Scott Marlowe, fantasy author

Scott Marlowe

Author of the Alchemancer and Assassin Without a Name fantasy series

Shadow's Son by Jon Sprunk

Shadow's Son by Jon Sprunk is both the author's debut novel and the beginning of a new trilogy about the principal character, Caim, an assassin with a noble heart. The character is unique in a couple of ways: he has a ghostly familiar in the form of Kit who only he can see and he possesses a mysterious power that manifests itself in the form of shadows.

Told in the vein of Paul S. Kemp's Erevis Cale or R.A. Salvatore's Drizzt Do'Urden, Caim is a man who has taken up the knives of an assassin because it's what he's good at. He has rules: he doesn't kill women or children, and only takes contracts on those deserving. How the latter is determined is a bit subjective; this sort of vigilante justice inevitably bags the wrong man every once in a while.

Shadow's Son gets off to a rousing start. Caim is in the middle of a job that quickly degenerates into a chase and kill escapade as he refuses to allow his target to get away. From there we begin to learn more about our main character: why he's chosen this life, who his friends are (he doesn't have many), and what aspirations he harbors, especially of leaving the assassination business behind one day.

There is an ensemble of other characters: the beforementioned Kit who shadows Caim's every move, Jospehine, whose father is assassinated under suspicious circumstances and who is forced into an alliance with Caim, Ral, a rival assassin, and three principal villains who I unfortunately found to be caricatures of each other, with the only one displaying any sort of uniqueness being Leviticus because he shares some of the same shadow powers that Caim possesses.

I thought Shadow's Son started out great. But it quickly degenerates into a very predictable, cliché-ridden story. Bad boy hero is really a good guy deep down who develops an impossible relationship with the rich girl whose father he's accused of murdering. Also, he has a dark past tied up with a heritage he insists on denying even though it's pretty obvious there's some truth to it. In the end, he must embrace this heritage and save the city.

As for the characters, Caim often comes across as too noble to have ever gotten mixed up in such a sordid career. Josephine is your typical rich girl who is tougher than she looks; she has some character development, but I wasn't convinced. Kit, who might have been the most interesting of all, has potential that is never fully explored as she conveniently disappears so that Caim and Josephine can get to know each other a little better. The three villains… they're mean, greedy, and power-hungry in equal amounts, but fairly shallow from a motivation perspective.

Shadow's Son is akin to a blockbuster summer movie that almost works: good entertainment but not something that's going to make you think or feel hungry for the next installment. I'll see what Sprunk has in the works for the next book in the series and if it sounds intriguing enough I might pick it up. He at least leaves Caim's future adventures wide-open with the ending of this one.

Through Wolf's Eyes by Jane Lindskold

Through Wolf's Eyes by Jane Lindskold follows the basic Tarzan theme: a feral child living amongst the animals (in this case, wolves) is discovered by an expedition and brought back to civilization. The child, a young woman known by wolves as Firekeeper but by humans as Blysse, is thought to be the daughter of the king's brother. Turns out the king has no heirs. As a monarch approaching the end of his years, he is pressured by various parties to make a selection from amongst his eligible relatives. If he doesn't choose, civil war is a very real possibility. The return of Lady Blysse throws a wrench into the plans of those factions and individuals vying for the king's favor as she quickly makes an impression upon the elder statesman.

The story would seem somewhat predictable from there, except it isn't. Not that it is a terribly complicated plot, but Lady Blysse/Firekeeper does not simply step into the role of the king's heir. In fact, when offered the responsibility, she turns it down. From that point on, the suspense is raised a notch as the reader is left hanging nearly until the end before we learn who the king has selected. It may very well be Blysse; everyone assumes it is. I won't ruin it if you decide to pick this one up, but let's just say the not knowing creates some contention amongst otherwise already strained relations.

