Posts Tagged ‘ARC’

Humanity was a plague. Locustlike, we ripped holes in the world’s fabric.

About :

Wow. What to say about this book. Well, it’s all about Arslan, a young Asian general from the European-created state of Turkistan, who takes over the world’s military powers without firing a single shot. His methods and reasons remain a mystery from most of the world, but he gradually reveals his vision to two men in small town Illinois, where the modern conqueror makes his capital.

Arslan was just republished by Open Road Integrated Media last month, and that’s how I heard of it, but it was originally published in 1976 to much critical acclaim. Being a fan of Dystopias and occasionally tempted by SF classics of the 70s-80s, I couldn’t resist a classic of the subgenre coming in at only 288 pages. I’m glad I got the chance to read it.

Thoughts :

Two very different, unreliable and extremely well-realized characters narrate the story, telling us details of humanity’s deterioration and of Arslan, the man causing said deterioration. Franklin Bond is a Christian conservative and school principle in the small, rural town where Arslan appears, and he cares very much for all under his responsibility. Therefore, he risks the wrath of the town by enforcing the hated general’s every rule, having quickly determined that a resistance would only survive its initial stages if he kept it a secret from Arslan; he’s all action and no talk. He gets most of the page time, since he helps run everything from food distribution, to the resistance, to the town government itself.

The other narrator, Hunt, is one of Franklin Bond’s sixth graders and only twelve years old when Arslan takes him as a sex slave. Over the course of the book, Hunt grows in and out of physical captivity and learns to play both sides of the conflict over Arslan, whichever offers him the best chance of survival. Though clearly a victim, Hunt’s pretentiousness and love of literature—his ability, as he grows, to express his anguish through poetry, and his pride, which prevents him from addressing it in any other way—make him a strong, complex narrator of indeterminate sexuality whose reactions defy prediction. His quotes from Milton express his situation particularly well:

The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a Heaven of Hell, a Hell of Heaven.”

Hunt’s perspective is just…I had to take breaks from reading it. Anguished is probably the best word for it. Cynical, yes, but also constantly flirting with death of all kinds. It’s awful and beautiful. Hunt’s perspective gets all the psychological depth of Franklin’s perspective plus the benefit of literary allusion and a poetic lens. I don’t normally swear, but literally the only word that can properly express Hunt’s perspective is “mind-effery” lol But it is through Hunt’s perspective that we get the clearest and most in-depth ruminations about Arslan—since Hunt is unable to form a coherent picture of himself, he puts all his energy into defining Arslan to himself and to readers in observations such as the one below:

Confronted unignorably with a phrase he was unsure of, [Arslan] would turn it back, with a straight face, in question, threat, or provocation, to elicit more data. I thought, too, that one reason for his inscrutable looks, his reluctance to show surprise or annoyance or enthusiasm, was a simple fear of betraying misunderstanding by an inappropriate reaction.”

I can’t share anything about Arslan without spoiling the plot, since it relies very much on revelations about his purpose and actions. Although the details of his conquest ultimately feel inadequate and somewhat disappointing, even those aren’t really the focus of this novel—Arslan himself is. And his plan for the world is what makes the novel so interesting. [Highlight to view SPOILERS: Arslan’s concerns seem largely environmental. “To save the world from mankind.” “But man, man is too strong. He fouls and exhausts too rapidly, and nothing checks him for long. There is only one end for such a species: extinction.” ].

But since we can’t get into those details, let’s talk instead about the fascinating and disturbing silence of the women portrayed in Arslan. In the beginning, women are dolls.

I made Luella stay inside, but I stood out on the front steps to watch…I wasn’t about to crawl into a hole.”

I don’t think Franklin Bond meant to make this sound like Luella was crawling into a hole—rather, he was trying to show defiance against the army invading his town. Still, why “make” her stay inside? The general treatment of women is degrading in Arslan, even before the “Dystopian” part happens. Halfway through the book, women become a tool of the enemy (through no fault of their own) or they have simply died of housework.

