The Witchwood Crown by Tad Williams

Being the first book of The Last King of Osten Ard, a series sequel to the seminal Memory, Sorrow and Thorn.

These days references to the ground-breaking fantasy series Memory, Sorrow and Thorn by Tad Williams tend to be as an inspiration to GRR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series. The similarities have been identified and are but a google search away. The danger is that Memory, Sorrow and Thorn becomes a side note in someone else’s chapter in the history of fantasy rather than getting chapter of its own, which it richly deserves.

To help make this point, Williams has now returned to Osten Ard thirty years later (both by our reckoning of years and theirs) with a new series.

Doing so after such a long gap brings its risks. Williams pulls it off, producing something familiar enough to feel like a continuation, but different enough to account for the passing years.

 

CHARACTERS

One problem Williams had was an inheritance of a massive cast list from the original series, combined with the need to introduce fresh characters for this one. He blends the two well, aided by the fact that he gives himself 300,000 words to do it. He avoids easy get-outs, such as having a cull of older characters in the first few pages, and is respectful of his earlier characters.

I didn’t re-read the first series before jumping in with this book, and it is quite possible to enjoy this book without having read the earlier ones. Having said that, you are a little overwhelmed with characters early on here, in a way that wouldn’t happen if it was a totally new series.

His original characters: Simon Snowlock, Miriamele, Tiamak etc — have been aged convincingly, from young heroes to weary rulers. This older cast, with their wounds both physical and emotional, combines well with Williams’ gentle, melancholy writing style.

A number of new characters are, in effect, the bad guys, and seeing their point of view definitely adds something to the tale, and is one example of Williams moving with the times in his approach to this series.

 

WORLDBUILDING

This is Williams’ strength. Of course, he is revisiting a world he created thirty years ago, but the size of it—the history, politics and religion of each culture that come together to make it a living, breathing world, remain impressive.

This level of painstaking worldbuilding is perhaps old-fashioned now, with the current penchant for in your face attitude and violence from page 1. And one issue with Williams’ style remains: the pace. Boy, I remember how slow The Dragonbone Chair was first time around. It’s the biggest barrier to people enjoying his work. And The Witchwood Crown isn’t much better—incredibly slow-build, with things only really picking up in the final quarter.

 

PLOT

Tanahaya, a Sitha, travels to Erchester, the capital of Osten Ard, but is ambushed, almost dying from her wounds. Although the humans attempt to treat her, she remains on death’s door, and why she was targeted remains unclear.

The King and Queen, Simon and Miri, have become care worn after ruling their kingdom for thirty years, and suffering the loss of their only child, John Josua. The question of inheritance looms large, as their grandson and heir, Morgan, is considered a wastrel, though there is more to this story than most characters can see. Political troubles begin to simmer in the far-flung corners of the High Ward and they must rely on their old friends to keep the peace.

Meanwhile, in the cold dark mountain of Nakkiga, Utuk’ku, the Norn Queen, has awakened. Nezeru, a half-blood Norn Sacrifice, is assigned to a hand of Norns who are ordered to leave their realm in search of dragon blood.

In truth, there must be at least twenty POV characters here, scattered across the realms of Osten Ard. I enjoy that level of complexity, but of course not everyone will. It takes a good while, but by the end of the book you can see these threads starting to come together.

 

Overall, if you are ready to get invested in a deep world and a huge cast of characters, to put in the time as the story develops, then you should enjoy this tale from a master of epic fantasy.

The Chronicles of the Black Gate: Books 1-3 by Phil Tucker

So here I’m reviewing a pretty well known and widely read series, The Chronicles of the Black Gate by Phil Tucker. In particular, I bought the eBook ‘box-set’ featuring books 1-3 of 5, which the author offers for an incredibly competitive price and is therefore a great introduction to the series. Having finished Book 3 I am therefore half way through the series, but I thought I would drop a review at this point. I may do a follow up post when I complete the series. The short story is, this is a great series with a wide appeal.

 

Characters

We follow the point of view of a number of characters throughout the series, with a chapter devoted to each one, reminiscent of A Song of Ice and Fire. Asho, depicted on the cover of the first book, The Path of Flames, is a Bythian, a white haired slave race.  He has left his underground homeland to become a knight, but does not fit in, is treated with disrespect and has an XL size chip on his shoulder. Kethe is the daughter of the baron Asho serves, who wants to break with social convention and train as a warrior; Iskra is Kethe’s mother. Audsley is the unathletic, studious ‘magister’ who works at the same castle. Indeed, all of the main characters are already quite well intertwined at the beginning of the story, all except for Tharok. He is a kragh, an orc/ogre type creature, with ambitions to unite his race and take on the humans.

There is a real blend and variety of characters here, Tucker does a great job of getting the reader inside their heads early on. You have warriors and non-warriors, older and younger, male and female, different classes etc. It’s great for readers like me who enjoy the variety, and even if you don’t, I would expect most readers to find at least one character they root for. Some of the backstory is quite dark, and I would certainly define the series as epic fantasy with grimdark elements.

