The best books of 2017 – a recap of those books I rated as highly, or highly, highly recommended.

BOOK REVIEW – REQUIEM FOR THE WOLF BY TARA SAUNDERS – 5 STARS. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.

Here’s the blurb;

“They told him that the Lost were animals. Crazed and brutal, they said, a danger to themselves and others. Hero, they called him, for providing the mercy of a clean death. They lied.

The Tiarna Beo is a land frozen in the still moment between acts of savage violence. Forty years after a Purging that drove an entire race either into the ground or north through the mountains, every man watches his words and his neighbour. Only a fool draws attention to himself, and only the suicidal travel from the North.

Growing up fatherless in a cold and grieving home, Breag had a clear vision for his future – a good woman, a family of his own and a quiet life. When his good woman betrays him, her confederates force him into the Tiarna on a mission to find one of the Lost and bring it home to be sacrificed. Mired in hopeless duty and wandering rootless among people who would kill him if they knew what he was, Breag struggles to hold on to the frayed edges of his humanity.

But no good deed goes unpunished. When his rescue of a brutalised young woman reveals her to be the Lost he has spent eight years hunting, Breag is forced to choose between her life and his future. And she’s not prepared to go quietly. Breag’s choice will create ripples that ignite the fumes of anger among his people and theirs, and ultimately to burn the entire kingdom down around his ears.”

I received a free E-Arc from Netgalley.

This book, is quite simply, an absolute gem. Don’t get me wrong – it’s not the easiest read out there – but it’s well worth persevering with the slightly heavy writing style – which sometimes feels like wading through treacle (in a good way). The author does not, as opposed to some writers, waste a single word in this story. Everything is loaded with importance and each and every word must be read to fully appreciate the nuanced style of writing. I did, on occasion, have to backtrack and reread a paragraph or two. This is not a book to read while doing something else – it’s a book that demands your full attention, all the time, and one where you might have to take designated breaks just to absorb what you’ve read and to think about something slightly less dark and self-centred thoughts.

There is a heavy Celtic? influence to the writing – the names of places and people may not roll easily from tongues unused to the elaborate words. Neither is the author the type to throw her entire world building at your feet within the first few paragraphs or sentences – no the world building unravels as deliberately slowly as the writing – but we need to know everything we’re told – there are no wasted words even here.

The conflict between the Brotherhood, the Guard and the Daoine – all with old hurts and new ambitions to temper their relationships with each other, provides a vision of a desperate world – a world on the brink of something – we just don’t know what. Everyone in this book is scared of something being revealed against their wishes.

The book centers around a number of main characters – Breag, Sionna, Carad, Cu, Tarbhal and Laoighre. None of these characters is simple (apart from maybe Cu but even he has his secrets) and none of them is a simple goodie or baddie, they all have back stories and carry life’s judgments like a weight around their neck. This is no simple tale of good vs evil. There are too many lies and half truths from all of them – they all have something they wish to accomplish and seem content to do so at others expense and in the end, the ones who accomplish the most, are those that manage to bend their wants to the reality of events, and you have no idea who that’s going to be. Every betrayal is a fresh wound to the reader, and every success heavy with the scent of future failure.

This book got into my head and stayed there. Perhaps a simple tale, exceeding well told, or perhaps a more complex one, I genuinely think that the reader can take away from the story what they want but I doubt that many will be able to skim read this and will find themselves sunk into the Tiarna Beo and wishing for much, much more in the future.

P.S. You may have guessed that I liked this book – read it, please! Don’t let it get ‘lost’ in the huge number of fantasy books out there.  I’m not sure that the ‘blurb’ does it justice. The story is about much more than just Breag.