I constantly wondered about the lack of female presence and agency in Arslan, as I read. Thus it shocked me to find out that M. J. Engh is a woman. BECAUSE ONLY MEN CAN BE SEXIST, RIGHT?! lol. Apparently I’m just sexist like that 😂 Anyway, after further consideration, I found more than meets the eye in the “silence of the women.” It has been argued—successfully, I think—that Engh may have been commenting on the male view of gender roles during the 1970s. It’s hard to say for sure, since this was actually published in the 70s, and not in retrospect, but my personal opinion is that the female silence itself tells of “her” experience. Perhaps their conspicuous silence suggests, “it’s obviously all drudgery and degradation, so much so that nobody was listening to us.” Or perhaps Engh was just trying to appeal to the male reader of the 1970s-80s. That’s also a possibility. At the very least, complete immersion in the unreliable male perspectives undeniably provides food for thought.

Overall :

Full of stunning insights into humanity—or at least into the male half of it, lol. Although the plot falls short in terms of feasibility, the unreliable and fascinating character narratives by far make up for that. I think I would need to read Arslan several more times before I came away with a clear, full picture of Engh’s intent. And Engh’s riveting prose, full to the brim with poetic and historical allusions, gives Arslan a depth that a lesser writer could never have accomplished.

Characters: 5/5
Writing: 5/5
Worldbuilding: 3/5
Plot: 2/5

3.75/5 Stars

Arslan is adult Dystopian fiction authored by M.J. Engh and originally published in 1976. Digitally republished on 18 Apr 18, 2017 by Open Road Integrated Media.

Huge thanks to M. J. Engh, Open Road Integrated Media and Netgalley for this free eARC. The opinions I share are completely my own and in no way compensated for by publishers or authors.

Advertisements
shika3

I just loooooove these covers!

Publisher Description of Series

A self-assured warrior stumbles into a game of Go that turns fatal. An ambitious lord leaves his nephew for dead and seizes his lands. A stubborn father forces his son to give up his wife to his older brother. A powerful priest meddles in the succession to the Lotus Throne. A woman of the Old People seeks five fathers for her five children, who will go on to found the Spider Tribe and direct the fate of the country.

As destiny weaves its tapestry in Lian Hearn’s Tale of Shikanoko series, an emotionally rich and compelling drama plays out against a background of wild forests, elegant castles, hidden temples, and savage battlefields in Lord of the Darkwood.

About :

Lord of the Darkwood, the third installment of the four-part medieval Japanese fantasy serial The Tale of Shikanoko, covers an enormous amount of time considering its small size of 220 pages: over a decade. As the older power-players of the empire die out, a younger and equally-ambitious set of players matures and takes over. This book covers that shift and the shape of the book reflects it: unlike the previous two installments, the ending does not hinge on a monumental choice by our eponymous hero; in fact, Shikanoko hardly appears at all, compared to his near-constant presence in the first two. I enjoyed this shift from the older to the younger characters; the flat male characters in authority during installments I & II interested me less than the younger crowd does.

Spoilers For Books I-II in the next 2 paragraphs!

In the first two books, Hina lived as a neglected stepdaughter who was then captured and raised by her father’s mortal enemy in another town. All these years, she admired the Deer’s Child (Shikanoko) from afar. But the death of the Autumn Princess at the end of book II leaves Hina in charge of Shika’s infant son—and she only twelve years old herself. In book III, she hides among the courtesans of Lake Kasumi’s pleasure boats and works for them as she comes of age and watches Shika’s son grow up. Along the way, she meets the true emperor for the first time.

Meanwhile, in the Darkwood, Shika’s Spider Tribe sons grow in emotional maturity and demonic magic. Like Hina, they learn of love and lust; but unlike the powerless Hina, each of the sons finds his own place in the power hierarchy of the family, and the most powerful among them shape the empire far beyond the Darkwood, inheriting the power structure left by the deaths during of the first two books. Ultimately, they aim to spin a trap for Shikanoko, the father who sent them away at the end of book II, as he hides in the Darkwood, unaware and still lost in grief for the death of his beloved Autumn Princess, now over a decade before.

Overall :

Even though Lord of the Darkwood feels very much like an installment (instead of a novel), I enjoyed it as much as I enjoyed the previous two. The younger characters present a wide array of hopeful heroines and terrifying monsters, and their journeys more than make for an interesting story. With Hearn’s characteristically spare, but perfect prose, she has drawn an even more immersive and adult fantasy world than her famed Tales of the Otori series.

