining eight books, but through what is introduced and developed in the second book, they can see this furthering and continuing throughout the rest of the series.

Readers of The Way of Kings knew that with the development of the two strong characters in Kaladin and Shallan, they would one day be getting together, and Sanderson skillfully weaves his plot to make this happen. He has also changed the dynamic of the story from the final events of the first book, with Shallan becoming her own leader and a powerful person in her own right, while Kaladin is no longer a slave but a darkeyes of stature, which is unique in itself, along with his special abilities earning him the moniker Kaladin Stormblessed. As Sanderson often does with his magic system after introducing it in the first book, he pushes it to new revelatory levels in Words of Radiance, expanding its complexity and depth, while dumbfounding and impressing the reader with its sheer awesomeness.

As with The Way of Kings, Sanderson uses interludes at poignant, cliffhanger parts of the book, whisking the reader across his invented world to new lands and new characters. Some have been met before in the first book, others are new and fascinating to behold. He reveals a different world, a different people, a different culture, and a completely different way of life in these new characters as compared to those involved in the main story. As well as being entertained and interested, the reader is also wondering how these characters will relate to the main, central characters they have been reading about for hundreds of pages, and if perhaps they may eventually meet. Many fantasy authors employ elaborate maps featuring varied lands and seas and islands, but few ever actually explore their world fully and use its created complexity. It seems in The Stormlight Archive, Sanderson intends to do this, and thoroughly with a planned arsenal of 10 books to do it in.

By the end of Words of Radiance the reader is of course left wanting more, wanting that third book right away, even though it will very likely be another three or four years before it is published. Though if there is one thing Brandon Sanderson has proven to his many readers and fans countless times over, it is that he works hard and long, and delivers a book to the reader’s hands as fast as he possibly can. So one may end up being surprised as to when the third book in The Stormlight Archive will be out. But the ending of the book shouldn’t just leave the reader wanting more, but also leaving them feeling satiated; satisfied with the story they have read that has reached a completion of sorts, which is really what a book of this epic scale should do, since its successor won’t be available for some years to come.

So then, can you read Words of Radiance on its own without reading The Way of Kings?  Technically yes, some of the events of the previous book are referenced and made clear, but everything will make a tremendous amount more sense if you read the first book in the series before starting on this second one. Does the story warrant 1088 pages, or could it stand to have been edited down somewhat? With The Way of Kings, it could’ve stood to have been edited down fifty or so pages, but with Words of Radiance, I have been hooked on every chapter and it hasn’t really slowed down for me at any point.

Ultimately, it is a beautiful book, a work of art in many ways that is a great length and a worthy addition to the epic fantasy lexicon that will look just great on your bookshelf when you’re done. It is so satisfying to know that great books like Words of Radiance are being made and will continue to be made.

Now go get yourself a copy of Words of Radiance and lose yourself in the land of Roshar.

Originally written on March 3, 2014 ©Alex C. Telander.

To purchase a copy of Words of Radiance from Amazon, and help support BookBanter, click HERE.

You might also like . . .

The Way of Kings  Mistborn: The Final Empire
Elantris  The Rithmatist

  • CLICK HERE for an audio interview with Brandon Sanderson from 2008.
  • CLICK HERE for an audio interview with Brandon Sanderson from 2010.

“Codex Born” by Jim C. Hines (DAW, 2013)

Codex Born
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Jim C. Hines brings back his unlikely hero and protagonist, in libriomancer Isaac Vainio, after putting him through the ringer in the first Magic Ex Libris book, Libriomancer. Hines does just what you should with a sequel to a fascinating and absorbing series, opening the world a little more in its magical complexity, providing some new wow moments, and learning more about the interesting characters. The key perhaps to Codex Born is that Hines doesn’t bother with too much setup, throwing the reader in headfirst with breakneck action and kickass magic.

A wendigo has turned up dead and Isaac, libriomancer at large, is brought in to investigate. He brings along his brilliant and beautiful buxom Dryad girlfriend, Lena (pictured inaccurately on the cover), who brings her girlfriend, psychiatrist Nidhi Shah, along to help. It’s a complicated trifecta of a relationship, but together there’s a lot of brain power and magical ability. The trail takes them into a secret, ancient group of libriomancers from far away who hate the supposed creator of libriomancy, Johannes Gutenberg, and have plans to end his domination. Vainio will have to make the choice when he gets to the bottom of everything and truly understand where his allegiances lie.