All in all I liked the characters, the author does a good job of developing personality while also allowing the plot and action to develop at a nice pace. Personally, I enjoyed the Tharok chapters, perhaps because they were a bit different, but also because his storyline is separate for so long, it felt like a nice change of pace/scenery when he came along.

 

Worldbuilding

Tucker really knows his genre and he does a good job of fitting all the pieces together, not a straightforward task when you write fantasy. The world he creates is highly original. The different parts of the world are connected by magical gates – aka solar or lunar portals. My understanding is that these gates are required to travel from one region to another, though I never quite got a grip on the geography so I could be wrong. The humans are therefore divided into different regions, and each has a different role to play in the Ascendant Empire – Bythians are slave labour, Ennoians are the warriors, Aletheians the elite, Noussians scholars etc. Not only that, but there is an important religious element to this structure too, so that when you die you pass from one stage to another – a higher stage if you have lived your life well, a lower one if not, i.e. some form of reincarnation. An interesting aspect to this is the reader is never clear how true this really is – is this belief system purely fictional, half true or not.

Magic is linked to this worldbuilding, so that some characters appear able to use magic because they are connected to the White Gate (think: heaven), the top of the structure, others because they are connected to the Black Gate (think: hell). Once a character has this magic they become pretty awesome overnight – their swords light with fire, they can do 20 somersaulting back flips in a row etc etc. During the book some of the characters transform in this way into ‘superheroes’, far superior to ordinary humans.

Magic and religion are therefore central themes, and the series has a distinctive setting. As a reader I was left with slightly mixed feelings – the setting was memorable, but I wasn’t always able to fully suspend my disbelief.

 

Plot

Circumstances force Iskra on a collision course with the rulers of the Ascendant Empire. She is supported by her knights (such as Asho and Kethe) and other allies, though they face overwhelming odds. Audsley begins to learn the secrets of the portals, and finds out that there is a corruption at the heart of the Empire. Meanwhile, Tharok finds an iron circlet that gives him the ability to plan a strategic course of action that could unite the kragh under his leadership. Should that be allowed to happen, the Empire will face a far greater threat than Iskra’s small band of rebels.

Each character ends up being given a distinct challenge or storyline, which sees them working alone or together at different points in the series, and in different locations. Tucker does a great job of linking all these storylines together, like a juggler – he never drops a ball, and thus weaves a truly impressive fantasy tapestry together. There are moments, I think almost inevitable if you are going to write something on this scale, when you would like things to move a bit faster. But at the end of Book 3, it all comes together with a climactic crash.

 

 

Overall, as I’ve suggested, this series ticks most fantasy readers’ boxes – epic in scale, though certainly not hard to get through; an original setting, with a hint of mystery; and engaging characters. I would thoroughly recommend!

 

 

 

Art of War Edited by Petros Triantafyllou

Art of War is a fantasy anthology put together by the BOOKNEST.EU blog featuring short stories by 40 fantasy writers. And it’s an impressive line-up: while I’ve only read a few of the authors in this collection before, I knew of and was interested in reading the work of well over half of them, which makes it a great introduction to some of the current writers in the genre. Of course, reading a short story isn’t the same as reading a novel, and (to be honest) I tend to prefer the latter. I think particularly in fantasy, it can be hard to get a story going in a few thousand words. And these stories are generally on the short side (I don’t know how long, and no, I’m not counting the words for you). So, a writer’s short doesn’t necessarily tell you what their series are like. Also, when I got to reading, I actually enjoyed quite a few from authors I hadn’t come across before, which is even better. The other point worth making here is that profits from sales go to Medecins Sans Frontieres, which some readers may want to know.

So, on to the book itself. It’s well designed for a start, and after reading a lot of eBooks recently, it was nice to have a chunky book in my hands. The theme is obviously war. As a collection of writers, obviously the authors approached this from a number of angles. The most common was ‘war is hell’. This is something of a truism and therefore didn’t always spark my interest. Linked to this was a number of stories that were set in trenches, which I found slightly odd in a fantasy story. Given that despite the central truth of war is hell, humans are still engaged in war in the twenty first century, is a depressing fact, but still one that could be explored. War as a driver of social change is explored in Sebastian de Castell’s The Fox and The Bowman, one of the reasons that particular story stood out for me.

Clearly, with 40 stories, the reader is going to find some they liked better than others. There were a few I thought were pretty poor, but only one I didn’t finish, which isn’t a bad hit rate. When writers decide what to write they have to decide whether to build on their previous material or produce something new and self-contained. Obviously the former goes down well with existing fans but can be a barrier to new readers if dependent on prior knowledge of the author’s work.

I’ll give a mention to my top ten – these haven’t been chosen in a systematic way, but rather are the ones that stayed with me for some reason – I could remember the characters and their situation. In compiling this list I think it’s fair to say that the odds of being remembered are higher if the story comes at the beginning or end of the book rather than stuck in the middle. So, in the order they appear in the book:

The Breaking of the Sky by Ed McDonald – what’s in the box? Nothing nice, I fear.

