Saturday, June 23, 2018

A Book Review: The Desert Spear by Peter V. Brett (The Demon Cycle #2)

The Desert Spear is the second installment in The Demon Cycle series. In this book, Peter V. Brett continues the thrilling saga which began in The Painted Man, although this time around Mr. Brett changed the settings from the pseudo medieval Europe, to the desert wastelands reminiscing the Middle East. Furthermore, Peter V. Brett also made some interesting choices about the narratives in The Desert Spear; some people like his narrations, while others are less enthusiastic about it. Personally, I like the narrating style in this book because it made the characters compelling, and I will discuss it later in my review.


In the barren wastelands of Krasia stands a proud and mighty city, The Desert Spear. For centuries, night after night, the Krasian warriors fought and bled in Alagai'sharak - a holy war against the demons, and they dedicate the battle glory to the creator, Everham.

The Krasian faith in Everham may be unwavering, but centuries of warfare is slowly killing the desert kingdom, not only are the Krasian tribes divided, but the populace in The Desert Spear has also plummeted to an all time low.

The tide of war, however, is about to reach a turning point.

Out from the stone gate of The Desert Spear rides a general most formidable. His name, is Ahmad Jadir; his entire outfit is black, with the exception of a white turban covering his head and face, and his hand grasps the warded Spear of Kaji, a sign, for the approaching Sharak Ka and the return of the Deliverer.

Indeed, Jadir has proclaimed himself Shar'Dama Ka, the Deliverer. The Krasian tribes, united under Jadir, are riding north to conquer the lands of the chins, so all mankind can combine their forces to fight in Sharak Ka, and finally rid the world of the demonic hordes and restore it to Ala.

But the nothern people already have their own Deliverer, The Painted Man, who led farmers and townspeople at Cutters Hollow to a decisive victory against the demons.

How can there be two Deliverers while the ancient prophecy foretold only one? Was the prophecy wrong?

From the north to the south, people are whispering the rumors about the Deliverer, but little do they know that The Painted Man and Jadir were once Ajin'pal, blood brothers, bonded from their fight in the maze. But now they are adversaries after each other's blood. Under the circumstances, old alliances will be renewed while new ones forged, but unknown to all, a new type of demon, lethal, sinister, and intelligent, is about to reveal itself to the world of men...

My thoughts on this book:

The Desert Spear is a worthy sequel to The Painted Man, as it continues to excel in characterizations, storytelling, and worldbuilding. In this book Peter V. Brett made some interesting choices about the narratives, where, instead of continuing with the stories of Arlen, Leesha, and Rojen, the first third of the book went back in time to explore Jadir and his background story. This is not to say that our beloved characters from the first book did not appear in this installment at all, it is just that they only appeared some 250 pages into the book. Some readers expressed their dislike at Mr. Brett's choice of narrating style, because they found the affair of jumping back and forth on the timeline to be confusing. While some readers said they dislike the book's opening section because they never liked Jadir's character to begin with.

The Desert Spear, meanwhile, received a very high rating of 4.22 out of 5 on Goddreads nevertheless.

Personally, I loved The Desert Spear as much as I loved The Painted Man. In some ways, The Desert Spear is mainly about the story of Jadir. I despised Jadir for what he did to Arlen in the first book. Although my opinion of him changed, after reading The Desert Spear. The first 250 pages of the book told the story of Jadir's journey, from his childhood, to his adulthood and his ascension to power in a harsh and brutal Krasian society. Furthermore, Jadir's backstory is also an excellent exploration of the Krasian society. The Krasian culture has practices and traditions that offends our modern sensibilities, but the worldbuilding in this book helped readers to understand why it is so. To simply put it, the Krasian culture is what it is, because they needed to overcome the adaptive challenges posed by the external environments. After all, they needed to survive in the harsh desert as well as defending themselves from the centuries of attacks from the demonic hordes. Jadir and Arlen are both protagonists in the story, bu while Arlen rejects the prophecy about the Deliver and believes that it is the everyday citizens who must unite and deliver themselves from the demonic hordes, in contrast Jadir believes sincerely in the prophecy about the Deliverer and that it is the Deliverer who must unite all men to fight in the Sharak Ka. In other words, Arlen and Jadir are in open conflicts against each other due to their ideological differences in philosophy and religion. To my 21th century mind, Arlen's way is much better than Jadir's own, but after I read Jadir's backstory I came to see things from his perspective, and I found Jadir a fascinating character even though I still disagree with some of his views.

