The Leaning Pile of Books is a feature where I talk about books I got over the last week – old or new, bought or received for review consideration. Since I hope you will find new books you’re interested in reading in these posts, I try to be as informative as possible. If I can find them, links to excerpts, author’s websites, and places where you can find more information on the book are included.

The Inexplicables by Cherie Priest

The Inexplicables (A Clockwork Century Novel) by Cherie Priest

The Inexplicables will be released in trade paperback and ebook on November 13. An excerpt from the book is available online.

This is the fourth novel of the Clockwork Century, and there have been some shorter stories in this same setting. Each book in this steampunk series is supposed to stand alone, although it is also supposed to be helpful to read Boneshaker before any of the others. The novels following Boneshaker are Dreadnought and Ganymede. Clementine, a shorter book, was originally released as a hardcover limited edition and was difficult to find for awhile, but it was recently re-released in paperback. It is also now available as an ebook and an audiobook. “Tanglefoot,” one of the Clockwork Century short stories, can be read online.

If you haven’t yet read Boneshaker (which may be made into a movie!), you can read an excerpt from that as well.

I haven’t read any of the Clockwork Century books, but they sound rather interesting.

Rector “Wreck ‘em” Sherman was orphaned as a toddler in the Blight of 1863, but that was years ago. Wreck has grown up, and on his eighteenth birthday, he’ll be cast out out of the orphanage.

And Wreck’s problems aren’t merely about finding a home. He’s been quietly breaking the cardinal rule of any good drug dealer and dipping into his own supply of the sap he sells. He’s also pretty sure he’s being haunted by the ghost of a kid he used to know—Zeke Wilkes, who almost certainly died six months ago. Zeke would have every reason to pester Wreck, since Wreck got him inside the walled city of Seattle in the first place, and that was probably what killed him. Maybe it’s only a guilty conscience, but Wreck can’t take it anymore, so he sneaks over the wall.

The walled-off wasteland of Seattle is every bit as bad as he’d heard, chock-full of the hungry undead and utterly choked by the poisonous, inescapable yellow gas. And then there’s the monster. Rector’s pretty certain that whatever attacked him was not at all human—and not a rotter, either. Arms far too long. Posture all strange. Eyes all wild and faintly glowing gold and known to the locals as simply “The Inexplicables.”

In the process of tracking down these creatures, Rector comes across another incursion through the wall — just as bizarre but entirely attributable to human greed. It seems some outsiders have decided there’s gold to be found in the city and they’re willing to do whatever it takes to get a piece of the pie unless Rector and his posse have anything to do with it.

Trapped by Kevin Hearne

Trapped (The Iron Druid Chronicles #5) by Kevin Hearne

This urban fantasy will be released in mass market paperback, ebook, and audiobook on November 27. An excerpt from Trapped is available online.

The first four books in this series are:

  1. Hounded
  2. Hexed
  3. Hammered
  4. Tricked

There is also a related novella, Two Ravens and One Crow.

After twelve years of secret training, Atticus O’Sullivan is finally ready to bind his apprentice, Granuaile, to the earth and double the number of Druids in the world. But on the eve of the ritual, the world that thought he was dead abruptly discovers that he’s still alive, and they would much rather he return to the grave.

Having no other choice, Atticus, his trusted Irish wolfhound, Oberon, and Granuaile travel to the base of Mount Olympus, where the Roman god Bacchus is anxious to take his sworn revenge—but he’ll have to get in line behind an ancient vampire, a band of dark elves, and an old god of mischief, who all seem to have KILL THE DRUID at the top of their to-do lists.

Today I’m pleased to welcome Sandy Williams, author of the Shadow Reader series! The Shattered Dark, the second book in the series following The Shadow Reader (my review), was just released at the end of October.

Sandy is discussing making the map for her new book, which I found really interesting since I haven’t seen a lot of maps in urban fantasy books and certainly not ones as detailed as hers. I hope you enjoy it, too – and at the end, there’s also the details on a giveaway for a copy of The Shattered Dark!

Three Things I Learned About Map Making

I read big, epic fantasies before I ever picked up an urban fantasy novel. Michael Stackpole’s TALION: REVENANT and A HERO BORN are the earliest fantasies I remember reading. I stumbled across the author when I started devouring Star Wars books (I became a rabid Star Wars fan in junior high/high school), and I fell in love with the genre. I started reading all the big, fat fantasies I could get my hands on: Robert Jordan, Terry Goodkind, George R. R. Martin, and then, eventually, Brandon Sanderson, Brent Weeks, and Patrick Rothfuss. I devoured them! I loved the stories, the writing, the world building. I especially thought it was cool that the authors had created worlds that were so vivid and different that they included maps in their books.

I love maps! If a fantasy didn’t include one, it always disappointed me. It didn’t feel like a real fantasy for some reason. But when I switched from reading primarily fantasy to reading urban fantasy and more romance oriented books, I forgot about maps. I stopped looking for them, and it never occurred to me that maybe one day, I could have a map in one of my books.

Then, about halfway through writing THE SHADOW READER, I realized I was getting lost. I couldn’t remember what city was where or how long it might take someone to walk from place to place. So I started sketching out a map. Whenever I mentioned a new city, mountain range, or other physical feature, I’d scribble it down.

I made that map just for me. It was on a legal size piece of paper that I folded in half and lost for months at a time. Every time I found the map, I told myself I needed to digitalize it, but it wasn’t until I was almost finished writing THE SHATTERED DARK that I looked at that piece of paper and realized that my book had a map! A crappy map, yes, but I could see it as a real map, one that I could put in the Shadow Reader novels because I’d built a really cool world. Cue: happy dance.