The Last Arrow by Mitchell Hogan – captured the unpleasantness of war without becoming hyperbolic.

This War of Ours by Timandra Whitecastle – original, atmospheric, definitely made me want to read more from her.

The Fox and the Bowman by Sebastian de Castell – clever, almost like a fable, with some insight on war.

Violet by Mazarkis Williams – made me root for this character.

Sacred Semantics by Nicholas Eames – genuinely funny, and clever, and about war.

The Undying Lands by Michael R Fletcher – another strong female character, lighthearted feel to it.

The Storm by Miles Cameron – the world-building/setting was interesting.

Flesh and Coin by Anna Stephens – mercenary bands encounter, struck a chord with me because I’m currently writing something quite similar.

The Hero of Aral Pass by Mark Lawrence – my first introduction to Jalan Kendeth, already on my TBR pile.

 

As I say, nothing very systematic about this list and on another day no doubt the list would be slightly different. There are another twenty-odd quality short stories in this book, so would definitely recommend to fantasy fans, it’s a nice one to dip into in between longer reads.

The Eagle’s Flight by Daniel E Olesen

I first noticed Daniel Olesen’s The Eagles’s Flight in the 2017 Self-Published Fantasy Blog Off. It was in the same section as Toric’s Dagger, and while neither book won through, they both made it to the semi-final stage, with Daniel’s book getting a rather more positive review than mine. It sounded like complex, historical, epic fantasy, which is right up my street, and so I treated myself to a read. I certainly wasn’t disappointed, though it’s a book that may not be for everyone. File under historical. With a capital ‘H’.

 

Characters

Like good epic fantasy should, The Eagle’s Flight gives us a feast of characters who inhabit the lands of Adalmearc. The point of view shifts from one character to the next with rapidity. Yes, some people don’t like this, but I do, and I appreciate that the writer trusts that I am intelligent enough to cope with it. The first part of the book centres on the capital, Middanhal, where the powerful nobility gather and politic in the reign of a vulnerable child king. The houses of Isarn and the Vale feud over political office – we are introduced to the leaders of each house, their brothers, children, cousins – and then, there are lesser houses, each with their own ambitions. Some men serve the Order, a military organisation whose duty is to preserve the unity of the kingdom and serve the royal house. Some serve in the Order while also serving themselves. Two characters who stand out are Athelstan, a famous knight and younger brother of the Duke of Isarn, and his squire Brand, scion of a family with royal blood.

In the second part we are transported to Haethiod, a border region where a foreign army has invaded. A new cast of characters are introduced here, including the young Queen of Haethiod, Theodora, the domineering dowager queen Irene, and Lord Leander, illegitimate son of the previous king. Finally, we return to Middanhal, where the complex politics of the capital have led to a state of war.

Given the highly medieval setting, the main movers and shakers in the story are noblemen, but we also follow characters with lower social standing and a number of female characters, who operate in a typical male dominated, medieval society. There is the odd elf and dwarf character, but these are fairly peripheral to the story, in this first volume at least.

I think it is fair to say that this book focuses on world-building and plot, and is therefore less character driven. The characters aren’t as obtrusive as you may find in A Game of Thrones or Joe Abercrombie’s books. But they are arguably more realistic, behave logically, are motivated by their own desires and loyalties, and I found the huge cast to be memorable and I cared what happened to them.

 

Worldbuilding

This is one of the strengths of the book, in particular the historical accuracy which underpins this creation of a medieval European fantasy world. Yes, nothing original about doing this, but it is done very well, which is more important. Right from the beginning, the world is given centre stage, as the narrator introduces the lands of Adalmearc to the reader. We are not yet looking through the eyes of any particular character, and Olesen often starts chapters with this omniscient view.

This is a fully thought out, functioning world. Does the reader need all the detail? Personally, I like this kind of detail to fully immerse myself in a fantasy story. But I know some people will be running for the hills at the thought of this overwhelming historicity. And that’s OK, not everyone’s the same. Can you stand one character asking a second about battle tactics to allow the author to give a lecture on army formations? This can be a bit clunky. But the trade off is battle scenes and sieges where characters have to make real choices with the resources available to them. And honestly, this is pretty rare in fantasy. There are no supermen here who can wield a sword and defeat an army. Archers don’t have limitless supplies of arrows. Generals can’t raise armies in a day. You get the point.

Finally, this is a fantasy book, is there any magic? Well. There are hints of it, of a bigger story emerging in the later books. But much like GRR Martin in A Game of Thrones, Olesen has kept tight control over this storyline to allow himself the space to introduce a realm largely inhabited by humans.

 

Plot

So, without giving too much away, we have internal power politics driving the plot, the kind of strife that can divide people in the same realm. Then, an old threat returns. The border defences are breached by outlanders, a people who have raided in recent generations but now lead an army into Adalmearc. And, perhaps, the two are somehow connected. Can the rulers of Adalmearc unite to fend off the more serious threat? Olesen does a good job of not overfeeding us here, so that we are still not clear about the exact nature of this external threat…

 

…and that brings us to a question – Daniel, when the hell is the next book coming out? This one was apparently published in 2016. It’s a meaty read at 500 pages and I have no doubt was a time consuming thing to write. But hopefully book two is coming soon. I will certainly be encouraging people to read this one – no doubt Daniel would appreciate a purchase, but he is also giving away free copies on his website and through Sigil Independent, where loads of cool fantasy writers hang out.

