Blackbirds by Chuck Wendig

Miriam Black has a unique ability, one she would be just as happy without. Through skin-to-skin contact she can tell exactly when someone will die and in graphic detail, down to the day, hour, minute, and second.  She scavenges from the dead to fund her nomadic lifestyle, drifting from place to place, always on the fringe of society.  When a hitchhiking incident goes bad she meets Louis, a truck driver, who treats her with kindness and respect, something that she is certainly not used to.  She realizes that her situation turns even more hopeless when she touches Louis and sees that he will die in a gruesome way in 30 days while calling her name.

Blackbirds was one of the most brutal books I have read in some time.  The story is bleak and depressing, filled with piteous characters.  Miriam has been broken by her ability and pushes everyone away with venom and vitriol.  Miriam’s character is a cross between Final Destination and Neil Gaiman’s character Death, just not as nice.  She is foul mouthed and uncaring, again a product of her ability, but you can’t help but fall in love with her.  How did she develop this terrifying ability?  Will she ever be able to get rid of it?  Questions like these kept me plowing through the book.

The villains in this story are not people you can sympathize or relate with.  They are brutal and cruel, simple as that.  I can’t remember a “bad guy” that scared me as much as the one in Blackbirds.

Blackbirds is not for the feint of heart.  There is sex (and not of the intimate, romantic kind), brutal depictions of violence, and lots and lots of language, and I loved every minute of it.  Mr. Wendig takes all of these elements and weaves them into an unforgettable tale.  Miriam and company will stick with you long after you finish the book.  Blackbirds is urban fantasy at it’s gory and violent best, 5 bloody stars.

This is the first book that I have read by Chuck Wendig and was initially drawn to it by the cover.  The blackbirds flying apart speak volumes as to the destructive nature of Miriam  Black and those around her.

This review was of an eARC I received from Angry Robot books as a proud member of the Robot Army.

The Hammer and the Blade by Paul S. Kemp

I have been a long time fan of Paul’s work since his first book from Wizards of the Coast and was fortunate enough to receive an eARC of The Hammer and The Blade from Angry Robot Books (release date June 26, 2012). I was very excited to read this one as Paul was able to bring his flair for dark, flawed characters to a world of his own creation.  The Hammer and the Blade is swords and sorcery at its best.

The book opens with Nix the Quick, a thief with some talent for magic, and Egil, a priest of the Momentary god, robbing a tomb. The duo hope this will be their last adventure and plan to buy their favorite tavern and put their adventuring days behind them.  The guardian of the tomb  they kill is part of a pact between House Thyss and House Norristru and set in motion a chain of events that are the basis for the central plot of the book.  Upon the arrival at their newly acquired tavern they are  “convinced” to recover an artifact for Rakon, the head of House Norristru.

Egil and Nix are the perfect compliment to each other, Egil is slower to act, more introspective,  but when he does speak it is usually profound.  Nix, on the other hand has a tongue as sharp as his sword and quick to act, yet has secrets he keeps from his closest friend. Their witty and sarcastic banter give the reader a clue to how deep their friendship runs and makes you wonder about the adventures these two have experienced together.

The time period in which the book takes place marks a perfect place for the series.  The stories that follow could be their previous adventures or a follow-up to this one.  I personally would like to see the former, as I would love to know how Egil and Nix met.  Paul drops a few hints about their past that wets the appetite for more.

Paul paints the characters, especially Egil and Nix,  not in black in white but shades of gray.  They are flawed and have done many things they regret and their reflections on these events, especially Nix, give greater depth to their characters.  His villains are not the standard one-dimensional bad guys, but complex and compelling characters.  Their motivations are understandable and even pitiable.  I found myself drawn in  by Rakon’s plight at the beginning of the book and then shocked by the lengths he would take to realize his goal.

I was highly entertained by this book and look forward to reading more.  The next book in the series, A Discourse in Steel, will be available in 2013.  While you are waiting for the June 26 release date you can check out Paul’s previous works.  Erevis Cale, his signature character from Wizard of the Coast’s Forgotten realms, spans six books, and several short stories.  He has also written several Star Wars books as well.

I give this book 5 stars and highly recommend it.  The Hammer and the Blade is available for pre-order now.

The Best of the Realms III: The Stories of Elaine Cunningham by Elaine Cunningham

The Best of the Realms: The Stories of Elaine Cunningham (Forgotten Realms: The Best of the Realms, #3)The Best of the Realms: The Stories of Elaine Cunningham by Elaine Cunningham

I was cleaning and rearranging my bookshelves last night when I came across this book and several hours later (no further cleaning of bookshelves occured) I put it back on the shelf, gently read once more. Re-reading a book is like visiting an old friend, you are happy to see them again but a little sadder when they leave.

The Best of the Realms: The Stories of Elaine Cunningham is a collection of 15 short stories Ms. Cunningham has produced over the years. Three of them are published here for the first time and the others have been published in various “Realms of” anthologies and Dragon magazine. I found this to be a very enjoyable collection and highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys the Forgotten Realms series. One caveat, while these are all wonderful tales it does help if the reader is familiar with the Forgotten Realms, especially Ms. Cunningham’s works. Here is a listing of each of the stories in the anthology and a little bit about what I thought of each.

