Saturday 28 December 2019

The Riyria Chronicles, by Michael J. Sullivan

The Riyria fantasy series was recommended to me by several members of the Classic SF discussion group, so I took a look at the series structure and soon became rather confused. The first six volumes, under the general heading of The Riyria Revelations, were self-published during the 2008-2011 period. These were so successful that the author secured a publisher for the next seven (so far) stories, which appeared under the series title The Riyria Chronicles from 2013 and counting. However, instead of forming a sequel, they consist of one long prequel to the Revelations, featuring the same two principal characters. Next up comes The Legends of the First Empire, a planned six-book series (published from 2016) set in the same world but thousands of years before the events in Revelations and Chronicles. Finally (so far) The Rise and the Fall is expected to emerge from 2020 onwards (three books planned to date), and chronologically will fit in between Legends and Chronicles. Sullivan is clearly an author who believes in getting the most out of his world-building efforts!

The author is relaxed about the order in which the series are read, reckoning it works just as well either way, so I followed my usual preference of sticking to the internal chronology rather than publishing dates.

The first book of the Chronicles series is The Crown Tower, so that's where I began.


As I understand it (those familiar with these works will no doubt correct me if I am mistaken) all of the Riyria books are focused on the adventures of their two contrasting young heroes: Hadrian Blackwater, a soldier of considerable fighting ability, and Royce Melborn, a skilled thief and ruthless assassin. The Crown Tower deals with the circumstances in which the two meet and (following a decidedly awkward start) gradually develop a partnership. Their world of Elan provides a fairly typical medieval-class background, the main distinctive feature by comparison with other such fantasies being the lack of anything magical apart from the ability of a few people to read the fates of anyone rash enough to ask; this is regarded as witchcraft and generally disapproved of. (More magic does feature in later books, while the fortune-telling sinks into the background.)

The story follows two individuals in separate threads: one is Hadrian (Royce also arrives in this thread) and the other is Gwen, a young girl forced into prostitution who gradually reveals some formidable strengths. The chapters alternate, the threads only coming together at the very end of this volume.

The descriptive passages and characterisation are both very good, but the book makes quite a slow start and while it engaged my attention, it didn't initially hook me. Once the story started motoring I was drawn in and thoroughly enjoyed the ride, so bought some more.


The Rose and the Thorn is the sequel to The Crown Tower, picking up the story of Hadrian and Royce after a gap of about a year: they have recovered from their tribulations in the first novel and are slowly getting use to each other's very different personalities and priorities. A brief exchange between Hadrian and Royce provides an amusing flavour of their relationship.
Hadrian: "…that's what people do. They help each other. If you saw a man lying in the road with an arrow in him, you'd stop, wouldn't you?"
"Of course," Royce replied, "anyone would. A wounded man is easy pickings, unless you could see from your saddle that someone else has already taken his purse."
"What? No! No-one would rob a wounded man and leave him to die."
Royce nodded. "Well no. You're right. If he has a purse and you take it, it's best to slit his throat afterward. Too many people live through arrow wounds. You taught me that. No sense risking that he might come after you."

Gwen and her ladies of Medford House are now an integral part of the story rather than occupying a separate thread. A new character rather unwillingly joins the two heroes early in the book; Viscount Albert Winslow, a bankrupt alcoholic member of the nobility who proves most useful in aiding the various scams which the morally dubious pair now live on.

As in the first book, there is another plot thread featuring a different character, this time a poor stable boy called Reuben Hilfred who works at the castle at Medford and becomes involved with the royal family, especially after discovering a devious plot to kill them. These two plot threads run in parallel, alternating throughout the book, with the characters in both threads occupying the same place at the same time but never meeting – an intriguing literary tactic. The novel has a satisfactory ending but there is clearly more to come. The second novel confirms the quality of the story-telling: not quite as good as in Bujold's Chalion series, but then, what is?


