Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Waiting on Wednesday: Tyrant's Throne by Sebastien De Castell

Continuing on with our (ir)regular featured Wednesday meme of counting down to the releases of those highly anticipated books this year, we are fully jazzed about the upcoming conclusion(?) to the The GreatCoats series by Sebastien DeCastell from Jo Fletcher Books, Tyrant's Throne.
Falcio, Kest and Brasti, where will you guys go next ?

After years of struggle and sacrifice, Falcio val Mond, First Cantor of the Greatcoats, is on the brink of fulfilling his dead king's dream: Aline, the king's daughter, is about to take the throne and restore the rule of law once and for all.

But for the Greatcoats, nothing is ever that simple. In the neighboring country of Avares, an enigmatic new warlord is uniting the barbarian armies that have long plagued Tristia's borders--and even worse, he is rumored to have a new ally: Trin, who's twice tried to kill Aline to claim the throne of Tristia for herself. With the armies of Avares at her back, led by a bloodthirsty warrior, she'll be unstoppable.

Falcio, Kest, and Brasti race north to stop her, but in those cold and treacherous climes they discover something altogether different, and far more dangerous: a new player is planning to take the throne of Tristia, and with a sense of dread the three friends realize that the Greatcoats, for all their skill, may not be able to stop him.

As the nobles of Tristia and even the Greatcoats themselves fight over who should rule, the Warlord of Avares threatens to invade. With so many powerful contenders vying for power, it will fall to Falcio to render the one verdict he cannot bring himself to utter, much less enforce. Should he help crown the young woman he vowed to put on the throne, or uphold the laws he swore to serve?

Tyrant's Throne comes out on April 4th, 2017. 

Monday, February 20, 2017

Defender by G X Todd

Defender is an eminently readable debut - remarkable in it's grey and dismal rendition of a dystopian world where people, hearing voices in their head, have all chosen to end their lives, making Earth a barren desolate landscape. Population is thus scarce in GX Todd's post-tragedy America and so that makes a lone traveler named Pilgrim who rides through this lonely landscape something of a rare breed - doubly so, because he has come to a sort of non-violent agreement with the voice in his head, which he refers to as Voice.

Their squabbles and arguments are colorful and so when the Voice convinces Pilgrim to stop at a roadside lemonade stand, for a teenage girl selling lemonade, Pilgrim just gives in without argument. And even decides to take her on as a passenger. The first human being he has spoken to, in one hundred fifty one days straight. While there is a premonition that warns him against this, he relents anyways and soon discovers, that Lacey - the precocious highly self aware girl, wants to hitch a ride all the way to a little town called Vicksburg in the next state, to reunite with her sister and family. Having lost her grandmother a few years back, Lacey has never stepped beyond her house or the small town she lived in - and so for her, this is the grand adventure she has been waiting for. Instinctively trusting this strong silent stranger to keep her safe and being naive, to the destruction of the world around her or the fact that humans have degraded to the levels of savages, on the brink of survival. This adventure ride soon becomes a edge-of-the-seat thrill-ride for their very lives when both run into this violent gang of survivors, led by a monster of man Charles Dumont who has been rounding up all folks with that 'inner voice' for a sinister purpose.

Defender, as is highly acclaimed by John Conolly and Lee Child, will slot in neatly in that shelf next to Stephen King's The Stand or even McCarthy's The Road. But it stands by itself in terms of the originality and the fresh voice. (pun intended) Todd doesn't waste time exploring or even bothering to explain to the readers, the cause of the apocalypse. Instead she focuses on the 'inner voice' that every body hears and is forced to listen to. The sardonic Voice inside Pilgrim and the interactions (petty squables!) between Pilgrim and Lacey makes for a very entertaining read, helping develop our perspectives of these characters. Pilgrim probably comes across as a trope we've seen before in apocalyptic books; The strong man of few words, much like Clint Eastwood's Man with No Name, walking into a desolate town as the unchallenged new sheriff, a hard-ass yes but one with a heart of gold. A mystery man who holds his cards too close to his heart and the gaps in his memories, add to the unreliable narrative as events unfold like a house of cards, crashing down. Lacey is utterly lovable; her guileless innocence and complete trust in the goodness of the world makes us like her but we know, the world is going to rip apart this veil and toughen her up. There is tremendous growth in her character by the end of book one and we know, she is going to kick some serious ass in this series.

The first and second act of the book, are like jack-rabbits on steroid, leaping past you as pages fly and we are set on this inexplicable collision course with this mystery man called Dumont. Of further interest to us, is this enigmatic Flitting Man, a character we never meet and yet, pulls the strings behind the show of what Dumont and the evil Doc is trying to achieve.

There are no answers in this first book and that, in addition to the long- dragged out but shallow tying up of the climactic struggles in the third act of the book, actually mars the overall reading experience for something that should have been flat out brilliant. The prose is sharp and shiny, the narrative grim and grueling and the characters, that of Pilgrim and Lacey, are real and rounded. The use of the bleak imagery of this world as well as the blunt and shocking violence at times are all well justified in this thrilling debut and I cannot speak enough of the talent that GX Todd brings to this crowded genre.

