Review: The Promise of the Child by Tom Toner
0
Lycaste is a lovesick recluse living in a forgotten Mediterranean cove who is renowned throughout the distorted people of the Old World for his beauty. Sotiris Gianakos is a 12,000-year-old Cypriote grieving the loss of his sister, a principled man who will change Lycaste's life forever. Their stories, and others, become darkly entwined when Aaron the Longlife—the Usurper, a man who is not quite a man—makes a claim to the Amaranthine throne that threatens to throw the delicate political balance of the known galaxy into ruin.
What is it lately with difficult reviews? This one takes the cake. This one was offered to me as a review copy by the author, and after reading the very neat sample through Kindle, I agreed to give it a bash. Fast forward a few weeks, and here we go with The Promise of the Child, Tom Toner's strange debut novel.

The Story:
"Lycaste is a lovesick recluse living in a forgotten Mediterranean cove who is renowned throughout the distorted people of the Old World for his beauty. Sotiris Gianakos is a 12,000-year-old Cypriote grieving the loss of his sister, a principled man who will change Lycaste's life forever. Their stories, and others, become darkly entwined when Aaron the Longlife—the Usurper, a man who is not quite a man—makes a claim to the Amaranthine throne that threatens to throw the delicate political balance of the known galaxy into ruin.

The Promise of the Child is a stunning feat of imagination set against an epic backdrop ranging from 14th-century Prague, to a lonely cove near the Mediterranean Sea, to the 147th-century Amaranthine Firmament. Toner has crafted an intelligent space opera filled with gripping action and an emotional scale that is wonderfully intimate, a smart and compelling debut that calls to mind the best of Kim Stanley Robinson or M. John Harrison."

Disclaimer
The author contacted me back in early February to offer me a review copy of the book. I liked the premise and sample I got on Amazon, and agreed to read & review it. I've also ordered a paperback copy on my own.

The Review:
The Promise of the Child is a tough book to judge. As a debut novel, it does a lot of things right, some things wrong, but it is so utterly inventive and refreshing, trusting the reader to piece things together on their own rather than over-explaining every single factoid, that for the most part I enjoyed my time with the book a lot. There are just some things left dangling that I'd have liked to see addressed in this book rather than the next.

The big thing to say about this book right off the bat is that it is difficult. It is by no means a quick and easy read. Clocking in at around 550 pages as a paperback (including glossary), this will take time to get through, and moreso because you'll often find yourself checking earlier chapters for things you might have missed, or clues that are being put into new light as the story progresses. It really doesn't hold your hand and expects you to take a wild plunge into the Amaranthine Firmament and its peculiarities.

For the first 100 or so pages you'll probably feel lost and like you are missing something - and you are, because Toner holds back a lot at first. The setting he presents is incredibly complex and in parts convoluted, giving a lot of strange vibes that I'll wager make more sense on a re-read of the novel or the series as a whole. But little by little, mysteries are being peeled back and small explanations offered to the reader. Suddenly your perspective shifts and appreciation grows.

By the end, though, I still felt a little lost in the universe. There are dangling plotlines that are obviously going to come to a head in the sequel(s), which I am determined to read as well, but they made me wait for continuations that just didn't happen in this book, or were still very opaque to me. I have my suspicions, but clear answers on many aspects still elude me - by design, but it does make me worry a bit that I'm simply missing something, or should have re-read a few more chapters after the fact. A little more context and explanation wouldn't have gone amiss, in my opinion, as much as I love it when authors trust their readers to make their own connections. As inventive and exciting as this debut novel is, I cannot deny that it appears somewhat daunting.

Beneath all the complexity, there lies a lot charme, however. Once you start getting the hang of it, you'll find yourself deeply invested in the Melius Lycaste's somewhat reclusive life, his struggles with romance, model house building and his eventual fall from grace. Lycaste's plotline serves to reinforce the strangeness of the world 12,000 years into the future, with its trees growing materials and food, an odd class system and abhuman servants.
Lycaste's progression through his home province and outside allows the reader to cling to something relatable while increasing the scope of the book as the character experiences new things and slowly loses more and more of his youthful innocence. He grew up rather sheltered and most of the world is beyond his understanding. Toner found a great way to gradually introduce the reader to technologies, the wider intrigue and events unfolding.

