Category Archives: Fantasy

Exit West

Exit Westby Mohsin Hamid

Over the past couple of years, I have become quite a fan of Mohsin Hamid. His books are insightful and entertaining. His reputation as a writer of great fiction is well established and well deserved, so I embark on each new book with high expectations.

Opening in an unnamed city, presumably in the middle or far east, Exit West is a love story with a hint of science fiction/fantasy. As their lives are shattered by war and intimidation, Saeed and Nadia meet at college and soon become lovers. Whilst their relationship blossomed, stories began to circulate of mysterious black doors appearing all over the city, offering an opportunity to start a new life elsewhere. That is where the science fiction comes in. Individuals passing through these doors are transported, via a companion doorway in another location. 

Saeed and Nadia are amongst those who pay to use one of these doors to escape from the death and destruction that surrounds them. Looking for a new life leads the couple to make several such trips, taking in Greece, London and California. 

Each of the places they visit offers a mix of opportunities and troubles. As the number of these black doors grows, the number of travellers grows with them, bringing with it increasing pressure on the points of arrival. 

The subject of immigration is a very relevant one at the moment and this book taps into that, but from the point of view of the immigrants themselves. Saeed and Nadia face many difficult decisions and their relationship is tested many times before they eventually find themselves somewhere to call home. 

Although this book is very different from his previous works, it does share their intriguing insights into human nature. His characters are all well-formed and very easy to feel empathy for. Leaving your home behind to step into the unknown is a daunting prospect and would test the resilience of any individual doing so. In Exit West, Hamid asks some very difficult questions about not only immigration but also about tolerance and acceptance. 

I admit that I was not sure about the concept of the doorways. Not that I have any issues with the idea of instantaneous interdimensional transportation. As an avid reader of science fiction and fantasy, these concepts are not new to me, but I have never come across them in the context they appear here. I can see that many of Hamid’s regular readers might find the idea of the doorways distracting and off-putting. For myself, they were simply a convenient device to enable the more intense and intriguing examination of human nature and xenophobia.

Mohsin Hamid’s standing as a great writer remains undiminished. An interesting, insightful and novel that only goes to prove what a good writer he is. 

Red Country (First Law World #6)

Red Countryby Joe Abercrombie

Unlike a lot of fantasy fiction, Red Country is not about the struggles for power or a race against time and prophesy. It is about one young woman’s quest to rescue her young brother and sister from unknown kidnappers and to avenge the death of her father. It is a quest that takes young Shy South on a voyage of self-discovery and enlightenment. It is also a tale of redemption and forgiveness as Shy and her companion, Lamb, face enemies old and new. Both have pasts they have tried to forget, but events will conspire to bring those pasts very much to the fore.

I have to say that I felt the story takes more than a little inspiration from the American old west. On several occasions, I found myself reminded of that wonderful film “Paint Your Wagon” with its wagon train, mud and lost souls seeking their fortunes in the hills.

Although it is the thread that holds the book together, Shy’s personal quest isn’t the only story being told here. There are warring factions, but it is not the great powers themselves who cross Shy and Lamb’s paths, but others like the inept Temple whose life is similarly torn apart by events beyond their control.

The big advantage for fantasy writers is they are not constrained by facts or history. There can be no anachronisms and factual inaccuracies, just a blank canvas their stories can unfold. And Joe Abercrombie makes very good use of this freedom in all his books. But unlike most of his other works, Red Country is more a story of relationships, conflicting loyalties and personal discovery. There are enough scenes of blood and gore to keep everyone happy, but it is the unfolding personal stories that make this such a good book for me.

Fans of fantasy fiction will no doubt be already aware of Abercrombie’s work. But whether already a fan or not, Red Country is a book well worth the read. The well-constructed characters and their interweaving storylines make for a dramatic tale. Shy’s grim determination to recover her lost siblings is a compelling vehicle for Abercrombie to investigate the things that drive us all. Red Country is a damned good read.

A Feast for Crows (A Song of Fire and Ice #4)

A Feast for Crowsby George R R Martin

I found A Feast for Crows to be a rather strange offering. The books 770 pages are as gripping and full of the imaginative storytelling we have all come to expect of this wonderful series. The whole of Westeros continues to be torn apart by the warring factions each aiming to gain the Iron Throne and rule over the seven kingdoms. 