****4/5 STARS

Lord of the Darkwood is adult fantasy written by Lian Hearn and was published August 9th 2016 by Fsg Originals. Paperback, 224 pages. Thank you to Lian Hearn, FSG Originals and Netgalley for my review copy! The opinions I share are completely my own and in no way compensated for by publishers or authors.

shika2

“He sleeps beneath the lake,
The dragon child,
But he will wake
And spread his wings again,
When the deer’s child comes.”

Sounds so peaceful, right? Pastoral, almost.

But the Tale of Shikanoko is a bloody game of thrones inspired by medieval Japan and told in riveting, heartbreaking fashion.

About :

If you haven’t read book I or at least my review of book I, my recap of the plot won’t make much sense because there’s sooo much going in this series. Lian Hearn’s spare style allows for constant action, and the politics of the large cast is fairly complex, so if I try to recap every important plot line, my entire review will be one long recap and you won’t need to read the book anymore!

But here’s the short version of volumes 1-2:

An impostor prince sits on the Lotus throne and the Heavens take out their vengeance on all as the true emperor hides his identity from his scheming enemies. Shikanoko, The Deer’s Child of the prophecy, retreats to the magician Shisoku to mend his broken deer mask, following a humbling magical defeat by the Prince Abbot. While there, his heart softens toward a dangerous new threat, the five Spider Tribe demon children birthed by the Lady Tora. But despite the chaos all around him, all Shikanoko can think about is the true child emperor and his guardian, the lovely Autumn Princess…Autumn Princess, Dragon Child is an adult fantasy written by Lian Hearn and published June 7th 2016 by FSG Originals. Paperback, 288 pages.

Thoughts :

“The Tale of Shikanoko” series contains four volumes, but it’s really one long story published in four installments. FSG Originals published all four in quick succession in 2016. I read the first installment back in August 2016, so I worried about keeping track of the large cast after so many months; but with a little patience and piecing together, I was able to pick up the story again. I do, however, recommend reading them all within a shorter space of time than I did.

As in volume one, the main form of currency in volume two is power. Although the women vary in motivation and personality, the men all ruthlessly take power to protect themselves and their own families and tend to blend together to some degree. (I felt the same way about the genders in Across the Nightingale Floor, Tales of the Otori #1; but my antipathy toward the bland male characters in that earlier book was much stronger. I do find the characters in The Tale of Shikanoko much more interesting, as a whole, as well as finding the larger plot and style much improved.) But Hearn has a way of changing my mind about seemingly-irredeemable primary and secondary characters. I always end up caring about them by the end.

Shikanoko’s character develops in particularly interesting ways. His defeat at the end of book one broke him, and during the course of book two, he starts to grow from used child to adult warrior/sorcerer. His new humility proves to be a strength, by the end of this volume. His character development is one of my favorite things about the story.

Each volume ends with a monumental choice by Shikanoko—usually a combination of glorious victory and terrible mistake—and each time this poignant victory/defeat has made me eager to to pick up the next installment (although I didn’t get the chance to do that after volume one). Many readers have concluded that combining Shika’s story into one large volume would have made more sense, since the four small volumes (all well under 300 pgs, extremely short for adult fantasy) have very little in the way of self-contained plots. But regardless of this publishing model, the story is just as compelling in one or four volumes.

Overall :

So far The Tale of Shikanoko series is very dark and very adult, nothing like what I remember from Across the Nightingale Floor. I’m completely hooked!

Plot: 3.5/5
Characters: 4/5
Writing: 5/5
Worldbuilding: 4/5

****4/5 STARS

Recommended To :

If you enjoy literary fantasy and Asian settings (specifically feudal Japan, in this case), I highly recommend this series. Not recommended to readers wanting fast, action-oriented or “magic-systems” fantasy; though the spare, impactful style never wastes a word, the tale’s emphasis on character and political machinations leaves little room for action or humor. And although magic exists and influences the story in interesting ways, it remains completely mysterious to readers, used for atmospheric and structural elements.

The opinions I share are completely my own and in no way compensated for by publishers or authors. Thank you so much to Lian Hearn, FSG Originals and Netgalley for my free review copy! I loved it.

Renegade Red

Love is tricky, and love is strong. Not some flower, but a warrior weed, growing in any condition, through any obstacle, surviving frozen tundras, pushing up through cracks in stone!”

