Series

Book Review: The Cycle of Ages Saga- Delve Deep

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Faraway Faltyr and the Finders Keepers are officially back. With two astounding Cycle of Ages novels under his belt, the fantasy author with an edge, Jeremy Hicks, is back at the helm of his series with its third installment, Delve Deep. While Finders Keepers and Sands of Sorrow challenged the boundaries of fantasy and genre-blending, they were no strangers to clunkyness at times. In addition, the goals of the Finders Keepers and the lore of Faltyr never felt fully complete, like something was still out of reach. While the ambitious Delve Deep continues to exhibit some of these staple issues of the series, it manages to make massive strides in improving upon its predecessors. Not only has Faltyr and its lands and peoples come full circle, but the characters we know and love officially have something to fight for in what is now a truly masterful fantasy series.

Delve Deep picks up some time after Sands of Sorrow left off, and it shows because readers have a bit of catching up to do, especially if they haven’t read some additionally published Cycle of Ages short stories. Yes, before Delve Deep, Hicks wrote a number of short stories in Farawy Faltyr which are alluded to quite often in this novel. Unfortunately for me, I hadn’t read those stories before picking up this one. Granted, reading them isn’t necessary to enjoy this book, but the number of times they are referenced is jarring. Mention of short stories aside, we meet Finders Keepers in the city of Frasmauth, in hiding from their last skirmish in Sands of Sorrow. When it’s discovered that their lives are threatened by the forces of Oparre, Dor conveniently discovers that his master has determined a way to win the dreaded Blood War and ensure a peaceful end to the current Cycle of Ages. In case the simple runaway plot of Sands of Sorrow didn’t have high enough stakes for you, what the characters attempt to accomplish in this installment certainly will. In order for Finders Keepers to reclaim Dor’s lost items from the last book and end the Blood War, they must travel to Delve Deep, a city which may or may not exist. According to Yax, Delve Deep will enable them to essentially fast-travel to the sacred Spire, key to winning the War, as well as increase their numbers. Taking a dive in the dark, the Finders Keepers set out on yet another journey, this time beneath Faltyr to the Underworld.

The plot is a mouthful, and the book’s length can be daunting. It is easily bigger than the first two books combined, but Hicks thankfully devotes the first fourth of the novel to reintroduce the story in a small setting. This is key because Delve Deep increases the scale of the series, profoundly bigger than what was established in the first two novels. The book’s opening gives the reader time to re-acclimate to the characters, what they’re up to, and their goals and aspirations. Most of the opening scenes are just the Finders Keepers sitting around and talking, or talking while fighting each other. The chemistry they share is great, and it’s especially crucial for establishing the main trio, now a quartet, consisting of Dor, Yax, Bruexias’ daughter Tameri, and the Elven Queen, Shy’elle. Granted, a lot changed in Sands of Sorrow to the look and feel of Finder’s Keepers, so it was refreshing to see them in the simplicity of Frasmauth. The town is used as a platform introduce the conflict, to which the grand main adventure takes off.

The second quarter of Delve Deep unfortunately feels very side-quest-y. The Finders Keepers have not only acquired a massive roster of characters since the second novel, but they have even more characters to recruit in order to accomplish certain tasks. Entire chapters are devoted to finding this-or-that person so they can find this-or-that thing. It moves at a sluggish pace for the middle of the first act, and doesn’t spur any excitement until the characters are finally looking for the device which is central to accomplishing their goal. Thankfully, once they are finally determining how to acquire said item, the story becomes more high-stakes. It is this portion of the novel which lends itself to some innovative action scenes, and even expounds upon Faltyr’s lore and technology down to individual cultures.