 

Red Sister by Mark Lawrence

Mark Lawrence has been one of the biggest names in Fantasy for a while, so it was well past time I got round to reading him. I’ve come close a couple of times, even buying his books for other people with the intention to borrow them when they had finished with them (what? You don’t do that?), but for various reasons they didn’t work out until I picked up my own copy of Red Sister. I’m not a prolific reader, but there’s no doubt that this book shot to to the top of my ToBeRead pile because of this man’s inexplicable generosity in support of indie fantasy writers through the Self-Published Fantasy Blog Off (SPFBO) competition that he founded.

Not having read his stuff before, I had few expectations, though those who follow Fantasy will know that Mark is strongly linked to the Grimdark subgenre. As the name suggests, this is associated with adult themes, dark or flawed characters and a depressing/realistic/cynical (depending on your point of view) world view. So before I started reading, I was interested to find out how dark things would get. And…I was a little surprised.

 

Characters

Lawrence is known for his single character led writing and Red Sister is no exception. Front and centre we have Nona, a young (9?) girl raised in poverty and ignorance but claimed by the Sweet Mercy Convent due to the potential of the powers she exhibits. The story of a child with magic powers is hardly a new one in Fantasy and it’s easy for the reader to settle in to a familiar journey. Nona herself is great company, Lawrence mostly succeeds in looking at the world with a child’s eyes and this child is brave and admirable as perhaps only children can be. I find it hard to imagine a reader who wouldn’t warm to her. And this was one reason for surprise – this is surely a departure from Lawrence’s Grimdark roots, making it a more mainstream title. I’m not sure that Nona displays a serious character flaw, does anything reprehensible or is faced with a decision where she doesn’t automatically take the heroic path. Maybe this is because she is a child, maybe it’s because she’s a girl. Maybe these tough choices come in the later books. But for now, she is simply likeable. Nona doesn’t like herself, this is true. The nature of her powers means that she considers herself a monster, in fact. But the reader doesn’t.

The supporting cast is largely made up of the students and teachers at Sweet Mercy Convent. She makes friends here but also has enemies, mostly outside the safety of the Convent. It’s mostly a female cast, which makes the story interesting and distinctive at times. But for me, it didn’t always make it distinctive enough. Two words loomed large while reading this. Harry Potter. It was hard not to compare. ‘Abbess Glass is Dumbledore’, ‘Sister Apple is Snape’ my brain kept telling me. And this is totally unfair, because the characters were well drawn and not copies by any means. But there it is nonetheless. If you want a Grimdark Harry Potter, of course, then you’re in heaven right now.

 

Worldbuilding

The world of Abeth has some interesting sci-fi elements. Four races arrived here, by spaceship. Each race had certain powers – one giants (strength), two magic, one speed (this race is called hunska). These powers have largely died out amongst humans, but some people have retained them in smaller or greater measure – and, in effect, this makes such characters magical. Nona, we soon realise, has hunska powers. Some people may even have more than one of these 4 powers, making them extra special. All this is fine, and for those who like an explanation for magic in fantasy, this one is satisfying and has its own logic and rules. It means that the Convent can offer different classes to suit these different abilities.

Abeth is also distinctive because it exists in a solar system where the sun is dying. Huge walls of ice have enclosed most of the planet. All that is left is a thin corridor in the middle, where the ‘Focus’ moon passes and heats the terrain enough to keep the ice at bay. It’s an interesting idea and by the end of the book starts to drive the plot, presumably taking an even bigger role in the sequels. On the other hand, despite this crisis the parts of Abeth we see are surprisingly ordered. The kind of dystopian chaos one would assume a dying sun would engender happened a long time ago, turning the technological clock backwards, but humans have managed to come through fairly civilised. There is an Empire with currency, a prison system and all the other trappings of civilisation. There are convents and academic institutions and a universal church. It’s a familiar fantasy world despite the unique setting.

 

Plot

[Reviewer’s Disclaimer: I have spent many years as a teacher and this may have affected the following section of this review]

Red Sister is a Coming of Age story set in a school/convent. When I realised this my reaction was ‘meh’. And this is purely personal. But these stories are so dominant in literature right now, plus they are not really my thing anyway, that I struggle to get excited by them. Children’s/teen books, whether fantasy or otherwise, are dominated by the school setting. And in Fantasy, it’s not just Harry Potter. Most books that I have read recently and reviewed here follow this format. The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss has a magic school at is heart. Blood Song by Anthony Ryan has a military type school. I understand the appeal and these books are incredibly popular. But I hanker after something different.

Otherwise, the plot chugs along well and there is a neat climax of themes at the end while leaving room for Book Two. Lawrence knows what he is doing and is in full control of the story from beginning to end.

