Tag Archives: Juliet E. McKenna

Review of Darkening Skies – Book 2 of The Hadrumal Crisis by Juliet E. McKenna

Standard

So we were on our way to Fantasycon 2014 and as we were arriving a day early, which book would I take with me to tuck into, before all those new offerings tempted us once more to wallow in our book addiction? It was a no-brainer – a collapsing TBR pile uncovered this offering I’d intended to read during the Christmas break…

In Halferan, Captain Corrain is hailed as a hero, but he knows all praise would turn to anger if the Calalhrians knew the truth. The darkeningskieswizard who supposedly saved them has merely claimed the corsair island for his own, and no one knows what his next move will be. Corrain has good reason to fear the worst, as he confides in Lady Zurenne. He knows he can trust her, now that still more perilous secrets bind them together. But what will the Archmage do now, once he discovers Corrain’s part in the mess? And what of his claim as Baron Corrain to secure Halferan? Will the Parliament ratify his title – or will the widowed Zurenne find her family and holding once more at the mercy of greedy neighbours?

That is, more or less, the blurb on the back of the book. While it is the second book in this series, it could also be described as the fourteenth book as all her books are sited in the same wonderfully complex, vibrant world – see my review of Dangerous Waters here. Again, we have a variety of viewpoints – Lady Zurenne, Captain Corrain and the mage Jileth feature heavily – while poor desperate Hosh, left behind to the mercy of the corsairs while his comrades managed to escape, particularly tugged at my heartstrings.

As ever, McKenna’s clever, nuanced writing drew me in and wouldn’t let go until the tale was over. She wasn’t on the Worldbuilding panels at Fantasycon 2014 (see my writeup here) but she easily could have been, given her books are a masterclass in how to denote the political and social norms in differing societies without holding up the action or boring the reader. It’s a far trickier feat to pull off than McKenna makes it look…

I particularly like her magic system. There is a price to pay for having such power, which will regularly kill the unwary or untrained magic-user, and the ability is far more widespread in the general population than is officially recognised. However, when the likes of the Aldabreshi brutally murder anyone showing the smallest sign of magical talent, it won’t be a surprise to learn that those with magical ability tend to completely supress that aspect of their personality. Even the magical community of Hadrumal are at pains to keep any scrying into Aldabreshi affairs secret for fear of retribution – for all their power, mages can still be torn apart by a mob…

It was a treat to watch Corrain continue to mature and adapt in the light of his experiences. His tendency to act first and think later has cost him dearly in the series so far – and it was enjoyable and interesting to see him develop. Whereas Jileth paid a high price for her intervention during the first book – and is still counting the cost at the start of this volume. As ever, mage politics features heavily in the story – and I enjoyed the twists McKenna introduced that kept me engrossed. If you are a Robin Hobb fan and enjoy intelligent, well-crafted fantasy that doesn’t revert to elves and goblins, then track down McKenna’s writing – each series is standalone – I’m betting you won’t be able to resist a return visit…
9/10

Review of Dangerous Waters – Book 1 of The Hadrumal Crisis by Juliet E. McKenna

Standard

Anyone who reads my reviews will know that I have a particular fondness for politically nuanced Fantasy written by intelligent, talented writers. Her canon of work to date firmly puts McKenna in this category – in fact, I’m frustrated that she isn’t a lot better known. So – would I find this first offering in her latest trilogy up to the mark? After all, this will be her thirteenth book set in this world – can McKenna sustain the originality and range of different situations necessary to keep and extend her readership?

The Archmage rules the island of wizards and has banned the use of magecraft in warfare, but there are corsairs raiding the Caladhrian Coast, enslaving villagers and devastating trade. Barons and merchants beg for magical aid, but all help has been refused so far.

