Blood Song Review

There are a lot of good fantasy novels out there, ones that are great fun or manage to challenge the genre, but it’s extremely rare that one manages to get itself to the point that I rank it up with The Lord of the Rings and The Gentlemen Bastards as one of my all-time favourites. Anthony Ryan has done exactly that with his debut novel Blood Song, the first novel in the Raven’s Shadow series.

Telling the story of Vaelin al Sorna, the son of the realm’s battle-lord, we follow him from his youth to adulthood as a member of a group of religious warriors known simply as the Sixth Order. Joining him as he faces innumerable trials and tribulations, we’re given a good look into this world that Ryan is building, while also being presented with one of the best protagonists that I’ve read about in quite a long time.

In fact, Vaelin is probably the most striking thing about this story. Inspiring, skilled and important, he fits the same mould as protagonists like Patrick Rothfuss’ Kvothe, and Robin Hobb’s FitzChivalry while also managing to standing separately. A warrior bound to the Faith, his nation’s beliefs, he grows from a child confused by his skills and fearful of his betrayal to his mother’s legacy, to a man determined to do what’s right by those he commands and leads; his own suffering and sacrifices notwithstanding.

It’s definitely the markings of a traditional hero, but wrapped up in the realistic human struggle of a person’s doubts and fears and backed by political drama that he finds himself caught up in.

However, for as much praise as Vaelin deserves, Ryan’s story is just as compelling. Using the aforementioned format of a framing narrative of Vaelin telling a historian about the truth behind his actions, we’re given the growth of this man and the development of a supernatural conflict that will undoubtedly stretch across the rest of the trilogy.

It is also told with such a precise attention to pacing that no event seems like it’s drawn out, while also providing enough detail to make the events feel alive. In fact, for a book that sits at just over 600 pages in the trade format, it definitely does not feel like it is that long. Things move at a constant pace from beginning to end, avoiding the pitfalls that caught the starts of some of my favourite novels, such as The Fellowship of the Ring and The Lies of Locke Lamora, and kept my attention from the very beginning to the moment I read the final page.

Actually, despite the less than positive reception the community seems to have towards the subsequent novels, I’m eagerly anticipating jumping right into the sequels to see how Ryan’s story continues and comes to its conclusion.

Overall, Blood Song is an absolutely outstanding book. Reminiscent of the novels that got me into the genre, while also managing to feel modern and fresh, Anthony Ryan has provided a read that I feel is the closest thing to a perfect fantasy novel that I’ve experienced in years. I highly recommend checking this one out.

Blood Song by Anthony Ryan Rating: 10/10

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Prince of Fools Review

Starting off a new trilogy set in the same world as his award winning Broken Empire Trilogy, Mark Lawrence manages to outdo himself with a darkly humorous and intense journey to the frozen wastelands of the north.

Before the story can go north, however, we start off in the south; particularly in the region known as Red March.  Home to the terrifying Red Queen and her unseen ally the Silent Sister, we are introduced to the main players of this story here.

Primarily we follow Prince Jalan Kendeth of Red March. A coward, liar, gambler, drunk and womanizer, Jalan is a renowned hero due to an accidental act of heroism, which he puts to great effect to spread the legs of any willing woman.

An incessant whiner and a narcissist, he doesn’t seem like someone who would make for a worthwhile protagonist, but his dark sense of humour and his unashamed feelings about his lifestyle make him more than just a scummy rogue in the guise of a prince.

Mix in his continuous acts of accidental heroism throughout the story, painting him as someone with plenty of potential for further development as the series progresses.

However, this story isn’t Jalan’s alone. Due to his narrow escape from a spell weaved by the Silent Sister, Jalan finds himself bound to the Viking Snorri Snagason; a northern warrior who had been sold into slavery after the loss of his family.

Now caught up in the Norseman’s quest to save his family, the story sets them on their quest, one fraught with danger from the Dead King and his minions.

Unlike his work on The Broken Empire Trilogy, Lawrence provides a less grim storyline here than he did through Jorg Ancrath’s story. Mixing in plenty humour and multiple exciting set piece moments, Lawrence makes this journey north into something truly special.

With a great cast of characters and some neat throwbacks to his first trilogy, particularly pay attention two thirds of the way through the book when they reveal what time period this book is set in compared to Jorg’s adventures, this story does everything nearly perfectly.

It stumbles a few times with too many stops along the way to their destination – many of which seem superfluous – but always manages to right itself in time for the next big story beat. In particular, it manages to be completely on point for the intense finale.

It also manages to do a lot more to build the world of the Broken Empire up beyond the purely traditional western/central European influences that permeated The Broken Empire Trilogy. Given we spend plenty of time on the road, with more information on the towns and regions passed through, than we ever had in the past.

Overall, Prince of Fools is an astounding start to what seems like another compelling series from Mark Lawrence. I’m looking forward to delving into the rest of the series soon. This is a book I highly recommend reading.

