Monday, 25 July 2016

Review: Monstrous Little Voices: New Tales from Shakespeare's Fantasy World

Monstrous Little Voices: New Tales from Shakespeare's Fantasy World Monstrous Little Voices: New Tales from Shakespeare's Fantasy World by Jonathan Barnes
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I received a review copy of this book from one of the authors (Kate Heartfield), because we are members of the same writers' community.

Shakespeare can legitimately be considered one of the early English fantasists, based on A Midsummer Night's Dream, The Tempest, Macbeth, Hamlet, and bits and pieces in a few of the other plays, so the idea of a book which takes his fantastica and creates new stories appealed to me. It's been done before, of course, in various ways, and will be done again, with various degrees of success. This one distributes the story between several different authors, and I was keen to see how they handled it.

I assumed, going in, that it would be more or less a themed anthology, but it's more than that; the stories interlink and form an overall narrative. Unfortunately (in my opinion) it becomes more and more meta, literary, and, to me, pretentious as it goes along, until we're in second person present tense, breaking the fourth wall left and right in a full-on metafictional multiverse.

It doesn't start out that way, though. It starts out with Foz Meadows' "Coral Bones," which begins some time after The Tempest finishes and questions whether Miranda would really be happy with Ferdinand (who was, after all, basically the first man she ever met, if you don't count Caliban or her father). It's well written, well edited, and does a good job of building on the original story. It has an explicit five-act structure, and, of course, refers to several Shakespeare plays as source material (the fairies from A Midsummer Night's Dream play crucial roles; in this version of the setting, the faerie courts are openly known to the mortal world and interact with mortal courts), but that's as close to the plays as it gets. It's a short story, and a good one, which brings the themes bang up to date and doesn't try to be anything else.

Kate Heartfield is next, with "The Course of True Love". Here we have a witch, a faerie changeling, Duke Orsino (from Twelfth Night), and Queen Mab, as well as Titania and Oberon. It's becoming clear that the stories are linked, at least by sharing a setting. The main characters of this story don't recur later in the book, but it does advance the metaplot somewhat. It's a rather charming romance between older people, though for me it wrapped up a little too neatly. Again, it's presented in five acts, and again, it's well edited.

Emma Newman's "The Unkindest Cut" had a few minor faults. One was trying too hard to shoehorn in Shakespearian references; there were also a few places where words were used oddly, and the occasional comma splice. The story was strong, though, a tragedy of manipulation and murder in the clear spirit of Shakespeare (as well as involving several of his characters). Unlike the preceding stories and the one that follows, it isn't split up into five acts.

Adrian Tchaikovsky's "Even In the Cannon's Mouth" brings us characters from several other plays (As You Like It being one), caught up in the war that's been referenced also in the first three stories. Each scene opens with the kind of scene-setting that you get at the beginning of a Shakespearian scene, including the stage direction "Enter" and whichever character or characters start off the scene. The characters are vivid, their interaction well handled, and the writing rich and competent, but there's the occasional typo or slight homonym error ("bad" for "bade" twice, "institute" for "institution," "sheath" for "sheathe"). In Act Five, the fourth wall is broken, and we get our first taste of second person and our first indication of the metafictional multiverse. This is where, for me, the book started to go sideways.

Finally, we have Jonathan Barnes' "On the Twelfth Night," which has nothing really to do with the play Twelfth Night, but is set around the twelve days (or nights) of Christmas, 1601. It involves Shakespeare's family, and is (for the first eleven nights) told in second person, present tense, as if addressing Anne, Shakespeare's wife. I was unsurprised to learn, in the back matter, that Barnes writes for the Times Literary Supplement and the Literary Review and is a writer-in-residence at a university; the whole thing is very literary, in a way I personally don't care for much. It does remain spec-fic, in that the metafictional multiverse is at the heart of the story, though it goes through a lot of atmospheric setting-up to get there. It misuses the word "catechism" to mean "prayer," misplaces some commas, and uses "hove" as if it were the present tense (which should be "heave"), but otherwise reads smoothly enough.

As you may have detected, I enjoyed each story in the book slightly less than its predecessor, and if I was just going by the last one I'd consider three stars, though I'd probably settle on four; it's competently done, for the most part, though not the kind of thing I love. The standard starts out high, however, and the decline is gradual until we hit the final story. Speaking for myself, I would have preferred a sequence of stories like Foz Meadows' one, which didn't try too hard and just extrapolated and expanded on the source material in an entertaining and thought-provoking way, keeping firmly within the fiction. That's just my taste, though, and yours may well differ.