There are still tons of questions lined up - especially about the Voice(s) and the future looks even grimmer and bleaker with the Flitting Man still at large. All in all, a refreshing debut that showcases a masterclass in the making, GX Todd's Voices series is a thrill-ride cleaving straight through dystopia and haunting voices inside your heard. Definitely one of the best debuts for 2017.

Saturday, February 18, 2017

Movie Review: The Lego Batman Movie

The Lego Batman Movie actually came from nowhere, for me. I had not watched the Lego movie which came last year and so wasn’t really prepared for the outrageously funny jokes that lit up the movie, the writers riffing on everything the fantasy books/superhero comics ever threw at the large screen. The smart-alec quips, the ripping fast narrative and the depth of the characterization that came to fore was something pretty unexpected. I basically went because, the dark vigilante is my favorite superhero. (Yup: I own t-shirts emblazoned with him, Watches with his motif engraved into it, Car-Bumper Stickers with the bat-mobile motif. The works. And am not ashamed!) And I was happy to be landing back in the troubled Gotham city once more. The comic books and of late, the movies or even the TV Series set in this city, about the Batman or his fringe characters have all been exceptionally grim and dark. And so this personally for me, was a slam-dunk winner; watching a fast-talking highly intelligent child slapping his Lego toys together and then taking them apart, all the while chattering non-stop, coherent in bursts in a stream of consciousness that will knock you down with its imagination.

The Lego Batman Movie is smart, subversive and an animated ‘superhero’ spoof that even parallels DeadPool in terms of the irreverence and joke-a-minute intensity. It’s basically the brooding bat-vigilante like you’ve never seen him before. Jiggling up that tight cape a bit loose, letting his cowl down and letting it rip in rare moments of absolute beatbox-ey rhythm. It’s a pleasure to watch this version of a superhero, we’ve seen plumb the dark depths of stygian darkness in search of his own soul while crime-fighting to save his city. And this time too, make no mistake, he’s still got insecurities galore – and an army of villains landing on Gotham to take it apart but the manner in which he discovers himself, while saving the city, (And himself in that process) is such a brightly executed pirouette that would have the audiences jumping in glee and clapping. 

So in terms of narrative, it’s a straight forward storyline. Batman has to save the city of Gotham from the army of super villains, led by his arch-nemesis Joker. But this time, he’s not alone. The newly appointed Commissioner of Police, Barbara Gordon puts down the rules that it ‘takes a village’ to save the city and ‘not some unsupervised adult in a Halloween costume karate-chopping poor people.’ Which dents Batman’s plan for all the glory and fun to be coveted by himself. He needs to learn to work with Barbara – and join forces with the stiff-upper lipped Alfred Pennyworth, whom he refuses to acknowledge as a father figure and the incessantly persistent Dick, the orphan who longs to be ‘adopted’ by Bruce Wayne/ transform himself into an eager student/sidekick to the Batman (Robin!) even as Joker, who takes offense at the casual-handed apathy handed out to him from Batman, plots revenge. To be acknowledged as the greatest villain Batman has faced and is ‘obsessed’ with. This is a hilarious twist on the trope of the ‘star-crossed forever-lovers’ and Chris McKay and his team writers, given access to the entire treasure trove of Warner Bros characters, start going at it, with an unrestrained glee. The self-referencing gags in Will Arnett’s gruff voice, pouring irony and poker-faced sarcasm into every single line of Batman’s, are never-ending. 

Rosario Dawson voices the fire-brand ‘commish’ on whom Batman has a huge ‘crush’ while Ralph Fiennes gets on with the British-accented Butler and Michael Cera lends his voice to the geek-nerd ever-eager to please, Robin. The ‘spurned-enemy’ act of Joker is voiced to perfection by Zach Galifianakis, skewering to pieces the intense psychosis that Christopher Nolan built into his character. And no, we aren’t complaining. 

The finale act features fire-balls and explosions with the entire cast of villains from the Warner Bros vault coming out to play: Godzilla, Voldemort, Wicked Witch, King Kong, Gremlins, you name them. Oh hey and there is even Superman, voiced by Channing Tatum, ‘the superhero leader of the Justice League’ whom Batman despises and is jealous of. Fluid CGI on blocky Lego characters works really well. The action is non-stop and some of the stunts pulled were fascinating to watch on screen. But I think the best thing about the movie, is the carpet-bombing of cultural references from across the super-hero comic books and fantasy universe, nothing is safe as Batman and his cronies go all-out to prove that brooding is boring. 

So the Caped Crusader breaks out of his bat-rut, moves onto accept his greatest fear, of having/losing a family ( other than ‘snake-clowns’ which are not really a thing now!) and re-unites with his greatest villain, Joker in a city of Lego Blocks that can be put together, if we work together. Oh and I cannot help but share this, Batman going full-cheese-out with his horrendous yet funny one-liners during this fight-scene alongside Robin. 
“We’re going to hit them so hard that words that describe the impact are gonna spontaneously materialise out of thin air.” Kaboom! Pow! Wham! 

