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Review: Arm of the Sphinx by Josiah Bancroft

After stealing an airship at the end of Senlin Ascends, Thomas Senlin and his crew still have plenty of hardships to struggle through and places to explore on their journey to find Senlin’s vanished wife Marya. They encounter outcasts, people who live on the edges of society, and people who hide in the shadows, as they continue to work their way up the immense Tower of Babel, ultimately seeking out a mysterious figure known as the Sphinx to get help in their search.

Arm of the Sphinx is the second in the Books of Babel series by Josiah Bancroft.

The fantastic original cover by Ian Leino

Where Senlin Ascends kept to a single point of view, that of protagonist Thomas Senlin, its sequel branches out. Senlin himself remains the primary point of view, but there are also numerous scenes from the perspective of other members of his crew. While this dilutes the focus of the story, it feels like it fits: Senlin is now responsible for other people besides himself, and those people are engaged in parts of the story Senlin never sees.

This widening of the perspective meshes wonderfully with the wider view of the world of the Tower of Babel: where in the first book, Senlin was a newcomer learning about the Tower, now he is an experienced hand with it, a leader to others, still learning but now seeing deeper than the surface level. There is a greater sense of complexity to the world that parallels the wider complexities of a larger cast of point of view characters.

Bancroft has a wonderful talent for building a sense of menace. The more Senlin learns, and the more we learn, the greater the impression that there is a lot going on beneath the surface, a sense of strange occurrences, subversion, manipulation – that nothing is quite as it seems.

There’s also a strong feeling of mystery surrounding the Sphinx in particular, but other characters the crew encounters too. Even as Senlin learns more, there are plenty of questions left unanswered, drawing the reader onward.

Each of the point of view characters is given the space, in their scenes, for the reader to learn about their motivation, their goals and the things that are or have been holding them back. This is balanced beautifully with the action and more tense moments to create a compelling tale that kept me on the edge of my seat, and my finger hovering over the screen ready to turn to the page so not a second would be wasted.

Arm of the Sphinx is a solid second instalment to the quadrilogy*, with all the wonder and exploration of the first in the series and a stronger feeling of sinister undercurrents. It is a natural progression building on the foundations created by its predecessor and full of promise for the rest of the tale.

I rate Arm of the Sphinx 9/10; it is an enthralling, exciting read and I look forward to reading Bancroft’s next book.

See my review of Senlin Ascends here.

*A previous version of this review refered to the Books of Babel series as a trilogy. Mr Bancroft has confirmed here that it is planned to be a series of four, or “foursie” as he prefers to think of it.

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Review: Red Sister by Mark Lawrence

Red Sister is Mark Lawrence’s seventh published novel and the seventh I have reviewed, so regular readers may already have some inkling of what to expect from this review. Released in April 2017, Red Sister is the first book in the Book of the Ancestor series. It follows Nona, a young girl from a tiny village, taken in my the sisters of Sweet Mercy Convent – which is no ordinary Earth-style convent, but one which trains girls as fighters and magic users, according to their abilities. Alongside Nona, we are plunged into a world of strange powers and nuanced intrigues.

Red Sister’s striking UK cover

Where his previous two trilogies were set in the world of the Broken Empire, in Red Sister Lawrence has created a new world, and one which is magnificent in its originality and allure. It is a difficult, grim world, where the fight for survival is immediate and constant, and the threat looms quite literally on the horizon. But it is also a beautiful world, painted with icy landscapes, glowing magic and strange architecture. Each new element of it is revealed organically, as Nona becomes aware of it, so that there is never the feeling of exposition but rather a sense of revelation that pulled me forward to learn more with just as much power as did the plot and characters.

Red Sister’s gorgeous US cover

Nona is a fantastic protagonist for this story, perfectly crafted to meet the needs of the story and of the reader. She is self-possessed if inexperienced, confident and private. The path of her growth and development feels natural and intensely sympathetic. Her relationships with the other characters are nuanced, changing over time as she becomes more knowledgable and more confident in her role at the Convent, in a way that demonstrates her increasing maturity as time passes.

It’s hard not to think of the plot overall from a writer’s perspective, so in blunt terms I will mention that it has a solid structure, with a series of well-placed story beats that lead logically through the events, giving a satisfying ending that has a strong sense of where it came from. But that doesn’t do it justice: it is a crafted, woven, elegant plot, with action in all the right places (and that action of the “badass” variety), subtleties and hints beaded into the fabric. All of these little elements – the magic, the setting, the different characters’ roles within the convent, Nona’s skills and approaches – all come together to build something unstoppable and remarkable.