And you can buy it here;https://www.amazon.co.uk/Requiem-Wolf-Tales-Tiarna-Book-ebook/dp/B01N6L55KJ/ref=sr_1_1?s=digital-text&ie=UTF8&qid=1487319816&sr=1-1&keywords=Requiem+for+the+Wolf

 

BOOK REVIEW – RED SISTER BY MARK LAWRENCE (HIGHLY RECOMMENDED ) FANTASY

Here’s the blurb;

It’s not until you’re broken that you find your sharpest edge

A brilliant new series from the bestselling author of PRINCE OF THORNS.

“I was born for killing – the gods made me to ruin”

At the Convent of Sweet Mercy young girls are raised to be killers. In a few the old bloods show, gifting talents rarely seen since the tribes beached their ships on Abeth. Sweet Mercy hones its novices’ skills to deadly effect: it takes ten years to educate a Red Sister in the ways of blade and fist.

But even the mistresses of sword and shadow don’t truly understand what they have purchased when Nona Grey is brought to their halls as a bloodstained child of eight, falsely accused of murder: guilty of worse.”

Red Sister by Mark Lawrence is a stunning book – I can’t deny that – initially I wanted to hold with a four star review but I’ve changed it to a five star because it is that good, and while I have reservations about it from my view point of a fan of his two previous trilogies (completely unrelated to this book – although the previous two are related to each other (remember that when you finish reading this book)), that’s hardly the fault of this book.

Where to begin – Mark Lawrence never starts a book with endless world building – neither does he stick it down your throat about two or three chapters in – in fact he is elusive to it being almost frustrating about the visions he has in his head. This is a compliment. World building – so beloved of all fantasy authors (so it seems) often gives me a bit of a headache because it is so tediously done. Honestly, I’m not that interested in how magic systems work/religious sects organise themselves – if the story works and its believable then I’m happy. (Lawrence does provide a detailed explanation of all of this at the very beginning – but it’s not part of the text of the story and because I love surprises, I didn’t read it and still haven’t, it made me think he finds world building in the main text as tedious as I do and decided to get it over and done with in one foul-swoop).

In Red Sister, Lawrence has envisaged something new, and also, eminently relatable. This is frustrating – when he does ‘new’ it’s great but sometimes he falls back onto more conventional fantasy ideas and sometimes I want to beat him for being a little bit lazy, almost as though it’s all been a bit too much and he’s had to incorporate something into the text that is easy, and already ‘known’ by those who read fantasy. As such there are painful parts of the text which are too much like Harry Potter ( a lot too much like Harry Potter), and there are brilliant parts where his four ‘races’ – so different to elves, dwarves, orcs and dragons – speak for a level of imagination that few others can employ. The ending – so shocking to many in other reviews – was signposted a little along the way if you just looked – and the narrative – while brilliantly done – does tend to dwell on the day to day life of little more than a child at school.

There are flashes of that old Lawrence from his first two trilogies – the witty speech of Jalan and his self-obsessed nature – and the brutality of Jorg – but they are only flashes and I think that other fans of his work will be left feeling the same way I do – not hard done by – but surprised – like, constantly surprised – that he could have changed his style so much. I have hopes that Nona might become as foul mouthed as his first two main characters – but she’s at a convent so I might be reaching a little too far.

This story will, however, win Lawrence a whole host of new fans – I don’t know where they’ll go from Red Sister, apart from onto the sequels, because I’m not totally convinced that they will appreciate Jorg and Jalan. Neither am I trying to imply that Lawrence has sold out for a bigger audience – the book is still brilliant – it is worth a read – it’s an easy book to like and an even easier book to read – but, well … just but really. It’s weird to feel the way I do after a five star book – I think that really I was hoping for a little ‘more’ perhaps a book worthy of a 6/5!!

BOOK REVIEW – BLOOD FOREST BY GERAINT JONES (HISTORICAL FICTION) HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Here’s the blurb:

“Gladiator meets Full Metal Jacket in Geraint Jones’ spectacular debut Blood Forest, where honour and duty, legions and tribes clash in bloody, heart-breaking glory.