After reading Libriomancer, readers will be excited to see where Hines takes his characters with Codex Born, what new books and authors he will plunder for cool magical abilities, and where he’s going with his world. This sequel goes where no reader will predict, blowing it all wide open and changing the entire paradigm that had been established about libriomancy in the first book. Exactly what a great sequel should do.

Originally written on December 12, 2013 ©Alex C. Telander.

To purchase a copy of Codex Born from Amazon, and help support BookBanter, click HERE.

You might also like . . .

Libriomancer

“River of Stars” by Guy Gavriel Kay (Roc, 2013)

River of Stars
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In River of Stars, Guy Gavriel Kay returns to the same world as he did with Under Heaven inspired by China’s Tang Dynasty, but jumps 400 years ahead and presents one of his own unique partly historical fiction, partly fantasy novels, this time inspired by the Song Dynasty. River of Stars is another great example of Kay’s lyrical writing and creative talent, making it no surprise he is a bestselling author with many readers worldwide.

Ren Daiyan was just a boy when he was ordered out on a mission to protect a magistrate and when besieged by highwaymen fought and killed them all in cold blood. It changed him, made him advance beyond his years and see the world and his life in a new way. From that moment he was different and never returned home, taking a new path. He finds himself joining a group of outlaws, becoming a Robin Hood type character, feared by those rich nobles who must travel throughout Kitai to serve the emperor.

Lln Shan is a beautiful woman and the daughter of a scholar who has educated her in ways most women never are. She is a talented songwriter and calligrapher who soon earns the interest of the emperor. She finds herself uprooted from her simple life and transported to one of lavish opulence in the city of the emperor, but it is one she is quite inexperienced with and must learn the complex politics and ways that a noble woman should perform.

As factions pit against each other and a war begins to brew in the north, Ren finds himself drawn to the wondrous city of Xinan and then Hanjin as he begins to serve the emperor in the army, doing what must be done to preserve the peace and the empire. He also meets a beautiful and talented woman by the name of Lln Shan.

River of Stars is well named, as it takes the reader on a literary pleasure cruise along a river of words and images, transporting them back in time to this great period of luxury and decadence, but also harshness. Kay does a good job of showing the various classes and levels of society, making this world seem not that different from our own, and certainly a relateable one. He also introduces his quasi-fantasy element; giving scenes and events a supernatural and spiritual feel that go beyond the mundane. Fans of Kay will delight in River of Stars, and for those looking to try the talented writer for the first time, this is a worthy example.

Originally written on September 23, 2013 ©Alex C. Telander.

To purchase a copy of River of Stars from Amazon, and help support BookBanter, click HERE.

You might also like . . .

Under Heaven  Ysabel  Lord of Emperors

“Chimes at Midnight” by Seanan McGuire (DAW, 2013)

Chimes at Midnight
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The seventh volume of the October Daye series, Chimes at Midnight, is your typical Toby Daye book, as things seem fine and semi-normal for the first few pages, and then take a lunge to the bizarre and fast-paced, as things heat up. However, this time the stakes seem higher than ever.

Toby and Tybalt, the King of Cats, are now an item and can’t keep their hands and paws off each other, smooching in dark corners and brightly-lit streets, to the point where it starts to grate on the reader, who wants to just get back to the story and adventure at hand. Dead changelings are showing up on the streets, the victims of an overdose of addictive and dangerous goblin fruit. Toby takes this problem to the Queen of Mists, who she’s pretty sure is behind it all and fueling the whole enterprise. But Toby is soon kicked out on her butt and told she must leave the queendom within three days, banished. And before she knows it, Toby finds herself on the receiving end of an attack of goblin fruit that puts her under its dangerous spell. Then there’s the question of the queen’s valid claim to the throne, which seems to be in doubt.

As usual, Toby has a lot to deal with, under the spell of the muddling goblin fruit, it’s a tough one for her and time is running out. Things kick into the predictable high gear readers have come to expect from the series, as Toby jumps from place to place to place at an outlandish rate, leaving the reader’s head spinning, and things get nice and easily solved each time, with little threat to the protagonist or her friends. The climaxes and conflicts of the book feel somewhat contrived and are too easily resolved, making it seem as if the book was written in a hurry. While the ending, although predictable, is worth it, the journey along the way leaves a lot to be desired for the reader who has come to enjoy this series.

Originally written on July 30, 2013 ©Alex C. Telander.

To purchase a copy of Chimes at Midnight from Amazon, and help support BookBanter, click HERE.

You might also like . . .