This, by far, is the BEST BATMAN movie I have ever seen. I shall stop with that.

And the music. Oh my God……Oh. I shall stop.

End Credits are usually in white.

Saturday, February 11, 2017

The Last Sacrifice by James A Moore

James A Moore is one of the three, in the Three Guys with Beards Podcast. Christopher Golden and Jonathan Maberry being the other two. Now I've read ONE book of each of these three guys. If I were to rank them, I would say I loved Jonathan Maberry best, Tin Men by Christopher Golden next and the open act of the Seven Forges series is the one I liked the least. Sadly, I didn't get back to finish the Seven Forges.

But then, I happened to come across the premise for The Last Sacrifice. Brogan McTyre, a warrior whose family gets sacrificed to appease the Gods, now decides to take the battle to entirely new level. He defies the Gods and challenges them. And this act has catastrophic consequences on the entire world, the angry Gods raining down hellfire and damnation on everybody. This sounded like one hell of a plot-line. Angry gods, their pets called Undying and some stubborn fool of a warrior, who doesn't know where to draw the line.

But when I actually started reading The Last Sacrifice, the first few chapters were a headlong rush of blood to the head. Brogan and his battle-scarred group of war mercenaries, on their way back home discover that his entire family has been taken away by the 'Grakhul' - messengers of the Gods in the mortal realm - to be sacrificed. Brogan, crazy with grief and anxious to save them, sets out to the very end of the world, to save them, aided by this group of loyal warriors, all of whom have fought and survived together, led by his best friend, a quiet and enigmatic man called Harper who has been the only mortal to have 'interacted' with this group called Grakhul. You would expect this quest to last over at least a hundred pages, in the traditional form of any 'fantasy' book. But the pace of the book takes you by the scruff of your neck and pushes your nose to the grind-wheel as things take flight.

The quest ends in a disaster in just over a few pages but Brogan's act of defiance in having stopped this sacrifice to the Gods ( and hence, the name The Last Sacrifice) angers the Gods and sets out a violent cataclysmic chain reaction that sees cities and empires being destroyed through floods, torrential rains, earthquakes and landslides. Brogan further defies them by kidnapping the entire race of 'Grakhul', pale-skinned northerners who are responsible for the sacrifices - and selling them off in slavery. The Undying or He-Kisshi, servants of these Gods, winged creatures of horror that defy explanations, are set out to retrieve the Grakhul. Bringing into the conflict, Slavers who had bought the 'goods'. And to make things complex, two of the intended 'sacrifices' escape from the Undying, grievously wounding one of the He-Kisshi that sets off a track for a personal vendetta.

All in all, it's certainly a combustible explosive mix of things that go around here, in this bleak, grim but gloriously realized world (Think of the Highlands of Scotland being ruled by dark violent whimsical Gods!) that James has created for the Tides of War. The pacing is just relentless Well, with a wide array of characters and the whole bloody world heading off the cliff you wouldn't expect less. While not preachy or heavy-handed, James touches upon thought-provoking stuff throughout this violent and darkly fantastic sword-and-sorcery drama - Like good men forced to do evil stuff in a world that's coming to an end. There are side-stories here that may well spin off another heavy tome of dark fantasy but James keeps it reined in, focusing on, chiefly - yes Brogan and his quest to kill Gods that took away his family but also on the other sub-plots that round off the apocalypse coming to a head.

If I had to pick some faults, then it would have to be with the wide array of characters, While we focus on Brogan's struggle, there are countless other plot-lines that seemed to distract. And not all of them tying in with the major story-arc. There are character names that seem too similar to each other and leading to fair amounts of confusion. The POV's switch around randomly and we don't get to spend enough time with each, except perhaps Brogan. Like for example, I would have loved to get inside Harper's head, a man given to smiles and a supernatural sense of calm in the middle of chaos. The slavers' angle really didn't gel so with me but comes with a gut-wrenching twist by the end that sets up for some amazing things in the series to come. And so with Myridia and the Grakhuls, making their way to the prophesied destination. But this is a tale where there are no 'heroes'. They are all 'humans', flawed to a fault and with well realized motives for all their actions. Even so, with the Undying!

To sum up, James throws in elements of horror, dark fantasy, low magic and some amazing world-building into this boiling mix that somehow seems to work. Spinning off the staid old genre story-lines into a new direction with this epic take on God versus Man, The Last Sacrifice is a solid start to the sordid grim-dark tale documenting the end of a bleak violent world. The lines between heroes and villains blur as Gods seek to end the world.

Saturday, February 4, 2017

Movie Review: The Great Wall

The Great Wall was another one of those movie, where the trailer really did cover it all and the movie itself, didn't have much else to offer.