This review contains spoilers for book I!

About :

Noa lives the life of an average teenager at the start of volume one, Shattered Blue. But everything changes with the arrival of the Forsythe brothers, Callum and Judah, who are runaways from the Fae realm. Both boys fall in love with Noa, and by the end of book I, secrets (Twists!) have already begun to shift Noa’s feelings between the two brothers.

At the last moment of Shattered Blue, Noa’s little sister slips through Judah Forsythe’s hands and disappears through a portal to Aurora, or faerie; Noa, Callum and Judah step through after her, hoping to find her in Aurora, but OF COURSE that’s not where they end up! So begin The Horowitz Twists…Renegade Red is ya fantasy/paranormal romance written by award-winning author Lauren Bird Horowitz and published March 14th 2017 by Papaloa Press. 420 pgs. Advanced Read Copy.

Thoughts :

As usual with the Light trilogy, nothing is as it seems. The first 19% of Renegade Red is one extended twist following Noa’s leap through the portal and it foreshadows the rest of the book in both plot and characterization.

Noa spends most of Renegade Red trying to choose between the Forsythe Fae brothers, and although you may think you have her pinned…just wait! Horowitz has a few surprises for us readers who dare think we know what’s what. The character-development threatens to topple the whole structure of this compelling love triangle (square?). I really have no idea how Horowitz will resolve the romantic tangle—and that’s exactly how I like it!

The boys’ characters develop significantly in this second installment. Judah’s quick-tempered foibles become clearer, along with his passion and quick-thinking; Callum comes across very much the opposite, a more direct, faithful and rule-abiding type, and although he lacks Judah’s strength and flexibility when faced with mental or emotional manipulation, he’s also more the active brother, liking to remain in control so he can protect those he loves.

As Callum wrapped his arms around her, warmth began to spread from Noa’s chest, radiant from her heart. Little flowers of heat bloomed over her injuries as Callum knit her back together: not just her leg, but her arms, her wrist, her back, her knees.”

SaWOON! I love it when Callum uses his Blue Fae power to heal Noa. So dreamy…

Callum’s proactivity draws me to him as a character—although I also love Judah’s smart-mouthed intelligence, which comes through loud and clear whenever he and Callum argue about the next move to find Noa’s sister in Aurora.

And although Noa seems to lack character development, her strong interiority makes up for it: Horowitz’s skilled third-person narration feels just as immediate as first person, and we can feel Noa’s desperate drive to find her sister.

As for the stunning poetic quality I loved in book I, it emerges differently, but just as eloquently in book II. Particularly in Noa’s and Callum’s perspectives, Horowitz uses prose to mirror consciousness. She explores Noa’s feelings and experiences using metaphoric dream sequences that help Noa make decisions throughout her journey in Aurora. For Callum, bursts of stream of consciousness call attention to his mental state at various important junctures. These techniques emphasize the struggles faced by both characters when challenged by the mental or emotional (Red or Green) Fae powers.

Despite a few minor considerations—I wish we’d gotten more of an overall picture of Aurora; and at 420 pgs, the novel runs a bit long for a romance- and action-centered (rather than worldbuilding-centered) ya fantasy—overall?

Overall :

This is the most beautiful, innovative and twisty ya series I can recall reading in recent memory. Though it slows down after the initial twist, Renegade Red picks up the pace again near the middle and stuns again and again with emotionally resonant revelations, legitimate relational dilemmas, harrowing action/problem-solving sequences and smart, gorgeous writing.

I can’t wait to read book III!!

Recommended To :

Highly recommended for fans of ya fantasy that moves quickly and doesn’t linger over worldbuilding. Anyone who wants the perfect blend between a strong, swoonworthy ya fantasy and sparkling literary elements.

4.5/5 STARS

Thank you so much to Lauren Bird Horowitz, Papaloa Press and Netgalley for the Advanced Read Copy. I loved it!

Extracted.jpg

“The first trip fifty years into the future showed a society and species advancing as it should. The second trip, to the same point and location, revealed a post-apocalyptic wasteland.”