 

Overall, this is a great book with no weaknesses that looks set to develop into a great series. The sequel, Grey Sister, has now hit the stores. I will be reading on, there’s no doubt about that. Now, how do I get my hands on that copy of Prince of Thorns that I bought myse…-cough- that I bought someone as a gift?

 

Board Games Review: Part Two (Small World, Talisman, Adventure Time Card Wars, Ticket to Ride)

Small World

Well, this is a personal favourite of mine. It’s a conquest/strategy style board game, so therefore not to everyone’s liking. But the people who chose to play really enjoyed it. Since there were four of us we played with a larger board, but there is a smaller board for 2/3 players.

One reason everyone liked it was the comical setting. Each player chooses a race to start with, with a randomised skill set. So, for example, I began with Commando Elves, whereas my daughter had Seafaring Ratmen. You play with this race for a few turns, before choosing to go into Decline, and selecting a new race. Put simply, the more you conquer, the more points you score.

Another reason is the short time frame. The game we played had 8 turns, so it didn’t drag at all.

Despite this, there is definitely some strategy for those who enjoy that. When to Decline, which Race to select, who to attack, all effect outcomes. Some of us got through 3 races in one game. I stuck with the Elves all game because I was enjoying them a little too much. My daughter won with only 2 races deployed. In addition, because new races can change the dynamic, it’s not clear who the winner is until the end.

Small World obviously has its fans, because there are a number of expansion sets now. I can see why.

Pros: A short strategy game; combinations of races and skills, with random order, plus multiple boards, means that every game is different; comical races make it fun to play for non-strategists

Cons: Playing with armies rather than individual characters is not fun for everyone; it’s still a strategy/conquest game, making it too complicated for some

 

Talisman

This is an old favourite in our family, enjoyed by all generations. It’s quite free-form, allowing fantasy-style characters to roam about a detailed board having adventures. We had a Troll, Dwarf, Elf, Ghoul and Assassin. Events, objects and followers allow characters to increase their strength and craft. Once strong enough, they can attempt to win the game by ascending to the Crown of Command. They must own a talisman to do so.

There’s no doubt that it can be long, with a laggy middle, as some characters who have not been so lucky wander aimlessly around in the vain hope of improving their position compared to stronger characters, who are free to beat them up and steal their objects.  This can be quite upsetting if other players around the board are ruthless in their play. Only one character can win, by killing all the others. Another aspect that I find frustrating is rolling dice for movement. But there’s no doubt that funny moments abound, as you watch your nearest and dearest get beaten up by hobgoblins, get drunk in a tavern, or turned into toads.

We have played this many, many times over the years, which is a testament to its enduring appeal. Expansion sets and a computer game do too.

Pros: Huge range of characters, adventure cards, strategies, allow for replay-ability and allow players to express their personality; easy to pick up the rules (roll a dice, do what the square tells you to)

Cons: Lengthy; can be less fun for unsuccessful characters, though they can always fill the time by complaining about their bad luck

 

Adventure Time: Card Wars

I am assured by my son that this is a game actually played by Finn and Jake in the cartoon series Adventure Time. It is a two player strategy game that reminded me of playing Swords and Wizardry or Stratego with my Dad, though it has a different dynamic to those games. We used the Finn and Jake decks, but there are other decks you can buy for the other main characters that feature in the series.

Each player has four landscape locations to deploy their creatures on, meaning that fights occur across four ‘lanes’. Shuffle your deck of cards, and send in your bizarre Adventure Time creatures to fight for you. Your deck also contains buildings and spells. You have 2 actions on your turn, which you will usually use by deploying a card or drawing new ones into your hand.

The rules take a bit of time to figure out and are not written that well. It’s not a game for very young kids. Indeed, I think there is quite a lot of strategy to it if you want to take it seriously.

We just enjoyed fighting with our creatures. In the end, I took 25 points of damage, making me The Dweeb and my son The Cool Guy. It took a while for the game to end, and younger players might be better off with a lower victory score to aim at, or they may lose interest.

I enjoyed this game and it makes a nice change from video games when you are after a bit of 2 player game time.

Pros: Nicely balanced 2 player game; crazy Adventure Time creatures; infinitely repayable, especially with other packs

Cons: 2 player only; harder to learn and longer to play than you might expect

 

Ticket to Ride

Another new one for us, but everyone really enjoyed this, and it’s perhaps the most accessible of the bunch.

We played the original US version of the game. Each player builds train routes between cities, scoring points each time they do. Routes are built by collecting the right cards, e.g. 3 black car cards, or 5 red etc. In addition, each player receives destination tickets. These contain pre-mapped routes, and if you successfully link these cities, you are awarded bonus points. Finally, there are bonus points available for the longest route.

This was easy to play, but the strategy really kicked in about the half way stage as the board filled up and routes became unavailable, forcing detours. Some players started to add extra destination tickets: this can lead to a huge reward in bonus points – but if you fail to complete a route by the end of the game, these points are deducted from your score.