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Wednesday, 20 July 2016

Review: Masterpieces of Fantasy and Wonder

Masterpieces of Fantasy and Wonder Masterpieces of Fantasy and Wonder by David G. Hartwell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I complained of this book's predecessor, Masterpieces of Fantasy and Enchantment, that some of the stories, far from being masterpieces, had been rescued from well-deserved obscurity. I didn't have the same reaction to this volume, though, even though the same editor had taken a similar approach: combine well-known genre classics with long-out-of-print pieces by famous authors, some of whom aren't usually thought of as belonging to the SFF field.

At the same time I bought those two books, I also bought The Fantasy Hall of Fame, and there's a considerable overlap in contents. This volume shares Margaret St. Clair's "The Man Who Sold Rope to the Gnolls," J.G. Ballard's "The Drowned Giant," and R.A. Lafferty's "Narrow Valley" with the Hall of Fame volume, none of which, to be honest, were among my favourites in either book; the Hall of Fame shares with the first volume "Our Fair City" (Heinlein), "The Silken-Swift" (Sturgeon), "The Detective of Dreams" (Wolfe), and "Operation Afreet" (Anderson).

I'd also previously read some others in this volume: Peter S. Beagle's "Lila the Werewolf," a typical Beagle piece in its beauty, its depiction of people trapped in their stereotypes, and its tragic arc; Anne McCaffrey's "A Proper Santa Claus," a powerful story about the crushing of childhood creativity and wonder; and James Tiptree, Jr.'s "Beyond the Dead Reef," which, slightly unusually for that author, focusses more on ecological disaster than on gender role disaster.

There are, however, plenty of pieces that are new to me, many of which I enjoyed. John M. Ford's "Green is the Color," which opens the book, is a lovely human story filled with magic and wonder. So is Robin McKinley's version of "The Princess and the Frog". Patricia A. McKillip's "The Harrowing of the Dragon of Hoarsbreath" is magnificent and unexpected, as you'd expect from her if you've read much of her work. John Brunner's "The Things That Are Gods" is a hearty bit of sword-and-sorcery with some depth to it. I also enjoyed Osbert Sitwell's version of "Jack and the Beanstalk," something that you'll not see reprinted in many places, I suspect.

Other pieces I wasn't so keen on. I've always disliked Jack Vance, whose characters use stilted dialog to convey their utter lack of any admirable qualities, and the samples in this book don't change my mind. Isaac Bashevis Singer's "The Parrot," as well as being not to my taste, had, I felt, limited claim to be in a book about "fantasy and wonder," since the fantastical element could well have been in the mind of one character. Although Graham Greene's "Under the Garden" has the same ambiguity about whether anything fantastical has actually occurred, I enjoyed it more as a story.

There are rescued treasures as well, though, from Charles Dickens ("Prince Bull," a political satire), W.S. Gilbert ("The Triumph of Vice"), J.M. Barrie (the original "Peter Pan" story, which I seem to somehow have never read, though I've read Peter Pan and Wendy many times), Mark Twain ("The Facts Concerning the Recent Carnival of Crime in Connecticut," a fine satire on the value of a conscience), Frank R. Stockton ("The Griffon and the Minor Canon," which I'd read in his own collection, though I suspect few other people have), George MacDonald ("The Gray Wolf," an early, and unusual, werewolf story), L. Frank Baum ("The Enchanted Buffalo," a blend of Western tall tale and native legend), E.T.A. Hoffmann ("The King's Bride," a quirky wonder story), Fitz-James O'Brien ("The King of Nodland and His Dwarf," another political satire with a strong anti-slavery message, by an author who died in the American Civil War), and William Morris ("The Hollow Land," a pseudomedieval tale so authentic that I felt I needed scholarly notes to explain it to me).

In the first book, I felt that the editor had compiled an odd mix of often-collected 20th-century SFF stories with deservedly obscure earlier works, and that it didn't really come together into an interesting collection. Here, I felt he was much more successful, and that the stories were better chosen.