About :

A young scientist creates a time machine and discovers that the word ends in 2111. He needs a hero—quickly. In a matter of weeks, three heroes are selected and “extracted” from their own times to save the world:

Safa Patel, a police officer stationed at Downing Street to protect the prime minister; “Mad Harry” Madden, special ops in WWI—before such a thing as “special ops” even existed; and Ben Ryder, an untrained civilian who has singlehandedly stopped two separate group attacks on innocents. And the training begins. Extracted is adult science fiction authored by R. R. Haywood and published March 1st 2017 by 47North.

Thoughts :

Haywood’s trilogy smashes together the sub-genres of time travel and post-apocalyptic fiction. That sounded too irresistible to pass up!

The first three chapters of book I, Extracted, introduce the three heroes by taking us through each one’s final, normal day—followed by his or her extraction. Visceral details enhance these “mini episodes” in strangely addictive and slightly uncomfortable ways: we enter the story in the midst of a fight between Ben Ryder and his fiancée, who are arguing about sex. It’s a dash of cold water right off the bat when Ben discovers that his fiancée has been cheating on him.

But Safa, one of the other heroes, suffers much worse than that in her current day-to-day life, and the crude, sometimes repetitive sexual details made her first chapter very difficult to read.

This in-your-face, very present and very character-driven style of writing brings a whole new level of intensity to the emotionally charged scenes of these first chapters (and to every emotional scene throughout the book), and although I cringed a lot, I sped through them. Some humor diffuses the tension, at times, although it occasionally feels forced and becomes wearyingly repetitive. (The descriptions in this ARC as a whole do get quite repetitive—some of that has hopefully been edited out of the finished copy.) This experience basically characterizes the whole book.

As I continued to read past these first three chapters, the plot never seemed to pick up and I soon realized that although the synopsis promises a world-saving mission, this first installment focuses entirely on characterization and team-building. It might be called a “training” book. “Extracted” is a preliminary, as if the publishers ripped apart one really big book to publish it in thirds. After the extractions, the heroes spend the rest of the book adapting to their new lifestyles and training to save the world. The characters refuse to accept the concept of time travel until 46%, and even then they don’t get started training right away. The specific nature of the training centers largely around helping Ben, the only untrained civilian among the three heroes, overcome the psychological trauma of the situation.

Overall :

I enjoyed the book, despite its problems. Extracted is a compelling, crude, and strongly character-driven “episode” of a new sci-fi time travel trilogy. It reads like a speed demon! Although I wouldn’t call the book “boring” (I definitely came to care about the characters), I will say I was disappointed that we didn’t get any of the promised world-saving action, yet. If the author steps up his pacing and cuts out the filler in book two, I think his style and killer premise have a lot of potential. I might wait for the reviews to come out before reading it.

Recommended To :

Anyone looking for a sci-fi time travel “training” book with strong characters. I haven’t gotten the chance to read Chuck Wendig yet, but from his blog, I gather that he writes using the same kind of searing, in-your-face style as this author, R. R. Haywood; that’s what this book reminded me of, although I think Wendig’s humor succeeds more often that Haywood’s.

Plot: 2.5/5
Characters: 4/5
Worldbuilding: 3/5
Writing: 3/5

***3/5 STARS

Note About Misogyny :

When I was writing this review, I noticed that a couple of reviewers are using phrases like “casual misogyny” to describe certain elements of the book and complaining that it only leaves two options for women: (1) Heroine! and (2) Slut! I’m not highly attuned to what might be considered sexist, but I personally didn’t get that impression. It’s a small cast with a tight focus on Ben and Safa, so that subject didn’t seem to fall within the reference of the book; I’m personally not bothered that Haywood doesn’t spell out all of the options for women. His portrayal of Safa did feel slightly “off” to me, but I could’t quite put my finger on why, so I just decided to roll with it and enjoy the story.

midnightcurse

“Whoever had forced Molly to kill her friends wanted her to get caught, go on trial and be executed before she had a chance to prove her innocence.”

About :

Scarlett Bernard is a “null,” a human who cancels out any magic around her. Her abilities come in handy on the job—she works to keep the magical world a secret from normal humans in the city of LA. She’s actually starting to enjoy her job, although she’s also enjoying the good life with her werewolf boyfriend, Eli, outside of work.

But duty calls when someone magically forces a vampire friend of hers into murdering 12 USC roommates. Scarlett’s job becomes twofold: hide the magical involvement from the humans and find out who wants to hurt her friend.

