Robyn Reviews: The Shadow of the Gods

‘The Shadow of the Gods’ is the first book in John Gwynne’s ‘Bloodsworn Saga’, a new epic fantasy series inspired by Norse mythology. It tells an excellent, brutal tale, punctuated throughout by a sense of unease. The world Gwynne creates is cruel and unflinching, with no safety for the characters within. This is definitely a read for epic fantasy fans who like their stories on the bloodier side.

The land of Vigrid has been shattered by the fall of the gods, driven to extinction by war. In the broken remains, power-hungry Jarls feud for dominance, and monsters – remnants of the dead gods – stalk the lands. Amidst this chaos, Orka, a wife and mother, tries to eke out a living for her family, staying away from the politicking Jarls. Varg, a fugitive thrall, tries to find justice for his sister. And Elvar, daughter of a noble bloodline, rejects her heritage and goes in search of battle fame. Each are very different, living very separate lives – but something is rising, a dormant power believed dead that could spell the end of Vigrid once and for all.

Unusually for a novel with multiple perspectives, each of Gwynne’s protagonists is equally strong, with an equally compelling storyline. It can be a little difficult at times to keep each character straight – there are a lot of names, some of them very similar (like Elvar and Einar) – but once this is established, each plotline makes a worthy contribution. Orka has retired from the mercenary life, settling down with her husband and son and focusing on raising her family. Her son, Breca, is a sweet child, one constantly going out of his way to save animals and trying to make people do the right thing. In contrast, Orka is a tough, fierce woman, a warrior who may no longer be actively fighting, but who still analyses every situation like a war. Her love for her family is overwhelming and she’ll do anything to protect them. Orka is regularly rash, but she’s an incredibly strong fighter and, despite a lack of regard for human life, she does have a moral compass pointing in more or less the right direction.

Varg is undoubtedly the nicest of the protagonists. He’s spent most of his life as a thrall – a slave to a master’s bidding. His escape has led to a bounty on his head and him being named a murderer, but really all Varg wants is justice for his sister. Varg is constantly getting into situations well over his head, but he has a desperate will to survive and a generous dollop of luck. Varg ends up joining a band of mercenaries, the Bloodsworn, almost by accident, but once there he finds himself with friendship for the first time in his life. The ensuing moral battle between justice for his sister and loyalty to his new friends is beautifully written,as is Varg’s struggle to fight and kill when really all he wants is peace. Varg has the most complete character arc over the course of the novel, so it will be interesting which direction he goes in in the sequel.

Elvar starts the novel as a bit of a mystery. She’s a member of the Battle Grim, another band of mercenaries, but her place isn’t quite established. She also has a mysterious bodyguard, Grend, steadfastly loyal but looked upon with caution by the rest of the Battle Grim. Elvar is another fierce warrior, but unlike Orka it’s initially less clear what she’s fighting for. As the novel progresses, more about Elvar’s past is revealed, and her precarious position in the Battle Grim starts to make sense. Beyond anything, Elvar desires freedom – a desire which many can empathise with.

Gwynne’s worldbuilding is excellent, although this is definitely a novel which benefits from regularly referring to a map. Vigrid is a land divided into sections, each ruled by a Jarl – a powerful warrior. There’s also a Queen, Helga, trying to move away from the feudal system to a more united reign – going about this, naturally, by being stronger than all the rest. The magic system, a minor part, is based on the defeated gods – some people have a remnant of the gods’ powers in their blood, making them known as the Tainted. These people are collared and controls, treated as lower than the thrall slaves. The Tainteds’ powers depend on the god they inherited them from, but are always related to battle. Gwynne avoids info-dumps,instead spreading this information across the novel and allowing the reader to infer it. This allows the novel to flow smoothly, although at the expense of a small amount of confusion as all of the new terms are introduced.

The ending is excellent. A novel with three such separate plotlines is hard to end satisfactorily, but Gwynne manages it, each plotline ending neatly but with clear potential for future development.

Overall, ‘The Shadow of the Gods’ is an exceptionally strong epic fantasy novel, packed with Norse mythology and with three equally strong character arcs. I’ll definitely be keeping my eyes peeled for the sequel. Recommended to all fans of epic fantasy and Norse mythology.

Thanks to NetGalley and Orbit for providing an eARC – this in no way affects the content of this review

Published by Orbit
Hardback: 6th May 2021

Robyn Reviews: The Poppy War

‘The Poppy War’ is historical fantasy at its finest – engaging, beautifully written, with its own spin on events but clearly based on established source material. For a debut, it’s incredibly assured, with a style more reminiscent of a master of the fantasy genre. This is a dark story, but for those who enjoy grimdark fantasy there are few better examples.

