Fool’s Assassin by Robin Hobb: It Could Be Better

Fool’s Assassin by Robin Hobb is the most disappointing book I’ve ever read as quickly as I could.  Robin Hobb’s original Assassin series was arguably the first truly “adult” fantasy series I ever read, and it’s safe to say I’m a huge fan.  Her writing is powerful and at her best, the characters read as fully fleshed out people; every emotion is nuanced, and we learn about the world from their perspective in wonderful detail.  Fitz is one of the most enduring fantasy characters in my memory, and I’ve read a lot of fantasy in the past decade.  The appeal of her prose remains, and it’s that power that dragged me through this novel so quickly when everything else slowly, and I do mean slowly, goes wrong.  Despite the quality of the writing, the majority of the writing is about Fitz’ day to day life as a very minor lord on an estate of no importance.  It’s a hell of a comedown from the assassin, Catalyst and master of two magics that we have watched grow up across two trilogies.


I’d like to emphasise that though I’m going to be quite critical of this book, I’m still greatly anticipating the second in the series.  The problems with the book was primarily one of pacing.  There are problems with character and plot, but these invariably stem from the fact that the pacing of the book is just entirely off.  Events that should be exciting are drawn out far beyond the point where logically they should have concluded, which ends up turning the book into a prologue the length of a novel.  It takes so long to get to what will eventually be the greater conflict of the series that it only occurs in the last hundred or so pages despite being hinted at constantly – and obviously to the reader but seemingly not to the characters – throughout the novel.  Fool’s Assassin is set a decade or more after the events of the Tawny Man trilogy, and the book itself spans nearly 15 years which should give you some idea as to just how ridiculously paced it actually is.  The reason for such an extended time period is tied up with one of the two perspective characters, which I’ll deal with after a spoiler warning, but it could have been avoided with a few sensible changes and not actually losing much.




The most glaring issue is the character of Fitz.  We’ve been with Fitz for six novels now, since he was a small, nearly feral child, to the triumphant end of Fool’s Fate where, as a man in his middle years, he conquered all before him through his hard won skill, and sheer willpower.  We left him wresting power away from Chade and handing it over to secure Prince Dutiful’s reign.  He was a man at the prime of his life, successful and dangerous.  Over the course of his life we’ve seen him isolate himself out of anger or self-pity, act impulsively and cause more problems than he solves, and retreat into periods of depression over the state of his life, and accomplish the seemingly impossible through sheer bloody rage.  What we’ve never seen is a Fitz like the one in Fool’s Assassin.  This is a Fitz so unfocused, so inert, that events that should be the obvious precursor to some major plot movements arrive…and Fitz doesn’t notice.  Or else he dithers, and the opportunity for some action, some story, some something happening drift away and we are stuck still watching Fitz go about his day to day life.  It’s not just that this is frustrating because the novel is slow, but because as it goes on and on, it starts to ruin his character.  Don’t get me wrong, there’s potential for an interesting character turn in the idea of an assassin who retires and allows his skills to fade, his constant alertness slacken into complacency, it just doesn’t make sense for so many opportunities for Fitz to remember himself to arise…and pass. Mysterious messengers arrive…and he leaves them waiting in a sitting room while he goes to a party all night.  And when that messenger is murdered and the culprits evade him he just…forgets about it.  You might think I’m overusing the ellipsis here, but that was my reaction multiple times throughout the novel:  “…”


It makes no sense that instincts he honed over 40 plus years and six novels to fade so much that he is oblivious to everything happening around him, and it’s utterly infuriating by the end of the novel when he still needs to be told by another character about events that have been unfolding around him for a decade.  He bungles nearly every interaction with other people despite decades of experience with the politics of court and also with just, y’know, talking to people.  Also notable is the absence of Fitz’ Wit in this novel.  When Nighteyes died at the end of the first book in the Tawny Man series, the Wit was still a major aspect of Fitz for the remaining two novels.  He had to deal with the raw wound of his wolf’s death, but his Wit also gave him a connection to other people, and a special awareness of animals that characterises the magic.  In Fool’s Assassin it’s implied that Fitz has given up on ever having another Wit partner, which is fine, but his Wit sense is apparently permanently dulled as well.  Horses, dogs, cats and other rural animals abound on his estate, but they’re just animals to him.  He’s not aware of them in the Wit, or if he is we’re rarely ever shown this.  The Skill is still present, but the Wit is MIA until towards the end of the novel.  It shouldn’t be a major issue, but it’s just one more dimension of his previously rich character which has gone flat and uninteresting.  If the absence of the Wit was used as an explanation for why he’s so seemingly incompetent with other people, if it was demonstrated that it was missing because he was unconsciously removing himself from the world, it might mean something.  But it’s not like that, it’s just missing.  It was a part of him before, and now it’s not, no moral.


The other major issue is the major spoiler mentioned above, and it concerns the second perspective character; Fitz’ new daughter, Bee.  I don’t have a problem with Bee’s character at all.  I’ve seen other reviews complain that Bee’s character is too cold and emotionless for a child or for a character we’re expected to sympathise with, but to me it makes perfect sense.  After all, Bee is a White.  The problem with Bee isn’t with Bee herself, I think she’s an interesting character with a lot of potential.  The problem with Bee is what Bee implies for Fitz and for the novel.  First of all, Bee is the reason the book takes place over such an extended period.  We need to be introduced to the mysterious circumstances of her conception and birth and then wait for her to grow up into a character that can be more than a passenger in anything that happens.  Secondly and more importantly, she’s a goddamn White but somehow Fitz doesn’t notice.  How could Fitz, after such a long and incredibly intimate relationship with the Fool, fail to notice his daughter’s pale, colourless skin and slender form or her incredible capacity for learning?  Even if he managed to miss all of that, when she starts demonstrating prophetic dreams, you’d think he would have clued in to the fact that she’s a White and apply even a tiny piece of his knowledge to understanding her.  Instead, he continues to blunder his way through fatherhood of this obviously unique child.  He veers randomly between treating her like an eight year old and treating her as his only confidante in the world.  He missteps so often as a father and as a former assassin and Catalyst, his Wit is so mysteriously absent, that it seems like for the majority of the book, Robin Hobb has forgotten how to write her most iconic character.


Fitz and Bee’s lack of engagement with the world around them also renders most other characters shallow and impotent.  We get to see Chade, Kettricken, Dutiful and Nettle throughout the book, but we seem them from the perspective of these two utterly detached, completely inert characters, and across a badly paced decade long story, that they seem to be caught in a limbo where even the business of the Five Kingdoms isn’t mentioned and their interesting and long established richness of character are largely absent.  And then in the last hundred pages, everything seems to happen at once.  Fitz seemingly regains his Wit, his pride, his self-awareness in one glorious and satisfyingly bloody moment.  Bee starts to grow from an isolated child White into a slightly more relateable teenager White just as the Fool re-enters the picture, enemies are gathering in the shadows around Fitz and Bee and finally we’re off and running.


And then the book ends.


It’s incredibly frustrating and a huge relief all at once.  Incredibly frustrating because I slogged through 300 pages of Fitz getting his house renovated and teaching Bee how to dress and manage his estate staff just to get to the exciting part, only to have it end before it got started.  And a relief because it gives me some hope that book 2 of the series won’t be mired in such a boring, badly paced mess.  I’d still recommend this book to fans of Robin Hobb.  It’s got more potential than the Dragon Keeper novels which never managed to be more than just okay, and the nostalgia I have for Fitz means I’m willing to be patient with it.  Even with all the problems listed above, it’s still better than Soldier’s Son.  The less said about Soldier’s Son the better, really.  It’s an interesting place for a new series to start, it’s just a shame it had to start at the end of the novel instead of at the beginning.


Red Country by Joe Abercrombie or “Why Shy South is the coolest lady ever”

In my last review, I said that Amaranthe Lokdon seemed like an attempt to create a fantasy lead who had personality traits we more commonly think of as feminine than masculine, and lacking some of the traits we think of as masculine which are present in most fantasy protagonists.  I realised I probably should have articulated this idea more, as it’s dangerous territory to start talking about masculine and feminine traits.  I don’t think any quality of a person’s character – whether they’re fictional or not – depends on their gender.  What there is is cultural association of certain qualities with gender, and while I think it’s bad, I think a work which highlights the qualities we devalue that are associated with women, and shows those qualities as a strength rather than a weakness, is a good thing.  It would be better if we associated no qualities at all, but well, we’re not there yet.  Something to work towards, but also not the reality.  I found Amaranthe a positive character in that regard.  Leadership is often characterised by making hard decisions, and so we tend to think leaders have to be able to not focus on caring about the wellbeing of every individual when it’s necessary to make a decision for the greater good, and for some reason this ability is expected more in men than women.  We’re now running into the problem that a lot of modern leaders are seen as disengaged, willing to write off any number of groups who face discrimination because it’s expedient to do so.  We’ve devalued caring to the point where it’s often seen as a liability in a leader, and we associate women with caring and judge women less capable of leadership.  There’s probably a whole essay worth of material on the subject of expectations of mothering instincts and leadership, but that’s not what I’m looking to write about.