One of the biggest movies from China last year, director Zhang Yimou ('House of Flying Daggers') ties up Hollywood production values with Asian sensibilities to bring to life, one of the countless 'legends' about the staggering Great Wall of China in this movie - an epic fantasy adventure about mythical creatures that live in the North beyond the Wall who are out to annihilate the whole world - with the Wall and the Nameless order of brave, selfless soldiers the only protection against them.

The story arc brings nothing new - we've seen the barbarian from the west joining in on the fight to save the world, bringing his own cunning war tactics and selfless bravery to the fore in an Eastern setting. So the charismatic Matt Damon, William, a mercenary running from his past and in search of the elusive 'black rock' that could reverse his own down-in-the-dumps fortune, stumbles onto the Wall and the mysterious war that the world doesn't know. The Nameless order conscripted to patrol the wall and repel the advances of this intelligent race of demoniacal beasts ( Think of Orcs crossed up with Dinosaurs that communicate through their vibrating skins that trumpet complex signals!) that run riot, every sixty years. Will gradually gets indoctrinated to the ways of the soldiers, Trust or xin-ren forming the basis of his war, rather than money. The story leaps forward, in battle sequences, accelerating in size, scope and peril. Stakes keep mounting as the Tao-tie rise, locusts-like, swarming up the battle-ramparts of the wall, cunning and bestial at the same time, aiming to wreck havoc and eat anything up for the sake of their Queen.

The warfare sequences that forms the majority of the movie, is simply astounding. The fantasy elements, the inventiveness of the weaponry, the overall visual experience is a definite treat. Creative, stunning and very smooth. The drama however, falls a bit flat as the story-line follows predictable patterns and is a very familiar take on the monster-story. Matt Damon brings in depth and character yes, but too little, too late. The Chinese commanders remain just cardboard cut-outs with no backstories. There are brief moments of levity - especially the bonding between Matt and Pedro Pascal ( Oberyn Martell from the Game of Thrones), his buddy from the mercenary days whose sole aim is to get the black rock and flee back to his own country. This saves the movie from being a total expressionless disaster. Jing Tiang who plays the commander of the Crane Corps ( an all-female aerial combat specialists troop who take the first fight to the monsters, free-falling and diving down the ramparts of the Wall, armed with spears and harpoons! This by the way, was fucking awesome!) has the biggest story-arc among the Commanders and is the sole one, who can speak English and thus, connect to the barbarian and show him the ways of 'Xin-Ren' - and redeem his soul. But even she, appears wooden and stoic in close-up frames.

But for the watered down screenplay that tries to please a global audience, this Chinese visual spectacle would have been a wonderful import to the West. There is this climax scene, set in the Capital of the Kingdom as the monsters are running amok, the threat of a zombie apocalypse imminent and there is resplendent colored glass windows shattering inside these tall pagodas even as white balloons full of soldiers in the air, are exploding outside. This is so distinctly romantic - and Chinese. Only the Chinese can pull this off.

If you must see, then go. Not for Matt Damon but for some spectacular action set-pieces that combines Wuxia with Game of Thrones. 

Saturday, January 28, 2017

Movie Review: Raees (Hindi)

Here's a fact: I removed SRK from that pantheon inside my mind a few years back. Since he cannot stop doing that grand-romantic-gesture of his, hands stretched out, upper body bent at the waist with that stupid cocky dimpled grin on his face never wiped off. They kept saying he should learn to play his age and take a leaf out of Aamir Khan's book, maybe play a 'real' character instead of the same old superstar version of himself in every romantic movie. Even Salman Khan has learnt to take a beating ('Sultan') and toned himself down, not playing the Bhai, even trying to emote a bit.

So maybe this one's a start; for the legions of disappointed SRK 'fans' to get back to cheering. I truly sat up and was pleasantly surprised at this 'transformed' SRK; Shah Rukh gets his teeth right into the meat of this titular character of Raees, a small-time bootlegger in Gujarat where liquor is of course prohibited, in his latest movie, directed by Rahul Dholakia produced by, among others Farhan Akhtar who had given Shah Rukh some of his biggest movies, like Don. 

I don't know if Raees is going to reverse his fortunes but I truly believe that maybe, it's a start. We wrote off 'Fan' when SRK tried playing the double-role, an obsessive fan turning on his god-like idol but the story wasn't anything new. Too little, tool late. But even here, with this movie Raees, I don't think it's the story that matters. The rise of the small-time goon into the dreaded gangster who rules an empire, isn't new. But in fact, what is novel is the treatment of an SRK movie; at least in the first half where the narrative is real taut and the mood is grim and somber, befitting a rags-to-riches story. The movie is like a tribute to the Salim-Javed movies of the 70's-80's where every other dialogue leads to a wolf-whistle and the action keeps you on tenterhooks, replete with the Helen-item song ( this time, it's of course Sunny Leone grooving to sounds of Laila main Laila) 

Shah Rukh, with his retro-glasses and the kohl-lined eyes and the flowing pathani kurta exudes a ferocious leonine charm in the initial half - where his zeal to business, his shrewdness and daring wins him money and respect not just from his Fatehpur district but the movie audience who lionize his every fiery dialog and gritty and bloody action scenes. But the religious imagery worn on his sleeve, comes off a bit too strong by the second half where his manly charm and ferocity is overshadowed by his robin-hood act and this wish to 'do-good', making sure that he doesn't do the 'business of religion'. So it's a bit of the stretch of imagination, even for the die-hard but intelligent audience when he travels all the way to Mumbai one evening, to finish off the Muslim gangster and his sharp-shooter henchmen for having brought in RDX to set off bombs in his country. 

