The Outcast Hours by Mahvesh Murad and Jared Shurin

The Outcast Hours is the latest anthology by Mahvesh Murad and Jared Shurin, following The Djinn Falls in Love and Other Stories from last year. I love stories set at night; a lack of action forces the characters to face their inner troubles, in turn making the story more introspective. That combined with me thoroughly enjoying Djinn a few months ago made this an instant request.

Anthologies, by design, have some similar theme or genre and The Outcast Hours is no different. As can be deduced from the title, it focuses on the night, on those who live and work and thrive in the midnight hours. It’s quite an open-ended theme (especially compared with Djinn’s relative rigidity of requiring a specific supernatural creature) and as a result features a vast array of genres – fantasy, horror, contemporary, slice of life, light science fiction – ranging from the darker aspects of humanity (portrayed both realistically and fantastically) to the hopeful. There are 26 stories, so I will just quickly highlight some that I particularly enjoyed.

This Book Will Find You – Sam Beckbessinger, Lauren Beukes & Dale Halvorsen
This story makes for an excellent start to the collection. It’s an intense, depressing reflection of woman’s recently ended relationship with a spooky framework pushing the story along. The reader follows a heavily self-loathing character trying to atone for the mistakes she made in said relationship and goes about it in a way that only gets more disturbing. Very creepy and entirely engrossing.

Blind Eye – Frances Hardinge
This one has a pretty original concept – it’s about a babysitter who watches children of some unsavoury types. She must take care of a little girl overnight and spooky things ensue. It’s hard to discuss it any further without delving into spoilers so just know that it’s a fast paced, exciting supernatural tale that covers more than expected with an emotional depth that’s often not seen in shorter stories.

Patron Saint of Night Puppers – Indrapramit Das
Despite the title, this was a great little tale – an anecdote almost. It sits firmly in the slice of life category following a night shift caretaker at a dog pound. In sharp contrast to almost every other story in the anthology it’s just another night taking care of dogs. Das sets up easy horror slam dunk tropes then happily subverts them repeatedly.

Tilt – Karen Onojaife
Follows a woman spending her nights at a casino trying to deal with an awful loss and given the option to fix it at a terrible price. I’m a sucker for impossible choices and Tilt delivers in spades with a simple but wonderfully executed premise. Short stories sometimes have a problem with endings, they can feel rushed or just stop arbitrarily. Mostly they end just fine but rarely are they particularly great. Onojaife leaves it on a great hook, revealing nothing but just enough all at once.

Welcome to the Haunted House – Yukimi Ogawa
What a weird story. In a good way of course, but just so odd. I’m not sure if it’s based on some folklore that I’m unaware of but wow it’s just so uniquely interesting. There’s this group of animated household objects à la Beauty and the Beast but they work in a haunted house scaring humans and can’t quite remember why or how they got there. That doesn’t really do it justice, look, read it and you’ll get me.

Lock In – William Boyle
Okay so I love The Catcher in the Rye so Lock In was an easy pick as a favourite. It’s another slice of life style book and is mildly reminiscent of Catcher in its latter half. Betsy is a young teenager who sneaks out of catholic school at night to wander the streets and find a cinema after being disillusioned with her authority figures. The story finishes fittingly but I would like an extension just to see what she gets up to for the rest of the night.

A Partial Beginner’s Guide to the Lucy Temerlin Home for Broken Shapeshifters – Kuzhail Manickavel
First of all, what a fantastic title; I love long, detailed titles like this. Secondly, if only one of these stories should be expanded, it must be this one. It’s a sort of epistolary novel that acts as a welcome guide for an orphanage that brings up a hundred questions despite being one of the shortest stories in the anthology. There’s so much potential here, I need more!

