Scott Marlowe, fantasy author

Scott Marlowe

Author of the Alchemancer and Assassin Without a Name fantasy series

The Last Wish by Andrzej Sapkowski

Rating

Review

*** This review originally appeared on Out of this World Reviews. ***

The Last Wish by Andrzej Sapkowski is a book I went into with mixed expectations. On the one hand, I am somewhat familiar with the Witcher from the video games (I’ve never played the games, but it’s hard to miss the advertising and I do like watching the game trailers). On the other, even though the books came before the games, there’s still a negative preconception that books having anything to do with a video game are of lesser quality than a book that is not. This is not fair in all cases, of course, but it certainly is in some. Regardless, after Gollancz Press sent me the entire series of Witcher novels after winning them via a Twitter drawing, I felt obligated (and, quite frankly, intrigued, because I love the premise of a supernatural hunting badass tracking down and killing monsters) to give this book and the rest in the series a fair shake.

The Last Wish is novel length, though it is not a novel per se but rather a collection of varying length stories that more or less follow a chronological order. From what I could gather from the Witcher Wiki, the stories contained in The Last Wish were first published in now out of print magazines and later gathered together into this collection. Also, The Last Wish is a prequel in that the stories take place before the main series of books. That being said, the editions I received from Gollancz are part of a reprinted series, so they conveniently designated The Last Wish as book one. It’s all a bit confusing, truth be told, with there being so many editions and instances where the series has been rebranded.

All of that aside, I enjoyed The Last Wish. I’m not going to say it blew me away, because it didn’t. But it did surprise me with the depth of some of the stories. On the surface, the Witcher, Geralt, hunts monsters. But the monsters are not always what they seem. They’re not just simply monsters, in other words. Some other witchers might ignore this and go ahead with their duty regardless. But Geralt has a streak of kindness or mercy in him that makes him want to understand the plight of the monsters he hunts. If he has to kill his prey, he will. He has the magic, the silver, and the steel to do so quite efficiently. But if there’s another way, he isn’t afraid to explore it.

Nowhere is this demonstrated better than in the story “A Grain of Truth,” where Geralt finds himself facing off against a powerful creature that is more beast than man. Yet once the tension of their initial confrontation is defused, Geralt discovers that not only can the creature talk, but that he has a name. Nevellen soon tells him a tale of a curse and a lonely existence that, in the end, turns out to not be the entire truth but enough that Geralt must make a hard choice. It’s an excellent demonstration of just what the Witcher stories are really all about in that there’s more to some of these monsters than what’s on the surface.

Other stories follow a similar thread or even present opportunities for Geralt to form real relationships, including friendship and love interests. The final story, which bears the same name as the title of the book, is the grandest of all. In it we are introduced to Yennefer of Vengerberg, who must choose between ambition and love when the opportunity to capture a genie presents itself.

I liked The Last Wish enough to give it a three rocket rating. None of the stories knocked me off my feet, but they each drew me in and kept me reading. I would have liked to have seen a grander demonstration of the Witcher’s magic or ability with a sword, both of which we do see, but just not in any great detail. Also, even though The Last Wish is the beginning of the Witcher series, Geralt is already accomplished at his trade. While I wasn’t expecting (or desiring) a full origin story, I think the series as a a whole would have benefitted from picking up earlier in Geralt’s career so we as readers could experience some of his early struggles and wins. In any case, The Last Wish fulfills the promise of introducing us to the Witcher and his way of life, enough so that I recommend reading this one and picking up the next book, Blood of Elves, to see what other adventures Geralt may find himself on.

Master Assassins by Robert V.S. Redick

Rating

Review

*** This review originally appeared on Out of this World Reviews. ***

Master Assassins by Robert V.S. Redick is an ambitious introduction to a vast world of empires, intrigue, war, and two half brothers too foolish to ever survive the mess they get themselves into. As servants of the Prophet, Kandri and Mektu are zealots whose loyalty to their cause is unwavering. Except neither is really a zealot, nor is either of them truly devoted to anything but themselves. Certainly not to the Army of Revelation, of which they are a part. The reasons for their current enrollment are revealed over time. First, though, the brothers must get themselves into a mess so horrendous and life-threatening that they must flee or be subjected to torture and death.

I won’t go into the story much more than that because, truth be told, I don’t know where the author takes our two unlikely heroes once they flee from the army. I know they have a death squad hot on their tails and that their intention is to lose their pursuers in a desert known as a bit of a death trap unto itself, but, ultimately, Master Assassins was a DNF for me. From glancing at other reviews I know I’m in the minority here, but I feel I gave the book a fair shake; I didn’t put it down until I was 25% of the way through it.

So what didn’t work for me? The story pacing was the major culprit. The fairly unengaging main characters didn’t help much, either. Some others complained about the excessive language and overly descriptive sex scenes. The language didn’t bother me so much and I didn’t read far enough along to read any of the sex scenes (unless you count sex with children, which is not described in detail but does happen). But, really, when I’m 25% into a story it better have some damn good writing going on, some really engaging and interesting characters, or toss the reader into a vast pit of wonderful storytelling. Master Assassins had none of this. Granted, it’s epic in scope so it may be a book or two before it really gets moving. But that’s far too long a wait for me.

Master Assassins is probably a good first book in what may be a very intriguing series, but I’ll never know for sure since it was a DNF for me. I do offer my thanks to the publisher for a free copy of the book in exchange for a fair and honest review.