Ashes of Honor  Discount Armageddon  Feed

“The Ocean at the End of the Lane” by Neil Gaiman (William Morrow, 2013)

The Ocean at the End of the Lane
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In the first novel from bestseller Neil Gaiman since 2005’s Anansi Boys, he creates a magic tale that straddles between a short story and novella that feels like a wonderful fairytale, possessing the magic and feel of The Graveyard Book with the wonder and beauty of Stardust. The Ocean at the End of the Lane is for adults what The Graveyard Book was for kids and teens; though both can be read and enjoyed by anyone ages 5 to 95. Gaiman wrote this as a gift and semi-biographical explanation to his wife; if this is your first Neil Gaiman book, it’s a great place to start.

The story centers around a seven year-old boy who is an unusual and eccentric and misunderstood by his parents, especially his father, but discovers down the road some neighbors – a girl, her mother and grandmother – who aren’t the sweet ladies they appear, but part of something immortal that has been around for a very long time. Soon he is whisked away on an unforgettable journey to take care of a little problem and ends up bringing something alien back into this world, and then everything starts to go wrong.

The story is sweet and small, but also large and complex; it feels too short to be told fully, but by the end the reader is left feeling satisfied and complete. It is classic Gaiman, mixing his unique blend of fairytale and mythology with real emotions and life choices that stick with the reader long after they have finished the book. The Ocean at the End of the Lane is an innocent-looking little story that soon sucks you in and shows its claws as well as its soft, warm spots; leaving you left full of thought and wonder.

Originally written on July 30, 2013 ©Alex C. Telander.

To purchase a copy of The Ocean at the End of the Lane from Amazon, and help support BookBanter, click HERE.

You might also like . . .

American Gods  Graveyard Book  Stardust

“Cold Days” by Jim Butcher (Roc, 2012)

Cold Days
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Harry Dresden, wizard for hire, is officially no longer a ghost.  Back from the dead, he’s alive and relatively well, recovering from not being in the land of the living, and everything that happened to him when he was killed.  But he’s not your usual wizard anymore, he’s the Winter Knight and under the rule and thumb of Queen Mab, the Queen of Air and Darkness.  And this is also a Jim Butcher book, so in the blink of an eye, Dresden up you-know-what creek with nothing to paddle with.

When Dresden is finally somewhat back to normal, and enjoying his new superpowers as a Winter Knight, he is charged by Queen Mab with his first assassination, to kill an immortal.  Someone who cannot be killed, the perfect seemingly insurmountable job for Dresden.  He returns back to Chicago to meet up with some old friends and try not to get them too involved, because then they’ll be used against him.  He also travels his his personal, powerful island, Demonreach, though he is more summoned.  It is there he learns the true history and reason for this island located at a nexus of ley lines, and also that things are reaching crisis that could result in the end of Chicago and the surrounding area.  And then there are a bunch of people out there who just want Dresden dead, as usual.

Cold Days is a return to the classic Dresden book, after the interesting and introspective Ghost Story.  At times is seems like Butcher may have put a little too much into this book, as it can leave the reader exhausted in parts, with it feeling just too much at time.  But then this is what fans have come to expect from Dresden and his world.  There are also some hints and references to something much bigger brewing, something that will come to fruition in future Dresden books.  Of course, for now, fans will just have to wait.

Originally written on February 11, 2013 ©Alex C. Telander.

To purchase a copy of Cold Days from Amazon, and help support BookBanter, click HERE.

“Midnight Blue-Light Special” by Seanan McGuire (Daw, 2013)

Midnight Blue-Light Special
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Verity Price is back, doing her best to juggle everything going on in her life, whether it’s working her job to get enough money to eat, checking on and protecting the many cryptids of New York City who need help, and trying to make it big-time as a ballroom dancer.  New York Times bestselling author Seanan McGuire first introduced us to the Prices and this unique world in Discount Armageddon, but in Midnight Blue-Light Special she doesn’t waste any time throwing the reader back into catastrophic mayhem.  But then in you’ve read a McGuire novel before, you’d be disappointed if that wasn’t the case.

Verity Price has a big problem.  Other than the fact that her boyfriend, Dominic, is a member of the clandestine, evil group known as the Covenant which is out to rid the world of all cryptids; it’s that the Covenant is coming to New York to check up on Dominic and see what sort of a job he’s doing, and decide if the city is ready to be purged of all cryptid life.  So Verity has to get every cryptid gone or hidden, and hope none of the Covenant check underground for the giant dragon.

