Empire Games continues the Merchant Princes series, following on 17 years after the events of the earlier books. While the previous books’ protagonist, Miriam, continues as a major character, Empire Games introduces a new protagonist, Rita Douglas, a freelance actor living in a high-security America that’s aware of parallel timelines and extremely paranoid about terrorist attacks from world-walkers. Recruited by the Department of Homeland Security because of her world-walker genes, Rita finds herself railroaded into the role of a world-walking spy. But there’s a lot more going on in the parallel timeline than the US government anticipated.
I think I made it pretty clear in my review of The Liar’s Key that I’m a fan of Mark Lawrence. That being the case, it’s difficult to remain objective. I’ve been excited to read The Wheel of Osheim ever since I turned the last page in The Liar’s Key, and I was fortunate enough to be given an Advanced Reader Copy – cutting short that wait by several weeks. There’s a danger with such anticipation that expectations might be raised to unattainable levels.
And yet Mark Lawrence’s writing manages to attain them anyway.
Now thoroughly swept up in the great events of the empire, womaniser and coward Prince Jalan continues to find himself pulled this way and that by his friends, the manipulations of his royal grandmother, and his own desires. But as the boundaries between worlds decay, the Dead King has more power to send against Jalan to try to seize the Liar’s Key. Jalan’s keen sense of self-preservation and his desires drive him onwards, until there’s nowhere left to go but the titular Wheel – a mysterious force around which the barrier between worlds is thinnest and a man’s fears can take physical form.
The Wheel of Osheim is packed with danger and darkness, yet manages to alleviate it with Jalan’s witty self-aware narrative. There is a depth to the darkness in the world of the Broken Empire, where necromancers can make powerful weapons from murdered babies and raise fallen soldiers to fight against their own comrades. The humour is therefore much-needed, and well-judged.
In this final volume of the Red Queen’s War trilogy, Jalan’s personality is given more depth. For all his self-awareness about his cowardice and vices, he is slowly revealed to have a touching blind spot. His continued refusal to see this even through his own narration of the story shows Lawrence’s skill in portraying the human condition. And as the threat against the Empire becomes inescapable, Jalan comes to accept the duties he has spent most of his life avoiding. In The Liar’s Key, Jalan found selfish reasons to do the right thing; now, when self-preservation is reason enough, he finds himself acting out of duty. He’s grown, little by little.
One again Lawrence has triumphed in creating a compelling tale full of magic, danger and unpredictable twists and turns. He ends the trilogy with a fittingly spectacular conclusion – one which, in what is becoming a tradition with Mark Lawrence’s books, saw me reading far into the small hours of the morning on a work night. Again.
It is with no reservations whatsoever therefore that I rate The Wheel of Osheim 10/10.
The Fire Mages by Pauline M Ross is an imaginative fantasy novel which tells the story of Kyra, a young village girl with an ambition to become a scribe and have the ability to write spellpages – and leave her boring village behind. She meets interesting and mysterious characters, learns about magic, and travels far and wide as she learns more about magic, the politics of her home country, and herself.
Iron Winter is the third book in the alternate history Northland trilogy by Stephen Baxter, set in a world where the prehistoric peoples of Doggerland, a region of land which once linked Britain to the rest of Europe, built an immense wall to hold back the sea, and with it a powerful civilisation. Iron Winter follows the stories of several Northlanders and others, millennia after the wall was built, as they struggle to survive amidst the start of an ice age – with glaciers advancing, huge numbers of people migrating and great empires going to war. Pyxeas is a scholar in search of answers; Rina, once an Annid, a leader of Northland seeks to protect her family by migrating to Carthage. Her son Nelo likes nothing more than drawing and painting the people and landscapes that inspire him, but finds himself witness at the heart of the big events of the world.
With the multiple perspectives of characters experiencing different facets of the disaster, Baxter creates a depth to the story that grounds it in humanity. Each character has unique experiences of the advancing winter, and drives their own story – and influences those of others – through their desires, wants and flaws. This is not merely the story of climate change, mass migrations, plague, and empires in conflict, it is the story of individuals battling to survive, to understand, to record and to prosper under circumstances they are not prepared for and could never have predicted.
The weakness, with regards the characters, is emotional depth. While each character has goals and motivations, flaws and skills, they lack emotional depth. The sheer number of characters cannot be blamed for this, I think, since other facets of their personalities are clear. The result is that the emotional moments – the moments of loss and grief, of fear and revelation – don’t have much impact.
Iron Winter is quite a long book, dense with story and action. There are perhaps some scenes which could have been cut without much lost, and others which dragged, but overall the story is well-paced, with strong if emotionally shallow characters and plot lines which pull the reader onwards. The story feels organic, the plot developing naturally on the basis of the decisions of the characters.
I rate Iron Winter 8/10. It is a powerful and dramatic story with varied characters giving unique perspectives, but lacks emotional depth. It’s a good read, and a strong conclusion to a fascinating trilogy.
The Stockholm Octavo, by Karen Engelmann, is an historical novel set in Stockholm in the late 18th century. It follows Emil Larsson, a Sekretaire working in customs, who has been told by his employer that he needs to marry in order to retain and improve his job and his social position. The enigmatic Mrs Sparrow performs a mystical card reading called an Octavo for Larsson, giving him hints of eight people whom he must find in order to find the love and connection her vision has foreseen for him. Larsson’s story is set within a period of unrest and political intrigue which influences and is influenced by Larsson’s aims.
Okay so here’s the thing. It’s no secret I’m a fan of Mark Lawrence. I read his first book, Prince of Thorns, and I was hooked. I’ve reviewed every book as he’s released them – beforehand, in one case, since I managed to get hold of an ARC. I pre-ordered The Liar’s Key in September last year. Mr Lawrence has got a great voice to his prose, one that keeps me reading – this time round til 1:30am two nights running – and fantastically fun protagonists. There was never any doubt in my mind that once again he’d pull it off and I’d of course review his book and say it’s great. Which it is.
And therein lies the problem. There’s only so many ways you can say “this author’s great”. But I’ll see what I can manage.
The Tattered Banner by Duncan M Hamilton tells the story of Soren, a young man living on the streets who, after a fight with a merchant, finds sponsorship from a wealthy aristocrat to learn sword fighting at the prestigious Academy, a ticket out of his old life and into a new life of fighting, diplomacy and politics.