Hippoi Athanatoi

What I Read in 2023

I’ve been slacking as a reader for quite a few years now. It used to be that I read a large stack of books each summer, a smaller one for my birthday and another good-sized stack for Christmas, plus quite a few books in-between too. But then something happened and months could pass without me reading a single book. Having more hobbies has certainly played a part, as has resorting to idly browsing social media instead of reading when I’ve had shorter stretches of free time. And, last but not least, I’ve had a harder time finding books that appeal to me. I attribute this both to some change in my tastes and, primarily, a shift in the genre.

There’s a lot of Urban Fantasy and Paranormal Romance out there these days, genres that I am not very keen on. And while I like some romance in my fantasy, today there’s a lot of formulaic stuff that is more romance with a touch of fantasy (aka the cringingly named “Romantasy” genre). I feel like in the last decade or two, fantasy has drifted towards either more romantic or more grimdark, losing the middle ground that I used to enjoy.

Add to that an increasing number of books that appear designed to tick as many woke checkboxes as possible and be so sensitive and scared of possibly causing offense that they become utterly bland.

That said, the rereading spree that I started in 2021 with Robert Jordan and Stephen R. Donaldson did a lot to get me back on track with my reading, if not my reviewing. Maybe 2024 will be the year for that?

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Gerald Tarrant, the Hunter, from the Coldfire trilogy.

In 2023, I continued my Donaldson reread with The Last Chronicles of Thomas Covenant and that will have to spill over into next year as I am not quite done with the last one. I’ve also started a very overdue reread of The Lord of the Rings, in fact my first read of it in English. I am not done with it either, in part because I have actually been picking up some new things too.

For example, Naomi Novik’s trilogy A Deadly Education, The Golden Enclaves and The Last Graduate. I enjoyed the Temeraire books quite a bit (even if they did perhaps go on a bit too long) and I really enjoyed her fairytales Uprooted and Spinning Silver. This trilogy is not as charming as Temeraire or as good as the two fairytales, but its entertaining if a bit fluffy.

Another long overdue reread was C.S Friedman’s brilliant Coldfire trilogy. It was almost like a fresh read, I had forgotten that much. Immensely enjoyable. The “dangerous yet attractive” male characters of today’s cookie cutter grown-up YA books (by which I mean a YA-like plot and character gallery, but with quite a bit of sex added) can’t hold a candle to Gerald Tarrant. The reason I reread Coldfire was to read the new prequel that Friedman released recently, called Nightborn. It did not live up to the original trilogy (tall order) but it was an interesting and pretty enjoyable read. I also read the short story called Dominion, which gave a more in-depth look at Gerald Tarrant’s origins. A nice addition, I thought.

Very much out of my wheelhouse were Arkady Martine’s A Memory called Empire and A Desolation Called Peace. Science Fiction is usually not my cup of tea, but these are intriguing, well-written books. I would say, however, that they were intellectually rather than emotionally rewarding.

The Gods of the Wyrmwood, first in a new series from R.J. Barker (whose Tide Child trilogy I liked though the ending didn’t quite work for me on some levels), follows the path he set in the previous series in that he has created a very unique fantasy setting. Some isolated elements reminded me a little of Robin Hobb’s Soldier Son trilogy, in that forests and forest magic features heavily, but that’s really the only vague comparison I can make. There’s not much that Barker does not change around, from social structures and gender roles to plants and animals.

As in the Tide Child trilogy, Barker does a good job of simply introducing unfamiliar concepts without pausing to artificially explain them, instead you learn as the story progresses. That is one of the key hallmarks of good world-building as it achieves immersion and defamiliarization at the same time. The world of Crua unfolds slowly as you read, drawing you into its strangeness.

Ultimately, I think the world-building was key to keeping me engaged. Barker’s characters are not quite the type that fire up my imagination and make me strongly emotionally invested in them, but world and story together still make it a very enjoyable read. The blurbs suggested an unusual take on the “Chosen One” at the heart of the story and I was not disappointed in this regard, especially with it being tied to an intriguing setup of strange gods and religions and even stranger magic. Barker is also very good at portioning out little hints that not all is what it seems from the initial setup and that a more complex story will unfold over the rest of the trilogy.