To me, Lycaste's almost tragic tale was the strongest part of the book, in terms of plot points. His unrequited love, being introduced to outside influences and discovering things he never paid attention to before all made for a dramatic tale. Where a lot of the other plotlines are mysterious and led by characters far from regular humanity, Lycaste just works out to be a relatable point of view character.

On the other hand we have Sotiris, a Perennial Amaranthine, an immortal human of old, getting invariably involved in a fierce play for the crown of Most Venerable emperor of the Amaranthine Firmament. The old leader has seemingly given up and a pretender to the throne is manipulating pieces and people to get what he wants - although what exactly that may be is a mystery for most of the book, and even beyond. Aaron the Long-Life, said pretender, is an enigma. Undeniably powerful, he is stranger than strange, invades the Amaranthines' dreams and Sotiris is hard-pressed to make his choices throughout the book.
I quite liked Sotiris, his personal tragedies and role in showcasing glimpses of our present day, and his reflections on the changes wrought upon the world since.

Besides these two central plotlines, there are others, of course. I have to admit though that, looking back, I am not quite sure they needed to be as elaborate as they ended up being. While the book kicks off with the various Prism-species fighting over a mysterious invention of the Vulgar Corphuso, I wasn't quite sold on how much time was spent on having them chased by the point of view character of a second plotline, some skirmishes and spacefaring. It was great to see some corners of the galaxy and get a broader understanding of how the Amaranthines' rule works and what rivalries exist between the Prism - a collection of various human-descended species, most of which appear to be dwarfish - but in the end little of it all had an immediate effect on the book.

Toner really managed to weave an intriguing and dense net of viewpoints and characters, but it did introduce a few pacing problems to hop around so much. I personally enjoy the switching perspectives in books, but here I was really eager to get back to the most intriguing characters. Though, admittedly, without these plotlines there'd be little enough space travel and void warfare to make things seem a bit awkward.

I know this review is sounding nitpicky, or even negative. But I really didn't get a negative feeling from the book. I liked it a lot, and wish I had the time to go straight to the sequel, The Weight of the World, partially because I really enjoyed Toner's style and courage, but also because I am hoping for more answers to what is going on in the Firmament. There are entire chapters in the book hinting at something even bigger going on, yet these bigger factors barely materialize until the very end, and even then just briefly. There is a lot to the Amaranthine Spectrum, and The Promise of the Child makes me think that I have barely seen the tip of the iceberg of what Tom Toner can do. There's so much to it already that I cannot help but feel respect for the author's ingenuity.

This is a highly unconventional novel, which does a lot of things I appreciate about good space opera stories. It is a book that demands a lot of attention and thinking on the reader's part, which can be problematic if you feel stressed and want to unwind with a good novel. The Promise of the Child is so full of intricate details that a slip of attention can cost you, especially as this debut focuses a lot on worldbuilding aspects over direct plot movements.
I'd advise against reading it in stressful environments like public transportation or waiting rooms - you'd do yourself and the novel a disservice getting distracted. But if you decide to take the plunge and stick with it through the early sections filled with confusing ideas and wondrous concepts, you'll find a rewarding and intelligent adventure with great twists and a promising future.

Despite my gripes, I want to stress that I had a good time with it. It was not an easy read, but all the more rewarding for it. It is a flawed gem with many breathtaking ideas. I am excited for The Weight of the World and exploring more of this setting. Now that I've gotten to grips with what Toner is doing with his debut universe, I'm ready for more.


The Promise of the Child on Goodreads
read more »
Review: Bakemonogatari, Part 1 by NisiOisiN
0
There’s a girl at their school who is always ill. She routinely arrives late, leaves early, or doesn’t show up at all, and skips gym as a matter of course. She’s pretty, and the boys take to whispering that she’s a cloistered princess. As the self-described worst loser in her class soon finds out, they just don’t know what a monster she is.

So begins a tale of mysterious maladies that are supernatural in origin yet deeply revealing of the human psyche, a set of case files as given to unexpected feeling as it is to irreverent humor. So begins the legendary novel that kicked off the MONOGATARI series, whose anime adaptations have enjoyed international popularity and critical acclaim.
I've been looking forward to reading this one for a while. I finally got around to it, squeezing it in between review copies I got on my desk. Thankfully, light novels aren't as time-intensive as most western novels, and the dialogue-heavy nature of NisiOisiN's works made me breeze through it.