Though not a short book, there is nothing superfluous, nothing that does not have a place in the story; but also no holes for confusion to dwell in, just enough information for the reader to have a full understanding without hand-holding. There is space for the reader’s imagination, but not for ambiguity; a perfect pitch.

I have made no secret, in my previous reviews of Mark Lawrence’s books, that I am definitely a fan. It is, I assure you, well-earned praise, and none more so than for Red Sister. It is a whole and complete book, aware of its position at the beginning of the trilogy but also very much with a full story of its own to tell, and that told brilliantly. I try to avoid giving books a rating of ten, as I feel this should be reserved only for the very best fiction the world has to offer, but in this case I have no reservations: Red Sister gets 10/10.

My previous reviews of Mark Lawrence’s books:

Review: Senlin Ascends by Josiah Bancroft

Thomas Senlin is the quiet headmaster of a small town’s modest school, recently married to the spirited Marya. For their honeymoon, they travel to the famed Tower of Babel, the centre of civilisation – but are separated in the crowded marketplace at the Tower’s base. In his attempts to find Marya, Senlin meets a cast of rogues and mysterious figures, survives strange experiences, and rises through the enigmatic, immense Tower.

The gorgeous cover of Senlin Ascends is by artist Ian Leino.

Senlin Ascends is Bancroft’s first novel, published in 2013.

One of the real strengths of Bancroft’s prose, which I noticed early in the book, was how he used it to reveal Senlin’s personality. On the very first page there is a metaphor comparing shale hills to shattered blackboards, imagery that reveals that Senlin is a teacher even before his name is mentioned in the text. The book sparkles with these allusions, bringing its protagonist to life – and subtly revealing the changes he undergoes as a result of his experiences.

And what experiences they are. The Tower of Babel is a marvel, a world as complex as any I have read, stuffed with strange technologies and bizarre entertainments, social nuances and odd rules. It is populated by predatory merchants, smooth talkers, bitter cynics, self-deluding hedonists and sinister figures. Everyone Senlin meets wants something from him, one way or another, and so he has a difficult path to navigate to avoid the numerous pitfalls laid out for such tourists as he is in the beginning.

Throughout the novel there are intriguing hints that there is something a lot bigger going on than a man in search of his wife. The Tower is a complex world populated by chess masters and manipulators such that Senlin was entirely unprepared for – as was I when I began reading. It drew me on, even as the core plot of Senlin’s search for Marya did.

I rate Senlin Ascends 9/10. It is an engaging adventure set in a wonderfully detailed world. I look forward to reading Arm of the Sphinx.

Review: The Dragon’s Egg by Pauline M Ross

The Dragon’s Egg is the sixth book in the Brightmoon Annals by Pauline M Ross. Like its predecessors it stands alone, introducing a new cast of characters and bringing in a few from previous books to help the protagonists along. As with the previous books, this latest fantasy adventure explores the strange magics of the Brightmoon world, and how the civilisation from before a mysterious ancient Catastrophe sought to preserve magic as they faced down their own extinction.

Disclaimer: I recieved an ARC (Advanced Reader/Review Copy) of this book in exchange for an honest review.

dragons egg

Continue reading Review: The Dragon’s Egg by Pauline M Ross

Review: The A to Z of You and Me by James Hannah

Usually I stick to fantasy on this blog, with occasional forays into historical fiction and science fiction. I’m making an exception for this book. Partly because I really just want to talk about how awesome it is, and partly because I read it as part of my attempts to read more books written by local authors – Shropshire authors.

The A to Z of You and Me by James Hannah tells the story of Ivo, a terminally ill 40-year-old looking back through his life as part of a game suggested for him by Sheila the nurse at the care home where he now lives. It’s a life of fun, regret, love, pain, friendship and crochet. As time runs out, Ivo uses the A to Z game to put things back together before it’s all too late.

a-z of you and me

Continue reading Review: The A to Z of You and Me by James Hannah

Review: The Fire Mages’ Daughter by Pauline M Ross

After reading The Fire Mages at the end of last year, I was eager to read more from Pauline M Ross, and I picked for my next read the sequel to that one, starring as its protagonist Kyra’s daughter, Drina.