This is nice and quick to play, especially individual turns – you either draw cards or place a route, so the pace is good.

Pros: Quick to play, easy to learn; simple, elegant rules, but allows for strategic choices

Cons: Placing railway tracks on a map may not get everyone’s pulse racing

 

Board Games Reviews: Part One (Dungeon Saga, Betrayal at House on the Hill, The Goonies)

 

Board Games Review: Part One (Dungeon Saga, Betrayal at House on the Hill, The Goonies Adventure Card Game)

There’s nothing I like more over the Xmas holidays than sitting around a table with my family and a board game. I was lucky enough to play quite a few this time round, including a number that were new to me. I thought that a review would make a good first post of the year, while my memory is fresh.

 

Dungeon Saga

This was a new one, though comes from a tradition of D&D inspired board games. In particular, this was bought as an alternative to Heroquest, a classic fantasy board game once owned by my family back in the mists of time, but now lost. I’m not going to go there, suffice to say old copies of Heroquest are currently changing hands for well over £100.

Dungeon Saga requires a Dungeon Master to be in charge of the campaign, and to control the bad guys. The other players control the 4 heroes: standard fantasy characters of a dwarf, barbarian, elf & wizard. Therefore doesn’t work so well with any more than 5 players, though I believe there are expansion sets which might address that. Unlike Heroquest, rather than one board, there are pieces which can be placed together in many ways to create different shaped maps.

We played the 2 introductory games, which involved learning the rules, and took at least 3 hours. The DM didn’t have to do much setting up. All the heroes did was walk along a corridor and smite a few puny skeletons! Even for seasoned players, it’s a game that requires a lot of learning, and we felt that it didn’t really get going as a game, but has a lot of potential once the more involved campaigns are introduced. Of course, it also allows for a keen player to make up their own campaigns. My son liked that idea, but was put off by the complexity.

We will definitely be playing this one again and look forward to a longer campaign.

Pros: Co-op play for heroes; DM gets to control lots of bad guys and can win by crippling a hero; tactical combat; a linked campaign with a quest book full of campaigns; easy to design own campaigns

Cons: complex rules; lengthy, with the potential for lots of fiddly decisions about movement/range/line-of-sight which will put off the more casual gamer

 

Betrayal at House on the Hill

This was another new game bought for my son, who loves Horror. We turned the lights out, and put on some scary music for this one.

Everyone selects a character (max 6), with differing attributes: might, speed, sanity and knowledge. They begin to explore the House by picking up tiles and placing them down, either on the basement, ground or top floor. In this way, each game has a different shaped house. Once the players do a certain amount of exploring, the ‘haunting’ phase of the game begins. Depending on what exactly has happened, the players are faced with a challenge that must be defeated, such as a monster out to kill them. It seems that one of the players will often become the enemy at this point, and try to kill the other players.

There seem to be a large number of hauntings that can happen, keeping the game fresh. In our game, one of the players became invisible and began hunting down and killing the other players, who had to work together to stop them. Unfortunately, our youngest member became the bad guy and struggled a bit with the responsibility, so bear in mind the 12+ age guidance.

This game was a hit with everyone, and is likely to get played quite a lot.

Pros: easy to pick up the rules; each game has a different twist, adding to replayability; medium setting in terms of difficulty and length, making it a good choice for family play

Cons: Limited strategy and decision making for seasoned gamers; at the same time too complex for younger kids; ‘evil’ player is determined randomly, which might not be appropriate for some groups

 

The Goonies Adventure Card Game

The Goonies is a film loved by all, so what about the card game based on the film?

This is a co-op game, where each player takes the role of a Goonie from the film, who has certain skills to offer, and work together to find the treasures, before the Fratellis get them! For some reason, the game is only for 1-4 players, though we managed to adjust this to 5 players and enjoyed a good game.

There’s no board, but various cards are played on a table. It’s a complicated business, and has a 14+ age guidance, which is a bit strange for a game based on this film. In fact, my kids are both younger than this and enjoy the game, contributing well to collective decisions. But you need to think about the group who is playing, and make sure that no-one dominates.

Each turn, you are given 4 actions, such as searching for the treasures and mapping a path. You have to be very careful about what you choose to do. If not, you will lose. This game is not easy.

We enjoyed this one, though I’m not sure it was a favourite, and if it wasn’t about The Goonies it might be less popular.

Pros: Relatively short, so a good choice when time is limited or as a warm-up game; a fully co-op game, which promotes teamwork and can make a nice change from trying to kill each other

Cons: Challenging, which perhaps doesn’t suit a Goonies audience; individual contributions are limited which can be unsatisfying

 

Board Games Review: Part Two (Small World, Talisman, Adventure Time Card Wars, Ticket to Ride)

 

 

 

Malice by John Gwynne

Malice, the first book in the completed fantasy series The Faithful and the Fallen, is a title that has been on my radar for a while, and I have finally got round to giving it a read. I found it a really interesting experience. The covers for the series are quite similar to mine, with a weapon taking centre stage on each book. Once I got reading, I found that the similarities didn’t end there.