With a sequel, readers might have expected another fun adventure, but no, McGuire pushes everything to the limit here with an ultimate showdown that sucks the reader in and doesn’t let go.  Building on the great world she started in Discount Armageddon, readers will be left wanting the next book in the series.

Originally written on February 11, 2013 ©Alex C. Telander.

To purchase a copy of Midnight Blue-Light Special from Amazon, and help support BookBanter, click HERE.

You might also like . . .

Discount Armageddon  Ashes of Honor  Blackout

Bookbanter Column: Get Lost in a Good Fantasy Series Part 8: The Sarantine Mosaic (October 12, 2012)

Bestselling author Guy Gavriel Kay got his start in writing in an unusual way, working more as an editor with Christopher Tolkien on the numerous volumes of Lord of the Rings and Middle Earth material J R. R. Tolkien wrote during his lifetime.

His first published series was the Fionavar Tapestry trilogy, which falls into a lot of the pitfalls of a stereotypical fantasy series with some weak characters.

But with the release of Tigana in 1991, he began a journey through many worlds and stories with many more books, which are all kind of linked. Tigana is a quasi-medieval Italy, but with alternate, with numerous fantasy elements.

A Song for Arbonne is alternate-medieval France. The Lions of Al-Rassan is sort of medieval Spain. And The Last Light of the Sun is from the time of the Vikings, in a story you likely haven’t read about before.

And then there’s The Sarantine Mosaic, a duology written about the time of the great city of Byzantium with its powerful king and queen, and the chariot races, and the magic that existed there.

These two books, Sailing to Sarantium and Lord of Emperors, do an excellent job of showing Kay at his best blending historical fact and fiction with fantasy and easily transport the reader to another world.

In 2010, Guy Gavriel Kay released Under Heaven, a Chinese historical fiction novel with fantasy elements set in the 8th century Tang Dynasty, and plans to release River of Stars in 2013 set approximately 350-400 years after Under Heaven.

Sailing to Sarantium

Sailing to Sarantium, the first in the two-part Sarantine Mosaic, is a picturesque and moving adventure of ancient Byzantium, with Guy Gavriel Kay writing at his best.

This is the story of a talented mosaicist, Crispin, who has lost his wife and children to the plague and is looking for something new in his life.  He is delivered this opportunity, a chance to create something, a project in the distant and renowned city of Sarantium.

As this is the first part of a two-book series, Kay spends a healthy amount of time exploring his main character and exploring the world he has created, which is a lot like that of the ancient world, but also a wonderful fabrication of Kay’s imagination.  Crispin experiences much on his journey to Sarantium: the meeting of an alchemist, a slave girl, and an epiphany where he perhaps comes face to face with an ancient god.  The events serve to change Crispin’s outlook on life, but also to let the reader in on his experiences and ideology.

In Sarantium, he tries to keep to himself and his work, but finds himself drawn into political factions, the emperor’s court, and becomes part of the many who seemingly worship the hippodrome and the great chariot races, whose riders are seen as heroes.  

Sailing to Sarantium is a great example of Kay’s creative writing, his strong and interesting characters, and his imagined but quite believable world.

Lord of Emperors

In the concluding volume of the Sarantine Mosaic, after Sailing to Sarantium, we continue where we left off: talented mosaicist Crispin, now Imperial Mosaicist to Valerius II, is working on a magnificent dome for the Emperor and Empress of Sarantium (a fantasy version of ancient Byzantium and Emperor Justinian and Empress Theodora).

But because this is a large, complicated city, and Crispin is now an important person, he finds himself unavoidably inveigled in plots and conspiracies, as the Emperor plans for a war in Crispin’s homeland.  Then a new character enters the play, Rustem of Kerkakek, a physician from the eastern desert kingdom of Bassania; a reward for saving his emperor’s life.

Now Sarantium has a host of unusual citizens, while Crispin keeps his allies together – a slave girl and mistress, the exiled queen of Antae, Gisel, and this new and enigmatic character, Rustem.

Guy Gavriel Kay continues to build on the momentum and creativity of Sailing to Sarantium, but also introduces new and interesting characters, as well as creating new plotlines that weren’t visible in the first book.

He does what is key to a sequel: building on the story already established, but at the same time taking the reader down new and undiscovered avenues.

Originally published on Forces of Geek.

Bookbanter Column: Get Lost in a Good Fantasy Series Part 7: The Kingkiller Chronicles (September 28, 2012)

The Name of the Wind, the first of the Kingkiller Chronicles by Patrick Rothfuss, showed itself to the world in 2007.