Nobody believes in the vampire’s innocence, but Scarlett is determined to find the real murderer with a little help from an old LAPD buddy. Midnight Curse is adult UF authored by Melissa F. Olson and published February 7th 2017 by 47North.

I was browsing Netgalley for a promising new series when I ran across Midnight Curse, first in the new “Disrupted Magic” trilogy. It wasn’t until after I requested the book that I learned about a previous trilogy starring Scarlett Bernard, but I jumped in anyway.

And Olson had me from the first line.

Thoughts :

Scarlett is at an art show with her boyfriend when she gets a creepy, blood-spattered SOS note delivered from her old vampire friend, Molly. The note asks Scarlett to come meet her secretly, so Scarlett blows off her boyfriend, hoping he’ll understand and let her handle it. After all, if she tells him, he has to tell his werewolf pack leader, and then the secret’s not so secret anymore.

But things careen out of control and soon, Scarlett finds herself running damage control on all fronts while still trying to uncover the real mass murderer—and their veiled purpose. The story unfolds in the perspectives of both Scarlett and her LAPD friend Jesse, and a fantastic first 50% ensues. Scarlett and Jesse keep the twisty mystery plot moving, interspersing their investigation with humorous one-liners, psychologically layered character dynamics and precise, interesting backstory and worldbuilding.

Because I jumped in without reading the earlier books, I worried that missing information would muddy the experience for me. But Olson integrates explanations smoothly without info-dumping. The worldbuilding becomes clearer with every page. A lot of the mystery developments do rely on past history and knowledge of Scarlett’s manifold abilities, but I still enjoyed the plot very much.

So with all this going for Midnight Curse, why did I rate the book at 4 stars instead of 5?

It’s largely due to a subjective reaction to one relationship arc that left me feeling bitter during the second half. Throughout the novel, we see the themes of relational control and abuse taken to different extremes, and I didn’t enjoy how it played out in Scarlett’s case. I’m not a huge fan of these dysfunctional relationships from hell, haha. [Highlight to view SPOILER: I struggled with Scarlett’s breakup because she kept running away from communication and playing petty games with Eli. Maybe if she had invited him along on one of her jaunts, instead of taking off with Jesse (whom she’s already developing feelings for), Eli could have understood her strengths or been part of her team or something like that. I don’t buy the irreconcilable differences crap because my husband and I are about as different as two personalities can get and we somehow manage to talk things out like adults. Going on six years of blissfully wedded life, I value faithfulness very highly in relationships, so Scarlett’s behavior irked me beyond what another reader might have felt.]

But I get the feeling that Olson wanted/needed to shake things up for the new trilogy, and my impression of Scarlett suffered without an understanding of the love triangle and character histories of the original series. She came across as very immature to me in this one isolated relationship. She’s a great protagonist in every other way, and in fact, a lot of readers enjoyed everything about the book (the overall Goodreads rating is super high—currently 4.27, wow!), including this arc. Your experience of this relationship arc seems to really depend on your emotional connection to the characters.

Overall :

So while Midnight Curse is a great UF, it left me severely cranky, haha. I probably won’t read any more about Scarlett because I try to avoid getting my heart ripped out; but I’d be down to read more by this author—I loved everything else about the book. I could see a lot of readers giving it five stars.

Recommended To :

I recommend this to readers looking for adult UF with a strong mystery, a fast pace and characters that don’t leave room for ambivalence. I think teens would love it, too, although there’s some language that parents might want to be aware of.

Thank you so much to Melissa F. Olson, 47North and Netgally for this great ARC. I really enjoyed it!

4/5 STARS

portalofathousandworlds

“I helped him advance on the staircase of worlds.”

A pretty euphemism for assassination, no?

About :

The Good Land lives for centuries at a time without serious threat to its traditions. Each dynastic emperor rules from The Heart of the World, unseen by the masses and advised by his eunuchs. Periodically, rebellions protest the power of the emperor’s “usurper” mother, who appears to rule the throne; fortunately for the ruling class, the only real competing power lies with “The Grey Helpers” of “The Houses of Joyful Departure”—you guessed it, an assassin’s guild 😉

But the emperor takes fearful notice when the Man of a Thousand Lives reappears, a man who is reincarnated cyclically through the ages to share the wisdom of the prophets about the Portal of a Thousand Worlds. This time, the Man of a Thousand Lives prophesies the opening of the Portal. As the auguries pile up, the powerful grow nervous, for the Portal always brings great changes to the Good Land. Dynasties end and natural disasters rock the land.

