Thick as Thieves

Megan Whalen Turner is a great writer and any story by her is worth reading, but I have to admit Thick as Thieves will be my least favourite of the series. Perhaps it is because I went into it with the wrong expectations, thinking it would involve more intrigues by Eugenides (‘The Thief’). But though he has his fingers in it from the start, he doesn’t come into the story until the very end and far too briefly for my taste.

Instead the story revolves around Kamet, a slave in the Meden Empire, and his adventures as he runs away with the help of an Attolian soldier (who happens to be a character from an earlier book). The world building is thorough, as always, and I enjoyed a look at this new corner of Megan Whalen Turner’s world. Also the characters were quite interesting and their interactions subtly drawn. However, I just couldn’t quite warm to Kamet as to the narrators of the other books.

As it stood, the whole story seemed quite peripheral to the rest of the series and I really missed seeing more of the characters I’d come to like from the earlier books. Also, since it’s basically a travelogue involving two men, there’s a dearth of female characters in this book.

Having said all that, it’s still a good read and the series as a whole is well worth reading if you like tales of intrigue and surprising twists and turns. Also the world, based on an original mix of Greek and Persian sources, is deeply layered and a joy to explore.

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Why the West rules – for now

This is a question that anybody who is interested in Chinese history will eventually ask themselves. After all, the Chinese invented so many things: paper, printing, gunpowder, the compass, paper money – the list is endless. And early in the 15th century Admiral Zheng He led a fleet of 300 ships as far as East Africa (amongst other things he brought back a giraffe for his emperor). At a length of 400 feet, his flag ship would have dwarfed Columbus’s Santa Maria (85 feet). And yet, some 400 years later, in 1860, the English sent a force half-way around the world and defeated the Chinese, in the process looting the Imperial Palace and even carrying off the Empress’s lapdog (christened ‘Looty’ by its new masters).

The book opens with the imaginary scene of it being the other way round and the Chinese taking Prince Albert hostage to live out his life in China. Ian Morris then asks the question why events did not play out that way, taking a very long view starting from the first humans to leave Africa. In order to compare the Western and Eastern cores of civilisation (he defines the Western core as originating in the fertile crescent and then slowly moving west) with each other and over time, he even devises his own system of measuring human development.

While I do not completely agree with his conclusion that the West’s advantage is mostly geographical – due to plundering the New World – I found it interesting to follow his large scale tour of history and to see how the advantages and disadvantages of geography changed over time. He identifies a ‘hard ceiling’ around 42 points on his scale that both Rome and China’s Northern Song Dynasty failed to break. Interesting enough, in the eleventh century the Chinese had a Renaissance movement of their own and had started to build industries using coal, but that development got abruptly curtailed when nomadic Jurchen invaded China and occupied the northern half.

Reading the book, was thinking of how many AU scenarios would have been possible. What if Roman Empire had coped better with the Visigoths displaced by the Huns, could it have endured longer? What if the Arabs had conquered Europe, would the Europeans have had quicker access to their science, perhaps even an earlier Renaissance – or else no incentive to go exploring in the Atlantic? What if the Ming emperors had decided their voyages of exploration were worth the expense and continued them? And though Ian Morris claims it’s ‘maps not chaps’ that make history, there are a few individuals that certainly shaped history, for example Genghis Khan. What if he had never been born? There is material for a dozen alternative history novels here!

In conclusion, this is an interesting book for anybody who would like a large overview of the development of human civilisation and the forces driving progress. In the final chapter, Ian Morris also tries to look into the future, providing food for thought.

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Den of Wolves

Den of Wolves is the third novel in Juliet Marillier’s Blackthorn and Grim series. Each book deals with the untangling of a mystery, but there is also an overreaching arc for the whole series, so I’d recommend reading the first two books before getting this one.

The novel is set in a long ago, mythical Ireland. Blackthorn is a healer and wise woman in a rural community, while her friend Grim, a big, strong man, is handy with all sorts of things, especially building. Although they live together in the same house, they are reluctant to love again because both of them have been hurt in the past. They are an unusual couple for a fantasy novel: both in their thirties, with past relationships, just ordinary people who have been hurt, neither very tender nor extraordinarily handsome. What they have in abundance however is strength, truth and courage.

