Tag Archives: Fantasy

King Rolen’s Kin

Before I start, for posterity I want to say that I think I’ll always remember what I was doing on the day that Prince George was born: we buried my granddad. Sort of fitting that we said goodbye to someone old and then ushered in someone new. There we are.

Right. Book review time. I’m a great one for browsing in bookshops, buying something random that I like the sound of and then squirreling it away on a shelf for years before reading it. I have two shelves in my room now dedicated to the unread books that I own, in the hopes of getting through some of them before I buy new ones (ha, not very likely). Last night I picked one to read while I sat around for two hours waiting for some live music (relying on trains in the Highlands to get you somewhere at a useful time is not advisable). I picked…

The King’s Bastard, by Rowena Cory Daniells.

Now, I bought this somewhen, and I went into it cold. No clue about reviews, sequels (though it does say BOOK ONE on the front so I know there are sequels), the author or anything. I ended up reading it until half one in the morning. If that isn’t recommendation enough, I guess I could tell you a little more about it.

It’s about Byren, the younger twin of Lence (the main issue I have with the book. Just call him Lance, ffs!), their siblings Piro and Fyn, and all the stuff that happens to them due to them being the children of King Rolen of Rolencia. It’s heartwarming to see some tried and tested fantasy tropes in action but they are well done and I am itching to read the next one. A few examples:

1. The heir is arrogant and a bit of a tool, but his younger brother is good with people and loved more than him, leading to major resentment that drives a lot of the plot.

2. A younger sister who is actually pretty intelligent and feisty but is treated like a child/brat because she doesn’t want to be a pretty princess and do all the elegant lady stuff so she gets in trouble all the time. And she’s a girl, so what does she know about ANYTHING? Eh? Women! *shakes head*

3. You’re GAY?!?!?! Unclean! Unclean!

4. “The neighbouring kingdom is pretty much the same as ours but clearly they’re all evil/barbarians/just plotting to take over.”

5. Magic/mystic power can make you crazy and is feared and forbidden.

6. More end of chapter cliffhangers than you can shake a stick at.

No.6 is partly why I was up so late. I could not wait to find out what happened next. There is a lot going on in this book but it doesn’t feel like it’s just setting up later plot arcs, nor does it feel like Daniells chucked in every twist she could think of. The characters are developed, if still a little constrained by their fantasy pigeonholes (“But I don’t want to be King!” wails Byren over and over again in response to  a. people telling him how much better he’d be than his older brother and b. his older brother accusing him of a conspiracy to take the throne) and with a major upset in progress at the end of the book it’ll be interesting to see how they develop further though I think I could put money on a few of them.

What I quite like about this book is that Daniells doesn’t info dump. She leads the reader using context clues and drip feeding information, but without pages of clunky “minor character represents the reader and asks a stupid question to elicit expositional dialogue”. At the very beginning for example, the characters are tracking a magical animal called a lincis, an Affinity beast, and we are told no more at that point about what either of those things are. If you’ve ever read a decent fantasy book in your life you can make a fairly good guess, and if you said “something probably similar to a lynx” and “part of, or the name of, the magic/religious system” you’d be right! Daniells’ characters discuss these things as though they know what they are. Of course they do; they’re in their own world and we’ve just joined them in the middle of something. The action unfolds and we learn some new words: a seep, Warders, Untamed Affinity (probably bad), renegade Power-worker… but no wet-behind-the-ears recruit asks about them, or wonders about them, or anything. We just get carried along and are allowed to work it out for ourselves.

There are spies and traitors, political marriages and religious ceremonies, laws and historical prejudices and a king not totally unlike Robert Baratheon in his bluff, shouty, quick to anger but also quick to call for wine, my-way-or-the-highway, I AM THE KING! moments. Power plays and layers of lies and betrayals. Even towards the end when a lot of the machinations are explained, I’m not sure I believe that they’re telling the truth. I came away with a “well, no one actually saw that body, so they could be alive…” coupled with an “If X had just told Y about such and such, they could have…” which is great. I’m intrigued by the next ones. Trying to stop myself buying them RIGHT NOW because I have a ton of stuff to do. I need to dangle them as a reward for when I’ve done useful things.