The second half drags but the one bright spot about the entire movie, is Nawazuddin Siddque. This powerhouse of a talent, proves that he can stand his own to the superstar charm of even Mr. SRK. His charming one-liners, witty repartees and the honest cop act who doesn't hesitate to bring down the mightiest of the criminals, is an absolute treat. I would say, if not to watch Shah Rukh try and redeem himself (at least in some parts of the movie) you should go watch Raees for Siddique’s brilliance. The scene crackles with energy, wit and anticipation whenever he steps up and his run-ins with SRK's bootlegger character is definitely paisa-vasool. We only wish there were more. The chutzpah and the unerring confidence is his style-signature that wins hearts and more. Oh and yeah, there is a heroine in the movie. I think her name ends in a Khan as well. But I clearly don't remember what her role was. Other than be in the songs (Uddi, Uddi and Zaalima are eminently hummable. Laila of course was a riot!) 

Atul Kulkarni, Jaideep Ahlawat and Mohammed Zeeshan Ayub play their own meaningful roles besides the main two guys but I think, what Raees does very well, is to bring alive the small-town setting of Gujarat. Yes, it's an unabashed out and out commercial potboiler of a movie and doesn't do enough justice to the serious issues it plays footsie with - Hindu-muslim divide, the resultant riots and prohibition curfew etc. It probably shoots itself in the foot, trying to be a star-vehicle in the second half, Shah Rukh's initial swagger giving away to the angry, incessant hamming about 'Dhanda is Dharam' and we do feel a bit weary at the end, happy to see the predictable end of a gangster who lives violently. 

But all said and done, I personally felt this was a high for Shah Rukh Khan and pray that the movie does well enough for him to pick and choose, more 'character' roles of a similar fashion and not fall prey to his own larger-than-life stature. 

Friday, January 27, 2017

Dreadnought (Nemesis#1) by April Daniels

I haven't read a super-hero theme book in a while - (Note to myself: Need to speed up, finish the Reckoners series by Brandon Sanderson, I have only read Steelheart.) and so when I read the excerpt, first chapters of Dreadnought by April Daniels, I just couldn't resist my trigger-happy finger from requesting a copy. And Baaam! < comic-book style large-sized fist slamming into you!> I am floored!

This book is a sensitive and intelligent portrayal of a superhero origin story - heavily exploring themes of LGBT in a manner that is at once, refreshing and original from the point of view of a fifteen-year. Daniel(le) Tozer, is a trans-gender and has always wanted to be a girl but has never had the courage to come out of the closet. Instead resorts to hiding behind parking-garage walls to indulge in something simple yet guilty, like painting toe-nails. But that's when the world's greatest superhero, Dreadnought drops dead from the sky and in a bizarre and shocking turn of events, transfers the mantle and powers to her. And its not just the super-powers that she inherits. But the body she always wanted, that of a girl.

Rapturous with joy and yet, guilty as hell - Danny's world is suddenly turned upside down and she realizes she isn't ready to handle this change. Nor is the world. Starting with her dad, who has always called his 'son' a pussy for being weak and wants 'him'to be strong. A mom who doesn't stand up for her and secretly wishes she had her 'son' back. And then, there is David, once Danny's best friend, who suddenly develops a keen interest in her and wants to 'date' her.

And of course, there is the larger problem of this 'super-villain' called Utopia, who had killed the previous Dreadnought. There is of course, the fragmented upper-echelon of a superhero chairing committee comprised of the world's greatest superheroes, the Legion Pacifica, who want to give her a provisional membership, provided she abide by some rules. But even here, Danny's path isn't smooth - there are those within the legion who spit-fire at the very fact that she is a 'trans-gender' and others who of course, want to make 'use' of her prowess.

You see, while the book broaches an emotional topic and does a fine job indeed of portraying the mental tussles of a fifteen-year old, the alternating bursts of supreme confidence and blundering vulnerability which crowd out the minds of such, it still remains an amazingly entertaining fare. The pacing is spotless, the world-building maybe a bit sparse but the author still gives us a picture of this world filled with superheroes, a sort of hierarchical strata between these caped crusaders ( from black, to grey and then white, the highest form of super-prowess) and of course, it is interspersed with some crackling high-octane super-hero showdowns that leads to crumpled buildings and nuked craters in the earth.

