Birthgrave by Tanith Lee

#1. The Birthgrave
#2. Shadowfire (formerly Vazkor, Son of Vazkor)
#3. Quest for the White Witch

These books are intense. Like, INTENSE. Mind-blowing. Ground-breaking (only sort of a pun). And easily the best sword-and-sorcery series I’ve ever read, which might not mean much coming from me since I’m not a fan of the genre in general, but recently I learned it’s because I haven’t read any good sword-and-sorcery. None that fit my particular taste. Until now.

Tanith Lee’s writing fit the bill. Some people don’t like her prose and say she had a tendency to over-write her stories, that she was too flowery with her words, too elegant or too extravagant at times. I like it though. I know it can be hard to read, might take some time getting used to, but I like it. I find it very enjoyable, especially when it’s at odds with the intensity of the stories she was telling.

This trilogy was originally released with Conan-the-Barbarian-esque cover art, complete with scantily-clad women in awkward poses, to convey the style of fantasy its written in… and appeal to its “target” audience? It’s target audience is actually me… but who could have known that back then, right? Recently the whole trilogy was re-released with darker, slightly gothic-looking covers (see below) that are more in line with the characters and apocalyptic world in which they live, which I prefer. 

I still have the last book to read, so below are not quite reviews, just some brief notes and impressions.

* * * * *

The Birthgrave

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ½
Date read: June 21 to September 2, 2015

A hard book to read and an even harder book to like. And I enjoyed it very much, mostly because I have strange taste in genre fiction and strange books always call out to me, but I think, if the mood is right and you’re looking for something with depth, with flesh, to sink your teeth into, you might want to give this challenging book a try.

The writing is subversive and sublime and unexpectedly hard-hitting, and not what I expected from the Conan the Barbarian throwback cover and description. I simply expected Conan the Barbarian but told from a female perspective, which sort of what this book is. It takes Conan as the foundation for which the story builds on to create a whole new world that’s on the edge of destruction and reincarnation.

And I find every part of it fascinating because it really delves into and takes advantage of all the things that genre adventures often ignore, like the inner life of a confusing character who is, by all accounts, an alien. She is definitely not of the world in which she walks. And in most stories written in this genre, she would’ve been ignored or killed early on. Here, though, she gets to tell her tale.

* * * * *

Shadowfire (Birthgrave #2)

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆
Date Read: April 14 to 18, 2018

Still good but still a hard read like the first book. Unlike the first book though, we’re no longer following the mysterious nameless woman who emerged from a volcano, broke the world into pieces, and set a host of apocalyptic things into motion.

Instead, we move on to her son’s perspective, Vazkor (son of Vazkor). He’s an angry young man who was raised in a society that valued violence, might, and masculinity. He grew up without his mother, only having heard tales of her in a destructive, demeaning light all his life. So when he grows up, he does the expected thing. He sets out to kill her.

I’m not saying he isn’t within his rights, but the reason behind his revenge journey is… weak. His mother would not have approved.

Still an interesting story and still well written, but maybe not as compelling as the nameless woman’s story because it lacks the nuanced, alien feel of her narration. Vazkor is more in line with the series’ old Conan the Barbarian inspired book covers. He’s more human in his wants, needs, and motivations, and therefore not as interesting to me.

These books though… when I see or hear people say “pillars of the genre” and then name the usual names and list the usual books, I always wondered what my pillars of the genre would have been if I had grown up reading sci-fi and fantasy. I think this series would have easily made my list.

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Just One Damned Thing After Another (Chronicles of St. Mary’s #1) by Jodi Taylor

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Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
Date Read: February 12 to 24, 2018

RIVETING.

If I didn’t have to work for a living, I would have finished this book in a single night, and then reread it immediately. And then maybe once more in audio because it was that kind of book and exactly what I needed.

I honestly did not expect this book to be so funny, or rather, I didn’t expect it to feature dry British humor so heavily. It had me laughing so hard, so many times, I could not read it in public. And then there were times when it had devastatingly honest commentary that made for some hard reading, but the humor certainly helped to offset the heavier moments.