With the book placing its highlight on Jadir, it also introduced a few secondary characters who are associated with him. The most notable characters being Inevera and Abban, and they are memorable and fascinating. Inevera is Jadir's wife, where Abban is a second class citizen because he is crippled and cannot fight. The Krasians lived in the warrior culture, but it was also a patriarch and theocratic society. Throughout the book, the story shows us that Jadir's rise to power is in fact, the result of his wife, Inevera's schemes. To the outside world, Jadir is the powerful Shar'Dama Ka, but behind the closed curtains Jadir found himself controlled by his wife, and he could not do without her. This throws a spin to Krasia's patriarchal society; is Jadir the master? Or is he a puppet, with his wife the puppet master? I found Inevera's character intriguing. This book did not explore Inevera's backstory, and I hope Peter V. Brett will explore this area in the next book.

When this book reached the halfway mark, the story reunite the readers with Arlen, Leesha, and Rojen. Arlent's story remains a gripping one, as he gradually discovered more and more about himself and his abilities. But Leesha irks me, while she is a kind and decent person but I disliked her "holier than thou" attitude towards those around her. Rojen, on the other hand, continues to be the character who surprised me.

While The Desert Spear re-unites us with our favorite characters and introduced new ones, but the new characters who made the deepest impression on my mind is Renna, who appeared briefly in The Painted Man as Arlen's romantic interest. Renna has a large role in this book, and I found her story to be the most thought-provoking and heart wrenching of all. I will try my best not to spoil the story here, yet I would like to discuss the theme for Renna's story. Which theme?

The nature of evil.

In this sweeping saga, the apparent antagonists are the "demons" who appear in the nights to attack cities and killing people. Naturally, readers would associate these "demons" with evil. But when I am reading these books, these "demons" reminded me of the xenomorphs from the movie franchise, Alien, who are metaphors to the forces and calamities from our natural environment which threaten our survivals, and so they are not necessarily evil. What do I mean? Well, wasps sting people, and lions can prey on us when they are hungry, so are wasps and lions "evil"? Furthermore, natural disasters, such as earthquakes and tornadoes also kill people, so are natural disasters evil? In my opinion, these things are not "evil", instead, we just associate them with a human meaning such as "evil" because they threaten our survival. So where is evil? In Renna's story, which is gut-wrenching, we see the village people behaved and treated her in ways that are equally (if not more) appalling than the way the monsters were preying on people at night. For the monsters, at least, were preying on a different species to satisfy their hungers. As for the village people in Renna's story, why did they treat her so cruelly? *minor spoiler* It turned out the village people treated Renna cruelly because they thought they were exacting justice against evil. So perhaps the reality is not made up of evil and good, but there exists only the human conditions, as well as the consequences of our actions. 

I love The Desert Spear, but there is one small thing that I believe this book could be improved on. This book is about its characters, but it is also about the clash between two very different cultures; the Northern culture and the Krasian culture. Both cultures adapted their societies to survive the attacks of the demons, but while the Northern culture evolved into one that values the community and caring for each other, in contrast the Krasian culture evolved into a harsh and brutal warrior culture that values the strong over the weak. I believe that dwarinianly speaking, if societies are subjected to the extreme conditions described in this story, then societies could possibly develop along either of the two directions described in this book. I can see how the communal value, of helping each other, can develop in the Northern culture, but I don't think the book did very well to explain, how, the Krasian society evolved into such a harsh and brutal one that is polar opposite to the Northern culture. While Abban, a character in this book, reminded Leesha not to judge the Krasians too harshly because they were a people living in the desert, but the book did not explain exactly how, living in a geographical condition such as a desert can result to the harsh society of Krasia. However, this is a tiny problem, and to dwell on it would be similar to trying to find chicken bones in an egg. Everything in this book, from the characters, the story, to the worldbuilding, is intricate and beautiful, and The Desert Spear propelled this series up to my list, of all time favorite fantasy books.

