Tag Archives: epic fantasy

The Hidden City

Epic fantasy about an orphan girl and a forgotten city

I am still chipping away at my to-read shelf, and in my efforts to tackle some of the fantasy books I have had lying around for some time, I remembered I had this one. I actually won 6 books in this series in the annual Worldbuilders fundraiser. Money donated goes to Heifer International, and each US$10 you donate secures you an entry in their lottery. I’ve donated over a few years, and one year was lucky enough to win a prize! I talk about it in much more depth in a podcast episode. Anyway, these books have been collecting dust for way too long so it was time to at least read the first one.

Image is of “The Hidden City” by Michelle West. The paperback novel is resting on a wooden table next to a carved bowl and below a knife with a burnished blade and a wooden handle. The cover has an image of a girl with curly hair holding a blade set inside a triangle. Outside the triangle are flowers made of stone.

“The Hidden City” by Michelle West is an epic fantasy novel and the first in the series called “The House War”. The book is about a young homeless girl named Jewel, who insists on being called Jay. When she tries to rob the mysterious and reclusive Rath, his attempts to reclaim his goods end up with him reluctantly taking a very sick Jay in. As the unlikely pair form a mentor-mentee bond, Jay begins to share her newfound fortune with other street children. However, Rath’s clandestine activities retrieving treasures from a forgotten city, Jay’s untested powers and an unspeakable crime ring reveal many more children in need of help and a growing danger that could threaten the entire world as they know it.

This is a deliberate, thoughtful novel with a strong focus on character development and morality. Despite Rath’s initial denial, the bond between him and Jay steadily strengthens and they each begin to have a profound effect on one another. I really enjoyed the other children who steadily trickled into Jay’s life, and how she slowly coaxes them out of their shells and unites them. I particularly liked Carver, and how West wove a bit of mystery around his background and why he was there at the right time. It is a high stakes novel, and West is not afraid of pushing her characters and their loyalties to their limits.

However, it is a slow-paced novel, and at times West’s painstaking review of the intricacies of each relationship feels like it stalls the story. While quirky at the beginning, Rath’s apparent refusal to acknowledge the extent to which he has welcomed Jay into his life begins to lose its impact. There were aspects of the worldbuilding that I felt could have been stronger. Although a street urchin, Jay’s abilities mean that she could potentially have secured a home studying to strengthen her powers, everyone dismisses that as an option for her without any adequate explanation. Many of the conversations are indirect and full of politicking, but West never really makes it clear whether all this dancing around is a cultural feature of this world or simply an attempt to build suspense.

I do also want to mention the book cover. As I said in the photo caption above, the cover has an image of a girl holding a blade. The girl has fair skin, curly light brown hair and light eyes that could be hazel in colour. In the book, Jay is described as having “[b]rown eyes, dark skin, unruly hair” and is later described as being biracial. This book was originally published in 2007, and there has been a lot of discourse about whitewashing book covers since then. I completely appreciate that authors often have very little say in these decisions, and that publishing houses like DAW have come a long way when it comes to representation, however I think it’s still important to acknowledge that this is something that happens – even to authors like Ursula K. Le Guin!

I could see a lot of potential in this book for an epic fantasy series, and those who like to get absorbed in for hours and hours in another world may very well get a lot out of it, but I don’t think I’m quite hooked enough to read the other 5 books I won (let alone the rest of the series).

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The Priory of the Orange Tree

Epic fantasy novel about intrigue, warriors and dragons

This was the next set book for my feminist fantasy book club, and I decided to tackle it straightaway during my long flight to Europe. I bought an eBook, but the cover of the hardcopy is exquisite. So if you don’t mind deadlifting every time you turn a page (it is an enormous book), but want to buy a copy, consider the a hardcopy.

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One of our members’ beautiful table setting

“The Priory of the Orange Tree” by Samantha Shannon is an epic fantasy novel about a world split between the East and the West. In the East, where dragons are revered and wise creatures of the sea, a young girl called Tané is training to be a dragonrider. On the eve before her studies and abilities are put to the test, she discovers something forbidden and is forced to choose between herself and the law. In the West, where dragons are firebreathing wyrms who bring disease and destruction, another young woman called Ead is rising through the ranks at court in the land of Inys. Charged with protecting the devout and imperious Queen Sabran, Ead keeps her identity and her skills a secret. However, as Ead grows closer to Sabran, and attacks by assassins increase in number and ferocity, the secrets become harder to keep. Meanwhile, there is one secret that cannot be ignored: the impending return of the Nameless One.

There were lots of things that were great about this book. Ead was an incredibly enjoyable character and I loved her storyline, her character growth, her history and her abilities. I think it was pretty obvious that Shannon did too, because Ead’s story does dominate the book. I really liked the diversity of relationships, and I absolutely adored Tané’s journey towards being a dragonrider. Shannon’s writing was strong, and her worldbuilding was a creative spin on traditional dragon myths around the world. I thought the religion in Inys built around virtues and a creation story that are interpreted elsewhere in other countries was an insightful look at how Christianity has evolved and changed.

I hate to say it, because it’s a familiar gripe of mine with fantasy novels, but this book was too long. I reached the end of my patience with this book at about page 600 of its 800-odd pages. As much as I like Ead, she really did overshadow the rest of the story, and her adventures with Sabran and Inys felt much more filled-out than Tané’s journey. This may have reflected Shannon’s confidence with the subject-matter, as Tané’s part of the world was clearly modelled on countries in East Asia, whereas Ead’s story was inspired by Western European culture. In comparison, Tané’s plot felt like a very rushed deus ex machina, and across the board I felt like Shannon leaned heavily on determinism and the repeating of historical events rather than interesting moral dilemmas, ingenuity or an extremely well-thought-out plan.

