September 29

Last Argument of Kings by Joe Abercrombie

Finally, the end of the series! It has been so long since I took the time to read a fantasy trilogy, and managed to read one book after the other. And the series was worth every minute spent.

If you haven’t read my other reviews of the books in this series, stop now and Google for a summary of books one and 2. For those who have seen my reviews, here goes the summary of part 3.

The quest is over and everybody has returned to the Union capitol. The Bloody Nine cannot cope with life without war so he heads north to where the war against Bethod and the Northmen is continuing. Jazeal returns to his true love and for a few weeks finds happiness. But then the reason Bayaz was educating the young aristocrat becomes blatantly clear and Jazeal’s carefree existence is over. Glokta is summoned home to report on the progress of the battle against the Gurkish just before the city he was defending falls. His next assignment is to investigate the new king and his circle of friends. With the death of the Lord Marshall, the generals fighting in Angland refuse to proceed without new orders from a new Lord Marshall. West’s frustration grows.

And so opens part 3. To say much more could easily ruin your enjoyment of this wonderful adventure fantasy, so I will stop there. 

Abercrombie has constructed some truly three dimensional characters for this fantasy trilogy. Most everyone would interpret the First of the Magi as a variation of Gandalf or Dumbledore. But is Bayaz really as good as he seems? And the great warrior, in this case Logan Ninefingers; once his blood lust is up he becomes the Bloody Nine, and as like to kill friend as foe. The most honest character in the whole book to my mind is Glokta, but the inquisitor/torturer is always evil isn’t he?

Terry Pratchett has revolutionised fantasy writing by adding humour. Joe Abercrombie is about to start another revolution with his deliciously complex characters.

September 29

How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone by Sasa Stanisic

Hmmm. A first time novelist. Book set in Bosnia with most of the action taking place in the early 1990s. It should be a serious memoir of one boy’s survival of genocide. Have the publishers got the cover wrong, again? No.

The story begins in 1991 with the death of Aleksander’s beloved grandfather. This grandfather taught the boy that the world could always be better if you used ‘magic’ or your imagination to finish stories. A great deal of this book takes place in the year following this opening and the arrival of the soldiers in 1992. During the time the reader gains a gentle, even whimsical look at the town of Visegard and the people that make the town special. Enter the soldiers. Soon Aleksander and his family escape to Germany, but not before the boy manages to rescue a Muslim girl from certain death.

Jump 10 years. Now a young man, Aleksander wants to return to Visegard to look up some old friends before deciding where he will live and what he will finally do with his life. But Visegard is not the place his imagination ‘finished’ or even the gentle friendly village he remembered. 

I am not really sure how I felt about this book. The tone was very gentle, even naive, totally appropriate for the young boy. And it may well be the only way a child could understand the tragedy invading his life. But there always seemed to be an underlying message that was never revealed. I kept waiting for something more. Even the young man was simply too naive to comprehend what his home town had become.

Sorry, but the events that took place in Serbia and Bosnia in the 90s are too tragic for this trivial treatment. It is a lovely book about childhood, but the setting is wrong.

September 28

Before They are Hanged by Joe Abercrombie

And now for book 2 of Joe Abercrombie’s wonderful First Law Trilogy. As with any book 2 of three, this is going to contain a fair bit of action and adventure as the characters grow and change testing themselves against all kinds of challenges.

Logan Ninefingers has set off on a quest led by Bayaz to seek The Seed at the edge of the world. Also on the quest is the selfish boy Luther winner of a fencing tournament, a woman sworn to vengeance, an apprentice magus, and the navigator. Together they struggle through empty wastelands, fighting monsters and magic all the way.

A relatively minor character from the first book, Collem West suddenly finds himself guardian to the Heir Apparent as his poorly trained and undisciplined army are attacked by the King of the Northmen. The army is annihilated but the Crown Prince survives in the company of a small band of Northmen allies and West. This small band must travel across enemy territory to find the rest of the Union army.

And then Glokta. He gets the best duty. He is assigned to command the defense of a city under Gurkish attack. By reputation this city is invincible, but that simply means that no money has been spent on maintenance of the defenses in a century. And Glokta gets no funding or military assistance to assist with his task, just instructions to hold the city to the last man. Some promotions are simply not worth the title.