The sequel, The Daylight War, awaits, and I am off to reading it.

Until the next time, happy reading!

Saturday, June 16, 2018

A Book Review: The Painted Man by Peter V. Brett (The Demon Cycle #1)

Look to the picture on the left, it is a cover for a book called, The Painted Man. When I saw the cover of this book initially, I wondered, who is this cloaked man, and what is his story? This is one of the coolest book covers I have ever laid my eyes on, it makes you want to read the book and find out what it is about.

The Painted Man is the first installment in a high fantasy pentology called, The Demon Cycle. The series is penned by the best-selling author Peter V. Brett.

For more than 2 years, the series' first four books waited for me on the bookshelf. I was waiting for the final book to be released so I can binge read the whole series. Upon the series' completion, I quickly dived into The Painted Man. Over the next 4 nights, I immersed myself in Peter V. Brett's monster-infested world, and I loved every page of it!


The red sun sank below the horizon as the darkness took the land. Among the black forest emerged the shapes of something inhuman; for the demons, AKA corlings, have have come to terrorize the night yet again...

Ancient legends and sagas sang the story of Deliverer, who, in the forgotten melinima once led humanity to victory against the demonic hordes. In those days, humans, wielding mighty weapons etched in battle wards, were able to stand toe to toe against the corlings in mortal combats. When the corlings finally retreated, the age of magic faded from the living memory, and in its stead came the golden age of science.

Alas, the peace and the prosperity was not to last. Like a thief in the night, the corlings re-appeared to gorge themselves on the human flesh. With the battle wards long forgotten, the humans did not stand a chance against the corlings. For hundreds of years, the corlings grew stronger, night after night, and so humanity dwindled until it is but a shadow of its former self.

Is humanity doomed? From the aftermaths of corling attacks came three survivors. Among them, one named Arlen Bale, will turn the tide of the battle when he becomes The Painted Man.

My thoughts on this book:

Wow, just wow! The Painted Man gripped me from the very first page until the last. I read this book, some 550 pages in length, in 4 sittings. The time became a forgotten concept when I was reading The Painted Man, and I was not able to put the book down. What is so good about this book? Here is a short answer - The Painted Man is superb in 3 areas; the story, the characters, and the worldbuilding.

Three POV characters narrated the story in The Painted Man; Arlen, Lessha, and Rojen. The first half of the book followed the journeys of these three characters, from their childhood until they reached adulthood. These characters were haunted by their memories of past trauma, coming to term with their internal conflicts. Arlen is The Painted Man, and (arguably) the main protagonist. Out of the three POV characters, Arlen interested me the most. I especially liked the way Peter V. Brett depicted how Arlen wrestled with the tragic loss of his mother. Meanwhile, Leesha, although an interesting character, but I did not like her as much because she seemed too kind to be real. However, I like Rojen a lot, he is a musician and also the 3rd POV character in the book. While each of these characters has a unique voice and a personality, but their stories have a common theme – fear.

Indeed, fear. I believe in this book Peter V. Brett was writing about fear, and the struggles associated with overcoming fear. I tip my hat to Mr. Brett because he wrote powerfully and beautifully. His characters have substances and depths. I think Peter V. Brett must have extensively researched psychology prior to penning his characters, because his characters feel authentically human. As a reader, I cared for, and connected with these characters. When the book concluded, I walked away with a sense of investment in the story and its characters, and I wanted read more of it.

