Thursday, February 25, 2016

Snakewood - Adrian Selby

Snakewood is Adrian Selby’s debut novel; despite some rough patches, it’s a vividly imaginative work. There’s some memorable, complex characters, a sprawling, elaborate world, and a plot that feels something like The Count of Monte Cristo, but with rather a lot more murder. In short, this is good stuff, even if it could use a little smoothing out.

The narrative structure of the book switches between four main points of view, with incidental notes added by a fifth; it’s presented as a series of written accounts and papers left behind by the participants in the story, and each of the major points of view has a very distinct voice. One of the choices that the author makes is to drop the reader into a fast-paced, action-heavy point of view near the start; and whilst this works well, it’s surrounded by a thicket of new terminology, in a totally new world to the reader, with an authorial voice which is, itself, heavy with internal slang, and occasionally difficult to parse.  Embedding the reader in the world immediately can work well – but here, it felt like a bit of a struggle initially.
Having said that, after a few chapters, I got used to all of the different points of view and their different linguistic tricks and social assumptions, and the prose started to flow a lot better. Still, it felt as if the opening sections could have been more accessible.

Once it gets rolling, though, Selby’s story is a good one. The world is revealed in incidentals, as characters travel between one encounter and the next. There’s sweeping forest, flat plains, soaring mountains – and what felt like rather a lot of struggle with freezing snow. The smattering of detail we get is tantalising – there’s kingdoms rising and falling just out of shot, there’s trade guilds slowly building empires, and the threat of wildmen from the North. There’s even the odd mention of ‘magists’, which may or may not be magical in any way – and may or may not be legendary, or entirely fictional. Selby has a brilliant sense of place . Regardless of the point of view, his locations are crisply described, with enough detail to draw the reader in, but not enough to overwhelm – and each locale feels distinct and real.

Perhaps the oddest feature of this word is the ‘plant’ ; different mixes of vegetation can be created, brewed and imbibed to provide spectacular, super-normal effects. Warriors take ‘fightbrews’ before walking into combat, and have to deal with withdrawl afterward; weapons are routinely poisoned and highly lethal, and books of recipes are highly valuable. It’s a clever system, injecting a kind of physical magic into the world – one which carries both short and long term consequences for the user. Over the course of the text, more elaborate uses for the different brews, pastes and mixes are revealed – and it’s intriguing stuff.

The characters, sat within a world which seems to have a constant low level conflict, are all very well drawn. The text as a whole centres around members of ‘Kailen’s Twenty’ once a legendary band of mercenaries, now dispersed, retired, and, apparently, being murdered. Not all the narratives come from the Twenty, but it’s great to have some views here from men who are feeling old and more than a little broken, settled into one way of life or another – rather than the standard young Chosen One. The survivors of the Twenty have all been scarred by their actions in one way or another, and are, to put it mildly, not nice people. There’s no moral high road open here, and it’s to Selby’s credit that he creates characters who can be compellingly repulsive, and even draw the reader to empathise with them.

It’s not all unrelenting misery of course. There’s the occasional sparkling flash of humour, in amongst all of the revenge, plots and brutal murder. But the overall atmosphere is one of unabashed grimness. As individuals are struck down, on one side or another of the conflict, the tension ratchets up.  The question of who is performing killings and why, and where and who will they strike next is approached from different angles, and once over the initial hurdle, I found it very difficult indeed to stop reading.

Is it worth picking up? I’d say yes. The opening segment was a bit of a struggle, and you have to be ready to enter a dark world of vengeance and suffering before you start, but overall, this is a solid entry in the genre. There’s a fascinating world that I’d love to see more of, with some well realised characters inside a taut, exciting plot; so yes, it’s worth the time to read.

Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Road Brothers - Mark Lawrence

Road Brothers is a collection of Mark Lawrence’s short fiction. As the title implies the focus is on individuals from the band of rapacious mercenaries that surround Jorg, the protagonist from Lawrence’s Broken Empire trilogy. In some cases, these are origin stories, looking at who these individuals used to be, before they became hardened killers. In other cases, they’re side stories, looking at members of the crew acting alone for their own purposes. And in others, we see Jorg travelling with members of his band, spreading the unique blend of justice and misery that is his hallmark. It’s worth noting that several of these stories have appeared in other collections, or been available for individual purchase before now – but some are entirely new, and it’s great to have them all amalgamated into one collection.