The Death of Dulgath is the third of The Riyria Chronicles. This time there is one single plot thread. Royce and Hadrian travel to the remote and little-known land of Dulgath with a curious commission: somebody keeps trying to kill the young Countess of Dulgath, and it is the task of the two adventurers to test their security to ensure that she is as well-protected as possible. When they get there, they find a very strange land: one of peace and plenty, where it never rains in daytime, the crops never fail, and pestilence is unheard of. There is an old legend concerning a demon who was recruited to protect the land, and Royce and Hadrian have their practical scepticism put to the test as the plot develops in unexpected ways.

One theme concerns religion: the old imperial church is trying to make a come-back by gaining influence over the various rulers scattered across the land, while the King is leading the resistance to this. Plots and betrayals follow, with the main focus being who controls Dulgath. Disaster threatens our two heroes unless they can work out what is happening, and sacrifices are necessary before the end.


The Disappearance of Winter's Daughter is the fourth of The Riyria Chronicles, following on (in internal chronology terms) not long after the third. There is an unusual start; a duchess is attacked in the first chapter, while Royce and Hadrian experience a surprising ending to a bounty-hunting mission in the next. That raises some intriguing questions, which are not followed up (as yet) as our two heroes are given another mission: to find out what had happened to the duchess.

The city of Rochelle, where the duchess lives, is a fascinating place which is as individual as the characters. Much is made of its multicultural nature, although harmony between the four races is notable for its absence; the lesser races, or Pitifuls, are developing a resistance movement. In parallel with this, the church is still plotting to extend its influence.

I mentioned earlier that more magic appears in the later stories, and that is particularly true of this volume in which some spectacularly heavy-duty sorcery forms the climax of the tale. I have mixed feelings about this; the fun in these stories is focused on the developing relationship between the two heroes and the way in which they extricate themselves from dire straits in order to emerge (more or less) triumphant. Magic doesn't really add anything to that.

As well as the frequently humorous interaction between the two main characters, the writing is full of in-passing observations which add to the enjoyment of the tale. For example:

"Trying to keep up, Hadrian nearly plowed into a mother holding the hands of two children, but halted at the brink. All three looked up at him and smiled. He smiled back, concluding a silent but clear conversation that included understanding, forgiveness and a bit of humor."

I am beginning to be aware that the author likes to leave plot threads dangling in one book, to pick them up again in a subsequent one. This happens here, but I wouldn't like to spoil the fun by saying more.

After this, I will acquire The Riyria Revelations. It will be interesting to see if these earlier works (in publication terms) are as well-written as the Chronicles.

Saturday 7 December 2019

Fantasy Roundup

An assortment of fantasy novels I've read recently.

The House on the Borderland, by William Hope Hodgson

THotB was first published in 1908, and is regarded as an early classic of supernatural horror. It is not exactly my usual type of reading, but I'm trying to catch up with Books I Ought To Read, and this one kept popping up in recommendations concerning the history of SFF; it is regarded as highly influential. A check on Hodgson's Wiki page revealed an interesting character who published a range of stories, many of which are still available. He was killed in the First World War at the age of forty.

THotB is a story within a story. It is topped and tailed by an account of a fishing holiday undertaken in a very remote part of Ireland, in which the two fishermen do some exploring and discover the ruins of a great house, hidden in a huge overgrown garden which contains an enormous pit with a fast-flowing river at the bottom. In the ruins they find a book, hand-written by a former resident of the house to describe his strange experiences. The bulk of THotB consists of the resident's tale.

The resident lived in the house a long time ago, alone except for his sister and dog. He moved in because it was cheap, having already acquired a grim reputation for supernatural events. His strange experiences began with the sighting of hideous creatures, vaguely humanoid but with porcine faces, which instilled in humans a powerful sense of dread.  They came from the pit and laid seige to the house, during which the resident experienced his first out-of-body journey, arriving at a strange land. His spirit travelled to a place surrounded by mountains, in the centre of which was an exact replica of the house in Ireland, only much bigger and made of some glowing green material. In the surrounding mountains he observed vast beings, the old gods of the pagan religions, while a giant version of the porcine creatures was trying to get into the green house.