The Painted Man also boasts some of the best worldbuilding in the genre. The world in this book is detailed and fascinating. While this book may be speculative fiction, with fantastical elements set in a pseudo-medieval world, but Peter V. Brett's world is also a post-apocalyptic one, where humanity declined to the rock bottom due to centuries of slaughters at the hands of powerful monsters. This post-apocalyptic vision depicted, very realistically, how the human civilization could adapt its social structures, in areas such as ethics, philosophy, economy, and religion, to survive in such extreme conditions.

In my opinion, The Painted Man is a bit like a mixture of A Game of Thrones, Aliens, and 28 Days Later. It is a refreshing take on the high fantasy genre, and it comes with splashes of horror. I have never read a fantasy novel as unique as this one, and the book was a blast. This is a must read for any fantasy readers. As for me, I am off to the exciting sequel, The Desert Spear.

Until the next time, happy reading!

Sunday, June 10, 2018

A Book Review: The Steel Remains by Richard Morgan

Richard Morgan, well known for his sci-fi/cyberpunk novel, Altered Carbon. is also very well known in the readerships of Grimdark fantasy, for his noirish and brutal fantasy trilogy, A Land Fit for Heroes. The first book in this trilogy is called The Steel Remains. I have long heard of this book but I haven't had the chance to read it. Last month, I was browsing the offerings at my local library when I came upon this book, and I borrowed it immediately. I read this book over the next 4 nights. I enjoyed the story, but I didn't like it as much as I thought I would.


Ringil Eskiath, a cynical, washed-up war hero whose downward spiral was checked only by his skills with a sword, was enlisted by his mother to free a cousin who was sold into slavery. Ringil tracked down his cousin, only to uncover a conspiracy that threatened to drown the world in blood; for an elder race, the Aldrain, cruel yet beautiful, are clawing their ways back to Ringil's world.

At the onslaught of Aldrain's dreadful return stood only Ringil and two of his old comrades. Normally, Ringil and his comrades are the furthest thing from heroes, but this time they all the cards the world can put on the table. However, if Ringil and his comrades are to be the last light for hope, then the world might do better to plunge itself into the darkness instead...

My thoughts on this book:

I liked The Steel Remains because it draws inspirations from my favorite fantasy books, to name a few; Elric of Melnibone, Karl Edward Wagner's Kane sagas, and Poul Anderson's Broken Sword. This book has a distinctive flavor of grimdark; every character's moral compass points to a shady gray, and the world they inhibit is gritty and harsh. This book has all elements I like in a fantasy book, but I didn't like this book as much as I thought I would.

My biggest problem with this book is its pacing, it moved at a weird pace. Every chapter in the first half of the book gave us new information. It was as if Richard Morgan spent half of the story doing worldbuilding, and the book was slogging like a burdened cart going uphill. Not only was the first half of the book very slow, but it was also very confusing. I mean, after I read the first 5 chapters of the book I still didn't know what was going on, and I seriously considered quitting it at that time ( and I don't quit a book easily). If you feel like quitting this book after reading a few chapters, then I know how you feel, but I would also encourage you to continue reading it, because once you are over the 50% mark then this book suddenly becomes an addictive read.

That is right, over the halfway mark, the bits and pieces of the information finally sank in, and I began to enjoy this book. There are three POV characters in The Steel Remains, the main protagonist, Ringil, is gay and an ex-soldier. There aren't many homosexual protagonists in fantasy books so this book is unusual in this regard. I find Ringil the most interesting character in this book, and I like the way Richard Morgan depicted, how Ringil struggled to live both as a gay and a former war hero in a pseudo-medieval culture not very tolerant of homosexual people.