What I’m trying to say is that since fantasy protagonists are more often thrust into positions of leadership where that kind of emotionless decision-making might be required, we’ve seen a lot of male characters.   The female characters we do see often have that quality of expediency, ruthlessness, whatever you feel like calling it.  The reason I liked Amaranthe is that that wasn’t a part of her character.  Amaranthe struggled with making the hard decisions, choices that would lead to people dying, even when those choices were necessary.  She spent more time than most fantasy characters thinking about her supporting character’s emotional well-being.  I liked it a lot.  And that’s why I’ve chosen Red Country by Joe Abercrombie for my second review, mostly because it’s a contrast to the Emperor’s Edge series.  I don’t want to inadvertently advance the argument that female characters who are ruthless decision-makers are somehow invalid as female characters, that they have been artificially masculinised, because that’s just not true.  That trait, and the dozens of other traits that make a good leader or a good fantasy character, are not male traits.  Case in point; Shy South.

Red Country is the sixth book by Joe Abercrombie, and since his breakout series, First Law, he’s made a name for himself with the grubbiness of his settings; the brutality, the coarseness, the intensely grey morals.  I don’t generally like using the following words to describe books because I think they’re overused: gritty, grim, and visceral.  But you’re almost compelled to when you talk about a Joe Abercrombie book.  Every character is to some extent an asshole.  Everyone is wrong, everyone ends up killing people almost indiscriminately because it’s almost unavoidable.  He’s also very, very good at writing his characters with all the complexities and flaws of real people.  His characters aren’t all assholes because they’re indiscriminate murderers and rapists with no morals, but because they’re consumed with mundane flaws, indulging their own selfish desires and their petty jealousies.  They don’t WANT to kill everyone who gets in their way, but well, if they’re in the way…you get the idea.  It wouldn’t have surprised me to find writing that features this sort of brutality to come with no female characters at all and I’ve read a lot of low fantasy which has no female characters, probably because male writers and male readers don’t think women are feasible in a book that’s all about brutal violence.  But all of Abercrombie’s books have come with female perspective characters, and all of them stand alongside his male characters as entirely appropriate to the story, to me at least.

In First Law, it was Ferro Maljinn, an ex-slave on a quest to bloodily slaughter every member of the civilisation that enslaved and murdered her family.  In Best Served Cold it’s Monza Murcatto, who starts the book by being betrayed by the lord she has loyally served because her popularity and military skill is a threat to his power, and again, she cuts a bloody path to revenge.  Although unlike Ferro, she is only aiming to kill a handful of people, not an entire civilisation.  Both characters are great, but I chose not to write about those books because while both of them are great, I feel like First Law and Best Served Cold are both the story of someone else.  For First Law, despite the five or so different perspectives it covers, I really think it’s Logen Ninefinger’s story.  He was the breakout character in the authors breakout series.  In Best Served Cold, Monza’s story is more central, but I think Caul Shivers is closer to being the focus.  The Heroes is a little different, not so much a character story as it is a story about the brutality of war.  I quite liked the female perspective here, that of Finree dan Brock, because unlike Ferro and Monza, she wasn’t so focused on getting her way through force of arms and sheer willpower, instead she was represented as a consummate politician, constantly maneuvering to enhance her husband’s status, and thus her own.  Outwardly she would seem like a typically powerless female character, except that she ends up enduring more and getting what she wants with more success than most male characters.  I probably could have happily written extensively about Finree and what she represents for this, but I enjoyed Red Country more, and I think Shy is a more interesting character than Finree.

Finally, I get to talk about Shy.  Red Country opens with Shy taking her farm’s crop to market in a nearby town, accompanied by a farm-hand/surrogate father called Lamb who is immensely strong, but as Shy puts it, “some kind of coward.”  People who read Abercrombie’s books in chronological order will note the number of fingers Lamb has pretty quickly.  I loved Shy’s character almost instantly.  She’s unapologetically abrasive, getting in everyone’s face and calling it how she sees it with no concern for social nicety, and especially no concern for a woman’s place in the western-style frontier setting.  As the story moves forward, we learn that in her youth, Shy fled the boredom and toil of working on a farm to become a bandit, carving a fairly bloody reputation for herself (of course) before retiring from the life after an innocent girl was hung in her place due to a passing similarity.  When Shy and Lamb return to their farm with the money from their sale, they find it burned out and her younger siblings (who she is a parent to after her mother’s death) have been taken by slavers.  They immediately set out in pursuit, eventually joining a caravan headed to a Deadwood-style frontier town where the children are being taken.  The way Shy is written is perfect.  As I said, she’s confrontational and abrasive, but only because she doesn’t have any tolerance for people who aren’t getting on with what needs doing.  Unlike Ferro or Monza, she’s not the presented as incredible with a sword, a genius tactician, or some incredible warrior.  But she’s no stranger to violence and bulls through most of the violence thrown her way through sheer determination.   And it’s noted many times, and highlighted by events, that Shy isn’t what’s expected of women in this universe.  There’s a great scene about halfway through which comments on this directly which I’ll put below.

This scene is from a throwaway perspective, one of the women in the caravan with Shy, Luline Buckhorn, who is a part of a large group of women as they all stand in a circle, taking turns letting each other urinate while the rest provide a human wall so that the male members of the caravan can’t see them pee.  As she stands in the circle she reflects bitterly on a woman’s lot:

Sometimes she hated her husband, with his grinding ignorance of her struggles, and his chafing assumptions of what was woman’s work and what was man’s.  Like knocking in a fence-post then getting drunk was real labour, but minding a crowd of children all day and night was fun to feel grateful for.

Then later:

Did it never occur to him that she might want to ride, and feel the fresh wind, and smile at the wide-open country, and rope cattle, and consider the route, and speak up in the meetings while he trudged beside the wagon and changed the shitty wrappings of their youngest, and shouted at the next three in line to stop shouting, and had his nipples chewed raw every hour or two while still being expected to have a good dinner ready and do the wifely duties every bloody night, sore or not, tired or not?

She’s reflecting on how the Far Country, this frontier, is a leveler, as all the women in the party whether she’s a prostitute, a farmer’s wife like herself, or a noblewoman like the lady beside her are all forced to ‘make water’ in the circle of women, hidden from the prying eyes of the men.  Then Shy enters the scene:

“Will you look at that?” murmured Lady Inglestad.  Shy South had swung down from her saddle not a dozen strides from the column and was squatting in the long grass in the shadow of her horse making a spatter, reins in her teeth and trousers around her ankles, the side of her pale arse plain to see.  “Incredible,” someone muttered.  She pulled her trousers up and gave a friendly wave, then closed her belt, spat the reins into her hand and was straight back in the saddle.  The whole business had taken no time at all, and had been done exactly when and how she wanted.  Luline Buckhorn frowned around at the outward facing circle of women, changing over so that one of the whores could take her turn above the bucket.  “There a reason we can’t do the same?” she muttered.  Lady Inglestad turned an iron frown upon her.  “There most certainly is!”  They watched Shy South ride off, shouting something to Sweet about closing the wagons up.  “Although, at present, I must confess it eludes me.”

That scene pretty much says it all about how Shy deals with any expectations placed on her by her gender.  Shy breaks all those expectations because of her driving need for independence.  Shy wants to be the only person who has any say in what Shy does, and if anyone says otherwise she’ll probably laugh in their face.  And if someone tried to force her to do otherwise, they’ll probably get stabbed.  If you’re still reading at this point, well first of all thanks a lot.  I know this is already really damn long and I don’t think I’m even halfway yet.  But you’ve also probably picked up that I’m a huge fan of this character.  That’s because Shy’s independence isn’t a simple personality trait that says “strong character” or “strong woman.”  Her independence is characterised as both her greatest strength and her greatest weakness.  Yes, nobody dictates to her, but she is also virtually alone in the world except for a taciturn old man who barely talks because she pushes away anyone who gets too close.   She’s abrasive because she’s opinionated, but also as a defense against anyone who looks to penetrate into the places she might be emotionally vulnerable.