After reading The Djinn Falls in Love, I had an interesting chat with Shurin on /r/fantasy about how he and Murad grapple with their anthologies’ structures for ‘probably too long’ (his words not mine!) so I would be remiss to not quickly give some thoughts on it in this instance. Generally speaking, the stories were well organised. Each tale was very different to its predecessor with shifts in either genre, setting or tone almost every time. In fact, it was so well done that there were two adjacent stories that happened to stick out just by nature of being mildly similar. There were also interludes scattered in every few stories that were an interesting addition. They provided a nice breather every so often, but I don’t think they were really necessary. They were very short pieces of flash fiction that were unrelated and seemed more experimental than anything else.

Ask any book blogger and they’ll say the same thing: anthologies are hard to review. There will always be some great stories, some bad and a lot that fit somewhere in between. Ultimately, I read anthologies to force myself to explore new genres, discover new authors, and see how wildly people’s perspectives interpret a common theme. If the job of the editors is to accomplish these goals, The Outcast Hours is nothing short of a resounding success.

The Prince of Cats by Daniel E Olesen

The Prince of Cats is a captivating new fantasy novel by Daniel E Olesen. Set in a fictional Middle Eastern city, the book almost instantly reminded me of the first Assassin’s Creed game (but with a thief). The main character, Jawad, running across rooftops, slinking around alleys displays the city of Alcázar in a way that is so reminiscent of the game that it got me all nostalgic.

People have compared this book to The Lies of Locke Lamora; while I can see why, the similarities mostly end at the protagonist being a thief – Jawad is very much a lone wolf (in contrast to Locke’s thief buddies), there isn’t a secret thieving underworld and the tone of the book is very different. The Lies of Locke Lamora is very tongue in cheek, filled with witticisms, and while The Prince of Cats isn’t gritty/hyper-realistic by any means, it takes itself more seriously and isn’t afraid to get serious at points (discussed below).

As mentioned, Jawad is first and foremost a thief. Every time he meets someone, his first impression is the monetary value of their possessions. It’s great to see him always try to estimate potential profits and is a perfectly simple way to show his priorities.

‘A necklace of gold hung around his neck with a few gemstones as ornaments, giving it a value of around two hundred and twenty pieces of silver.’

‘While he spoke, he noticed the earring in Hashim’s undamaged ear, worth about five silver pieces, and the dagger in his belt, worth only trouble.’

Unfortunately in fantasy there’s often a trend of male authors writing male main characters who, when introducing a woman, will immediately first describe her looks and establish just how attractive or unattractive she is. Olesen bucks this trend with Jawad by continuing to focus on his jewellery obsession.

‘Contrary to what he would have expected, she did not pair her expensive clothes with any jewellery other than pearl earrings,’

This isn’t an isolated incident either as Olesen continues to subvert gender tropes throughout the book. Later on Jawad rushes off to save the ‘maiden’ from trouble only to find out that she’s fine and is instead organising a rescue operation to help the actual victims. It’s refreshing to see the female characters treated like normal people (wow what a depressing sentence) and with The Prince of Cat’s wide cast of women (honourable mentions go to the the creepy torturer and irritable fence), Olesen creates a gender balance that feels completely natural and appropriate.

Though the plot focuses solely on Jawad’s trials and tribulations, there are plenty of interesting side characters who get to shine despite their limited ‘screen time’. Ishak is one who I particularly enjoyed – he’s a nice comic relief character that provides light-hearted interludes to balance the occasional quite serious moments that the book goes through. Not only does he have some great one-liners but he also has a nice wee friendship with Jawad. Considering Jawad’s tendency to work alone and when with others, to deflect emotion with humour, his visits to Ishak adroitly showed the little chinks of vulnerability in his demeanour.

It can sometimes be a little iffy when western authors write a book set in the Middle East. Often it just actually is a Eurocentric culture and style with a desert painted over. Or it goes way in the other direction and becomes a weird fetishisation of Arab culture with little historical basis. Oleson, a known history nerd, avoids these common pitfalls entirely. He clearly did his homework since often Arabic terms are used and always accurately. One of the characters mentions her family used to live in the desert and appropriately their family name is al-Badawi  (translates to desert dweller). This example is somewhat pointed out to the reader but even the casual correct usage of words like ‘sidi’, ‘sayidaty’, ‘mamluk’ etc. are easy little ways to make the world more realistic. There are a few words that I think the author made up (‘haramlik’ and ‘salamlik’ in particular) but their etymology is clear enough to match up with the intended use (forbidden and permitted areas of the estate, respectively) such that they are still completely believable.