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Monday, 18 July 2016

Review: Hunt for Valamon

Hunt for Valamon Hunt for Valamon by D.K. Mok
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I became aware of D.K. Mok's work when we both had stories in the Terry Pratchett tribute anthology In Memory: A Tribute to Sir Terry Pratchett . I enjoyed her story in that book, and bought this book in consequence.

It reminds me, in many ways, of a Terry Pratchett story. We have not one, but two earnest, rather hapless young men with burning ideals about how the world should be, who struggle and sacrifice and are willing to pay any price to make it that way, because they care very deeply. We have several capable, no-nonsense young women who eventually come round to the young men's way of thinking, and provide necessary ingredients of the solution. We have some dark moments, but also some very funny moments, mostly either "hapless young man is hapless" or else clever play with language. The plot is exciting, suspenseful, and far from predictable. Every so often we have a beautifully phrased philosophical statement like "People only knew what they wanted, not what was important. That's why things didn't work." The editing is excellent, and I don't say that often or lightly.

There is one way in which I felt the book could have been improved, and it's an issue that this kind of book is vulnerable to. There are a lot of fairly generic minor characters, and I had trouble, when one showed up again after an interval, remembering who they were or anything else about them. The main characters were OK; we saw enough of them, and they had enough things that they wanted and enough distinctive attributes, that they were easy to remember and tell apart. The minor characters, though, needed to stand out from the background a bit more clearly, even if it was just through a couple of initial descriptive tags that could be mentioned again when they reappeared (the Roger Zelazny method).

Apart from that, I thoroughly enjoyed this book, and will be looking out for more from D.K. Mok.

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Monday, 4 July 2016

Review: Penric and the Shaman

Penric and the Shaman Penric and the Shaman by Lois McMaster Bujold
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I enjoyed this novella, as I did the previous one, though in both cases I wished there was more. The plot is quite linear, without as many complications or as much protagonist agency as is often the case with Bujold's best work. Compensating somewhat, the characters are well developed; in fact, the development of the three viewpoint characters is what primarily happens in the book.

The three are also very different: a middle-aged man who is basically a policeman, a young sorcerer/divine, and a young shaman who has made a terrible mistake and doesn't see his way clear to fixing it until the other young man comes along.

Other reviewers have regretted the lesser role of Desdemona, the sorcerer's demon, in this book, and I understand why; she's amusing, especially when she's in conflict with her sorcerer. However, the first book set up that relationship, and now the second one is building on that as a given and taking the character of Penric, the sorcerer, forward.

Penric has a lot of wisdom for a young man, and it seems that part of the reason he has come to be so good-natured and accepting is his own unusual situation. He's admirable, and enjoyable to read. It's nice to see a wise, kind character in a genre where the characters are often given to stupid decisions and, sometimes, cruel and selfish ones.

I hope for some more in this series.

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Tuesday, 21 June 2016

Review: The Fantasy Hall of Fame

The Fantasy Hall of Fame The Fantasy Hall of Fame by Robert Silverberg
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

It's inevitable with any anthology that I'll like some stories more than others, and in most cases I end up not liking some at all. I shouldn't have been surprised that this was still true even of an anthology that wasn't chosen by a single editor, but by vote of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America membership (as at about 1992, when the "and Fantasy" part was added to the organisation's title).

There are 30 stories. The rules limited each author to being represented by only one story, whichever one of theirs received the most votes, although in several cases there were multiple stories by the same author nominated. They're presented in chronological order, from 1939 (when Unknown magazine was founded as a venue for fantasy as we now know it) to 1990. Inevitably, most are famous classics in the field, and in many cases I've read them in other collections, but it's good to have them all in one place.

**** "Trouble With Water," H.L. Gold: as the editor notes, Campbell's Unknown published stories that - like the SF stories appearing in his better-known magazine Astounding - rigorously worked out the consequences of a single difference in the world, but chose a magical difference instead of a scientific difference. In this story, the protagonist is cursed by a water gnome to be unable to do anything with water (wash, drink, or touch). The characters are all stereotypes, mostly Jewish apart from the Irish cop, but they're affectionate stereotypes, and manage to have some dimension to them. It's amusing.

**** "Nothing In the Rules," L. Sprague de Camp: here, it's a mermaid in a swimming competition. It's a decent story, with comedy, drama and a touch of frustrated romance.