The Story:
"There’s a girl at their school who is always ill. She routinely arrives late, leaves early, or doesn’t show up at all, and skips gym as a matter of course. She’s pretty, and the boys take to whispering that she’s a cloistered princess. As the self-described worst loser in her class soon finds out, they just don’t know what a monster she is.

So begins a tale of mysterious maladies that are supernatural in origin yet deeply revealing of the human psyche, a set of case files as given to unexpected feeling as it is to irreverent humor. So begins the legendary novel that kicked off the MONOGATARI series, whose anime adaptations have enjoyed international popularity and critical acclaim."


The Review:
Bakemonogatari is an odd one for certain. Well, I guess that is actually a given for any one of NisiOisiN's works. He is a strange writer at the best of times, and the Monogatari series could be considered his magnum opus in terms of peak strangeness. The series is as divisive as I can see any piece of media with a cult following getting. Some love it to bits, others will hate it to their very core. Some may appreciate the witty wordplay with little moving parts beyond metaphors and rolled eyes, while others will be floored by how little actually happens in the included stories.

To dial back a little, this is only part one of Bakemonogatari. Unlike the japanese original, which was split into two volumes, the english release is a three-parter. As a result, this one here only includes the stories "Hitagi Crab" and "Mayoi Snail", but not "Suruga Monkey" like in Japan. To cross-reference the highly popular anime adaptation from 2009-10, this release covers episodes 1 through 5 only. I'll also have to say that, if you've already watched that particular anime adaptation, you can mostly skip reading this book, because unlike with Kizumonogatari (which got a dreadful 3-part movie adaptation), most scenes are copied pretty accurately, despite some liberties the animation studio took with scenery and keeping it visually busy.

However, taken on its own, I enjoyed this first volume. It was a good way to refresh my memory of the series which I watched many years ago, and some things are a little less mindboggling than in the anime, due to giving the reader more introspective sections and time to piece things together without the dramatic visualizations, flashing screens and rapid-fire of dialogue lines. Watching the anime in japanese with english subtitles is certainly entertaining, but can get quite overwhelming with how much information it conveys. The book is easier to digest in that regard.
It also helps that the translator tried to localize some wordplay and references to the point where they'd be understandable to an english-speaking audience - there are still a few japanese language-related subjects in here, like the way you could interpret and read certain character combinations and how the meaning of a name can change drastically depending on perspective and circumstance, but I felt it was well-handled here. So kudos to the translating and editing staff at Vertical for the solid job here, as with Kizumonogatari, which frankly wasn't nearly as tough in this way.

Looking at the stories, "Hitagi Crab" explores the traumatic life of Senjougahara Hitagi, who had her "weight" stolen by a Crab a few years earlier and lives an isolated life trying to hide the fact. Araragi happens to find out and offers his help in solving the oddity. Senjougahara is a difficult, sharp-tongued person with more thorns than petals, and her relationship with Araragi borders almost on abusive.
In "Mayoi Snail", Araragi comes across a lost grade schooler on Mother's Day, while he is reluctant to return home himself, and together with Senjougahara they attempt to take the kid to its destination. The child, Hachikuji Mayoi, is funny to read about and offers a neat counterbalance to Hitagi's sharpness.
Both stories are rooted in family-related drama for all involved, straddling the line between comedy and touchy subjects.

Either way, if you expect action, you'll be disappointed. Sorely so. Unlike with Kizumonogatari, where the protagonist Araragi had to fend off three vampire hunters and the vampire Kiss-shot Accerola-Orion Heart-under-Blade, this is a more passive pair of stories that relies much more on dialogue and simple character interaction. In fact, large sections of "Mayoi Snail" take place sitting on a park bench, or walking around looking for a certain address, before returning to the park bench.

The focus is squarely on the dialogue, the banter, the wordplay and tension between the characters. Environments and outside descriptions are mostly absent, unless they directly concern the characters in some way. You'll be unlikely to get lost in the setting, like you could with many western fantasy authors. Instead the author aims to get you into the characters' heads, and develop an understanding of their circumstances. A lot of the dialogue and Araragi's inner monologues aim to elaborate on those points specifically, putting them into various different contexts and deliberating back and forth. And as convoluted as the chatter can be here, the prose itself, the style of the narrative, is very straightforward and often simplistic.

