Tag Archives: Fantasy Fiction

Petrichor by Melanie Rees

A friend of mine once told me that the very best stories being told nowadays are from the Young Adult (YA) genre. I remember one such book specifically: Code Name Verity, a young adult historical fiction novel by Elizabeth Wein. It’s an amazing book, one for every adult, no matter their age. Please read it. And while I have you, please read this novella, too. Petrichor is written by Australian author Melanie Rees. At around 160 pages long, you’ll finish it in a coupe of sittings; but it will stay with you much longer. This deceptively simple novella has power, emotion, adventure, and a third-person point of view narrator that could be anyone on this planet.

We’ve all experienced loss, but perhaps not in same way Clayton and his family have. The setting is a rural town of Paddle Creek Station in Australia. It’s almost dystopian in that a drought that has seemingly gone on forever has threatened the livelihood of the families living there. Clayton’s father is a farmer struggling to make ends meet because of the lack of rain. Not only that, but not so long ago, his son and Clayton’s older brother Davo died in tragic but mysterious circumstances. Clayton’s mother and father refuse to talk about Davo, and his father point blank forbids Clayton to go anywhere near the house where Davo lived.

Petrichor, which is a word that means the pleasant smell that frequently accompanies the first rain after a long period of dry, warm weather, is a remarkable novella, in that it very quickly goes from a period of mourning and buried memories to the world of the fantastical. Clayton is visited by Waringa, a spirit that takes the form of a dead fox. Waringa tells Clayton that only he has the power to defeat the Red King and bring the rains back to Paddle Creek. Aided only by his brother’s dog Rusty, Clayton sets off on an adventure that is both excited and deeply profound. He must free the rain spirits while doing battle with the evil that has taken over the countyside. Waringa isn’t always there to help him, so oftentimes Clayton and Rusty are on their own.

Behind all this, though, is an exploration of grief and the struggle to understand how and why Davo died. The answer to these questions are both disturbing and understandable, and it may trigger a few readers. But I urge you to read through to the end. Clayton’s father initially appears unfeeling and indifferent toward his surviving son. His mother tries to provide balance between the two men in the house, but she herself harbours deep grief, too. In the meantime, unknown to his parents, Clayton is putting himself in mortal danger.

Petrichor packs an absolute wallop of emotion in its short length. And it’s not short on set-pieces either. It’s an exciting and though-provoking novella that will resonate with anyone who reads it. Like I said at the beginning of this review, the very best stories are told in the YA genre. Petrichor by Melanie Rees is another example of this. It’s gorgeously written, vivid in its imagery, and human at its heart.

Ark Of The Apocalypse by Tobin Marks

I think the best thing about being part of Blackstone Book Tours is the knowledge that among the books I’ve signed up to read and review, there will be among them a book so devilishly clever and unique that all I can do is read on and giggle with amazement at the author’s audacity. Tobin MarksArk of the Apocalypse is one such book.

The first thing I looked at was the book cover. The image portrays a blond haired young woman with a baby dragon on her shoulder. Immediately this brings to mind Daenerys Targaryen from the book and TV series Game of Thrones. Another cash-in, you might think. But Ark of the Apocalypse is its own beast, and it’s story is both contemporary and fantastical. Yes, there is such a woman in the story, as well as a dragon (which comes much later in the narrative), but from the very first chapter, there is a lot of foreshadowing, shocking moments, and so many twists and turns that in my mind, Marks has kind of outdone George RR Martin in high-stakes character-driven storytelling–and this book, the first in a series called The Magellan II Chronicles, will see its conclusion long before Martin gets around to concluding his.

Ark of the Apocalypse is a genre-bending mixture of science fact, science fiction, and a healthy dollop of paranormal fantasy. If that’s your bag, then you’re going to enjoy the hell out of this book. If you like to read books that make you utter “What the flaming hell?” after every chapter, before diving into the next one, then yes, this book is for you.