Fang Runin, known as Rin, is an orphan from Rooster province, raised by an aunt who only cares about marrying her off to further the family’s criminal enterprise. Determined to escape her aunt’s planned fate, Rin studies night and day for the Keju – the test all youths in the empire can take to join a military academy. To her surprise, she aces it, and is accepted into the empire’s most prestigious academy – Sinegard. But being a Southern girl – poor, dark-skinned, lacking grace and connections – is not easy at such a prestigious institution, and it’s even less easy for a girl with an aptitude for the dangerous, half-mythical magic of shamanism. With the threat of war on the horizon, Rin must navigate the twin minefields of Sinegard and Shamanism before her people are destroyed – and before a vengeful god destroys her.

“I have become something wonderful, she thought. I have become something terrible. Was she now a goddess or a monster? Perhaps neither. Perhaps both.”

Rin makes a brilliant protagonist. She’s fiesty and determined, with a ready anger always brewing near the surface. She’s exceptionally morally grey, with many flaws, but her drive makes the reader root for her anyway. She also has the most beautiful friendship with Kitay – it’s unusual to have a central male-female friendship without a hint of romance, and it’s a delight reading about their pure and platonic bond.

Kitay, on the other hand, is an exceptionally sweet character. A scholar, he’s quiet and easily underestimated, and always wants to take the peaceful route. He and Rin are complete opposites yet compliment each other in a strange way.

The other primary characters – Jiang, Nezha, and Altan – are mostly mysteries. Nezha starts unlikeable but goes through exceptional character development. Similarly, Altan starts relatively two-dimensional but the more the reader learns about him the more it becomes clear that he’s suffered hugely and simply does whatever it takes to numb the pain.

This is very much a book of two halves. The first is a standard trope of high fantasy – a poor, orphan girl who unexpectedly finds herself at a prestigious institution and has to navigate the complex politics. This half is well-written, giving a solid background to all the key characters and establishing relationship dynamics. However, it’s the second half which truly makes this book special. Here, there’s an evolution to a full-on military fantasy, with skirmishes and battle plans and deeper exploration of shamanism and the destruction it can cause. Kuang’s writing is exceptional, balancing painting gorgeous pictures of setting with complex military dynamics and huge emotional impact. There are no weak points – it balances three-dimensional, morally grey characters with equally strong plot and utterly believable worldbuilding. Fans of fantasy for many reasons can find something to like here.

“War doesn’t determine who’s right. War determines who remains.”

Overall, ‘The Poppy War’ is a remarkable debut and the start of a brilliant, fascinating military fantasy inspired by the Second Sino-Japanese war. Recommended for fans of any fantasy – as long as they don’t mind it on the darker side – along with Asian history and just expertly written books.

My review of the final book in the trilogy, The Burning God, can be found here.

Published by HarperVoyager
Hardback: May 1st 2018 / Paperback: April 23rd 2019

Robyn Reviews: The Unbroken

‘The Unbroken’ is a debut epic fantasy inspired by North Africa, chronicling the lives of a princess trying to control a colonial city in her empire, and a soldier stolen from the colony as a child and returning for the first time as an oppressor. It takes a harsh, unflinching look at the realities of colonialism, with some hard-hitting messages. There are clear signs that this is a debut – it’s rough around the edges – but the central themes make it an interesting read.

Touraine is a solider for Balladaire, stolen from her Qazali homeland as a child and raised to fight for the empire. She’s risen as high as a Sand – a non-Balladairian – can in her army, but she’s determined to prove herself and her loyalty. Her Sands mean everything to her, and she feels she owes the empire everything. When she’s sent to hold the Qazali city against rebels and protect the Balladairian princess, she makes it her job to do all she can – but blood is strong, and she soon finds herself in the centre of a rebel conspiracy. The princess, Luca, sees the perfect opportunity to send a spy into the rebel ranks. However, the longer Touraine spends in the city, the more she begins to doubt her place – is her loyalty to Balladaire, the Qazali, the Sands, or to herself?

The story alternates perspectives between Touraine and Luca, with Touraine the far more interesting character. Touraine just wants to fit in. She wants to be respected for her military achievements, for her loyalty, for her passion -but all she gets is derision from all sides. The Balladairians will never see her as one of them, and to the Qazali she’s a traitor. Even the other Sands can’t decide if they love her or hate her. Touraine’s struggles with her identity are hard-hitting and poignant – this is a bleak book for huge swathes of the story, and most of that is simply Touraine unable to find a place in a world where who you are is everything. Her divided loyalties are brilliantly portrayed and feel blisteringly raw and realistic. Her arc is twisty and complicated, sometimes changing exceptionally fast, but her ending is fitting – especially given the tone of the book.