To me, this is an interesting thing to read about, but it is also plain to see that it will not be enough for a lot of readers. If you don't enjoy the characters for what they are and represent, your enjoyment will suffer greatly.

And let me get one more thing out of the way: This isn't a book for children. The cover may be inviting and anime/manga still have a reputation of being "for kids" in the West, but this is anything but a kids' story. Bakemonogatari deals with the characters' traumatic experiences and their reactions to them, and while there's always a sense of comedy and tongue-in-cheek writing here, some subjects can be pretty sobering when they surface.
Beyond that, there is also a degree of sexual topics in here; while Senjougahara's story deals with those in a rather frank manner, it may seem too much to some readers, and downright offensive to others. It makes certain cultural differences between the West and Japan stand out quite strongly. Even accounting for that, I feel that NisiOisiN elaborates a little too much on these touchy subjects here, though they still serve to underline the characters here and there.

Despite a bunch of points in my review seeming negative, I do want to stress that I enjoyed the book. I'm hoping the second part will be with me next week. The close-up on weird, eastern folklore-inspired abberations and very personal dramatic experiences is very appealing to me, even with all its quirks. There's neat trivia in here that I didn't know before, and the squabbling between Araragi and the rest is entertaining and can even shift your perspective on your own past actions at times. The witty dialogues are often refreshing, easy to visualize and made me laugh more often than they made me cringe.
I still enjoyed the more directed nature of Kizumonogatari more, having a real sense of danger that didn't really exist here, but for as different as they may be, both Kizu- and Bakemonogatari share three important aspects: They are engaging, entertaining and introspective. If that's your thing, like it is mine, then you'll be in for a treat!



Bakemonogatari, Part 1 on Goodreads
read more »
Review: Will Save the Galaxy for Food by Yahtzee Croshaw
0
A not-quite epic science fiction adventure about a down-on-his luck galactic pilot caught in a cross-galaxy struggle for survival! Space travel just isn't what it used to be. With the invention of Quantum Teleportation, space heroes aren't needed anymore. When one particularly unlucky ex-adventurer masquerades as famous pilot and hate figure Jacques McKeown, he's sucked into an ever-deepening corporate and political intrigue. Between space pirates, adorable deadly creatures, and a missing fortune in royalties, saving the universe was never this difficult!
From the creator of Mogworld and Jam!
This one almost blindsided me. I didn't know that Yahtzee Croshaw, known for his Zero Punctuation series on The Escapist, had a third novel coming up. A friend thankfully let me know last month, and when the audiobook version surprisingly hit on launch day (both previous books had lengthy delays for that), I jumped on it immediately. I can only recommend grabbing the audiobook yourselves, as Yahtzee narrated it himself, with all the usual snark.

The Story:
"A not-quite epic science fiction adventure about a down-on-his luck galactic pilot caught in a cross-galaxy struggle for survival! Space travel just isn't what it used to be. With the invention of Quantum Teleportation, space heroes aren't needed anymore. When one particularly unlucky ex-adventurer masquerades as famous pilot and hate figure Jacques McKeown, he's sucked into an ever-deepening corporate and political intrigue. Between space pirates, adorable deadly creatures, and a missing fortune in royalties, saving the universe was never this difficult!
From the creator of Mogworld and Jam! "

The Review:
Will Save the Galaxy for Food is an incredibly enjoyable science fiction satire novel. I enjoyed my time with it immensely. Not only did it drip with sarcasm and just plain ridiculous ideas, but it also had some very interesting points to make about the dangers of finding oneself obsolete. While it seems like just a comedic sci-fi romp, it actually offers a lot more depth than is immediately apparent.

The protagonist (and first-person narrator) is a down-on-his-luck pilot. During the Golden Age of space adventures, he liberated planets, along with many other pilots. Some turned excentric, adopting the cultures of "their" planets for themselves, others just stand at the space ports waving signs for tourism jobs, just to foot their bills. The development of stargate-esque portal technology has made space pilots pretty much obsolete, and put almost all of the old heroes onto the street with little more than nostalgia to keep them going.