This book went far more quickly than the first one, based as it was on the war fought on two fronts and the quest into unknown lands. The cast of important characters expanded but Abercrombie skillfully made them real and still avoided confusion and long passages of background information. And there were just enough hints about what is to come to make me very happy that book 3 was sitting on the shelf waiting.

September 28

The Silver Bear by Derek Haas

There is no need to introduce this author to anybody. If you have seen the remake of 3.10 to Yuma, or 2 Fast 2 Furious, or even the recently released Wanted, then you have already encountered Derek Haas writing. But the Silver Bear is his first novel, and as you might expect it is a good thriller that won’t make you think too hard.

Columbus is a hitman, very experienced and very creative. He has killed many times using many weapons, including his bare hands. He is at the top of his chosen profession, immune to pressure and untouched by law enforcement. He is what the Russians call a Silver Bear. 

His next hit might just be a little difficult. He has been hired to kill a Presidential candidate while on the campaign trail. But there’s an added incentive, this man happens to be the man who dropped his pregnant girlfriend just before her son was born. This son grew up and now calls himself Columbus.

This book is set in the eight weeks between the acceptance of the job and it’s execution. Most of that time is spent shadowing the target, getting inside his head. If that was all the story contained, it would be a really slow 250 pages. But Haas keeps the story interesting by filling in Columbus’ backstory; his recruitment, first love, mistakes and successes. And the climax has a great twist.

If you are looking for a lightweight, page turner that can be read quickly, this is a good choice.

September 27

The Blade Itself by Joe Abercrombie

Hachette Livre provided books 2 and 3 of this fantasy series, but not book 1. So for a change, I actually parted with money for a book!!! That hasn’t happened in a while. However, I firmly believe that starting a trilogy with book two is unfair to the reader and the author.

So a couple weeks ago I began my journey. The world is quite recognizable, even European. There are three main ‘kingdoms’, the North inhabited by Northmen and Shanka, the Empire of the Gurkish in the south, inhabited by religious fanatics, and the Union, a monarchy of different duchies, among them Angland. The story opens with Logan Ninefingers, a northman, regaining consciousness to find himself alone. He is an independent man, and this is little problem, until he hears that the First of the Magi is looking for him. Enter Bayaz. The story then shifts to an arrogant young nobleman from the Union who is supposedly training for the annual fencing contest. But by far the most interesting of the main storytellers is Glokta, the inquisitor. He has spent years as a prisoner of the Gurkish, and returned home crippled and in constant pain from the torture. Now he has become expert at delivering torture to others. 

Book one is essentially a set and character development piece. It took 300 pages to get each of the main three characters even into the same city. By the next 100 pages the fencing tournament had begun so there was some action. Then the story hurtled on to the setup for book 2.

Yes this book was long. Not much happened. But that does not mean that I did not enjoy the series. And this book is a critical part of the whole story. I loved the characters, especially Glokta. His wonderfully cynic asides to the reader lift this book from the normal adventure/fantasy genre. And Ninefingers is certainly more than he seems. It took 300 pages to develop the characters simply because they are beautifully complex and interesting.

September 27

The Glass of Time by Michael Cox

Michael Cox is a name better known to English academics as an editor for Oxford University Press. A few years ago he finally wrote the novel that had been on his mind for a long time, and now he has produced a sequel.

But I read this sequel without any knowledge of the prior book and I am glad. The necessary information from the earlier novel was revealed as necessary, gently, even adding to the suspense for this new book.

This book opens in 1876 as 19 year old orphan Esperanza Gorst arrives to begin her new job as lady’s maid to the wealthy Baroness. However, right from the start of the book it is clear that she is no servant. Although very competent, she quickly changes position to become the paid companion to the Baroness. In between she catches the eye of the two sons, and even manages a brief engagement.

But Esperenza has been sent to Evenwood on a Grand Task of revenge by her guardian. This task is only gradually revealed in the contents of three letters, timed to allow Esperenza to play her role most convincingly. But is the Baroness or her solicitor wise to the girl. Certainly there is suspicion and even attempted murder.

This is a beautifully crafted novel. Around every corner is a delightful picture of mid-Victorian England. I kept thinking of the old TV series ‘Upstairs, Downstairs’ as I was reading. But there is also a touch of Dickens in the scenes set in unsavory neighborhoods of London. 

My only criticism is that I doubt very much that a single woman could have done what Esperenza did at this time in history. Cox has fallen into that very common trap for historical authors that places modern social customs and ideas into historical settings and expects them to work.