It’s no secret that I’m a big fan of Lawrence’s work; his ‘The Liar’sKey’ was near the top of my list from last year, and I’ve always found his Broken Empire world to be compelling and imaginative. So I went in to Road Brothers with fairly high expectations – and had a great time. There’s an artistry to the protagonists of these tales, an economy which encourages the reader to exercise their imaginations, whilst providing a degree of narrative elegance that makes the book very easy to pick up and rather hard to put down.  Rike’s placid viciousness in one tale is juxtaposed against, say, Sim’s cool precision in another. Getting at their points of view, if only for a few pages, gives us an insight into the Broken Empire, puts us, a little, outside of the red hot iron-and-blood of Jorg’s focused will.

We don’t spend a lot of time with each of the Brothers in this collection, but we do see enough to give us context, to make the world a bit more colourful. And behind that colour are a set of diverse personalities, ranging from the cunning to the brute, from stoic strength to rabid intensity. Each of them have a sense of individuality, and the stories woven around them only enhance that, enriching the other works in the collection as well as the narratives of Lawrence’s other trilogies.
There’s some great stories here too – though they are laced through with spoilers for other Broken Empire works, so they should be approached with caution, or after reading those books. There pacing is spot on – in some cases - as with Sim - hauntingly, terrifyingly languid, and in others it has the rapid pace that comes with hurtling escapes and hand-to-hand combat with creeping technological terrors.

Honestly, if you’ve already read Lawrence’s Broken Empire works, this is a great supplementary piece. It has a lot of genuine points to make about the human condition, tied up in entirely human  (and often utterly terrible for that) characters. It’s putting more detail in to an already deeply fascinating world, and doing so with high stakes, great action, and a wonderfully nuanced view of humanity at its best, and, perhaps more often, its worst. It’s worth reading for any one of those things, and together, they make a collection whose only real flaw is that it isn’t two, five, ten times as large. Definitely worth picking up.  

Thursday, February 18, 2016

The Freedom Of The Mask - Robert McCammon

The Freedom of the Mask is the sixth in Robert McCammon’s  “Matthew Corbett” series; the series follows an eighteenth century law-clerk-turned-private-investigator, as he attempts to solve various unpalatable  ‘problems’ as part of a nascent investigative agency. Along the way he runs into hypnotists, witches, alligators, and the occasional criminal mastermind.

By this sixth book, Matthew Corbett has had a tough run of luck. Barely surviving a battle in a swamp, and suffering a traumatic head injury, he begins the text being transported, all unknowing, to Professor Fell – a transcontinental underworld kingpin, who would no doubt like to cause Corbett a degree of agony.  At the same time, his colleague, Hudson Greathouse, and his on-again-off-again love interest, Berry Grigsby, set out in search of the missing investigator. Given that this is McCammon, it’s probably no surprise that things do not go entirely to plan, for any party.

This is the first book of the series to take place outside of the United States – indeed, the larger portion of the text occurs in London and surrounding environs. McCammon pulls out all the stops here; his London is a grotesquery, an urban hellscape, populated with gin-soaked gangsters and child-madams, murderers, thieves, and uncaring gentry, all appearing and disappearing in a thick blanket of yellow fog. It’s a den of vice and iniquity, and McCammon manages to paint it as such, unapologetically, but lyrically, and with an eye to reinforcing a growing sense of unease, repulsion and simmering horror in the reader. His London is unpleasantly, oozingly alive, coming off the page and into the mind like a brooding stain.

There’s other environs of course. At one point we visit a charming little village in Wales, which gets the full treatment of bucolic splendour.  It’s also got a wonderful atmosphere of insidious awfulness, which McCammon evokes masterfully.  His world building is vivid and deeply disturbing stuff, and a pleasure to read – albeit a worrying one.