In subsequent out-of-body experiences he travelled in time at a gradually accelerating rate to the death of the sun (a sequence surely inspired by H.G. Wells's The Time Machine); a powerful and sustained piece of imaginative writing.

I found that finishing the book was no problem (assisted by the fact that it is a novella of only around 100 pages) even though it didn't really engage me. The plot lacks coherence, consisting of a series of loosely connected events, with the significance of the house never explained. Despite this, it is worth reading for the imaginative visions the resident described.


In Search of the Shining World, by Mary Beth Melton

This is another kind of story that I normally don't read. It is a fantasy, featuring an unhappy fifteen-year-old girl who passionately believes in fairies, treasuring the memory of once having seen some, and would like nothing more than to enter their world. This she does, and finds a strange culture with its own rules and practices. She is sent on a mission to prove her worth, and encounters dangers that she had never dreamed of before the unexpected conclusion.

I am not the best person to assess this book, as I suspect that it is mostly appreciated by young teenage, or pre-teen, girls, with whom I have so little in common that they might as well belong to an alien race. However, I not only finished it, I read it in only two sessions. Which is a tribute to the author's story-telling ability.


Limited Wish, by Mark Lawrence

Limited Wish is the second of the author's Impossible Times trilogy: the first volume, One Word Kill, I reviewed here on 24 August 2019, the final part, Dispel Illusion, being due out in a couple of months.

This continues the story of mathematical genius Nick Hayes and, as before, is written entirely from his viewpoint, in the first person. He is now a 16-year-old student at Cambridge University, working at the cutting edge of physics in order to develop the time machine which (he learned in the first volume from a time-traveller) he was due to achieve later on. Life is not simple, however; strange effects and manifestations keep occuring as the paradoxes of time-travel seem to be closing in on him. Two young women are to be involved, apparently in some kind of competition for his favour. To add to his problems, his leukemia has relapsed and he is pursued by a deadly relative of an old enemy. Fortunately, his Dungeons & Dragons-playing friends are there in support, along with more visitors from the future.

This book was just as much a pleasure to read as the first volume, and I am eagerly awaiting the third.


Fallen, by Benedict Jacka

Fallen is the tenth of the author's Alex Verus series, following the fortunes of the maverick diviner living in a present-day London in which magic very much works (albeit unsuspected by the general, non-magical, public). The other nine books have already been reviewed on this blog, so I won't repeat the background; I'll just point out that the books are effectively telling one long story, so it is essential to read them in the right order.

At the start of this volume, Verus has achieved a degree of acceptance, being appointed to the magical Light Council with his friend (and now girlfriend) Anne also accepted as his assistant. Needless to say, this does not last and Verus's world comes crashing down around his ears, with the support he has enjoyed from various others being brutally kicked away. Almost alone, he has to take drastic, life-changing measures to acquire the ability to defend himself against his powerful enemies. He succeeds – at a cost. The story ends abruptly, so we'll have to wait for the next (and last) two volumes to discover what happens. This whole series is highly recommended to anyone who enjoys this kind of contemporary urban fantasy,

Saturday 16 November 2019

Screen Time

Inferno (2016)

Another techno-thriller with a fantasy streak based on a Dan Brown book, and again featuring Tom Hanks in the role of Robert Langdon, a university professor with a habit of getting involved in violent adventures. I read the book long enough ago to have forgotten all but a few snippets of the plot, so I watched the film unaffected by prior expectations.

The problem with all of these Dan Brown films is that the book plots are very complex and arcane, with lots of codes and clues to follow and unpick, which there isn't really time to deal with in a movie-length production. By and large it was interesting enough to hold my attention but the ending was particularly rushed, with an extremely improbable explanation for what had been going on made in one compressed infodump. Not good, but just about watchable.