Prince of Fools by Mark Lawrence Rating: 9.5/10

The Warded Man: Book Review

With the immense popularity of series like George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire and the entire subgenre of grimdark, traditional fantasy stories always seem to feel like they’ve slowly been going out of style.

For that reason, it was a real surprise that Peter V Brett’s The Warded Man, the first entry in his Demon Cycle quintet, plays against this more modern take on the genre; giving readers an absolutely wonderful page turner, with a couple of serious flaws.

Relishing in more traditional heroism, The Warded Man provides readers with a wonderful mix of classic and modern fantasy that never loses sight of what made the genre what it was once upon a time.

Set in a world where demons rise from the ground on a nightly basis, and the only defense against them are wards that manage to repel them, Brett opens this chapter with the heroic journeys of three distinctive youths.

Arlen, a boy whose tragedies push him towards an obsession with raining vengeance against the demons; Leesha, a girl whose desire for love and motherhood clash with her desire for freedom and an interest in herb lore; and Rojer, a toddler whose entire life is thrown into disarray when his home is razed by demons make up our points of view.

All hailing from hamlets and small towns, it’s interesting to see how Brett uses the traditional “farm boy becomes a hero” trope.

Between the three of them, each of our points of view provides a different angle to the concept, and even though Arlen is undoubtedly our lead he never overshadows the others.

The fact that Brett is also clearly an expert world builder doesn’t hurt either. The northern culture of what was once Thesa, separated amongst numerous hamlets and a few cities, breathes with a life that is usually only built up over numerous large tomes.

Even Krasia, the southern nation surrounded by desert and actively fighting against the demons while the rest of the world cowers, feels alive; even though we don’t spend as much time here as we could have.

It allows each of our character’s journeys to hold far more impact.

That being said, this book does suffer from a few serious flaws.

First and foremost is the way that Leesha is handled in the fourth and final act of the book.

After building her up as some sort of wonderfully skilled Herb Gatherer her entire storyline shifts to focus, unhealthily, on her sex life (or lack thereof).

It doesn’t blend as well and feels extremely forced compared to the how it was handled earlier in the story.

This also manages to drag down her character arc, binding her to other characters in ways that neither Rojer nor Arlen is bound.

Other than that, the pacing in the latter portion of the story also takes a hit.

Both the third and fourth acts feel a little off compared to the relatively smooth pacing that made up the first two acts. Arlen’s time in Krasia, while interesting, feels a little jarring of a time skip compared to any of the others that the novel contains.

Rojer also suffers a little from this as he comes into his own as a performer, despite his crippled hand. There are moments where things just don’t seem to move along nicely – coming across as far more choppy than smooth.

Leesha, on the other hand, has the most consistently paced portions of the story up until the end of the fourth act – and a decision that, while I like the pairing, I don’t like how it necessarily came about. From there everything just steamrolls into the conclusion.

That being said, this book delivers a full story with a beginning, middle and an end; all while setting up the framework for the rest of the series. Brett’s creativity and excellent usage of traditional fantasy archetypes makes this a definite read. Just be prepared for a little choppiness towards the end of the tale.

I look forward to delving into the sequel, The Desert Spear, in the near future.

The Warded Man by Peter V Brett Rating: 7.0/10

The Sherlock Holmes Exhibition in Edmonton is a blast

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Once again going out of their way to offer a thrilling exhibit centred on a pop culture icon, the Telus World of Science in Edmonton maintains their high level of quality.

With multiple exhibits having popped up over the years, including ones dedicated to Star Wars and Indiana Jones, among others, they’ve managed to bring science oriented experiences to some of pop culture’s biggest icons.

In this case, they’ve done themselves, and the world’s most famous sleuth, a great service as they put together what is quite possibly their best exhibit yet.

Mixing history; theatrics; interactivity; and legacy, this exhibit was fun from beginning to end.

Opening with a room focused on Arthur Conan Doyle, we’re given an opportunity to explore the background of the man behind Holmes.

Looking into Conan Doyle’s personal history, we’re given insight into his medical background, as well as the ways that this influenced the creation of Sherlock Holmes.

We’re also given an opportunity to explore some of his mindset and beliefs of the time, as well as being given access to see manuscript pages from The Hounds of the Baskervilles – a real treat – providing background to the character and setting the mood for the rest of the exhibit.

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Moving into the next room, we’re presented with a “train station” that provides a look at the science of the Victorian era, and also gave us the first major interactive elements of the exhibit.

Figuring out how bullet trajectory works, exploring some elements of Victorian botany, as well as being introduced to the concepts of the police at the time – among some delightful other experiences – this room served as a great prelude to the upcoming mystery.

Leaving the “station,” we move on to a wonderful little bit of fanservice in the form of an accurately recreated collection of rooms from the classic 221b Baker Street.

Filled up similarly to the early interpretations of Holmes’ abode, this room was a fun little distraction before we were introduced to the mystery that makes this exhibit more than just a collection of artifacts and information cards.