It was a story that seemed to have every trope and cliché that epic fantasy is expected to have from an old innkeeper named Kvothe telling his tales of yore, to a magician learning the ways of his craft at a magician’s school . . .

. . . And yet there were also facets of the book that made it fascinating and quickly a bestseller, from Kvothe’s abilities and talents as a musician, to some of the amazing characters and friends he has gotten to know, to the magic itself, as they consider themselves arcanists and the magic feels more like a form of science.

The Name of the Wind spent a good long time on the bestseller lists, and earned the epithet: “Harry Potter for Adults.”

Rothfuss took his time with the second book in the trilogy, The Wise Man’s Fear, which was released in 2011, almost a thousand pages long.

But by the end of the book, there still seems too much story to tell.

Rothfuss maintains that it will only be a trilogy and is hard at work now on the final book, with the planned title of The Doors of Stone, with no known release date.  Therefore readers looking for a good new series can take their time with the first two books, as the final volume likely won’t see a release date until possibly late 2013, if not 2014.

The Name of the Wind

Kvothe begins his story as a young boy in a family of musicians and soon reveals his incredible talent with the lute and singing, following in the family tradition.  While mastering these talents a member of the University joins the troop and begins teaching Kvothe a material and science based form of magic, as well as the secret of naming, creating a drive in Kvothe to discover the Name of the Wind.

At the same time, his father Arliden is composing a song about the Chandrian, a mythical race of evil beings who may or may not exist.  This is soon proven when the Chandrian find the troop and slaughter them all.  Kvothe is the only one to survive, hiding in the woods.

He spends his next three years eking out a living begging and scratching by on the streets of Tarbean, until his interest in magic and study is reignited once more by a storyteller.  Using his experience in bargaining and negotiating to survive, Kvothe gets himself into University where he leans all he can while trying to make enough money to cover the tuition by playing and singing.  It is while playing he is reunited with an old friend, Denna, who he is very taken with.  During his studies, he also begins research on the Chandrian to avenge the death of his parents.

The book comes to a close as Kvothe investigates a place of death and destruction where a wedding was abruptly brought to an end by the Chandrian, coming face to face with a drug-addicted dragon.

At the heart of The Name of the Wind are a lot of almost clichés one would expect with an epic fantasy novel, but at the same time there are a lot of new, refreshing and completely different ideas and plots.  The magic of this world – unlike that of say Harry Potter – is one of balance, based in science with quantities and a variety of materials; it is a type of magic that at times seems quite realistic and believable.  The world has familiar places but with unique situations and events involving some strong characters and unusual creatures that keep the reader interested.

By the end of the book, the reader has become quite attached to this world and its people, wanting more stories and tales from Kvothe the innkeeper, but alas they must wait until Wise Man’s Fear, due March 2011, hopefully without delay.

The Wise Man’s Fear

Readers are returned first to Kote at the Waystone Inn with his friend and apprentice, Bast.

A new day begins, after the stories and surprising events of the one before.  Chronicler sits ready to record the story, while Kote has already been up many hours, preparing fresh cider and newly baked bread.  And so Kote continues the story of his life, the story of Kvothe the arcanist.  The sixteen year-old continues his studies at the University, struggling to get by.  He has spent his recently acquired monies on a new lute and now has little to show for it, but the instrument is an investment.  Now raised to the next level of arcanist, Re’lar, his tuition is considerably higher, and his must borrow money to pay for it.

Fortunately, he has his incredible talent as a musician and singer, and is able to make some money this way through a clever scheme at the inns.

Then there is the Fishery, where all manner of arcana are made.  Kvothe has spent previous terms learning and inventing simple items such as sympathy lamps that bring in a decent amount of money, but this term he is challenged to create something truly unique; it will take him many months, but the result will fetch a high price.  Kvothe is also finally granted access to the priceless Archives once more, and after learning how to travel its complex, labyrinthine halls, corridors and stacks; begins his incessant research on the unknown Chandrian, for they are the ones who murdered his family and friends.  Meanwhile, Kvothe’s relationship with Deanna continues to go nowhere fast, as he does all he can to make her happy and feel special . . . everything that is except confess his love for her.  He even breaks into the rooms of his mortal enemy to steal back Deanna’s ring and proceeds to get himself into a whole mess of trouble.

