Audiobook Review: The Dark Defiles by Richard Morgan (2014)

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The Dark Defiles is final book of the A Land Fit For Heroes trilogy. It’s also the longest. The audiobook comes in at an impressive twenty-four hours. That’s a lot of story-time though in pages it comes in at 560, so not a doorstopper of a book, but it does allow Morgan space to explore the consequences of the first two books (The Steel Remains and The Cold Commands). The problem for this reviewer is that I can’t talk about most of it without ruining the efforts that Morgan has gone through to create a series of ‘oo’, ‘ah’, ‘fuck’ and ‘hell yes’ moments.

What I can say is that as an ending to an unconventional tale of heroism Morgan manages to keep control and place the reader in the right place but not until right at the end. Ringil Eskiath, Egar the Dragonbane, and kir-Archeth Indamaninarma are definitely back to finish their respective fates.

The narrative is that Archeth has to recover a fallen Helmesman who delivers a warning which sets the trio on a state-sponsored, though mostly privately-financed, mission on the seas far away from home and from there nothing goes quite to plan.

If you’ve read the earlier two books then you’ll know that Ringil and Archeth make unconventional heroes. One is a deviant and outcast and the other is an immortal half-blood abandoned to life amongst the humans. Egar  is the nearest you’ll get to a traditional hero but he more the glue that binds Ringil and Archeth than a hero in his own right. Unlike in The Cold Commands he doesn’t gets his own thread here.

Fate is important as Morgan plays with the idea of perspective. The Grey Places,  where Ringil the Dark-Mage-in-the-making often visits, are timeless and adds a long view perspective which would be missing otherwise, another is (and this is a slight spoiler) that in their absence war is declared, like I said nothing goes to plan. So while we are following a quest of three people they are a nexus to which bigger events are rippling outwards from and reaching towards and spectacularly  colliding.

Morgan is intentionally setting out to take the model of Standard Epic Fantasy© and dismantling it before putting it back together again in his own way. By doing that it feels fresh but won’t alienate people who expect certain things from  Standard Epic Fantasy© like heroes and quests and swords.

Oh the swords, and another mild spoiler, there is another sword which isn’t the Ravensfriend. I like magical swords ever since I read about Elric and his soul-stealing sword the Stormbringer. Morgan definitely gives a nod to that concept on more than one occasion here

But it’s not completely without an injection of technology, as the Kiriath, Archeth’s people who abandoned her, it and the Helmsman to a fate without them. What the technology is ultimately useful for remains unclear but it does have its uses. For example, it resurrects one of the minor characters, making them creeping and disturbing from then on.

Thinking about it The Dark Defiles is an unsettling read. It has lots of disturbing moments, which aren’t in themselves shocking considering the grim nature of the world and the characters, but they culminate, and gain resonance – as mentioned the ripples go out as well as in and they colide at interesting times in interesting ways.

I’m going to restrain from a spoiler to illustrate the point but I was reading another story where one of the characters had said they’d never pick up a gun but at the end circumstances force them to hold and to fire such a weapon. But lets just say that circumstances (or fate) can lead you places you’d never willingly travel.

And that is the heart of A Land Fit For Heroes. You don’t know what you’ll do or where you’ll go until you’re forced into a corner and you have to make a choice. It is also about doing the unexpected when those choices are presented, about defying expectations and about being ‘human’.

I do have a few niggles, mostly with the use of time and how realistic that it is as a timeline for some events mentioned in recent history and the likelyhood for them to be actually  be ‘real’ given the timescales of other things but I can forgive that element of doubt as it’s a story about stories and the myths we create for ourselves. And I guess I’m using that as an excuse to brush those observations out of mind and out of sight.

The other things to mention are the pace and scale. In terms of pace as it is longer Morgan has given us an epic world-crossing tale and we follow characters across a map and even though it’s not a criticism it might help manage your expectations. The other is that it doesn’t build in scale. There are armies but there aren’t two armies on battefields screaming at each other. It’s much quieter than that, which is what I meant about leaving the reveal of the outcome until the very end. It’s frustratingly teasing, surprising and right.

Finally,  as I listened to the audiobook, I’d be remiss not to mention the acting skills of Simon Vance who again did a marvellous job of keeping all the characters sounding different, creepy, and alive.