Drina is a rather sickly girl with a strong attachment to her mother, so when she is summoned by the Drashona (equivalent to a queen) who wishes to assess whether she would make a suitable heir, Drina isn’t too happy about it. Drina finds herself trained as a diplomat, and in this role meets with the new living god of the Blood Clans – a mysterious people possessing a strange and threatening type of magic. When Bennamore goes to war with the Blood Clans, Drina must protect those she cares about and see through the complications to bring about peace.

fire mages daughter

Continue reading Review: The Fire Mages’ Daughter by Pauline M Ross

Review: The Ocean at the End of the Lane

I started reading The Ocean At the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman on Sunday evening. I stopped reading it when I could no longer keep my eyes open, having got more than half way through. Yesterday, on Tuesday, I finished reading it half an hour after I got home from work. So it’s safe to say I enjoyed it.

ocean at the end of the lane coverThe Ocean at the End of the Lane starts with George, a man in his forties, having come from a funeral and returning to visit the place where he grew up. What he finds there is a duckpond which is also an ocean, and the key to memories of a time when he was seven and he learned that the world was more magical, and more dangerous, than he realised. The book contains menacing beings, enchanting visuals and a family of very intruiging women. And also several cats.

It is a powerful story about memories, about childhood, and about how perspectives change between childhood and adulthood. I also think it is about belief: belief in friends, in oneself, and to a certain extent in things that aren’t seen.

It’s taken me as long as it has to write this review because it’s very difficult to come up with new and different ways of saying “it was awesome” for the length that I usually like to write a review. When writing is this good, it’s hard to pick out anything in particular to comment on; it’s hard to think about the writing at all, when it is written so seamlessly that mere words go unnoticed within the magic of the story.

So I suppose that makes a good starting point: the flow and pacing were spot on. There was no part where I felt the writing moved too slowly or too quickly for the content of the story. I finished this book in three sittings, and at the end of each I stopped for reasons which are not the fault the book – sleepiness, dinner being ready, and, okay, yes, the third one is the fault of the book; there was none of it left.

The only occasions I did have enough self-awareness to notice the writing was twice when I noticed how well chosen particular phrases were to give an impression of a visual in a masterful economy of words.

One of those visuals, of a scattering of candle flames and silk, really encapsulated one side of the magic of the world: it is full of enchantment and wonder. It is beautiful and beyond reason, and there is a comfort to its presence. The other side of the magical world mirrored it perfectly, with sinister creatures which felt genuinely creepy and dangerous, even before they actually became dangerous.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane gives also a very good example of how a prologue and epilogue can be used effectively to frame a story, while being both relevant to it and slightly outside it. They brought the story full circle, and gave insight into the characters and the world which could not be told from the perspective of the seven-year-old George.

This is a book I want to read again. It’s definitely going on my favourites shelf (the top shelf, alongside Howl’s Moving Castle). I am not at all surprised that it won the National Books Awards 2013 Book of the Year award. And after everything I have written above, I suspect you will not be surprised when I rate it 10/10.

How to request a review from a book blogger

I’ve written on this subject before, and me previous advice still stands, but after having received some more unusual requests, I feel it’s time for a refresh of the topic. If you’re an author with a new book you’re trying to promote, you’ll be looking for reviews. Book bloggers are a good place to get reviews because they give your book exposure to an audience who might not have seen it before, rather than just providing reviews on Amazon or Smashwords, which will only be seen by those already considering buying the book.

So how do you go about getting book bloggers to review your book?

Continue reading How to request a review from a book blogger

How to ask for reviews of your self-published novel on forums

Congratulations, you’ve published your novel! Well done, that’s a point many people don’t reach. Now you just need to sell it. And that’s harder than it looks. Statistics published in The Guardian reveal that half of all self-published authors earned less than $500 in 2011. When you consider that hundreds of thousands of books are self published annually (319,000 in 2012), you’ve got a lot of competition.

It is widely acknowledged that having reviews helps sell your novel. On Amazon Kindle, readers can browse by review rating – and any book that’s never been reviewed is cut right out. Reviews help wavering potential readers make up their minds whether or not to buy. Readers might even discover that your book exists by reading a review of it on a book blog they follow. So reviews are an important component of marketing your book.

So how do you get reviews?

Continue reading How to ask for reviews of your self-published novel on forums

Review: The Three Fingers of Death by Tristan Gregory

The Three Fingers of Death by Tristan Gregory is a short fantasy tale set in the same world as The Swordsman of Carn Nebeth, which I previously reviewed here. Jon the smith, briefly seen in the earlier story, seeks out a master to teach him parts of his craft that have been largely forgotten, shunned because of the involvement of magic.

three fingers of death

I read this story very quickly – all in one day. The prose is accessible  and the tone is gentle, making this story very easy to consume. It has quite a storyteller-like voice. Where in Carn Nebeth, the voice was quite immediate, this is more of a “sit down by the fire and listen to my tale” sort of voice, and because of the time scale involved – the story takes place across years – this voice fits well.

Continue reading Review: The Three Fingers of Death by Tristan Gregory