It’s worth mentioning that even though the book is set in a greater fantasy world, due to the cultural accuracy and lack of magic and fantastical elements, it could easily be considered a standalone historical fiction book.

One aspect of The Prince of Cats that I was particularly interested in was the character of Faisal al-Musharaf. More than once he is shown to have noticed a stealthing Jawad, and each time Jawad is taken aback. Jawad mentions how the upper class never see him when he chooses to move around covertly and this is proved multiple times so it’s curious to see how perceptive Faisal is. Not only that but the characters is also described as carrying a sword with a confidence that suggests he has a history with it. We never see this confidence in action which only boosts my curiosity. Outside of his mysterious backstory he is shown to be simply a nice person. He’s always courteous when talking to Jawad; compared to other members of the wealthy houses, he genuinely respects Jawad’s talents.

The only real criticism I have with the book is that the main character’s backstory is a handled a little clumsily. We are treated to a single memory of Jawad’s childhood with his brothers. This scene obviously haunts Jawad as we see it more than once but it becomes a bit too obvious that it’s vital exposition considering that it’s the only scene of Jawad’s past that is mentioned. In my opinion the story would have profited from having no explicit flashback. There was some clever exposition placed in the narrative each time Jawad visited his old teacher and this scene with his brothers could have been slipped into one of those meetings rather than being front and centre in the narrative.

The Prince of Cats is a fast paced book but there’s this one top-notch section that hits the brakes hard. What with Jawad’s lighthearted outlook disappearing combined with a drastic change in tone, this section makes for an excellently sudden brick wall for the reader and the Jawad to hit. The book could have been a little longer considering the pace and short-ish length but, all things considered, it’s a hugely enjoyable story with a compelling protagonist in a wonderfully real world.. While it comfortably works as a standalone, there are a few threads left open and I’m looking forward to see where they go.

The Steel Seraglio by Mike Carey, Linda Carey and Louise Carey

It’s rare when, after finishing a book, you have zero qualms with it – even little nit-picks. But that’s exactly how I felt after finishing The Steel Seraglio by Mike Carey, Linda Carey and Louise Carey. This is going to be a short review and really more of a rave; there’s not much else needed to say except that it’s just very nice.

The book takes clear inspiration from A Thousand and One Nights – from the prose to the chapter names. Each chapter is named in the format of a short fairy tale (‘The Tale of the Girl, Her Father, Her Two Suitors and the King of Assassins’, ‘The Youth Staked Out in the Desert’ etc) and usually is quite short in length to fit this theme. The narrative style is reminiscent of folktales in that it’s flowery and poetic. Almost every chapter works as a standalone tale and they occasionally contain nested tales. One, for example, is recounted by the narrator about an elderly lady who then tells a story to her grandkids. It’s a simple but surprisingly effective way to emphasis the mythical nature of the book.

The overall story is about the rise and fall of Bessa – the ‘city of women’. As the narrator points out almost immediately, this moniker taken literally is an inaccurate description of the city but is more or less an accurate statement given the gender politics of the book’s setting. The book tells the story of the late Sultan’s harem of 100 women after they get banished from the city by the new ascetic leader. Forced to fend for themselves in an environment that is far less luxurious than what they’re used to, they quickly create a new  egalitarian society for themselves in the desert.

The story meanders along, occasionally pauses to elaborate on the backstory of a character and switches between the POVs of many of the people in the city. There are roughly 5 main POVs but often there will be a chapter here or there following a side character who until then was just mentioned by name. Having too many viewpoints is often a recipe for disaster or at least for confusion but it works here. It never feels forced and just adds to the theme of community. It makes sense that the narrator is omniscient because it’s a made up tale so of course they can say with certainty how every character thinks and feels.

