Scott Marlowe, fantasy author

Scott Marlowe

Author of the Alchemancer and Assassin Without a Name fantasy series

The Last Wish by Andrzej Sapkowski



*** 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



*** 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



*** 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



*** 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.

Blackguards: Tales of Assassins, Mercenaries, and Rogues by J.M. Martin (editor)



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

Blackguards by J.M. Martin (editor) is a collection of short works by a plethora of notable authors. As the title of the collection suggests, the stories center around an assortment of rogues, thieves, assassins, and generally unsavory individuals. Some are roguish on the exterior with some shred of decency beneath; others are just bad characters with no hope (or desire) for redemption. The origin of Blackguards can be traced back to Kickstarter, where a successful funding campaign resulted in the gathering of such authors as Cat Rambo, Michael J. Sullivan, Paul S. Kemp, Django Wexler, Joseph R. Lallo, Shawn Speakman, and many others.

“I’ve a tale about a prisoner what let a rat eat him bit by bit. He thought the most of him could escape that way, though he never figgered how to get his bones out…” – Seeds by Carol Berg

For all that, Blackguards gets off on a shaky foot. The forward, by notable author Glen Cook, is, to put it lightly, confusing. But, OK, it’s just the forward and not part of the collection itself. The introduction from the editor, J.M. Martin, is a bit more grounded and at least makes sense as he outlines his early fascination with rogues and how that culminated into the present collection. Good. Now I’m ready to jump in and immerse myself in some truly dastardly characters and stories. The first tale, Mainon by Jean Rabe, left me a little unfulfilled, especially as the reading experience came to a screeching start as I encountered this gem:

the waiter brought desert

Desert? Really? How about “the waiter brought dessert.” Talk about killing the reading experience. But, moving on, the story itself never grabbed me and I found the ending unfulfilling. No matter. It’s only one story and there were many more to explore. Besides, in any collection like this there are bound to be some gems and some duds.

The next story, Irindai by Bradley P. Beaulieu, is beautifully written and actually got off to a great start. But, again, it seemed to fizzle at about at its midway point. Needless to say, two stories in with an egregious error to boot, and I was not feeling good about this book.

Fortunately Cat Rambo’s The Subtler Art got my reading experience back on track. From that point onward I liked almost every story. Notable amongst those, I’d list A Better Man by Paul S. Kemp, which features Kemp’s sword and sorcery duo Egil and Nix; The First Kill by Django Wexler; Better To Live Than To Die by John Gwynne; The Secret by Mark Lawrence; and many others. As noted above, in any collection like these you’re going to have a mixed bag. That’s not to say any of the stories were just outright horrible. Only that a few didn’t appeal to me. They may very well resonate with you, or you may find ones I really enjoyed to lack anything notable for you.

In all, though, Blackguards is a wonderful collection of roguish tales. It’s a solid four rockets, or would have been I should say, if not for the numerous typos. I’m fairly forgiving of these kinds of errors. One, two, even three I can tolerate. But Blackguards piled one proofreading error on top of another. In addition to the above mentioned use of ‘desert,’ here’s a few more:

But let Laureen think I’m some was a clumsy, yellow-haired twit.
She wore charms, talismans of made of bone and feathers and other items
trying to sense of the tingle of a ward
Ieve if it had been magical
Her last few moment of consciousness flickered through her

Unfortunately, there are more. In our current publishing arena, where self-published works are skewered over an open flame for such missteps, I cannot in good conscience expect anything less from supposed professionally published works. Blackguards gets 4 rockets, but I’m marking it down 1 rocket due to the extreme number of proofreading errors.