Red Country is most definitely Shy’s story, and while the first half of the book spends time setting her up as I’ve described above, her character growth is tied up with the introduction of another character into her life; Temple.  Temple is an ex-mercenary, actually a mercenary’s lawyer, who fled because he was sick of his own moral cowardice, and then his lack of any kind of competence sees him thrown into a raging river and washing up near Shy’s caravan.  While no one else in the caravan is willing to take in the dying man because their resources are already paid, and only people who pay their way can join the caravan, Shy fronts the money for him and saves his life.  Once he’s nursed back to health, she tells him she basically owns him until his debt is paid.  It’s the first time Temple has been forced to front up to a responsibility placed upon him; every other time life has thrown a challenge his way he’s fled.  This means he’s a man of many talents because at various points in his life he’s been a priest, a carpenter, a lawyer, all sorts of things, but while he’s been competent at them, he’s never actually invested himself in anything.  Basically, Temple is a shyster, through and through, and Shy recognises this instantly.  And she scorns him mercilessly for it, showing up his weakness at every turn and constantly expecting him to run from his debt to her.  But as the story progresses they get closer, with Temple surprising her (and himself) by sticking at something for the first time in his life, and also threatening her by slowly getting closer to her.

Eventually they arrive in Crease, the Deadwood-esque town I mentioned earlier.  Here Temple manages to hire out as a lawyer and pay off his debt to Shy instantly, and they’re both surprised to realise they regret there’s nothing tying them together anymore, and Temple surprises them both by not leaving, but taking a job as a carpenter and doing it well, and with pride.  This leads to this books sex scene, which almost every Abercrombie book (not sure if The Heroes does) has.  In First Law, Ferro and Logen are kindred spirits, supremely deadly and emotionally damaged to the point of emptiness.  They fuck because they’re thrown together and have nothing better to do.  They both get something out of it, but then part ways with little to no emotional strain.  Monza sleeps with Caul Shivers, and while their relationship is more emotionally fulfilling, that too fizzles out very quickly.  This time there’s some emotional fallout as they’re both bitter, and end up virtually hating one another.   When Shy and Temple sleep together though, there’s meaning to it.  For Temple, he’s found something worth caring more about than his own skin for the first time.  For Shy, she’s finally opened up and let someone in, let herself be vulnerable to someone for the first time.  They’re also both raging drunk at the time.  Sex in Abercrombie books, as I mentioned before, is as visceral as everything else in his books.  Here’s part of the scene, which starts with a dance while we’re still with Temple’s perspective:

“Never thought you’d be a dancer,” he shouted in her ear, “Too hard for it.” 

“Never thought you’d be one,” her breath hot against his cheek, “Too soft.”

Then things progress quickly, and we transition to Shy:

Bloody hell things were spinning by then.  She was fumbling in her trousers for the key and laughing and then she was fumbling in his trousers and they were up against the wall and kissing again her mouth full of his breath and his tongue and her hair then the door was banging open and the two of them tumbling through and across the dim-lit floorboards.  She crawled on top of him and they were grunting away, room reeling, and she felt the burn of sick at the back of her throat but swallowed it and didn’t much care as it tasted no worse than the first time and Temple seemed to be a long way from complaining or probably even noticing either.  He was too busy struggling with the buttons on her shirt and couldn’t have been making harder work of it if they’d been the size of pinheads. 

She realised the door was open still and kicked out at it but judged the distance all wrong and kicked a hole in the plaster beside the frame instead, started laughing again.  Got the door shuddering shut with the next kick and he had her shirt open now and was kissing at her chest which felt all right actually if a bit ticklish, her own body looking all pale and strange to her and she was wondering when was the last time she did anything like this and deciding it was way too long.  Then he’d stopped and staring down in the darkness, eyes just a pair of glimmers.

“Are we doing the right thing?” he asked, so comic serious for a moment she wanted to laugh again.

“How the fuck should I know?  Get your trousers off.”

She was trying to wriggle free of her own but still had her boots on and was getting more and more tangled, knew she should’ve taken the boots off first but it was a bit late now and she grunted and kicked and her belt thrashed about like a snake cut in half, her knife flopping off the end of it and clattering against the wall, until she got one boot off and one trouser-leg and that seemed good enough for the purpose.

There’s more, but I’m not going to transcribe a whole chapter and you probably don’t want to read it.  I liked this scene based on the writing alone.  The use of run-on sentences with no punctuation does a good job of getting across the feeling of being drunk as you read, and it doesn’t romanticise the sex even though it’s actually fairly emotionally significant for both characters.  This is well in keeping with my own experience of sex as something which is as ridiculous and fumbling as often as it is romantic and magical.  But I’m really happy the actual sex takes place from Shy’s perspective.  By writing the scene from her perspective, Abercrombie avoids objectifying Shy with long descriptions of her body as Temple looks at her, and we don’t have to rely on his interpretation of her actions to know that everything happening is consenting.  This is sex that I don’t think would satisfy much in terms of titillating a male reader.  Instead this scene seems more about the journey both characters have travelled to get to this point, and the emotional release for Shy who has been holding herself closed and pushing everyone away for the entirety of the book.  It also makes the seriousness that sex gets treated in both fiction and reality seem silly against the fumbling mess we’re presented with.  The complete lack of romance is entirely suitable to Shy who has no time for anything as useless as romance, and having Shy being the one fumbling with her belt and catching her knife on the bed frame while Temple worries about the implications is a nice touch.

I think it’s important when a female character is sexualised in a fantasy novel that it adds to them in some way.  If a female character is present only as a part of a male character’s journey, and especially if they and the sex itself is seen only from the male character’s perspective, the female characters are there as a part of an exclusively male fantasy.  By this, I don’t mean that all sex in a fantasy novel has to be from a female perspective, and can only be positive and consenting.  I enjoyed the Deed of Paksennarion novels by Elizabeth Moon, and the female perspective character in that series goes through a rape, which is most definitely not positive.  But that rape isn’t viewed through a male lens, with male assumptions about what it means, but happens exclusively through a female character and its impacts are felt for a long time.   The way Red Country shows sex for Shy is as the physical act being a bit farcical, but the emotional revelation of the experience being more significant because of the person she is.  That’s what all fantasy novels should aim for when they include sex; not smut for smut’s sake, not because it makes the character feel good or because it makes the character seem more well-rounded if they have a love interest, but because sex is a natural part of the journey the character is experiencing.  And it shouldn’t reduce the woman’s role in the act to that of a prop.  It’s not inherently bad to have a male-focused fantasy but we have a lot of that now, thank you.  We need fantasy and sex in fantasy to start to be equalised, and I think that’s what this novel does.  The sex is part of Shy’s growth from someone who is strong, but isolated, into someone who is strong and content with the things that strength has won her by the end of the novel.

At this point in the novel there’s a fair way to go, including Shy being kidnapped and sort of half-escaping, half-being rescued, but mostly it’s all blood and action working up to a final conclusion.  I won’t spoil it entirely, except to say that Shy lives through it.  What makes Red Country my favourite Abercrombie novel, and one of my favourite fantasy novels maybe ever (let’s say top 10) is how multi-faceted Shy is.  She’s strong and vulnerable at the same time, physically competent and emotionally driven, but struggles sometimes with social interaction.  She feels guilt for her past and slowly grows to accept it.  She finds meaning in a relationship, but she finds it on her own terms and in her own time.  As I said when discussing Amaranthe in my last post, there are a lot of ways to write a good woman, but if you want a woman who steps into a world of male power and male privilege and makes that fucker her own, Shy South is how you do it.  I loved every second of it.  Abercrombie is a fantastic character author and I highly recommend reading all his books if this review has you interested, but it’s not mandatory to the understanding of Red Country that you do.  Just a lot of the characters present have history in the previous installments, which all take place in the same universe, and it enhances the journey a little for you if you know what those events in their past are.   And if you’re STILL reading at this point, thanks for reading the whole thing.

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The Emperor’s Edge by Lindsay Buroker

It’s been a little while since I’ve read The Emperor’s Edge series by Lindsay Buroker, and it’s about a six book series that’s still waiting on the final novel, so I might overlook some elements of it in the review.  But I think it’s a good place to start as it’s main protagonist, Amaranthe Lokdon, is written a little differently for a fantasy protagonist and a lot of the things that characterise her make for good discussion of both feminist issues, and how well this works as a piece of fiction.  At the same time, it’s not a very serious series and I can work myself up to talking about feminism and gender without having to jump straight into complex issues like male gaze, rape culture, abortion, etc.