At the end of the term, Kvothe seems to have everything in order, but has a couple of options: he can continue with his studies the following the semester, and risk having the gossip of his involvement jeopardize his studies; or he can leave town and try something different for a while.  Fortunately at that moment, there is a rich noble from Vintas looking to woo a certain lady and needs one skilled with words.  So begins the second half of the book, as Kvothe is soon on his way and finds himself involved in the noble courts, as a different world is revealed to the reader of manners and ways and courtly intrigue.  Kvothe is also employed into a gang to stop a band of bandits terrorizing the tax collectors.  In this gang he befriends a unique man and seeks to learn his ways and culture.  The question is whether he can understand and learn this man’s language, as well as stop these bandits once and for all.  Meanwhile, in the back of his mind, Kvothe wonders and hopes if the rich noble who has employed him may wish to take him on permanently as his patron.

In this thrilling and worthy sequel, Rothfuss does an excellent job of balancing the familiar of The Name of the Wind with plenty of new and fascinating material, furthering the complexity and interest of the world, its people, and its varied cultures and ways.  While the heavy tome could’ve stood to lose a few pages in editing, readers will no doubt be delighted with its length and depth.  To many – as with this reviewer – this book will exceed their expectations and prove to be an even better episode in the Kingkiller Chronicles than the previous one.

Patrick Rothfuss has proven in Wise Man’s Fear that he can deliver the goods, and while he may need to take his time to get the writing done, the result is an epic giant in the world of fantasy that will be remembered for a long time.

Originally published on Forces of Geek.

Bookbanter Column: Get Lost in a Good Fantasy Series Part 6: A Song of Ice and Fire (September 21, 2012)

Little did George R. R. Martin originally know that when he started writing A Game of Thrones, the first book in the Song of Ice and Fire series, changing from an idea in his head to something real on paper, that it would become such a bestseller and so popular with readers around the world.

Now with the success of the HBO series, even more people are turning to reading the books for the first time.

But it can be pretty intimidating facing that premiere heavy hardcover tome or that weighty fat paperback for the first time as you begin the series, so here’s a rough breakdown of what happens in the books.

While Martin had originally intended for the series to be trilogy and soon realized it was going to be much longer, the planned length is now seven books, with five books now released and two more to go.

One hopes Martin can reach the end of the series before the HBO TV show catches up with him.

 A Game of Thrones: Journey to Westeros for the first time, with A Game of Thrones, but beware for winter is coming.

In the first of George R. R. Martin’s landmark, epic fantasy series, A Song of Ice and Fire, readers will be introduced to a complex world of many lands and many families, with many characters, but have no fear for Martin tells the story from unique viewpoints of different members of different families, forcing the reader to fit the different pieces of the story together, creating the overall puzzle of plot.  Readers will be reminded of everything they love about great fantasy stories, whether they be simple or epic; as well as discovering why George R. R. Martin has earned the title of the “American Tolkien.”

In the world of Westeros, there are Seven Kingdoms, long ago independent, now united under the Iron Throne, but those named king never seem to last long in this world of corrupt, power-hungry families.  There are two main families which readers are first introduced to: the Starks and the Lanisters, emulating the Wars of the Roses with the Yorks and Lancasters.  With the Starks there is proud and strong Ned, who is to be the King’s Hand to Robert Baratheon, and his determined and caring wife, Catelyn.  The sons are Rob, the eldest, Jon Snow, a bastard, Bran who suffers a debilitating accident, and Rickon who is too young to really understand what is going on.  The daughters are Sansa, who is a young, fair maiden always looking for her knight in shining armor to whisk her off her feet; and Arya, who is boyish and wants to learn how to fight with a sword, ride a horse into battle, and defend herself.  The Lannisters are a different type of family, constantly looking for gain whether it is with land, riches, or power.  At the head of the household is the aging Lord Tywin, with his children: the beautiful, blond and blue-eyed Jaime and his twin Cersei – who share much more than a sibling affection – and little Tyrion, a dwarf who has had to fight for everything in his entire life.  Cersei is wife to the king, Robert Baratheon, and together they have young Joffrey, heir to the throne, along with Tommen and Myrcella.

While tension builds between the families at King’s landing, far to the north lies the Wall – 700 feet tall and 300 miles long, protecting the Seven Kingdoms from the evils of the far north.  There lies myth and legends of demons and ghouls, as well as a landless king.  It is here John Snow is sent.  To the east in the Free Cities is Viserys and Daenerys Targaryen, the last surviving children of King Aerys II, looking to one day take back the throne that is rightfully theirs.

A Game of Thrones is fantasy at its very best, with lots of complex, interesting characters; moving storylines filled with tension and adventure; a detailed and varied world that is well explored; and an underlying question of who is truly good and who is truly evil in this harsh world.