Lady Zurenne’s husband has been murdered by the corsairs. Now a man she doesn’t even know stands as guardian over her and her daughters. Corrain, former captain and now slave, knows that the man is a rogue wizard, illegally selling his skills to the corsairs. If Corrain can escape, he’ll see justice done. Unless the Archmage’s magewoman, Jilseth, can catch the renegade first, before his disobedience is revealed and the scandal shatters the ruler’s hold on power…

The three main protagonists who tell the story are Corrain, the enslaved Caladhrian captain; Lady Zurenne, recently widowed and dangerous waterssuffering the depredations of an insolent steward on behalf of the hated and powerful Minelas; and Jilseth, who is Archmage Planir’s favourite fixer. They all face difficult odds – arguably, Jilseth has the hardest, if not the most desperate task. For it falls to her to try and keep the exploits of the outlaw mage from reaching the ears of the Caladhrian nobility – for the Archmage and his Council are only too aware that for all their power, mages are vulnerable to infuriated mobs with pitchforks.

I loved this book, which grabbed me from the moment I read the first page and held me right up until the end. It’s a long book, but at no point did I feel the action sagged – because this book has it all… slavery, magic, political plotting, overbearing nobility and desperate widows… The contrast of characters is perfect – Corrain’s vengeful fury battling with his need to remain suitably submissive as a slave is deftly portrayed. What I like about McKenna, is that she doesn’t see the need to paint her heroes and heroines as faultless or completely likeable. So Corrain makes some significant mistakes – but given the circumstances and his background, it is entirely realistic that he would underestimate anyone physically weaker.

Jilseth is the most capable of the protagonists – and yet, she cannot sustain her stance of disinterestedness, despite her best efforts. I particularly enjoyed the friction between the magewoman and Lady Zurenne, when Jilseth is trying to discover exactly what is going on. I’ve read a couple of reviewers who were frustrated that Lady Zurenne seemed unable to break free of the rules stifling her ability to act as a free agent. Apparently, they were waiting for her to arm her feisty eldest daughter with a sword and turn her into some female warrior… McKenna has managed to resist the modern trend in historical fantasy of abruptly emancipating her female characters, thank goodness. It is a trend that intensely annoys me.

It suggests that our female forebears merely needed to pull themselves together, learn a few defensive moves, grab a handy weapon and they would be able to operate just fine alongside their menfolk. But as Lady Zurenne’s reactions and instincts clearly demonstrate – no matter how outrageously unfair the law may be to women, it is a far harder business to defy legal and social conventions. If it wasn’t, millions of women wouldn’t be still struggling across the planet in the face of daily injustice and discrimination. I think she rises to the challenge of keeping herself and her daughters safe magnificently and one of the reasons why Jilseth can no longer remain completely impartial, is witnessing Lady Zurenne’s plight – and her gritted courage in coping with it.

As you may have gathered, I really enjoyed this book. McKenna’s nuanced, smart writing presents her world as every bit as messy and complicated as ours – and though this book and series is nested within a very well established setting, at no time does the author rely on a reader’s prior knowledge of her previous output in order to make sense of this one. Which is a harder trick to pull off than you might think – or maybe not, given how few writers really manage to do it.

So, though I would recommend that you dive into McKenna’s world if you are looking for intelligently written, three dimensional fantasy, there is no reason why you shouldn’t start with this particular series. In fact, I strongly recommend you do so – you’ll be thanking me if you do.
9/10

Review of Banners in the Wind – Book 3 of Chronicles of the Lescari Revolution by Juliet E. McKenna

Standard

This is the final instalment in this intriguing series where McKenna decided to see what would happen if the downtrodden masses and squeezed middle men revolted. And, no, I’m not guessing about this – I happened to be at Bristolcon this year when McKenna gave a fascinating talk on her world. She is an articulate, intelligent speaker and if you get a chance to meet her, take it. You won’t be disappointed.

A few stones falling in the right place can set a landslide in motion. That’s what Lescari exiles told themselves in Vanam as they plottedbanners to overthrow the warring dukes. But who can predict the chaos that follows such a cataclysm? Some will survive against all the odds; friends and foes alike. Hope and alliances will be shattered beyond repair. Unforeseen consequences bring undeserved grief as well as unexpected rewards. Necessity forces uneasy compromise as well as perilous defiance. Wreaking havoc is swift and easy. Building a lasting peace may yet prove an insuperable challenge.