It is AD 9. In Northern Europe an army is dying, and an empire is being brought to its knees.

The Roman Empire is at the height of its power. Rome’s soldiers brutally enforce imperial rule, and its legions are the most efficient and aggressive fighting force in the world. Governor Varus leads 15,000 seasoned legionnaires north to subdue the Germanic tribes. To Rome these people are savages, ripe for conquest. But the Romans know little of this densely forested territory governed by fiercely independent chieftains. Rome’s supposed ally, Arminius, has unified the disgruntled tribes, leading the would-be conquerors towards a deadly trap. As the army marches deeper into enemy territory, one small band of soldiers must face the deadliest of foes, alone.”

I must first make two things very clear 1) I don't like Ancient Rome/the Romans and I have no interest in studying it because I'm an Anglo-Saxonist 2) I tried to give this book a 4 star but I've had to give it a 5. 

I am, I must confess, conflicted by those two points above! However, for all that I don't like books on Ancient Rome or the Romans (to me the Romans are all about sandals and skirts - and sandals are mentioned quite a few time) this story by Geraint Jones is stunning. I devoured it in two days and the reason I've opted for the 5 star is because the storyline infected my dreams last night and that means it's had a big impact on me. In case you want to know, it was the cover and the title that made me want to read the book.

I can not, and won't, attest to any historical accuracy in this story. As I said, I'm not a Roman historian however, the majority of this novel is about a small group of men, in a much larger army, and the events take place so far from Rome that the whole Roman 'thing' isn't actually all that important. This is a story of men, battle and comradeship, and perhaps, honour. It is very brutal, it is filled with foul language and hideous images of death and the dying. 

The author manages to avoid stereotyping his Roman soldiers, and all of the 'main' small group (Felix, Titus, Moon, Rufus, Chicken, Micon, Cnaeus and Pavo) have something to add to the story. It is told in the first person - which makes for a quick and easy read anyway - but our main character - whose name we only find out very late on in the novel and who we must call 'Felix' as the rest of the cast do - is an intriguing, if conflicted individual. And to be honest, most of the soldiers are conflicted - in the descriptions of the way the men deal with the violent conflict they find themselves in - the author spares nothing in allowing them to be twisted and changed by the many violent actions they've taken part in, or are forced to take part in, and while we may deplore their acts with our more modern sensibilities - so much of this novel is life and death that we too end up accepting what they're doing.

The reader might not like all of the men, I don't think we're meant to, but that means that we can respect the actions they take.

Even if you don't like Roman historical fiction, I would still recommend this novel to you. The writing style is fresh, the battle scenes well told so that even though there are many battle scenes, they never feel repetitive, and although I think the weakest part of the novel might well be its ending, when all the secrets and lies are exposed about the truth of the men making the decisions for the army that Felix and his comrades are a member of, I would still be interested in reading more about Felix.

BOOK REVIEW – DEPOSED BY DAVID BARBAREE (HISTORICAL FICTION) HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Here’s the blurb;

“More gripping than Game of Thrones and more ruthless than House of Cards – this a stunning new thriller of power, treachery and revenge

In a darkened cell, a brutally deposed dictator lies crippled – deprived of his power, his freedom – and his eyes.

On the edge of utter despair, his only companion is the young boy who brings him his meagre rations, a mere child who fears his own shadow. But to one who has held and lost the highest power, one thing alone is crystal clear: even emperors were mere children once.

Ten years later, the new ruler’s son watches uneasily over his father’s empire. Wherever he looks rebellion is festering, and those closest to him have turned traitor once before.

To this city in crisis comes a hugely wealthy senator from the very edge of the empire, a young and angry ward at his heels. He is witty but inscrutable, generous with his time and money to a leader in desperate need of a friend – and he wears a bandage over his blinded eyes.

The fallen emperor’s name is Nero.”

Wow, what a stunning debut novel.