I asked my editor if I could possibly include a map in THE SHATTERED DARK. Maps aren’t standard in urban fantasies, so my publisher didn’t want to take on the expense. They did agree to publish it, though, if I wanted to have someone else create it. I hooked up with illustrator, Adam Watkins - check out the work on his website! – and he made my map “real.”


(click to embiggen)

Since I went outside my publishing house to create the map, I can’t comment on how the map creating process usually goes. For me, though, it was incredibly stressful!

1. Start your map the moment you write your first word. One of my mistakes was not thinking about the possibility of having a map from the moment I began the Shadow Reader novels. I basically had to reread both my books to make sure I was putting every feature where every feature needed to be. Not an easy task!

2. Keep track of features and page numbers. I ended up moving around several cities and gates on the map to make it make more sense. I then had to go through and make sure I changed those references in my manuscript (THE SHATTERED DARK, at least, since THE SHADOW READER was already published by this point; couldn’t move any of those landmarks). It would have been easier to do this if I knew exactly where I’d described the locations of the features. (Sidenote: I recently started using the writing program, Scrivener, and I think it will make keeping track of this type of thing so much simpler!)

3. Find a patient illustrator. I can’t count the number of “one last change” emails I sent to Adam Watkins. He was so incredibly patient with me! A patient illustrator is a must. Even though I’ve looked at that map a zillion times now, I still have nightmares about mislabeling things.

The map has been complete for over six months, and despite checking it almost daily, I haven’t found anything wrong with it. I’m crossing my fingers that it’s perfect! I’m excited my publisher agreed to include it, and I hope it adds some realism to McKenzie’s story.

Courtesy of Penguin, I have one copy of The Shattered Dark to give away. Sorry to everyone else, but this giveaway is US only.

Giveaway Rules: To be entered in the giveaway, fill out the form below OR send an email to kristen (AT) fantasybookcafe (DOT) com with the subject line “Shattered Dark.” One entry per person. This giveaway is open to those in the US, and a winner will be randomly selected. The giveaway will be open until the end of the day on Saturday, November 17.  The winner has 24 hours to respond once contacted via email, and if I don’t hear from them by then a new winner will be chosen (who will also have 24 hours to respond until someone gets back to me with a place to send the book to).

Please note email addresses will only be used for the purpose of contacting the winner. Once the giveaway is over all the emails will be deleted.

Good luck!

Update: The entry form has been removed now that the giveaway is over.

Today I am thrilled to have an interview with Courtney Schafer, author of The Whitefire Crossing and The Tainted City, to share with you! She also has a signed set of these first two books in The Shattered Sigil series to give away.

I recently read The Tainted City and absolutely loved it (my review). It contained exactly the types of things I like to see in a secondary world fantasy – great world-building, excellent characterization, an exciting story, magic that drives tough choices, and societies and characters that are not entirely “good” or “bad.” About halfway through the book, I knew I wanted to do an interview with the author to learn more about her and her writing. I was delighted when she accepted this invitation to answer a few questions, and I really enjoyed reading her thoughtful answers.

I hope you enjoy the interview as much as I did. Please give a warm welcome to Courtney Schafer!

The Whitefire Crossing by Courtney Schafer The Tainted City by Courtney Schafer

Fantasy Cafe: When did you know you wanted to be a writer?

Courtney Schafer: So many writers say they knew it right from earliest childhood, but not me!  I always loved to read, and I played around with writing bits of stories on occasion, but I had a ton of other hobbies – and worse, I had this crazy idea that you shouldn’t ever move on to a new scene until you had the first one absolutely perfect.  It always took me so long to get any one scene “right” that I figured I just wasn’t meant to be a writer.

But then, in the fall of 2007, some friends from work convinced me to try NaNoWriMo with them.  (For anyone who doesn’t know, NaNo involves writing the first 50,000 words of a novel during the month of November.)  I’d gotten pretty frustrated waiting for new books from my favorite authors to come out, and the idea for what would become The Whitefire Crossing was lurking in my head…so I thought, well, maybe it’s time to try getting a story down even if it doesn’t come out perfect the first time.

When I set aside perfectionism and gave myself permission to write a crappy first draft and fix it later…holy cow, I can’t even tell you what an epiphany that was.  Freed from my inner editor, Dev and Kiran’s story poured out, and I realized: hey, maybe I can actually do this.  Maybe I can keep right on going until I finish an entire draft, and then with enough revision and work, make the book good enough to share with others.  Right then, I discovered just how badly I wanted to do exactly that – and a writer was born.

FC: What drew you to writing fantasy for your first book (if, that is, The Whitefire Crossing is your first written book instead of your first published book)?

CS: Fantasy is my favorite genre to read – I love it for its scope of imagination and freedom of storytelling – so I never even considered writing anything else.  The genesis of the idea for The Whitefire Crossing came from thinking about the kind of novel I most wanted to read: a story with plenty of magic, intrigue, characters with secrets, adventure…and mountaineering, because I love that too.

FC: You’ve talked before about being a voracious reader. What are some of the books you’ve read that have taught you the most about writing and what have you learned from them? What are some of your own favorite books – whether you learned anything specific about writing from them or not?