The Dark Defiles is a masterful end to a rebuilding of the  Standard Epic Fantasy© Model during A Land Fit For Heroes though I’d give anything for an epilogue, even a little one.

Review: Signal to Noise by Silvia Moreno-Garcia (2015)

Signal to Noise

There are books that when you first hear about them excite and tease you, though if, like me, you’ve heard about them months before they come out that excitement can fade, mostly because other books get in the way, but some things do stay around with Signal to Noise it was the trio of music, and magic and Mexico which stuck, and that is a pretty good summary of its hook.

Meche is a fifteen year old girl who uses music to mask out the world around her. The love of music is inherited from her father but it’s with her two friends, Sabastian and Daniela, where her passion takes a more practical and disturbing turn when she discovers how to make music weave magic, and we’re witness to how magic doesn’t really make things better.

Moreno-Garcia goes back and forth between Mexico in a 2009 present and 1998 past as she shows us the lasting effect of the earlier events. She doesn’t linger too long in either and makes both interesting enough that you’re happy to get back to either time frame. She also uses the past to confuse and foreshadow present.

You see Meche’s journey as she burns through her friends and witness the breakdown of her relationship with her family at the same time as seeing that it’s unfinished business she may have tried to leave behind but can’t now avoid dealing with.

You know that’s where the first half of the tale ends up pretty quickly because that is how the present section starts but it’s what happens next and why that makes it more interesting.

As an adult you can’t help thinking back to your earlier self and seeing how you laid tracks to the present and wondering if you could change things what would you change? But Meche has no such regrets. Though there is a scene with her grandmother, that we see as an audience, which if Meche had witnessed would, I think, fill her with a lot of remorse.

Even though this story is full of teenage anxieties and issues I’m reluctant to label it as YA because of the effect it had on this adult reader. The power of using those formative events is that emotion is simpler and more intense, which works in its favour, though this could be seen as simplistic if you’re expecting a more nauanced exploration.

Brought together because they’re unhip gives an awkwardness and a camaraderie to Meche, Sebastian and Daniela but it’s more than that because Meche is a leader and Sebastian has a unacknowledged crush on Meche and with Meche confused by her own feelings then Daniela playing go between the two. It’s teenageness in a microcosm.

As for the music, I’d be surpised if Moreno-Gracia hasn’t got her own passion there. The various melodies resonate as you read and the author makes the point that what is obvious isn’t always the most effective.

Back to the magic. Does it make things better? Not really.

At the heart this novel are dysfunctional relationships; with Meche at 15 and 36 dealing with the effect of her father and how she is and was with her friends plus it illustrates effectively how we do, but mostly don’t, change.

Signal to Noise is a great debut that uses music and magic to bring something a little different to the exploration and struggles of teenage years.

Review: The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing by Tarquin Hall

The Case of the Man Who Died Laughing is the second published case of the Indian detective Vish Puri.

Early one Delhi morning a 20-foot vision of the Goddess Kali appears to a morning session of the therapeutic Laughing Club who then proceeds to strike one of their members dead before vanishing into thin air.

There is much to love about Hall’s quirky detective. The most immediate is the pet names he gives to his employees. He names them with wry mix of the jobs they do for him and their personality traits. For example, we have Hanbrake (his driver), Facecream (who works undercover), and Tubelight (as he spends most of his time in the dark).

But the cast doesn’t end there. It is truly a family affair with Puri’s mother getting herself involved in her own mystery and this time drags along Puri’s wife. There is a warmer feeling to this series because of the lively secondary characters which you don’t find in most detective novels.

Hall gives insight into Indian culture and beliefs as Puri sets out to disprove that a Goddess can actually manifested but this brings him into conflict with a Guru who has the ear of the Prime Minister. And Puri has then has another disturbing mystery to solve.

It’s fast-paced and it’s pleasurable watching Puri’s clue-hunting, bartering and sleuthing as he talks to all aspects of Indian society to get to the bottom of what actually happen.

Hall seems to be having fun not only with Puri’s quirky, but extremely effective, ways but also complicating his life with his Mother and Wife sticking their noses around the place in the hunt of clues of their own.

The cover quotes a reviewer calling, ‘Puri the Indian Poirot’ and but it’s not Poirot dropped into India it’s more a what if Porit was Indian, though Puri himself is always reference Holmes, though not always in a endearing way.