Set up as a murder/attempted suicide, we were tasked by Holmes himself, through audio recording, to seek out the truth that apparently seemed to be hiding right under the noses of the Scotland Yard.

Using notebooks given to us at the start of the exhibit, we were provided with an opportunity to examine the evidence gathered by the Scotland Yard and then go through numerous fun little activities in an attempt to come to our own conclusions.

From investigating blood splatters, to the possible addition of toxins into a seed, the interactive elements of the exhibit really shine through here.

With multiple devices and puzzles present to mess around with, and ever friendly staff willing to assist if one was to get truly stumped by a part of the exhibit, the mystery manages to be a compelling and enjoyable addition.

Once done with the mystery – a satisfying conclusion that expertly meshes together elements of everything that came before this room – we move onto the legacy of Sherlock Holmes.

With artifacts belonging to multiple iterations of the character, most notably from Guy Ritchie’s films and the television series Elementary, this section manages to give a good look at his prevailing influence on pop culture.

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The entire exhibit is capped off with a look at his legacy on forensics – a brief, but welcome look at how much investigations have changed from the 19th Century.

Overall this is an experience worth having. While the Telus World of Science in Edmonton has had many great exhibits in the past, this one was most definitely the best that they’ve had so far. I would highly recommend checking this one out if you’re an adult or a child over the age of 10. There’s a lot of fun to be had exploring the world and science of Sherlock Holmes.

The International Exhibition of Sherlock Holmes will be at the Telus World of Science in Edmonton until September. It’s the only stop it will have in Canada, so check it out if you can. For more information check out the website here.

The Grim Company: Book Review

It’s always a pleasure to read a novel in a subgenre that I hold very little love for. I’m not much of a fan of the whole grimdark movement, the novels I’ve read not striking a chord with me, and struggle to find the appeal of nasty people doing nasty things in extraordinary or fantastical situations. However, Luke Scull’s debut novel, The Grim Company, manages to surpass my distaste for the subgenre and provides a highly compelling start to a new series.

Telling the story of a world that has lost its gods in a war with the mages 500 years ago, we follow six different points of view as they attempt to liberate of the city of Dorminia from the magelord Salazar. It’s a great setup for an epic story, one that would normally be told across multiple volumes. What Scull does with the story though is where things really stand out.

Compressing the events of the liberation attempt to a single volume, readers are presented with a quickly paced, and rarely ever confusing, series of events that bring the separate plot threads all together in a thrilling conclusion that manages to shift the entirety of the status quo we’ve been presented with up until this point.

What really makes this work is the disparate and engaging cast of characters. From the disgraced and on-the-run highlanders Kayne and Jerek, to the crotchety halfmage Eremul, the sorceress Yllandris and the youthful Cole and Sasha, each of the major characters provide a new element to the world and the story being told.

The fact that many of them are more than just nasty people, the defining trait of many grimdark characters, helps them as well. They each have their vices and flaws, but many of them have aspects to their personalities that go well beyond the vices; and this is without the extent of character development that comes from a full series.

Actually, The Grim Company sets up a lot for a wildly imaginative journey overall. As we’re introduced to three major factions – the Dorminians and Salazar; the High Fangs and the Shaman; and the City of Towers and the White Lady – we’re given a ton of information on the world and the aftermath of the war with the gods that put the land into the Age of Ruin.

From the abominations that wander the lands, fended off by Salazar’s augmentors in the Trine, and the Shaman’s brethren (men merged with animals that reflect them) in the High Fangs, to the famine that is spreading across a land that is refusing to heal, Scull fills his story with little details on the world that are undoubtedly going to play major roles over the course of the series.

The augmentors in particular are a fascinating bunch. Definitely taken from the imagination of a game developer, Scull infuses them with powers that would be completely at home in a video game and I’m shocked aren’t taken advantage of more by other writers. With enchanted weapons and armour making up the power that the augmentors wield, they are utilized for some intense and thrilling action sequences throughout the novel that scream of a more cinematic and game-like. It’s a nice touch that helps them to stand out among the elites of other fantasy stories.

That said, not everything works perfectly within the story. The sense of how long things take to occur, or how much time has passed, is glossed over frequently; making the sudden jumps from one period of time to another feel a little awkward. The fact that Yllandris’s segments also feel completely superfluous to the story being told, with payoff to her, thankfully, few segments undoubtedly playing a role in the sequel The Sword of the North, only managing to stay interesting due to the fact that they build up the power structure and culture of the north for readers.

Overall, Luke Scull’s debut novel is a thrilling read that manages to hold interest and move at a rapid pace towards a satisfyingly tantalizing conclusion. If you enjoy a good fantasy read, but have been scared off by grimdark in the past, give this one a go; it may just be the gateway to the subgenre that you need. I know it’s got me interested in giving the overall subgenre more of a try.

The Grim Company by Luke Scull Rating: 8.5/10