Luca, on the other hand, is every inch the spoilt, pampered princess. She’s used to getting what she wants, and whilst she thinks her intentions are good she definitely epitomises the white saviour complex. She has little political acumen and stumbles trying to navigate the politics of the city, struggling to hold the leash of all the other leaders out for blood. Luca isn’t a bad person, but for someone supposedly smart – she’s an amateur scholar with a keen eye for strategy games – she grossly misreads how to manage almost every situation, including Touraine. As a counterpoint to Touraine she’s an engaging enough character, but Touraine has by far the better character arc.

The plot is twisty and complicated, with constant betrayals and political maneouvering. The fact that Touraine’s divided loyalties make it unclear what side she’s on at any given time make certain parts hard to follow, but they also lend and intriguing air of unpredictability – even she doesn’t know what she’ll do next. Because the plot is so changeable it does make certain scenes lack emotional impact – the reader barely has time to process one thing before being thrown into the next with an entirely different perspective – but Touraine in general gives the reader a constant air of low-level discomfort which makes up for that. This isn’t a nice book, and it’s not always an enjoyable read, but it packs a punch and forces the reader to think.

The main issue with it is the romance. The romance between Touraine and Luca gets little page time but has a significant bearing on aspects of the plot – and unfortunately, it just isn’t particularly believable. The two characters have sexual chemistry, but it’s hard to see how two such different people who barely understand each other could ever form a proper romantic relationship. Luca’s crush on Touraine is understandable, but what Touraine could want with a princess who barely sees her people as more than tools is hard to fathom. There’s no real need for this book to have a romance element, and personally I think it would have been stronger without it.

The worldbuilding is simple but strong. The empire looks down upon the Qazali as savages – they still worship a god when religion is banned, they’re incapable of the civilised culture of Balladaire – and the Qazali see the Balladairians as thieves and oppressors, stealing their children and subjugating them to slavery and torture. There’s magic, linked to worship and the Qazali god, but this is never explained – left a mystery to the reader as it is to Balladaire.The descriptions are functional rather than lyrical, but this works perfectly with the harsher, darker tone of the novel.

Overall, ‘The Unbroken’ lacks polish but is worth reading simply for the fascinating depiction of colonialism and identity. Recommended for fans of political fantasy and historical fiction.

Thanks to Orbit for providing an ARC – this in no way affects the content of this review

Published by Orbit
Paperback: 25th March 2021

Robyn Reviews: Black Sun

‘Black Sun’ is the first book in the new ‘Between Earth and Sky’ series, an epic fantasy tale inspired by pre-Columbian American mythology. It weaves a tight, dark, intriguing tale of conspiracy and magic, creating a world of vast potential. I can’t wait to see where Roanhorse takes it next.

The holy city of Tova is preparing for the Winter Solstice – always a time of celebration, but this year even more special as it coincides with the solar eclipse. Naranpa, the Sun Priest, is trying to make sure everything is ready – but her appointment as the Sun Priest was controversial, and her power is less absolute than it might seem. Meanwhile, across the sea, a young man named Serapio is preparing to sail to Tova to fulfil a prophesised destiny. Scarred and blinded, he’s described as harmless to the ship’s captain Xiala – but Xiala knows well that men described as harmless often turn out to be the villain.

Naranpa is an easy character to empathise with. Born in the slums of Tova, she should never have risen high enough to become the Sun Priest – yet rise she did, in the process acquiring few allies and many enemies. She can trust no one. Naranpa is naive and ignorant in many ways, but her intentions are good, and she always remains true to herself and her beliefs. Her arc is less interesting than Xiala’s or Serapio’s, but I suspect she’ll have an important role in the sequels.

Serapio is a fascinating character. As a child, his mother carved up his back and sewed his eyes shut so he could fulfil a higher purpose. She promptly vanished, abandoning him blind with a father who couldn’t stand to look at him. Serapio’s life has been one of suffering, but it’s left him a controlled and measured man – whip smart, deadly in a fight, and far more than meets the eye. He’s definitely on the grey side of morally grey, but it’s impossible not to sympathise with his life and understand why he does what he does.

Xiala is the best character in the book. An exiled Teek, Xiala’s first love is the sea. She’s a sailor, using her Teek magic to bend the winds and waves to her favour, but the superstition of her fellow sailors makes her few friends. Xiala is honest to a fault, coarse, practical, and eminently likeable. Her Teek abilities are fascinating, and the brief glimpses we get are brilliantly portrayed. As an exile, it’s unclear if Xiala doesn’t fully understand her potential or merely represses it, but watching her come to terms with the full extent of her nature is brilliant. Her evolving relationship with Serapio, her cargo, is also cleverly written, with very few words required to create a brilliant atmosphere.