In a similar vein of Becky Chambers’ Wayfarers and Neil Gaiman’s Stardust, The Steel Seraglio just oozes warmth and humour. The characters are sympathetic, optimistic and trusting of each other. They are genuinely good people trying to create something worthwhile and lasting and it’s a joy to read.

And if you’re interested in reading poc- or female-centric books, good news pal because this book is naturally chock full of them.

The Traitor God by Cameron Johnston

The Traitor God is a noir murder mystery wrapped up in a fantasy setting. It’s a violent, adrenaline-filled adventure through a heavily segregated city split into the upper- and lower-class areas. I enjoyed the book as a whole but there were some issues I had. Unfortunately for a first person single POV book, the main character was one of the biggest. Edrin Walker is, by design, not a particularly likeable protagonist. It’s not necessary for the main character to be heroic or even just mostly good – Mark Lawrence pulls this off excellently in The Broken Empire. Jorg is a despicable person but he embraces it and it’s clear how his personality was formed. Edrin, however, just repeatedly tells himself how horrible he is in a self-loathing manner that is incredibly difficult to sympathise with especially at times when it’s at odds with his actions. I think perhaps the book would have benefitted from being written in third person or at least a less personal first person – just seeing Edrin’s actions would have been enough to show he’s meant to be this nuanced, troubled character. Instead, the reader is treated to constant internal monologues that forcibly remind them how tortured Edrin is which just gets a bit excessive.

Fortunately, however, I felt that Edrin was the only weak link in an otherwise strong cast of characters. The story is very much about Edrin but there are many supporting characters that subtly flesh out the city in a not too exposition-heavy way. My favourite is Charra with whom Edrin has a refreshingly platonic relationship. Johnson carefully balances her character by showing how the city guards and Edrin respect her enough not to pick fights and contrasts that with how she raises her daughter (who is badass in her own right) in the quite dangerous slums. There’s also Eva, a powerful paladin who defies the old Warrior Woman In Impractical Armour trope and the wizened leader of the Mages who Johnson manages to flesh out far more than expected with such little ‘screen time’.

The plot itself was a bit of a let-down by and large. Generally, in fantasy I’m more interested in the characters and world building but since this was a murder mystery novel, the mystery is the whole point. I’m usually completely dense when it comes to mysteries – in City of Lies I didn’t figure who the villain was until moments before it was revealed. In The Traitor God, the villain’s identity is honestly easy to figure out beforehand. The book is very-paced which is fine for the most part but waiting a little longer for the reveal or masking it more thoroughly would have gone a long way. It also relies on one of my least favourite storytelling mechanics – memories being blocked that slowly resurface. They always reappear at conveniently appropriate times and each memory is just important enough to be interesting or relevant in the moment.

At the end of the day, I did enjoy reading The Traitor God. It does some interesting things – the magic system is compelling, and I have a tendency to prefer standalone novels – but ultimately there wasn’t much to stand out as particularly amazing. It wasn’t bad by any stretch it just wasn’t something exciting or innovative. The Traitor God is definitely worth a read if you’re interested in murder mysteries or morally dubious protagonists.

Record of a Spaceborn Few by Becky Chambers

Record of a Spaceborn Few is the latest instalment in the Wayfarers universe and simply put, it’s incredible. I was pleasantly surprised to see it revert to the style of A Long Way with a large cast of POV characters rather than just the two in A Closed and Common Orbit. In the slice of life genre, characters make or break a novel and thankfully Wayfarers continues to make.

In fact, while all the POVs (except one) are human, there’s a huge range of main characters with a diversity in age and attitude that the prior two books didn’t touch upon. Chambers produces them all with sophistication: from the bored teenager, Kip, who can’t wait to leave the Fleet because ‘anywhere else is better’ to the polar opposite young man, Sawyer, immigrating to the Fleet because it has to be better life currently. From Eyas the caretaker steeped in tradition to Tessa (sister of Ashby from A Long Way) who wonders if it might be better to move on and go planetside. However, my favourite was easily Isabella. Elderly people are so rarely main characters that it was refreshing to see her point of view and every scene with her wife was utterly adorable.