I’ve avoided so far trying to summarise the plot. The blurb available on all platforms goes some way to explaining what AotA is all about; but it doesn’t do it full justice. But like all good sagas, this book revolves around a family from Russia called Yanbeyev. This dynasty evolves through decades of genetic engineering and psychic manipulation to become the veritable saviours of humanity, while at the same time ensuring that even as the Earth dies, the Yanbeyev lineage with survive to lead humanity on not one but two planets (at least). What the blurb doesn’t tell you is that along the way, there is political assassinations, multiple US presidents, and a Russian premiere that sees them all off via help from the Yanbeyev matriarchs (though he’s completely unaware he’s being manipulated). Climate change has ravaged our planet. Governments ignore the scientists until its too late, and the only way to save humanity is to build a generation ship that will take 10,000 humans to a planet that will be called Aqueous. What the planners don’t know is that there is an indigenous species of reptile-like creatures and an advanced alien race already well settled there. But the Yanbeyevs are aware of these races and have factored them into their millenia-long plan for human domination. They are happy to let the world go to war and burn, if only for their ancestors to survive and grow into an interplanetary power.

Like I said, there’s a lot going on in AofA, but it’s a supremely fun and thought-provoking read. I loved it and I wait in glorious anticipation for what Tobin Marks will conjure up in the next instalment. This is space opera and high fantasy at its very finest. I haven’t enjoyed a book so much this year as this one.

Author Tobin Marks

Red Harvest Moon (The Wandering Knife Book 1) by Miles Hurt

Assault on Precinct 13 (1976) is one of my very favourite John Carpenter movies. I’d probably rank it slightly higher than Halloween (don’t @ me), mainly because I’m an action film fan. Made on a low budget, AoP13 packed a lot of thrills and set-pieces in its lean running time. It was set in a confined space and over a few hours. I loved the format and tightness of the screenplay (a feature of much of Carpenter’s early work), that still gave time for some decent character scenes.

All of which brings me to the book I’m reviewing here. Red Harvest Moon is the opening volume of a debut epic fantasy series, The Wandering Knife, by author Miles Hurt. Heavily influenced by Japanese folklore, Hurt’s main character is Ren. He was once a Loyal Knife, swearing allegience to king and country, until a rash decision almost cost him his life, but which instead resulted in his exile. He became The Wandering Knife, travelling the length and breadth of the land, with his companion and friend Crimp, robbing people and villages to keep his head above water. He’s not about making friends; he’s more about staying alive.

The book begins with the pair of brigands coming up on two more men who they see as easy prey. It turns out that the men have barely survived an attack by a race of human-like creatures called ghuls. These monsters hail from far-off Urizan and are sworn enemies of the people of Soren. They have been quiet for a long time, but are now deep into Ren’s territory and are terrorising innocent villages. They are led by Krond, whose blood is a mix of human and ghul, and is practically unstoppable. Ren and Crimp eventually aid the two men in fighting off Krond and his ghuls, but one of the men is killed. The survivor, Drunn, pleads with Ren and Crimp to help him warn the villagers of Puttle that death is on its way. Krond is left maimed after Ren’s innate ability with the sword takes an eye–he swears revenge on our Wandering Knife.

All this happens in the first couple of chapters, and makes the remaining narrative compelling action-packed. Any fan of epic fantasy will be familiar with how the first book of any series will take its time to introduce characters, settings, and conflicts. Often there are chapters where nothing much happens at all; just a lot of travelling and talking, mainly. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with this: my favourite fantasy series of all time, Stephen Donaldson’s The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, devotes whole sections of its ten volumes to characters walking and telling each other stories. But it’s a breath of fresh air that Miles Hurt doesn’t go down this route just yet. His judicious use of brief flashbacks and character dynamics more than set the scene in Red Harvest Moon.

