Lyrical with a fairy-tale cadence, Spear is the adult version of the Arthurian tales I loved as a child. Spear follows a girl without a name, one whose quest for an identity leads her to Caer Leon (Camelot), to The Lady of the Lake, and beyond. Each encounter and every experience serve to add another facet to the girl, as she discovers who she is and where she belongs.
The girl- Peretur- is raised nameless in a cave with only her mother for company. Her mother has hidden Peretur, her treasure, and only mutters their history in bits and pieces. One day the girl discovers Artos’s Companions and her destiny is set. She will become a King’s Companion and find her true name. Disguised as a man, Peretur (the girl) sets out to do just that, breaking her mother’s heart- and the geas that has kept them hidden from a powerful enemy.
I loved how the book began, with the story of a nameless girl and her life as she grows. The glimpses of her dreams and aspirations and the chance encounters that set her on her path drew me in. The way the first bit of the book was descriptively and beautifully written kept me entranced.
However, once Peretur left the cave to find her fortune, the language and cadence of the book changed. The book became bigger, with less of the beautiful prose and more of a “normal” fantasy writing style. This is in no way a bad thing, but I did miss the way the first little bit of the book flowed.
While there seems to be a split in writing style, I was engrossed by both halves of the book. The characters Peretur meets are all very familiar to me because I’ve loved stories of King Arthur and his knights for a long time. Author Nicola Griffith fleshed them out and took them from larger-than-life characters to realistic people with their own fears, loves, and interests, while still somehow retaining a bit of that fairy-tale magic that often comes with Arthurian tales.
After reading (and loving) several chonkier books, the shorter length of Spear was a great palate cleanser. The story moved along nicely and took me with it into a land rich with adventure, promise, and magic. I recommend this beautiful shorter novel for those who want a new twist on familiar lore.
This year, I want to talk about some of the many types of fantasy you can find (I have a post about fantasy subgenres which can be found here). I think when people hear “fantasy”, their mind immediately goes to serious epics with swords, magic, and dragons. While I happen to love all of those things, there are many ways to tell a story. This week’s focus has been on grimdark, that subgenre with morally complicated characters and often gritty worlds.
Below is a (far from complete) list of grimdark authors worth reading. I’ve also collected the guest posts from throughout the week, in case there are any that have been missed. I’m grateful to all the writers who were kind enough to share their opinions during this week!
This is a repost, because I loved it so much. This was originally published in February of 2021.
There used to a be a bit of a “these people are weird” attitude toward people who enjoyed roleplaying games, such as Dungeons and Dragons. It was pretty funny to hear it coming from readers of fantasy (or any genre, really: you’d be surprised at the similarities that can be found). I’m assuming some of the judgement came from a place of discomfort at older kids and adults using their imaginations. I’m honestly not sure. Fortunately, D&D, and other roleplaying games are becoming much more accepted, which is great because playing can be pretty stinking fun.
As I briefly mentioned, there are similarities between books and roleplaying games. Both require the use of imagination to fill in pictures, both allow for a suspension of disbelief, and both take us to new and unusual places, constrained only by the author (or Dungeon Master).
A ‘character class’ is a profession or set of skills that help differentiate different types of characters in roleplaying. I put a call out for bookbloggers and authors to give their thoughts on D&D classes in books and they answered in a big way! In fact, what I originally thought of as a single post has become a few, each post focusing on two or three of the main character classes. While I have each writer’s link attached to their amazing contribution, please make sure to check out a more detailed introduction to each of them at the bottom of the post. I’ve also included my own ideas here and there, as well as some loose definitions of each character class. Enjoy!
FIGHTER: This is pretty self-explanatory, but also has a lot of room for creativity. A warlord, knight, or rich person’s bodyguard are all different types of fighters. A fighter has a ton of skill with a weapon, and functions as a pretty good meat shield (can you tell I’ve used the fighter in that capacity before?).
“Atae from Kaji Warriors: Shifting Strength by Kelly A. Nix. To the Kaji warriors, being a halfbreed means being weak. Atae refuses to back down and engages in rigorous combat training to stay at the top of her warrior class. Strength and skill in battle are revered among the Kaji, and Atae will do everything in her power to become a true warrior. Trained in both hand-to-hand combat and weaponry, Atae will cut down her foes without a second thought.”
“Kate Daniels from the Kate Daniels series by Ilona Andrews: Kate was raised to be a weapon. Forced into fighting pits from a young age, it was hit the ground running or die trying. Any weapon in her hands is lethal, though she prefers her sword. When she unleashes a combination of magic and blade, she is a near unstoppable force.”