CS: I haven’t read many books on the actual craft of writing (Stephen King’s On Writing is the only one that comes to mind), but I firmly believe that devouring thousands of SFF books helped me internalize many of the “rules” of writing.  The novels of one author in particular taught me a huge amount about how to craft a story: Dorothy Dunnett’s two major series, the Lymond Chronicles and the House of Niccolo.  The books are shelved in historical fiction, but I’d argue they qualify equally well as historical fantasy, thanks to clairvoyant mental powers in certain characters.  Dunnett’s skill with both plot and characterization is unparalleled; I remain in awe of her talent, no matter how often I read the books.  Other favorites: Mark Helprin’s Winter’s Tale (his imagery is breathtaking), C.J. Cherryh’s Cyteen (amazing, even prophetic ideas, plus one of the most convincing portrayals of a character with genius-level intelligence I’ve ever read), Megan Whalen Turner’s King of Attolia (a subtle, clever novel with devastatingly perfect emotional payoffs), and pretty much everything Emma Bull, Carol Berg, Patricia McKillip, and Diana Wynne Jones have ever written.

FC: Can you tell us anything about The Labyrinth of Flame or would it be too difficult to discuss it given that it is the conclusion to the trilogy?

CS: I can’t say much about the plot without spoilers, but I will say that I’m looking forward to drawing on my experiences canyoneering in the slickrock slot canyons of Utah.  And Dev and Kiran are in for a hell of a time before the story’s over.  (She says, rubbing her hands together with gleefully malicious authorial delight.  Oh, this book’s gonna be so fun to write.)

FC: It seems that there is a lot of potential for other stories set in the same world as The Shattered Sigil – for instance, the mage war, Alathia’s founding, Sechaveh’s rise to power, Dev and Jylla’s past adventures, or even Ruslan and Lizaveta’s past adventures all sound like they would be great stories. Have you considered writing about any of the past events mentioned in The Whitefire Crossing and The Tainted City after this story arc is completed? Or do you have any plans for any books outside this world?

CS: I’d like to write some short stories set in the same world.  I’ve got an idea for one set in Dev’s Tainted days (though Dev wouldn’t be the protagonist) that I’m itching to explore, and as you point out, there are plenty of other possibilities.  I don’t have any firm plans yet for what I’ll do after I finish The Labyrinth of Flame – I’m definitely a “one book at a time” sort of writer.  I suspect I’ll start a completely different series…maybe with a fantasy setting involving the ocean, since I love the sea and miss it quite a bit living in Colorado.  (I used to scuba dive a lot during my college days in California.)  But we’ll see…

FC: I liked how Ninavel and Alathia had completely different approaches to magic – mages were very important and could practice in Ninavel but magic was regulated in Alathia. Each place was aware of the other’s problems, but both ways had their advantages and disadvantages so it seemed balanced. Is there one side you are more sympathetic toward than the other? If so, which one and why do you feel that way?

CS: Heh, good question. As you say, both societies have some serious downsides.  From an intellectual standpoint, I sympathize with Alathia’s attempts to create a safe, moral society…yet if I had to choose a place to live, then as a climber, I’d go for Ninavel.  I’m not quite as much of a fierce individualist as some climbers are, but I’ll admit I put a pretty high value on personal freedom, even when it comes with significant risk.

FC: There are certain figures, such as Khalmet and Shaikar, who come up in Dev’s narrative quite often. I’m curious about the background of these and other figures. Can you tell us some about the world mythology and/or religions?

CS: The gods Dev references, Khalmet, Shaikar, Suliyya, and Noshet, are cultural imports from countries far to the south.  Their worship was popularized in Ninavel by the city’s original mineworkers and builders, immigrants from Varkevia and Sulania who brought their religious traditions with them.  Khalmet in particular is a big favorite in Ninavel, being the god of luck in a city where life is all about profit and opportunity.  Of course, as a cultural melting pot, Ninavel features a whole mishmash of religions – but Dev refers mostly to gods out of the southern pantheon because his handler, Red Dal, was Varkevian in ancestry.  Dev’s outrider mentor, Sethan, was raised in a different, far stricter religious tradition (the Dalradian church, which believes in a single authoritarian goddess), but the Dalradians are not evangelical at all in nature – no one from an outside bloodline can join the church – and Sethan rebelled against his upbringing, anyway, so he didn’t keep many of their customs.

As for the Alathians, they have a completely different primary religion, as the group who first founded Alathia was descended from immigrants who’d traveled to Arkennland from a country named Harsia that lies thousands of miles away, beyond the eastern sea.  As Dev mentions in The Tainted City, the main Alathian religion features twin gods, both of them ascetic and ungendered, that Alathians believe maintain the balance of the world only on a grand scale; their gods aren’t interventionist in personal matters.  Of course, whether you’re talking about Ninavel or Alathia, specific beliefs vary widely between individuals – and some people, like Ruslan (and therefore Kiran), don’t believe in gods at all.

FC: One aspect of the series that I particularly like is that magic seems DIFFICULT. Many fantasy books talk about study being required by magic, but often it doesn’t come across as that difficult with all these prodigies who pick it up naturally. Your books show that it is not easy – spellwork requires study and planning, and different types of mages do not understand types of magic that are not their specialty. In particular, I found the spell patterns that Kiran developed rather interesting. As a programmer, I kept wondering if it was similar to programming with a bunch of different pieces with their own functions that had to be pieced together in the correct way to create a bigger whole. Is there a real-world equivalent of spell patterns and did your background as an engineer influence the idea of spell patterns (or any other part of the books)?

CS: As an electrical engineer, I’d say blood magic is a lot closer to designing circuits than writing programs.   Specifically, analog circuit design, which is a bit of a black art compared to the straightforward, logical world of digital circuitry.  It’s been years since I last worked on analog circuits (as an image processing algorithm designer, I’m a Matlab code monkey now!), but I well remember the strange, compelling mix of intuitive leaps and intricate mathematical analysis that analog design demanded.  Heh, and as a coworker once pointed out to me, the channel lines that blood mages lay out on the floor to shape their spells are awfully reminiscent of circuit diagrams…I guess I like engineering too much to leave it out of my magic entirely!