I have nothing to say about young Lord Loth’s point of view chapters, they were the most dull and left almost no impression on me at all. Niclays on the other hand actively annoyed me, and his role in the books was baffling all the way up to the climax (which, after an inordinate amount of foreshadowing, was over in two chapters). He was one of the few morally ambiguous characters, but with not nearly the subtlety of Kalyba who was far more interesting. I legitimately could not understand why Laya stuck by him throughout the end. His motivations (greed and a lost lover) just did not justify his choices whatsoever, and he wasn’t much of a counterweight for either Ead or Tané, even tempered by Loth’s banal chapters. Considering he only seemed to exist to bridge the gap between East and West, I honestly would have axed Niclays altogether and invested that time into Tané’s origin story which was itself very flimsy. I also wish that Shannon had explored her fascinating giant trees a little more. Instead of developing lore, legend and how these ancient lifeforms influenced the events unfolding today, they end up being little more than plot points and I felt that the opportunity was wasted.

A book with plenty of highlights that could have used some firm culling (of Niclays).

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Oathbringer

Before I even write anything, there are three important things you should know about this book.

  1. This is not the first book in the series, it is the third book in the series, so if you haven’t read any books in “The Stormlight Archive” abandon this review immediately because everything will be spoilers for the first two books (no spoilers as per usual for the book at hand).
  2. This book is the newest book in a series of 10 books so if you don’t like waiting for books to be released, maybe don’t start the series just yet. Brandon Sanderson is an absolute powerhouse of an author, and churns out books like you wouldn’t believe (I mean, just look at the progress bars on his website), but he hasn’t started book four yet so if you don’t want to find yourself in a George R. R. Martin or Patrick Rothfuss situation, consider yourself warned.
  3. This book is absolutely enormous and should be worth at least three if not four books on my Goodreads challenge and should be at least somewhat to blame for how far behind I am.

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“Oathbringer” by Brandon Sanderson is an epic fantasy novel and the third book in “The Stormlight Archive” series. The book is set in a fictional world called Roshar and is inhabited by lots of different races. The book primarily focuses on people called the Alethi who divide their society into two major class groups based on eye colour. People with light coloured eyes are the upper class, and people with dark coloured eyes are lower class with lots of levels in between the two. Another feature of the world is the existence of spren, different coloured and shaped creatures that are drawn to and appear when people experience strong emotions. Finally, are the parshmen – a race of humanoid creatures enslaved by the Alethi and who appear to be related to the Parshendi, a race of humanoid creatures that can take different forms and who are at war with the Alethi.

As in the rest of the series, there are a number of protagonists. First is Dalinar, an Alethi highprince and warrior feared for his brutal battle tactics, whose visions about resurrecting the order of the Knights Radiant, mythical warriors who can bond with spren, have started to come to fruition. However, as Dalinar starts to lead with a new vision for Alethkar, he must come to terms with his own past and face his actions that he can’t even remember. There is Kaladin, the reluctant darkeyed warrior who after taking a legion of condemned prisoners and turning them into fighters, has himself become a Radiant. However, the burden of leading his men into this new prestigious identity, and his struggle to protect people on either side of an unavoidable war, begins to take its toll on him. Then there is Shallan, the lighteyed artist whose skills in creating illusions as a Lightweaver mean that she can create new versions of herself. As she becomes more adept in her skills, she starts to use her alternate forms to cope with anxiety and trauma and begins to lose her grip on who she really is.

Did I mention this book is enormous? Because it. is. enormous. It’s over 1,200 pages and is definitely not for the faint-hearted. This book builds on a lot of the lore and history of the world that is alluded to in the first two books and begins to uncover some of the darker histories of Alethi and the circumstances of the enslavement of the parshmen. There are a lot of spinning plates in this book. The impending war with the parshmen and the Parshendi. The Everstorm. The spren. The Knights Radiant.

It’s a lot to keep on top of, and admittedly, there are definitely some parts of the book that I’m more interested in than others. I think Kaladin and Shallan are my favourite characters and I always look forward to their chapters. I think Kaladin is a great lens through with to experience the politics and conflict of the book, and Shallan really showcases the magic element of the story and what Knights Radiant and their spren can really achieve. Sanderson also fleshes out the story notably compared to other books by focusing much more on the mental health and neurodiversity of his characters. We have a character struggling with addiction, another struggling with depression, another struggling with anxiety, and one who appears to have a form of autism spectrum disorder.

I do think that Sanderson’s characters are definitely starting to feel more filled out however, there is so much going on in this book, it does occasionally feel a bit overwhelming. I know it’s epic fantasy, but it did take me a little while to ease back into the story because there was so much going and so much lore to remember from the last two books. Having so many protagonists gives the reader a 360 degree view of the story, but it also makes it hard to keep on top of who is who and what is going on at points all over the world.

I think I felt a bit like the pacing in this book was a bit off-kilter. There’s a particular part of the book where there is an incredibly long amount of time spent in Shadesmar that doesn’t really seem to further the plot much at all or inform the reader much about additional lore. The latter half of the book focuses a lot on a battle that seems to drag on a lot and get a bit ridiculous in scale. I think that the secret to a book that is 1,200 pages long is to make it feel like it is far, far shorter, but I think at about the three quarter mark of this book I was about ready for it over.

Again, this is a huge novel and there is a lot to say about it, but I think to summarise: it’s a very long book that is mostly very good but the large cast of characters and some of the pacing choices made it get a little confusing and slow at times. Did I enjoy it? Yes. Will I read the next book in the series? Yes. Am I relieved it’s over and I have a big break until the next on is out? Definitely yes.

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