“I gave him a smile. I was aiming for sweet, but he turned a shade paler and scooted a bit farther from me. Note to self: work more on sweet and less on psycho-killer.” – Ilona Andrews, Magic Strikes
Ricardo Victoria, author of The Tempest Blades series says: “Here, there is a lot to choose from in Fantasy. I think this is the class most well represented. So I will keep this one short: Boromir [from The Lord of the Rings]. Aside from the fact that he is the character from the Fellowship that needs more love, he is a classical fighter. Knows all sort of weapons, can improvise during a fight, has the Con [constitution] of an Ent (I mean, how many arrows did he take before falling?). He even trains Merry and Pippin. Had he lived to amend for his sole mistake, he would have been Aragorn’s second hand.”
Witty and Sarcastic Bookclub shares an opinion: For me, when I think of the D&D fighter class, my mind immediately goes to Clay “Slowhand” Cooper from Kings of the Wyld by Nicholas Eames. He’s a used-to-be-impressive warrior, a member of an elite mercenary group. He has major fighting skills-or at least, he used to. He and his friends come out of retirement for one last impressive feat-one that may get them killed.
“Clay pushed his body off him and mumbled another apology – because, enemy or not, when you hit a man in the nuts with a magic hammer the least you could say was sorry.”– Nicholas Eames, Kings of the Wyld
Barbarian: the simplest way I can think of to describe a barbarian is as a fighter with anger issues. They thrive on violence and chaotic battles (although they may not always crave them). Their anger can give them a berserker state of mind: think an overdose of adrenalin allowing someone to do the nigh impossible.
Ryan Howse, author, reviewer for Grimdark Magazine and contributor for Before We Go Blog, weighs in: “For gamers, barbarians are often some of the most memorable and dynamic characters played. They tend to be chaotic (in earlier editions, being a lawful barbarian was against the rules) and their ignorance of civilized customs provides some obvious comedic fodder.
But barbarians are not fools. They just don’t care about civilization. People who are fools don’t survive the wilds—especially fantasy versions of the wilds, with all the strange new monsters and dangerous terrain that implies.
Fafhrd, from Fritz Leiber’s Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser series, is an iconic barbarian. He’s the bruiser of the duo, and the tank. He’s a massive man from an ice-covered land, and he mostly wants to spend his adventuring loot on women and ale.
The greatest part about these stories is that while they’re classics of the genre, they feel closer to a real tabletop game than even the best tie-in fiction.
In the first chronological story of Fafhrd, he straps rockets to his boots to make a jump down a hill. That feels absolutely like something out of an all-night gaming session where the barbarian has a ridiculous plan and rolls just well enough to make it work.
There’s also a story where Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser die, and end up dealing with Death Itself, which again feels like a DM trying to keep the campaign going after a TPK [total party kill]. (They get better.)”
“And even when we serve, we make the rules. We bow to no man’s ultimate command, dance to no wizard’s drumming, join no mob, hark to no wildering hate-call. When we draw sword, it’s for ourselves alone.”– Fritz Leiber, Sword in the Mist
Witty and Sarcastic Bookclub chimes in: I see Beowulf as the ultimate barbarian. He fights Grendel with near-supernatural strength (Grendel definitely meets his match), and several other feats of strength are boasted about throughout the epic poem. He feels no fear and isn’t big on laying traps or making battle plans. Any character that divests a monster of its arm without using a weapon to do it lands in the “berserker” category for me.
Meet the contributors: Behind the Pages is an excellent blog and beta reading site, run by the talented Tabitha. Her reviews are very insightful and incredibly well-written. She has excellent taste and never fails to review books that would have snuck under my radar, adding to my already way-too-long list of books to read.
Ryan Howse is a literary jack-of-all-trades. The author of several books, he also reviews for Grimdark Magazine and is a regular addition to BeforeWeGoBlog. I honestly have no idea how he found the time to contribute to my post, but I’m excited that he did!
It took exactly four sentences for me to become so engrossed in Nectar for the God that I was annoyed by any interruptions to my reading. Once again, author Patrick Samphire crafted a book that is impossible to put down.
“With a smile and a nod to the other customers, Etta Mirian left the bakery, crossed Long Step Avenue, and stabbed Peyt Jyston three times in the neck. She then turned the knife on herself and, still smiling all the time, opened her throat from side to side.”
The reader finds Mennik Thorn slightly the worst for wear after the events in Shadow of aDead God. He’s been avoiding both his mother (who has far more power, and far fewer scruples than is ever good), and her rival Wren, with varying levels of nonsuccess. While Mennik is realizing that he’s stuck between a rock and a hard place, a case drops into his lap that is far above his skill level, and much more complicated than it looks. From there, it’s a non-stop adrenaline rush which somehow manages to also have a complex and incredibly clever mystery involved.