Miles Hurt

Basically what we have here is a siege novel, which is what reminded me of Carpenter’s movie. The action takes plain primarily in Puttle and its surroundings, with Ren, Crimp, and Drunn trying to convince the villagers and its reeve that their lives are in danger if they don’t up sticks and desert their homes. Not everyone wants to leave: it’s Harvest time and the village are preparing a feast, and some don’t trust Ren and Crimp (Drunn has history with the village, so his support is also untrustworthy). The men have a job on their hands to keep themselves and the villagers alive. Ren and Crimp also debate whether or not they should cut and run. For a fantasy novel, the stakes are lowkey, concentrated as they are on the village and the people that live there. Over the course of this book, Miles Hurt introduces us to characters that, should they survive their encounter with evil, open up the land of Soren and beyond for future novels in the series.

The nomadic hero and his companions are features of Japanese folklore, bringing to mind the legends of the samurai. Here we have not seven, but three “samurai”. I look forward to seeing this team expand as the series goes on. Some will live; others won’t. It’s the nature of the Great Circle, as Ren learns from his father: “Though you are a Wandering Knife, you still walk within the Great Circle. Find purpose in that.” Purpose, indeed.

Bottom line: this is a great start to what I think will be a series to look out for, and Miles Hurt is definitely an author to follow.

Passion Play by Claire O’Dell

Therez Zhalina has lived a very sheltered life in Melnek. She is the daughter of a ambitious merchant who, unfortunately for the 15-year-old girl, has big plans for the family and business, whether Thereze likes it or not. And she doesn’t. Following a formal dinner, where Therez is introduced to Melnek society, the young girl is devastated to find out that her father has arranged her to be married to a cool and cruel man, Theodr Galt. Therez has dreams of her own. She wishes to travel to Duenne and attend university there. Basically, she wants to see the world. Her father’s plans would set her on a path on which she would have no control over her life. So she decides to leave without saying a word.

Taking what money she’s saved, she ends up gaining carriage out of Melnek with a caravan owner and his cohort of unsavoury fellow travellers. This is where things take a dark turn in Thereze’s young life. Most of her possessions have been stolen from her, and in order to stay on her journey she is forced to trade with the only thing she has left: her body. In a series of gruelling scenes, for the reader as well as Therez, the girl makes a choice to give up her body and innocence to her rapists — for that is what they are, regardless of the choice Therez makes. She is but a child, but now she’s little more than a sex slave. I found these sections of the story very hard to read.

When Therez eventually makes her escape, she ends up at a pleasure house run by Lord Raul Kosenmark, a duke who was once an advisor for the king. He, too, ran away from his responsibilities. Therez changes her name to Ilse, and is referred to this new name for the rest of the book. Raul offers her a position in his household once she’s physically well, and Ilse begins to form new friendships in the kitchen. Raul sees potential in her and so takes her on as his secretary. It is from this position that Ilse learns of what is going on in the world around her. There is more than politics at play here. There is magic everywhere, with some people being more gifted than others. There are plots, and there’s a war brewing. In the midst of all this, there is a sacred jewel that has gone missing, one that holds the key to power.

A number of things intrigue me about Passion Play. Author Claire O’Dell, whose work I’ve reviewed here before, has created a world that is not unlike Eastern Europe, with names and a magical language that almost Germanic. If I could posit a theory, the politics at play here are similar to what led to the outbreak of WWI. I could be wrong, but that’s how I read it. The countries that surround Ilse and Raul each have their own border controls and internal politics. Throw a sinister magician into the mix, and you have the spark for major bloodshed. The other volumes in the series will no doubt explore these complexities in greater detail. In Passion Play we’re given what information we need to know at this juncture. The system of magic has at its core, I do believe, a knowledge that one has lived a previous life. Reincarnation rears its head once more. I find this very fascinating.

Claire O’Dell

I was impressed by the level of detail O’Dell put into her world-building. I’m a sucker for detail, and the author does not disappoint. Her supporting characters have good background stories and I have no doubt that characters we see in passing will pop up again in later books. I enjoyed this book, and while some readers will understandably balk at the level of sexual violence at the start, there is a pay-off towards the end. When Passion Play ends, neither Ilse nor Raul are the same people when we first meet them. They’ve both endured tragedy and loss of familial connection. Where this takes them, we will have to find out for ourselves in the next book, Queen’s Hunt.