The writing in Through Wolf's Eyes is excellent. At times suspenseful, funny, and intriguing, it is only because the story unfolds so very slowly at times that keeps me from giving this novel a stellar review. It is most definitely a competent, well-told, and interesting story. But it really lags about midway through as Lindskold spends too much time developing relationships between Blysse/Firekeeper and various other members of the royal household. It reminded me mostly of a Bujold story: interesting characters, a well-developed world, and a smooth, easy-to-read story. But it takes some time before the place Lindskold is leading us to become apparent.

Don’t let the cover fool you, either. It’s dated and could use a refresh, but it’s in no way an indication of the quality of writing or storytelling inside.

There is some history or backstory that Lindskold discusses at times but doesn't explore too thoroughly: long ago, "high" animals coexisted with humans. Blysse brings two such high animals with her in the forms of Blind Seer, a very large wolf, and Elation, a peregrine falcon also larger than the norm. Blysse can communicate with both animals, and they can communicate back. It is something people do not question nor challenge. They just accept it as the sign of madness they believe it is. Lindskold could have gone further with these animals in terms of their prior relationship with humans and possibly she does in a later novel.

Through Wolf's Eyes is the first book in a series that spans at least five novels.

The Dragon Keeper by Robin Hobb

The Dragon Keeper by Robin Hobb is the first volume in the Rain Wilds Chronicles, a two part series that takes place after events told in the Liveship Traders books. Dragon Keeper was (briefly) a free giveaway in Kindle format from Amazon. That's how I obtained my copy.

I've mostly had good luck with Hobb. I really enjoyed both the Farseer and Soldier Son trilogies, but had some issues with the first novel in the Liveship Traders series. Ultimately, I never finished that series, though after having read Dragon Keeper I might be willing to give it another try. That being said, while Dragon Keeper is in some ways a continuation of the ongoing saga told in the Liveship books, it is the start of an entirely new story. There are some familiar names and faces here, but they're merely mentioned or, in the case of Althea and Brashen, appear as secondary characters.

The overarching story of the Rain Wilds Chronicles is that of a host of dragons who emerge from their cocoons underdeveloped. While the dragons of Hobb's world inherit the memories of their ancestors, these dragons are physically handicapped: their wings are stunted, their legs too short, their bodies undernourished. Forced to rely on their human tenders and dwell in a place where they are increasingly unwelcome, they decide as a group to travel upriver to seek out an ancient Elderling city that they all remember from memories past. Though they know the journey will be fraught with danger, they decide it is better to die trying than to remain where they are.

Because the dragons made a bargain with the folk of the River Wilds, they do not venture out alone. With them go the dragon keepers, malcontents and misfits chosen by the city council because they, like the dragons, are no longer wanted. The principal character amongst them is Thymara, a sixteen year old who, though born "marked" by the Rain Wild, was spared death by exposure by her father. The other keepers are a varied ensemble, with some who have definite designs of their own that go far beyond merely assisting and tending their dragons.

Also, there is Alise, a woman obsessed with dragon lore. She has amassed the single, largest repository of dragon knowledge and is given the chance to add to it when the opportunity arises for her to visit the dragons. Little does she know that they are just planning their expedition, and so, as one might expect, she winds up joining them.

Rounding out the cast is Leftrin, a likeable riverboat captain, and Sedric, Alise's oldest friend who wants nothing but the best for Alise, but who has certain nefarious motivations of his own.

I liked Dragon Keeper. While the cast of characters somewhat resembled that of Ship of Magic, where I found the majority of those characters unlikeable, these possess much greater depth and, for me, were easier to enjoy. While the novel begins with multiple storylines, it's easy to see that soon they all will coalesce into the journey the dragons intend to undertake. As a reader, I never felt I was getting bogged down with too much back story or being sent off on tangents that were either dead-ends or had nothing to do with the main plot. Everything fits here and Hobb keeps things moving along smoothly. She tells just enough to give you the characters' back-stories but not so much you feel compelled to start skipping pages.