I’ve never read any Roman themed novels before the last few weeks, but it would seem that they are both very popular and really rather numerous (I think this is now my sixth or seventh). That said, the books that I’ve read have, more of less, dealt with similar time periods and events. In the case of this novel, I’ve not long since read The Young Nero by Elizabeth George which follows Nero through his younger years and this novel seemed quite a perfect follow up.

This novel, however, is far more wickedly complicated and an absolute delight to read. It has a fast pace and is a very easy read. A note for future readers – do take account of the chapter headings – the novel moves through many different points of views and through two different time periods, as well as occasionally going backward in that time period. It sounds complicated, but it’s a brilliant way of unravelling the events of the novel.

I think it would be fair to say it’s a fairly simple story told in a complicated way – it’s about intrigue in the Roman Government during the AD 60’s-70’s – but it is also so much more than that because of the multiple point of views. This allows the author to decipher events as others see them, with all their attendant prejudices, worries and fears. It is, it must be said, as complex as the House of Cards and as much fun. The portrayal of the corrupt nature of the Roman Government is done very well – I garnered much more from this novel about events in Rome and the wider Roman Empire than I did The Young Nero.

The two timelines, interwoven throughout the novel, eventually offer explanations to the events taking place in the later timeline and while some may find the storyline a little far-fetched, I found it to be told in such a believable way that I had no problem allowing the author to take me down a slightly unconventional route.

My only slight gripe is that I’d assumed this was a standalone novel, and clearly it isn’t, which means I’ll have to keep my eye out for the next novel because I am incredibly keen to read more about Barbaree’s reimagining of Ancient Rome and his Deposed Nero.

BOOK REVIEW: ASSASSIN’S FATE BY ROBIN HOBB (FANTASY) HIGHLY, HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Here’s the blurb;

The final book in the Fitz and the Fool trilogy.

Prince FitzChivalry Farseer’s daughter Bee was violently abducted from Withywoods by Servants of the Four in their search for the Unexpected Son, foretold to wield great power. With Fitz in pursuit, the Servants fled through a Skill-pillar, leaving no trace. It seems certain that they and their young hostage have perished in the Skill-river.

Clerres, where White Prophets were trained by the Servants to set the world on a better path, has been corrupted by greed. Fitz is determined to reach the city and take vengeance on the Four, not only for the loss of Bee but also for their torture of the Fool. Accompanied by FitzVigilant, son of the assassin Chade, Chade’s protégé Spark and the stableboy Perseverance, Bee’s only friend, their journey will take them from the Elderling city of Kelsingra, down the perilous Rain Wild River, and on to the Pirate Isles.

Their mission for revenge will become a voyage of discovery, as well as of reunions, transformations and heartrending shocks. Startling answers to old mysteries are revealed. What became of the liveships Paragon and Vivacia and their crews? What is the origin of the Others and their eerie beach? How are liveships and dragons connected?

But Fitz and his followers are not the only ones with a deadly grudge against the Four. An ancient wrong will bring them unlikely and dangerous allies in their quest. And if the corrupt society of Clerres is to be brought down, Fitz and the Fool will have to make a series of profound and fateful sacrifices.

ASSASSIN’S FATE is a magnificent tour de force and with it Robin Hobb demonstrates yet again that she is the reigning queen of epic fantasy.”

First things first, I love the Robin Hobb’s Fitz books. I’ve tried to read other books of her’s set in the same ‘universe’ and struggled to varying degrees – I did best with her Dragon books and failed magnificently with The Liveship Traders, but this is not because the books are bad, not at all, it’s because Fitz and his Fool and the Wolf are absent from the books and it’s those characters, as well as the many others that populate her three Fitz trilogies, that draw me into her richly imagined word.

This, is the final book in the third trilogy, and it is an absolute monster, coming in it at over 900 pages, but oh, how I warred with myself. I didn’t want it to end, and I was equally desperate to get to the end; to know what finally happened to Fitz. I tried to stop myself at 45% of the way through but found I was unable to, oh, and you’re kept guessing until the very, very end – so don’t be thinking that anything is going to be resolved any sooner than that.