Whilst there are no big battle scenes, there is plenty of the political intrigue that has become the hallmark of this series. But for me, this was the inevitable weak point of the tale. It doesn’t really feel like the various threads of the tale have moved a great deal. I suppose that with so much happening in the previous books, a moment of consolidation and consideration was required. 

Don’t get me wrong, this is in no way a bad book, it just doesn’t have the pace and impact of the previous books of the series. It also misses out completely three of the story’s central characters, Jon Snow, Tyrion Lannister and Daenerys Targaryen. We will have to wait until book five to find out what has been happening at the Wall and across the sea. 

In A Song of Fire and Ice, George R R Martin has created a world that is alive with wonderful characters, great beauty and unimaginable cruelty – much like our own, but with the added bonus of dragons. A Feast For Crows has them all (except the dragons) in abundance. As the Stark girls continue their separate odysseys, each unaware that her sister has survived the hell that descending on Kings Landing, Cersie Lannister’s attempts to tighten her grip on the Iron Throne are under threat from an unexpected quarter. In fact, the whole of Westeros is going to pot and there seems to be little anyone can do about it. 

As part of the series that has gripped readers and TV viewers alike, this book provides another piece of the elaborate jigsaw that has been created by the wonderful storyteller, George R R Martin.

City of Heavenly Fire (The Mortal Instruments #6)

City of Heavenly Fireby Cassandra Clare

City of Heavenly Fire brings Cassandra Clare’s epic Mortal Instruments to a dramatic conclusion. Each instalment has brought its own twists to the tale and this last book is no different. Despite everything that has gone before, the dangers that our intrepid band of Shadowhunters and assorted Downworlders face as the story comes to its dramatic end are the most gripping.

The pace and tone of the book are firmly established in the prologue, with Sebastian playing his hand and working to bring down those who oppose him. As always, the adults of the Clave are seemingly unwilling or unable to confront the truth and it is left to Clarey, Jace, Alec, Isabel and Simon to save the day. Well, it is aimed at a teenage audience so you wouldn;t expect anything else.

I have really enjoyed this series. The quality of the writing and the plot are excellent and Cassandra has created a magical world in which nothing is ever exactly as it seems. There are the usual teen romances, although by this point they are pretty much over the will-they-won’t-they stage in their respective relationships and now busy getting on with whatever it is that teenagers do! But much like the Harry Potter series, the final instalment is the darkest. All the pain and grief of the previous five books culminates in a fast-paced and exciting climax. There are several unexpected twists, but in the end, our teenage heroes once again save the day, but at what cost?

Day Four (The Three #2)

Day Fourby Sarah Lotz

Day Four is the second part of Sarah Lotz’s “The Three” trilogy. 

The story is set aboard a ship cruising the Gulf of Mexico. For three days, everything goes according to plan. Passengers enjoy the facilities and the sun; the crew deal with their usual mix of awkward, obnoxious and drunken holidaymakers. Just another cruise. Until day four.

That is when things start to go very wrong, and when events onboard the Beautiful Dreamer take a mysterious and sinister turn.

Although part of a series, you do not need to have read the first book (The Three) to enjoy it. There are obvious links and references to the first story, but on the whole, it stands alone very well.  

Each “chapter” tells the ongoing story from the perspective of the book’s main characters. Each has their own reasons for being aboard the ship. Each has a secret they want to keep hidden, but for all of them, events aboard the stricken ship force them to face fears and their own past. 

With no power, food and supplies dwindling and a virus beginning to take hold, tempers aboard the Beautiful Dreamer become increasingly short. And when people begin to see “ghosts”, things just from bad to worse. 

The only person not adversely affected by the changing circumstances is Celine del Ray, celebrity psychic, who seems to thrive on the mysterious events. Is she in some way responsible for what is happening? How does she know so much about her fellow travellers and their pasts?

Day Four is a gripping and intense thriller which questions our view of reality and ourselves. It is every bit as good as The Three with a great mix of wonderful characters, intense plot and skilled storytelling. 