FC: I loved how all your characters seemed to be shaped by their pasts and viewed the world the way they did in part due to their experiences. How did you develop the past stories for the various characters? Did you plan out the past for each one or did it just come naturally?

CS: When I started Whitefire, I already had a good idea of the major elements of Dev and Kiran’s backstories, but I worked out specific details and timelines as I wrote through my first draft.  For instance, in Dev’s case, when I got to the scene where he reveals a bunch of his past to Cara, before I could type a single word I had to write out a timeline for Dev’s entire life and figure out all the little details.  When did he Change, how old was he when he met Sethan, how many years he spent in Tavian’s gang, how much time since Sethan’s death – not to mention, Sethan and Jylla’s entire backstories, since that influenced their relationships with Dev.  Similarly, for Kiran it wasn’t until I wrote The Tainted City that I decided on exactly what the wall in his mind conceals.  So for me, it’s kind of an organic process.  Things that I figure out late in writing the first draft then get layered into earlier chapters during revision.

FC: Your books are each from two different perspectives, Dev’s and Kiran’s. Yet Dev’s point of view is written from first person and Kiran’s from third. Was there any particular reason for this or did it just seem natural to write them this way since Dev is more open and Kiran started out with secrets about his past? Did you think about changing the perspectives in the second or third books?

CS: The simple answer is that when I first started writing Whitefire, I wasn’t thinking about publication at all.  I played around with both 1st and 3rd for Dev and Kiran, and found that Dev flowed best for me in 1st, and Kiran in 3rd…and since I was just writing for myself, I saw no reason not to continue the story that way.  But why did one POV flow more easily than the other?  You touch on one part of the answer – it’s a heck of a lot easier to keep secrets in 3rd person than 1st, and I wanted the full truth of Kiran’s past and identity to be a gradual reveal.  The rest of the answer lies in my personal preferences as a reader.  I adore 1st person narration for snarky, opinionated, pragmatic characters, like Harry Dresden in Jim Butcher’s Dresden Files series, Cat in Joan Vinge’s Psion, or Gen in Megan Whalen Turner’s The Thief.  But for more introspective characters in desperate situations, I prefer the greater emotional distance of 3rd person – not only does it keep the narrative from bogging down in angst and analysis, but the extra distance can actually throw the character’s predicament into sharper relief for the reader.

For that reason, I haven’t ever considered changing POVs within the series.  Kiran may not have quite so many secrets any longer, but he’s still angsty and introspective as heck, while Dev remains his sardonic, extroverted self – so I’ll stick with the POVs I prefer for those personality types.  That said, who knows…maybe one day I’ll write a short story with the POVs reversed, just for fun!

FC: Despite his ruthless nature and definite leaning toward the evil side of the alignment spectrum, I loved Ruslan as a character because he was dark-hearted yet he wasn’t the stereotypical mustache-twirling villain whose every move and thought seemed dedicated to evil. He had a human side where he truly seemed to care about the well-being of those he considered part of his family, and I thought he had more depth than the common ruthless character because he wasn’t 100% selfishly black-hearted and uncaring. What were your goals in writing him? Do you have any favorite characters that fit the same sort of mold I just described?

CS: We have a tendency to demonize people who do terrible things.  We want to believe that someone who slaughters innocents is incapable of feeling love and sympathy.  I think it makes us feel safer to put them solidly into the category of the alien other.  If true evil is the province only of people who are so damaged and twisted as to be incapable of human feeling, then we who feel love and pity and concern – surely, we could never do such things.  Yet I think of the concentration camp officers who were said to be devoted family men, and fear it’s not so simple.  With Ruslan, I wanted to explore some of that terrible dichotomy – how someone can be fiercely protective toward those they love, and yet view people outside their immediate radius of concern as little better than animals.  I also wanted to make Kiran’s struggle to reject blood magic that much more gut-wrenching for him.  It’s easy to repudiate a family who’s never shown you the least shred of affection.  But when you know your family loves you, and yet you also know the depth of the evil they do…that’s a far more interesting scenario, storywise!

As for other characters that fit the same mold as Ruslan…I’m certainly far from the only SFF author who’s explored this territory.  Brandin in Guy Gavriel Kay’s Tigana is a good example of the type, as is Gerald Tarrant in C.S. Friedman’s Coldfire trilogy.  Or for a really disturbing take on the subject, try Susan R. Matthews’s An Exchange of Hostages, which focuses on an empathetic young doctor forced to become a torturer, who discovers to his horror that he likes it.  (The torture scenes are not graphic, but Matthews gets so deep into the character’s head and the society is so horrifyingly dystopian that reading the book is a deeply uncomfortable, albeit thought-provoking, experience.)

FC: Although there are various romantic relationships in your books, I noticed no one seems to be married. Does the concept of marriage exist in your world or in certain cultures within the world (or did it at one time)? If not, what is it about the society that prevented marriage from developing?

CS: Marriage does exist, though in Ninavel it’s more common for people to enter into contracted partnerships such as Dev and Jylla did – the focus is legal rather than religious, in keeping with the worldly, profit-driven ethic of the city.  In Alathia, ordinary people marry, complete with a religious ceremony….but not mages, who are expected to give their loyalty first and foremost to the Council.  (Also, in my world mages can’t have children, so that removes one societal reason for marriage – though of course that’s not the only reason people might want to exchange lifelong vows!)  On the Ninavel side, Ruslan and Lizaveta consider their bonds as akheli to run deeper than any ordinary marriage, so the very idea is irrelevant to them.  So it’s not that marriage doesn’t happen in my world, it’s just that most of the major characters seen so far have cultural reasons not to marry in the traditional sense.