The series opens with a tight focus on Amaranthe, who is one of the first female Enforcers (police) in an empire that dominates the world’s political landscape.  Right off the bat the novels deal with a lot of serious issues as Amaranthe reflects on the difficulties of being an Enforcer in a culture steeped with male dominated martial valour.  She faces outright discrimination from colleagues and is passed over for promotion due to her gender.  I was actually a little disappointed with the first book in the series, as circumstances quickly drive Amaranthe to abandon her position as an Enforcer and become an outlaw, and I really would have liked at least a novels worth or even the whole series of focus on Amaranthe working in these circumstances and dealing with them.  It would have been a much more serious and interesting exploration of gender in fantasy.  As it is though, the emperor of this empire is an unknowing puppet who is being drugged and kept compliant by his closest advisor and former regent, and when Amaranthe catches the emperor’s eye, this advisor uses his position to set Amaranthe against the world’s most notorious assassin, Sicarius, expecting her to die so that she can’t become a problem.  Instead, she uncovers the truth about what’s going on with the emperor and strikes up an initially uneasy alliance with Sicarius who has his own reasons to want to protect the emperor, and sets out to foil him.  She ends up being framed as a traitor, and forced flee.  She then gathers a relatively ragtag group of mercenaries with a variety of abilities; Sicarius, the assassin, Books, an alcoholic history professor, Maldynado, a pretty-boy nobleman who has been kicked out of his place of privilege and makes his way based on his good looks, and Askyr, a street-rat with an interest in magic.  She forms them into a mercenary group called the Emperor’s Edge, so called because they work outside the law to aid the emperor against his enemies in the hopes of winning a pardon and restoring the emperor to his rightful rule.

What I found different and most engaging about Amaranthe and the series concept overall was the way in which Amaranthe inspires the loyalty of her group.  In a lot of the female POV fantasy I’ve read, the female characters inspire loyalty in much the same way a lot of male fantasy protagonists do; they’re competent, deadly, and people follow them because their ability inspires confidence.  It’s a repeated theme of the novels that Amaranthe doesn’t inspire the loyalty of such a diverse group of men because she’s deadly or charismatic, but rather because she invests in them emotionally.  Amaranthe genuinely cares about each of the men who follow her, and given all of them are dispossessed in some way – Askyr is an orphan, Sicarius a nearly autistic pariah, Books’ family was murdered and he’s an alcoholic, and Maldynado was disinherited – her faith in them, and her genuine concern and belief in them compels them to follow her into crazy scheme after crazy scheme.  All of the supporting characters are conscious of what she’s doing at one point or another, but they all accept that her belief in them is genuine and it only fuels further loyalty.

I liked this character thread a lot.  If Amaranthe had been more of a cliched fantasy leader the series would have fallen extremely flat.  But I found Amaranthe’s style of leadership fairly unique across the fantasy I read, and it drew me in to keep reading more, even when the writing itself is a little ordinary and the plot is pretty thin on the ground in each successive novel.  Thinking about it as I read, I realised Amaranthe was an attempt – either consciously or not – by the author to create a female fantasy protagonist who finds success through application of traits more commonly associated with women than men, rather than “masculinising” her to make her a more traditional fantasy protagonist.  Not that I think that the approach of making a female character have a lot of traditional fantasy traits of deadly swordsman, tactitian, etc, is a bad thing and it works in a lot of the books I’ll be reviewing.   Those books work because they feature female characters being just as competent as men in areas that have been dominated by male characters, which is a very good thing.  But I don’t think that’s the only way to make an effective female character.  Amaranthe is both chatty and emotional in her dealings with other people, and rather than this being contrasted as a weakness against a more action-oriented, decisive male character like it is in a lot of fantasy, it’s turned into a strength.  Amaranthe gets her way a lot by talking her way through situations and clever application of the information she gets out of conversation, and I’ve already mentioned the way she gives people a sense of self-worth that inspires loyalty in her.

Another of Amaranthe’s traits I found a little more bizarre; she’s obsessed with cleaning.  It’s a running gag that each time the group moves into a new hideout – invariably a dilapidated warehouse – she goes on a cleaning spree to remove years of buildup of mould, rust, dust, whatever needs to be cleaned she immediately does it.  This could have been stupid very easily, boiling down to women like to clean and are good at it, but it’s worked into Amaranthe’s character as a very deliberate, everything in its place to the point of obsession kind of person in such a way that it doesn’t read as insulting.  It’s remarked on by all of the men surrounding her, sometimes its the subject of affectionate jibes between her and them, but she’s never mocked.  And a few times she leverages this ability to good effect; things like getting a cheaper price on explosives because she helps the store owner reorganise and clean her workshop, or coincidentally the water pump Amaranthe obsessively cleaned becomes useful in a daring escape when the authorities catch up to them.  Other traits didn’t come off as quite so bizarre.  Her investigative ability makes sense in light of her previous profession as an Enforcer, and it makes for good interplay between her and Books, the ex-history professor, and also makes her very effective at foiling the schemes of the hidden group working against the emperor.

Another fun thing these books do is the use of Maldynado as eye candy.  I’ve lost count of the number of times a female off-sider in a fantasy novel gets the group through a tight spot by flirting with a guard or something.  This series flips that on its head a little with Maldynado.  While the empire is ruled by a male-dominated warrior/noble class, the merchant class is a traditionally female occupation, and the huge majority of stores in the series are owned by women.  Maldynado is regularly sent out to do the shopping, because he’s just so handsome and pretty that he gets a discount by throwing a little flirtation in with his bartering.  He’s openly objectified by the female merchants, and occasionally on the receiving end of casual ass grabs. He’s also obsessed with fashion, meaning he gets sent out to buy all the disguises the group uses.  It’s not a big thing, but I thought it was a neat little subversion.  Having a female-dominated merchant class was also good, and a social balance is struck between the male dominated noble class and the economically powerful and female dominated merchant class.

It should be noted that this series definitely fails the Bechdel test.  Amaranthe is the only female character until the introduction of another disaffected female Enforcer, Sergeant Yara, in around book 5.  She doesn’t talk to any other women until then, and when she does talk to Yara some of their conversation actually is about men.  But I don’t think this book fails on that element alone.  For one thing, Amaranthe has all the power in her relationships with men around her.  She’s in charge, and her authority is never questioned by her men.  None of them ever objectify her, though Maldynado does encourage her to get out there and get laid, even buying her a skimpy outfit, but despite being a bit of a playboy himself, never seems inclined to flirt with Amaranthe.  Amaranthe eventually develops a romantic relationship with Sicarius, but even here she mostly holds the power.  Sicarius was raised as an assassin practially from birth, and has almost no social graces.  Amaranthe teases him constantly, trying to get a rise out of him, and leads every conversation.  The romance develops as she draws him out and starts to humanise him.  The fact that he’s the deadliest guy around doesn’t give him the power you’d think it would, as Amaranthe shows him far less fear than he’s used to (and pretty quickly shows no deference to his ability to kill anyone he wants at all), and he’s often retreating in the face of Amaranthe’s mile a minute conversation style and unsure of how to deal with her.  I really think Bechdel is more useful for looking at a work that follows male characters.  When the focus is a male POV character, or if a male is the leading character when it comes to television, Bechdel is a handy way of trying to work out if women are represented significantly at all, or whether they’re sidelined and kept relatively unimportant.  With Amaranthe being the main POV we get the story through, and with her position of power, it’s a little less important that she doesn’t have female offsiders. Though when Sergeant Yara does get introduced it is a nice addition to the group, and Yara herself is a fairly positive, though minor female character.  But mainly, Amaranthe is the story, so it works.

Overall, Emperor’s Edge is a flawed series.  The writing could be stronger and the plot more engaging, and some of the time Amaranthe comes off as more goofy than competent, but I think this was a deliberate choice.  As a series, it seems to be written with fun in mind a lot more than anything else, so some of the issues are a little less hard hitting than they could be.  By steering Amaranthe away from the position of being discriminated against in her job, it avoids a lot of issues that would be pretty compelling if they were explored.  But I don’t think writing a fun, kind of silly series is necessarily a bad thing.  What makes it a little disappointing at times isn’t a flaw in the work so much as a flaw in the genre; I wanted it to take issues that arise out of Amaranthe’s gender more seriously because there’s a lack of that in the genre.  What worked for me was that every character bar Sicarius is a little goofy,  Amaranthe wasn’t taken less seriously because of her gender but because that’s just what the author was going for overall.  The setting is a murky, kind of ill-defined mix of fantasy and steampunk, and could have used a little more development.  But in terms of gender, there’s as many incidental female characters as male, and the power balance in the society seems about equal.  Even though power traditionally resided with men, women dominate economically and the empire is going through a slow decline of its traditional society.  A lot of the antagonists are female as well, with the plot being dominated by a shadowy group called Forge, which ultimately turns out to be a group of powerful female merchant queens who want to overthrow society using ancient alien technology.