The main voice is that of Danny, this girl who has to come of age, figure out her super-prowess all the while struggling to come to terms with her gender issues. Its a fun, irreverent and yet sensitive characterization. A girl juggling homework and saving crashed-up airlines at the same time, who finally decides to confront her detractors and also that super-villain determined to nuke the world into nothingness. The rising tension finally explodes in those final chapters and makes for an immensely gratifying read.

Apart from Danny, there are of course others who help her get past the finish-line: Sarah, or Calamity, a superhero or meta-human who loves playing the vigilante and befriends Danny in these difficult times. And then, there is Doc Impossible, a super-techie who loves chain-smoking and almost becomes that mother-figure for Danny as her own family disowns her.

An emotionally rich, action-packed super-hero origins story that dares to take an intelligent stand on the sensitive LGBT themes and does it spectacularly right. Loved it!

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Waiting on Wednesday

Keeping in with the Wednesday themes of noting down some of the noteworthy releases coming up for the year, this week on this meme (run by Jill @ Breaking the Spine) I'm extremely kicked about this standalone book in the Universe of Emperor's Blades, the Chronicles of the Unhewn Throne - that really saw Brian Staveley catapult to the top-list of my favorite-fantasy-writers. The series, by the way, is finished and can be read as an excellent fantasy magnum-opus of the grim-dark and brutal variety that has it all - politics and war on an epic grand scope, sibling rivalry, ancient magic and secrets - executed in the most amazing manner that feels so heartrendingly and yet so good.

(Read my reviews of Book-I, Book-II and Book-III )

So when I came to know that Brian is writing another novel in the same universe and this time, focusing on one of the minor characters story-arc ( Ahem - Pyrre, the Assassin!) I was so thrilled. And now, finally it's going to be out in a few months and I cannot wait to get my hands on the same!

This one's called Skullsworn, comes out April 2017 and in Brian's own words,

"My newest book, Skullsworn, is about an assassin, Pyrre, who goes back to the city of her birth to pass the final test of her religious order: killing ten people in a month. She’s not all that worried about the killing—after all, she’s been training for fifteen years among some of the most deadly men and women in the world. The trouble is, the test stipulates that among the ten offerings, one must be a person that she loves. And Pyrre has never been in love. So it’s a romance novel—some kissing, some heartache, some sex—but with monsters, murder, and buckets and buckets of blood."

Pyrre Lakatur doesn’t like the word skullsworn. It fails to capture the faith and grace, the peace and beauty of her devotion to the God of Death. She is not, to her mind, an assassin, not a murderer--she is a priestess. At least, she will be a priestess if she manages to pass her final trial.

The problem isn’t the killing. Pyrre has been killing and training to kill, studying with some of the most deadly men and women in the world, since she was eight. The problem, strangely, is love. To pass her Trial, Pyrre has ten days to kill the ten people enumerated in an ancient song, including "the one you love / who will not come again."

Pyrre is not sure she’s ever been in love. If she were a member of a different religious order, a less devoted, disciplined order, she might cheat. The Priests of Ananshael, however, don’t look kindly on cheaters. If Pyrre fails to find someone to love, or fails to kill that someone, they will give her to the god.

Pyrre’s not afraid to die, but she hates to quit, hates to fail, and so, with a month before her trial begins, she returns to the city of her birth, the place where she long ago offered an abusive father to the god and abandoned a battered brother—in the hope of finding love...and ending it on the edge of her sword.

Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Resistance by Mikhaeyla Kopievsky ( Divided Elements # 1)

Even though epic fantasy is my favorite genre when it comes to speculative fiction, I find of late I've been veering more into 'easier' sub-genres to read, like urban fantasy or the dystopian settings. Now easier of course is a relative term as I generally tend to blast through the urban/dystopian settings relishing the pace and thrill of a novel set in times and a world, familiar to the ones we are in. And so, when I first requested for Resistance, the debut novel from Mikhaeyla Kopievsky that is the first part in an intended series, Divided Elements - the premise looked familiar and a path, well-trodden before.

The world after an unexplained apocalypse, in a time possibly in the future with the society divided into clear hard hierarchical stratas called Elementals based on their affinity to different forms. Called out as Air, Earth, Water and Fire. So imagine my pleasant surprise when I realized that this one, was different. I was in for a shock with this book. In a good way. Resistance has been compared to the Divergent series, being touted as Divergent for the Adults but I think the similarities end in just that premise about the societal strata being decided based on your inherent affinity to a skill. This book, definitely goes way beyond the normal in defining those 'affinities' ( And in that manner, is miles ahead of a superficial comparison to the Divergent series, never losing track of the bigger question about what happens if you are a 'Heterodox' with natural affinities to more than one Element?) Mikhaeyla then goes on to do a mind-fuck on the reader as you realize that you're stuck inside the protagonist's head whose natural alignments have been tampered with, so to finish a mission but her re-alignment might have cost her more than just her job!