It is here when Delve Deep exposes one of its greatest issues: too many characters. Much like the beginning of Sands of Sorrow, Finders Keepers increases its numbers exponentially, unfortunately just to kill off a multitude of them before the story is halfway through. Granted, a large roster is needed in order to accomplish certain tasks, but there is little emotional weight due to the Walking Dead style of mass execution. Unfortunately, some of the characters the main ensemble goes out of their way to find have very little presence or weight in the long run, and some are quickly killed off. Certain romances and connections are made which didn’t exist prior to this novel, and they are easily the most forgettable parts of the story, acting as nothing more than unnecessary drama or filler to be mediated later.

Thankfully, many of the disposable characters are surrounded or led by the main quartet, which at least keeps things interesting. There is also a handful of side characters who serve important roles in the story, as well as balance some of the clutter. The book continues to introduce more characters in the latter half of the book, but they are in fewer numbers and carry much more emotional weight. I just can’t see why the same can’t be said for those introduced in the former half.

But for as many disposable characters as the book contains, the main quartet never fail to impress. The circumstances they’ve been through and their familial connections give them a chemistry like no other. For such a small group, their diversity is a prime testament of a team of differing individuals who can learn to work together. It’s at this point when readers know that the main characters are the backbone of this series. The ways in which they are tested throughout the novel and their ability to still love each other at the end shows just how well developed they are. What makes this group so unique is that the individuals who make up the whole are by no means orderly, run-of-the-mill fighters. It is mentioned throughout the novel that they are mercenaries, not a trained army, and this one word dominates among the group. They have no formal experience, but lots of different abilities and skills. They’re simply trying to make a broken system work, and while they fail along the way, they eventually learn to get it done. That’s called drama and conflict, and that makes great storytelling.

Sir Fredrick and the Protectorate Mage, Marduk, from Sands of Sorrow return in Delve Deep, establishing themselves as the main villains of the series. While they are just as loveable a duo as in the last book, they never encounter the Finders Keepers. The reader keeps expecting them to eventually catch up to and fight the Finders Keepers like last time, but they never make contact. Unfortunately, their arc in this installment is almost completely unrelated to the heroes, and mostly serves to expose their plans to the reader and set up future novels. They also appear less and less towards the story’s second half, and their absence may leave some wanting. Nevertheless, both of them (and especially Fredrick) eat up every scene they’re in.

Keeping momentum of this suspense is another aspect Delve Deep masters. When the main characters establish their plan in the beginning, the reader naturally expects that they will see their goal to the end, climaxing in an epic battle with the villains. But despite the immense length, Delve Deep keeps the reader on edge and occupied for its near-400 pages, not even realizing that the goal is only halfway accomplished. This is a great way to write a book, and leaves much to be expected from future stories.

Delve Deep is as inventive as ever with its use of the Aether, the magical force of COA. The Aether continues to evolve in this installment as we learn of its capabilities and the abilities it can enable its bearer. The action descriptions of these abilities are also top notch. It’s satisfying to hear Yax use his wand to take out a gruesome ghoul with a hot streak of light. Hicks really pushed the limit with action scenes this time around. Shock factor also feels most earned in Delve Deep. Hicks is no stranger to pulling massive explosions or gargantuan dragons out of nowhere on the reader, but here, most of the shock factor is built up, or is used in ways the reader isn’t expecting. The weaving of these action scenes as well as the emotions around them is also top-notch. Part of what makes the build-up and climaxes earned is the circumstances surrounding them and the characters.

While the Aether’s power is expound upon in many ways which feel appropriate in Delve Deep, there are other instances which caught me completely off guard. One of the key elements of Faltyr is that most any technology is powered by the Aether. Most introductions of new technologies in this installment were done at a steady pace which made them feel appropriate to the world, or at least allowed me to adjust to them. After all, the lore and technologies we’ve been exposed to thus far in Faltyr feel like that of a typical fantasy world. But there were many instances in Delve Deep in which a technology was introduced which felt ripped straight out of real life. It took some time for me to grasp how such a familiar technology fit into a fantasy world, or at least the rules it had previously established.