From a character standpoint, we spend most of our time riding along with Matthew again. There are some chapters with Hudson Greathouse as the point-of-view, which act as a nice contrast. McCammon shows that he can spin out a very different voice to that of Matthew Corbett, when given the chance – Greathouse is stubborn, cautious, pragmatic and in some instances highly dangerous. His approach to obstacles, which may or may not involve throwing a table at them, is a joy. Greathouse, the older of the investigators, has a stability of character which it’s great to see more of – and acts as a foil to the rather more mercurial Corbett. Corbett, though, continues to be hardened by his experiences. He’s grown something of a thicker skin, and whilst there’s still an iron core of morality floating at his centre, he’s also prepared to be a little more flexible in his company. Imagining the young law clerk of five books previously associating with gangster and killers is unthinkable – but Corbett slips into London’s underworld, and if he doesn’t cause a ripple, he’s certainly not being used as bait. This slow move of Matthew into a greyer moral existence is intriguing to watch, and credit to the author for making it seem eminently plausible. Matthew’s head is always great fun to inhabit, even when he’s being insufferable – and he’s less so than usual here, feeling more the focused man of action than the fop.

There’s also time spent on Matthew’s relationship with Berry, and we get further insight into the character of that arch-rogue, Professor Fell; in both cases, I won’t approach closely, but will say that their decisions are intriguing, and the depths of character revealed by those actions are equally fascinating.

Plot-wise – well, again, I’ll avoid spoilers. But there’s a lot going on here. By the end of the book, I was turning pages what felt like three at a time to find out what would happen next, and what was happening felt like a solid punch in the gut. There’s a slow burn at the start of the narrative, but McCammon builds the tension out expertly, and each moment of revelation or catharsis is made all the more explosive thereby. There’s more gothic horror and dread crawling around on these pages with each instalment, and this is no exception – it’s terrifying, horrifying, and a great read.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Calamity - Brandon Sanderson

Calamity is the third and final novel in Brandon Sanderson’s ‘Reckoners’ trilogy. Following almost directly after the second volume, it follows David and his decidedly diminished band of Reckoners as they attempt the impossible: to retrieve an errant Prof, and attempt to deal with Calamity – whose arrival in the sky was the harbinger of Epic powers  - in order to end the reign of the Epics over humanity. 

From a character standpoint, the focus of this volume is really on David and Megan. They spend a great deal of time together, and whilst a lot of that is spent making terrible, terrible similes, there’s room for exploring the emotional underpinning of their relationship as well. There’s an energy crackling between the two which Sanderson manages masterfully – a kind of assured gentleness, paired with humour and the occasional dose of adrenaline, which creates a seamless, genuine whole. Following the tribulations of Firefight, it’s great to see this sort of confidence portrayed in the narrative, and watching these two grow together over the course of the text is quite delightful. 
We also get a little more time with some of the Reckoner team members who made it through Firefight intact. That said, they don’t feel like they get quite enough time on the page. There’s enough depth there that they work as a supporting cast, driving the plot forward, but they don’t feel quite real – unlike the better realised David and Megan. Still, they serve their purpose, and the dialogue between Cody, Abraham and David serves to shape David, at least a little. That, and Cody is occasionally genuinely funny, bringing a bit of levity into what can be a rather sombre book at times. 

We also get to take a closer look at Prof, who has been something of a mystery since way back in Steelheart. There’s some great discussion here around what drives Prof to do what he does, how he thinks, his wants, needs and fears. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a fair amount of Learning more of his past, getting into the depths of the man is something of a surprise. This is a book which, as the series seems to come to a close, isn’t afraid of giving answers. Prof’s life is just one of those things that were heretofore a mystery, now dragged out into the light. Amongst other things, there’s the question of Calamity – which seems to give Epics their powers -  and the question of why every Epic seems to struggle with their inner demons, typically falling into a selfish and dangerous state of power. 