** "Fruit of Knowledge," C.L. Moore: I'm a big Moore fan, but I couldn't finish this story based on the Garden of Eden and the character Lilith from Jewish mythology. I found it heavy going, tedious even. Surely there's a better Moore story than this that could have been included; one of the Jirel of Joiry tales, for example. Though there was a hard limit of 17,500 words, and perhaps those stories are longer.

** "Tlon, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius," Jorge Luis Borges: I didn't finish this one either. It's about a fictional encyclopaedia that somehow becomes factual, but a lot of it is just infodump of the contents of the encyclopaedia, and it didn't keep my interest.

**** "The Compleat Werewolf," Anthony Boucher: a story from 1942 filled with humour and romance and action, it stands up well more than 70 years later.

"The Small Assassin," Ray Bradbury: I skipped this one, because although I admire Bradbury as a writer, I'm not actually much of a fan of his stories, if that makes any sense at all. I glanced at enough of it to decide that it was more or less horror, and I wasn't in the mood.

"The Lottery," Shirley Jackson: I skipped this one too, having read it before and not particularly wanting to read it again. It's a brilliant story, but dark.

**** "Our Fair City," Robert A. Heinlein: I'd just recently read this in another collection, and while I enjoyed it, I didn't want to read it again so soon. Humour, corrupt politicians, the citizens standing up against them, all good stuff.

**** "There Shall Be No Darkness," James Blish: another werewolf story, which I didn't feel belonged in this collection. The mood is horror, and the in-world explanation is SF; where's the fantasy? It's a decent enough story, though.

** "The Loom of Darkness," Jack Vance: I'm no fan of Vance's overwrought prose and distant, unemotional and unlikeable characters, so I didn't enjoy this particularly. Sword and sorcery, a rogue, but not a loveable one.

**** "The Man Who Sold Rope to the Gnolls," Margaret St Clair: again, more horror than fantasy, to me, but a good story that sustains a mocking, almost light tone against very dark events.

***** "The Silken-Swift," Theodore Sturgeon: I'd read this recently in the same collection as the Heinlein, so I didn't reread it, though it's an excellent story, emotionally powerful and beautifully written.

**** "The Golem," Avram Davidson: another Jewish author playing with Jewish stereotypes in a warm and affectionate way. The mundanity of the elderly couple plays against what I'm tempted to call the attempted darkness of the 'golem' - which is technological rather than magical, so this is, again, arguably SF, not fantasy.

**** "Operation Afreet," Poul Anderson: recently read in the other collection, not reread, and another werewolf story (making three werewolves in this volume). Again, too, humour and romance and action, and a well-written piece.

**** "That Hell-Bound Train," Robert Bloch: a deal-with-the-devil story, another common fantasy trope, particularly well executed by this master of the creepy, and closely approaching horror.

**** "The Bazaar of the Bizarre," Fritz Lieber: although I find the Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser stories, of which this is one, darker and grittier than I usually prefer, I still enjoy them because they're so well done and so atmospheric. Lieber was excellent at evoking the strange and sinister in a sword & sorcery setting, and that ability is on full display here.

**** "Come Lady Death," Peter S. Beagle: I've just read Beagle's latest novel, and it's interesting to compare it to this story from more than 50 years ago, early in his career. The story is much more mannered, with strong hints of literary descent from Poe's "Masque of the Red Death," but it's still powerful, and worthy of its inclusion here.

*** "The Drowned Giant," J.G. Ballard: a style of fantasy I don't have much time for, in which the fantastic enters the mundane world and is treated mundanely. Also a 'story' which is a description of a series of observations, not plotted, and on the whole I prefer even short stories to have a plot unless they're spectacular in some other way. This isn't.

*** "Narrow Valley," R.A. Lafferty: I'm not sure why this is the Lafferty story that always gets collected. He wrote others, I'm sure, just as good. But it's a quintessential Lafferty story: surreal characters and events, perhaps a bit flat, amusing in an offbeat way.

*** "Faith of Our Fathers," Philip K. Dick: like basically every Dick story ever, it's about what is real, and the untrustworthiness of perception and consciousness. The setting, in a world taken over by the Communist powers, is interesting, but I'm afraid I'm just not a big fan of this author's work. (Originally appeared in Harlan Ellison's Dangerous Visions anthology.)

**** "The Ghost of a Model T," Clifford D. Simak: a beautiful example of a story without much in the way of a plot, that's more about a character's realisations - and, in this case, memories and perspective on life - than any events or struggle, but nevertheless works. Simak evokes the setting so extremely well that a plot isn't really necessary.

