THE GUNS OF EMPIRE by Django Wexler–a Review

The Guns of Empire by Django Wexler is the fourth of five books in his Shadows Campaigns series. This volume looks behind the magic and the wars and politics, exposing the hidden players that are at the heart of it all. Now in real life, I hate that sort of “secret elite” conspiracy theory. But in my fantasy? I enjoy it quite a lot. Wexler continues to demonstrate his strong characterization and action-packed plotting, but what I especially liked about this installment was how things went bad. Keystone characters are taken off the board and other characters struggle to avoid drowning in new power and responsibility. With The Guns of Empire, Wexler has once again written an exciting, unique fantasy that has me eagerly awaiting the finale.

Spoilers ahead!

Warning: mild spoilers ahead. But honestly, this is book four. I assume you’ve read books one through three. If not, I’ll be here when you get back.

Wexler Guns of Empire

The Guns of Empire picks up pretty much where the previous volume, The Price of Valor left off. After several victories, Vordan is hosting a peace conference. But when General Janus bet Vhalnich says that any peace must include the downfall of the Sworn Church of Elysium, the talks fail and war resumes. But when Janus aims the largest army the world has ever known at the heart of the church, many wonder if the brilliant general is a threat to the world. Does Queen Raesinia’s loyalty lie with the man who saved her kingdom or with the greater good? What about the loyalties of Generals Marcus d’Ivoire? Will they protect Janus, or will they work for peace? And how will the Black Priests respond to the threat the Vordani army presents? Is there more to Janus’s crusade against the Church?

What did I like/dislike?

Like the rest of his books, I thoroughly enjoy the characters Wexler presents. It’s not often I see as many unique, three-dimensional female characters or as many points along the sexuality spectrum as I do in his books. And he avoids the tropes about both “strong female” characters and non-hetero characters.

I also liked that Wexler turned Marcus–a knight errant born too late–not into a typical fantasy military hero, but a soldier who excels at logistics and one who might end up becoming something of a trophy husband. And just when Janus is at the point where he could become a walking deus ex machina, pulling genius trick after genius trick out of his bag, Wexler essentially takes him out of the picture, forcing those in his orbit to work hard to live up to the responsibilities he has placed on them (and making for some great internal and external conflicts).

This book also did a wonderful job of setting up the finale. When will we learn what has really been driving Janus? What will be the consequences of the evil the Black Priests have unleashed? What will it take for the Vordani Deputies to get their act together?

But the one thing that bothered me about this novel was the war itself. Janus leads the biggest army the world has ever seen against an alliance of nations, but in the end, the Church still stands and a status quo ante is restored. With the exception of the reintroduction of an old evil, I expected more out of this war. There is plenty of character development. But in comparison to the other books, I didn’t see as much plot development (other than that aforementioned evil). Perhaps Wexler did this intentionally though? To show war as somewhat futile or leading to unexpected consequences? Or to make his characters suffer, to force them to make difficult decisions, to come to know themselves better so they will be ready for the finale? Regardless, it’s a minor quibble.

Conclusion

The bottom line is that once again, Wexler has written a thoroughly enjoyable book, and I can’t wait to see what happens next. If you’re not reading this series, but want a bit of Napoleon plus magic, get cracking. Wexler is funny, surprising, and he weaves together threads of politics, military, economics, revolution, love, loss. And heck, I’m starting to sound like the grandfather in the The Princess Bride, so that’s probably a sign I should wrap this up. So thumbs up, job well done, definitely recommended.

THE WHEEL OF OSHEIM by Mark Lawrence–a Review

Wheel of Osheim

I knew while reading The Wheel of Osheim that I would have trouble reviewing it. The reason? I’m a total fanboy of author Mark Lawrence. I picked up his debut novel, Prince of Thorns, a little later than most people, but once started, I was addicted. I raced through that first trilogy, and I have devoured this second trilogy.

So all I can do is put this disclaimer up front. Take my review with a grain of salt if you want, but the fact that I have snatched up six of Lawrence’s books, and the fact that I will continue to grab everything he writes as soon as possible should tell you how much I enjoy reading his stuff. The Wheel of Osheim is no exception. If you’re not reading Lawrence, you’re missing out out on one of the premier talents in fantasy.

