Tuesday, 30 August 2011

Best Of | Fantasy Armies

There's hardly a paucity of armies in SFF: in fact, you can hardly miss them. From Daenerys' Unsullied in ASOIAF to the Bonehunters of the Malazan Book of the Falllen, there's plenty to pick from. So, of course, I am duty-bound to pick one or two as a subjective 'best of an awful lot'... And invite all of you to tell me yours. So, here are my two favourites:

Onearm's Host
From: The Malazan Book of the Fallen
  Let's be fair, here: what Malazan fan hasn't wanted an account of more Bridgeburner exploits?

Nevertheless, Memories of Ice takes Onearm's Host into a new arena of awesomeness: an army outlawed by their own Empress and forced against a fanatical crusade - and undead K'Chain Che'Malle. (Some of which have blades for hands. Really.) In all honesty, though, it's the way in which the Host doesn't always succeed that lures us on: Erikson isn't shy about killing off our favourite characters in ways which make us wish for Martin's gentle touch.

There are plenty of rewards for the readers. Devious and frequently just plain nasty, the veteran Bridgeburners might be amusing characters, but they're legendary for a reason. It's in Memories of Ice we get to see why.

(I mean, dropping munitions from gigantic dragonflies - what more can I say?)

The first book in the Malazan Book of the Fallen is Gardens of the Moon - and if you haven't read it already, I seriously advise checking it out. If you have? Read it again.

You can find it on Amazon here: Gardens of the Moon (Malazan Book of the Fallen)

The Night's Watch
From: A Song of Ice and Fire
  Despite the prevalence of armies in A Song of Ice and Fire, picking a favourite is easy: the Night's Watch.

Intended to protect the Seven Kingdoms from incursions across the Wall - a massive construction of ice spanning the neck of the continent - the Watch becomes a sentence for petty criminals. Nevertheless, the threats beyond the Wall are growing in the series, and with this particular army both undermanned and crewed largely by criminals unwanted by the rest of the continent... Well, let's just say we get to see its Lord Commanders perform a tricky balancing act. Do they succeed? Well, I won't spoil you that way.

From the first words of the Night Watch's vow to the ranging beyond the Wall, the Watch is one of Martin's most interesting creations: and I can't wait to see what happens to it next.

And knowing Martin? Who dies next.

If you haven't yet read A Game of Thrones, you can pick it up here: A Game of Thrones: A Song of Ice and Fire: Book One 

So, what are your favourite fantasy armies - be they from LOTR or WOT? Comment below and tell me!

Monday, 29 August 2011

Review | Outpost - Adam Baker

I'm back! So, without further ado - review time.

This isn't my first foray into the post-apocalyptic, but it's admittedly rare: 'after-the-end' stories aren't my usual reading material. (For one, I generally prefer a mix of tones!) At any rate, the blurb of Outpost seemed to promise something different: the account of a journey from an isolated oil rig back to the devastated mainland. And hopefully, I thought, some coverage of what happened next - the rebuilding, or how exactly the survivors dealt with their return.

I didn't get that.

But what I did get was a very competently executed take on some older tropes. More 'survival-horror' with a bit of post-apocalyptic atmosphere! Nevertheless, it's very well done, and genuinely creepy - Baker has a talent for concocting an astonishing (and terrifying!) variety of situations in the book's limited setting. But let's take a step back from all the fun zombies and look instead at the plot:

Our protagonists are the residents of an oil rig: brought down to a skeleton crew in the Arctic. Jane, for the most part our viewpoint character, is the chaplain - preaching to a congregation of exactly zero. However, while waiting for the rig's closure, disaster - you guessed it - strikes. This time? Pandemic, but as we find out, there's more to the apocalypse than disease. Think zombies, but with metal growing through them as the infection spreads. Without supplies, the crew are going to have to move: to return to the infected mainland.

You're probably spotting a few cliches and old tropes already: zombie apocalypse, for one! Nevertheless, the contents might have been done before, but Outpost genuinely does them well. The 'zombies' are terrifying, there's little way to fight back, and the crew themselves are scarcely united. All of which contribute to the atmospheric nature of the novel.

Nevertheless, it does suffer in a few areas: however well executed, some horror tropes have simply become discredited over the years, and even zombie plagues have lost some of their awesomeness. Furthermore, with the promise of a return to devastated civilisation, it's a pity we never get to see it: that, to me, is the real interest of this kind of novel! Sadly, we never get to see an attempt at rebuilding, or even Day of the Triffids-esque outposts, so if you're looking for something that goes beyond the confines of the usual post-apoc/horror genre... Outpost probably isn't for you.

However, if you're good with a competent, atmospherically-done traditional novel - with a few unpredictable twists - then Outpost is definitely worth a go.

Find it on Amazon here: Outpost

Read this book, or have any comments? Comment below and tell me!

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

Review | Daughter of Smoke and Bone - Laini Taylor

It's uncommon for first impressions of books to be so completely wrong!

When I first started Daughter of Smoke and Bone, I thought I was seeing 'potential Mary Sue' signs everywhere on Karou - the equivalent of neon lights. Happily, the contextual presences of tropes such as having unusually colored - in this case, blue - hair, and a repeated use of 'love at first sight' style attraction are actually very well explained, leading into a deeper conflict than I initially thought. Essentially, Daughter of Smoke and Bone is what seems initially like a lightweight urban fantasy, but turns out to be a whole lot more!

Karou is a human brought up by those who weren't - chimaeras. While she attends art school with her friends, her work reveals another life: she runs errands for the residents of a small shop, all she is permitted to see of Elsewhere. Sounds boring? Well, til you hear what the errands are - fetching and bargaining for teeth from grave robbers and illegal poachers across the world, in return for minor wishes. Right from the start, there's an atmosphere of mystery. As you can probably guess, you're wondering pretty early about the teeth...

But the doors to Elsewhere are closing, marked with blackened handprints. And across the world, people are seeing angels. They're not delusional.

Aside from the setting's mysteries, the fluent dialogue also adds a more local tension: we're concerned for the local intrigues of Prague, the social details, not just the supernatural. Karou, for all signs of a 'potential Mary Sue', is not. She's not miraculously competent: she's talented, and we like to read that. More importantly, she's likeable - and doesn't exist in a vacuum. Although the Prague cast is small, it's also a worthy addition.

The non-supernatural setting, Prague, is also a nice touch: urban fantasy tends to confine itself to a few locations, and to set it in such a non-traditional (and very atmospheric!) location is a nice touch I can only laud Laini Taylor for. All in all? Daughter of Smoke and Bone is a deftly character-driven urban fantasy that quickly deepens - with a sequel hook that'll leave you looking for more. It's not as fast-paced as some, but does it deserve its chance? Definitely.