**** "The Demoness," Tanith Lee: I'm not a particular fan of Lee's dark, sex-soaked stories, but she does them well, and this is a classic example of one. It did leave me with sympathy for the title character, which was quite an achievement, all things considered, so she gets a fourth star.

***** "Jeffty is Five," Harlan Ellison: a fine story, which I'd read before recently enough that I didn't reread it. Very human and moving.

*** "The Detective of Dreams," Gene Wolfe: I can hardly cavil at this being the story that represents Wolfe, since it's the only one of his I feel I mostly understand, and even sort of like a bit. What surprises me is that, apparently, a lot of other people like it too, despite its overt religious message. The 19th-century voice is beautifully and expertly done, though.

**** "Unicorn Variations," Roger Zelazny: I'm a huge Zelazny fan, though more of his novels than his short stories - not that his short stories aren't good, but the longer works give me more time to sink into his powerfully imaginative settings. This one isn't, maybe, as imaginative a setting as some, but the story of a chess game for high stakes is enjoyable, and the touches of whimsy are classic Zelazny.

*** "Basileus," Robert Silverberg: another author whose craft I appreciate but whose actual stories are not my favourites; there's something dark and cynical and alienated at the heart of them that puts me off. This tale of a programmer who fills his computer with angels is no exception.

**** "The Jaguar Hunter," Lucius Shepard: I haven't read a lot of Shepard, but this is an impressive story, with a lot of depth to it. It uses a South American setting to compare and contrast Western consumerism with the older ways, more in tune with nature, but also more violent and savage.

*** "Buffalo Gals, Won't You Come Out Tonight," Ursula K. Le Guin: I am a Le Guin fan, but more of some of her other work than of this. It's beautifully done, and incorporates rich material from Native American legend, but sometimes her stories lack story, to their detriment - at least in my eyes - and this is one of those.

*** "Bears Discover Fire," Terry Bisson: much awarded and frequently collected, but I've never quite seen what the fuss was about. Another more-or-less plotless story; a series of events happen, but for me they don't cohere together into an effective whole. I'm probably missing something.

**** "Tower of Babylon," Ted Chiang: with this story we are, in a sense, back at the beginning, because, like the stories in Campbell's Unknown magazine, it's a rigorously worked out exploration of a fantastical speculation, in this case about the structure of the universe (what if it was as some ancient civilisations believed?) The main character is somewhat flat, and largely there as an observer, but the working out of the premise is well enough done that I enjoyed it.

I don't know if there's an overall conclusion to be drawn from such a diverse collection stretching over more than 50 years. Early 90s SFF writers liked funny, action-packed werewolf stories? Stories can work without a plot if you do something else amazing? Rich description is a big help, but isn't essential? SF and horror stories sometimes get called fantasy? There's no one common factor in great fantasy stories? All of those seem to be true.

For me, some of these were amazing, others disappointing, but on average, they were fine, enjoyable pieces showcasing the considerable talents of their authors.

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Monday, 20 June 2016

Review: Summerlong

Summerlong Summerlong by Peter S. Beagle
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I'm coming to this book as a "genre" fan, and Beagle really isn't a genre author, not in a traditional way. He's more of a literary author who uses genre elements - even though, unlike some other authors who do the same, he's been warmly embraced by the genre crowd. (I suspect it has more to do with which conferences you go to and which other authors you hang out with than anything in the work itself.)

Accordingly, the structure and the pacing and the way the book develops and resolves, or, in some ways, doesn't resolve, are not what I'm used to as a genre reader, and this made for a sometimes uncomfortable reading experience for me. This, really, is why I've given it four stars instead of five. It's excellently done, speaking objectively; but, speaking subjectively, what it is isn't a thing I completely love, and in part that's because I don't usually read this kind of book. (And, in much larger part, I don't usually read this kind of book because I don't completely love things like this.)

First, the pacing. The best metaphor I can offer is that Beagle builds the picture out of a great many small brushstrokes, and this takes time. It's not a fast-paced book; it's not meant to be. It's a book about the characters and how they change and develop and interact, and it's much more about how they respond to events than how they affect events, and the events themselves are mostly, especially at first, mundane and low-key.

I'm definitely not saying that I was bored. I did feel the slowness of the pace, but recognised what the author was doing and appreciated how well he did it. People who are looking for an action-oriented book will be disappointed, though.