I wouldn’t say this book/series really breaks the mould but it’s worth reading for a solid fantasy world with a plot to get your teeth into. It’s more intelligent than a sword-and-sorcery, with a bit of political complexity and characters to cheer and boo along the way.

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Judging by the cover

On my way to work last week, I saw a Goth. Alone! In the wild! Like a baby crow fallen from the nest… I nodded hello, and she vaguely nodded back, looking confused. I nod hello to the few other walkers I see in the mornings – dog walker lady (and dog), beardy hat man, pink coat girl… – in solidarity to all early morning pedestrians. Rain or shine, there we are, caught in our rat runs. Monday to Friday, at least.

Anyway, this Goth. It might seem like I’m poking fun. I suppose I am, mildly, but only in a very self-aware way. I had a Goth phase myself, once upon a time. Well, in my late teens. The girl I saw on my walk was dressed in black (obviously), baggy trousers and black turtleneck, and the obligatory long leather coat. But it was almost like dress-down day. No Bride of Dracula make up, no dyed hair, no spikes or studs. She was probably on her way to work.

My friend Rob once told me that being a Goth wasn’t about what you wore. He said one of the Gothiest people he knew wore nothing but bubblegum pink. Would you peg her for a Goth if you saw her in the street? Doubtful. Someone a bit odd, certainly, but there we are. That’s our problem, not hers.

My Goth phase didn’t last that long. Just like Loki, I lacked conviction. I had a few friends of the Goth persuasion and I assimilated for a while. It was easier to have a group identity than to strike out on my own. I bought a couple of Siouxsie and the Banshees albums, dyed my hair purple and bought a mesh top to wear over a black vest. And a pair of Crims. Big baggy black jeans with huge deep pockets (big enough for a pad of A4 paper or a bottle of Coke) and straps and zips. Very useful. I lasted pretty much into my second year of Uni.

By that time, the friends for whom I had reinvented myself were at their own universities, or jobs, and I had found a new crowd. It was easier to carry on. But then I realised that, just as Rob had told me, it didn’t really matter what I wore. My clothing had been the ID badge that got me into the friendship group, but it was my great personality and charm and amazing modesty that kept me there. I stopped wearing the Crims, but I still have them. Occasionally I find them in the back of the wardrobe and laugh at myself. Oh dear.

My later Uni years were taken up with the working-with-children part of my degree and so I had to start wearing grown up clothes anyway. Unsurprisingly my friends were unaffected. It’s almost like books should not be judged by their covers…

And segue…

Cover art on books is really important. You’d think after all I just said that it wouldn’t be. After all, the saying has to come from somewhere. But, my God, people… The differences in cover art in different countries can be astounding as well as that of different print editions. I like pretty books. I like good books that are also pretty. I like good books. I prefer them to be pretty. I want to show them off. I don’t want to get them all rebound in matching leather hardcovers. I just want them to be classy and capture the feel of the book. I have a few examples.

Fantasy books are great for cover art because of the range of character species, magic use, epic quests, weird settings and so on. But some do it better than others. One thing I do not like is the pseudo-CGI effect. This is evident on my bookshelf, alas, because of the versions of the Gemmell books I own. When I first read Echoes of the Great Song, for example, it was a lovely, well-thumbed old paperback that had this cover art:

Thanks, Amazon!  (Picture from Amazon)

Thanks, Amazon!
(Picture from Amazon)

I borrowed it from my friend. When I bought my copy, it looked like this: 

Oh dear.