It’s a self-published series, so you can pick up the first book for free on kindle, and probably from the author’s website as well for other devices.  It seems like the series is very hit and miss with people, I’ve seen a lot of reviews for it that say it’s not particularly compelling, and I can see that.  I think I was in the right mood for a little silliness when I read it though, and the little subversions and the fact that Amaranthe was so unusual kept me coming back when I probably would have got bored otherwise.

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Thoughts on feminism and fantasy

I’ve kept up my exploration of the fantasy section in the kindle store and while I’ve been doing so I’ve tried to seek out books that feature a female protagonist as the main POV character.   Sometimes out of impatience I’ve picked some books that don’t fit this bill, but by and large that’s what I’ve been going for.  Female protagonists have been absent from a lot of big name fantasy for a while, but it’s cheering to see that there are more and more cropping up in both the bestsellers lists and in the more obscure fantasy books that you have to go to page 15 to find.  I’m going to review a series of the best and worst and try to talk about what I liked and what I didn’t like about the presentation of these female characters.

For the purposes of full disclosure, I consider myself a feminist, but I am also a white dude so if there are any missteps in my analysis in terms of “is this book female positive,” try to understand that they’re coming from a place of genuine attempts to be objective and understanding but filtered through a lens of relative privilege.  I’ll be happy to engage in any discussions about how I’m wrong, but I’ll probably shy away from replying to comments that are more vitriol than an attempt at genuine discussion.  But I hope people do call out places they disagree with me.  I have my own views on what feminism should be, and those ideas can only grow if they’re properly tested.  Finally, I’m bi, in a long-term relationship with a same-sex partner which may also be relevant to understanding where I’m coming from, but I don’t think LGBT issues and feminist issues can be conflated in every circumstance.  Disclaimer ends.

The biggest reason for the disclaimer is that some of the books I’ve read feature female protagonists having sex and being involved in romantic relationships.  I don’t think this is a bad thing, sex is a natural part of life (the lack of asexual characters in fantasy is a separate issue I don’t feel even remotely qualified to talk about at this time) and so having your female characters have sex and fall in love is fine.  It can be problematic when it occurs in a genre as male-dominated as fantasy though because it raises issues of whether it enriches the character or is there to satisfy the expectations of a male audience.  It’s a difficult question because it’s really a subjective thing whether a sexual relationship in a book will come off as the natural sexuality of the character or if it’s exaggerated by the need to satisfy the male gaze.

A good example of this is a book I will review, though not immediately, called Red Country by Joe Abercrombie.  Abercrombie’s books are characterised by a particularly harsh and brutal world, and in keeping with that gritty style (all the gritty viscerals, also grim) the sex in his novels is best described as fucking.  But he also has a reasonably good record of having strong women alongside his strong men.  Red Country is one of his novels that puts the female characters in a position of greater prominence than the male ones, unlike say the First Law Trilogy, and features Shy South as the main perspective character.  At one point in the book she gets drunk and fucks one of the male (but less prominent) POV characters.  I say fuck and not sleeps with, because words like cock and cunt get thrown about all over the place.  To my mind, there’s nothing wrong with strong women having aggressive and active sexualities, and that matches some of the women I know in real life.  But I could also see how a strong but emotionally damaged woman jumping into bed with a guy and finding some emotional fulfilment – as happens in Red Country – could read to a lot of women as that character needing the man to be happy.  It also can’t be ignored that aggressive and active sexuality is not the only kind of female sexuality, but that’s the one a male author chose to write.  Anyway, I will go into more detail about Red Country in a later post, it’s probably not a good idea to try and encapsulate the whole issue in a single paragraph.  I do think Red Country ends up being both female and sex positive, but I’ll go into reasons why in that review.  My point is, the use of sex in fantasy novels with a female protagonist is subjective and opinions may differ.  Hence the disclaimer.

As for why I’m choosing to take this focus with my next run of book reviews, mostly it’s because I find it interesting.  I’ve read so many of these low-cost fantasy novels by now that a lot of them start to blur, and I find as I’m reading them I am thinking about how the characters are put together and what they’re saying a lot more than I’m really being absorbed into the story.  I could talk about fantasy tropes and their uses because those things jump out at me a lot too, stuff like the use of a Chosen One as a plot element is central to my latest read, but that’s a very broad topic and it would be easy to become rambling.  Or at least, more rambling than this post.  The increasing prominence of female POV in fantasy is relatively new, something I care about, and something I find myself thinking about as I read.  Though that’s not why I started seeking these novels out specifically.  That’s more to do with just wanting something different from the 30th dude with a sword book in a row.  Anyway, that’s enough talking about what I’m going to do and why.  I just wanted to preface these reviews with these few thoughts on what I’m doing.  Hopefully people enjoy!

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In defence of the informal vote

Whenever Kevin Rudd decides to call an election, Australians will be called upon to exercise their vote and make a statement regarding who they think best suited to run the country.  For me, and increasingly more Australians, this presents a problem; we don’t want anyone.  We’re caught between three viable options, each with their own drawbacks, and a number of minor parties representing fringe interests.  If you favour economic and social conservatism, at least your choice is clear and you can vote for the Coalition with a reasonably clear mind.  If you are reasonably far to the left, you might happily vote Greens.  Both of these are valid choices if that’s the way your politics fall.  I might not agree with your politics and would argue them with you if we were discussing them, but I respect entirely your right to vote whichever way you think would be most representative of you.  The issue is largely for the people who reside somewhere close to but to the left of the centre.  Historically, this group has voted for Labor, but the last three years has seen both a severe lurch to the right from Labor, and a general lack of moral leadership that has many of these voters disillusioned.  Some in this group may turn to the Greens but for many, myself included, the Greens economic policy is lacking and their willingness to accommodate Labor in a minority government undermines their usually firm moral stance.  In these circumstances, we can choose to vote for a minor party or vote informally.  Personally, I’m choosing to vote informally.

I have two major reasons for choosing informal over a minor party.  I’m outlining them here because I’ve been told variously that I’m being irresponsible by not voting, that I am throwing my right to complain about the state of my country away, and that I’m deluding myself if I think it’s a way to get my voice heard.  This post is a post in defence of the informal vote, and of those who choose to vote informally when presented with a range of bad options.  By voting informally, I hope to achieve two things; I hope to make a statement that I am unhappy with every option on offer in the slim hope that it will be heard and something will change, and I also want to avoid endorsing any policy or moral stance that I find completely unpalatable.

First, the exercise of my voice in favour of change.  Voting informally is often seen as the same as not voting, but under the mandatory voting system of Australia, I disagree.  When a person chooses not to vote under the American system, their voice is entirely disregarded.  American politics cater entirely to likely voters, and election campaigns are as much about energising the base as they are about presenting policy.  Voter turnout means that who governs is decided by generally between 50 and 60 per cent of the population.  In 1996, it was 49 per cent; less than half.  Australia employs a different system, mandatory voting, which ensures that every person makes some decision when it comes time to cast their vote.  Informal votes are counted each year, and while they are disregarded in regards to which party will form government, the numbers are still made public.  This means that each time an election rolls around, the vote of every person is up for grabs.

That brings me to my first goal of hoping to make a statement and enact change.  The informal vote is somewhat lacking when it comes to making a statement, at least directly.  The votes of people who vote informally out of protest are indistinguishable from those that are cast by people who are entirely disinterested.  What we do have are the numbers of informal votes recorded for every election since Federation, and a free and active political media.  I’m voting informally because I think that if the number of informal votes rises sharply in the wake of the last three years of particularly bitter and repugnant politics from all sides, there’s a chance parties will get the message that such behaviour is only going to lose them votes they could have won.  This will be especially telling if numbers of informal votes are recorded by electorate.  I’m not sure if they are, but if numbers of informal votes rise sharply in swing seats where the difference is in the hundreds rather than thousands, the chances both sides of politics will sit up and take notice is increased.  It won’t be hard for them to work out the reason either, as voter dissatisfaction has been a much remarked upon issue in the media.