Penric’s Mission by Lois McMaster Bujold

Rating

Review

*** This review originally appeared on Out of this World Reviews. ***

Penric’s Mission by Lois McMaster Bujold takes the Penric and Desdemona series of novellas to a new level in terms of story complexity, character development, and reader engagement. Where the previous three installments were serviceable enough stories, fun to read, and moved things along in terms of Penric’s progression as a sorcerer, Penric’s Mission allows the character to grow in entirely new ways. Not only does he display a level of confidence I’ve not seen before with his sorcery, but he also builds up enough courage to engage in a bit of romance despite a certain over-protective brother working against him. I received Penric’s Mission via NetGalley in exchange for a fair review.

Bujold did not write the Penric and Desdemona stories in chronological order, though I’ve been reading them as such, ignoring the order in which they were published. Based on information I found on the Chalion Wiki, Penric’s Mission is the fourth novella in the series.

In Penric’s Mission, the titular character finds himself in a far and distant land, working undercover to enlist the aid of a disaffected general. All seems to be going well until Penric is betrayed, thrown into a dungeon, and then sentenced to death. Penric has come a long way since he first met Desdemona, the demon who shares his body in a sort of symbiotic relationship, so he handles this change of fortune with tact and intelligence. Once free, he has the option to flee for his life. Instead, Penric stays on point, putting the mission ahead of his own well-being. It doesn’t hurt one bit that Penric finds himself attracted to the general’s sister. What started as a straightforward mission to secure the aid of a military genius becomes a fight for survival as Penric must face off against his betrayer and the sorcerer who serves him.

Penric’s Mission is a great addition to the Penric and Desdemona series and the first novella to earn a four rocket rating from me. Bujold’s writing style is as captivating as always, but what really sets this book apart from its predecessors is Penric himself, who has matured in terms of both his sorcery and his personality. He still relies on Desdemona’s greater experience and wisdom, but he often shows initiative all on his own now. It’s a refreshing change to his character, one that allows him to grow much more within the span of this one book then I’ve seen previously.

Needless to say, I liked Penric’s Mission and I already have plans to pick up the next book in the series.

Penric’s Fox by Lois McMaster Bujold

Rating

Review

*** This review originally appeared on Out of this World Reviews. ***

Penric’s Fox by Lois McMaster Bujold, the third installment in the Penric and Desdemona series, picks up some months after events in Penric and the Shaman. Once more, Penric is called upon to solve a murder mystery and, once more, he finds himself in a partnership with Locator Oswyl. Not to give anything away, but he also enlists the aid of Shaman Inglis, who was the titular shaman introduced in Penric and the Shaman.

A quick word about the ordering of the books in this series since there are multiple lists out there and it isn’t clear from just looking at the titles. On one hand, there is the publication order, but this isn’t the same as the chronological order. To further confuse things, the Penric and Desdemona series fits within the greater World of the Five Gods series, which also includes The Curse of Chalion, Paladin of Souls, and The Hallowed Hunt, none of which feature Penric or Desdemona. For my reading and reviewing purposes, I’m reading the books in the order shown on the Chalion Wiki.

Like the other books in the series, Penric’s Fox is somewhat short; the Kindle edition comes in at 113 pages. I’d therefore classify this as a novella more than a novel similar to the previous two installments. Its brevity makes for a fairly quick read that you might be able to fit into one long sitting or several moderate ones. Regardless, I think you’ll find Bujold’s writing style easily readable and the characters interesting and enjoyable. Bujold has a knack for creating believable yet not overly complex characters that you can relate to on many different levels because they are in many respects as normal as you or I.

Once more I’m giving three rockets to a book in this series. It’s become a common theme. The books are good reads, but they’re not spectacular. However, three rockets means I recommend each without reservation. It’s just that they aren’t going to blow your socks off or make you say, “Wow.” But, if you’re looking for novella length books that span a series that contains at least five other stories then I don’t think you can go wrong with Penric’s Fox and the others in the Penric and Desdemona series.

Penric and the Shaman by Lois McMaster Bujold

Rating

Review

*** This review originally appeared on Out of this World Reviews. ***

Penric and the Shaman by Lois McMaster Bujold is the second novella in the Penric and Desdemona series featuring the symbiotic pair of the same name. In Bujold’s world, demons are ethereal creatures, unable to remain stable in our world without a host to serve as a sort of anchor. Penric and Desdemona found themselves joined together after circumstances brought them together in the first book in the series, Penric’s Demon, which I reviewed not too long ago. At the end of the first book, Penric found himself enrolled in sorcerer’s school. This second book skips over all of that, taking place some four years later. This is actually good since, let’s face it, apprentices learning to become full-fledged sorcerers has been done a few times already.

In the service of a princess, Penric, now a sorcerer—albeit a young one whose stature was gotten more from Desdemona’s vast experience more so than his own—is asked to accompany a Locator, a person who can detect the presence of magic. Together the two are charged with hunting down a renegade shaman wanted for murder.

It’s a fairly interesting plot to which we’re introduced via Bujold’s always inviting style of writing. Bujold doesn’t waste a lot of time with exposition or flowery wording; you’re going to get lots of good storytelling and a plot that moves along at a steady pace. I’ll admit to some favoritism; Bujold’s Sharing Knife series remains one of my all-time favorite fantasy series. But, back to Penric and the Shaman, as one might expect, things are not as simple as tracking down a shaman wanted for murder. Penric will have plenty of opportunities to test his sorcery while attempting to find a balance between justice and levity.

I’m giving Penric and the Shaman three rockets because it’s a solid story with a few twists, but doesn’t go as deep as I would have liked due to its relatively short length (about 160 pages). Still, it’s a good addition to the series and I’ve already started reading the next book in the series, Penric’s Fox.