It has everything I love in a modern ‘cosy crime’ novel. A quirky cast of characters, mysteries which are actually mysterious and an investigation with entertaining twists and turns.

It’s really hard not to enjoy this book and I can’t wait to read The Case of the Deadly Butter Chicken.

Review: The Three by Sarah Lotz

thethreesarahlotz.jpgI finished reading The Three the same day as the horrendous air-crash in Germany, and seeing the events unfold on TV. Because of the intensity of Sarah Lotz’s horror thriller I had emotional connection to the unfolding news I would never have expected. The Three is as much an exploration of effects of a life changing event as it is a creepy, twisting mystery.

The first thing you notice is the structure. Lotz has put a fictionalised real-life non-fiction book, Black Thursday: From Crash to Conspiracy, inside her novel with only two framing chapters to let you know it’s a fiction.

It starts with four plane crashes with three of those flights having a sole surviving child collectively called The Three by the media. The opening ‘framing’ chapter provides us with a warning that fuels the events rest of novel. Then we are introduced to the ‘author’ before starting on the mix of interviews, transcripts and extracts which make up the rest of the book.

What’s immediately clear is that Lotz has a talent for not only characterisation but voice. Each segment has its own feel and style. There is a tangible change in tone as we swap back and fore between the different ‘evidence’ which make up The Three.

Lotz weaves four main narratives. Three following the journey of those closet to the surviving children as their families find out that they are not quite the same about the children they were before. They act out of character. The fourth deals with a message recorded by Pamela May Donald and the person who hears it.

That’s a thread that’s better left to be experienced though it does involve the theme of religion and how power and religion aren’t always too far away from each other. I’m mentioning it as this thread has an implication which in the end Lotz underplays.

Maybe knowing there was a sequel, especially being aware of where it is to be set, subtly changed the way I read The Three. Not in a big way. I think I spotted the occasional reference to events in the sequel and I paused to ponder where the next book might go.

But I wonder if this had been a one-off book if Lotz would have risked making some elements bigger and bolder rather than leaving the lingering feeling she was holding something back?

This one ends cleverly so I really need to know how Sarah Lotz is going to tackle the next one, especially if it’s have the same format, and why is it called Day Four?

Audiobook Review: Foxglove Summer by Ben Aaronovitch

Foxglove_IconWhere do you go after the literally shocking ending of Broken Homes. PC Peter Grant, Britain’s only official apprentice Wizard, had been investigated events at architecturally curious high-rise estate called Skygarden before Ben Aaronovitch pulled a very large rabbit out the hat.

Well it seems that life, and crime, carry on. This time Peter is off to the Herefordshire countryside to see if anything supernatural is involved in the disappearance of two girls and his investigation starts with doing a routine elimination check on a wizard who has hung up his staff.

Aaronovitch keeps the format tightly woven in the police-procedural mode with Peter being the good copper he is and adhering to his training and the fundamentals of police work. One of the strengths of the series is that it reads like crime fiction with magic. To be honest I am surprised by how popular they are outside genre circles as magic and the supernatural play a major part of the plot. But through Peter’s eyes they always feel grounded and accessible.

Peter is also a good narrator of his own adventure though for me that narrative voice is synonymous with Kobna Holdbrook-Smith who reads the audio books and he is now my Peter. I mention this mostly as it took me a week to listen to the 10hrs and 45 minutes of audio. I can’t really multitask when listening to an audio book but luckily I had a a 5 hour round trip which topped up with snatches on my commute, and a bath or two to fed my addiction.

I really can’t say what one thing got me hooked. The setting reminds me of home. Getting away from London and into the countryside we’re introduced a wonderful cast of colourful characters. Ben drops some well waited hooks and teases with revelations about Nightingale, Beverly Brook and Molly. Plus Kobna as a wonderful way of saying latin phrases.

This is the first book in the series where Peter is kicked out of the nest of London and away from DCI Nightingale’s protective wing. Like the last book Aaronovitch keeps the plotting focused and narrow – and in a way simplex. You can summarise the who did what to whom and why quite easily at the end. It would it completely spoil your enjoyment if I did but it’s the investigation of the events which makes Foxglove Summer compelling. It’s who does what during an investigation, where the suspicions fall and how you keep a story hungry media fed without them getting a whiff of magic balanced that draws you in and keeps you on the hook.