For an epic fantasy novel, ‘Black Sun’ is relatively short. There are four major points of view – Naranpa, Serapio, Xiala, and Okoa, who is introduced later than the others – each with a discrete plotline, even as their stories intersect. The wealth of characters and different storylines means each distinct narrative thread can only tell a limited tale. Each is solid, but the end result is that this very much feels like a set-up novel. This doesn’t detract from it – the pace is still fast, with plenty of action and intrigue – but Roanhorse easily could have gotten away with adding at least a hundred extra pages. The ending is satisfying, but a world this unique and detailed merits deeper exploration.

Overall, ‘Black Sun’ is an excellent start to a series. Roanhorse creates a world of enormous potential populated by solid characters. However, the tale told here barely scratches the surface of what could be done with such a setup, so I’m hopeful that later books go deeper. A recommended read.

Published by Rebellion
Paperback: 21st January 2021

Robyn Reviews: We Lie With Death

‘We Lie With Death’ is the sequel to ‘We Ride the Storm‘, and again was originally self-published before Madson’s deal with Orbit. It picks up immediately where ‘We Ride the Storm’ left off – but where the former was action-packed military fantasy, ‘We Lie With Death’ is slower, with far more journeying than politics. It’s a clear second in a series, which unfortunately makes it a less engaging read.

Northern Kisia has been conquered, with a new emperor on the throne. However, his rule is fragile, depending on uneasy alliances – including with those many would rather see dead. Amidst the chaos of rebel factions, political maneuverings, and a land fractured in two, Rah e-Torin – once head of the Second Swords of Torin – must decide where his loyalties truly lie. Meanwhile, Miko, the dethroned empress, determines to claw back her crown, with allies thinner and thinner on the ground. Cassandra, once an assassin of renown, finds herself a slave – but also privy to information that could change the course of the entire war. Finally, Dishiva e’Jaroven, loyal to the new emperor, tries to reconcile herself to her new life – no matter how foreign and distasteful it might seem.

Cassandra was the most interesting character in book one, and here she’s finally utilised to her full potential. Her arc is completely separate to the other characters, exploring the backstory and magic system of Madson’s world, and it makes a compelling tale. Cassandra cares little for politics or war, but her revelations will likely be more important for how everything ends up than every other character’s put together.

Rah remains a genuinely nice man – but his honour also makes him a frustrating one at times. His loyalty is absolute – except he isn’t always sure what he’s being loyal too. His internal struggles are well-written and convincing, and while he doesn’t develop greatly from ‘We Ride the Storm’, he remains hard to dislike. Without a major character arc, he likely could have been given less page time – but it’s pleasant enough being inside his head.

Miko has lost everything except her name, and how she copes should be fascinating to read about. As a character she’s excellent – not always nice, and perhaps not with the best motives beyond a stubborn desire to cling on to power, but utterly believable – but unfortunately, her scenes suffer from the fact that very little actually happens. Miko spends the majority of the book travelling, attempting to find allies – and while Madson does her best to add tidbits of interest, the sheer length of the book makes this hard to wade through. Her scenes pick up hugely towards the end, but it’s unnecessary challenging to get there.

Dishiva is the only new POV character, and her introduction packs a punch – but from there, she goes a bit downhill. She’s the least memorable of the four characters, so while she has some excellent scenes – and provides much-needed insight into the workings of the new empire – she doesn’t entirely justify her inclusion. She’s possibly a tad too similar to Rah, and struggles to stand up in comparison. That being said, her romantic arc is sweet, and hopefully she’ll come into her own as the series develops.

The pacing is where this falls down compared to its predecessor. It’s too slow, with occasional action scenes so quick they give you whiplash. The abrupt change lacks any real impact, instead leaving confusion. There are some excellent moments, and I love the deeper discoveries around Cassandra and the background magic, but overall this just doesn’t flow well. It also feels its nearly 600 pages in length, rather than pulling you in and allowing the pages to flow by.

In summary, ‘We Lie With Death’ expands upon the excellent foundations of ‘We Ride the Storm’, but it isn’t quite the same standard. I’ll probably continue with the series, but I hope any future books iron out the issues in pacing. Recommended to fans of political fantasy and A Song of Ice and Fire (if you made it through book three, the journeying here will seem like a short stroll in comparison).

Thanks to Orbit for providing an ARC – this in no way affects the content of this review

Published by Orbit
Paperback: 14th January 2021

Robyn Reviews: The Stone Knife

‘The Stone Knife’ is the first book in the intended ‘Songs of the Drowned’ trilogy, a new gritty epic fantasy series by Anna Stephens. The writing is raw and visceral, the world-building broad in scope, and the characters varied and intriguing. It’s a book that demands attention – it took me almost a month to read, because I regularly didn’t have the concentration and energy it required – but when given its due, this is a worthwhile read.

