So, here we are, saying good bye to a whole year and preparing ourselves to greet the next one that may come this way, which we certainly hope will come. If a new year doesn’t come, would it be the end of the world? or would we be suspended in a timeless universe just hibernating until 2014 decides to come along? Maybe this has happened before and we just don’t know it! Or maybe we wouldn’t age and, therefore, not die!
Most of us take reckless decisions on New Year, such as promising ourselves we will start doing exercise more often, stop smoking, drink less alcohol (why would you do a thing like that?) or, in my case, start a blog. The idea has been on my head for quite some time already, a blog about those wonderful pieces of universe we call books.
I myself enjoy a good fantasy story, with clear preference for dark fantasy and political fantasy (yes, Game of Thrones is my favorite book, I am not very original when it comes to favorites), but I may from time to time read and comment different genres such as science fiction (right now I find myself reading The Rediscovery of Man) and the odd thriller book that may land on my hands.
So, as my way to saying good bye to this year, I would want to share with you my top five favorite books/ book series that I have had the pleasure of reading. They may have not been published this year.
#5 Empress by Karen Miller
Dark, thrilling and delightful. Those are the three adjective I would use to describe the fascinating work of Karen Miller. Empress, first book of the Godspeaker trilogy, tells us the story of a child who becomes the chosen one of a dark, violent god and of how she goes from being a nameless slave to become a ruthless and murderous empress. Deep characters and rich descriptions fill this book with endless wonders that kept me reading from beginning to end, always seeking to know what would happen next. If I must choose a strong point for this book it would be the masterful writing of its main character and her relationships with everyone that surrounds her, especially her relationship with Vortka. You can’t help but understanding Hekat as she struggles to fulfill what she sees as her destiny and that’s the magic of this book, it doesn’t matter what Hekat has done, she will have your sympathy without using the cliché excuses of good intentions and difficult choices that plague many books and movies.
The main weak point of this story, as I feel the need to try to be a little bit objective, is the fact that the book goes through more or less 25 years of the life of Hekat, so of course it focus only in the key moments of the life of its character while others are just mentioned without much details. Sometimes I missed a more in-depth description of some of those moments, specially towards the end, where the entire development of a character that will become a key figure in the trilogy is summarized in a couple of paragraph
Why is it the fifth in a top five? Even though Empress was a real treat to read, the second and third book of the trilogy, The Riven Kingdom and Hammer of God, were kind of a disappointment. That’s not to say they were bad books, nothing farer from reality, but they didn’t reach the level of Empress. Hekat becomes a secondary character and the story is centered in Rhian, a princess struggling to become queen by her own right and not by marriage.
Even though Rhian makes for an interesting character, she is not as charismatic as Hekat. The construction of the character in The Riven Kingdom feels a little bit naïve. Something I have nothing against, but it offers such a contrast with the construction and development of Hekat that makes you wonder if you are really reading the same trilogy. I am not talking about the characters themselves, I am referring to the writing style, much less precise making the characters less human and more an embodiment of an stereotype allowing you to easily predict their actions.
Hammer of God picks up where The Riven Kingdom finishes. The complex character development and how they interact with the world that surrounds them remind us of Empress. Unlike The Riven Kingdom, the impulses feel as if they came from the character, not as if they were forced upon them. In general, this book is almost as delightful as the first one in the trilogy, masterfully building the momentum, step by step, towards the end. Sadly it’s the mentioned ending what prevents this book to be on the same level than Empress. The ending is written rapidly, giving us a small taste of what it could have been, not letting us really have an in-depth intake of the feelings and reactions of the characters toward the enormity of what is happening.
Don’t let my words deceive you. I really enjoyed the three books of this trilogy and would readily recommend it to anyone who enjoys a good fantasy story. This three books will provide you with quite an enjoyment, but when it comes to deciding which one would I keep to read over and over again my choice would be, undoubtedly, Empress
#4 Prince of Thorns by Mark Lawrence
Violent and Dark, Prince of Thorns is one of those odd treats provided by an author who isn’t afraid to offer us something new and risky. We are not talking about a novel who provide us with grey characters in a world where god and evil doesn’t exists, we are talking about a world where evil is real and the main characters embodies it. Welcome to The Prince of Thorns, a book where the main character brutally murders innocents, allows his men to rape women (and does his fair share of raping too), and is prepare to sacrifice or just murder any man he has shared road and friendship with if they dare to second guess him. Oh, and he is one heck of a charismatic little bastard.