These stories can be laboriously slow – taken up with one of the things I most hate about epic fantasy – the constant travelling and journeying to new countries – but somehow Robin Hobb gets away with it in ways I will not allow another author to do. Each detail is beautifully drawn out, and you’re left wondering how she has the patience to craft her stories so precisely and so well. There is no hint of a headlong rush to the end, and none of the characters are skimmed over – each is allowed to fully evolve and have their due time on the page and in the reader’s mind before the inevitable conclusion.

I can’t gush enough about how wonderful this final book was – it didn’t feel final for the vast majority of it – it’s not the work of an author giving a few more pages for a host of adoring fans – but rather a fully rounded and complex story. This third book still has much to offer readers, and I’m left wondering where Robin Hobb will venture next – will the story of the Farseers continue? (as really it must) or is this a fond farewell to the whole world of dragons and Skill users she’s evolved over the differing trilogies?

What I know is that I cried when I should have done, and left the trilogy feeling as though a job had been exceptionally well done and my own half-formed hopes and dreams for the characters had been both wholly-wrong and yet also rightly achieved.

I can’t recommend this book enough and for all those who’ve not yet read any of the three trilogies, I can feel only envy that you still have it all to come.

For my earlier reviews of the previous 2 books check here;

https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/1110324862

https://www.goodreads.com/review/show/1719671174

And you can buy the book here when it’s released on 4th May 2017.

https://read.amazon.co.uk/kp/card?preview=inline&linkCode=as2&ref_=k4w_oembed_2aSsgEAcU5hA8p&asin=B012PM98ZI&tag=x_gr_w_bb_uk-21

BOOK REVIEW – THE SHADOW QUEEN BY ANNE O’BRIEN (HISTORICAL FICTION) HIGHLY RECOMMENDED

Here’s the blurb;

“From the Sunday Times bestselling author of The Queen’s Choice

A tale of treachery, power-hungry families and legal subterfuges.

Woven through it is a remarkable story of a beautiful girl, desirable as a bride, growing to be a woman of foresight and power.

A story of love and loyalty and of the cost of personal ambition. The story of the woman who would ultimately wield power as the King Mother to 10 year old King Richard II.”

I received a free E Arc from Netgalley.

The Shadow Queen is a fantastic read. Very well paced from beginning to end, it charts the life of Joan of Kent, the cousin of King Edward III, who is a prominent character throughout the story. I always enjoy it when an author finds a 'new' historical character to offer to their readers - for too long the Tudors and the Wars of the Roses have garnered far too much interest, as have the few women who were prominent in Medieval Times - Isabella of Castille and Elearnor of Aquaitaine. Often, no matter how hard an author might try, historical events can only be manipulated so much and I much prefer a fresh story.

Joan is an acerbic character - and some of the best passages in the book stem from when her nature is allowed to fly free - this is often when speaking to the men in her life - but at these times the characters feel very alive and real. So beguiling is she that I found it difficult to put the book down and read it in two days, even though I was supposed to be reading another novel.

I don't wish to spoil the nature of the story - for the unravelling of events around Joan is one of the author's strongest story telling techniques - suffice to say while some elements of her life garner slightly too much time in the novel, and others a little too little - the story is fantastically well crafted without dwelling too much on romance and matters of the heart because this isn't in the strong willed nature of the Plantaganet Princess, who is only too aware of her own power and strength because of her blood.

5 stars and a highly recommended for this story.

I would, however, have liked some longer historical notes at the end with more details about Joan as opposed to the royal family members she interacted with.

So there you have it, the best books of 2017 that I was lucky enough to read. I was quite surprised by some of them – reading outside my favoured genre and all – and some of them just surprised me because of their sheer brilliance!

Here’s to 2018 and a whole raft of new books to read.

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