A Clash of Kings: To the north beyond the wall the wildlings are amassing behind a man known as Mance Rayder, the so-called King-beyond-the-wall, as they prepare to attack the wall and infiltrate Westeros.  All that stands in their way is the weak army of the Night’s Watch, as this small number of the men in black with Jon Snow head out to put a stop to them.  In this saga, Snow will learn of this Mance Rayder, as well as one of the wildlings whom he becomes close to.

Far to the east across the waters, Daenerys Targaryen continues to rebuild her own army in a bid to take back the kingdom of Westeros and her royal lineage.  She travels with her consort to the renowned trading city of Qarth where she will face the ultimate test with powerful warlocks and the House of the Undying.  Meanwhile her three dragons continue to grow and become stronger and more deadly.

And in the heart of Westeros the war rages on.  Young Joffrey is arrogant, cruel, and impetuous, feeling he is in his birthright to be king of all the lands, while rumors run amuck of an incestuous relationship spawning this possibly illegitimate ruler.  Joffrey rules from King’s Landing with the might and support of the house of Lannister.  To the west is Robb Stark, the King of the North, looking to unite his lands and protect his people.  So far he has never lost a battle, but gains little ground in the ongoing war.  On the island of Dragonstone sits Stannis, the eldest brother of the surviving Baratheon family, feeling he is the rightful heir, while advised by the red priestess of R’hllor, Melisandre.  His biggest contender is his younger brother who currently holds Storm’s End and the larger army.  And finally, to the far west on the Iron Islands, a new contender decides to take the stage and declare himself king, one Balon Greyjoy.

But it is not these squabbling kings that keep readers hooked, but Martin’s work in diverse viewpoints from unique, unforgettable characters that you either learn to love or hate or perhaps both.  Over hundreds of pages, readers begin to hate those they loved, while loving those they detested, as Martin swings his unstoppable scythe pendulum, not knowing who will come beneath the blade next.  A Clash of Kings culminates with a mighty battle at King’s Landing that will leave many dead and a world in shambles, as the survivors look once again for personal gain, while readers will be left hungry for more.

A Storm of Swords: To the north Jon Snow has infiltrated the wildings, looking to get close to Mance Rayder, the king-beyond-the-wall, and find out when they plan to attack the Night’s Watch, but he will find his loyalties challenged as he must fight and decide where his allegiances lie.  Then there is the storyline of Bran, one of the Stark children, who is traveling to the north to find his brother.  Theon Greyjoy now controls Winterfell through lies, deception and competing against his more popular sister for the love and support of his father, King Balon Greyjoy.  Meanwhile, Arya Stark continues to get pulled back and forth from bad character to worse character, but because of her smarts and cunning she is able to scrape through alive.  Jaime Lannister is let go to travel back to King’s Landing under the protection of Brienne of Tarth with the hope that the Lannisters will free Sansa Stark.

As for the war, things are not going well, but then that really depends on whose side you’re on.  Robb Stark continues to win battles but make little headway in the war, but after falling for a girl who looks after him when he is wounded and marries her, he must meet with the Freys to soothe their relations.  His uncle, Edmure Tully, will wed one of the Frey daughters and all will be well, it is hoped.  Robb’s mother, Catelyn, doesn’t trust Lord Walder Frey, as she travels with her son, grieving over the loss of her father.  But the Tully’s have something fiendish in store for them.  Meanwhile in King’s Landing Joffrey rules in his cruel, childish way, while his uncle Tyrion, the dwarf, continues to fight with his sister, Joffrey’s mother, Cersei; then their father, Lord Tywin, arrives to upset the balance and organize things in his own way.

Far to the east, Daenerys Targaryen returns to Pentos by sea in search of an army.  She finds one in the Unsullied, a slave army, but she must give over one of her dragons for the thousands of slaves.  Daenerys has a plan and soon has her army which she immediately frees from slavery, making them unstoppable soldiers who will never defy an order.  As she travels across the land, looking to grow her army and power and create peace among these peoples, she discovers two of her closes retinue are traitors and must decide what she will do with them.

A Storm of Swords is Martin at his best, as the events and actions that have been building in the previous books are brought to a harsh fruition, and the author continues to reveal what makes his series so unique.  Some character storylines go on for too long and could use some heavy editing to shorten them down, or perhaps have been cut entirely as little seems to happen, while others are simply riveting, even when involving two character viewpoints covering the same event.  At the end, just as with the first two books, readers will be left impatiently wanting more.