It’s arguable that because your informal vote is non-specific, there will be no way to guide any change which occurs as a result of this statement.  That is true, there’s no telling if politicians will try to become more grounded, less partisan and more policy focused just in response to increasing numbers of informal votes.  They might choose to go in another direction entirely.  It’s also arguable that casting a vote for a specific party has limited capacity in this regard, especially when it comes to the two major parties which have habitually changed their stance on any number of issues – and sometimes their leader – when they deem it politically expedient.  It’s quite a long bow to draw to say that voting informally has a chance to enact change, but from where I’m standing it’s the best chance I’ve got of any change happening.  The form that change takes, even if its something I haven’t envisioned at all, is more palatable to me than the continuation of the current political dynamic.

However, getting my message of dissatisfaction across and encouraging change are secondary goals at best next to my desire to not endorse policy or people who I disagree with.  In the same way that an informal vote makes a non-specific statement, voting Labor isn’t voting just for their stance on education for instance, but endorsing every position the party and its members have taken.  It provides whichever party is elected with, as Tony Abbott was so fond of saying during the 2010 election and immediately after, a mandate.  For some voters, particularly those left-of-centre I mentioned before, the idea of Tony Abbott at the head of the Coalition in power is so off-putting, it verges on downright frightening.  Voting for Rudd just to keep Abbott out might seem like a good idea in these circumstances.  By the way, (YES, I am aware that you don’t vote FOR Rudd or Abbott but your local member, you don’t need to point that out.  But come on.  We all know what’s going on.)

I hope every person who reads this and is considering voting Rudd just to keep Abbott out remembers that when they cast their vote for Labor, they’re endorsing it all.  They’re endorsing the new Pacific Solution, which sees refugees resettled in a poverty-stricken country where cholera, tribal warfare, corruption, religious intolerance and violence against women are commonplace.  That’s my biggest issue with the Labor party.  Australia’s treatment of refugees under this government is incredibly cold and inhumane, essentially sentencing people trying to escape prosecution to imprisonment where they are in danger of severe mental illness, completely lack personal liberty, and in many cases are the victims of sexual assault and poor care.  Not to mention it’s an international embarrassment.

You might be passionate about gay rights, and admittedly Rudd has changed his stance on gay marriage, but it’s still unclear whether he means to stick to his guns when it comes to any movement, and even if he does he’s proposing a referendum that will see anti-gay advertising boil out of the woodwork.   You might think the NBN is a ridiculously overblown, overfunded endeavour that’s being poorly managed in a time of economic uncertainty.  You might be fed up on Labor’s constant vacillation on global warming in their attempt to find a solution where they will avoid any criticism.  I don’t know what reasons you might have for supporting or hating Labor, but your vote is a vote in favour of it all.

The point is, when you vote Labor to keep Abbott out, or because you like Gonski and the NDIS, you’re endorsing Labor’s jump to the right wholesale.  You give Labor a mandate to continue or extend these policies.  To my mind, a vote for Labor is a vote approving of the imprisonment and abuse of people for seeking asylum in our country of incredible wealth and privilege.  That’s something I can’t and won’t in good conscience put my name to, even if it is done anonymously.  I have no faith in the Greens to do anything other than win a few seats and give supply to Labor, plus I generally find their environmental policy too extreme and their economic policy incredibly naive.  Every minor party represents at best a fringe issue, and I don’t care about censorship enough to vote for the Sex party.  That will put me in a box as someone who cares most of all about censorship and the Sex party’s driving philosophy, which is not representative of my views at all.  I don’t actually care about censorship at all, I think Australia is doing fine in that regard.  The same is true of every other minor party, even the ones on the left.  None of it is representative of my priorities, and we’re voting to elect members for the House of Representatives.  The problem should be obvious.

From a purely political strategy standpoint, it should make no sense for Labor who relies on its base on the left, to jump to the right in an attempt to win votes, but they have done it anyway.  That’s because they feel comfortable taking the left for granted.  They know they can disregard the left and the vast majority will still vote for them, simply because the only alternatives are the Coalition, who won’t get any votes from the left, or the left will vote Greens who will support Labor in parliament regardless.  The idea of the Coalition with Abbott at the helm might scare the hell out of you – it does me – but I would rather stomach Abbott for the next three years than tell Labor I support their refugee policy.  And I would much rather stomach Abbott for the next three years, even six, if it means there’s even a chance that Labor understands it can’t jump right and continue to rely on the support of the left just because our politics have been locked into a two-party dynamic for so long.

Ultimately, there are people out there for who Labor is representative of their views, just as the Coalition is relatively safe in its appeal to conservatives.  But it’s increasingly not the case, and what I’m saying is don’t settle.  You’re not voting for the party you disagree with the least, you’re not voting for Not Abbott, you’re voting for someone to represent your ideas on how the country should be run.  If we keep voting for the least distasteful option, our politics will be locked between Labor and the Coalition indefinitely.  Politics will keep moving towards simplified takes on issues, three word slogans that are intended to capture the maximum amount of passion with the least amount of detail.  Efforts to demonise the Other Guy will be increasingly more important than having your own substantive policy.  If you’re dissatisfied, vote for a minor party whose issues you care about if there is one.  But if there isn’t, vote informally.  It’s not ideal, it’s not specific and it might not work, but at least you’re not putting your name to what we have.  At least you’re doing the best you can with your vote to say what represents you most, not what represents the least distasteful option.

And if you’re lucky enough that one of the major parties is close enough to representative of your views to get your vote, I’m happy for you.  But don’t look down on the people who have, through careful thought, come to a different decision.  Voting informally is my last refuge this election, and it might be for many others.  There should be no pressure to vote for someone, anyone just because it’s harder to see the value of an informal vote.  The value is still there and I can at least walk out of the polling booth with a clear conscience, even if I will inevitably be unhappy with the result.


Postscript: There may also be some people who are choosing to vote Abbott to keep Rudd out.  I haven’t written this post with your views in mind because it’s in part a personal statement, but the same arguments apply across the board.  If you’re fed up with Labor’s weak leadership, if you think they’re bad economic managers, so much so that you’d rather turn to the Coalition to at least get sound economic management – well, I disagree with you. But again, remember you’re voting for someone who thinks gay marriage is a threat to children, that gay people are incapable of being parents.  And for a party who also thinks refugees should be treated as badly as possible within the letter of the law.  Look at every facet of their policy and the implications for the country before you vote.

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End of Three Weeks of Book Reviews

Well, I posted first on the 2nd and now it’s the 23rd, so that’s my three weeks done.  Here’s a few numbers:

  • I reviewed 14 books
  • 10 of them I gave positive reviews, though some I qualified with context (you’ll like this if)
  • Only 4 of the 14 had a major female protagonist
  • Of the four I didn’t like, each treated women badly

Now, I didn’t intend this to be looking at cheap fantasy through a lense of feminism, but I couldn’t help noticing how rarely a female perspective character cropped up.  I will say that fantasy that does feature a well written female protagonist is usually fantasy I enjoy.  I don’t know if that’s because it’s just so rare that it makes those books unique, or if I simply enjoy female characters, but I definitely want to see more. 

From here, I’m going to go on to review books that I haven’t necessarily read in the last three months, and don’t necessarily come in under $10 or close to the $2.99/$3.99 mark most of the books I reviewed here do follow.  I think what my three weeks, and more broadly my reading for the past months have indicated to me is that there is a lot of work that has value in the unplumbed depths of fantasy, but you have to trawl through a bunch of crap to get there.  I have skewed the numbers by not reviewing some books I found boring or crappy, but not on purpose.  It’s more that when I went to review a lot of the really average to bad fantasy I’ve read, I found I couldn’t remember enough significant details about them at all to produce a review. 

One particular warning I will give is this though; if you are looking at a cheap fantasy book and thinking about buying it, check the reviews.  If someone mentions a vampire, you’ve just found a paranormal romance novel and should move on immediately.  Seriously, the number of times that’s not mentioned in the blurb is nearly criminal. 

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Shadow Ops by Myke Cole

I found the first Shadow Ops book, Control Point, when I was looking for urban fantasy after a run of more standard feudal-fantasy fare and in the mood for a change.  The Shadow Ops books are competent urban fantasy, but as I was reading I didn’t really get the standard urban fantasy feeling I have got from most other big names in the genre.