Over decades, the tribes of Ixachipan have fallen one by one to the Empire of Songs. Now just two tribes – the Tokob and Yalot – remain, determined to hold onto their freedom. Tayan, a shaman of the Tokob, communes with his goddess and determines to seek peace with the Empire – but his husband Lilla is preparing for war, and their friend Xessa is struggling to keep the Tokob safe from the threat of the Drowned, crocodile-like beasts which guard the tribe’s only water source. Meanwhile, Enet – first courtesan of the Singer, the ruler of the Empire of Songs – is trying to hold onto her tenuous position in his court, and Pilos, High Feather of the Empire’s armies, is trying to assure the Empire’s dominance over Ixachipan whilst dealing with Enet’s meddling closer to home. Epic fantasies which show all sides of the story are fantastic, showing that no force is precisely right or wrong, and Stephens doesn’t shy away from showing the atrocities committed by all sides in war.

The difficulty with large numbers of perspectives is it takes some time to adjust to and care about them all, and the story definitely starts slowly. The reader is introduced to the Tokob and their way of life – their shamanic rituals to their goddess Malel, their fight against the Drowned just to obtain water, the way each citizen swears their life to a certain path (e.g. the jaguar path for warriors or the snake path for those who face the Drowned). Once this is established, the counter perspectives – those living ‘under the song’ in the Empire – are gradually introduced. It takes a good 40% of the novel before everything settles and the story can start to gather pace. It also leads to some characters – especially Tayan and Xessa – being easier to care about than others. Xessa especially is a fascinating character – it’s unusual to see a Deaf character in fantasy, and the way this is both an asset and hindrance depending on the circumstance is well written. She’s also feisty, strong-willed, and has an unbelievably sweet romantic arc as well as the most loyal canine companion of all time.

The setting, Ixachipan, is inspired by central American civilisations. It’s a forest environment, with seasons of rain and drought playing a huge part in shaping society. While the central American influence is clear, the direction Stephens has taken it feels fresh and unique, and the additional fantasy elements are worked in seamlessly. An industrial colonising empire vs those with a more traditional way of life has been written many times before in many iterations, but Stephens blends in new ideas to keep this from feeling stale.

The diversity is also excellent. Gender – and attraction to genders – is mostly irrelevant in both Pechaqueh and Tokob society, with a central relationship between two male characters (Lilla and Tayan), and as many female warriors as male. Xessa is Deaf, and whilst there’s mention that this would likely lead to her death if she was born into the Empire, it’s seen as an asset to the Tokob.

There are minor issues with ‘The Stone Knife’. All epic fantasies start slowly – it takes time to understand the world and differentiate and care about the wide range of characters – but the pacing throughout feels a tad erratic, with some sections veering away from action to several paragraphs of explanation or time-skipping. Certain characters are also particularly irritating – there was one in particular who almost made me want to skip sections – and whilst I respect the author for writing difficult characters, it detracted from my enjoyment. However, it’s a solid novel and builds plenty of intrigue for what happens next.

This reads more like a Part One than a complete novel, with plenty of cliffhangers awaiting resolution in Book Two. I’ll definitely be picking up the second to find out what happens next.

Overall, this is a highly intriguing first book that creates an excellent – if dark – world with plenty of potential, populated by a diverse group of fascinating characters. Recommended for all fans of darker, grittier epic fantasy and diverse worlds.

Published by HarperVoyager
Hardback: 26th November 2020

Thanks to NetGalley and HarperVoyager for providing an eARC – this in no way affects the content of my review

Robyn’s Cosmere Christmas: Rhythm of War

‘Rhythm of War’ is the fourth book in The Stormlight Archive. Sanderson has stated he intends the series to be two sets of five books, so this is the penultimate in the first section and neatly sets up a finale. The ending is far more of a cliffhanger than previous books, setting up a huge amount of anticipation and suspense for how things might turn out. As a work of literature, this is arguably the worst in the series so far, but for sheer enjoyment it’s a brilliant installment that keeps the reader engaged throughout.

A year has passed since the events of Oathbringer. Dalinar has succeeded in forming a coalition of Knights Radiant – but the enemy Parshendi, or singers, have awoken their own powers too, leading to a brutal war of attrition with neither side obviously on top. In a bid to change the tide, the singers use a dangerous new technology to take a gamble – one that, if it succeeds, could change the entire course of the war and finally destroy the Knights Radiant. Meanwhile, Adolin and Shallan journey to the home of the honorspren to beg for reinforcements for the Radiants, and Kaladin battles the one foe he’s never been able to defeat – his own mind.