 

Characters

One of the obvious similarities is that there are a lot of characters and a lot of viewpoints. Gwynne doesn’t shy away from this, crediting the reader with the intelligence to follow multiple storylines. While these storylines do overlap, the characters are located in different kingdoms, with their own challenges and problems. Gwynne gives a chapter to each character, following the approach of GRR Martin, and personally I found it all perfectly easy to follow, but I am well used to and generally enjoy this approach.

Corban is a fairly typical fantasy character: a boy growing into a man, living in the capital of the King of Ardan, being taught how to fight by a mentor or two, with a crew of family and friends around him. It is pretty clear early on that he is destined to become a heroic figure. His sister, Cywen, gets her own chapters, but she is largely a support character in this book. Veradis, located in a separate kingdom, Tenebral – the home of the ‘high king’, is a newly trained warrior who is assigned to serve the Prince of Tenebral, Nathair. A third young fighter, Krelis, is located in a third kingdom, Isiltir, at the court of his uncle. Orphaned and isolated, he has an uncertain future.

There are a host of other characters. Like the main characters, a huge proportion of them are men: kings, soldiers, bandits, champions, hunters and the like, many of whom are more than handy with a blade. A lot of attention is given to military aspects. This probably means the series isn’t for everyone. I enjoyed it, though even I struggled at times to differentiate between all the characters, perhaps because some of them were a bit samey.

 

Worldbuilding

Malice is set in the Banished Lands, occupied generations ago by humans who arrived by sea. The humans have formed several kingdoms, who can form alliances and rivalries with one another. One of the kingdoms, Tenebral, has a high king, whose authority over the others is vague. Between kingdoms are lawless forests inhabited by bandits. When the humans first arrived, they had to defeat several giant clans for control over the Banished Lands. The remnants of these clans still exist, seemingly pushed into forests and mountains by the more populous humans.

As a setting its more familiar than unique. But the impressive part of the worldbuilding is the many kingdoms that feature in this book. Each has its own internal and external politics. A lot of thought has gone into this, and it helps the reader to feel like the events are taking place in a real world.

There is magic in the Banished Lands, wielded by humans, giants and other creatures. But it is mysterious and in Malice the reader is kept at arms length from it: none of the main characters are wizards. I tend to prefer this approach, since it avoids the dangers of laboriously outlining a whole new magic system for a character to learn (yawn).

 

Plot

This is a traditional epic fantasy series in many ways. Driving the plot is a good vs evil storyline. Although we are not given too much information, we learn that in the past there have been two Gods (one good, one evil). A prophecy reveals that a Godswar is coming and two figures will emerge as champions of each God: a hero and an anti-hero. Malice reveals who these two individuals will be. It does feel a little corny at times, and the revelation of the hero and anti-hero is so heavily signposted the reader is not really given the fun of guessing. Of course, there may be a twist in the later books here, but it didn’t feel like there was going to be when I read this one.

Again, it is not dwelt on too heavily, but part of this Godswar may well be the location of nine (? or similar) magic items/weapons cast by the Gods. The search for these items may well form the plot for much of the three remaining books of the series. Again, I couldn’t help here but see the connection to my own series, where the heroes have to find 7 weapons to combat the threat to Dalriya. Yes, the search for magic objects can potentially feel old hat. But it injects purpose, conflict and direction into a plot, which in epic fantasy, with sprawling worlds and huge casts, might otherwise get lost.

The plot of Malice did a great job of introducing the rest of the series, with enough going on to start pulling characters in different directions and as a reader I was interested to see where it would go next.

 

 

Overall, I would definitely recommend this book to fantasy fans, who have the added bonus of knowing that this is a completed series they can read to a conclusion. I will certainly be continuing with it. It’s traditional fantasy done well.

 

What Remains of Heroes by David Benem

The quality of self-published, or indie, books is getting better and better. Not just the stories themselves, but the editing, covers and all the other professional aspects of the business. So much so that the best of the bunch are, in every important respect, the equals of their traditionally published cousins. Here I review one of the leading indie fantasy books from the last few years.

 

CHARACTERS

I would class this as character driven fantasy, in the sense that you feel that the author started with the characters and allows them to take centre stage. We follow the point of view of at least half a dozen as the story develops and all of them have well defined personalities. Lannick de Veers is a broken ex-soldier with a dark past. Zandrachus Bale is another unlikely hero, living a safe life amongst his books in the Abbey until forced to go out into the world. Karnag is an assassin with no moral code. True to the theme of the series, none of the characters are traditionally heroic, and are often reluctant. This adds some complexity to their characters, but at times can be overdone, especially since the reader has the impression they are going to do the right thing in the end anyway. I enjoyed the range of characters, though it does mean the plot moves slowly at times, since most characters have their own separate storyline. Indeed, the three mentioned above still haven’t crossed paths by the end of the book. This would suggest that the series still has a long way to go.

