I’ve had a bit of a pleasant problem of late. I’ve read some books that I have really wanted to write about…if it wasn’t for the fact that I had more things to read that I couldn’t stop myself from starting.
It began with an unintended reread of the first two of Stephen R. Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant chronicles. I was going to look something up in Lord Foul’s Bane and ended up reading it and the rest of the first chronicle in short order. And then I figured I might as well read the second chronicle too, since I had never read them all in close succession. It made for a great reading experience and gave me a much clearer understanding of the development of Covenants dilemma(s) and why he made different choices at the end of each chronicle. I had planned to continue to the last chronicle as well, but I needed a little breather and during that some other books snuck in and said “hey, read us!”. So, we’ll see when I get to it given the lost momentum.
I do want to heartily recommend giving the Covenant books a try. There may be a dark lord and various other well-known fantasy elements, but the writing is nothing like any other fantasy out there. And if you can’t stand Covenant because you think he’s a horrible person, then you have no empathy whatsoever. The mental agony that he is in is crushing. I do very much understand if someone can’t stand being in his head because of that, because you’re basically in the head of a drowning person that is utterly convinced that if he grabs the rope tossed to him things will actually get much, much worse.
But, if Donaldson is a little too dark and dreary for you, I’ve got some more cheerful recommendations too.
Well, okay, a little more cheerful. Maybe. The first is Jay Kristoff’s awkwardly named Empire of the Vampire. I am sorry, but the rhyming title almost made me not pick it up, it just felt too cheesy. But, since I did find the Nevernight Chronicle enjoyable, I gave it a try and I am glad I did. The fast pace, the blood and the gore, the snarky, almost flippant tone is recognizable from the Nevernight Chronicle and if you enjoyed those you will most likely enjoy Empire of the Vampire as well.
The basic premise? A perpetual night has fallen on the world and now vampires rule almost unopposed. Gabriel de Leon, the last of the silversaints and now a captive of the monsters he once fought, is telling the story of his life to a vampire chronicler. This setup is part of what I enjoyed the most about the book; Gabriel recounting his life in captivity serves as the framing story and for the main narrative Kristoff plays around with the structure by having it told along different timelines that the narrator moves back and forth between. It allows him to leave you waiting for certain conclusions and it also creates a stronger emotional connection between the past and the present, especially in regard to a key element of the plot.
One of my issues with the Nevernight Chronicle was that I could never get over the feeling that Mia’s origins were “what if I make Arya Stark the main character?”. Empire of the Vampire also has its fair share of derivative elements, but in this case I felt that they were better utilized. The vampires have all the hallmarks of gothic romance in the way they are described, but they are far more likely to rip your face off than to seduce you, even if that does happen as well. The silversaints, the Order of vampire hunters, may call to mind the Witchers a little too strongly, but they still take on a life of their own. The silver tattoos that serve as armour when they fight vampires are a pretty darn cool element. And of course, the main religion is very much Catholicism, but crucifixion wasn’t harsh enough for its Jesus-figure, he got flayed instead.
My main issue with the book is one of style; the tone comes across as crass and flippant which makes it harder for me to invest emotionally in the characters, as if there’s a barrier that keeps you from getting too close to them. This is clearly Kristoff’s preferred style and to a point it fits the characters—especially when it comes to Gabriel—since they’re not the kind to easily let people get close to them. However, it does the job too well, undermining some of the key emotional beats of the story. Even so, this is a pretty strong novel and I am certainly eager to read the next installment in the series.
My next recent read is also anything but cheerful, The Bone Ship’s Wake, the final novel in R.J. Barker’s Tide Child Trilogy. It is hard to say much about the final part of a trilogy without spoiling the earlier books, so if you have not read those, I would not read any further in this post.
With Meas imprisoned and tortured to give up the secrets of how to call the keyshans, Joron is left in charge of the fleet of renegades. Desperate to learn where she is, he employs ruthless tactics that lead to him becoming known as the Black Pirate. He grows more and more desperate as the keyshan’s rot spreads over his body, knowing that he has little time left to recover Meas. This obsession allows him no room to think about what will happen when—if—she is recovered; their dream of peace between the Hundred Isles and the Gaunt Islands seems more futile than ever. Furthermore, hanging over him is the prophecy that he—as the Caller—will end the world together with the Windseer, who appears to be the ship’s unusual gullaime.
The world of the bone ships is harsh and bleak and here, in the trilogy’s final installment, glimmers of hope are few and far between. Joron commits brutal acts in his pursuit of clues to the whereabouts of Meas and doubt nags at him, is this really what he ought to be doing? Is it what Meas would have wanted? In a sense, he has set aside himself for the persona of the Black Pirate, as if that is the only way he can do what he feels is necessary.
As with the previous two books in the trilogy, The Bone Ship’s Wake is a compelling and fascinating read. However, I admit that I found myself a little conflicted over the ending. I have seen other readers comment that while they didn’t see it coming, they could in hindsight see how it was the only thing that made sense. And, yes, I can agree with that. However, I couldn’t help but feeling like there were quite a few loose ends in terms of the world and the greater story. It was absolutely a fitting finish to the story for the characters (including the Tide Child itself), but with such a unique world I guess I had expected a send-off that took more of that into account. That doesn’t necessarily mean all mysteries have to be explained but presuming this is the last we see of this setting, there were some pretty big questions left on the table.