This book is not without faults or shortcomings by any means. The beginning is slow and longish and very explain-y. You have to wade through a ton of background and set-up info before the action gets going, and the real action doesn’t start until half-way through the book. But it’s got a great cast of characters and snappy dialogue and, once the action started, things happened quickly. Literally, it was just one damned thing after another.

I really like Madeleine Maxwell, simply called Max, as the narrator. She is funny (often without meaning to be),smart quirky, and honest, and I had a great time following her on her journey to the cretaceous period.

Since the quirky characters and their nerdy, haphazard, time-traveling ways are so endearing, I find that I don’t really mind all the other stuff. All the things that normally bother me, things that plague all time-travel books such as plot holes and continuity issues and the method of time-travel itself, don’t really register. Sure, they’re noticeable if you look into them, but I don’t really care (this time). Just gonna enjoy the ride (through time).

Long series are a blessing when you find one that fits. I personally love long series, but rarely do I find one that makes me want to keep reading. This one is one of those rare ones. Good thing there are 8 more books and a couple of short stories already written.

A few memorable moments:

“I certainly wasn’t where I should be and it would be the cautious, the sensible thing to do. But, for God’s sake, I was an historian and cautious and sensible were things that happened to other people.”

[…]

“The Society for the Protection of Historical Buildings was the official body whose task it was to oversee repairs and maintenance to our beloved but battered listed building. We had them on speed-dial. They had us on their black list.”

[…]

“Time is important in our organisation. If you can’t even get to an appointment in your own building on time, they argue, you’re not going to have much luck trying to find the Battle of Hastings.”

[…]

“And finally, I have been asked by Mrs Partridge to raise this issue. As some of you may struggle to remember, next month is your annual appraisal and I’m advised by Mrs Partridge that some of the forms you were asked to complete as a preliminary need… more work.

“Your personal details update form… Mr Sussman; you are not a Jedi Knight. Kindly amend the details in Box 3–Religion. Ditto Mr Markham, Mr Peterson, Miss Maxwell, Mr Dieter and Miss Black.”

 

The Book of Jhereg (Vlad Taltos #1-3) by Steven Brust

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Jhereg: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
Yendi: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
Teckla: ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆
Date Read: December 16, 2016 to April 30, 2017

Amazing books. Amazing journey. Very memorable characters. I love Vlad and this world of dragons and dragon people and their layered politics, and I can’t wait to get started on the second omnibus.

I have a thing about reading series in order, and it was with a lot of reluctance and much hand-wringing that I read this series out of chronological order. I had gotten almost the whole series in these omnibus editions that “organized” the books in publication order (i.e. definitely not chronological order), and figuring out where to start or jump in took up too much time. So I just started with the first book of the first omnibus, which was Jhereg, and soon found that the order was not that big a deal for this series, as many people have told me before.

The order in which you read doesn’t affect your enjoyment that much because each book could be read as a standalone–sort of, “technically.” I could explain further now that I’ve read the first three books, set in three different points of Vlad Taltos’ life and career, but the explanation is… gonna get complicated, more complicated.

Suffice it to say I really enjoyed all three books, maybe the third one a little less than the previous two, but that’s only because it contained too many real life implications that mirrored some of my own and reading about those things are never fun.

The writing is great, however, and I never felt it faltering once. This doesn’t mean much unless or until you take into account the series’ complete timeline and you see where each book falls (how years apart they are, how much happens in between). Only Then you would realize the depth and complexity of this world and how writing a series out of order like this is unbelievably difficult. Steven Brust did this all the while maintaining continuity and coherence AND not letting the overarching story line falter, not even once.

It’s amazing, and I’m nothing short of impressed.

Teckla (Vlad Taltos #3) by Steven Brust

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Rating: ★ ★ ★ ½ ☆
Date Read: January 31 to February 15, 2017

I read this book a year ago and I still haven’t gotten over it yet. It’s the book I like least in the series, but it’s the only one that I remember most vividly.