In between traipsing through sewers and attracting the attention of something rather terrifying, Mennik’s character also continues to grow. Through his interactions with his mother, his sister, his thieving friend, Benny, and Benny’s murderous daughter, we are given a more complicated picture of who Mennik is and why he acts the way he does. He never seems to end up on top. The most he can hope for is to break even, and that’s an ambitious goal. Mennik is the sort of character who gets kicked around by life, although in many instances he walks right into trouble. This juxtaposition between the desire to survive and a complete lack of caution leads to all kinds of problems. Mennik’s slightly skewed moral compass shifts continues to intrigue and delight, and his inner dialogue is absolutely brilliant. Author Patrick Samphire takes the smallest of details and makes them fascinating with his incredibly descriptive writing.
The world is gritty and messy, teeming with the equivalent of magical gangsters, meddling gods, and–even worse–politicians. It constantly grows, tantalizing the reader with details and mysteries that have yet to be solved. The dreaded info dump is nowhere to be found, with history and mythology being given naturally throughout the book. While Mennik is juggling multiple disasters, I could see they were puzzle pieces waiting to be fit together. Watching the seemingly disparate parts of Nectar for the God meld into a complete whole is a joy, and the final product is an entertaining romp that will draw you in and captivate you.
All of Us Villains is The Hunger Games for goths, with a hint of Needful Things thrown in for good measure. I don’t know what I was expecting, but I was definitely not expecting the sometimes brutal exploration of what humans are willing to do to survive.
I have read and enjoyed Christine Lynne Herman’s The Devouring Gray, and I am a fan of books that twist norms, so All of Us Villains intrigued me from the get-go. In a world where magick exists, the book follows seven teens who are thrown into a competition where there will be only one survivor (the Hunger Games vibes are strong here). However, these seven will be fighting for their family’s control over powerful magick.
The concept of a battle to the death over control of a powerful magic source is an interesting one, and the book is just different enough to distinguish itself from The Hunger Games. Another difference between the two books are the multiple points of view that add different layers to the book. The characters all added something new which really helped flesh out the world.
Briony considered herself the perfect champion, and is one of the few characters who actually wanted to be in the competition. She isn’t necessarily blood-thirsty, she is just supremely confident in her ability to win. Of course, there’s a hiccup (no spoilers given, I promise) that changes things completely, leaving her with different choices to make, and many questions that need answering.
There’s Isobel, who didn’t want to be in the competition and is understandably terrified. She is also rather annoying. I can’t put my finger on why she bothered me, but she did. Possibly because she felt a little less fully developed than some of the other characters. Or maybe it’s that her whole budding romance with another champion seemed really odd (Now? While you’re all busy trying not to die?) What do I know, though? I’ve never been in a battle to the death; maybe that’s the best time to go looking for romance. However, she was an odd combination of ruthlessness and selflessness, which was definitely fascinating.
Gavin was easily the “villain” of the villains. He has something to prove and will do just about anything to prove it. I liked that his desperation led to an interaction that allowed one of my favorite characters to develop a little. The fallout from some of his choices also caused things to change in unexpected ways, which I really enjoyed.
Then there’s Alistair, one of my two favorite characters. He’s the one expected to win; powerful, with a dark reputation, he was so much fun to read about! Instead of being a stereotypical villain, he is actually unsure of himself and trying to protect himself by becoming the monster everyone claims he is.
My favorite character by far was Reid McTavish. Not a champion, he actually owns a magic shop which helps several champions with exactly what they need- but what is the price? He reminded me a little of Leland Gaunt from Stephen King’s Needful Things, and I was loving the reminder. I could never quite figure him out, which was brilliant. I know he has an angle, probably one which is deliciously diabolical, and I can’t wait for it to be revealed.
That last sentence brings me to an important point: this ends on a cliffhanger. I know that is not everyone’s thing, so I figure it bears mentioning. I do believe it worked well in this case, as any sort of finalized ending would make book two start in a very odd way.
All of Us Villains was a fun, quick read. While I wouldn’t necessarily say it shattered expectations or was incredible, it was extremely entertaining. At the end of the day, books like that have their place too. I recommend this book to fans of The Hunger Games, readers who like their characters to be morally conflicted, or those who want something diverting and fast-paced.