Prince of Thorns tells us the story of Jorg Ancrath, a fourteen year old prince who, after a traumatic experience in which he saw his little brother butchered and his mother raped and murdered, he elopes with a band of outlaws and makes of crime and viciousness his trade. Don’t go into this book thinking you are going to find the morally ambiguous but good-hearted company of robbers. The book opens with the mass-murder of an entire village, every man, woman and children murdered by the orders of Jorg.
One of the things I really loved about this book is how Mark Lawrence’s Mastery in writing allows him to unfold a story in which we fall in love with such a gang and with such a main character without making us feel sympathetic towards him. The traumatic experience is just the start point of the character development, not an overused excuse to try to make Jorg more human in our eyes. There are very few books that I have read where the brutality of the characters is showed as in this book, and all of those boks had a strange obsession with redemption or doom. Prince of Thorns is not interested in moral lessons, is not interested in creating a warm fuzzy feeling in the reader’s gut that tells him/her that good has triumph again. This provides fresh air to a genre where few people dare to take risks anymore.
The construction of the characters is delightful, and the author has an amazing sense of timing, knowing exactly how and when to provide small details that endear us to the characters. These shining dots in a sea of darkness, these small details that Jorg remembers about his road brothers from time to time, are what really make the characters human in our eyes and allow them to surprise us. Their decisions, their impulses, are born from within the character and the development of those characters is plausible, it gives us the impression that the author just let story unfold by itself.
Other detail that amazed me was the choice for the age of the main character. Jorg starts the book being thirteen years old. The age of the character and his viciousness offer us a contrast that helps to entrap us inside the story. I take off my metaphorical hat, Mr. Lawrence, you risked and you won. My own experience has left me with the feeling that writing a child is as difficult for an adult as it is for a child to write about a realistic adults. But I didn’t even think of second-guessing the age of the character at any point of the story, there was something in the character that kept reminding us he was just starting to be considered an adult in his society even if he was as charming and as wise as any adult character can be
Finally, I want to acclaim the subtlety of the story. The author doesn’t fall into the irritating habit of explaining every single detail to the readers; he just fills the book with small details, subtle hints and allows the reader to come with an answer by himself, to really discover the story behind the political and historical background inside Prince of Thorns.
Why is it the forth? Firstly because I still have to read the other two books of this trilogy: King of Thorns and Emperor of Thorns (They are in my Bookshelf ready to be enjoyed) Recent experiences have left me distrustful of book series endings. I am not talking about the Godspeaker trilogy but about the Inheritance Cycle which I decided to finish reading this year and I still haven’t fully recovered from the experience. Secondly, and I feel I need to find some weak points, is the fact that the ending feels rush in, not in the same sense as Hammer of God. Prince of Thorns offers you a climatic finale that keeps you reading up until the last page. But this ending leaves a lot of questions open. You never know who lives and who dies through the final battle. The action suddenly disappears and we are left with a summary of what happened, which closes the main points but does nothing to satisfy our curiosity for secondary details… I guess I will have to read King of Thorns to find out. Mark Lawrence, you old rogue
#3 The Red Knight by Miles Cameron
This year I have had the impressive delight to read several debut novels of real promising authors whose careers I shall follow with special attention. Two of those novels have made it into this list: Prince of Thorns and The Red Knight.
As soon as you open this novel you realize Mr. Cameron knows his business. The amount of detail that he puts into each item of the story (the armor, the breed of the horses, the weapons and how do they work) allows you to really submerge into this new world which tells us a story of a war between men and The Wild (home to magical creatures). Though the story allows us to know several points of view, its main focus is in a gang of mercenaries who are trying to protect a convent from an army of the Wild. This men and women remind us of the robbers we met in Prince of Thorns, though a bit more goodhearted they still being brutal outcasts with a liking to battle and money.
This gang, leaded by the young but talented Red Knight, who is the main character of the story, are easy to like and equally easy to mourn. Each has his/her well-defined personality and, while brutal, the have a human side that you grow to appreciate. It’s not only a story of war, it is a story of how men react to it.
What really attracts me of this story is the world where it takes place, the society, which has been carefully designed and feels alive. Its magic has its own rules and they are established, though it is also pointed that humans don’t know the full extent of how it works. This is something that is not common, for we usually get a very limited magic system in which the options and consequences are defined to the reader. Here we learn the magic system as the author unveils it for us, but we don’t have the sensation that he is improvising it.
As Mark Lawrence, Miles Cameron doesn’t give us every answer and doesn´t let us know everything from the beginning. The Red Knight is a mystery to us during most of the book, and that adds a little spice to keep us reading until the very end
#2 Hawkwood and the Kings by Paul Kearney
The first volume of The Monarchies of God offer us a wide and rich story filled with subplots and additional information that create a wonderful world that pulls you into the pages of this delightful piece of art.