The most frustrating thing about this book is experiencing the end of Vlad and Cawti’s marriage through Vlad’s eyes. Well, everything is experienced through Vlad’s eyes since he is the only narrator, but with this book, you feel the limited first-person narration the most and you see all the ways in which it lacks finesse. But then again, this is how we all experience the end of a relationship, right? One-sided and most of the time without closure or answers.

The end of the book once again mimics real life in that there are no resolutions. Things are still tense between Vlad and Cawti, and they are still drifting apart, pulled by different ideals, and you don’t know what the future holds. You don’t even get to know whether or not they separate or stay together, and these books being written out of order makes it all the more frustrating.

In the last book Yendi, we see when Vlad first met Cawti, back when he was a burgeoning crime lord with lofty ideas and she was hired by one of his rivals to assassinate him, and she almost succeeded. They somehow managed to hit it off and got along well together. That led to the beginning of a quick romance, one of the more realistic portrayals that I’ve seen in these kind of fantasies. So it was endearing to see that.

(It’s like everything was going so well. What happened??? Life happened. Of course. Too much realism bleeding in my fantasy. Can all of this just go away or not? Because I don’t read fantasy for the realism. This seems repetitive and unnecessary to say at this point, but I thought it was obvious. I don’t read fantasy for the realism. Please bring back convoluted political intrigue and add more dragons and flying castles. No more relationships falling apart gradually over time. Ok thnx.)

When we get to this book though, Vlad and Cawti have been married for some years, they’ve risen through the ranks of the Jhereg, made a name for themselves, and are very well off and comfortable (for Easterners). But they are drifting apart. We don’t know why or what led them to this point. We just know Cawti was drawn to the uprisings in the Eastern quarters of the city, and Vlad wouldn’t or maybe couldn’t see the point of this movement. He saw it as futile, but she had hope. This was just one more thing piled on top on an already strained relationship.

So to go from Yendi to Teckla, from the beginning of a relationship to its unexpected end in such a short amount of time, is… sad. I’m sure some of the later books will focus on the marriage some more, but I just didn’t expect to read the beginning and the end back-to-back like this. It was unsettling and left me feeling conflicted. That’s my main problem with this book anyway. Everything else though–the writing, the plotting, the intrigue, the scheming–is still good and very much the same as the 2 previous books.

Yendi (Vlad Taltos #2) by Steven Brust

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Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
Date Read: January 17 to 31, 2017

Imagine The Godfather, but told from the perspective of a young snarky Vito Corleone who’s all alone and setting out on his own. He’s fighting to make a name for himself as an assassin and mob boss in the Dragarean underworld. He’s got a small network of semi-legitimate businesses and a corner of the city to himself. He’s trying to establish his territory while fighting off stronger, wealthier, more experienced neighbors who are moving in on his turf. He’s fighting on multiple fronts, all the while trying to stay on top of Dragarean politics.

This book has a lot of things going on and the action never stops. Just when you think it can’t get anymore twisty, it gets one more twist in. Turn the page and something new is happening to Vlad. In the midst of all this mess though, Vlad is still an engaging, funny storyteller, and I can listen to him talk all day long.

Like Jhereg, this book is out of order, but unlike Jhereg, it’s near the beginning of Vlad’s tale. So it’s a good place to start the series. You get to know Vlad on his way up the social ladder, but you also get to a glimpse of the things he’s been through that have made him who he is today. He’s still got that optimistic (but also realistic) outlook on life and his place in the world about him that I like. The tone is light and funny and a stark contrast to the story he’s telling, which has a variety of people out to kill him including his future wife… which makes it a little bit funnier because he’s so matter-of-fact about it.

Notes for future reference:
when Vlad first met Cawti and she was paid to kill him

Daughter of the Forest (Sevenwaters, #1) by Juliet Marillier

Rating: – – – – –
Date read: May 1 to July 15, 2017

I’m leaning toward 4 stars overall but with lots and lots of reservations which I can’t go into without hitting on spoilers. So beware of spoilers.

This book was Beth‘s pick for May and I just finished it today. In July. I’m not even sure where she is because we kind of let it drop after hitting a wall, but I think she’s still pushing on. I’d like to say it was my fault, because I’m usually the one dropping out of buddy reads, but this time it’s a combination of bad timing and a brutal rape scene that put a nail in this buddy read.