I had high expectations for this one. I’m a sucker for a good haunting, and The Death of Jane Lawrence promised to be something new. The novel follows Jane, a practical woman who decides to marry as a business arrangement: respectability in exchange for a fair amount of autonomy. She decides the reclusive Dr. Lawrence is the perfect candidate. He has zero expectations and his only request is that she stay away from his dilapidated family estate. Of course, that is the one thing she doesn’t do. When Jane finds herself stranded at the manor late one night, it sets in motion events both strange and haunting.
I have to admit that I didn’t end up loving the book the way I thought I would. I struggled to really become invested in the characters or to really care about what happened to them at all. I felt Dr. Lawrence had potential, but instead he became simply a cutout-version of a stereotypical martyr. He seemed determined to give in to his “fate” without a fight, despite there being no reason for him to do so. Long-suffering characters such as that tend to grate on me pretty quickly, so I wasn’t a huge fan. Meanwhile, Jane sort of confused me. She seemed to be constantly angry but forgiving, even if no apology was offered. She is lied to, but decided it’s okay because so-and-so is compassionate toward others. Someone tries to kill her, but it’s okay because they weren’t themselves. Information withheld leads to extreme danger, but it’s okay because the person felt ashamed about it. I wanted to shake her for a good chunk of the book. I suppose the author did get me invested enough that I was almost constantly irritated at Jane’s character, so that is something.
The house itself was the perfect blend of intimidating and lonely. It felt like entering the house caused one to surrender their grip on reality. It was mysterious and dark, and wonderfully atmospheric. The descriptions of the apparitions gave me delighted shivers and the dark, rainy weather was used to great effect. Ultimately, the house sort of became a character in its own right.
The way the book unfolded didn’t quite work for me. I felt that some parts were needlessly drawn out, while other important moments were rushed. It was very odd. I could never quite get a hold on the pacing. However, that disjointed pacing could have been intended as a way to keep the reader off balance and to add to the feeling of “wrongness” that pervaded the story.
I could balance out what I liked and didn’t like about the book, but at the end of the day, The Death of Jane Lawrence just wasn’t for me. Have you read this one? What did you think?
Thank you to Orbit Books and Angela Man for providing me with this book in exchange for my honest opinion. Wildwood Whispers is available now.
Wildwood Whispers was enchanting and beautiful. There was something special in the prose, in the way the book took its time, describing everything so well that I felt like I was standing right next to the main character. While I wasn’t entirely sure where the book was going for a good chunk of it, I was enthralled by the writing and more than happy to follow along as it twined together what originally seemed like two separate storylines, weaving them into a beautiful whole.
The book follows Mel, a prickly individual who has just lost her best friend- her lifeline, really. Mel travels to the tiny town of Morgan’s Gap, deep in the Appalachian mountains, to scatter her best friend’s ashes. There, Mel finds mysteries waiting to be solved and dangers lurking around every corner. She also finds the chance to heal, if she’s brave enough to take it.
I really enjoyed watching Mel grow into herself. Her interactions with others were fantastic, but just as great was her inner dialogue. She found the kind of strength that comes from being hurt and allowing yourself to care anyway. Add in the supporting cast and this small town seems both simultaneously cozier and larger.
The other characters include Granny, who kind of takes Mel under her wing. There’s Lu, who makes magic with her music, and Jacob Walker, who seems to be hiding something. There is also a super creepy cult, the sort of backwards group that Netflix makes documentaries about. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that it was based on an actual cult. The reverend shivered my skin. I wish that Granny played a slightly bigger role because I loved her so much. However, all of the characters were individuals with their own special things to offer.
I loved that, while magic was most definitely a part of Wildwood Whispers, the “big bad” wasn’t some sort of magical entity. Instead, the villains were all too human, which made things more chilling. Author Willa Reece wrote a beautiful and dangerous book, a treasure in literary form. I felt an immense sense of satisfaction at the way the different pieces in the book fit together neatly, but with room left for wondering.
Wildwood Whispers felt a little like a mystery and a little like a calm daydream. The combination was charming and surprising in equal measure. This book was unique and special. I highly recommend it.
Thank you to Netgalley and Quercus for providing me with this book in exchange for my honest opinion. AGirl Made of Air is available now.
I’m always fascinated by the idea of stories being told through collections of letters or diaries. The fact that this revolved around a circus was also intriguing. Ultimately, though, while A Girl Made of Air had a lot going for it, I found some things rather problematic.