But amidst it all, there is a "traitorous" pilot making his fortune off the backs of his colleagues: Jacques McKeown, a highly popular novelist stealing the adventures of his peers for his books. Nobody knows who he is, however. So it just happens that our unnamed protagonist gets roped into imitating McKeown in a dangerous job for a big-time crime boss (who is very much orange skinned!), and shit hits the fan from then on out. With the syndicate boss's son being a massive Jacques McKeown fanboy and wanting to impress his crush by going on a space trip piloted by his idol, and kept in line by the stiff personal assistant Warden, things are just going downhill from here.

The story takes us to a lot of places. From fending off crime lords over pirates to even other pilots trying to scalp Jacques McKeown, or oddly-cute-but-bloody-dangerous mascots-turned-cannibal, and even cyborg hiveminds and the dangers of teenage hormones, Will Save the Galaxy for Food is chock-full of action, room for sly comments and characters expressing their distaste for one another. I was surprised by how much Yahtzee was able to cram in here will still supporting the nostalgia and end of an era themes.
The characters are surprisingly well-developed for a satire piece too, with miss Warden slowly cracking up a little (while still being a psycho-div through and through) and heroes and villains of the old times seeking simple job opportunities. Our protagonist also turns from seeming like a sleazeball into a reliable hero figure with just slight brain damage as things move along.

I apologize if this review is a bit sparse on details, but you'll really have to see for yourselves just what troubles "Jacques McKeown" gets himself into here. The story follows a neat from-the-frying-pan-into-the-fire style, one thing leading to another and another, and I'd rather not unravel it all. While some developments might appear a bit out of the blue, I never thought that was a bad thing. It is just the kind of weird space adventure I was hoping for it to be. In a way, I got reminded of the movie Galaxy Quest in a few places.

Most importantly, though: It is a genuinely funny book. The amount of lines I ended up quoting to friends while reading this was just silly. Most of it are sarcastic remarks, situational humor and oh-god-I-want-to-bash-my-head-in-is-this-stupid moments, so quoting them here is a bit tricky. The humor won't work for everyone. Yahtzee's dark and dry british sarcastic yet somehow over the top style works very well for me, but as with his previous books, or Zero Punctuation itself, I know a bunch of people who aren't partial to it. My best recommendation here is to read the sample of the ebook on Amazon or listening to the Audible sample and seeing for yourself. That's the nature of comedy, I'm afraid.

One little thing that stretches through the entire book I enjoyed was that Yahtzee decided to use mathematical terms as a curse and insult dictionary.
In “Pilot Math”, the word multiply (shortened to ply) replaces the most popular swear word, with subtraction (or trac) filling in as an all-purpose noun with scatological leanings. Bracket became a common insult, as did decimal point (or doint) and division (div), which also came to mean male and female genitalia, respectively.
While this may seem a little thing of search&replace all swear words, it helped the world building for me. It was also quite funny to see the characters swear like this, and I'm sure I'll make personal use of some of these in the future. It is such a simple idea yet it carried part of the comedy for me.

Either way, I was surprised by what Yahtzee got going for him here. Jam was ridiculous on so many levels (I mean, it was about man-eating strawberry jam and the fall of human society amidst the jampocalypse...) and Mogworld was very nerdy and video gamey by design. Will Save the Galaxy for Food seems like a great mix of both. It is easily approachable while undeniably nerdy, yet also offers multiple points in regards to real world issues like automation, a shrinking job market, corruption, surveilance states and so on. While it never stood in the way of the entertainment factor, having those snippets of witty commentary made the book a great deal better.
I'd urge you to give it a try. If you in any way enjoy audiobooks, go for it for the (in my opinion) best experience. Will Save the Galaxy for Food is an intelligent amusement park visit with a lot of attractions to show for itself.

Will Save the Galaxy for Food on Goodreads
read more »
Review: The Dragon's Blade: Veiled Intentions by Michael R. Miller
0
Rectar has always had his sights set on conquering the human lands. His demonic invasion of the west is gaining momentum – an unrelenting horde unhindered by food or sleep. Now, only the undermanned Splintering Isles lie between the demons and the human kingdom of Brevia. If the islands fall, the rest of Tenalp will soon follow.

The Three Races must work together if they are to survive, but they have another problem – Castallan. The traitorous wizard has raised a deadly rebellion and declared himself King of Humans. He believes himself safe in the bowels of his impenetrable Bastion fortress, but Darnuir, now King of Dragons, intends to break those walls at all costs.