Hawkwood and the Kings contains Hawkwood´s Voyage and The Heretic Kings, the first two books of The Monarchies of God series. And they center in three separate plots: Captain Hawkwood arduous journey to reach a continent which no one has heard from, the fight of three kings against the tyranny of a corrupted pontiff even under the threat of excommunication and the discovery of two monks, which could change the world forever.
In the mist of those three stories we find a world that breathes, that lives. We get the impression that we are just reading a small portion a thousand of years of history. This world didn’t begin with the first page and doesn’t finish on the last, it lives on. And that is something I have learn to appreciate.
The characters are complex, hard to predict and all of them ready to surprise you. Paul Kearney’s detail on secondary characters matches George R. R. Martin´s and Steven Erikson’s own. Even the smallest character has something to tell you. They, as the world they live in, are alive, and react to the circumstances they are given. Nothing in them looks forced just for the plot’s sake. All the changes each character experiments give us a sensation of harmony with the action that can only be found in the greatest authors.
The stories unfold with an amazing sense of timing, each detail is given when is due, there is not rush but neither doe the author slow the pace too much. He keeps his writing active, original, fresh and surprising through 702 pages of the book. Furthermore, the ending leaves you in a tremendous cliffhanger which I can’t wait to unravel on the next book of the series
#1 The Crippled God by Steven Erikson
As I said before, certain experiences have left me distrustful of long running book series. So imagine my terror when I picked up and purchased the last book of The Malazan Book of the Fallen, a fantasy book series of ten books which have accompanied me through my whole college experience.
I finished reading it and it was so good that no other book as been able to fill the hole that this series has left in my heart. Not many books can keep you reading from beginning to end, forcing you to commit every little bit of free time you find on your hands into unraveling its mysteries, especially when said books are more than 1100 pages long. Well, the Crippled God has that gift. It is the no-so-secret fantasy of every adept reader, to find a book series which its grand finale makes you cry.
It is difficult to talk about the Crippled God to people who haven’t read the other nine books that come before. But I will try to give an overview
As with Paul Kearney, Steven Erikson’s world is alive. The story takes us all over a continent plus several dimensions from which the mages draw their powers. This continent has deserts, ruins, oceans, kingdoms and nomadic people, all of them put together so beautifully that you could be reading history instead of a work of fiction. All feels so natural that you really allow it to surround you and pull you into the story. Steven Erikson has even composed poems, songs and created quotes by which he opens every one of his chapters.
The characters are not heroes; individually they are not worth more than any human being. Even the most badass characters need to team up to achieve their goals and here lies the real magic of the book. The main character is the Malazan Army, the collective being that all those men and women who we meet during the book and learned to love form. We learn about it from numerous points of views, such as the soldiers, officials, the quartermaster and their allies and we come to love it as a whole. By the end of the book it doesn’t matter who survive and who doesn’t. It is no longer the army you knew, it has achieved its purpose of existence and therefore it disintegrates, and you mourn for it.
There are probably more than a hundred characters in this book and all their backstories have been carefully designed to fit their behavior. There are not two characters that are alike, none of them respond to stereotypes, making them human, with their qualities and their faults and also with their fragilities and the terror that knowing they can die at any moment gives the reader. You think George R. R. Martin is a sadistic, heartless murderer? Steven Erikson kills in one of his books as many characters and Martin has killed in the complete A Song of Ice and Fire series. And you mourn almost every single one of them, even if you hated them when they were alive. Those small details, in my opinion, shows the mark of a talented writer who is capable of really make the reader become involved with his characters.
Also the timing to show us their back story is perfect. He waits until the precise moment where it will really affect us readers, not necessarily the old Death-moment-cliché, but other more subtle moments which allows us to really sympathize with the suffering of the character we are getting to know. Which is another little trick Mr. Erikson seems to have mastered, we never finish knowing the character. They surprise us until the last page, doesn´t matter if they are new characters or if we have known them from the very beginning of the story. This surprise is positive, it is something that really comes out of the character and is not forced upon it by the author, Mr. Erikson has created beings that after ten books are capable of surprising us and he has earned my respect and devotion for that
These are my top five for the year. There has been many other books in 2013 and some of them are really up there, on the top, with those five fabulous books, such as The Dragon Reborn (from the Wheel of time), Valiant or Red Country. I plan to continue posting reviews of future books I read. The next one, The Rediscovery of man should be up quite soon