So what about the structure and development and resolution? It isn't tidy. It isn't neat. It doesn't answer all the questions, restore the status quo, defeat the villain (since there really isn't one; even though there's a candidate, it's pretty clearly shown that he's unqualified for the position), or, in most ways, leave the characters better off than when they started. In other ways, though, it does leave them deeper, more open to experience, broader, and fuller than when they started, even if the blessing is extremely mixed.

There's a powerful vein of symbolism running through the story, as you'd expect; it's about the mundane meeting the mythic and being partly (and troublingly, and painfully, and in unexpected ways) transformed, though most of the key changes are not, in themselves, supernatural. Meeting the mythic enables the transformations to take place, but they were always inherent and potential in the characters. They just needed to be unlocked by the right experiences.

Among those experiences, at the hinge point of the book, is a terrible decision by one of the main characters. It's a decision that I thought might be implied by the starting situation; that, as I came to know the characters better, I began to think would not occur; and that I was troubled to see occur, because it seemed like a stereotype, and because it was a really bad idea, and because it's stereotypical because it happens all too often in real life, and because it seemed inadequately motivated given what there was to lose, and because I wished the character (and the other party to the decision) had chosen otherwise. And out of this decision comes messiness and no good resolution, which is where the realism comes in.

What Beagle does so powerfully in all his stories is to show the mythic meeting the realistic - the "realistic" in the form of beautifully rendered stereotypes raised almost to the level of archetypes, like the crotchety retired Jewish professor and the middle-aged Sicilian flight attendant who are central to this book. This is, I think, something literary fiction often does - showing people trapped in their stereotypes and struggling against them in vain - but in Beagle, at least, sometimes they encounter the mythic, enabling them to partially emerge from that struggle and develop in unexpected ways, while still being dragged down by the weight of reality. That's certainly the case here.

I don't know that I would say I liked the book. I certainly didn't love it. But I do admire it as a piece of art.

I received a review copy via Netgalley.

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Monday, 13 June 2016

Review: The Facefaker's Game

The Facefaker's Game The Facefaker's Game by Chandler Birch
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

My usual rule of thumb is that any sentence in a blurb that says "for fans of $author" is most likely a bold lie by the marketing department. I decided to risk it, though, since I am indeed a huge fan of Scott Lynch and Patrick Rothfuss, primarily for their likeable rogues in grim settings; and this time I wasn't disappointed, because that's exactly what I got.

I wasn't disappointed in the least - though, rereading the blurb, it also describes the book as "picaresque," and technically it isn't, since it lacks the essential "episodic adventures" element. I'm always happy with a heist, though, and although the heist doesn't end up being the central focus, there's plenty of heist-like scheming along the way.

There's also a wonderfully dark, grimy setting, with mysteries that, in this first book at least, are never resolved. Why do "rasas" turn up on the street with no memory, and where do they come from? Where do the animalistic people who roam the slums at night come from (and where do they go during the day)? We don't know - and we don't need to know. These are just among the realities the protagonist has to deal with, along with a cruel thief-lord and how to take vengeance on him, the difficulty of trusting his fellow rogues, his struggle to learn magic, the problem of keeping his friend safe, and periodic physical dangers as he attempts to solve his other problems.

The protagonist is well developed. A "rasa" who doesn't remember his origins, he has an instinct of compassion and protection towards others who are weaker, and rebellion towards those who are stronger. (This means that, although the setting is indeed grim and dark, the book itself is not grimdark, much to my relief.) He's one of those magically talented youngsters who show up so often in fantasy, but he struggles and works hard to learn magic, and has to have a moment of personal growth, not just desperate circumstances, to make a breakthrough. He's believably untrusting of his benefactors, and all of his actions are credibly driven by internal and external conflicts, even the ill-advised ones.

The magic system is well thought out and essential to the plot. Although there is a minor bit of coincidence here and there to get the characters together (and to provide a magical tool, which isn't too essential in the long run), it didn't strain my disbelief.

Apart from a few very minor typos in the pre-publication version I received from Netgalley for review, it's cleanly written and generally extremely competent, especially for a first novel by a relatively young author.

Above all, though, it's a gripping adventure with a character I wanted to see succeed, and who I want to read more about. I'm very glad that the ending points to a sequel, and I hope it's as strong as the first.

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