Tempest of Bravoure: Kingdom Ascent by Valena D’Angelis

Meriel Ahn Arkamai is dokkalfur, a dark elf, on the run from her past, and heading into a future she’s very unsure of. Going by the her preferred name Ahna, she has kept her true identity and magical abilities safely hidden away for fifty years. The world she lives on is called Terra, but she’s a Dwellunder by birth, feared and respected in equal measure.

The war which led to the Prince of Mal, Xandor Kun, becoming the Dark Lord Sharr, took everything from Ahna: her home, her family, her reason to be. So she left it all behind, with only her friend, the woman who calls her ‘sister’, Kairen, keeping her from straying into total despair. Ahna has, for years on end, spurned Kairen’s call to join the Resistance, but another encounter leads her back into the fold. Ahna isn’t accepted by all, though. Her race leaves others suspicious of her intentions, as Lord Sharr is a dark elf himself, but she gets by because Kairen and her husband David trust her. Ahna doesn’t have the luxury of time to settle in with her new kinfolk, because the Resistance is plotting a new attack, focussed on Bravoure City, the fabled City of Gold.

Valena D’Angelis is a new author, and she debuts with Tempest of Bravoure: Kingdom Ascent, an intriguing addition to the genre of epic fantasy fiction. I finished it over the course of four days, frantically swiping my Kindle to find out where her story was heading. Sure, it has most of the tropes of the genre front and centre: there’s a prophecy; there’s the heroine’s journey; there’s a dark lord to be vanquished; there are diverse races living on or beneath an Earth-like environment; and there are monsters — dragons to be precise. So far, there’s enough here for fans of JRR Tolkien, Terry Brooks, and Robert Jordan.

Valena pulls no punches when it comes to her action scenes; they’re bombastic in scale, and as violent as anything you’d read in modern fantasy. She inhabits her world well with a decent number of likeable characters, important to both plot and main character, that when a couple of them inevitably meet their end, you mourn them. It’s easy to root for Ahna, and while the villain of the piece can be a little boo-hiss from time to time, he has a reason to be who he is and do what he does.

A major subplot I found compelling was the relationship between Ahna and Cedric Rover, a shrike captain, who’s initial loathing of both himself and the dark elf evolves over the course of the book, in a couple of very surprising ways. In this book, secrets are everywhere, but family, in the end, is everything.

One thing I’d like to say, though, is the world of Terra is vast and well-populated. It appears to have a history that goes back eons, with events important to the overall story mentioned briefly and then we move on. I would have enjoyed this book more if it was longer. I know a lot of readers don’t enjoy massive tomes, but in the fantasy genre especially, world-building is a vital part of what makes fans like me really get into a story. Here, there’s a lot of telling without showing, and a part of me was disappointed that there was no deep dive into Terran history, politics, and magic systems. However, I hope in the forthcoming books, we’ll get more exploration.

I give Valena D’Angelis all the kudos in the world for putting her book out there. I know in my heart that she will get better with each novel she publishes. She has made a great start here, and I look forward to reading the second book in this series, Castaway, some time in the near future.

The Broken Earth Trilogy by N.K. Jemisin

Space 1999, a great (and sometimes not-so-great) British TV show from the 1970’s, created an extraordinary concept in which, due to a nuclear explosion on the Moon’s surface, our lunar neighbour was wrenched out of orbit and flung into the outer regions of our solar system and beyond. This was devastating for the Commander Koenig and the crew of Moonbase Alpha. Over the course of two seasons (the first being the most superior), the Moon encounters black holes and space warps (the science is cagey, but let’s run with it), and all manners of aliens and danger. It was fun while it lasted. The full pilot is available on YouTube and is definitely worth watching. But little is made of the effect of the Moon’s disappearance from Earth’s orbit, and the likely geological impact it would have had on our planet. The Broken Earth trilogy, written by N.K. Jemisin, imagines, to much acclaim, the cataclysmic events that would befall our planet where something to happen to the Moon.