Thank you so much for answering some questions, Courtney! I really enjoyed learning more about you and the series (and adding more books to the ever-growing wishlist).

The Whitefire Crossing/The Tainted City Giveaway

Courtney has a signed set of The Whitefire Crossing and The Tainted City to give away! This giveaway is open worldwide so anyone can enter.

Giveaway Rules: To be entered in the giveaway, fill out the form below OR send an email to kristen (AT) fantasybookcafe (DOT) com with the subject line “Shattered Sigil.” One entry per person. This giveaway is open to anyone from any country in the world and a winner will be randomly selected. The giveaway will be open until the end of the day on Thursday, November 15.  The winner has 24 hours to respond once contacted via email, and if I don’t hear from them by then a new winner will be chosen (who will also have 24 hours to respond until someone gets back to me with a place to send the books to).

Please note email addresses will only be used for the purpose of contacting the winner. Once the giveaway is over all the emails will be deleted.

Good luck!

Update: Now that the giveaway is over, the entry form has been removed.

The Tainted City is the second book in The Shattered Sigil trilogy by Courtney Schafer. This novel follows The Whitefire Crossing, which was Schafer’s debut novel, and the third book in the series will be entitled The Labyrinth of Flame (release date forthcoming).

Since this is the second book in a series, there will be spoilers for the first book in the series. If you have not read the first book, you may want to read this review of The Whitefire Crossing instead. I’d just like to add that I think The Tainted City is one of the most enjoyable, well-executed novels I’ve read this year. After reading it, the third book in the trilogy has moved to the list of forthcoming books I am most excited about.

Also, later tomorrow I will be posting an interview with Courtney Schafer that I’m very excited about!

The Alathians are holding both Dev and Kiran as prisoners. Dev is forced to haul coal, but he’s really there as incentive to make sure Kiran performs his assigned task to the best of his ability – discovering fellow blood mage Simon Levanian’s methods for getting past Alathia’s strong border wards.

As the days go by, Dev becomes increasingly concerned about finding a way to escape Alathia and return home to Ninavel. When his friend Sethan was dying, he’d asked Dev to take care of his daughter Melly. Melly is Tainted, meaning she has magical gifts that will fade away completely – and very soon as Melly is very close to the age when this happens. Once her abilities are gone, she’ll be useless to her handler, Red Dal. As a former Tainter who worked for Red Dal, Dev is all too aware that he’ll have no problem selling Melly to the highest bidder. He takes his promise to keep her safe very seriously and is desperate both to return home to figure out a way to keep Melly from a horrible fate.

The day Dev begins to put his escape plan into motion, it’s interrupted by an earth tremor that nearly kills him. Both Dev and Kiran automatically assume the quake is Ruslan, the blood mage Kiran was running from, attempting to break through Alathia’s wards himself to bring his runaway apprentice home. However, they are informed that the Alathians received news from Ninavel indicating that the tremor appears to be related to a magical occurrence there. Someone appears to be trying to tamper with the water supply that is necessary for the survival of those living in the desert, and mages have been killed as a result. Since Ninavel’s problems are also causing problems with Alathia’s precious wards, a small group of Alathians decide to investigate, and they decide to bring Kiran for his knowledge of blood magic and Dev for his knowledge of the streets. Understandingly, Kiran fears leaving Alathia’s wards before they deteriorate since it will place him closer to Ruslan. The Alathians insist they can keep Kiran safe from the older blood mage, but can they actually keep their promise – and find the killer – before it is too late for both Ninavel and Alathia?

While I enjoyed The Whitefire Crossing and thought it was a very good debut novel, I wanted more from it. It had some great characters, and both Ninavel and Alathia were intriguing with their opposing strategies to handling those who had magicial ability, but I felt like I was just getting a small glimpse of the edge of the big picture. There was incredible potential for some deeper exploration of the characters and world, and I had a feeling that the second book may cover more of that territory once it had been introduced in the first book. I wasn’t quite prepared for just how much I ended up loving The Tainted City, though. It has everything I like to see in a secondary world fantasy – a fascinating, well-built, and consistent world; excellent, authentic characters who are put to the test; an exciting story that kept me on the edge of my seat; and magic that is not easy and often requires making tough choices. It’s a very thoughtfully written fantasy book, but not in a way that’s trying too hard or takes away from the story being told. It’s thoughtful in how seamless the characterization and world-building are, and the way good and bad are balanced in societies and characters.

One example of this balance are the societies created in Ninavel and Alathia. Both are faced with powerful people who can use magic, but each chose to handle mages in very different ways. In Ninavel, mages are given free reign and quite often have too much power. Yet the people of Ninavel have choice and freedom, which is restricted in Alathia where magic is very heavily regulated. Those with magical ability are forced into their country’s service and have to follow a strict set of rules. With completely opposing viewpoints like this, it could be all too easy to portray one as being better than the other, especially when both point of view characters are from Ninavel. Dev is very opposed to a lot of the Alathian ways, but even so both societies seemed to have both their advantages and their problems. Alathia did seem more proper since Ninavel’s ways allowed people to be more self-serving, but it’s also very apparent that Alathia does pay a price for its restrictions.