The entirety of the novel is set aboard the Exodus Fleet – a collection of spaceships that house humans that left the Sol system when Earth became uninhabitable (bit didn’t join alien worlds). The Fleet is a fascinating concept and it’s interesting to see how Chambers created its customs. One of the more novel concepts was how to dispose of the dead. The easier route would have been to just have them send ashes into space but instead people known as caretakers reuse the Fleet’s remains, turn them into compost. It could easily have been a pretty morbid addition but is portrayed respectfully. The caretakers are revered by the Exodans (so much so that it is sometimes to Eyas’s chagrin) – the whole process is described in detail, it very much feels like a non-deity-based religion.

Whenever people ask for cosy or optimistic SFF, Wayfarers is always one of the first recommendations and Record of a Spaceborn Few is no execption. It’s probably the darkest of the three (though that’s not really saying a lot) what with the catastrophic loss of life that jumpstarts the novel. But even with that event (and others), Chambers manages to keep the mood upbeat throughout. It’s such an easy read throughout that the reader can just fly through the book.

The only problem I had is that sometimes it felt a bit too exposition-heavy. During the novel’s timeline there is an alien Harmagian documentarian that is visiting Isabella (the historian) on the Fleet. Chambers uses this trip as its very nature to relay cultural and structural explanations. While this is a clever way to infodump on the reader, it’s an infodump all the same. It feels a bit tiresome as it doesn’t further develop either the plotlines or the characters and is a copout-y way to expand the setting. The exposition also bleeds into Isabella’s chapters since she spends a significant amount of time with the Harmagian.

One thing in particular I really liked in Record of a Spaceborn Few compared to its predecessors was its conclusion. I loved the previous two but they both end a little jarringly, both could have gone on a little longer without a doubt. In this book, Chambers employs lots of time jumping at the end to fully conclude each story, giving the reader proper closure for every character – something that the other books, A Long Way in particular, were missing.

Ultimately, reviews of this book aren’t really needed. And I have a feeling this is the case for any future Wayfarers novels. If you liked the previous two, any aspect – the hopeful tone, the worldbuilding, the happy and friendly characters, it’s guaranteed you’ll like this one too. Becky Chambers has combined the many POVs of A Long Way with the more concrete interweaved storylines of A Closed and Common Orbit, perfecting her slice of life style. Chambers has dropped so many little ideas about the universe, it’s ripe for exploration and I can’t wait to see where the series goes next.

City of Lies by Sam Hawke

City of Lies is an incredible fantasy whodunnit novel by debut author Sam Hawke. It’s the kind of book that starts off with a simple premise – the Chancellor has been poisoned in a closed room – then gradually picks up, with problems and mysteries stacking up until you hit a critical mass of questions and everything starts to fall into place.

City of Lies is hugely character driven throughout and would have suffered if not for it’s refreshing main characters. Jovan is the Chancellor’s secret food proofer and chemist. His, and his family’s, job is to check any food the Chancellor is to eat and detect possible poisons within. He is devout in his duties and takes great honour (a central tenet of their culture) in putting himself in harm’s way for his friend. Jovan also suffers from quite serious OCD that requires him to move and act, such as counting steps, in groups of eight and can debilitate him when he loses control over his impulses.

“The longer this situation went on, the more the compulsions built up…there were five different patterns: pacing, hands squeezing, toes scrunching, thighs tensing and teeth clicking. Counting sets of eight for each muscle group took all my concentration”

Kalina is Jovan’s elder sister and would have originally been the proofer in the family if it wasn’t for her chronic weakness. She tires very quickly and cannot stand up to gentle poisons. Throughout her chapters, it’s clear that this affects her mentally and along with Jovan’s well meaning but sometimes overbearing nature, she is always pushing herself to do more and proving her worth. Both characters have these serious illnesses and it could have been so easy to write them in a shallow way, as if just adding flavour, but Hawke pulled off the representation with aplomb. Being inside both characters’ heads lets us see that they are always affected by these conditions which are manifesting repeatedly and often at quite inopportune times. It becomes clear that Kalina and Jovan have some level of control over their illnesses and will never stop pushing against their limitations.