A Feast for Crows: Readers of the first three A Song of Ice and Fire books – A Game of Thrones, A Clash of Kings, and A Storm of Swords – will notice a trend with them: the page count is steadily increasing with each book.  It seems like there must be a breaking point when it simply won’t be possible to bind that many pages into one book . . . well, that’s exactly what happened with the fourth book of A Song of Ice and Fire.  George R. R. Martin was given an ultimatum from his publisher that the book needed to be divided into multiple volumes.  The resulting A Feast for Crows only features a limited number of the main characters readers have become familiar with in the earlier books, as well as a number of newer ones as further lands and parts of Westeros are explored and revealed for the first time.

The War of the Five Kings is coming to a close, as many of the rulers readers have come to know are now dead, or fled for their lives.  King Tommen now rules at King’s Landing, though under the guise of his mother, Cersei Lannister, who has finally gotten her lifelong wish to rule the realm.  She fills her cabinet with loyal elders who soon fail in their duty and she becomes ferociously angry, suspecting and suspicious of everyone, driving herself to incessant drinking.  Then there is Margaery Tyrell, who is married to her son, the king, who she believes is looking to take over the realm as queen and do goodness knows what.

Meanwhile, Jaime has had enough of his sister and leaves to make what reparations he can to the kingdom, to regain control over the Riverlands in the name of Lannister and the realm.  Brienne is in search of Sansa, to free her from whatever perils she is in, fulfilling an oath she promised.  In the Eyrie, Sansa remains seemingly trapped by Littlefinger who conducts himself in a very strange way with her.  In the Iron Islands, the king Balon Greyjoy is dead by a freak accident, and now begins the long and laborious process of choosing a successor, as Balon’s children come home to claim the throne, including his tough and determined daughter, Asha.  Far to the south, in the lands of Dorne, unrest is stirring as new contenders look to play a part in taking the throne, through Myrcella Baratheon who is told she has every right to the throne as her brother Tommen does.  Finally to the east is Arya who is learning and training in the ways of the people of Braavos, while Samwell Tarly travels on his own journey to Oldtown to become the new Maester for the Night’s Watch, and travels to Braavos along the way, meeting with Arya.

A Dance with Dragons: In the North, around the Wall, King Stannis Baratheon seems to spend a lot of time trying to decide what to do with no real power or army to use, while listening to Lady Melisandre, who continues to spout enigmatic prophecies that make little sense; yet readers do get to enjoy a chapter from her viewpoint for the first time.  Meanwhile, Jon Snow is elected as the 998th Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch, as he must deal with not just enemies beyond the Wall, but also amongst the very men he leads and is in charge of.  He works with the wildlings, bringing them south of the wall to bolster his forces in preparation for a possible attack from the Others; it seems to be an interesting act of diplomacy, but goes on for far too many pages, with little action or continuing story taking place.

Much of the rest of the book takes place to the far east.  Martin has provided a couple of new maps, but nothing so clearly defined and comprehendible as the great continent of Westeros.  Tyrion flees to Pentos, drowning himself in wine.  He is forced to join with a group traveling to Meereen, along with the apparently not so dead prince Aegon Targaryen.  Tyrion – as he always does – manages to get involved in a whole variety of adventures, including the meeting of another dwarf, and a female no less!

Daenerys is the character that seems most put through the ringer in this book; much like Cercei was in A Feast for Crows.  She is no longer the tough, proud, defiant woman that everyone feared, and not just because she has three growing dragons.  Having conquered Meereen, she should be the unstoppable, unquestionable queen that she is, and yet insurrection is afoot and Daenerys cannot seem to decide what to do; perhaps it is because she has become obsessed and besotted with one of her soldiers and seems to be able to think of little else when he is nearby, and yet he is of lower class and cannot possibly be her husband.  The black dragon, Drogon, meanwhile is running rampant through the countryside as growing “teenage” dragons do, and Daenerys has no idea how to control him.

Finally there is Quentyn Martell, Prince of Dorne, whose story comes from nowhere as we follow his trek across the lands to Meereen, where he hopes to woo Daenerys by enslaving one of her dragons.  It does not end well for him.  Interspersed throughout the lengthy book are other POV chapters from the likes of Bran Stark, Davos Seaworth, Reek (who is in fact the very not dead Theon Greyjoy), Arya Stark, Victarion Greyjoy, as well as some surprise cameos from Jaime and Cercei Lannister.

Originally published on Forces of Geek.