That being said, the only thing holding me back from purchasing the next book in the series, Dragon Haven, is the Kindle price. It's not available in paperback yet, and I've never been one for hardcovers. It'd be nice if publishers would give it up already and just sell the electronic versions at a reasonable price, but that's not to be. Not right now, anyway. The Kindle edition of Dragon Haven sells for $14.99. Fortunately, my reading pile is never small, and so I can wait for it to come down in price. Take that, Big 6 Publishers.

Meanwhile, though, The Dragon Keeper is well worth your time. I’d recommend you check it out.

Lord of the Isles by David Drake

Lord of the Isles by David Drake is the next Tor.com free giveaway I'm going to review. This one is going to be a short one because, ultimately, my time with this novel was short.

There were two problems I had with Lord of the Isles: (1) the characters didn't reach out and grab me and (2) the author didn't allow for any time for the characters to reach out and grab me before the story swept them away. Unlike a Robin Hobb novel, for example, where the reader is introduced to the characters with a steady, depthful narration while the story moves along in like fashion, Drake dumps both characters and story on us with such brusqueness it was difficult to enjoy either.

The prologue details magic gone awry as a sorcerer successfully repels an attack by invaders but sinks his own city in the process. A trireme is thrown off-course from the resulting choppy seas and comes upon a small, out-of-the-way town where they discover the missing daughter of an important count and countess who were slain years before. Next thing we know this young woman is aboard the trireme and being whisked away to claim her birthright. Meanwhile, her brother, who we now know is not really her brother, looks to also be leaving the town via a visiting merchant. I stopped at that point, so I can't say what happened next.

While Drake is an accomplished writer of military fiction, he fired a blank on this one. Lord of the Isles, unfortunately, isn’t worth your time.

Sky of Swords by Dave Duncan

Sky of Swords by Dave Duncan is the third novel in the King's Blades series. In book two, Lord of the Fire Lands, the reader is left hanging at the end as history inexplicably unfolds in a different fashion compared to what was told in the first novel in the series. Duncan not only has some explaining to do, but, as a writer myself, I was curious to see how he was going to handle this inconsistent situation. I wasn't disappointed in the storytelling or the characters, but I was a little at the ultimate conclusion. Still, I'll give the author some credit: it was something you don't often see done in a fantasy novel, and while I did see where things were going about halfway through, the ride getting there was still fun.

In this installment our point-of-view character is Princess Malinda, daughter of the King of Chivial, which is the principal realm we are concerned with in book one of the series. Similar to how Lord of the Fire Lands was laid out, the story is part past, part present, but always told from Malinda's viewpoint. The novel opens with Malinda locked in prison, accused of high treason against the king. Of course, we know from the second book that the king, her father, is dead, and so the question of who is the current king is just one of many as the story unfolds.

It's interesting that Duncan chose Malinda as the primary viewpoint character. While she shows up in the previous two novels, it is mostly as cameo roles. In those, she is depicted as a spoiled child with little depth. This changes in Sky of Swords as she is forced to grow up fast or crumple beneath the political and royal weight laid upon her. Durendal (the hero and main character from the first novel) once again is present, this time as a secret advisor as Durendal must fear for his own life: Calls for the disbanding of the Blades grow louder after the king's death; anyone associated with them past or present must be wary. But Malinda casts a bold strike when she Binds four Blades to her, thus creating a group called the Princess's Blades.

Sky of Swords is an adventure novel first and foremost, but contains more court and political drama than the first two novels as Malinda must contend for the throne with a cousin and half-brother. Malinda is a likeable character whose personality we learn is quite different from her previous portrayal as we come to realize Duncan's characters are not always the most reliable narrators.

I liked Sky of Swords, but I did find the final solution to setting things right a bit of a letdown. Not to give anything away, but it was a very Superman-like ending. Still, it was a fun read and I'm looking forward to jumping into the next novel, Paragon Lost.