These questions – and their answers – are at the heart of the book, along with David and Megan. Megan, herself an Epic, lets us see further into their condition, their fears and needs, more than we’ve had occasion to before. At the same time, David and the other Reckoners are out in full force, rampaging hither and yon in their search for Prof. There’s…well, rather a lot of explosions. There’s some full-on battles as well, which reminded me of the stand-up fight from Steelheart. If you’re in this for the action, you’re not going to be disappointed. The prose absolutely sizzles, and I, for one, couldn’t put the book down. If you’re in the book for answers – there are plenty of those as well. David and the Reckoners are looking for knowledge as much as they are for Prof and Calamity, and they find rather a lot of it, sometimes in unexpected places.  There’s a lot of light thrown on the central mysteries of the series here – and overall, the answers don’t disappoint.

As a send-off for the series as a whole, Calamity is an excellent piece. It gives closure to the world of the Reckoners, with a strong emotional heart wrapped in a layer of solved mysteries, and another of high-octane adventure. If you’re not reading the series already – go back now, pick up Steelheart, and find out what you’ve been missing. If you’re up to date – come in to Calamity knowing that it’s not going to hold anything back. There’s truth and consequences aplenty, and each turn of a page is a revelation. I’ll miss the Reckoners, but they received an absolutely top-notch ending. If you want to know how the story ends – then you absolutely need to read this. It does not disappoint. 

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Downfall of the Gods - K.J. Parker

Downfall of the Gods is a new novella by K.J. Parker. I’ve been getting through quite a few of these lately, mostly in the form of his serialised novel, Two of Swords. Downfall, though, is a bit different. It largely takes the form of a dialogue between a goddess, a member of a squabbling and largely petty pantheon, and one of her worshippers. Over the course of the text, we’re treated to examinations of faith, belief, the nature of humanity, and, perhaps more worryingly, the nature of the divine.

Parker  gives us a fairly large patch of the world to play in for this one. Our protagonists are on a journey, you see. Nominally one of redemption, though it may have more nefarious or otherwise inscrutable motives.  Along the way, they work their way across an ocean, deserts, the occasional mountain range, and a variety of villages and towns. These all serve as the backdrop for the ongoing interaction between the travellers, but they’re still present in the narrative, and in many cases, still vividly real. To be fair, there’s less focus on the geography here, but Parker’s trademark focus on detail stands him in good stead., There’s discussion of the customs of various regions, and those are fed into larger issues; one town  has rather stringent laws on the passing of counterfeit coin, and this runs into a hilarious exchange on the validity of the rule of law, made whilst the divinity and her supplicant attempt to escape from justice. There’s a lot of inferred depth in this world, which is drawn with sparse, but precise brush strokes, leaving the reader with a framework that they can fill in with their imagination. It’s a world of kings, and gods, of violence, compassion, and divine cruelty. All of these are part of Parker’s world, and he makes it feel convincingly real.

The characters – well, the central focus here is, as above, on a goddess and one of her worshippers; the latter of whom is on a journey to prevent his eternal damnation, after accidentally irritating the former. In the dialogue between the two, we see the growth (and occasional decline) of their characters. Parker’s dialogue has always been top notch, and there’s no change here. The interaction between man and goddess  goes about as well as you’d expect. To begin with, the divinity regards her worshipper on approximately the same level as a family pet that has accidentally soiled itself and the carpet, and the worshipper moves between dismissive condemnation for his potential damnation, and a sort of awe. Over the course of the text, however, they converge a little more; coming to understand each other slightly, if not actually enjoy each other’s company. There’s a solid amount of growth in particular for the non-divine side of the equation, as he moves through various stages of understanding about his faith, and the role of the divine in the world, as the journey goes on. Both characters absolutely sparkle – the dialogue has the clear rhythm of river rapids, and about as many sharp edges as the rocks underneath. The back and forth between the two is touching, intellectually challenging, and occasionally downright hilarious. By the end I’d say that the two are…well, not fully rounded, but perceivably real individuals.