The Humanity Bureau (2018)

I can't recall what prompted me to acquire this one, as it is not the kind of setting which normally interests me – a post-apocalyptic dystopia.  Much of the USA has become a semi-desert wasteland for various reasons, environmental devastation apparently being uppermost. The government seems to be totalitarian (not a lot is spelled out clearly, most of the background has to be deduced by the viewer) and everyone is expected to work very hard. Those who are judged insufficiently productive by the government Humanity Bureau are transported to a planned settlement, New Eden. What follows contains some spoilers.

Noah Kross (Nicholas Cage) is a Bureau agent whose job is to travel round interviewing those suspected of being unproductive, to see if they should go to New Eden. He begins to have doubts about what he is doing as rumours circulate that New Eden is not the new opportunity it is claimed to be. This comes to a head when he travels to see a single mother (Sarah Lind) and her 11 year old son, who he decides to help instead of condemn, putting himself at odds with his superior officer. It later transpires that the woman is not the boy's mother, but has acquired her identity along with her son – who's father is Kross. The trio head for Canada in a forlorn attempt to escape. The climax of the film is a mix of tragedy and hope.

There are some odd aspects to the plot which indicate that Kross is not what he appears: he is contacted by people resisting the Humanity Bureau's operations and supplied with information about New Eden; and near the end a Canadian border guard remarks that they had been expecting Kross to arrive bringing evidence about New Eden, suggesting that Kross may have been an intelligence agent for Canada all along. One ironic aspect is that the Canadian border is heavily guarded to keep out refugees from the south… no great surprise to learn that the film is a product of Canada rather than Hollywood! Whether or not this affected the low critical ratings I don't know. In my judgement it is not a bad film, just depressing.

Avengers Assemble (2012)

I really must look at my own blog more often. I watched this film and did not realise at any point that I had already seen it, and reviewed it on this blog in October 2012. Only a vague air of familiarity prompted me to check my blog index to reveal the horrible truth: I had wasted a couple of hours, twice over. This time around, I found it just as tedious and monotonous as I did the first time, and can now add another description: completely forgettable!

Dr Strange (2016)

A bit different from the usual Marvel Comics superhero fare, with Benedict Cumberbatch in commanding form as the eponymous surgeon who goes searching for a mystical cure to the injuries which have ended his career. He finds more than he expected, and becomes involved in titanic magical battles between good and evil for the future of the Earth. Except that the good guys are not entirely good… One of the better films in this franchise, and well worth watching.

Thor: Ragnarok (2017)

I was looking forward to this one, having enjoyed the first two of the Thor films. Ragnarok is in most respects more of the same, but apart for a brief glimpse of a Norwegian cliff-top sadly lacks any scenes set on Earth – the interaction between the present-day Earth and the heroes of Asgard being, for me, the most enjoyable aspect of the earlier films. So what we are left with is various fantasy sets, very good CGI, and lots of comic-book violence accompanied by loud music. Fortunately, the humour is retained and enhanced, providing most of the enjoyment.

To ring the changes a bit (or cross the plot threads) Hulk and Dr Strange make appearances (the latter foreshadowed at the end of Dr Strange), and it's always good to see Cate Blanchett in anything.  Do not miss the final clip which occurs after most of the credits have rolled – a great tee-up for the next film!

Black Panther (2018)

Another product of Marvel Studios, this received universal praise and many award nominations. To sum up: it deserves the praise, and joins Wonder Woman as one of my top-rated superhero movies. The only criticism I have is that I initially had some problems remembering who was who, as there is a large cast of characters who appear from the start and I was familiar with hardly any of the actors. Which is a good excuse to watch it more than once!  As seems usual these days, there are final clips inserted in the credits.

Sunday 27 October 2019

Orconomics, by J. Zachary Pike, and The Question Mark, by Muriel Jaeger

I decided to acquire Orconomics after some enthusiastic comments by members of the Classic SF Group. It is subtitled "A satire", about which more later. The setting is a land populated by a wide variety of more or less humanoid races (the usual dwarves, goblins, trolls, elves etc) with technology at the usual medieval level, plus magic wielded by suitably talented and trained wizards.