And that’s one of the more jarring aspects of Delve Deep: many times it seems to have trouble separating fantasy from reality. Like I said, a lot of technology feels like technology familiar to a modern reader. Now, there’s nothing wrong with expanding the lore of a world or universe, but then there is expanding a lore straight out of left field. That, or I simply need to remind myself of the limits and rules of Faltyr and all that the Aether is capable of producing. But while the technology is one thing, dialogue and character mannerisms are another. There are a lot of dialogue and exchanges in Delve Deep which feel blatantly modern. Don’t get me wrong, there has always been some use of modern humor and wordplay in COA; the Finders Keepers are rag-tag, dirty people and are no strangers to banter. But there are some uses of it here which just feel downright inappropriate, even in a more civil sense. When one character is introduced early in the novel, much of her internal monologues and thoughts revolve around a book she has recently published. There’s nothing wrong with that, but the exchanges sound like a meeting between an author and a publishing house executive in New York City. It’s completely out of nowhere and sounds more like a conversation I would have with published authors in real life, and moments like these recur numerous times throughout the book. Granted, none of these moments ruined the novel for me, but at times they pulled me out. It’s certainly jarring when one is reading along in an age-old fantasy world and suddenly the characters discuss something like sports terms used in modern-day. While this is mostly a nitpick, the occasional hiccup in tone occurred just a little more than occasionally in this one.

Despite some minor flaws here and there, Delve Deep is still a fantastic book. When it reaches the location of its title, the payoff doesn’t fail to impress. In addition, the task Dor was originally ordained with is far from complete. The Blood War has yet to be won, and Finders Keepers merely found themselves in (one of many) a skirmish blocking their path, if not a truly epic one. It shows that this world is pitted against them, and it is never going to be in the favor of their likes. It’s a satisfying conclusion to a story which leaves much to be anticipated in the next installment. But for now, I can faithfully say Delve Deep is the best of the series.

With three novels under his belt, Hicks has quite the franchise going. I’m now eager to read those additional short stories, as he now has his own “expanded universe” going for the series. If anything, it looks that Cycle of Ages has quite the potential for an expanded universe beyond the page. For now, I simply can’t wait to see what the series has to offer next; I just might go back and read the first two novels again. In the meantime, I can’t recommend these books to you enough. Check them out, they are truly worth your time.

-David Brashier; Huntsville, Alabama; January 2018

You can purchase Delve Deep from Amazon here

You can find other Cycle of Ages stories here

 

Book Review: Thieve's Quarry

D.B. Jackson lands yet another marvelous historical fantasy in Thieve’s Quarry, the second installment of his Thieftaker series. Thieftaker is among the greatest historical fiction series out there, let alone historical fantasy. A story in a genre blend which is easily campy, leeching off of the mere presence of prominent historical figures, manages to not only tell its own story, but reverently live and breath its chosen setting. The dialogue and writing style of the Thieftaker books feel like they were pulled straight from revolutionary-era manuscripts, while also retaining readability. Like much of Jackson’s work, it’s a fantasy which manages to rise above the rest. 

Thieve’s Quarry opens with Ethan Kaille on a standard hunt for a stolen good. When his mission is intercepted by Sephira Pryce, a grim series of events force him to use magic in order to save an innocent man. This reveals his conjuring abilities to Pryce, causing her to hire her own conjurer to combat Kaille. When a mass grave is discovered on one of His Majesty’s ships at the dawn of the British occupation of Boston, Ethan is consulted to determine who committed the murder, as there are no physical signs of death among the bodies. As Ethan tracks down suspect conjurers, each culprit is murdered one by one before he can even reach them. Convinced that the killer is a greater threat than he anticipated, Kaille keeps his friends close and his enemies closer, going so far as to warn Sephira Pryce for her own safety. 

Quarry’s greatest feat is the development of Ethan Kaille. He shows a genuine concern for his arch nemesis, Pryce, and even works in junction with her to take down a more dangerous threat. It makes him the better man in what is otherwise a bickering conflict. Kaille also struggles with his convictions on the subject of the British occupation. In Theiftaker he was a loyalist, disgusted by the Sons of Liberty and their antics. Here, when the British enter Boston, Kaille sees nothing but injustice all around him as regulars quarter themselves in peoples’ homes. These changes in his motivations will likely lead to further character development in future books, and possibly turning him into a brash revolutionary.