As I got sucked deeper into this well realized beautiful world, I realized the book is an interesting mix of dystopian setting layered on with a science-fictional society; This strict society has rigid rules about conforming to a preordained and pre-programmed manner of thought and deed. There is a steep learning curve here and my initial few chapters were slow as Mikhaeyla doesn't take the easy route and instead, writes in a lucid, intelligent manner that challenges the reader to take pause and note down the world being built around Anaiya, the main protagonist.

Anaiya, is a Fire Elemental - and a Peacekeeper tasked with the maintaining Orthodoxy ("The right way to think and act, as you are pre-programmed") in the society. Fire Elementals are by nature, enhanced with superior physical endurance, abilities to sense the "weight" of a public space that let's them ascertain the levels of risk of riots through such gathering, a sixth sense about dangers and also are able to project into the future about the different possibilities of an event, through "future-searches". Now while Anaiya is a conscientious and hard-working Elemental, striving for promotions and accolades, she is also trying hard to get out of the shadow of her former mentor, Kane - who incidentally is the most high-profile case of "Heterodoxy" - of someone willing to go against the collective societal rules, of  not conforming to their own pre-ordained affinities and willing to be a rebel.

So right from when we meet Anaiya, she is a tortured soul, her fragile mindspace warring with these thoughts of shame and insecurity in this regimented society. She is also constantly striving to compete with her current Peacekeeping partner, Niamh - a ruthlessly ambitious Fire elemental who doesn't shy away from breaking the rules, just to get ahead and be promoted to higher ranks. And to make matters worse, the Heterodoxy is now slowly raising its ugly head in the society, where a group of secret rebels are raising their voices against this tyranny. Painted Murals, with the word 'Resistance' written in large appear on buildings and walls. And then it hurts that Niamh, her partner who has risen steadily through the ranks, is actually the one who picks up Ani for an experimental operation; Something that has never before been attempted, a realignment of one's brain-functions mapping to a different Elemental affinity. Ani is sent on a covert mission, to break into a group of Air Elementals, suspected of Heterodoxy.

Things get really complex behind the enemy lines. So Anaiya, now an Air Elemental experimenting with music and sounds, starts to doubt herself, questioning her own loyalty towards the larger cause as she sees the world in a completely light as an Air Elemental. And since complications have a way of nesting down together, Ani's heart goes and and does a complete fillip on her: Falling for the wrong guy, a mysteriously charming stranger, Seth; An air elemental friendly with this group that matches the suspect profile as built up by the Analysts back in the Peacekeeping force.

I loved the ideas in the book, no two ways about it. They are original and ambitious - and despite being a debut, the quality of the writing has the assured aplomb of a seasoned writer. The pacing is quite on your nose and you get swept along, in the rising levels anxiety and tension as Ani struggles with her mind and the newly minted feelings that resist with her sense of loyalty buried deep-down. Mikhaeyla's society is convincing and the setting of this post-apocalyptic Paris where drugs, sex and night life spill out into the streets full of Izzakaya bars is utterly arresting.

The characters that fill up this wondrous speculative world, are also nicely drawn up - complementing the thought-provoking narrative. Seth, as the mysterious Air Elemental whom Ani falls for, is quite a charming personality, strong with rock-hard beliefs and a creative bend of mind. There are others in the group - like Rehd, quite the open rebel-child who is flashy and life-of-the-party effervescent, while Kaide is the strong, silent companion, a less flashy but more intellectual and creative shadow to these two. And of course, there is Niamh, whom we would love to hate. For his deep-rooted ideals and brutally unforgiving ambition that forms his core.

My one grouch with the novel is probably, with the internal struggles and the vacillating nature of the main protagonist that tended to drag things down a bit in the middle. While at heart this one is a book about a revolution, it surprisingly is kept clean when it comes to violence. There are hints of how well Mikhaeyla can layer in some heavy-duty action scenes (Eg. Peacekeeper detaining any riots) if it comes to that but there aren't too many explicit conflicts that require this.

A book that would appeal to fans of dystopia (Think 1984, George Orwell) Resistance is an utterly thought-provoking and subversive book in this genre - Highly entertaining, poignant and brutal by shades, Divided Elements is an original novel, pushing the boundaries of this genre - and Mikhaeyla is surely a writer to watch out for. 

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Raven Song (Inoki's Game # 1) by IA Ashcroft (Blog Tour)

Raven Song is the first book in this series called Inoki's Game, by IA Ashcroft introducing us to this dark, dystopian world, teetering after a nuclear holocaust, filled with magic and inexplicable dangers. I took this up on a whim after I read the premise of the book. I signed up for the blog tour ( and as usual, I got a bit late in posting the review!) and started the same, the last week of my holiday season hoping I could whizz through it. Alas - a combination of reasons saw me plod through it and not wrap this up in time. Well, mainly two reasons. The pacing of the novel and of course, the new year rush that crowds in on your time.

About the Book

A century ago, the world burned. Even now, though rebuilt and defiant, civilization is still choking on the ashes.