I can’t wait t read the next. 

The City of Mirrors (The Passage #3)

The City of MirrorsThe epic Passage trilogy comes to a dramatic and conclusive end in this thrilling final instalment. At over 800 pages, it is quite a read, but well worth the investment in time and the wait. Unlike the first two books, City of Mirrors has more than one narrator and doesn’t follow a single timeline.

The action begins 20 years after the climactic events of book two. With the virals gone it is a whole new chapter for mankind. Just when what’s left of North America’s population begin to believe it is safe to turn off the lights and venture beyond the safety of their Texan compound, the old enemy creeps back. For a new generation of American’s, the virals have become something of a myth, the bogeymen from their parents past. But all legends and myths have are rooted in a truth, and they are just about to find out just how real these particular myths are.

One loose end from the previous two books that I felt needed resolving, was what was happening in the rest of the world whilst North America was being overrun by flesh eating virals. After all, the continent was quarantined at the virals themselves contained within its borders. Thankfully, this and other loose ends are neatly tied up.

After two books bursting with action, City of Mirrors feels a little slow at the start as we are introduced to a new narrator whose tale brings some clarity to the origins of the virals and their actions. It is the story of a man whose obsessions and decisions will bring humanity to the very edge of extinction. But his actions are not born out of hatred but love. Despite the body count and impressive stash of weapons, City of Mirrors is centred around a love story.

Unrequited love, maternal love and all-consuming passions direct the actions of each of the story’s main characters. Justin Cronin has proven himself to be a talented storyteller with a real vision. Bringing this incredible trilogy to a climactic and touching conclusion, City of Mirrors is a captivating and compelling read.

A Storm of Swords: Blood and Gold (A Song of Ice and Fire #3.2)

A Storm of Swordsby George R R Martin

And the fun and laughter just goes on!

Or it would of there was any. One thing you can say about the epic Songs of Fire and Ice series is that they are neither funny or fun. If you have already read the preceding books, you will already know what to expect, if you haven’t then don’t bother trying to pick up the story at this stage. 

The squabble over the Iron Throne of Westeros continues unabated. And as the death toll continues to rise amongst the story’s leading characters, their relationships and allegiances becomes more complex and fragile.

Young Robb Stark seems unassailable as he leads his army of northmen inexorably south towards Kings Landing. But all is not as it should be back home, with Robb’s enemies hatching plans of their own. 

Beyond the Wall another war is brewing, but this time against an enemy that seemingly cannot be stopped. Jon Snow faces enemies on both sides of the Wall as he returns to Castle Black.

In the east, Daenerys Stormborn continues her campaign against the slave traders even as she prepares her return to Westeros to reclaim her father’s throne.

This is one of the most intense and complex series of books I have read in a long time. The carnage amongst the leading players in this deadly game is particularly unnerving as you never know who is going to fall next. This volume has a few surprises for those who have not already seen the TV series, with regicide seemingly becoming something of a pastime in Westeros. 

The Songs of Fire and Ice has become a modern classic, even though the last book(s) have yet to be published. The immense scope of the story itself is staggering and this book is just as intense and driven as the previous volumes. The characters around whom then story is told continue to be as bold and well-structured as the tale they tell. It is common for mid series books to falter a little as the plot hits a kind of lull before the climactic ending, but in this case, there are no signs of slowing down the pace or compromising the integrity of the characters.

A Storm of Swords: Steel and Snow (A Song of Ice and Fire #3.1)

A Storm of Swordsby George R R Martin

The first part of the third book of the Song of Fire and Ice series, Steel and Snow sees our myriad of characters dealing with the aftermath of the failed assault on King’s Landing. As with the previous two books, the interwoven plots, expertly crafted characters and great writing make this as gripping a book as you could wish for.

Anyone who has seen the TV adaption will understand just how difficult it can be at times to keep up with the machinations and political intrigues that drive the plot on. But it is the relationships between the various characters that continues to intrigue me. As the story progresses, relationships become more complex. People are rarely all good or all bad, and can often react in ways that you can’t anticipate. And the same goes for George R R Martin’s multitude if characters. 

