Scott Marlowe, fantasy author

Scott Marlowe

Author of the Alchemancer and Assassin Without a Name fantasy series

Quietus by Tristan Palmgren

Rating

Review

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

At first, Quietus by Tristan Palmgren reminded me a lot of the excellent Doomsday Book by Connie Willis. The basic premise is about the same: anthropologists from another world (dimension in the case of Quietus and time period with respect to Doomsday Book) visit 14th century England just as the Black Death is taking hold and laying waste to civilization. In the case of Doomsday Book, the main character arrives in 1348 by mistake. In the case of Quietus, our main character, Habidah, is exactly where she wants to be or, rather, exactly where her superiors want her to be. In her dimension, a plague very similar to the Black Death is ravaging entire worlds, and so Habidah and her team are sent to study the 14th century version of the disease and the effects it has on the populace in hopes of developing a cure for their version of it. Turns out they’re not being told everything, and so the plot becomes much bigger, the stakes higher, and, for the medieval people Habidah begins to develop a connection to, the danger much greater.

Backing up, Quietus begins with great promise. Habidah is a likable character, the leader of a team whose mission is to study and record; they are not to intervene under any circumstances. Despite the tragedies they must witness over and over, their purpose is not to cure the medieval version of the plague or to assist the people affected by it. This is a tough pill to swallow for our dimensional travellers, but they do it because they must. Habidah, however, is blessed (cursed?) with a conscience that will not allow her to stand by and do nothing. A small infraction is reprimanded with a slap on the wrist and a warning not to do it again. A second violation, more serious this time since she brings a certain monk onto her ship for treatment, sets the story on an entirely different course from where we started. Quietus truly becomes interesting at this point and wholly diverges away from the premise set forth in Doomsday Book.

Niccolucio, the monk whom Habidah rescues from certain death, is just as interesting a character as Habidah. Raised to affluence, he forsakes his family fortune for the simple life of a Carthusian monk. But when he is forced to care for his brothers as they die one by one, he begins to question his god’s purpose and his own. When he learns the truth about Habidah, or at least the version of the truth she reveals to him, his path becomes something unexpected as he plays a major role in the unfolding of the bigger and primary storyline revealed later on.

There are other supporting characters, none of whom really made an impression on me, as well as some other subplots that were mostly stereotypical and not really needed to support the main storyline. The writing is good but didn’t strike me as exceptional. Mr. Palmgren’s prose does the job but won’t knock you off your feet.

I want to thank the publisher for giving me a free electronic copy of Quietus via Netgalley in exchange for a fair and honest review. I’m giving Quietus three rockets because, while a good read with some likable characters, ultimately the story meandered a bit too much for my liking. Niccolucio’s awakening was of particular interest, but it goes off-track when certain entities interpose themselves. It was almost as if the story became maybe a bit too complex; that extra level was not needed. In any case, I enjoyed Quietus and recommend it quite readily.

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.

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.

Penric’s Demon by Lois McMaster Bujold

Rating

Review

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

Penric’s Demon by Lois McMaster Bujold is the first in a series about Penric and the demon, Desdemona. The novella is short (as befits a novella), coming in at 109 pages, making it a fairly quick read with a fairly linear storyline. It’s somewhat of a classic fantasy read, set in a world and with many characters whom we only get to know cursorily. Still, the magic, the setting, and the demons are all interesting in their own way; I want to continue with the series, in other words.

At the onset, we find Penric on his way to his wedding. As a minor noble, Penric finds himself matched with a better lady than he’d hoped, and he’s looking forward to the union. On the way, however, he stops to come to the aid of a fallen elderly woman, not knowing that she is in actuality a powerful sorceress and a host to a likewise powerful demon. As one might imagine, Penric’s life becomes entangled with that of the demon in such a way that the two become inseparable.

Penric is a likeable enough fellow. He’s not exactly the most heroic character, but he also doesn’t shy away from doing the right thing. Desdemona is a bit of a mystery and an intriguing one at that. She’s very old, very powerful, and very motherly when it comes to Penric. Or maybe she’s more like an older sister. Regardless, she becomes a tutor of sorts to him, imbuing him with her experience and knowledge, both of which come in handy when Penric needs to get himself out of a jam.

I’m giving Penric’s Demon three rockets because it’s a fun, fast, enjoyable read, and I’m looking forward to reading on in the series.