Aside from the interesting protagonist, The Steel Remains also boasts some of the best action scenes written in fantasy. There are many sword fights in this book, and they are gritty and brutal as real sword fights would be. You will feel the danger and the thrill in every sword thrust and cut, as if you are seeing it in front of your eyes. Yet, when Ringil cleaves his enemy from the shoulder to the breast, the brutality would also repulse you. In the traditional fantasy books, such as The Lord of the Rings, sword fights are romanticized as something dashing and glorious, by contrast The Steel Remains shows its readers that killing people with a sword is an affair most depressing and ugly. This is another reason why I prefer grimdark fantasy over traditional fantasy, because even though grimdark fantasy is much more gory and brutal than the traditional fantasy, but unlike traditional fantasy where violence is associated with heroics, in grimdark fantasy the scenes with flying bits of limbs (and heads) aren't something to be cheered at, instead they are meant to make a reader really feel the ugliness of violence, and it can produce a meaningful impact on its readers, especially if you were writing a war story to explore the human conditions.

Over the halfway mark, The Steel Remains became a fast-paced and unputdownable read. The last 100 pages of the book, in particular, was very gripping. The book's ending tied up most of the story threads and you don't really have to read the sequel, but given the book's exhilarating conclusion, the chances are you will want to read the next installment. If I was to rate this book, out of five stars, then I would rate the first half with 3 stars, and the second half with 5 stars. The first half of the book was indeed a slog, but the second half redeemed the book for sure. I will be reading the sequel, The Cold Commands, when it becomes available for loan at my local library. Meanwhile, I would recommend The Steel Remains to kindred spirits who enjoy the works of Joe Abercrombie, Poul Anderson, Karl Edward Wagner, and Michael Moorcock.

A Book Review: The Ocean at the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman

"Oh, oh, oh, sweet childhood O' mine...", so sang Axl Rose, the vocalist for Guns and Roses, in their hit song, Sweet Childhood O' Mine.

What is sweet about childhood? A lot of us look back to our childhood memories with nostalgia, at the innocence lost, and at the sense of wonder and mystery that we used to feel about everything. But how much can you remember of your childhood? Furthermore, if you are able to experience again, as an adult, the unexplainable and the unfathomable from your childhood, then how much wonder can be retained? There is a disconnection between childhood and adulthood, a permanent change, like the water spilled from a glass can neither return to the glass nor remember its shape; once the childhood is gone, it is gone forever.

Neil Gaiman wrote a book called The Ocean at the End of the Lane. This is a fairy-tale like story about childhood - the friendships, the cruelty, and the resementments associated with it.


The story began when a middle-aged man attended a funeral at his childhood home in Sussex, England. The man was drawn to a derelict farm at the end of the road, because when he was 11 he befriended a most unusual girl who lived on that farm and she told him that her pond was an ocean.

Can a pond be an ocean?

The man knocked on the farmhouse door, and an old woman answered. Suddenly, the man remembered a past too bizarre and dangerous to have happened to a little boy...

My thoughts on the book:

For the month of May, my book club picked The Ocean At the End of the Lane. I discovered in surprise that those in my book club have not read Neil Gaiman before. As a fantasy reader, Neil Gaiman is no stranger to me, where his books, such as American Gods and Anansi Boys, are among my favorites. However, unlike American Gods and Anansi Boys which are dark fantasy novels, The Ocean at the End of the Lane has a fairy-tale quality to it. Neil Gaiman wrote beautifully in this book, the story is simple, but it also has a few surprises, and at times the story is very moving.

Hang on, but didn't I just say this book has a fairy tale quality to it? Doesn't this mean the book is a cheery story for litten children? Well, I find it very strange that people often equate fairy tales with children's books, this is despite the fact that fairy tales are often dark and disturbing and they say a thing or two about the human conditions. Similarly, while this book has a fairy tale quality to it, but I wouldn't recommend buying this book for your 12 year old at home, especially since the story has some pretty disturbing scenes, such as child abuse. Ok, so can we expect a healthy dose of cynicism from this book if it is oriented towards adults? Well, here is another strange thing, for some reason these days people are equating being adult with cynicism, sex, and violence, but I just cannot see how sex and violence make the fiction more "mature', let alone cynicism. So no, The Ocean at the End of the Lane is not looking at the world through the lens of cynicism. No, this is a powerful book and most readers can resonate with it, because it deals with themes such as grief, loss, friendships, growing up, and the loss of innocence, which are all all parts of the human experience.