What Happens

Readers finished the second book in the Red Queen’s War trilogy, The Liar’s Key, on a cliffhanger, standing at the doorway to hell. But The Wheel of Osheim doesn’t pick up right where book two left off. Instead, it jumps forward a bit, only filling in the gaps with flashbacks.

And once Jalan gets out of hell (relax, it’s really not a spoiler, it happens immediately), he finds his way back home after a run-in with Jorg, Lawrence’s other protagonist. But danger lurks in Vermillion. The Red Queen and the Blue Lady prepare to end their war and possibly the world. The Wheel of Osheim turns faster and faster. Should it be stopped, buying the world a brief reprieve, or should it be sped up, in the hopes of saving a few? Jalan (and the rest of the crew, now reunited) journey to the heart of the Wheel and face the ultimate decision.

What I Thought

While I would understand if some readers were upset with not starting in Hell or going half a book without Snorri, I liked these decisions for a couple of reasons. First, Lawrence loves to surprise readers and upset conventions. Picking up immediately in Hell was the predictable choice. Second, this trilogy, and this book in particular, reveals how Jalan, originally the cowardly heel, has grown and matured.

Over the course of this trilogy–and, again, this book in particular–Jalan has experienced several adventures and misadventures that have changed him in dramatic ways. Yes, he still prefers to lose himself in the bottom of a cup or in a woman’s bed, but he’s started to care for others, and if he doesn’t run toward danger, he at least doesn’t run away like he used to. Which is all to say that I loved watching Jalan face hard decision after hard decision, temptation after temptation, as he steps closer and closer to the edge of things. It’s quite a different arc from Jorg, but I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Lawrence once again shows off his clever world building, revealing more about the Builders and their experiments (another big surprise). Although zombies are quite popular, Lawrence creates a horrific spin on an undead army. And he also shows off his humor once again. Yes, there are dark moments, but this book made me laugh very often.

Bottom line: if you’ve never picked up Lawrence, fix that. If you’ve been enjoying this trilogy, breathe easy. Lawrence sticks the landing. This is a tremendous ending to a fantastic series. Lawrence has earned a place on every fantasy reader’s bookshelf. While I hate to say goodbye to the Broken Empire, I can’t wait to read Lawrence’s next book.

My latest review on Fantasy-Faction

Over at Fantasy-Faction, my latest review has been posted. Children of Earth and Sky is the first book by Guy Gavriel Kay that I’ve read, despite hearing tons of hype surrounding him. It got off to a slow start, but I really enjoyed the ending. Despite that rocky start, this is a book that stuck with me for a while. Definitely enough for me to return to Kay. Head over to Fantasy-Faction for more details.

ALL THE BIRDS IN THE SKY by Charlie Jane Anders–a Review

Ever since I read Charlie Jane Anders’s short story “Six Months, Three Days,” I’ve been looking forward to her novel, All the Birds in the Sky. I have been a fan of her work on io9 for ages, but that was the first time I had read her fiction, and it only made me want to read more. Having now read her novel, I’m already champing at the bit for her next work to come out. All the Birds in the Sky is a wonderful book. I really can’t recommend it enough. It’s charming and funny and sad and full of magic and wonder.

The novel begins with its two protagonists, Patricia Delfine and Laurence Armstead, getting their first glimpses of their future, but just a glimpse. Patricia discovers she will be a witch, and she speaks with a Parliament of Birds in a magical tree before her parents snatch her back and ground her, costing her her magical powers. After building a time machine that jumps two seconds into the future, Laurence sneaks out and attempts to attend an experimental rocket launch, only to miss it and get taken back home after getting to know a crew of rocket scientists who all wear the same time machine.

The first part of the book details the budding witch and mad scientist as the two misfits endure the tortures of school. The confide in each other, build a safe space in the bubble that surrounds them, and they endure the slings and arrows of cliques, bullies, and a mysterious guidance counselor. And then they are driven apart. The book picks up when they are both adults: Laurence having joined an elite team of scientists and Patricia having attended a magical college where she learned to be a witch. But in the meantime, the world has suffered a number of serious disasters, and both sides–science and magic–are looking for the solution. Each solution comes at a terrible price. Will one side beat the other, or will Patricia and Laurence’s rekindled relationship come up with a third option?