 

WORLDBUILDING

We are in fairly familiar territory here. The kingdom of Rune is under threat from evil forces from the past. There is a solid historical backdrop to the story, with the Sentinels, demi-god style characters, who have defended Rune in times past, banished by the High King some generations ago. And they need to come back. It is a modern, Abercrombie-esque setting, with humans taking centre stage and no mention of elves, dwarves etc. Some considerable thought has gone into the politics, with a High-King gone mad (we never meet him); a Queen in peril; evil figures at court; and a mention of thanes, who sound like regional noblemen, who may well come into the story. I appreciated this attempt to flesh out and make a believable world. In the end it felt secondary to the main storylines, since the principal characters are political outsiders (unlike Game of Thrones, for example), but there are hints that this angle may be developed in later books. Finally, there is magic in this land, often quite dark and scary. Benem avoids incorporating a new magical system with detailed rules into the story, which I appreciated. On the other hand, I didn’t detect what the limits or costs of magic use are.

 

PLOT

The king is mad, war with the kingdom’s neighbour is brewing, and behind it all a dark, hidden sect, who worship an evil God, are pulling the strings. The Sanctum, a group of book reading old men generally held in contempt as ‘spookers’, must begin a search for the long forgotten Sentinels. Some of these Sentinels and/or their followers are revealed in the book, and they are not always what the reader is expecting. As indicated above, this is an ambitious start to a series, with multiple plot lines started, and a story that slowly reveals itself to the reader. There is a lot more to come and it doesn’t surprise me to see that it has taken Benem over two years to come up with the sequel. This is thoughtful, meaty fantasy, and worth waiting for!

 

I would encourage people to pick up a copy of this book and to look out for The Wrath of Heroes, which, according to the author’s website, is due out soon.

 

The Dark Tower by Stephen King

Here I review another true fantasy epic, Stephen King’s Dark Tower series. I have just finished reading the last of the series (#7) The Dark Tower, published in 2004. The first book in the series, The Gunslinger, was released in 1982. So, while it took him a fair while, at least King was able to finish the series *cough, cough, George Martin*. A film adaptation has been in the works for several years, and is being released this year.

Characters

The central character of the series is the Gunslinger himself, Roland of Gilead. Roland Deschain is a descendant of Arthur Eld, or King Arthur, and King’s Gunslingers are in part inspired by the knights of Arthurian legend. His old world destroyed, Roland is on an epic quest, to find the Dark Tower. He is the last of the gunslingers, and his quest seems to have been going on for countless years. Roland’s character is also inspired by ‘The Man With No Name’, the Clint Eastwood character from the Dollars film trilogy. He is, at first, equally enigmatic, but his backstory is filled in as the series progresses. There are a whole host of other characters in this series, but most important are the Ka-tet, the group he recruits to help him on his quest. They are trained to be gunslingers. Jake Chambers, Eddie Dean and Odetta Holmes are each recruited from a different era of ‘real world’ New York (70s, 80s and 60s respectively) by Roland. This ‘world-jumping’ is an important device in the story. King does character extremely well, and the American characters add humanity to the single-minded obsessiveness of Roland.

Worldbuilding

What you don’t get here, is the meticulously detailed, medieval-inspired secondary world, that is the staple of fantasy literature. This is not Lord of the Rings or A Game of Thrones. King lets his imagination run riot, and the series jumps from America, to Roland’s Mid-World, to alternate or parallel worlds, with rapidity. What’s more this isn’t a pure fantasy story, either. There are elements of post-apocalyptic Sci-Fi, Horror, Western, Metaphysical etc. Time and space are in flux in this series, which serves as a useful get out of jail card for King, allowing for a vagueness of location which fits in with the spiritual nature of Roland’s quest. And let’s not forget that King is first and foremost a Horror writer: his stories are supernatural and don’t attempt to obey scientific rules or create a ‘realistic’ world.

Plot

The world has turned, or gone bad in some way. We know that Roland must save it by finding the Dark Tower. But beyond that, much of the story is shrouded in mystery to begin with. As a series, we follow the adventures of Roland and his new Ka-tet on their quest. A range of supernatural enemies await them on the way, from vampires/’low men’, a deranged monorail train to the Crimson King himself. But each book has a very different story to tell. No doubt this is partly because they were written so far apart in time. Wizard and Glass (#4), for example, is effectively a flashback to an episode in Roland’s past. Each book, therefore, has a unique feel to it and readers can react very differently to that. Some may feel that as a series it doesn’t hang together as well as others, and that the quality is patchy. Others appreciate the variety that King has introduced. True fans of King even get to see links to many of his other well known stories in the series.

Style

Stephen King writes mighty fine, do ya ken. Well over 1 million words ooze effortlessly by, with much of the series written at the height of his powers. Roland’s language is ‘High Speech’, and by the end of the series I found I had adopted some of these phrases as my own.

Conclusion

This series is a classic of epic fantasy, a unique tale and a great achievement. Yes, there are problems and weaknesses along the way, though that is to be expected in a piece of work this size. Few of the single volumes of this story are, in my opinion, masterpieces, and I would give most of them 4/5. But taken as a whole body of work, The Dark Tower series undoubtedly deserves a 5/5.