“The heart might provide the purpose, but the head provides the method, the path. Passion is nothing without a plan. Wanting something doesn’t make it happen.”

‘Rhythm of War’ is advertised as Venli’s book, and in some ways it is – but it’s also Navani’s. Navani, now Dalinar’s wife, goes on the biggest journey of any character and is by far the most interesting. A woman derided by most of the Alethi for her inability to choose between two men – Dalinar, and his brother Gavilar, the assassinated King of Alethkar – Navani finally gets a chance to show her true colours and passions. She’s a vibrant character – strong, driven, and exceptionally clever, even when she’s being outwitted. ‘The Way of Kings‘ and ‘Words of Radiance‘ showed her to be smart politically; ‘Rhythm of War’ proves that she’s just as brilliant as her daughter, if in a different way. It also shows her to be honourable and loyal – something you’d expect from the wife of Dalinar, but not something evident from her reputation in previous books. Navani is a woman of fierce integrity and finally reading about her from her own perspective is a delight.

Venli goes on her own journey, and her character growth is excellent, but it’s overshadowed by how much better Navani’s is. Unusually, Venli’s flashback chapters don’t start until Part Three, but once they do they give fascinating insight into her past – and especially her relationship with her sister Eshonai. It also becomes apparent just how different singer culture was before the war with the Alethi. Personally, I think starting the flashback chapters earlier and showing more of this pre-war culture would make the impact stronger, but I can see why – in an already very long novel – Sanderson decided this wasn’t necessary.

Kaladin is the other major character. Every book so far has showed Kaladin’s battle with depression and PTSD, but here it really comes to a head, forcing him to face his demons in a way he’s so far avoided. At times, it’s very difficult to read about, but it’s exceptionally well-written. It’s impossible not to like Kaladin, and the emotional impact of his scenes just shows how well-crafted his character is. ‘Rhythm of War’ also reunites Kaladin with his family, exploring his relationship with his parents now that he’s a Knight Radiant – again, something which can be a challenging read, but that is all the more impactful for that struggle.

“This is life, and I will not lie by saying every day will be sunshine. But there will be sunshine again, and that is a very different thing to say. That is truth.”

Shallan and Adolin spend most of the novel separate to the others on a quest to the home of the honorspren. Like Kaladin, Shallan’s battles are mostly internal. She struggles with a form of dissociative identity disorder – although, given the presence of a form of magic, this isn’t an entirely accurate depiction – and it finally comes to a head. Shallan is always fascinating to read about, and seeing how she evolves throughout the book is simultaneously horrifying and enthralling. Adolin, as ever, is the nicest character on the planet, and seeing him stand by Shallan – even when she doesn’t trust herself – is beautiful. He’s such a likeable character it’s hard to remember how irritating he seemed through Kaladin’s eyes back in ‘The Way of Kings’.

The only criticism that ‘Rhythm of War’ can be given is it’s organisation. The pacing overall is fine – the first hundred pages are fast-paced, then the story slows to a more familiar gentle pace for the majority of the book before ramping up at the end – but the individual plotlines within the story are oddly spaced, leading to odd pacing between them. Long gaps are left between sections involving Shallan and Adolin or Dalinar and Jasnah, and Venli is only introduced properly a significant way in. Each plotline is excellent and worthy of inclusion, but the flow isn’t always there. Nonetheless, this is a very minor point and doesn’t affect overall enjoyment. The stories are still gripping and the ending blows any doubts right out of the order.

There is a scene in every book which stands out. In ‘The Way of Kings’ and ‘Words of Radiance’ these both belong to Kaladin; in ‘Oathbringer’ the scene is Dalinar’s. The ending of ‘Rhythm of War’ is so uniformly excellent across the last 150 pages that isolating one scene is a challenge. There are some utterly unpredictable twists, and the final chapter creates such a brilliant cliffhanger I want to simultaneously applaud Sanderson and curse him for making us all wait several years to find out what happens next. I will say that, to fully appreciate the ending, familiarity with ‘Warbreaker‘ – a novel in the Cosmere but not The Stormlight Archive – would be useful (this should be best read before ‘Oathbringer’, where crossover starts, but here it’s almost required).

Overall, this is simultaneously one of the weakest and strongest entries in the series so far. For literary flow and pacing it’s the worst, but for enjoyment – and the strength of the ending – it’s up there with the best. It’s undoubtedly an excellent entry to the series and continues to paint The Stormlight Archive as Sanderson’s masterwork, and Sanderson as a giant of the fantasy genre. Highly recommended.