The story is a tongue-in-cheek variant of a traditional fantasy quest, with an assorted group of unwilling adventurers all press-ganged into undertaking a search for some stolen marble heads of symbolic importance. Their leader is an experienced "professional hero", a dwarf called Gorm, who has fallen on hard times. On the way the group encounter various dangers, set-backs and surprises, with the ending being rather different from what might have been expected.

Apart from the names of the races, there are other borrowings from elsewhere – both fact and fiction. For example, a firm making fine quality edged weapons is named Vorpal, which is first used in Lewis Carroll's Jabberwocky poem. Also, the stone heads are known as the Elven Marbles, presumably a reference to the Elgin Marbles in the British Museum, sculptures which were "liberated" from the Athens Parthenon long ago and are the subject of a long-running ownership dispute. 

There is a lot of humour in the story with the satirical element being focused on economics. The economic system of the entire country is based on heroic adventures, with speculators trading in the profits to be expected from successful adventures (those being ones in which vast wealth is recovered, e.g. from stolen hoards). There is an organised system for professional heroes or quest-givers to lay claim to some expected hoard before setting off to recover it, bringing in investment to fund the mission, with any profits being divided up pro-rata among the investors.

The author explains at one point: "The speculators who bought those shares often bundled them into plunder finds, which were then divided and sold to other companies, who were owned by other companies, and beyond that…well, it hurt Scroot's head to think about who owned what." The target of this satire is obviously the packaging of sub-prime mortgages which were a major factor in the 2008 financial crisis. The problem from the dramatic viewpoint is that this specific event happened years ago and the details have probably been forgotten – if they were ever understood – by most potential readers. Satire based on current affairs dates rapidly.

At first I was rather underwhelmed by the story, but as it progressed and the characters developed I became increasingly engaged and ended up thoroughly enjoying the tale.

Orconomics is the first of the Dark Profit Saga trilogy, the others being Son of a Liche (already available) and Dragonfired (being written). I was looking forward to reading the sequel until I saw that the price for a paperback (the only format I buy) listed by amazon as just under £15, which is two or three times the going rate for a standard paperback, so I'll pass on that.


One of the British Library's Science Fiction Classics series, The Question Mark was first published in 1926. It was the author's first novel, followed by three more over the next decade. As Wiki says: "Her novels deal with such topics as extrasensory perception, utopian speculation, and genetic engineering and are considered important for their place in the history of science fiction. At the time, her work was not well-received by critics, and she abandoned her career".

The plot of The Question Mark concerns a young man from the 1920s who wakes up two centuries later. He finds himself in a socialist paradise, with economic equality for all having been achieved and automation having reduced the need to work to a bare minimum. However, that does not mean that there aren't flaws – and these concern human nature. The population is divided into the great majority, described as "normals", who are poorly educated (by choice) and driven by emotion rather than reason, and the rational "intellectuals", who run the society and drive its technological advances.  Jaeger has some sympathy for the normals but shows how they are infantilised by their lack of responsibility, flitting constantly between different fads, fashions and esoteric religious beliefs (a theme picked up by various later SF books I have read – the one which first springs to mind being The Iron Thorn by Algis Budrys).

One aspect of the future society which is portrayed as controversial is the availability of peaceful euthanasia on demand, also used as a means of disposing of hardened criminals and other troublesome individuals. However, another aspect of population control which would be even more controversial today is eugenics – specifically the used of selective breeding to weed out undesirable characteristics from the gene pool. This was historically very popular among intellectuals when the book was written, but forever discredited as a result of being put into practice by Nazi Germany. The author seems to assume that population control would have been drastically enforced, given that her England has been turned into a pastoral country with a relatively thinly spread population, but there is little comment about this. The ending is rather vague, as the story just stops when the author has said what she wanted to.

The Question Mark was a reaction against the idealised future societies portrayed in fiction popular at the time, and was intended to paint a more realistic picture of how society might develop if everyone's physical needs for food, housing and travel were met. The apparent utopia gradually becomes more dystopian as the protagonist learns more about it, so this story is really an initial step towards the far more dystopian Brave New World (1932) and 1984 (1949).