Jackson, a smuggler, lives in the shadows, once a boy with no memory, no name, and no future. Ravens followed him, long-extinct birds only he could see, and nightmares flew in their wake. Once, Jackson thought himself to be one of the lucky few touched by magic, a candidate for the Order of Mages. He is a man now, and that dream has died. But, the ravens still follow. The nightmares still whisper in his ear.

Anna’s life was under the sun, her future bright, her scientific work promising. She knew nothing of The Bombings, the poisoned world, or the occult. One day, she went to work, and the next, she awoke in a box over a hundred years in the future, screaming, fighting to breathe, and looking up into the eyes of a smuggler. Anna fears she’s gone crazy, unable to fill the massive hole in her memories, and terrified of the strange abilities she now possesses.

The Coalition government has turned its watchful eyes towards them. The secret factions of the city move to collect them first. And, old gods stir in the darkness, shifting their pawns on the playing field.

If Anna and Jackson wish to stay free, they must learn what they are and why they exist.

Unfortunately, even if they do, it may be too late.

Raven Song is the first of a four book adult-oriented dystopian fantasy series, a story of intrigue, love, violence, and the old spirits in the shadows who wait for us to notice them again. Readers of Neil Gaiman, Holly Black, and Charlie Human will enjoy this dark magic-laced tale rooted on the bones of what our world could become.

Author Bio:

I. A. Ashcroft has been writing fiction in many forms for almost twenty years. The author's first book, written at age seven, featured the family cat hunting an evil sorceress alongside dragons and eagles. This preoccupation with the fantastical has not changed in the slightest.

Now, the author dwells in Phoenix, AZ alongside a wonderful tale-spinner and two increasingly deranged cats. Ashcroft writes almost exclusively in the realm of darker fantasy these days, loving to entertain adults with stories of magic, wonder, despair, violence, and hope, bringing a deep love of mythology into every tale penned. The author also loves diverse and intriguing casts of characters.

When not buried in a book, one might find Ashcroft learning languages, charting road trips, and playing tabletop RPGs with clever and fun people.

You can buy the book here: Amazon || Barnes & Noble || Kobo


There's nothing wrong with the plot itself and its a fairly original, fresh take on the dystopian fiction. We land right in the middle of a futuristic society, living in the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust, a technologically created 'barrier' protecting the atmosphere within the cities and people protected from the mutations and 'magic' as spread by the nuclear poisoning by this government agency called 'Coalition'.

Into this chaotic mess, we land in with Jackson, a smuggler with 'weird dreams' problems who as a boy has no memory of his past and Anna, a research scientist who lands up in current times trapped in a box, having no memory of how she time-traveled from the past. And of course, both of them have unexplored talents that ticks off the antennae of the government agents - and a lot of other nefarious organizations for their own vested goals.

You see, both our protagonists have this 'memory' issue. While a powerful hook in itself, I thought this premise left too much questions unanswered. And Ashcroft doesn't make it easy on the reader either - While the tension is cranked up slowly higher, we are left fuming, impatient and tapping our foot as both Jackson and Anna play the bumbling idiots, waiting for circumstances to land them in hotter soup than they already are. I felt both the leads tended to play the 'helpless' because of the raw hand dealt by Fate way too often. The initial first half of the book, there really wasn't much happening, Ashcroft setting up his lead characters with a lot of introspection.

And indeed, the beauty of the book is that there is a lot of that introspection that moves the plot forward. There is back-stories to both Jackson and Anna - recurring dreams, moving shadows and of course, the presence of the mysterious ravens. As an urban fantasy that weaves down the streets of dark and devilish, Ashcroft does a bang-up job. The tropes are of course there, the Chosen Ones and Old Magi who can guide the lost ones etc - but right around the halfway mark, Ashcroft does a complete 180-degree flip and reveals one of the main antagonists; and this literally blew me away and made me sit up. He does a great job of painting up the characterization of the villain and weaves in some of the random narratives into this explanation.

Jackson and Anna both are well fleshed lead characters but somehow, they don't exactly behave in the way you would expect the hero/heroine of an urban fantasy to act. They get to their grooves eventually but Ashcroft makes them take their sweet time, getting to their powers. Riddled by self-doubts, unreliable memories and craven, because of extenuating circumstances they are thrust into, Jackson and Anna definitely weren't my favorite people. There are characters introduced early on who don't get so well utilized ( Hello, Genial Old Man Magi!) by the end of the story. And well, there weren't too many pay-offs for the questions built up over the course of this story.

For all this, I am going in with a 3-star; Somewhere past the half-way mark, Ashcroft really rises the quality of his writing, jump-starts the plodding narrative injecting a lot of tension and some well set up action. The jittery Jackson and Ann-combo really made my day in those few heart-wrenching moments when they take on the villain together. With just too many questions left unanswered and cryptic clues about Inoki's Game, it is obvious Ashcroft is in this for the long haul. Color me curious, I will get on that ride. The Game, as they say, is ON.