#1 – The Knights of Samalar – This story helps to give some closure to the events of the final Harpers novel “Thornhold”. This was an excellent story with an intriguing cast of characters. While “Thornhold” is one of the few books by Ms. Cunningham that I have not read, it stood well on its own.

#2 – The Bargain – This story takes place following the events in “Elfshadow”. Danilo Thann and Arilyn Moonblade are great characters because they both have such intriguing histories. I enjoy Danilo’s and Arilyn’s banter, it makes for a very enjoyable read.

#3 – Elminster’s Jest – While this is not a short story, but a ballad, it is still very entertaining. It kept me giggling for quite some time.

#4 – The More Things Change – This story gives a little history on my favorite of Ms. Cunningham’s characters, the moon elf, Elaith Craulnober. It goes back and gives the reader a little insight into how Elaith came to be who he is today, think “Batman Begins” in a very condensed form.

#5 – The Direct Approach – This story centers around Lirel, the drow from the “Starlight and Shadows” series. I am not as familiar with this series as I am the rest of Ms. Cunningham’s work but it was entertaining none the less and I really enjoyed the ending. Word to the wise, never under estimate a scantily clad barbarian with a really big sword.

#6 – Secrets of the Blood, Spirits of the Sea – I have always enjoyed “origin” tale and this one gives the origin of the sahuagin. I found myself really caught up in the story and thought the ending, while sad, was fantastic.

#7 – The Great Hunt – This is another story featuring Elaith and Arilyn. This time Danilo is absent and you get to witness the interaction between Arilyn and Elaith. On the surface they seem polar opposites but they have more in common than they care to admit.

#8 – Speaking with the Dead – This is another entertaining story involving Danilo, Arilyn, and Elaith. This time Danilo comes to Elaith’s rescue. I enjoyed the scene where you get to see a little of Elaith’s persona behind the cool facade.

#9 – Stolen Dreams – This the same story as “Speaking with the Dead”, but from another characters point of view. You get some interesting back story on some the nobles of Tethyr.

#10 – Fire is Fire – This was the darkest story in the anthology. I love first person narration and from what I have heard it can be difficult to pull off, but Ms. Cunningham does a stellar job. The story is told from the point of view of two combatants in the siege of WaterDeep (for those of who have not read The City of Splendors, I highly recommend it) that are battling each other. The ending left me speechless for a few moments. Tales of war are not as glorious as they might seem.

#11 – Possessions – Ms. Cunningham penned this as her first and only ghost story to date. It is certainly dark and rather depressing. I enjoy stories where the ghost doesn’t realize he or she is a ghost until later. This is also a story of actions and their consequences with a nice spell battle to boot!

#12 – A Little Knowledge – What would you do if you knew the potential outcomes to every situation? These characters are from the counselors and Kings series. Again, I am not as familiar with these characters as I am with others but that did not detract from the story whatsoever.

#13 – Games of Chance – This story features Elaith again. Aside from “The More Things Change”, this is my second favorite Elaith tale. You get a little taste of the rage that Elaith keeps chained away inside him. He releases a little in this story with deadly effect.

#14 – Tribute – This story takes place long before WaterDeep was established. It was a great story with the “maiden dragon sacrifice” theme but with a twist. Scenes from the movie “DragonSlayer” came to mind while I was reading this story.

#15 – Answered Prayers – This is another story featuring Lirel and her companions. I enjoy stories where characters grow. I am definitely going to finish the Starlight and Shadows trilogy get more back story on these characters.

My favorite story is “The More Things Change” thus it has been the most re-read one in the book.  I love the insight we get into Elaith and there is one line in this story that has stuck with me all these years, and as a parent I find them particularly poignant,  “Teach her the rules, and then tell her to question them.”  Elaith’s emotion is palpable as he utters these words.

Unfortunately this book is out of print but I hope that it will soon be revived in ebook format.  If you can find a copy in the mean time, I highly recommend reading it.

The Darkwood Mask by Jeff Lasala

The Darkwood Mask (Eberron: Inquisitives, #4)The Darkwood Mask by Jeff LaSala

The Darkwood Mask is the fourth (and final) book in the Inquisitives series set in the world of Eberron. The Darkwood Mask is a murder mystery with twists and turns and exciting sub-plots which make it a great story. This is Mr. LaSala’s first published book but it read like it had been written by a veteren. This is high marks for Mr. LaSala and I hope to read more by him in the future.

The book centers around two main characters, Soneste Otansin, a recently successful inquisitive from Sharn send to Korth to investigate the murder of a Brelish ambassador, and Tallis, a Karrnathi ex-soldier wanted by Karrnathi officials for dispensing his own kind of justice.

There are multiple stories lines that weave deftly through the book. One of the most interesting parts of the book are the “Interludes” that give the reader a bit more insight into past events and further add to the mysterious feel of the book.

Mr. LaSala does a great job giving the reader a feel for the politics of Breland and Karnathi from an outsider’s (Soneste) point of view. This makes her job all the more difficult but also gives the reader broader understanding of events in the Last War and just how tenuous peace really is between the nations.

And the best for last, Mr. LaSala’s prose. I love the way he writes. The words flow and never feel choppy or disjointed. As a reader, you get to use your imagination by getting just enough description that you can fill in the rest. I really like when a writer uses techniques like this. It makes the story much more memorable.

The Darkwood Mask is out of print in it physical version but has reached immortality as an ebook, it has been re-released in electronic format for the Kindle and Nook.

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