I only have one small niggle and that’s the wizardly talents that PC Grant has. It’s hard with magic to keep it from being a deus ex machina to pull out and fix things. There is a a great one used here but not by Peter. He’s getting good at impelo to blow things up but I’m craving a little bit more variety in his bag of tricks.

I really can’t fault it. Foxglove Summer is a fun and well told police procedural which manages to keep the magic to investigable levels. Aaronovitch shows no signs he nor Peter is tiring, in fact, here he shows us that his apprentice wizarrd can coming out of his master’s shadow and shines I hope Nightingale keeps having a role as he’s so much fun to read and watch especially as he blows up a barn.

We leave with the story with new questions, which hopefully will result in teasing answers in the next book.

Highly recommended.

SFR: Jack Shade in the Forest of Souls by Rachel Pollack

Fantasy&ScienceFiction-201207_thumb[7]Rachel Pollack presents a shamanic noir 14,447 word novelette and introduces us to the Traveller and private eye Jack Shade, who also appears in a more recent tale ‘The Queen of Eyes’ and at least one more to come. He’s also in a short (short) story on Rachel’s website.

I was going to pick up her new book The Child Eater but I got sidetracked (temporally) by hearing about this in a recent interview.

In ‘Forest of Souls’  Jack is called from a card game by a man who posses his business card and Jack goes to investigate how he obtained it.

I love a good ‘urban detective’ and was curious how shamanic noir would turn out. I loved it. This case involves a visit to the forest of souls through a very curious entrance and a mystery that isn’t what it first seems. It is relatively short so it can be read in one sitting andJack Shade has lots of curiosity to explore in future stories.

I was a little surprised that Rachel Pollack would write a classic-feeling noir but I wasn’t surprised that she’d write it well or inject a lot of mysticism into it as I’ve read a lot of her thoughtful non-fiction (mostly tarot-related). I have high hopes for The Child Eater and Jack’s next case.

Review: Elric: Fortress of the Pearl by Michael Moorcock (1989)

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According to its  original publication The Fortress of the Pearl is 8th in The Elric Saga but The Michael Moorcock Collection and Wikiedia places it chronologically second, after Elric of Melniboné and Other Stories, and if, like me, you are reading in chronological order this is Elric’s first big adventure.

I was going to say that this is a better start than Elric of Melniboné but I’m not sure it is. Elric of Melniboné is an exploration through several short stories (and a comic book script) of how Elric became who he is, but here a lot of it that background is implied or mentioned only in passing. I’m not sure it would have the same impact on the uninitiated. You’d still have fun reading it but some the weight would be removed.

Elric crawls towards the city of Quarzhasaat, after trekking the southern edge of the Sighing Desert, and having run out of herds that give him vitality he is near is near death. He is rescued by an entrepreneurial boy who sells his skills for a deadly price. One that can be paid by recovering the pearl of the title.

Moorcock makes it look easy. Elric’s task of finding the Fortress of the Pearl and then the precious pearl  sounds simple but Moorcock uses it to explore reality, dream, expectation, wish fulfilment amongst other things.

So far in his adventures’ Elric’s journey’s have had a strong spiritual element. This differs as he’s not travelling into some dream/reality past he’s going into another construction of a dream. Here he is without his usual knowledge and instead gains a guide, Alnac Kreb  whose philosophies revolve around Balance pulling Elric away from his usual Chaos though not completely towards its opposite Law.

There is a sword and sorcery element but it doesn’t revolve around his vampiric sword, the Stormbringer, but its influence can still be heavily felt, and Its addictive qualities are paralleled through Elric’s struggles with an elixir he is tricked into taking.

As he is guided towards the pearl he gets to see how an ancient city of an enemy has attempted to rewrite his race and their empire from history and at the same time building up the myth of the pearl into something which can bestow real political power.

For all this it feels very traditional though not overlay familiar and certainly not stale. It combines the right mix of thought and pure adventure though part of me wanted Moorcock to lose some more the traditional scaffolding and for Moorecock to risk freewheeling a little more..

It is a solid adventure for our hero, though as we see at the end, he’s a hero still that doesn’t hold back when embracing chaos.