Many old faces from Thieftaker return in Quarry, but with just enough face time to make way for plenty of new ones. Kaille seeks help from a variety of individuals from high-on-the-hog aristocrats, to bottom-feeding bar owners, to revolutionaries and crooks alike. Their presence breathes life into Jackson’s Boston, making the world all the more believable. Just as in Thieftaker, Boston feels like a place the reader can step into. Jackson’s understanding of the landscape of the town in its pre-revolution glory is on full display, as well as his knowledge of colonial customs. It creates a story whose characters are just as enjoyable to read about as its own world, not growing too detailed or monotonous. 

The series once again manages to hold its own in Quarry, despite its setting being among the most popular periods of history. Quarry could have so easily taken advantage of the plethora of historical figures involved with the Sons of Liberty, yet takes a more reserved approach by only making use minor figures and events. It proves that it can tell its story with its plot, characters, and spirit of its setting, rather than copping-out for the reputation of the Washingtons and Franklins of the time. I’m sure as the series nears the revolution, more familiar faces will begin to appear. But two books in a row with such minimal use of major historical figures proves that the series means business. 

Where Thieve’s Quarry ultimately shines and manages to surpass its predecessor is in its pacing. As great as Theiftaker was, it was a bit sluggish in the manner it handled its mystery, at least compared to its sequel. There is no wild goose chase to be had in Quarry, as Ethan Kaille makes a relentless chase for justice and for his own life. New developments lie around every corner, as Kaille races against the clock to take out a killer before even more innocent are murdered, and even his own friends. It is between this and the development of its characters that makes Thieve’s Quarry a great sequel, not simply a rehash of the first book or a "Season 2" of the series. 

As someone who has read a decent amount of fantasy, the Theiftaker series is among the most quality. D.B. Jackson is a truly talented writer. Theiftaker is a premise which should be silly as all get out, but the amount of history and fantasy it offers and the ethos in which the series is written gives me confidence to recommend it to both historians and fantasy fans alike. Yet its appeal reaches beyond those two groups, which is why I can’t help but recommend the series to anyone looking for some quality reads. 

You can purchase Thieve’s Quarry from Amazon here.

-David Brashier; Huntsville, Alabama; July 2017

Book Review(s): Architects of Destiny and Veil of Reality

We are back to sci-fi with this review. As much sci-fi as I’ve been reading lately, I was afraid I’d be moaning "Here we go again" with these books. I was glad to be proven completely wrong. Word on the street is that Amy Duboff is on the rise to a high spot on the sci-fi literature totem pole. The first two installments of her currently seven-part series, Cadicle, are proof of this claim.  In two extremely short books, Duboff establishes a wildly original story with a scale spanning lightyears and generations which instantly earns the status of 'saga'. 

The first book, Architects of Destiny, had me hooked from the first page, and not because of what the bare story had to offer. The book’s greatest feat is that it is 100% character-driven. With this, good character interactions through dialogue and emotion are deeply important, and Duboff understands this perfectly. Through what is basically a mock-lightsaber fight in the opening scene, the interactions between the hero and his trainer present believable characters with believable relationships which echo throughout the rest of the novel. 

In case the fact that the book is character driven doesn’t immediately force me to recommend this book, the story itself is well orchestrated. Its initial premise is familiar. Cris Sietinen wants something more out of life, so he escapes to the stars, joins a smuggling crew, and tours the galaxy. In many ways, it is Luke Skywalker’s ambitions with a new coat of paint. If the characters and their interactions weren’t as good, I probably would have lost interest. Yet in time, the story fledges out to something much greater. 