I have yet to attend my next book club meeting, so I do not know what others in my book club think of this book. Personally, I had a great time reading The Ocean at the End of the Lane. This is a very short book (only about 200 pages), and I read it in one sitting. This is a book I would like to re-read in the future and just hang out with the characters in it. Meanwhile, if you like Neil Gaiman's works, then make sure to check out this book, I highly recommend it.

Saturday, June 2, 2018

A Book Review: The Shepherd's Crown by Terry Pratchett (Discworld #41)

Four years ago, Terry Pratchett's Small Gods introduced me to the wonderful realm of Discworld and I instantly fell in love with it. I love Discworld's humor and its fantastical settings, and I also revere the philosophy and the moral messages in these stories. Most importantly, these books are fun to read and they tell good tales.

Over the years Discworld became a part of my life, once in every season I would read nothing but Discworld books for a month. During this time, a big transformation also occurred in my life - I left my Christian faith and become an agnostic atheist.

If you have ever had an exodus from your religious faith, then you will understand what that meant to me; it felt like I was tearing down every fabric in my worldview and then rebuilding it back up, brick by brick. The aftermath for my exodus was a journey both exciting yet unsettling, like setting sail into the vast ocean.

In this journey, Terry Pratchett's Discworld novels became my sail.

Through the lens of Discworld stories and their eccentric, colorful characters, I gradually discovered for myself that one does not need to subscribe to religious doctrines to be inspired and be an upright human being. As I read more and more Discworld books and thinking about them, I also learned more and more about myself and the people around me. Four years later, I reached the final installment in Discworld. This book, titled, The Shepherd's Crown, was the last book that Terry Pratchett wrote before he passed away in 2015.

The Shepherd's Crown continues the story of Tiffany Aching, now a fully-fledged witch of Chalk. I am not providing a synopsis in this review lest I spoil the story. Instead, let me just say the length of this book is slightly shorter than other Discworld books, and some areas in this book felt like unexplored subplots. In this book's afterword, Terry Pratchett's good friend explained, that in Terry Pratchett's writing process, he usually tweaked and added bits and pieces to the book and the publisher had to pry the manuscripts from him. For The Shepherd's Crown, however, Terry Pratchett passed away before he could do this kind of tweaking, so while The Shepherd's Crown is a complete book, but upon its publication it was not as complete as Terry Pratchett would have liked. Technically, The Shepherd's Crown may not be the best in the series, but it is perhaps the most "human" of them all. This book is moving, as if Terry Pratchett knew his time was running out, so he poured as much compassion into the story as he could, to share his view with us, that we can be better people.

"Why should we care and help other people?" My former associates in Christian churches often ask me this question. It is almost as if they assume, that a world without the religious doctrines and an external moral authority will inevitably become a moral desert, deprived of any human decency and kindness. Is their assumption true? Secular humanists have been explaining to religious people why this assumption isn't true, and while the religious people have heard but they don't listen.

Human beings learn from stories, so perhaps through the narratives in Discworld books my religious friends can come to see that they don't have to completely agree with someone to be inspired by their words; and there is indeed an oasis in the desert - an alternative, and equally valid reason, for caring and helping each other. Then, hopefully they too will come to see that we don't have to completely agree with each other to agree that we ought to leave the world better than we found it, which is a main theme in this book.

Religion told me that we have fallen from some previous, better state, and that only through the acts of supernatural beings can we hope to be better. Well, I disagree with it because it puts a cap on us, I mean, so what happens after your god fully restores you to "grace"? Dead end? In contrast, Terry Pratchett's Discworld tells me that we are growing, so despite our existing shortcomings we can be better. I think Terry Pratchett's view is far better and more realistic (instead of optimistic or pessimistic) than the former, and so I will finish my last Discworld book review with a quote form this great man, whose ripping yarns have inspired and shaped my new identity – I'd rather be a rising ape than a falling angel.