I’m on a roll and ready to read The Sailor on the Seas of Fate

Review: Speedy Death by Gladys Mitchell (1929)

speedydeath Alastair Bing’s guests gather around his dining table at Chaynings, a charming country manor. But one seat, belonging to the legendary explorer Everard Mountjoy, remains empty. When the other guests search the house, a body is discovered in a bath, drowned. The body is that of a woman, but could the corpse in fact be Mountjoy? A peculiar and sinister sequence of events has only just begun…

Speedy Death is the first novel of sixty six to feature Gladys Mitchell’s detective Beatrice Adela Lestrange Bradley, a polymathic psychoanalyst and author, and it sets the model for the all the other ones I’ve read so far. Though it also introduces an aspect of Mrs Bradley’s character that I didn’t (and probably wouldn’t) have known without reading this. I won’t spoil it but it definitely makes her stand out from the Miss Marples of this world.

The body in the bath is a unlocked door mystery where no-one seems to have a strong alibi. This really isn’t a spoiler as the body and the unlocked nature of the room are revealed by the end of the first chapter. What is clever is how Mitchell spends the next 322 pages rattling round the same country house with the same core characters without it feeling drawn out.

The strength of this book is how Mitchell keeps presenting each character for analysis, which giving us time to get to know them and to consider whether they are the murder. Mrs Bradley is, interestingly, placed off to the side though you’d think that being a guest she’d be in the perfect position to snoop and inform the readers in reader.

Instead, another guest instigates the investigation and draws Mrs Bradley into their confidences but having her become interested does draw her into the judgemental gaze of the police. You can see that Mitchell is challenging usual conventions of disbelief like the one where the police accept help without placing any suspicions on the helper.

What is particularly sweet is the other characters reactions to finding out that the male Mountjoy and the women in the bath could be the same person. Not one of them made that the issue, which is unexpected 1929. The setting makes a contemporary version of this novel unrealistic but I feel that today’s grittier writers would make it a source of conflict.

I love the unexpected nature of Mrs Bradley, she’s a bit of unwanted guest here, as it does make herself very useful and indispensable at key moments.

Honestly it ticks all the cosy crime boxes. If you’re a fan of cosy crime or clever mysteries please do give it a go.

Next up in the series for me: The Longer Bodies.

SFM Review: Slow River by Nicola Griffith (1995)

slow-river-coverI can’t shake the impression I have that science fiction is going to be dry (or that fantasy is going to be some pseudo-medieval Royalty with magic). I know better. I’ve read so many books that aren’t those things and I keep waiting to be proved right. I think you’ll agree this is madness.

The only reason I mention it is because Slow River is anything but dry and dusty. It’s complex, emotive, and daring. It leaves a mark, which is one that I want from the SF Masterworks collection. I do want them to leave a lasting impression after I’ve read them as much as I’d like them to be worthy of being put on a pedestal. Obviously, the reasons for elevation vary, historical importance being one, but impact for me is the thing that keeps me exploring and Griffith definitely has that.

Lore’s troubled life is presented through three different timelines: childhood, recent past and present. The present is told in the first person and the flashbacks are told in the third. Actually, it’s unfair to call them flashbacks as they are threads that weave to let the reader know how Lore Van Oesterling, daughter of one of the world’s most powerful families, ends up with a thief and predator like Spanner.

It raises one big question: What would you do to survive? Lore’s new life with Spanner does make for uncomfortable reading. The depths that Lore descents to in order to pay off the debts owed to Spanner, who rescued her when she was dropped naked and injured in the street after her kidnaping, is a long way to fall.

Lore’s first meeting with Spanner is described in the recent past thread and in the present she starts a job, which is several levels below her knowledge and skill, but is also safe from scrutiny, that is until she has to out herself to her suspicious boss or risk the lives of her co-workers.

Getting to know Lore at these differing points, her childhood being probably the saddest, makes for a powerful exploration of who she was and who she has to potential to be. The ease in which Griffith presents the rightful normality of the same-sex relationship that Lore and Spanner share is to be commended, though if it wasn’t as self-destructive then there would be no drama. It’s the dynamic of their relationship, rather than the sexuality of it, which makes it dangerous.