The changes rarely favor the powerful. The Portal of a Thousand Worlds is adult epic fantasy/alternate history authored by Dave Duncan and published February 14th 2017 by Open Road Media Science & Fantasy. Duncan also authored The King’s Blades and The Seventh Sword series.

Thoughts :

Portal of a Thousand Worlds feels like the sort of book that might take a lifetime to write—tightly plotted and cast, fully-developed in setting and characterized by the sort of raucous, racy and word-perfect humor that enlivens what might otherwise be considered a grim Chinese political fantasy.

The conflict between Emperor’s family and the rebels is the main focus of the book. Every so often, the focus slides back to the Man of a Thousand Lives (also known as the “Firstborn” or the “Urfather”) and his mysterious agenda; but basically every other narrator (and there are many) focuses on the palace intrigue. Most of the narrators are either nobility or Grey Helpers, and from them we learn delicious details of both palace life and the inner workings of the assassin’s guild. It’s like a very (very! Wonderfully! Atmospherically!!) Chinese Game of Thrones.

The story builds to address the climactic mystery of The Portal. Only rumors survive about its opening in centuries past, and nobody knows why. But everyone wants to know, of course—so they ask the Firstborn, who currently resides in the body of a fourteen year old peasant boy named “Sunlight.” But even he doesn’t know much—he always gets assassinated before the Portal itself opens.

So everybody watches and waits, anxious about the opening of the great portal.

My favorite part of Portal is the delightfully wicked and ever-present humor. Clever verbal gymnastics, situations that lurch sideways and riotous personality humor kept me giggling throughout the book. The Firstborn himself trademarks his own running joke, sharing hilarious anecdotes or reprimands about the confusion surrounding past philosophical teachings.

On top of the humor, surprises show up on every page. Tensions run high with conflicting character agendas, sudden tips in power, deaths, magics and all kinds of other ingenious plot twists. I was never bored. Certain portions could have probably been trimmed to shorten the book—I didn’t expect to take two weeks to read this ARC; but every page was honestly a pleasure to read.

The ending may disappoint readers who enjoy the concrete answers often found in a hard-fantasy like Brandon Sanderson’s stories; nevertheless, I found it to be profoundly touching and everything I didn’t know I wanted. I love the theme about how the passage of time can affect religion and public perception of religion. The religion also serves justice in a rather unique way…

The limitations of the female sex may also bother some readers. Life is unapologetically rough for all but noblemen (emphasis on the “men”), in this early 1800s-like Chinese fantasy. Women can gain only a little power, and only by birthing sons; as such, every female with a modicum of power spends or has spent time as a prostitute or concubine. If feminism is a touchy issue for you, you might consider the female situation anything from boring to grating; I took off half a star for the disturbingly obvious lack of strong, unique female heroines. But thankfully despite the limits on female power, I enjoyed the female characters as much as the heroes in this one. The range of personalities is both vast and entertaining. (My favorite character, Horse, grew up in a House of Joyful Departure where females get just as much opportunity and have just as much success as males. He is one of the few men who respects women outside the bedroom…and you might like where his arc leads, and what it promises for the future of the Good Land.)

Overall :

I thoroughly enjoyed Portal. The humor and inventiveness far outweigh any negative considerations. It’s billed as a Chinese Game of Thrones, which seems like a fair description. (You might take this with a grain of salt, as I’m only familiar with book 1 + season 1 of GoT.) Occasional short action scenes pop up, but mostly as humorous or dramatic beats. The book is much more about politics and power than about the magic or even the Portal, really.

Recommended To :

Anyone looking for a hilarious and political epic fantasy with a Chinese twist. Not recommended to feminists. Slight content warning for younger readers, there’s some violence and a loooooot of sex, haha. I don’t recall anything too dramatic, but sex is probably mentioned on every other page, in some form or another (often as a device of humor).

4.5/5 STARS

Thank you so much to Dave Duncan,  Open Road Media Science & Fantasy and Netgalley for this amazing ARC of Portal of a Thousand Worlds!