The plot…well, as alluded to above, it’s a journey to the land of the dead, for reasons. The meat of the text is in the relationships and the dialogue above, and those have some serious oomph behind them. It’s a case of the journey being as important as the destination -  though in this case, the destination has a few surprises in it too. Not to cause any spoilers, but this journey of man and god promises to have more than a few consequences.

Is it worth reading? Well, it’s no secret that I’m a big fan of K.J. Parker’s work. But this is still one of the better novellas in his selection.  It approaches grand themes through lower level interactions, and does so with considerable elan. It’s a fascinating text, which can make you laugh whilst throwing open questions about the role of faith in the world. So yes, it’s absolutely worth your time.

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Central Station - Lavie Tidhar

Central Station is a new sci-fi novel by Lavie Tidhar. It opens on the Station of the same name, the base for travel outside of Earth’s atmosphere. The Station, with its base situated in what was once Tel Aviv, is a bustling commercial hub – and the people who live there are vividly imagined, often exceptionally strange, and yet also incredibly human. It’s a book which wants to explore the human condition, and what it means to be human, and does so alongside wider discussions on family, memory and mortality, amongst others.  The format is also worth talking about. It feels like a selection of short stories, all taking place in the same setting, and with the same characters intersecting in different ways, with an overarching narrative running behind and being moved forward in each of the vignettes. It’s a clever approach, and one that works well here, because Tidhar manages to keep the stories self contained, but informed by the context of the narrative around them.

Central Station is at the core of the novel that bears the same name. It’s an environment that Tidhar explores exuberantly, and with what feels like a lot of informed knowledge in every line. There’s a lot going on here, at the base of the station. Rag and bone men drive horse carts alongside gleaming metal spires. There’s AI-like individuals riding the consciousness of others, for what may or may not be mutual benefit. There’s a game world so immersive you can make money doing a menial job there instead of in ‘reality’. There’s viruses that can change who and what you are, and there’s metal men, carrying the consciousness of the dead, veterans of long ago wars. It’s a lavish backdrop, and one to which the author is always adding fascinating detail. It feels like we’re looking through a window at this world, and in following our stories, there are so many others that are only visible from their edges. It’s a rich, varied world, and one which Tidhar makes convincing.  I must admit to a particular fondness for the fusion of the high-tech spire of the Station with the vibrant and diverse, neighbourhood around it, that neighbourhood itself a fusion of the old and the new, of sacred traditions and sparkling novelty. Tidhar’s effort to create a cohesive universe here is a triumph, ending in a city which is recognisably human, and  carries layers of strangeness and wonder  around that core of familiarity. It’s a world that has been thoroughly well-realised.

The characters – well, they’re a motley crew. An oracle carrying an AI. A child who speaks to a friend who may or may not be there. A robot who performs bris. A broken mechanoid soldier in a situation of forbidden love. And a swathe of others. What Tidhard does well is to juxtapose their oddities (and some of them are very odd) with their commonalities, both with each other and the reader. There’s a psychic vampire, of sorts, who struggles to connect to people around her. A returnee from Mars, with a pulsing bi0-augmentation, who has returned to care for his sick father. The narrative celebrates the diversity of its cast, but is never afraid to ground them in, if not common humanity, then common understanding. There’s a lot of great character work here, which is fuelled in part by many of the sections being fairly introspective – we live in an individual as they go about their day to day life, and if that life is strange and wonderful to us, well, it carries the prosaic undertones of our own routines. Each of the characters heading up a section of the book has their own story to tell, and it’s to the author’s credit that I’d like to have followed them all longer, have learned more about them, and been lost in the grandeur and tiny details of their lives.  The characters are, simply put, really well done.

The plot – well, it’s a lot of small plots really. Pacing-wise, each section has its own self-contained arc. Some of those arcs are slower than others – but in many ways this is a reflective text, and that slower pace fits in here, as characters contemplate themselves, each other, and their place in the universe. Most of these feel like character studies, but the conflicts and events within them are well drawn, with a tight, emotionally complex narrative in each. The overarching plot thread could get a little lost some times, but that may have been my fault for getting lost in the minutiae of the individual tales. In any event, the whole is a well done piece of inventive, high concept sci-fi.