Interestingly while the Chancellor, Tain, doesn’t have any POV chapters he’s still very much an equally main character. It’s a testament to the authors skill that the reader can be as attached to him as the other two while only seeing a third-person view of him. All three characters work excellently together – none have a secret agenda and they’re all genuinely good people who want the best for everyone (going to great lengths to achieve peace, with patience to rival monks).

I have a couple of minor issues with the book, the pace suffers a bit just over half way through. There’s an army on their doorstep and everyone keeps reminding each other that they could crash through at any time but fortunately the army just chills outside for days. It’s never fully explained why they sat back for about five days but it was awfully convenient for the main characters as they had some serious in-house problems at the time.

There’s also some romance angst that’s just not needed. The romance in general is done well and the platonic friendships between the siblings and between them and Tain are excellent. It could have been easy to add some romance subplot between Tain and Kalina but keeping them as close friends was a breath of fresh air. However, there’s this angsty section that feels so unnecessary, it didn’t add anything to the relationship and made my eyes roll out their sockets.

Regardless, these issues are hardly worth worrying about since City of Lies is sublime in every other respect. It touches on some real-world issues like xenophobia and us-versus-them mentalities without getting preachy. The book highlights how easy it is to ignore the suffering of people not in your vicinity then just shut them down as lesser once they’re forced to turn violent.

“They had looked healthy enough, and had waved back so, nothing had challenged my basic assumption that an oppressed people would look thing and cowed and starving”

Throughout the book, the main characters are trying to find an explanation to the mysterious death of the Chancellor. Right off the bat, there’s only so many suspects but with barely anything to go on, the three characters are baffled. With occasional poisonings and red herrings, and despite some solid deductions made by the three, the mystery kept me guessing up until all was revealed. I’m not too versed in the mystery genre but that plus the mysterious is-it-real-maybe lore and the good, honourable characters made City of Lies a thrilling read. A sequel to this book isn’t strictly necessary but if there is one, I’ll be first in line.

The Tower of Living and Dying by Anna Smith Spark

The Tower of Living and Dying is the second instalment in the Empires of Dust trilogy and ticks all the boxes that a middle book should be ticking. Second books often fall into the trap of just being mostly filler or spending the majority of time setting up the final book but not this one. The Tower of Living and Dying instead just continues on immediately from The Court of Broken Knives. It’s easier to look at it as one long story broken up into separate volumes à la the First Law trilogy.

The Tower of Living and Dying begins with Marith coming home to the White Isles and dealing with the fallout he caused at the end of the last book. It very quickly becomes clear that he won’t be content with ruling just the Isles and almost immediately goes on to start assaulting the mainland cities. He takes Thalia along and her seeing him in full-on conqueror mode results in most of the strife between them. Meanwhile Orhan is trying to regain control and normalcy in the wake of the recent unrest in Sorlost. There are a few other POVs including a couple of new ones discussed below that really help flesh out the story from multiple angles.

Everyone who has read The Court of Broken Knives knows of Anna Smith Spark’s engrossing and almost aggressive style of writing. It’s not so much what she does as what she excludes. Casual neglect of grammatical rules and a lack of punctuation sound like they’d be a nightmare to read through, but it works incredibly well here. Every action scene contains these short rapid-style sentences:

“Everything utter confusion, pressed so tight, everything shattering. Shredded. Choking. Drowning in each other. Crushing too tight to breathe. Eyes staring, swallowing each other’s sweat. Everywhere swords and spears and horses and metal grinding remorseless against metal and skin and bone. Push. Push. Hold. The line wavering. Thrashing like a boy cracking a rope. Osen’s left burning. Osen’s left falling apart. Just hold.”