And there you have the blurb – congratulations on whoever wrote it, by the way. It’s a relief to read a back-of-the-book taster that doesn’t feel obligated to give away half the plot… So, the question has to be – after the tumult of the pitched battles, does McKenna manage to convincingly tie up the host of loose ends still waving in the wind along with those banners? Well for my money, this book is the best of the trilogy. This was always an astoundingly ambitious project – to depict a full blown revolution through the viewpoints of six characters.  McKenna succeeded so well because she is an experienced, skilled writer whose epic Fantasy has always been character-driven.

However, this series is not something a reader can skim through. McKenna has taken care to ensure all six characters are widely differing, but several of them are constantly on the move – as would be the case in a war. So that means, with a couple of exceptions, the backdrop to much of the action, especially the battles, is also changing.  In addition,  there is a host of other characters constantly processing through the story. It really took me until halfway through Blood in the Water, the second book in the series, to slow up my reading pace sufficiently to ensure I was able to fully absorb what was happening. The advantage of immediately picking up Banners in the Wind straight afterwards was that I was already in Lescari mode from the start and fully in touch with all the characters.

This is the book where the stakes are at their highest. As the death toll has steadily mounted, I really cared whether the revolutionaries managed to bring about any peace in Lescar. Because if they haven’t managed to do so, then a lot of lives have been ruined and lost in vain. It wasn’t a surprise to learn that McKenna studied history – the political powerplays and unintended consequences of apparently good ideas rang all too true. And her depiction of the damage to all those involved in the revolution also feels very realistic – this is no romp where everyone gets to swash their buckles with a witty chortle on their lips. This is a gritted, desperate business brought about by a group of individuals who simply felt they had no choice.

The themes that were started in Irons in the Fire are still being played out here – the nature of power, who has it and who is desperate to hold onto it; as the struggle continues, what rules of engagement get broken – this particularly applies to magic. The Archmage has expressly forbidden the use of magic in warfare – however, the speed and convenience that magic can provide proves to be far too tempting for this edict to be obeyed by either side. And it is this aspect of her world that McKenna continues to explore in her latest trilogy.

Meantime, she manages to bring this trilogy to a satisfactory, if not wholly tidy conclusion – which is just fine. Revolution is a messy, bloodsoaked business that hurts both the innocent and guilty, and it is a measure of McKenna’s writing skill that this final book is such a gripping, engrossing read.
10/10

Review of Blood in the Water – Book 2 of The Chronicles of the Lescari Revolution by Juliet E. McKenna

Standard

Following on from Irons in the Fire, this is the second book in this interesting fantasy series, where McKenna attempts to chart a revolution from its inception through to the consequences in a more realistic, nuanced manner than the typical high fantasy – bad, evil Emperor/undead King has arisen after centuries of having been forgotten and the current, good populace and Ruling Family have to scramble to catch up, etc, etc….

Those exiles and rebels determined to bring peace to Lescar discover the true cost of war. Courage and friendships are tested to breaking point. Who will pay such heartbreaking penalties for their boldness? Who will pay the ultimate price? The dukes of Lescar aren’t about to give up their wealth and power without a fight. Nor will they pass up some chance to advance their own interests, if one of their rivals suffers in all this upheaval. The duchesses have their own part to play, more subtle but no less deadly.

blood_in_the_water_250x384That’s the blurb – and for starters, congratulations on all involved for not muddling the term ‘blurb’ with ‘synopsis’. I’ve become really fed up with the slew of books I’ve read recently that have given away major plot spoilers on the back cover – nothing of the sort going on here, I’m delighted to report.  So, the first question has to be – has McKenna succeeded in accurately depicting an uprising organised and funded by a handful of well-meaning people in a politically complex situation? The answer is ‘yes’. McKenna’s strength is world-building. She manages to produce a character-led story about a world with a labyrinthine historical and political backstory. While in the various viewpoints of her cast of characters, McKenna manages to lay out the various factions, each with a divergent set of loyalties driven by feuding, ambition and fear. We see how the conspirators begin to quarrel as events roll forward – and, importantly, we also see how the war affects protagonists on both sides of the conflict.