Oh dear.
(Picture from Amazon)

and matches the other reprints all done in the same style with a Polar Express style figure on the front. I’ve seen a lot worse, and I’m not suggesting that cover art should be the same from the first edition and forever more, but it does make me a little sad. It jars with the old-fashioned fantasy content. Bloomin’ computers! Back to the Stone Age with all of us! Grr! *shakes pitchfork*

Joe Abercrombie is our next stop. When I bought my copies of the First Law trilogy’s three volumes, they all matched (hooray! Another bugbear –when the art/artist changes halfway through a series so they don’t match!) and were elegant and simple. Parchment and runes, and some bloodstains. Beautiful. Just enough gilt to give them some gravitas. Like this:

So classy! (Picture from Goodreads)

So classy!
(Picture from Goodreads)

For a while afterwards though, on one of my frequent Waterstone’s browsing missions, I found newer print runs had these covers: 

Oooh, sexy Ninefingers! (Photo from Amazon customer images)

Oooh, sexy Ninefingers!
(Photo from Amazon customer images)

by Chris McGrath who, I am reliably informed by the Internet, has done various artwork for the Dresden Files. Now, this isn’t a bad cover by any means. But the guy pictured here is a vicious barbarian called Logen Ninefingers aka The Bloody Nine. Say one thing about Logen Ninefingers, say he’s not a sexy dude. The guy on this cover looks scarred and like he handles himself in a fight, but he reminds me of Aragorn: gritty, but still with a full shelf of hair products. I know everyone imagines characters in different ways, but there are limits, and if anyone who has read these books imagines Logen Ninefingers that way, I urge them to seek professional help.

Interestingly, this cover art seems to have faded and been replaced with the original again, or at least, the parchment ones were visible where the portrait ones were not, last time I was in Ye Olde Book Shoppe.

Finally, a tale of differing cover art by language/country. I was working in Canada for a while, and I came across the French-language version of Greg Keyes’s Kingdoms of Thorn and Bone series. They only had the French version in the shop, and it looked like this:

 

It makes me so happy. (Credit to Amazon.ca!)

It makes me so happy.
(Credit to Amazon.ca!)

Lovely, gentle, classic fantasy illustration that includes elements of the story (the broken tomb in the foreground, for one). It reminds me a bit of a Tarot card. Amazon reliably informs me that this is the English-language version available in Canada (and the US?):

 

Acceptable. (Guess where I got this picture? Yup, Amazon!)

Acceptable.
(Guess where I got this picture? Yup, Amazon!)

A bit less subtle, but those are at least two easily recognisable characters on the front: Aspar White the holter and Stephen Darige the novice/initiate. In my head Aspar will always be Sean Bean, but the guy on the cover will do. The versions I have all follow the same format:

 

I do like a nice vignette (Credit to.... Amazon)

I do like a nice vignette
(Credit to…. Amazon)

A block coloured cover with a cameo scene. Each book is a different colour, but the design is the same. I prefer this version to the middle one, but I really wanted the top one. I very nearly spent a lot of dollars on buying the whole series in French (which I would have been able to read, incidentally) just for the cover art. I still vaguely lament not doing so. I would have just looked at them. Like I do with all the pretty shoes I buy but can’t wear for risk of getting them dirty (Scotland is not disposed to delicate shoes).

Why does the cover art have to vary so much? From edition to edition the artist can change, I understand that, but on the same edition in different countries? Surely it’s cheaper and easier to have one design and pay one artist than to re-commission someone different for different language versions/countries. Is it to do with publishing rights?

I am coming to terms with my ability to see deep within a person’s soul and get to know them properly regardless of their outward appearance, but on my bookshelf I must have beauty. A shelf full of books is part of the décor of the room. It’s like a painting. To a bookshelf is where I will gravitate when in a new friend’s house. I want to feed my eyes before I feed my eyes!

Ebooks are on the rise, I know, and cover art (or dustjacket art) is becoming less important. But for me it’s part of the whole book experience. I savour the cover, knowing what lies within. Would you package a sirloin steak in a Mcdonald’s carton?

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