N.K. Jemisin (Image: The Verge)

I’m jumping the gun somewhat here. We don’t learn about the Moon until much later in the trilogy, which consists of The Fifth Season, The Obelisk Gate, and The Stolen Sky. On what may or may not be our Earth in the very far future, there is the Stillness: a supercontinent that endures eons long events known as Seasons. These can be volcanic eruptions, massive earthquakes, the kind of natural disasters that have caused extended periods of drought and famine. It’s climate change taken to its extreme, and very much a warning to us in the here and now. Citizens of the Stillness hide out in Comms, only to rebuilt that which was destroyed. Orogenes protect the Stillness: these are humans who possess an uncanny ability to control the ground beneath them, and as we learn later the sky above. Orogenes can literally move mountains, but they are feared and hated despite what they do to help save humanity. They are trained at the Fulcrum, a school that both educates and brutalises orogenes-in-waiting. Not all survive the process, as their teachers, Guardians, run a harsh regime.

(Image: arstechnica.com)

The Fifth Season opens with a woman named Essun who discovers that her husband has murdered their baby son and has now disappeared with their daughter. Using different points of view (third person, first person, and even second person), N.K. beautifully creates a web of narrative intricacy. We read about Damaya, an orogene-in-training, arriving at the Fulcrum; and Syenite who, along with her more experienced handler, Alabaster, is embarking on her first mission. As we find ourselves drawn into these separate narratives, N.K. drops a little twist: they are all the same woman at different points in her life. We work out where each story takes place, and we also have a front row seat to the abuse and oppression orogenes endure. It’s not supposed to be comfortable.

The Obelisk Gate looks upwards. All around the world, hanging in the skies of the Stillness, are huge crystals called Obelisks. Following from the climactic events of the first book, when Syenite draws from power from one such obelisk in order to protect herself and her child, the story shares perspective with Nassun, Essun’s daughter, who believes that she and her people have suffered enough injustice and enslavement and humanity is to blame. It and the Stillness deserve to be torn apart for good. She intends to use her considerable power to bring about the end of all things. Her mother means to find and stop her. Both sides of this apocalytic battle are aided and abetted by the Stone Eaters, beings that can travel through rock itself, and can trace their origin far back to a more advanced society: one that in pursuit of power created the obelisks and knocked the Moon from its orbit.

The Stone Sky brings the trilogy to a close, but in a startling and literally earth-shattering way. The past, present, and future collide when we learn of how and why the obelisks were created, and how the race of slaves created to power the crystals both saved and damned the Earth. In its defence, Mother Earth herself had enough of what humanity was doing to her. We had made Gaia our slave and She rebelled against us. It was what we deserved. Nassun and Essen are on a collision course and the Earth is on the side of the younger woman, who wants to bring the Moon back and crash it onto the surface of the planet. The stakes couldn’t be any higher.

(image: theverge.com)

The Broken Earth Trilogy is science fiction and fantasy seated at the top end of both tables. N.K. creates characters and landscapes that are recognisable and fantastical. Rooted in all three books is the notion of power and what we will do to attain and keep it. In order to have our way, we find it necessary to subjugate and dominate individuals and races. But when the planet we live on decides that it’s time for change and wholesale annihilation, we live on borrowed time. It takes bravery and sacrifice to prevail against such insurmountable odds. N.K. Jemisin is the first Black author to win the Hugo Award for Best Novel with The Fifth Season. She then proceeded to follow up that win with a further two awards in the category with the remaining novels in the trilogy. That in itself should tell you something. If you haven’t read them yet, there is really no excuse not to. The best fiction tells us something about ourselves as a person and as a human being. N.K.’s trilogy not only tells us what would happen if we cared any less about how we live, but gives us a way to heal the world around us. We don’t need superpowers; we just need to care. And act now.

N.K. Jemisin has embarked on a new trilogy, The Great Cities, beginning with the publication this year of The City We Became. Instead of Earth being alive, its cities that are sentient. I look forward to reading this. Also I would advise people to check out her short story collection, How Long ’til Black Future Month. It’s superb.