Similarly, the characters are well-rounded without falling firmly into the category of “black” or “white.” Some were darker than others, and they all had to face difficult choices that showed what they valued and where their priorities lay – Dev had to figure out just what he’d sacrifice to keep his promise to save Melly, and Kiran had to decide just how far he was willing to go to be a blood mage. Those other than the two main characters also had to wrestle with various choices, and I really appreciated that no matter what a character did or how much I might disagree with it, I always understood WHY he or she acted that way. Each character had experiences that had shaped them and put their experiences in context; each did what made sense to him or her and there were no flat characters. I’d be quite happy to read a story about any one of them because each of them did have their own backstory, goals, and motivations that made them well-fleshed out characters.

In particular, I loved the portrayal of Ruslan, the ruthless blood mage who taught Kiran. He is definitely leaning toward the “evil” side of the good/evil spectrum, but he manages to be villainous without falling into the trap of becoming the purely black-hearted, cardboard villain whose every act and thought is dedicated to evil. Ruslan seems to genuinely care for those he considers a part of his family, including Kiran. As much as I despised his methods and what he did to Kiran, I also got the impression that he really did care about the well-being of his apprentice and thought he was doing what was best for him.

Likewise, there is an argument to be made for many of his actions and some of the logic used to sway Kiran to the side of not fearing blood magic wasn’t completely illogical. There were times when it was about survival and doing what was necessary. That’s not to say Ruslan never seems to take joy out of acts that do seem rather evil, because he does. Yet not all these acts are incomprehensible given the circumstances and the urgency behind finding the killer he’s seeking. In addition, Kiran’s perspective gives a glimpse of just how good blood magic feels, and knowing that Kiran’s a decent person who doesn’t wish to harm anyone made me wonder – what did Ruslan used to be like and what set him on this path? It’s obvious that he too could have once been a decent person who ended up on this slippery slope, and I just love the complexity of Ruslan as a darker character. (I am kind of hoping for a story about his past at some point now.)

As characters, Dev and Kiran are both also wonderful to read about, and I think it’s a good choice to have Dev carry a lot of the story. While I do enjoy reading about Kiran’s tribulations and felt I got a better idea of just who he is in this book, Dev’s first person narration is delightful and full of personality. Kiran can be a bit naive, but Dev is a man of the streets and clever besides. He gets how it works and has a cynical eye, yet he also manages to remain reasonably jaded instead of paranoid and jaded. Lots of bad things happen to both characters over the course of this novel, and they are put to the test.

In fact, the entire second half of this book was fast-paced, urgent, and kept me on the edge of my seat. If I had one complaint, it’s that there were some parts in the first half that were a little slow, but it really wasn’t a bad sort of slow that was boring. It just seemed to take awhile to really get to the heart of the story, but once it did things moved at a rapid pace and it was a fast ride full of twists and turns right until the end.

There is no middle book syndrome with The Tainted City, and I thought it was superior to The Whitefire Crossing in every way even though the first book was enjoyable. It contained deeper exploration of the world and characters, and it excelled on all levels – crisp prose, strong storytelling, intriguing and well-developed characters, a good narrative voice, and excellent world-building with logical consistency throughout. Quite simply, I loved The Tainted City, highly recommend it, and cannot wait for the sequel.

My Rating: 9/10

Where I got my reading copy: Review copy from a publicist/the publisher.

Read an Excerpt from The Tainted City:

Other Reviews of The Tainted City:

The Leaning Pile of Books is a feature where I talk about books I got over the last week – old or new, bought or received for review consideration. Since I hope you will find new books you’re interested in reading in these posts, I try to be as informative as possible. If I can find them, links to excerpts, author’s websites, and places where you can find more information on the book are included.

Epic: Legends of Fantasy Edited By John Joseph Adams

Epic: Legends of Fantasy edited by John Joseph Adams

This anthology is quite well-named since the list of authors with stories in it is rather epic: Robin Hobb, Ursula K. Le Guin, George R. R. Martin, N. K. Jemisin, Brandon Sanderson, Kate Elliott, Patrick Rothfuss, Tad Williams, Mary Robinette Kowal, Juliet Marillier, Michael Moorcock, Aliette de Bodard, Paolo Bacigalupi, Orson Scott Card, Melanie Rawn, Carrie Vaughn, and Trudi Canavan. It also includes a foreword by Brent Weeks and an introduction by the editor. The table of contents with the title of each story is listed on the book page on the publisher’s website (I do recognize some of these from other publications so it’s worth checking out the list to see if you have the stories already). This includes a story set in George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire world, one set in Robin Hobb’s Realm of the Elderlings, one set in N. K. Jemisin’s world from her Dreamblood duology, and some others in familiar settings.

Epic: Legends of Fantasy is available now in trade paperback and ebook. If you want to sample a story from it, “The Narcomancer” by N. K. Jemisin is available to read online.

There is a sickness in the land. Prophets tell of the fall of empires, the rise of champions. Great beasts stir in vaults beneath the hills, beneath the waves. Armies mass. Gods walk. The world will be torn asunder.

Epic fantasy is storytelling at its biggest and best. From the creation myths and quest sagas of ancient times to the mega-popular fantasy novels of today, these are the stories that express our greatest hopes and fears, that create worlds so rich we long to return to them again and again, and that inspire us with their timeless values of courage and friendship in the face of ultimate evil—tales that transport us to the most ancient realms, and show us the most noble sacrifices, the most astonishing wonders.

Now acclaimed editor John Joseph Adams (Wastelands, The Living Dead) brings you seventeen tales by today’s leading authors of epic fantasy, including George R. R. Martin (A Song of Ice and Fire), Ursula K. Le Guin (Earthsea), Robin Hobb (Realms of Elderlings), Kate Elliott (Crown of Stars), Tad Williams (Of Memory, Sorrow & Thorn), Patrick Rothfuss (The Kingkiller Chronicle), and more.