There’s a few reasons for this.  The first is the history of magic in the world; in most urban fantasy I have read, magic is a force unknown to the majority of people, and magic users form a sort of secret society hiding underneath normal society.  This is true of the Iron Druid Chronicles, Dresden Files, Hellequin, even Harry Potter features a magical society with a long history of hiding in plain sight, outside the knowledge of those not magically gifted.  Though obviously, I wouldn’t stretch so far as to call Harry Potter urban fantasy either.  The first key difference Shadow Ops had was that the magic in this world had no history, there was no underground society hiding without knowledge.  Instead, at some point in the recent history of the series, people suddenly just begun manifesting magical powers.  And I think somewhat realistically, this magic is immediately regulated and weaponised by civilian governments.  The civilian populace knows about it, and it’s a contentious political issue of personal freedoms versus comparisons to dangerous weapons.  The series follows Oscar Britton, a completely normal lieutenant in the US Supernatural Operations Corps, a group dedicated to controlling magic users. 

The book opens with Oscar in command of the non-magical back-up for an operation against some teenagers who manifested magically and took their highschool hostage in an attempt to avoid being taken by SOC.  We’re immediately introduced to Oscar’s uneasiness at the totalitarian action, especially after seeing a teenage boy killed out of hand to neutralise his threat.  And it’s this uneasiness that leads him to go on the run when he manifests magically later that day.  I really enjoyed Oscar’s run from the authorities, struggling to comprehend his new abilities, horrified at the shattering of his life and turned against the military he had dedicated his life to.  The writing is crisp, conveying the tension and emotional turmoil of the situation really well as well as building up the political climate the story exists in.  Unfortunately, as the book progresses and Oscar is captured, things slow down and the storytelling gets a bit messy, and Oscar becomes a less compelling character as he seesaws back and forth over whether to be defiant or obedient. 

The heavy military element is the second thing that belied the typical urban fantasy feeling.  Once Oscar is captured, he’s taken to another dimension, the magical realm, and the SOC forward operating base (FOB) there where they take and train their magical operatives.  A bomb is placed in his brain to prevent his escape, and Oscar is torn between his military instincts telling him to follow orders and fight, and his moral outrage at being forcibly drafted and torn from his life.  This would be an interesting moral conflict if Oscar could ever make up his mind.  Even his escape at the end of book one and move towards open rebellion in book two doesn’t really solve this problem, as throughout the second book he continues to be indecisive.  It’s the most confusing rebellion ever when you go to the aid of the military you’re rebelling against. 

Oscar as a character weakened the series for me a lot.  The magic was interesting, and the military organisation that uses magic as a weapon is both interesting conceptually and well fleshed out, but Oscar’s complete indecision makes him a very reactive and unsatisfying character.  Fortunately, the second novel also introduces a new character who is much more satisfying.  Frontier Fortress introduces Colonel Alan Bookbinder, a military bureaucrat largely in charge of requisitions and budgeting.  He is different to Oscar, meek and non-confrontational, but with a much more clearly defined sense of duty.  When he manifests magically, he reports himself and is transferred to the magic dimension FOB which is in need of an administrative officer.  When he gets there, he encounters an aggressive commanding officer who demands that he rubber stamp requisition forms, and treats him contemptuously and eventually physically threatens him, calling him a bureaucrat who doesn’t understand the requirements of the base, and the dangers of combat.  This is partially borne out as Bookbinder, not familiar with frontline bases, is shaky and obstructive when the base comes under attack.  However, over the course of the book his outrage at the commanding officer’s refusal to justify his expenses, and his personal sense of right drives him to stand up for himself, disregarding the physical threats.  It’s around this time that the events of the first book catch up with Bookbinder, and he is left in command of the base under constant attack and cut off from reinforcement and supply.  His growth from relatively timid paper pusher to inspiring frontline leader is handled organically, with the pressures being put on him and his reactions to them feeling right, and making his growth believable and satisfying.  His sections of the second book are much more enjoyable, and I’m hopeful that in further books he will get at least as much page space as Oscar, who still needs to work out what the hell he actually believes in if he wants to be a compelling character.

These are relatively strong novels with a few niggling problems.  Oscar is a frustrating main protagonist to follow, and his back and forth character also makes the plot meander on occasions.  The setting is really strong however, and while the whole FOB concept doesn’t quite capture a proper military feel to my mind, it does a good enough job of exploring the concept of a modern military integrating magic into its arsenal.  There are a number of supporting characters I haven’t gone into, and a lot of these are effective or interesting, while others are a little cliched and boring.  The standout is one of the main antagonists, Harlequin.  I’d actually prefer to read the series from his perspective, which shows how nuanced he is, but unfortunately he doesn’t show up often enough.  Bookbinder was a positive evolution for the series that increases my anticipation for the next book.  If you like military fiction, this series isn’t quite there to be satisfying, but if you like urban fantasy and military fiction both, it delivers on enough fronts to be worth checking out even though the books, at about $8 each, are a little pricier than most of the books on my list.

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The Shadowdance Trilogy by David Dalglish

Over the last few years, I’ve read a lot of books that seemed like they were inspired by someone’s DnD character or DnD game.  I’m not talking about the official DnD works, like the Drizz’t novels, which claim their inspiration obviously.  But a lot of other titles have made me think “roleplaying campaign,” including the Paksenarrion series by Elizabeth Moon and the absolutely sprawling Malazan books by Steven Erikson.  I believe the latter is openly based on Erikson’s roleplaying campaign.  I imagine there’s a lot of reasons for this.  For one thing, you don’t have to come up with your own magic system, theology, races, et cetera.  And if you’re directly writing a campaign you’ve played, the plot is basically already there.  The Shadowdance Trilogy, in fact every work by David Dalglish feels like it’s working on Dungeons and Dragons rules.  Dalglish has several series; the Half-Orcs, the Paladins, the Watcher’s Blade and the Shadowdance Trilogy, and I’ve read them all despite finding them only moderately interesting.  Out of all of them, I feel like the Shadowdance Trilogy, and the main character of Haern, seem to step away from the mechanical bits and pieces of storytelling that are inspired by DnD and be their own character.

The Shadowdance trilogy primarily follows Haern, the son of the greatest leader of the greatest Thieves Guild in the city of Veldaren, and it follows his rise from young, obedient son to a shadow warrior who serves vigilante justice to the Thieves Guilds trying to prey on the city.  And, by and large, his journey is believeable and the writing interesting.  In Dalglish’ other series, the DnD-ness of it all came through strongly.  In Paladins, quite obviously, the main characters are Paladins who commune with their gods and can lay on hands and have holy weapons, et cetera.  In Half-Orcs, the characters are very simplistic, one half-orc brother being an irrationally evil mage and one eventually becoming the avatar of Heironeous Ashur.  The magic systems particularly infringe on these character’s fidelity, because they’re so familiar.

Haern, on the other hand, has no magic and is simply a skilled swordsman.  He still encounters the very familiar magic, especially with his friend and ally Tarlak who throws fireballs and lightning bolts, and runs a mercenary party that happens to consist of about 4-5 people with a fighter, mage, priest and with Haern, rogue.  Nevertheless, the fact that Haern himself doesn’t dip into a slightly too familiar magic system, and the fact that Tarlak is a relatively minor, non-perspective character keeps the book focused on Haern’s moral journey, as well as some relatively well written action.

As Haern grows older, his father brings in various tutors to further his development, and it’s these supporting characters who provide the moral framework necessary for him to question his father, and to question the path his life is taking.  This confrontation comes to a head when his father discovers his son has been subverted and kills these people Haern has begun to care about, causing him to break away.  Haern’s initial victory over the Thieves Guilds is full of well-written action and it’s enjoyable seeing Haern revel in his new purpose.  Dalglish then skillfully brings in things for Haern to begin to question his path once more, whether his vigilantism is anything more than a path of murder that contributes to the darkness rather than holds it at bay.

The other major character of note for me is Alyssa Gemcroft, a young woman who inherits control of one of the three Trifect houses, ruling merchant houses whose power individually rivals the king and together – as the name Trifect suggests – makes them more powerful than the king.  Alyssa is a complicated character; a person of great privilege who is ignorant to the plight of common people, and overly protective of her young son.  She institutes a war on the underworld after her son is kidnapped and injured, and she does it carelessly and poorly, making the streets run with blood and harming countless innocents.  Nevertheless, she’s a morally grey character.  The harm she does to the city and to the common people is done from ignorance and rage, not from malice, and unlike her fellow Trifect members she doesn’t torture or assassinate to get what she wants.  She becomes an uneasy ally of Haern over the course of the trilogy, and I enjoyed reading her chapters.