Published by Gollancz
Hardback: November 17th 2020

Robyn’s Cosmere Christmas: Dawnshard

‘Dawnshard’ is a Stormlight Archive novella set between ‘Oathbringer‘ and ‘Rhythm of War’. Like ‘Edgedancer‘, the novella between ‘Words of Radiance‘ and ‘Oathbringer’, it focuses on minor characters from the main series – in this case Rysn, a Thaylen merchant briefly introduced in ‘The Way of Kings‘, and Lopen, a member of Bridge Four. It tells an intriguing story with great potential implications for the overall series and wider Cosmere, but unlike Edgedancer it doesn’t stand up quite as strongly on its own.

An accident in ‘The Way of Kings’ left Rysn a paraplegic, but also gained her an animal companion, Chiri-Chiri. Chiri-Chiri is a larkin -a species that survives by ingesting stormlight and was once thought to be extinct. However, Chiri-Chiri has fallen ill, and her only hope for survival is to visit the ancestral home of the larkin – Akinah, a mysterious island half-thought to be a myth. None have ever visited Akinah and ever come back alive. When Navani Kholin announces her intention to send a crew to Akinah, Rysn doesn’t hesitate to volunteer herself and her ship. Aided by Windrunner Lopen, his cousin Huio, and the Horneater Cord, Rysn sets out on a quest that may spell her doom – but is the only chance of saving Chiri-Chiri.

My main issue with this book is probably Rysn. Rysn is a smart, capable tradeswoman with a great deal of loyalty to her crew and Chiri-Chiri. She resents her disability for how it restricts her freedom, but she doesn’t let this rule her and is always striving to try new things. However, for me her character just falls a bit flat. She solves problems too easily, often off-page, and she doesn’t feel quite distinct and three-dimensional enough. Most characters in the Stormlight Archive are unique, with a great deal of depth and their own voices – Rysn’s never quite shines through.

Everything else about ‘Dawnshard’ is excellent. Lopen – known as the Lopen; he’d consider the title important – is a silly, light-hearted character, but also one with a huge amount of optimism and compassion that’s needed amongst the struggles of Bridge Four. His sections are fun, but also have a great deal of depth. Lopen is silly but he knows he’s being silly – he just wants to make others happy, and isn’t afraid to come across like an idiot to do so. For a short novella he undergoes a lot of character development, and his interactions with Huio and Cord are sweet.

Cord is one of my favourite characters from the novella and I hope she’s granted some point-of-view chapters at some point in the series. One of Rock’s children, she gives a fascinating insight into Horneater beliefs and culture – along with some other well-kept secrets – but she also proves herself to be a fierce, determined woman in her own right who both loves and resents her father. Her and Rysn strike up a lovely friendship, and there’s definitely potential for her to play a larger role at some point in the future.

The plot is simple, with most of the novella taking place on a ship. The superstitions and beliefs of sailors are explored in intriguing detail, along with the complexities of ship politics. Certain twists are a little too obvious, and the ending could be more satisfying, but overall the story is solidly worked and fits the broader ethos of the series.

‘Dawnshard’ is a great novella with large potential implications for the series as a whole, but it’s probably the weakest entry so far. Given that ‘The Stormlight Archive’ is such a brilliant series that still makes it a strong story, but it’s one that lacks a little extra polish.

Published by Dragonsteel Entertainment
eBook: 10th November 2020 (due for paperback publication in 2021)

Robyn’s Cosmere Christmas: Oathbringer

‘Oathbringer’ is the third book in ‘The Stormlight Archive’ series and takes the series in some fascinating new directions. The stakes have been raised, secrets have been revealed, and the fate of Roshar is balanced on the tip of a Shardblade. The story starts slowly, but it’s worth it for the stunning imagery and breathtaking finale.

“Sometimes a hypocrite is nothing more than a man in the process of changing.”

The power of the Radiants has returned to Roshar – but so have the powers of their enemies. The Everstorm has arrived, bringing with it the power to destroy everything that man holds dear. Amidst the chaos of the unstoppable storm, a once-slave searches for his family, a spy of many faces seeks the truth, and the King-in-all-but-name tries one last time to unite the Alethi, knowing that failure will spell doom.

The Way of Kings‘ was Kaladin’s book and ‘Words of Radiance‘ Shallan’s. ‘Oathbringer’ is Dalinar’s, but with this come far more prominent roles for Adolin and, later in the book, Szeth. It also steps away a little from focusing on Kaladin, gifting what would previously have been his scenes to other members of Bridge Four – especially Moash. Juggling so many characters is no easy task, but Sanderson does very well weaving all their narratives without things becoming confusing.