Return again to lands you’ve loved, or visit magical new worlds. Victory against the coming darkness is never certain, but one thing’s for sure—your adventure will be epic.

The Cadet of Tildor by Alex Lidell

The Cadet of Tildor by Alex Lidell

This young adult fantasy will be available in hardcover and ebook in January 2013. This is a debut novel, and it was a finalist for the Amazon Breakthrough Novelist Award in 2010.

This is the first I’d heard about this book, but I’m really curious about it now (if more than a little skeptical about the comparison to George R. R. Martin that is becoming so common now).

Tamora Pierce meets George R. R. Martin in this smart, political, medieval fantasy-thriller.

There is a new king on the throne of Tildor. Currents of political unrest sweep the country as two warring crime families seek power, angling to exploit the young Crown’s inexperience. At the Academy of Tildor, the training ground for elite soldiers, Cadet Renee de Winter struggles to keep up with her male peers. But when her mentor, a notorious commander recalled from active duty to teach at the Academy, is kidnapped to fight in illegal gladiator games, Renee and her best friend Alec find themselves thrust into a world rife with crime, sorting through a maze of political intrigue, and struggling to resolve what they want, what is legal, and what is right.

The Annotated Sword of Shannara by Terry Brooks

The Annotated Sword of Shannara (35th Anniversary Edition) by Terry Brooks

The first of many Shannara books was first released 35 years ago. On November 13, a new hardcover edition will be available that contains annotations and an introduction by the author. This edition is also available for preorder as an ebook and audiobook.

THE PHENOMENAL EPIC OF GOOD AND EVIL LIKE IT’S NEVER BEEN EXPERIENCED BEFORE

Thirty-five years ago, Terry Brooks brought to life a dazzling world in The Sword of Shannara. Fourteen more Shannara volumes would follow, making the series one of the most popular fantasy epics of all time. Now comes a fully annotated collector’s edition of the novel that started it all—featuring never-before-shared insights into the classic tale, an all-new introduction by the New York Times bestselling author, and replica sketches of some of the long-lost paintings and color plates by the Brothers Hildebrandt that decorated the original edition.

Long ago, wars ravaged the world. In peaceful Shady Vale, half-elfin Shea Ohmsford knows little of such troubles. Then the giant, forbidding Allanon reveals that the supposedly dead Warlock Lord is plotting to destroy everything in his wake. The sole weapon against this Power of Darkness is the Sword of Shannara, which can be used only by a true heir of Shannara. On Shea, last of the bloodline, rests the hope of all the races.

Soon a Skull Bearer, dread minion of evil forces, flies into the Vale, seeking to destroy Shea. To save his home, Shea must flee, drawing the Skull Bearer after him in menacing pursuit.

Thus begins the enthralling Shannara epic, a spellbinding tale of adventure, magic, and myth.

The Six-Gun Tarot by R. S. Belcher

The Six-Gun Tarot by R. S. Belcher

This debut novel will be available in hardcover and ebook in January 2013. The author won the Grand Prize in the Strange New Worlds SF-writing contest.

Buffy meets Deadwood in a dark, wildly imaginative historical fantasy

Nevada, 1869: Beyond the pitiless 40-Mile Desert lies Golgotha, a cattle town that hides more than its share of unnatural secrets. The sheriff bears the mark of the noose around his neck; some say he is a dead man whose time has not yet come. His half-human deputy is kin to coyotes. The mayor guards a hoard of mythical treasures. A banker’s wife belongs to a secret order of assassins. And a shady saloon owner, whose fingers are in everyone’s business, may know more about the town’s true origins than he’s letting on.

A haven for the blessed and the damned, Golgotha has known many strange events, but nothing like the primordial darkness stirring in the abandoned silver mine overlooking the town. Bleeding midnight, an ancient evil is spilling into the world, and unless the sheriff and his posse can saddle up in time, Golgotha will have seen its last dawn…and so will all of Creation.

Wonders of the Invisible World
by Patricia A. McKillip
240pp (Paperback)
My Rating: 8/10
Amazon Rating: 5/5
LibraryThing Rating: 3.5/5
Goodreads Rating: 4.12/5
 

Wonders of the Invisible World is a collection of previously published short stories by Patricia A. McKillip. McKillip is perhaps best known for her Riddle-Master trilogy or her World Fantasy Award winner, The Forgotten Beasts of Eld, but she has many well-known works. She has been a published writer for about 40 years, and she has released numerous novels and short stories since then. This recently released collection of her work contains an introduction by Charles de Lint, sixteen stories by McKillip from various publications, and McKillip’s Guest of Honor speech from WisCon 2004 entitled “What Inspires Me.”

The stories included in Wonders of the Invisible World are as follows:

  • Wonders of the Invisible World
  • Out of the Woods
  • The Kelpie
  • Hunter’s Moon
  • Oak Hill
  • The Fortune-Teller
  • Jack O’Lantern
  • Knight of the Well
  • Naming Day
  • Byndley
  • The Twelve Dancing Princesses
  • Undine
  • Xmas Cruise
  • A Gift To Be Simple
  • The Old Woman and the Storm
  • The Doorkeeper of Khaat

Most of these stories are fantasy, but there are some science fiction stories as well.

Confession time: Wonders of the Invisible World was my first experience reading the work of Patricia A. McKillip despite being such a huge fan of the fantasy genre. I actually read it quite by accident since I had intended to start with one of her novels. While I like the idea of short fiction, I often find myself unable to really immerse myself in it since I tend to enjoy stories that are long enough to allow one to get to know the characters. It’s very rare that I make it through a short story collection, especially if I don’t take a break between stories.