We learn that Cris is heir to a wealthy dynasty obsessed with upholding its lineage, and willing to resort to any means of doing so. Cris also has a telekinetic ability which is virtually outlawed, and he is recruited by the only organization which will train him with his gift. Excitement takes a back seat as Cris trains in his telekinetic abilities, while behind the scenes his life is being secretly controlled. Turns out he plays a much larger role in the fate of the universe, a fate which involves a secret war against an alien race. It also turns out that he might not be the solution to the conflict, but someone further in his own bloodline. 

Architects of Destiny is very much a prequel. It is very short, only about 150 pages, and I managed to read it in a day. But what I got out of such a short read was truly remarkable. It is difficult to put to words how Duboff manages to establish such high stakes and such a massive universe in just one book with a story that isn’t world-driven. 

Veil of Reality, to my wondrous surprise, begins roughly twenty years after Architects of Destiny. Cris now fathers a son, Wil, who shows even greater achievement in telekinetic ability. Wil is kidnapped, and Cris flies to unknown reaches of space to find him. His pursuit leads him to discover the war which he was never meant to know about, and further, the role he plays in it. Cris learns that his entire existence has been engineered for generations, and that his own son is the savior to end the war, essentially wiping out an entire race. 

Veil of Reality spends a lot of time grinding through the technicals of the story. This allows for time to see Cris and his son react to their orchestrated destiny. Wil’s youthful whims of tackling a massive undertaking make him naive, despite his giftedness. Cris comes to grips with the fact that he has to take a back seat in this plot, while also being tortured by the notion that the reason for his family’s existence is a lie.

The supposed villains are given highly relatable arcs in Veil of Reality. The government officials residing over Cris hate to break the bad news to him, yet are steadfast in their goal. They know the consequences and the pure evil of their actions, yet are committed to a cause for the sake of humanity. It’s a believable position. The alien villain in the war is also willing to find a compromise with the humans, to which many of his subordinates passionately disagree. It makes for a lot of conflict, and thus, a lot of drama. 

The first books in the Cadicle series hit the mark in many aspects. I’ve already gushed over characters, but the story is also handled well. The more original take on the planet-bound youth who desires something more is a smart move. The simple fact that there is such a massive time gap between the two books allows for major shifts in character since they have changed over years. This keeps things interesting so that the original ensemble isn’t simply presented with a new conflict out of the blue. 

Though Cadicle is a character-driven saga, it isn’t a one-size-fits-all story. This is one instance where a series truly needed to be a massive sci-fi epic, and thus earns the title of 'space opera'. The scale and stakes of the story can only be fathomed in a massive world which spans galaxies. Yet despite such a massive world, like I mentioned earlier, the books aren’t world-driven. Cadicle could have easily relied on sci-fi tropes like space battles, blaster shoot-outs, or other material staples of the genre to be an enjoyable story. The series instead uses these tropes sparingly in order for the reader to appreciate such moments more. It reminds me of use of lightsabers in the original Star Wars trilogy. As much as lightsabers are a staple of Star Wars, they weren’t used that much in the original trilogy. Presence of a lightsaber typically implied a special moment, one which could be appreciated and not overused. Cadicle uses its exciting action scenes sparingly in order for the reader to appreciate them more. It instead relies on its characters and story to keep the momentum going. On the flip side, it isn’t a story completely driven by discussion of politics which become boring or impossible to understand. It’s a rare instance which manages to find the right balance of both the physical and emotional side of a story which blends so well together that makes for a great narrative. 

Duboff already has a great series going with just two books. She has crafted a saga with Cadicle which is littered with potential for prequels and obviously sequels, as there are five more books in the series. It’s an expansive universe with a surprisingly "down-to-earth" story. Rather than relying on the tangibles of its genre, it uses the scope of its own world to its full advantage for the sake of the narrative. It’s the makings of a timeless sci-fi series which is sure to rise above the rest. 

You can purchase Architects of Destiny from Amazon here.

You can purchase Veil of Reality from Amazon here

-David Brashier; Huntsville, Alabama; July 2017