Previously a more predictable character, Dalinar – uncle to the king of Alethkar – did something entirely unexpected at the end of ‘Words of Radiance’ which makes his focus here much more interesting. His chapters also give new insight into the history and politics of Alethkar – not essential to the plot, but fascinating for learning about the world Sanderson has created. He also makes his son Adolin far more appealing to the reader – in ‘The Way of Kings’ Adolin was relatively uninteresting, and whilst ‘Words of Radiance’ rounded him out into a nicer character he still didn’t particularly pique my interest. ‘Oathbringer’ finally gives essential background to explain some of his actions – and it also gives him more time to interact with Shallan and Kaladin. His interactions with Kaladin are priceless and add much-needed light and humour to a book of more series themes.

“I will take responsibility for what I have done,” Dalinar whispered. “If I must fall, I will rise each time a better man.”

Kaladin – the once slave of Bridge Four, now a prominent member of Alethi society – gets less page time than in previous books, but continues to be one of the most heartwarming characters with some beautiful emotional scenes. After having the single best scene in the book in ‘Words of Radiance’, it was only fair that he stepped back to give the other characters a chance here.

Shallan – a scholar and Adolin’s fiance – is one of the most complicated characters and is developed in even bolder and more intriguing ways. Sanderson takes big risks in writing her and her plotlines could easily become too confusing, but he just about keeps her on the right side of the line.

“I have found, through painful experience, that the most important step a person can take is always the next one.”

Discussing Szeth would be a spoiler. His character was left on a huge cliffhanger at the end of ‘Words of Radiance’ and he doesn’t appear again until the latter half of this book, but his chapters are worth it, and also start to bring in elements of the Cosmere only previously seen in books outside of ‘The Stormlight Archive’. These would definitely be enjoyable to someone not familiar with the other books, but I’d say ‘Oathbringer’ is where reading the others starts to enhance the experience and understanding.

Overall, ‘Oathbringer’ is another brilliant book and exceptional addition to the series. It doesn’t quite surpass ‘Words of Radiance’, but it manages to be equally as good which in itself is an enormous feat. Recommended for all epic fantasy fans.

Published by Gollancz
Hardback: November 14th 2017

Robyn’s Cosmere Christmas: Edgedancer

‘Edgedancer’ is a novella set between ‘Words of Radiance‘ and ‘Oathbringer’, the second and third books in the Stormlight Archive. It’s not required reading, but it explains certain aspects of world-building and character development. Beyond that, it’s great fun, focusing on one of the most intriguing and unique characters in the series, Lift.

Following the events of ‘Words of Radiance’, Lift runs away from the palace – where she feels suffocated – instead heading to the city of Yeddaw. Here, Lift returns to her life as a street urchin, using her ‘awesomeness’ to sneak around – but there may be more to Lift’s decision to choose Yeddaw than meets the eye. For Yeddaw now plays host to the man she knows as the Darkness, determined to seek out those who are ‘awesome’ like her – and Lift is equally determined to stop him.

The story within ‘Edgedancer’ is as cleverly crafted and twisty as any Sanderson novel, but what really makes it brilliant is Lift. Aged ten, Lift made a bargain to never get older, and she’s made it her mission to never change since. Lift is sarcastic, irreverent, and entirely ruled by her stomach. She staunchly refuses to learn anything new – including people’s names – and clings to her childhood in a way which can be frustrating, but deep down is almost heartbreaking. At first glance she can seem abrasive and selfish, but this hides a personality that is deeply caring and clinging to any aspects of her life which she can control.

Aside from Lift, the other major character is her spren, Wyndle (who Lift stubbornly refers to as ‘Voidbringer’). For those unfamiliar with the books, spren are creatures in The Stormlight Archive which appear when things happen – for example, fearspren appear when someone is scared – and, in rare cases, spren can appear to certain humans and form a bond with them. (To say more would constitue a spoiler – the best way to find out exactly what they are and do is to read the books!) Wyndle is entirely unlike Lift – very proper, a worrier, and much more fond of plans than recklessly rushing in and making things up on the fly – but the combination works well, and it’s heartwarming seeing their relationship develop as the novella progresses.

‘Edgedancer’ is named for Lift’s order within the knights radiant – which Lift, in classic Lift style, terms ‘awesomeness’ – and this is intriguingly explored. The main books in ‘The Stormlight Archive’ tend to focus on certain orders and locations, so the accompanying novellas provide intriguing tidbits of information about the true capabilities of the others. Lift isn’t the sort to believe she has limitations, so those she has quickly come apparent as she tries to do too much.

Overall, ‘Edgedancer’ is an enjoyable, entertaining novella about one of the more intriguing characters, allowing her the development she hasn’t yet had on-page in the main books. It’s not Sanderson’s strongest work, but it’s an enjoyable read and recommended between ‘Words of Radiance’ and ‘Oathbringer’ to explain why certain characters are who they are.

Published by Gollancz
Hardback: October 31st 2018 (previously published in 2016 in the Cosmere anthology ‘Arcanum Unbounded’)