Yet not only did I read this collection in its entirety, but I read it without having the urge to take a break from it. I took a glimpse at the beginning to get an idea of what McKillip’s writing style was like and figured I may as well start with the introduction. The brief but heartfelt introduction by Charles de Lint made me want to read everything McKillip had ever written, so I took a look at the first story. I finished it, and then moved on to the next story. By the time I was immersed in the third story I was convinced by McKillip’s writing itself that I want to read everything she has ever written. She is one of those authors who has the gift of saying much with few words, and her stories sparkle because of her lovely but spare prose, her characters (who are often quite developed despite the short length of the pages that contain them), and her depth and insight. She tackles some heavy themes such as gender, death, and the stagnation that can result from longheld traditions and resistance to change. It’s not all serious, though, and there are parts with warmth and humor, as well as light-hearted stories. McKillip’s range is impressive and her stories a joy to read.

It’s impossible for me to pick a single favorite story from this collection since there are three that compete for that title. “The Kelpie,” one of the longer and more complex stories in the collection, is a love story that intertwines fantasy and myth while exploring artistic and feminist themes. It also has some of the most memorable characters in the entire collection in Nick and Emma, the two who meet and fall for each other at a gathering of artists. Emma captures the attention of both Nick Bonham and the handsome Bram Wilding at this event. When she is pursued by Mr. Wilding, Emma shows him some of her paintings only to be told they could be a lot better. As she tells her brother in the company of Nick later, he told her that “most women painters should confine themselves to watercolors, since they have not the breadth of soul to express the fullness and complexity of oils, though he had seen one or two come close enough to counterfeit it.” It is during this conversation that Nick manages to capture Emma’s heart:

 

“What are your thoughts on the breadth of a woman’s soul, Mr. Bonham?”

“I think,” he said fervently, “I could travel a lifetime in one and never see the half of it.”

She regarded him silently for a heartbeat, out of eyes the color of a fine summer day, and in that moment he caught his first astonished glimpse of the undiscovered country that was theirs.

The story is about their developing relationship as well as Mr. Wilding’s obsession with Emma that invades her life, and it also manages to bring in the struggle of a group of female artists to get their work taken seriously. Of course, there is an incident with the titular kelpie that is quite a pivotal moment. “The Kelpie” is both an engrossing and intricate story dealing with deep themes, and I felt it was also the most emotionally involving story of all. (After writing about this one, perhaps I can pick a very favorite story, but I liked the other two stories mentioned almost as much even though they are very different from “The Kelpie”!)

“Naming Day” was a more light-hearted story in which an adolescent girl learns an important lesson through an amusing situation. As a serious student of magic at the top of her class, Averil is too busy with her studies and her imminent Naming Day to listen to her mother when she says she needs help with her four-year-old brother. When a witch casts a spell on Averil on Naming Day, she has to go on a quest to remove the spell – and learns about what is truly important in the process. This may sound trite, but it’s a very well-done story with warmth and humor that keeps it from seeming like a life lesson or an after school special. By the end, Averil is not the same person she was at the start and she undergoes this development over the course of a very fun story.

The final of my three favorites is a fairy tale about a soldier, Val, who could become king titled “The Twelve Dancing Princesses.” On his way back from the war, Val learns of a king who has offered his kingdom and one daughter to any man who can discover how his daughters escape their locked room every night. Every morning, they are so worn they sleep until noon, and the only trace of their adventure is their twelve pairs of shoes, so worn from dancing that they are no longer wearable. However, any man who tries to solve this mystery of the dancing princesses and fails will be killed. It’s largely a traditional fairy tale with its premise, the involvement of a mysterious crone, and the way it follows the rule of three. It’s creepy at times, and it also has some beautiful imagery:

 

They turned then onto another broad, tree-lined road. Val closed his eyes and opened them again, but what he saw did not change. All the leaves on these trees were made of gold. Like tears of gold they glowed and shimmered and melted down the branches; they flowed into Val’s outstretched hand.

I also appreciated how war was handled in this tale. It’s not a story that repeatedly dwells on war or violence, but it gives a brief glimpse of what Val experienced in a way that is both simple and effective:

 

“What is your name?”

“Val,” he answered.

“A good name for a soldier. Did you win the battle?”

Val shrugged. “So they say. I could not see, from where I stood, that winning was much better than losing.”

As with all short story collections, some stories were better than others. The three just discussed are my very favorites and stories I consider nearly perfect, but there are other stories I loved as well such as “Byndley” and “Knight of the Well.” In fact, many of these stories are quite lovely, and even if I didn’t love every one of them I could appreciate most of them on some level. For example, “Undine” was not one of my favorites but it was memorable because it was a somewhat humorous story about a young undine who tried to ensnare her first man – only to have the tables turned on her in an amusing way. There was only one story that fell completely flat for me, “Xmas Cruise.” This story explored the relationships of two couples who met on a cruise during Christmas vacation, but I found it to be rather dull. However, if there’s only one story in a collection containing sixteen that did nothing at all for me, I think that’s doing very well!

Wonders of the Invisible World is a wonderful collection of stories full of wit and insight wrapped in beautiful, effortless prose. McKillip’s ability to convey so much in so few words is impressive, as is her ability with storytelling, characterization, and thematic elements. I now see why she is such a lauded author in the fantasy genre, and I’m glad to have so many other books written by her left to discover.

My Rating: 8/10

Where I got my reading copy: ARC from the publisher.