It’s exhausting reading these passages, it’s such a visceral description. The reader doesn’t really know what’s going on, what the bigger picture is in the moment but neither does the soldier. Spark also makes great use chapter lengths, a few times at climactic moments there are one-page chapters that just halt the action, letting the reader gear up for an act’s culmination. One in particular is just fourteen words, four sentences long but still conveys a sort of respite from the action and builds up anticipation for what happens next.

There are a few POVs but Marith continues to be the main character. He also continues to be detestable. He becomes exactly the kind of person who believes that they are the most important person in the world – except in this case, he actually is. He thinks little to nothing of others, able to casually obliterate an entire city over the perceived slight of one man. His true personality is revealed in one line in particular:

“The secret hidden pleasure of every human heart, that it is waiting to die and to kill”

He thinks this in the heat of a battle when he feels most alive, and attributes it to everyone, both sides. The reader knows – inherently and also through the knowledge of other POVs – that this is entirely untrue, but it does reveal Marith’s true feelings. Throughout almost the entire first book Marith is suicidal, content to let his addictions consume him. If he died, he wouldn’t have cared, and it is now clear that he holds other lives in the same disregard.

Marith’s relationship with Thalia is another example of his vain outlook. Any time he thinks of her, it’s always in a completely objectified manner. He can only see her as another one of his possessions as shown below. In fact, I don’t think that there is a single time that he looks at her and doesn’t remind himself how beautiful and fragile she is. Fortunately, throughout the book, Thalia starts to come out of her shell and is perpetually in flux regarding Marith. She repeatedly blames herself for the atrocities he commits and slowly pulls away from him. It’s a slow growth in character but it’s realistic and it should be fascinating to see its conclusion in the final book.

“[I should have] Left her safe with Matrina to wait on her and teach her good eastern ways, had her brought over in triumph, crowned and robed in gold”

I won’t go into much detail to avoid spoilers, but my favourite chapters were that of Lan and Tobias. I’m a sucker for points of view of privileged persons forced to live as commoners and how they react to it. Lan’s chapters make for an interesting perspective as she sees just how little the common White Isle folk care or are affected by the tumultuous events happening on their island. Tobias is a lot of fun to read, he’s basically a stand-in for the reader – on several occasions I found myself having the exact same reactions as he did to developments in the story. I’m looking forward to learning more about him in the final book; there are some questions dangled about his past that are not fully explored so I hope they get answered eventually.

The other storyline running in tandem with Marith’s is Orhan’s back in Sorlost. It heavily contrasts with Marith’s as opposed to armies clashing over and over, it’s politicians moving against each other trying to take control of one city. Instead of successful military tactics, it’s inelegant solutions to a steadily worsening situation. Orhan, through some trial and error, becomes quite adept at his realpolitik game. He gradually loses his morals to deal with his ever-sinking ship of a city. Darath on the hand is just way out of depth – put succinctly by Celyse as ‘a little, angry, blustering boy’. He was never my favourite in The Court of Broken Knives, but he truly shows his colours when things look bad and he suggests they run away from everything, leave all those who know and rely upon them to their deaths. Definitely in the running for least likeable character. It’s not helped by his and Orhan’s incredibly toxic relationship. I’m not sure if it’s meant to written the way it is but they yell and argue and break up and make up like teenagers; it’s exhausting to read (not in a good way).

There’s one more POV that was introduced in A Tower of Living and Dying. I don’t want to mention details, but I will say that it felt a little transparent. It was included only quite late into the book, as if it was afterthought, as if Spark realised she needed another POV in Sorlost to properly describe what was happening. I thought it was a useful insight in that regard but perhaps it should have been introduced earlier to be more organic.

I enjoyed The Court of Broken Knives, but I didn’t love it. The Tower of Living and Dying took everything good from its predecessor, refined it and included some great new additions. It doesn’t try to be its own story but is a clear continuation of the universe and leaves enough plot hooks left to be resolved in Empires of Dust 3. I don’t know where the next book is going (there’s still half the map to explore!) but I can’t wait to read it.

 
Note: I received an early copy of the book in exchange for an unbiased review. Many thanks to Anna, HarperVoyager and NetGalley for the copy.