To face these threats, all dragons, humans and fairies must truly unite; yet old prejudices may undermine Darnuir’s efforts once again. And as the true intentions of all are revealed, so too is a secret that may change the entire world.
After a few intense weeks filled with stress, sickness, more stress and a noticeable lack of productivity on the review front, this is the novel that I needed to get motivated again. I originally wanted to get the review out by its launch day on February 10, but couldn't manage it. Either way, I am happy to be through it now and being able to put out a full review instead of just poking friends with tidbits.

To preface, though, I got a review e-copy of this novel, like the first, from Michael R. Miller. I'm happy I did, because my print copy is still lying at the post office until tomorrow. I was asked to let you know that you can get an ebook copy of The Dragon's Blade: The Reborn King for free via Michael's website, thedragonsblade.com, by signing up for his newsletter. Since I very much enjoyed the novel despite some flaws, I'm impressed by the generous offer and think you should take him up on it. I mean, it's a free book either way, and you mind find out about a bunch of cool author interviews he's hosting (including for some whose books are on my reading pile). If your taste is similar to my own, you might find value in it.

With all this preamble out of the way, let's begin!


The Story:
"Rectar has always had his sights set on conquering the human lands. His demonic invasion of the west is gaining momentum – an unrelenting horde unhindered by food or sleep. Now, only the undermanned Splintering Isles lie between the demons and the human kingdom of Brevia. If the islands fall, the rest of Tenalp will soon follow.

The Three Races must work together if they are to survive, but they have another problem – Castallan. The traitorous wizard has raised a deadly rebellion and declared himself King of Humans. He believes himself safe in the bowels of his impenetrable Bastion fortress, but Darnuir, now King of Dragons, intends to break those walls at all costs.

To face these threats, all dragons, humans and fairies must truly unite; yet old prejudices may undermine Darnuir’s efforts once again. And as the true intentions of all are revealed, so too is a secret that may change the entire world."

Disclaimer
As stated above, I received a free review copy of the ebook ahead of the official release. I have also ordered the print copies of the first two books on my own, and purchased the audiobook of The Dragon's Blade on Audible, so I was well-willing to open my wallet for it. Either way, keep that in mind while reading the review.

The Review:
The Dragon's Blade: Veiled Intentions is a big step up from its predecessor, which was Michael R. Miller's debut novel. I am very happy to say that, because The Dragon's Blade was a good novel with interesting characters, world building and plenty of promise, marred by a few flaws and bumps. I enjoyed it a good deal, and was hoping to see Miller grow as he gained more experience and feedback. And he did. I don't think my review in January had much to do with it, if anything, due to being so late to the party. Still he managed to address a lot of points I made with his second book, and the entire thing feels like a natural improvement.

Veiled Intentions builds on all the points I enjoyed about book one, while getting rid of or decreasing the aspects that worried me before. It felt exciting to read from the first to the last page, which led me to finishing the book today after hours of non-stop reading through the final 20%. Everything ramped up, had a degree of pay-off and more intrigue revealed, and I think that this will turn out to be a trilogy that avoids the weak-midpoint-syndrome you often see.

The novel picks right back up where it left off last time. There is little time wasted on reintroducing characters or summing up the state of the war of the alliance of humans, fairies and dragons against Rectar and the Shadow. It catapults you right back into the unfolding plot and mysteries, even though it doesn't focus on battles until quite a ways into the book.
Coming right from Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn trilogy (I'm currently taking a break from book three to get this one done), I might be overly appreciative of this. I got pretty annoyed with the reiterating of plot points and character arcs, let alone the magic systems, early on into Sanderson's books. Even halfway through there are still bits and pieces here and there that bug me because I remember those things and it takes me out of the moment.
The situation here is quite different. While Miller tells us what we need to know and eases the reader back into his world, it never felt on-the-nose to me. I never felt bogged down by summaries of previous events or infodumped. Callbacks feel like a natural part of the unfolding plotlines and character arcs, rather than existing solely for the benefit of the reader. But of course, this also means that you'll have to read book one first and can't jump in midway. To be honest, I never liked that idea anyway, and have consistently urged people not to do that even when it comes to the Horus Heresy series. For me, it is all or nothing.