The story loosely follows the Six Swans fairy tale and it’s set in Medieval Ireland. There are druids, magic, and mysticism, and the writing does a lovely job of setting the scene and creating an otherworldly atmosphere. We follow Sorcha, the youngest and only daughter of a lord, and her six older brothers through their lives from when they lived at the castle in the middle of a strange magical forest to when tragedy struck and tore their family apart.

I had known of the rape scene going in–it’s part of some retellings of this tale–but I didn’t know about the aftermath, that the main character Sorcha had to live with it, alone and in silence, as she was in the middle of her vow of silence that she had to make to the fae in order to save her brothers. And then her dog, her only companion, was brutally killed. How much worse could it get, right? Not much worse, but bad things did keep happening. Sorcha had to continue knitting six sweaters from nettles to save her brothers and break the curse that turned them into swans.

I don’t like fantasies featuring the fae as it is, so when this scene happened, followed by the dog’s death and Sorcha’s suffering in silence and the fae’s meddling and the nettle knitting, I checked out. It was too much and the amount of brutality seemed somewhat unnecessary. But I get it–objectively, intellectually, whatever. I get why Marillier had Sorcha suffer in silence; I understand it from a big-picture perspective and see the need to portray the aftermath of rape, but still. It was too emotionally consuming, too close to real life, so I checked out and set the book aside. Every time I picked it up, I could only get through a couple of pages, and that’s why it took over two months to get to the end.

I’m glad to have read it because Juliet Marillier’s writing is always lovely and the stories she’s telling are much needed in fantasy. They exist in that tenuous border between folktale and historical fantasy, and Marillier weaves those elements so well, but this is one of those books I don’t think I’ll revisit. And I will pass on the rest of the series too, even though I know I’ll be giving up on an amazing world rich in history, culture, and magic.

Reading this book was kind of like a coming of age experience–I appreciate it and am glad I got through it, but I’m more glad it’s behind me now.

* * * * *

My first Marillier was Heart’s Blood, a retelling of the beauty and the beast fairy tale, and I loved it. I went into Daughter thinking it was like Heart, and in many ways, it is. The setting, time period, prose, magic, and atmosphere are very similar, but the amount of suffering the main character is put through is incomparable.

Jhereg (Vlad Taltos #1) by Steven Brust

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Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
Date Read: November 23 to December 9, 2015

Surprisingly good and satisfyingly good. The kind of good that makes you anxious to get to the next book. The kind of good that makes you glad there are over ten books in the series. The kind of good that makes me not care about book orders. Maybe it’s a good thing these books are written out of order?–is a thing I never thought I’d say. But I have a good feeling about Steven Brust and I trust he’ll deliver.

It’s been awhile since high fantasy has been this good for me, and it’s been even longer since I liked a POV main character in high fantasy enough to know that I’ll like whatever trials and tribulations he’s put through. And I like Vlad Taltos. Thus far, he’s already shown himself to be a multifaceted character full of nuance, and I can only imagine he’ll get more complex with each book.

Plus, there are dragons everywhere.

* * * * *

Trying to figure out the order of this series is giving me a serious case of involuntary twitching. So far from what I’ve gleaned on various forums and reviews, the publication order is completely different from the chronological order.

*more twitching*

But the order in which you read these books does not matter. At all. Because they were purposely written out of order.

*bangs head on desk*

Why.

(I have a thing for publication order)

* * * * *

Publication order goes like this:
Jhereg
Yendi
Teckla
Taltos
Phoenix
Athyra
Orca
Dragon
Issola
Dzur
Jhegaala
Iorich
Tiassa
Hawk

But chronological order goes like this:
Taltos
Dragon
Yendi
Jhereg
Teckla
Phoenix
Jhegaala
Athyra
Orca
Issola
Dzur
Iorich
Tiassa
Hawk

The only book I have is Jhereg, so I’m gonna start there.