The obvious books to compare to this are the Night Angel books by Brent Weeks, and these books are not as good as the Night Angel books in any way.  However, they are an enjoyable read.  The action writing in particular is enjoyable, and manages to be fast despite following every cut and thrust Haern makes.  I’ve read in the Author’s Note in some book Dalglish wrote, I don’t remember which one, that he tried to write the books with a very superhero/comic feel, and knowing this was his aim makes the action writing stand out as more impressive.  But the action doesn’t stop Haern’s moral journey from making a compelling character or a compelling story.  If you can stand the creeping feeling that some things have been stolen from a roleplaying system, these are good books to read.  The first book in a follow-up series about Haern is out, called the Watcher’s Blade series, and that book was even more impressive as Dalglish’s writing chops have obviously developed over time.

One final comparison jumps out at me with the Drizz’t novels.  Drizz’t is also a dual-blade wielding shadow warrior with a morally grey past, and when I read the Drizz’t novels I often found the before chapter, first person perspective journal entries of Drizz’t gave a much more compelling glimpse into his character than the actual chapters and books did for Drizz’t.  Haern’s journey is similar to the moral exploration I’d like to see out of Drizz’t, with a very similar feel.  That’s not a resounding endorsement, but it might help you put the work in a little perspective.   You can pick up the whole trilogy for $7.99 like I did, or I think the first book is under $3 and they get progressively more expensive bought individually.

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Mindjack Trilogy by Susan Kaye Quinn

I bought the first in the series accidentally because it was free and I didn’t realise it was a YA novel, but I did enjoy it for what it was.  The Mindjack trilogy is set in a fascinating world where almost everybody is telepathic, adopting the term readers.  We see the story through the eyes of Kira, who starts the series as a zero, or somebody who is naturally unable to read minds.  Zeros are treated with a degree of prejudice ranging from prejudice to pity, some seeing them as archaic throwbacks who shouldn’t be allowed to breed and others seeing them simply as crippled, unable to touch minds with others or use mind-interaction technology which is now common.  As the series progresses, Kira discovers that in fact she is a mindjacker, someone who can actively invade other people’s minds, or keep others out of her mind, whereas regular readers have to be careful with physical contact that brings a connection, and have a variety of formal rules for interacting mind to mind, “jackers” can bypass all of these, control someone or rewrite their thoughts. 


This is a setting rich with possibilities, from the overall structure of a society build around telepathy, as well as plenty of allegories for prejudice, and issues of privacy and control.  The conflict in the series escalates as the existence of jackers is revealed to the wider populace, and a political campaign to register and detain jackers for their own good and the good of society quickly starts.  Kira is responsible for this, as over the course of the first book she discovers government experiments on jackers, breaking into the hospital they are being conducted and live broadcasting what the government is doing.  After the political backlash, books two and three focus around Kira joining and becoming a symbol for the underground rebellion, and their struggle and eventual victory in the pursuit of tolerance. 


The great setting concept is unfortunately let down for the adult reader by this being a YA novel.  Some concepts are put across very simply, and while Kira is a fun character to get to know, some of her decisions don’t make a lot of sense and some of her development is skated over very quickly.   She meets two men/teens who, after a single encounter she establishes a deep, quasi-romantic, sometimes sexual tension with and neither relationship really feels natural.  Somewhere in the second book Kira discovers she can manipulate her own mind to increase the power of her muscles, reaction times, etc.  For me, this was a needless evolution and one that made no sense.  Kira drops into having a revolutionary mindset too quickly, though this is largely obviated by effective antagonists and well-paced action elements as the revolution escalates.  


For a YA audience, or adults who still enjoy YA books, I’d say this series is a good read.  The setting is a lot more intricate than you often find in YA novels, with plenty of thickly laid allegory to enjoy and fun, active protagonists.  The only weaknesses, as I said, are the somewhat basic characterisation and it’s disappointing to see a setting/plot with so much potential be limited to the superficial exploration.  I don’t count that as a point against the author though, as she clearly set out to write a YA novel.  The first book is free, and the following two are $4 each, or you can pick up the whole trilogy for $7.  The last thing I have to say is a bit of a divergence from my norm.  I enjoyed the setting for this novel, and I haven’t run across telepathy as a concept ever in adult fiction.  If anyone knows a title I could pick up with a similar setting, but more adult writing, I’d be interested.

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The Hellequin Chronicles by Steve McHugh

The Hellequin Chronicles are urban fantasy very much in the style of the Dresden Files.  There has been a lot of internet around the prejudice inherent in the Dresden Files, though I don’t personally find it that bad (strong female characters, Harry’s allies are from a lot of different races), but if you were one of the people who found a lot of problematic representations in the Dresden Files, stay the hell away from the Hellequin Chronicles.  While I said I don’t find the Dresden Chronicles that bad, I found the Hellequin Chronicles absolutely awful towards women, and entirely whitewashed.  The first book is $2.99 on kindle, and the second is $3.99 so at least I didn’t pay too much to read these.

The Hellequin Chronicles follow Nate Garrett, a sorcerer without a past who moves in the underworld circles of magic.  The world is a standard urban fantasy world, where magic exists and forms a complicated society hidden from the knowledge of the majority of human beings.  We’re introduced to Garrett’s past, waking up in a warehouse with a sword, a gun, and no memory.  Early on, he is working as a thief who sweeps a high-class party, effortlessly seduces one of the female party guests, and does his job after sleeping with her in an upstairs bedroom.  It’s a commonly recurring theme in this series that Nate Garrett has a “strange effect” on women, who seem to line up to throw themselves at him, and he sleeps with women he just meets almost effortlessly.  We learn of Garrett’s ties to the mafia in London, and his friendship with the daughter of a local mob boss causes problems when she is targeted as a way to get at him.  As the story develops, we also follow Garrett in the past as he travels across 1500s France, battling werewolves and attempting to untangle a plot on behalf of Avalon, who are revealed to be the ruling body of the magical society, led by Merlin.  We eventually learn that Garrett was once the Hellequin, Merlin’s most feared enforcer.

There are some good story elements throughout both books, most of them centring around Thomas, an English archer turned werewolf we’re first introduced to in the past when Garrett stops other werewolves from turning him into a monster like themselves.  Thomas resurfaces in the present, the CEO of a sizeable “security” company.  There’s some interesting weaving of mythical characters into the plot, one of Garrett’s most implacable enemies being Loki, and he goes to Hades who is written as a very enjoyable, ebullient character.  The second book develops modern werewolf society when Garrett allies with a pack Alpha whose power is being questioned because he is gay, and thus unable to take a female as his co-Alpha, and thus is seen as not being a “proper” pack leader.  This was probably the most interesting story point across two books, and it was a small detail about a relatively minor character.

Garrett himself moves through the story like a cross between Jackie Chan, James Bond and Harry Dresden.  His magic is supremely powerful, he can fight bare handed or with his ancient chinese weapons, and every woman wants him.  He has a few internal conflicts with regards to his past, not wanting to be the Hellequin again and being Merlin’s tool, preferring his own moral compass.  As he pushes his magic, he risks allowing his magic to take control of him.  Magic wants to be used, and most sorcerers who allow their magic to run free become horrible monsters who destroy everything around them until they are put down.  Despite this, Garrett breaks that boundary more than once, his darker self getting out and killing his enemies when he is incapable of doing it, before being pushed back.  He’s just a really shit character and these are just very unsatisfying books.  Garrett is too powerful and more to the point, too charming and perfect by his own assessment.  None of the characters are particularly bad except for Garrett, but the plot is also not very compelling, and there are constant grammatical mistakes, including a lot of problem with tenses.

I wouldn’t recommend these at all unless you’re so into urban fantasy that you need it fed into your brain every single day.  If you are looking for an urban fantasy that weaves mythology into the story, but aren’t looking for the Dresden Files, I really recommend the Iron Druid Chronicles by Kevin Hearne.  Atticus is a much more interesting character than Nate Garrett.  He has some arrogance due to being effectively immortal, but he’s also aware of his weaknesses and mostly, seeks to live a simple life.  His dog is a major supporting character, which seemed silly for the first two chapters but very quickly became endearing and a character I really cared about.  More to the point, Atticus meets Celtic, Norse, Greek, Roman, Hindu gods all over the place, and also has a beer with Jesus at one point.   The author of Iron Druid doesn’t take his characters or his world too seriously, making Atticus despite being an immortal druid badass a lot more sympathetic than Garrett, who takes himself entirely seriously.  I had a lot of fun with them, unlike the Hellequin books which made me feel like I needed a shower after reading them.  They are a lot more expensive though, $10-$13 per book.