Either way, I was invested in the book right off the bat. The prologue introduces us to new characters and regions of the world, and brings Dukoona, the Spectre general, back into focus. His plotline here is an intriguing one that I enjoyed a great deal, and turns the minions-of-evil tropes on their head nicely. Dukoona actually has become one of my favorite characters in the series so far. As Veiled Intentions keeps pulling back the shroud, my appreciation for the Spectres and their dilemma only grew.
But Dukoona is only one of the many characters that grow significantly in depth here. Garon, left-hand man of Cosmo and somewhat of an uncle figure to Darnuir, who is now king of dragons, turns into a man with backbone and integrity and works towards achieving Darnuir's dream of revitalizing the alliance and bridging racial rifts on a smaller scale. Cassandra, recently recaptured by the wizard Castallan, makes moves to take her fate in her own two hands and shows initiative throughout. Even Blaine, the Guardian, who I had a hard time liking in The Dragon's Blade, turns into a relatable, nuanced character full of depth and interest.

As somebody who focuses a great deal of attention on characters and their progression, their thoughts and feelings, but also their actions, I think that this book succeeded wholeheartedly. It clears up a lot of motivations and intentions, while making everybody more interesting, relatable and believable. Even the villains, like Castallan, turned into more than just simple antagonists with a lust for power. I believe that Miller has a good grasp on what makes characters tick and interesting to follow, and Veiled Intentions highlights a highly diverse cast of examples who share one common theme: They're all exciting to read about, and many of them have their own secrets.

The action, too, is on point. The inevitable assault on the Bastion, Castallan's stronghold, was well-executed and exciting, providing a midpoint climax that provided growth and new conflict in equal measure. Everybody has a part to play as the alliance's bonds are strained and Castallan makes his big plays. The magical showdown here was fantastic, vivid and thrilling. Darnuir's growing dependence on cascade energy, Blaine's wavering light and Brackendon's inner demons all make for intense scenes throughout the book. From fighting against red-eyed enhanced humans over wizard duels to schisms between Spectres and desperate defences, the action sequences are varied, highlighting neat environments and all serve to further character development and intrigue.

Besides the thrill of battle, there are many calm, reflective moments. New bonds are forged, some as unlikely as they come, and there are many heartwarming scenes here. I especially liked one between Cassandra and the fairy general Fidelm that involved a pretty white dress and lots of paint.
Old mysteries are solved, questions answered, new ones asked. I especially liked how many of the reader's questions get adressed through Ochnic the Kazzek troll and his people in the highlands, far away from Darnuir and the capital of the human kingdom. It serves to flesh out the realm of Tenalp, making it feel like a cohesive world whose inhabitants may be divided but still share history and are fighting for common goals. Things are coming together nicely, especially towards the end when the immediate threats are resolved. Overall, it is a satisfying experience.

Stylistically, too, I want to point out some improvements. For one, every chapter, or section, is prefaced with a header that names the point of view character and the location they are currently at. If the perspective shifts, there is another header midway. While it may not seem like a big deal on the outset, it definitely helps the book's structure and giving a sense of movement as armies and characters travel from one place to another.
Another thing are the short excerpts from Tiviar's Histories, in-universe books written by a fairy scholar. They've been named and talked about in the first book, as Cassandra discusses them with Brackendon for example, but here we get snippets that help to reinforce the world's cohesiveness further and offer hints relating to the unfolding events. I tend to love little tidbits like these in books, and this is no exception. It simply adds another layer of depth from a non-present perspective in a non-intrusive way and helps the reader piece things together.

There are still some minor nitpicks, of course. The occassional typo was still in my review e-copy, for example, but those occurances were rarer than in the previous book, and never really bothered me. In the end the book succeeded everywhere I hoped it would and felt more consistent than its predecessor. I don't remember any chapter that made me struggle, or any character I didn't feel invested in in some capacity. There are many pleasant surprises here, believeable conflict, both external and internal, and a very promising set up for the final book in the trilogy. I could gush for quite a bit longer than this, but chances are, I'd need to spoil a few cool things, so I'll just recommend that you read it for yourselves.

Instead of bumps in the road I found a great adventure that hopefully paves the way to a successful writing career for Michael R. Miller. Here's hoping book three will be out sooner rather than later, and live up to this spectacular second installment!