The book follows Mouse, a famous tightrope walker, as she recounts her early life and the events that shaped her. She’s an interesting protagonist because the narration matures as the character does. The older she gets, the more complex and adult-sounding the narration becomes. It was a great detail, one that mirrors how people really develop. The book is peopled with distinctive characters: Marina, Mouse’s mother, Manu…and Serendipity Wilson, who is something else entirely. She is the bright light that Mouse is drawn to, and the story is viewed in relation to her. All of the characters were vivid and, in some cases, larger than life. They became almost caricatures of themselves, which was fascinating. I also think that was intentional and it gave the book a fantastical feel.
So, what did I find problematic? First of all, parts of the book felt repetitive. Some bits just didn’t really add to the story or character development at all and I found my attention wandering a bit. Secondly, and this is what really bothered me, is the unexpected rape scene. It was graphic and, as someone who prefers to avoid books with that sort of content, I really wish I’d known it was coming. As it was, I was blindsided and it really upset me. That being said, this isn’t something that will have a big effect on everyone. It just was something that dimmed the enjoyment of the book for me.
A Girl Made of Air meandered a little, but it was an interesting trip. At the end of the day, I’m not the right reader for this book. It would be much more enjoyable to readers who don’t mind a bit of harsh content and like a story with well developed characters.
Thank you to the author for providing me with this book in exchange for my honest opinion. Sherlock Holmes and the Remaining Improbable is available for purchase now.
I am very picky when it comes to Sherlock Holmes and how he’s represented. I am not an expert or anything like that, but I’m a big fan of Conan Doyle’s famous detective and have read the original mysteries more than once (or twice). I’ve noticed that often a newer Holmes iteration will either match Doyle’s original consulting detective in writing style or spirit of character, rarely in both . I was both delighted and surprised to see that Sherlock Holmes and the Remaining Improbable managed to do both!
I fairly flew through this book, slowing down only to savor the story for a little longer. It’s extremely well written and the main players match my memories of the originals while at the same time growing and developing as only the best characters can. The additional characters (there must be suspects, after all) are all fantastic, quirky without being over the top.
The mystery itself was fantastic. It wasn’t forced, the final solution made perfect sense in response to the clues, and it was very clever. What I really enjoyed, though, was the ability to explore how Holmes himself ticked. He toyed around with hypnosis, and I’m sure you can imagine the tangled web that presents. Not only is his psyche bared, but his friendship with Watson is put to the test. I was so on board for that!
Surprisingly, the ending left me both incredibly satisfied and a little sad. It felt like the perfect epilogue to a brilliant character’s lifelong accomplishments, and I honestly wasn’t ready for the book to end. Sherlock Holmes and the Remaining Improbable is a fantastic love letter to Conan Doyle’s original works, and a wonderful representation of literature’s most inimitable detective.
Thank you to Angela Man at Orbit Books for providing me with this book in exchange for my honest opinion. For the Wolf is available now.
Mysterious with its fair share of magic, For the Wolf had a very classic (as in pre-Disney) fairy tale feel to it. While I felt that some elements worked incredibly well, there were a couple of things that distracted me a little. I am pretty sure I’m in the minority on this one, as the things I didn’t really connect with are usually things that draw people into books. I’m funny like that.
Red has known for ages that her entire purpose in life is to be a sacrifice. The beginning of the book shows her both resigned and (a little) relieved. She has a power that has hurt her loved ones in the past which makes her feel like a danger to those she cares about, including her sister, Neve. The relationship Neve and Red have is my absolute favorite thing about For the Wolf. Their love for each other is the catalyst for much that happens, and a huge part of their characters. I loved seeing their relationship affect every choice they made. Their love for each other really is a part of who they are.
The beginning felt slow to me. I struggled to become interested in the plot because it was originally explained in-between scenes of Red getting ready for a party in honor of her sacrifice. I would start to become invested in the story arc, then get distracted by the details the author gave. It just wasn’t my bag. I doubt my reaction will be shared by many readers in this case, but it was a little off-putting.
Once Red got to the forest, things picked up and moved along quickly. Neve is determined to save Red, no matter the cost. Red is determined to fulfill her role and protect others, no matter the cost. This is an interesting conglomeration of multiple fairy tales, woven together into something new. I have to give the author major points for creativity: she tied several disparate plots together into something very different.
Here’s where those who have read my blog for a while know I lost interest: the love story. It wasn’t overbearing or anything like that, I’m just not big on love stories taking front and center in a book. As far as love stories go, it was a good one, I guess. It’s just not my thing. This is absolutely a case of “it’s not you, it’s me”. I was definitely the wrong reader.
The book itself is well written and fans of fairy tale retellings that lean in a romance direction will love it. While For the Wolf wasn’t necessarily what I look for in a book, it is an excellent addition to the fantasy-romance subgenre, one that I think will be loved by many.