What starts off as a sort of YA story becomes an adult, pre-apocalyptic story. Similarly, Anders blends science fiction and fantasy in her protagonists. There are a lot of plates spinning here, but Anders pulls it off. How? By creating two fantastic protagonists. Patricia and Laurence are fully realized characters each pursuing their goals. In fact, there really isn’t an antagonist, per se, just a conflict in the ways Laurence and Patricia view the world. And on top of that, Anders also creates a cast of secondary characters that includes an Elon Musk billionaire scientist and a magician locked away, lest he go Swamp Thing on the world.

And watching that conflict develop as the characters grow is the true treasure of this book. Anders writes with wit, humor, and honesty. It’s a recipe for a read that will have you smiling ear to ear and frowning when your heart hurts. It’s just a beautiful story that left me feeling so touched. I can’t remember the last time I read a novel like this. I immediately went online and started raving about it. There’s a magic to this story. Like the best of Neil Gaiman or the way I still feel about watching The Princess Bride. Go out right now and buy two copies. Read one, and give the second to a friend.

JAVELIN RAIN by Myke Cole–a Review

Javelin Rain by Myke Cole is the second book of his second, prequel trilogy. If you haven’t read Myke’s four other books, I’m going to at least assume you’ve read the first book in this trilogy, Gemini Cell. This review will contain spoilers for that book. So fair warning.

In the first trilogy, magic had fully re-entered the world. People are aware of it in the sense that they are aware of icebergs. Most of it is hidden away behind military contracts and classification. But in this trilogy, humans are only getting their first taste of magic. Only a few people know about it, and all they really know is how little they do know because of experiments. Experiments like Jim Schweitzer–a former Navy SEAL whose reanimated corpse was endowed with super powers thanks to a malevolent djinn that shared Schweitzer’s body. When we last left Jim, he had cast out the djinn, taken sole custody of his body, and reunited with his wife and young son. Javelin Rain picks up right where the last book leaves off with Jim’s family on the run, and it doesn’t slow down.

The introductory materials to the book state:

Javelin: A code denoting the loss of a national security asset with strategic impact.
Rain: A code indicating a crisis of existential proportions.
Javelin Rain incidents must be resolved immediately, by any and all means necessary, no matter what the cost…

Think loose nuke. Only this time, Jim is the nuke. And he’s on the loose. And the people that made him will go through anyone and anything to get him back, with the blessing of the U.S. government. Jim may be a one of a kind monster, but he’s not the only monster. And on top of the monsters, there are also operators like Jim used to be joining in on the hunt.

And while Jim, a reanimated corpse, can go without food and rest, his wife and son cannot. And it’s that division between human and monster that drives a large portion of Javelin Rain. Although Jim wants nothing more than to be a happy family again, it’s just not going to happen. He can’t be a husband or a father when he is essentially a modern Frankenstein’s monster. He’s cut off from his wife, and his death and reappearance are clearly scarring his son’s young mind. It’s a painful realization. And combined with the dangers Jim and his family face in this book, it makes for a relentless, dark read.

This is a bit of a change from Cole’s earlier books. While there are still plenty of action sequences that mix magic and the military, this is a chase novel with a tight focus on the negative consequences of exposure to magic. Previous protagonists worked to forge a new life or a new world view. That process was difficult and not without costs. But the protagonists survived. Jim, on the other hand, is utterly wrecked, physically and emotionally, over the course of this novel.

And he’s not the only one. Back at the center that created Jim, they went from triumph (the creation of Jim) to utter defeat (Jim’s escape). And management’s decisions regarding the hunt for Jim are making employees question their priorities. Only, there is no walking away from this program. They are trapped and growing desperate. The center threatens to either implode or explode. Can it remain secret? Can it continue to experiment with magic? What happens when they bring in a new sorcerer, a ruthless who isn’t too concerned about collateral damage? (By the way, she is an incredible character–broken, cold, and utterly compelling. She steals the scene, every time she’s “on stage”)

Look, this is Myke Cole’s fifth book. Ever since Control Point, I’ve been on board, snapping up his books as quickly as I can. Maybe I’m biased because I’m a fan. Cole has always had great world building, and his characters have continued to improve with each book. This is no exception–it’s his best yet. His pacing has also sped up, making this book incredibly hard to put down. I just wonder how he will go from Javelin Rain to Siege Line, the final book in the prequel trilogy. There are a lot of questions left to answer. And I can’t wait to see what Myke Cole has in store for readers.