The Dragon's Blade: Veiled Intentions on Goodreads
read more »
Review: Exocytosis by James Swallow
0
Having long been hounded across the galaxy by the Dark Angels, First Captain Typhon of the Death Guard has limped his fleet to sanctuary in Segmentum Obscurus - as a guest of the separatist Luther of Caliban, no less. On the world of Zaramund, long a symbol of brotherhood amongst the Legions, Typhon begins to suspect that a new form of corruption has followed him out of the wider war. Will he embrace it, or escape into the darkness once more?

It's another step towards what we all know is coming for the Death Guard and Captain Typhon. Is it time that he embraced his destiny as a pawn of the Plague Lord?
Another long-delayed review. Life gets in the way more often than you'd like, doesn't it? Either way, this was coming one day or another. It is another advent story, of course.

The Story:
"Having long been hounded across the galaxy by the Dark Angels, First Captain Typhon of the Death Guard has limped his fleet to sanctuary in Segmentum Obscurus - as a guest of the separatist Luther of Caliban, no less. On the world of Zaramund, long a symbol of brotherhood amongst the Legions, Typhon begins to suspect that a new form of corruption has followed him out of the wider war. Will he embrace it, or escape into the darkness once more?

It's another step towards what we all know is coming for the Death Guard and Captain Typhon. Is it time that he embraced his destiny as a pawn of the Plague Lord?"

The Review:
Exocytosis is yet another neat, character-focused Horus Heresy short story. It is a sequel to Gav Thorpe's Angels of Caliban, continuing on from the novel's epilogue. If you haven't read it prior to this story, I'd recommend that you do. Not only was it pretty good, but the Caliban plotlines and foreshadowing lead right into the situation we've got here.

Calas Typhon, First Captain of the Death Guard, has come to Zaramund, and found Luther of the Dark Angels waiting for him. Typhon and crew have been hounded by loyalist Dark Angels for years now, so tensions with Luther are a given. Only a modicum of courtesy is extended towards the Grand Master, yet materiel and refugee are accepted nonetheless. But the Death Guard, and Typhon in particular, are keeping many secrets here, almost mirroring the Dark Angels themselves. And then Typhon gets confronted with a grim truth that sets him truly on course to become Typhus, the Herald of Nurgle we all know from the 41st Millennium.

To be frank, I was a bit worried about Swallow taking back the Death Guard after all these years. He set a certain tone for the Legion in Flight of the Eisenstein - but that was almost 10 years ago! Since then, he had very little to do with the Death Guard at large, despite his long-running Garro sub-series. In the meantime, many other authors have tackled Mortarion and the Death Guard, from Graham McNeill over Gav Thorpe to Chris Wraight, and I don't think it controversial to say that out of all of the depictions, I am particularly keen on Wraight's. Indeed, this story, along with Wraight's The Path of Heaven, will undoubtedly lead right into the upcoming fall of the Death Guard novel. Needless to say, I was hoping Chris would score the book, but after reading Exocytosis, I am more torn on the matter.

That is to say, I enjoyed this short story a good deal. Typhon takes the center of the stage, though I would have liked to see a little more of Luther, Zahariel and co. The few nuggets of info we get there are worthwhile in my opinion, and show the tensions within the Dark Angels pretty well. But it really is about Typhon, his eventual fate and the beginning of the true turn of the Death Guard from traitors to swollen, pustulent abominations in the service of the god of pestilence.
Swallow offers a few callbacks to ideas he put onto the table back in Eisenstein, which I appreciate greatly, and Typhon feels a bit more nuanced than I thought him in Thorpe's The Lion. The semi-religious themes tackled here also were a nice touch, though I was shaking my head over the one and only Dark Angel who could've had a chance of changing the inevitable.

Overall this isn't great on action or big Legion progression. A lot of it is setup for what is to come, to bring Typhon, an oft-neglected character, back into the spotlight. However, it is good setup with a good character focus that was sorely needed. It is competently written and fits neatly into the current state of the Heresy. If it heralds a return to the Death Guard for Swallow, he is welcome to go ahead with it.

Exocytosis on Goodreads
read more »

DarkChaplain's bookshelf: read

The Dragon Engine
Tomb Raider II #7
Star Wars #22
Star Wars: The Force Awakens Adaptation #3
Deathwatch: The Last Guardian
The Harrowing
Whacky
The Awakening
Blackshield
Poe Dameron #5


DarkChaplain's favorite books »