Is it worth reading? I’d say yes – if you’re looking for a srandout, absorbing, well realised sci-fi world, with characters who feel like they’re about to stroll off the page and take you for a cup of arak. The book has a lot of great ideas, and isn’t shy of showing them off. There’s not that much in the way of stereotypical action, but there is enough conflict, tension, revelation and humanity to keep you turning pages late into the night.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Two Of Swords (Part Twelve) - K.J. Parker

This is the twelfth part of K.J. Parkers serialised novel, Two of Swords.  The last part was largely focused on Axeo, as he attempted to perform a rather daring heist in the company of Musen, the trainee thief whom we’ve seen, off and on, since the first volume. This part picks up directly where the preceding one ended – with Musen on the run with their prize.

As Musen tears across the country, desperately trying to outpace a seemingly relentless Axeo, we do get to see a little more of the world.  Admittedly, we see most of it rather quickly, Still, it seems there’s more to the area than the bizarre palace from the preceding section; Musen runs into a collection of floating barges at one point, and we get a little time with the cheerful, hard working, and utterly ruthless people of the barges. It’s a credit to Parker’s prose that this feels like a dimmer, more liminal space – as Musen settles in with the people of the barges, he seems to transition between worlds; away from the frentic activity of the Lodge, he’s a bucolic farmboy – or at least a convincing simulacra of one.  There’s a sense of place in the words here, mixed with a feeling of transition. What comes after this, it seems, will be impossible to turn back from.

There’s some other interesting spaces thrown up as well. We get a little digression to another small village, where Musen follows the clang of steel to the resident blacksmith. It’s an opportunity to again have emphasised exactly how pervasive the Craftsmen are, and to show off another part of the world which has been depopulated by the ongoing war between the East and the West. Parker always evokes desolation well, and this is no exception. The inclusion of threads of humanity, pushing on with lives wrapped in hope or hopelessness, is a side-benefit. What exists here is life on a fringe, and one which is subject to the whims of events far outside of their control. To be fair, this has actually been one of the key threads running through the overall text, as we discover the constraints of power and the seemingly unstoppable occurrence of the seemingly inevitable. Still, after a few books with generals and Emperors, we’re back down at the grass-eye view, and it doesn’t look any rosier from either position.

Musen…well, he’s familiar to long time readers already of course, but we do get to see another side of him here. Previously, it’s been simple to see Musen as a pragmatic, amoral sort of fellow. He’s a thief, unashamedly so – and in fact, has been trained in it. There’s still plenty of that familiar Musen here, be he lifting small trinkets from passers by, or smuggling priceless artefacts. On the other hand, he is, it appears, also an individual with faith. It’s the strength of his faith that drives him through the events of this part, and leave him in opposition to his usual allies. It’s nice to see that he has other facets, and we get to see a vulnerability and a naivetĂ© here that isn’t visible elsewhere in his character.

We also get a bit more of a view on the cheerfully brutal Axeo from the previous part, as he pursues Musen – rather efficiently – in service to his own goals. Axeo’s rambunctious ebullience is infectious, and that it’s paired with hard-edged violence emphasises the contrasts in his personality all the more. In this part, we can see the growing affection he has for Musen, as he attempts to retrieve his recalcitrant cohort without having to murder him in some increasingly unpleasant manner. 

There’s also an opportunity to follow some more threads on Axeo’s relationship with his brother, and with people whom he claims – possibly without irony –a re his friends. The overall portrait is conflicted, and more than a little disturbing. Axeo is, like most of Parker’s characters, not a very nice person – but he has all of the capacity to leap off the page and become, if not nice, then a person. He’s believable as someone you might know, and that makes him all the more worrying.

Plot-wise, this feels a lot like a chase movie. Musen sets out on the run, and Axeo follows. Over the course of the text though, we get a little more insight into the goals of the Lodge, at least in the short term, and find out what they’re up to with the item that Axeo and Musen retrieved in the last part. That said, this is a book which delights in its characters having multiple levels of reason for anything they do, so I fully expect what is going on ‘on the surface’ is only at least partially correct. I can’t deny though, that this part was a riveting read – Parker makes the reader feel Musen’s fear as he runs, and Axeo’s resigned aggravation as he follows. There’s some great heart-stopping moments in here, and Parker ratchets up the tension with every page.