In every novel they stumble onto a mystery made up of old tales and the involvement of the otherworldly powers and end up righting old wrongs. Den of Wolves develops slowly at first, with the mystery introduced and Blackthorn and Grim making separate discoveries. There is also a new and likeable viewpoint character, Cara, who has to discover a secret about her parentage, find out about her abilities and finally choose a path for herself. Being apparently the final volume in the series, this book wraps up both Cara’s mystery and the overreaching story arc – which is a shame, as I would have liked to read more stories about Blackthorn and Grim.

In my opinion the mix of elements of a detective story with a traditional fantasy setting works really well and I always enjoy how Marillier weaves in old tales and the truth they hold. As a writer, I also found it interesting how she uses a different viewpoint for each character, first person present for Grim, first person past for Blackthorn and third person past for Cara. I would have thought it quite difficult to carry off, but Marillier manages brilliantly and so gives each character his or her own particular flavour.

To sum up, it’s a series for people who like realistic, unusual characters, good writing and skilful world-building. However, though the books all have a happy ending of sorts, this is also a world where good people get hurt, some scars are permanent and not everything always ends happily ever after. Beware that the first book especially has some very dark scenes.

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Goldenhand is the latest book in Garth Nix’s popular Abhorsen series. Some of his other books can be read as standalone novels, but with this one I would very much recommend reading his other books first.

It takes place in the Old Kingdom, a world made special by the concept that death is not the end, but that instead some of the dead struggle to come back into life by any means possible. The necromancers of this world have the ability to travel into Death and to command the dead by the means of magical bells – which are not without danger to the wielder however.

For the first two thirds of the book, it is divided into two different narrative strands. One deals with Ferin, a woman from the northern tribes, who needs to deliver an urgent message, while the shamans of the tribes do everything to stop her. The other narrative strand accompanies Lirael and Nick (characters from previous books) on their journey to the Clayr. I have to admit that personally I found Ferin’s chapters a lot more interesting. I liked that for once here is a character with no magic at all, just a lot of determination. I felt she brought a fresh perspective into the series, what it is like to live in the Old Kingdom as a normal person with no means to defend herself against the dead by magic. In fact it got almost to the point where I got annoyed to get Lirael’s point-of-view again, because there was not a lot of action in those chapters, just the slightly awkward romance with Nick, which I did not find particularly captivating.

As for the plot, as usual they end up saving the Old Kingdom and the way they did it was not terribly new or exciting. However, I always like those scenes that take place in Death, simply because it’s such an interesting and original concept. Overall the book ties up a lot of loose ends, so much so that you almost feel it’s a bit obsessive – every major character gets his or her love interest by the end of the book.

All in all, I would have liked the novel to be longer and to see more of the characters from previous books like Sabriel, Touchstone and Sam. After the long build-up, the climax felt a little bit rushed. However, it is a solid, well-written novel that provides good, original world-building and I liked to learn more about the tribes of the North and to find closure for Clariel.

If you like the Abhorsen series, Goldenhand is definitely worth reading. If you haven’t, I’d recommend you try Sabriel first, which I still consider the best book of the series.

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Riddlemaster Trilogy

A reader recently asked me for fantasy recommendations and as I stood in front of my book case, my eyes fell on the Riddlemaster Trilogy by Patricia McKillip. Together with The Lord of the Rings and the Dragonriders of Pern series, these books were my introduction to fantasy and I’ve loved the genre ever since.

I originally bought ‘The Heir of Sea and Fire’ first (the second book in the series), simply because I was intrigued by the cover – the scene where Raederle, the heroine, bargains with one of the dead Kings of Hel by offering his skull back. But once I started reading, the story sucked me in and I had to get the other books as well.

Patricia McKillip has a truly magical way with words, her descriptions are poetic and spot on at the same time. This, for example, is how she introduces the ghost of King Farr of Hel: He was, as she imagined him, a big, powerful man with a wide slab of a face hard as a slammed gate. The world she has created matches her style, deep, diverse, with a long history and full of magic.

The protagonist of the series is Morgon, Prince of Hed and a riddle master. He has been born with a pattern of three stars on his forehead and the story follows his journey as he has to discover their meaning – for this is a world where unanswered riddles can prove unexpectedly deadly. Raederle, the woman he loves (’the second most beautiful woman of An’), goes looking for him and together they face the dangers his stars have called up from the past.

I love the way Patricia McKillip has woven the idea of riddles through the whole story. Answering them teaches you something about the world and yourself – there’s even a whole College of Riddle-Masters! Altogether it’s a world you can lose yourself in while reading, like a rich, slightly faded tapestry of events long past.

The books are now available as a single eBook on Amazon and very much worth buying.

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