Far more classical, and more to my tastes when it comes to the characters, is Cassiel’s Servant, Jacqueline Carey’s return to Terre d’Ange to tell the story in Kushiel’s Dart from Joscelin’s perspective.

Now, I love the setting and I definitely enjoyed this book and Joscelin as a narrator. However, I did like the beginning the most, when we get his upbringing and his training with the Cassiline brotherhood, as well as his initial time in Delauney’s household. Carey does a fine job of telling the rest of the story in a distinct way from how Phèdre tells hers in Kushiel’s Dart, but ultimately it does lose a little something when it isn’t our intrepid anguisette doing the telling. That said, I could see it being a good introduction to the setting for someone who doesn’t want to dive right into Phèdre’s head. And it is a must-have for Terre d’Ange completists like me.

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A young Phèdre from Kushiel’s Dart (and Cassiel’s Servant).

Finally, we come to what was my favourite new read of last year, Mark Lawrence’s The Book That Wouldn’t Burn, which is getting more of a full review than just a couple of paragraphs.

After a failed attempt at getting into Prince of Thorns some years ago, I gave it a second chance more recently. It resulted in me reading and thoroughly enjoying all 5 connected trilogies from Mark Lawrence: Impossible Times, The Broken Empire, The Red Queen’s War, The Book of the Ancestor and The Book of the Ice. Even the headache-inducing twists in time (I LIKE time-travel stories, but they can frustrate me immensely as I try to make sure it all makes sense) couldn’t deter me. ;)

The Book That Wouldn’t Burn is the first installment in The Library Trilogy and according to Lawrence it is unconnected to the previous storyline. That said, when you dive into it, it will soon become apparent that a) there may not be ANY story that it is not connected to and b) it certainly is connected to those previous 15 books in terms of themes.

I am going to try to be minimally spoilerish, but a few details need to be established. The story revolves around a truly vast library and an eternal struggle for control over the knowledge contained therein. The library ends up being the center of the world for two very different characters, one who wants nothing more than to escape it and one who wants to unlock all its secrets. And oh boy, there are secrets a plenty.

Lawrence has earlier shown a strong interest in how the passage of time warps and changes knowledge and that element is very present here as well. Similarly, he seems fascinated by the idea that humans will generally destroy their own civilizations and that they will then claw their way back from the brink of ruin, only to make the same mistakes later on. Whether that is mostly pessimism or mostly optimism I am not sure.

I would not call The Book That Wouldn’t Burn grimdark. It certainly isn’t all light and puppies, there are some dark parts, but the protagonists are far closer to say, Yaz and Erris from The Book of the Ice, than Jorg or even Jalan. It has darkness, excitement and romance, in a very effective blend. It also defies classification as either fantasy or science fiction, though the technology level of the primary civilization is closer to the latter than the former.

And even though the playing field of the first novel doesn’t appear as vast as say, Middle-Earth, I would certainly call it epic since it deals with the rise and fall of civilizations. It is also possible that the playing field IS incredibly vast, since no one knows exactly how large the library is…

If you have liked Lawrence’s previous books, I can’t imagine you not liking The Book That Wouldn’t Burn. At the same time, it is not just “more of the same”; Lawrence has a distinct voice and a distinct way of crafting a story which long-time readers will recognize, but this is in no way Jorg’s story or Yaz’s story with different trappings.

If you haven’t read Lawrence before, this might be an easier starting point than diving into something you know consists of 15 books if you want the full story (even if each individual trilogy is self-contained as well). Also, what reader of books does not like a story about lots and lots of books?

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Livira, one of the main characters from The Book That Wouldn’t Burn.

The next book The Library Trilogy will be out soon and it is called The Book That Broke the World. But maybe I should try to tell myself that before I get to read it, I have to review Godkiller, Sunbringer and Empire of the Damned, the latter which has really gotten stuck in my head right now.

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