Is it worth reading? Well, if you’ve not read any of the preceding parts, this one’s going to be pretty difficult to take on as a stand alone. It’s probably possible without the context, but there’s layers of depth here that require reading the preceding parts for context. If you’re already up to date, then yes – this part moves the larger plot along, and gives us intense insight into two engaging, charmingly horrifying characters – it’s a great read.

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

The Bands of Mourning - Brandon Sanderson

The Bands of Mourning is the third of Brandon Sanderson’s books set in his Alloy of Law continuity – which is set in the future of the world from his Mistborn series.

This is a world undergoing something akin to the industrial revolution, moving away from a more feudal-seeming past, toward a future which may be bright – or otherwise. I’ve already talked about  my affection for Sanderson’s world building, and for this word in particular, in my review of Shadows of Self, but Sanderson has raised his game for this follow-up.  Whilst the focus of the preceding novel was urban, this text is more of a journey, letting us see more of the world; there’s the smaller cities outside of the capital of Elendil, seething in resentment at their marginalisation, whilst  reveling in their own beauty. There’s soaring mountains, laced with ice, snow, and hidden dangers. And there’s everything in between – rolling fields, passed through in speeding locomotives, and the potential for far, far stranger things outside the knowledge of those in the capital’s bastion of what it calls civilisation. Sanderson gives the reader a broad tapestry for his world, and fills in the details intricately when required.  

On the character side – well, after the events of Shadows of Self, we see an angrier, perhaps more embittered Waxillium, a man who is, at least initially, determined to do some good from the confines of his living room, and avoid getting involved in any more world-changing adventures. This changes somewhat over the course of the text, but Sanderson still manages to paint a picture of a man suffering a crisis of faith, whilst retaining his core competence.

By contrast, Wayne, his affable, accent-changing, disguise-ready sidekick, remains largely the same quirky character we’ve come to know and love, always ready with a humorous aside, or an unusual perspective. The changes here are more subtle, as Wayne works to get over his lost affections, and discovers how far he’s willing to go for Waxillium. It’s great to see this kind of growth in the pair, which seems to come organically from the events of the preceding texts, but also serves to make them a little less heroic, and a little more human.

We also get a bit of time with the sternly effective constable, Marasi, who seems tobe settling into her role as a woman of action. She seems to take Steris under her wing a little here, which works rather well. Steris, Waxillium’s fiancĂ©e, is establishing her own character even as it passes through moments of transition. She’s emotionally distant, a compulsive preparer and maker of lists, and seems determined to keep an eye on Waxillium as he spreads a combination fo justice and havoc throughout the countryside. Over the course of the narrative, she starts to examine how she feels about her husband-to-be, and how she wishes to define herself. In between these heavy character moments there’s some great comedy from her – as when she hands a hotelier a list of potential scenarios to prepare for whilst the team is in residence, which include “building explodes”, amongst others.

The plot…well, from the start, it’s pretty fast-paced. There’s a few more reflective moments interspersed throughout the prose, but there’s always a compulsion for the reader to turn just one more page. The stakes begin relatively high – a search for Waxillium’s sister, and the titular artefact, the Bands of Mourning, and they certainly don’t decrease over the course of the novel. There’s a few interesting twists in here as well;  though I felt some were a little telegraphed, some certainly managed to surprise, and all of them promise to create large ripples in the world Sanderson has created. This isn’t a series which shies away from examining actions and their consequences, and as a result, the plot is compelling, fascinating, and makes the book rather hard to put down.

Is it worth reading? If you’ve not read the first two books in the series – or optionally, the Mistborn series before it – I’d start there. If you’re already invested in Wax, Wayne, and their adventures, then yes, this is absolutely worth your time. Pick it up, and you probably won’t be able to put it down again for quite a while – it’s a great read.