The Invisible Library (The Invisible Library, #1) by Genevieve Cogman

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Rating: ★ ★ ★ ☆ ☆
Date Read: April 5 to 17, 2017
Recommended by: book clubs’ pick
Recommended to: 

A combination of The Rook, which I liked a lot, and The Eyre Affair, which I didn’t really care for. This one falls right in the middle.

So what we have here is a secret library hoarding books that has immortal secret agents who are sent out to steal books, multiple alternate worlds and timelines in which these agents enter with the sole purpose of stealing books and bringing them back to the library (for safe keeping and language evolution, as we’re told). Then there’s a much sought after alternate Grimms’ fairytale edition, plucky young heroines, dragon shapeshifters, murderous fae, former agents who defected for reasons not yet clear, an alternate steampunk London setting, and quite a few literary references. All well and good. I enjoyed it and will most likely pick up the second book.

While this book lacks some of the humor and comedic timing of The Rook, it has much better pacing and characterization than The Eyre Affair. The beginning kicks off with the main character Irene in the middle of a mission. She has gone undercover as a cleaning girl at a magical boarding school so that she could relieve the school of a first edition copy of an ancient magical text. After completing the mission with some close calls, Irene returns to the library only to be sent out again, but this time with Kai, a librarian in training. They are to enter an alternate steampunk London to retrieve a Grimms’ fairytales. This assignment turns out to be more complicated and dangerous than either anticipated, and when the defector shows up to take the book for himself, it becomes a deadly game and chase around steampunk London.

I was immediately pulled into the action, and if it had kept up, I would’ve liked this book a whole lot more. But unfortunately, the middle faltered and got somewhat boring. It was muddled by too many explanations and long-winded conversations between all the characters trying to figure out their next moves or what the defector’s next moves are. Much of these moments felt to me like they led nowhere because, while they did work to expand on the action, characters, and steampunk London, they failed to add much to the world or worlds at large. I’m not convinced there’s much out there that exists outside of multiple alternates of London. The writing is rather myopic in this regard now that I think about it.

Since the story is told from her POV, Irene has a knack for overstating the obvious, which bored and bothered me because, personally, I don’t think this world or these worlds are complicated enough to warrant such long info-dumping passages that slowed the story down. I think it would have been perfectly fine to leave some of the mysteries of the library, its purpose, and all these alternate Londons up to the imagination.

Another thing that hindered the writing is the main characters, Irene and Kai, coming off as younger than I expected. This gives the story a YA feel that I’m not a fan of. I would have liked for them to be a bit older and wiser in their thoughts and actions since that would have made more sense in the context of the library and immortality and time immemorial and whatnot. But since Genevieve Cogman is somewhat a YA writer, the YA-ness of the writing is unavoidable.

Lastly, there are a few plot holes and details that don’t quite work in light of the ending, but they didn’t bother me enough during the read to dwell on them, mostly because Irene is an unapologetic book lover and book hoarder, and the idea of an endless library that exists outside of time and space that hoards books is very amusing to me. A personal favorite of mine is reading about book lovers and all the ways in which they profess their love for books.

[T]he deepest, most fundamental part of her life involved a love of books. Right now, she wanted nothing more than to shut the rest of the world out, and have nothing to worry about, except the next page of whatever she was reading.

[…]

And she didn’t want great secrets of necromancy, or any other sort of magic. She just wanted—had always wanted—a good book to read. Being chased by hellhounds and blowing things up were comparatively unimportant parts of the job.

[…]

“[A]ll of us who are sealed to the Library are people who have chosen this way of life because we love books. None of us wanted to save worlds. I mean, not that we object to saving worlds…” She shrugged, picking up her teacup again “We want books. We love books. We live with books.”

[…]

Getting the books, now that was what really mattered to her. That was the whole point of the Library: as far as she’s been taught, anyway. It wasn’t about a higher mission to save worlds. It was about finding unique works of fiction, and saving them in a place out of time and space. Perhaps some people might think that was a petty way to spend eternity, but Irene was happy with her choice.

And this book hits the spot. Well… not quite, but it’s close enough to keep me interested in the next installment.