The story structure works well as the initial scene setting inevitably takes some time – something that didn’t bother me. What I did enjoy was the way the narrative pace steadily built to the series of gripping, well written battle scenes, which in no way glorified the business of warfare and its consequences. I particularly liked the premise that as the campaign wore on and the stakes became higher, those involved became ever more willing to consider less honourable tactics. The use of magic in the book was well handled. I liked the sense of discomfort shown when a scryer learnt intimate personal information leaked by his fellow magic user – it was also a handy device for keeping the plot moving along and giving the reader different takes on the same situation.

In a cast of characters of this size, there is inevitably going to be one or more who stand out from the crowd. I really enjoyed Litasse and her gutsy reaction to her numerous reverses of fortune. The other character particularly well drawn, is Ameril. It is always difficult to portray a character who has a severe disability and McKenna conveys his physical frailty and pain convincingly without holding up the plotline.

Any niggles? Given the scope of the book and the number of protagonists, it is a very big ask for all to work equally well. While McKenna has all the military and political machinations impressively nailed, I felt less convinced about some of her characters’ private lives. The relationship between Tathrin and Failla seemed rather lifeless in an environment where personal feelings tend to be heightened by the danger. I was also rather confused as to the scope and severity of Branca’s injuries at the end of the story. But, taken as a whole, these are minor concerns set against what the book is trying to achieve. It is an ambitious series that largely succeeds and I’m looking forward to reading the final instalment.
9/10

Review of Irons in the Fire by Juliet E. McKenna – Book 1 of The Chronicles of the Lescari Revolution

Standard

I am a major fan of McKenna’s outstanding canon, The Tales of Einarinn, which comprises five books starting with The Thief’s Gamble and the next series set in the same world – even better – in my opinion, The Aldabreshin Compass which starts with Southern Fire. These books are bursting with memorable, exciting characters, fast-paced action and wonderful scenery. If you like intelligent, well written Fantasy, set in complex world and haven’t yet come across these books, then you are in for a treat.
ironsinthefireAnd why am I enthusing over her former nine books? Because Irons in the Fire is something of a disappointment in comparison. In my opinion, McKenna commits an unforgivable sin by treating us to a major info-dump, masquerading under the name of a Prologue. There are several pages of details including place names, ruling families and politics, along with their potted histories, without any attempt to nuance this information through character viewpoint. If I hadn’t read her earlier work, the book would have gone flying across the room at that point, along with a few choice words about the laziness of world building by dressing it up as some kind of Almanac… What further upsets me, is that the rest of the book is sufficiently well written that such a Prologue is actually unnecessary. Or – if she felt that she needed to help readers absorb her undoubtedly complicated world, this lump of information could have been offered as an Appendix.

The country of Lescar was carved out of the collapsing Tormalin Empire by ambitious men who all felt entitled to seize power for themselves. Now six rival dukedoms are ruled by their descendants, who all lay claim to the crown of the High King. Dukes pursue their ambitions through strategic alliances and strength of arms while their duchesses plot marriages and discrete pacts.
Meanwhile, ordinary people struggle to raise crops and families amid constant turmoil. Now a mismatched band of exiles are agreed that the time has come for a change. Can a small group put an end to generations of intractable misery? Perhaps. After all, a few stones falling in the right place can set a landslide in motion. But who can predict what the consequences will be, when all the dust has settled?

It is an intriguing proposition, charting the gradual rise of a revolution within a fantasy world. And when I got into the story, it is an entertaining, enjoyable read. The characters are well-rounded with good development, the world is complex and realistic and the plot progresses at a reasonable pace. But her outstanding achievement in this book – for me – is her treatment of magic. The best fantasy always ensures that magic users don’t just wave around some kind of ensorcelled artefact with an accompanying puff of coloured smoke… However, McKenna’s magical system is completely embedded within the political structure, which seems utterly believable to me. And it takes long, painful effort to fine-tune the mental disciplines necessary to use it, while profoundly changing the practioners.

While the book completes the story arc, like many fantasy series, it finishes at a point where we are set up for the next instalment. And – yes – I will be reading it. McKenna’s fantasy is too well-written and thought provoking to ignore. I just wish she had left out that darned Prologue!
7/10