There is a under-representation LGBT characters in speculative fiction in general and having Slow River as a SF Masterworks is a confidence boost especially as Griffith doesn’t shy away from the the darkness which Spanner subjects Lore to, there is romantic sex and depraved acts (due to their impact on Lore rather than the acts themselves), but all are shown with the same respect to the characters and the story that Griffith has set out to tell.

Part of me is jaded by stories of impossibly rich people because it removes layers of reality and replaces them with an easy fantasy but this story used that difference to good effect as even in those scenes where the ‘reality’ of wealth is too distorting Griffith keeps it raw. She shows the ways  Lore’s parents use their children as pawns and how naivety can obscure the reality of the situation. If you’re wondering why doesn’t Lore just leave or go back to her family? Well that gets explained and, as in this life, going back isn’t that simple.

Griffith leaves the ‘best’ revelation until last and makes it the most gut-wrenching moment though that’s not the only one you’ll have. This story has several moments where facts shift your understanding. I’m tiptoeing around so much of what makes it a powerful and essential read but I really don’t want to say to much more.

Slow River deserves its place on the SF Masterworks and needs a slightly higher pedestal just to make sure it’s not overlooked.

Read it.

Review: The Crimson Campaign by Brian McCellan (2014)

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Just to get this out of the way, Brian is a client of mine and I’ve been typesetting/ebooking the  novellas and short stories he’s written in the same Powder Mage universe so this review has some bias. Saying that though, this is still an honest review otherwise there would be little point in writing it. Luckily I really liked it.

Speaking of being honest, military fantasy is not my go-to genre, and traditional medieval-eurocentric fantasy is something I can take or leave (shock horror), which makes me a hard sell. The first book in this series, Promise of Blood, was one of the most enjoyable books I read last year but it also left me the most conflicted because of its ‘conventional’ use of female characters.

At the end of the first book I wasn’t sure the direction this series was headed but now it’s obvious that this is a full-on war story, if Promise of Blood laid down the battle lines, The Crimson Campaign digs the trenches and sets the stage for the bigger battle to come in The Autumn Republic.

McClellan has carved his niche in this saturated market by focusing in gunpowder. He has Powder Mages, military men and women, who use gunpowder to give themselves superhuman strength and speed. They can also control bullets and explode gunpowder at will.

There are other magics like those with a  ‘knack’  like never needing sleep or a photographic memory, though these are minor compared with Privileged who can destroy a building with a wave of a hand. Power Mages fall somewhere in middle of that scale. And then there is also Ka-poel, with her ‘savage’ magics.

By the opening of the first book Field Marshal Tamas killed almost the entire of the Royal Cabal of Privileged. This is important because there is an incident early on here which isolates Tamas and his Powder Mages from the rest of his army, and in doing so losing Adro the tactical advantage with their war with the Kez.

And here is where my stamina for military fiction shows. There was a point about a third in were we keep going from Tamas marching through enemy lands to his son, Taniel Two-Shots, who is trying to keep the battle lines form falling back  as the Kez press forward. I honestly thought of putting it down. There is only so much marching and fighting I can take.

And to be honest as I saw this was turning into big battle war story I imagined it was going to continue with an unending descriptions of fighting and marching but as we (Tamas, Taniel and I) push past that section it turns again and from then on I was again hooked.

There are three threads here. In addition to the two already mentioned Inspector Adamat is focused on saving his wife but to do so he has to investigate the mysterious Lord Vetus. These threads are picked up from the first book but unlike the first one, where all three really had the same goal, here we see them separate into their own stories.

McCellan keeps his chapters short and tightly focused so it’s not long before you’re catching up with what each of the three is doing and apart from that one section the pace keeps moving at good speed. Our author likes to keep the reader on their toes with twists and turns and revelations. He likes surprises as well and the build-up towards the end has an enjoyable reveal, which also sets a different the scene for the last book. And I like the main characters hadn’t seen it coming.

There are a couple odd moments where my enjoyment of the main characters overrode a nagging disbelief in the scenario but I was having too much fun to let that spoil anything. And without spoiling things for you the part I felt it the most is an escape scene where the lack of people being around is too odd not feel strange. But that’s a minor niggle.

As I said at the beginning I enjoyed The Crimson Campaign. Brian seems to have tried to address the issues with the female characters within the boundaries of his world and, as the middle book of a tilogy, it’s made me eager to find out what he has planned for his characters.

Bring on The Autumn Republic!