The Changeling Sea by Patricia A. McKillip

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Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
Date read: March 28 to April 3, 2017

Another winning tale by Patricia McKillip. This is only the second book I’ve read by her, but I’m convinced she can do no wrong. There’s something delightful and magical about the way she writes that pulls me into her stories, and I don’t surface until the last page is turned.

It doesn’t happen often to me, but once in awhile I come across a book and wish I was young again to enjoy it with an open, less burdened mind, and to enjoy it in the spirit it was written and, just for a moment, be its target audience again. This is one of those rare books in which the magic is real; I just can’t feel it anymore.

Even though I enjoy it now and really like the writing, it’s a cold, intellectual kind of enjoyment. Lovely prose, lovely story. I love the way it reads on the page and can methodically deconstruct all the things that I like about it and appreciate the parts as much as the whole story, but it doesn’t hit me right in the feels like The Forgotten Beasts of Eld. Yet I’m certain I would have loved this book more when I was younger, when I would have been eager to be fully immersed in the mystique of the sea and its mysterious magical pull. I think, back then, I would have been able to hear it calling as clearly as Peri.

“Be happy now,” she whispered, aware of all the shining waves behind him reaching toward him, withdrawing, beckoning again. She added, feeling the pain again in her throat, “When I’m old–older than the old women who taught me to make the hexes–come for me then.”

“I will.”

“Promise me. That you will bring me black pearls and sing me into the sea when I am old.”

“I promise.”

[…]

“Your heart sang to the sea. I heard it, deep in my coral tower, and followed the singing. Humans say the sea sings to them and traps them, but sometimes it is the human song that traps the sea. Who knows where the land ends and the sea begins?”

“The land begins where time begins.”

[…]

“It’s an odd thing, happiness. Some people take happiness from gold. Or black pearls. And some of us, far more fortunate, take their happiness from periwinkles.”

The Forgotten Beasts of Eld by Patricia A. McKillip

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Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Date Read: March 25 to 28, 2017
Recommended by:
Recommended to:

This book gave me chills. Still does.

I went in knowing nothing about it. I mean, I did skim some of the reviews, so I knew it was highly rated and people seemed to love, but other than that, I had no idea what it’s about or what to expect, and I had never read Patricia McKillip before.

And that was the best way to approach because the writing blew me away. It is simply SO GOOD and has a beautiful fluidity to it that makes it so easy to fall into.

What impresses me most is that the prose is neither purple nor flowery; it’s just lovely to read. There’s a dreamy, poignant, lyrical quality to it, yet it’s so easy to read and so concise. There’s not an unnecessary scene or line or moment anywhere. Every word serves a purpose, and not once during the read did I feel like the story was wandering around aimlessly. Nothing is out of place, and so much happens in so few pages. And I just love that kind of writing–purposeful and minimalistic in execution.

So what is this book about?

Briefly: Sybel, a young powerful sorceress who knows nothing of the world below her mountain and wants nothing to do with it, is pushed into the affairs of two warring sides within a kingdom when a baby is brought to her to raise.

On one side, there’s an insecure king who fears being dethroned. On the other side, there’s family of nobles who would like to dethrone the king. Their animosity toward each other go way back. Both sides want Sybel and use her powers for their own, but only one seeks out a way to break and bind her to their will. What follows is an all consuming tale of near destruction.

Well… not exactly, but that was what it felt like during the read, like everything was coming apart at the seams, and I could not turn the page fast enough.

Sometimes, after a string of bland genre picks, I would forget what it’s like to read well written fantasy, but then something always comes along to remind me. McKillip was the perfect reminder.

“What, in years to come, will you have in your life but a silence that is meaningless, ancient names that are never spoken beyond these walls? Who will you laugh with, when Tam is grown? Who will you love? The Liralen? It is a dream. Beyond this mountain, there is a place for you among the living.”

[…]

“You can weave your life for so long–only so long, and then a thing in the world out of your control will tug at one vital thread and leave you patternless and subdued.”

[…]

“Be patient. It will soon be over.”
“Soon is such a long word,” she whispered.