As for the story itself, the Lannisters tighten their grip on the throne of Westeros and shift their focus from their battle field to forging alliances through marriage. In the north, Robb Stark’s advance stalls as he faces the breakup of the alliances that have contributed to his successes so far. 

Beyond the Wall, Jon Snow must come to terms with the conflicts between his vows as a member of the Night Watch and the pressing need to survive amongst the Wildlings. The rest of the Stark family face their own challenges, doing their best to survive in difficult circumstances. Sansa has become a pawn in the games between the other houses, Arya continues her journey north in her attempt to re-join her mother and brother. Meanwhile, young Bran Stark continues his own journey towards the wilds of the far north in search of the crow with three eyes.

With all of Westeros caught up in the fight between the conflicting claims on the Iron Throne, the free people from beyond the Wall are massing for an attack on the kingdoms of the south. And across the sea in the east, Daenerys Stromborn is assembling an army to pursue her own claim on the throne. 

There is no let-up in the pace or complexity of the narrative. For fans of the books so far, there will be no disappointment here. For anyone who hasn’t read the first two books, it is pointless trying to join the adventure here – you’ll never work out what on earth is going on!

City of Lost Souls (The Mortal Instruments #5)

City of Lost Soulsby Cassandra Clare

This is the fifth book of the Mortal Instruments series and I think that by now I have said all I can say about them. The vagaries of teenage romance provide a distraction from the magic and mystery of the fight to keep the world safe from demons and more human looking baddies.

The ongoing will-they won’t-they relationship between Clary and Jase continues it’s never quite getting there course. And as usual, the teenage Shadowhunters can’t rely on the adults to face up to the dangers they all face. Instead it is once again up to them to save the world from impending doom.

City of Lost Souls is not exactly great literature, but it does continue in the same easy to read vain as the previous four books, perfect for it’s teenage audience. I must admit that Cassandra Clare’s style and plot have kept me wanting to find out more. I enjoy the naivety of the storyline, the struggles of the characters as they balance their natural desires as young adults with their responsibilities as part of the shadow world.

Populated by vampires, fairies, werewolves, demons, angels, warlocks and more, Cassandra Clare has created a dark and mysterious world that is simplistic in its structure, but compelling as a form of escapism. I am looking forward to reading the last in the series, not because I want it to end, but because I want to see how the various romances pan out. I am sure that “team good” will eventually win the day, but will Jase and Clary ever actually get together? Will Simon and Izzie become an item? And what will become of Alec and Magnus? And for that matter, will the grown-ups ever start listening to the kids who obviously know best?

A Clash of Kings (A Song of Ice and Fire #2)

A clash of kingsby George R R Martin

The second book of the Song of Fire and Ice series picks up were the first book left off and plunges the reader ever deeper into the intrigues, incest, murder and deception of Westeros.

With the Seven Kingdoms descending into war, the young King Joffrey finds himself surrounded by contenders to the Iron Throne. From the far north comes Robb Stark, the new Lord of Winterfell, intent on avenging the death of his father at the hands of the new King. Meanwhile, brothers Renly and Stanis Baratheon contend with each other over who has the best claim to their elder brother’s crown. 

And let’s not forget young Daenerys Stormborn, mother of dragons and last of the Targaryen line, determined to take back the crown that she believes is hers by right.

Throw in trouble from beyond The Wall, where something dark and mysterious is beginning to move, and you have the makings of a fantasy classic.

R R Martin has created a world in which magic and dragons are not only possible and very real. The multi layered plots and political shenanigans, coupled with a create story telling style and relentless pace, make these books a must read for anyone with the slightest interest in fantasy. 

Westeros is a cruel place, and many of the characters reflect that. There is no shortage of battles and blood, but there is also a touch of innocence. The story unfolds from the perspectives of several of the key players, but not from any of the main contenders for the throne. The focus of the books is the Stark family, who find themselves separated from each other, each facing personal tragedy and danger, but also finding themselves embroiled in the war to take to Iron Throne.

If you have already read the first book, then don’t hesitate to get stuck into this one. Any for anyone who has seen the TV adaptation but not read the books, you need to buy yourself a copy of the books and get on with it. Although the plot remains the same, there is so much more depth to the characters and the plot. 

Five stars all the way.