I used to feel bad about these catch-up posts, but I've actually come to like them. There's a definite appeal in getting straight to the point and talking about my reaction to the text. I also find they've freed me to read more, and that I'm enjoying more of what I read as a result, which is awesome.
Valley of Embers (The Landkist Saga #1) by Steven Kelliher
This was a book that wasted no time getting straight to the action, showing (as opposed to telling) the reader the dangers of The Valley. There's a lot of very cool world-building and info shared throughout, but it's all delivered via the story, free of info-dumps or long-winded lectures. This is a complex world of darkness and monsters, where fire itself is a legitimate magic. There's also an interesting history behind it all, a sort of post-apocalyptic high fantasy.
While the characters were nothing special, with only a few really standing out in my mind, there was nothing wrong with them. They were entirely serviceable, with both strengths and flaws, but I felt some of them could benefit from a little more personality. Similarly, their dialogue sometimes felt a little stilted or forced, without the easy rapport of natural conversation. The storytelling itself, though, was well done, with a style and a pacing that lends itself to a quick, easy read.
The Ruling Mask (The Grey City #3) by Neil McGarry & Daniel Ravipinto
When you're lucky, the second book in a series manages to top the first. When you're really lucky, the third book manages to top that. When you're really, really lucky . . . well, I don't want to put too much pressure on Neil and Daniel, but I like their chances. Although this is just as complex and deeply layered as the first two books, with the same strength of characterization, the interconnectedness is what puts it over the top. This is that keystone book where all the plotlines and mysteries start to come together, but somehow it never gets weighted down and actually has the best pacing of the series so far.
Duchess is quickly becoming one of my favorite characters in fantasy, a remarkable young woman who has finally stepped into her destiny with the Grey. With the city at war with itself, torn apart by political threats and religious fervor, the stakes are higher than they've ever been before. Fortunately, with this being the longest book in the series, there is plenty of time to explore all the ramifications of Duchess's plots (and those against her), giving characters like Jana and Lysander ample space to develop and play their own role in Rodaas. It's a busy, complex story, but one that gets its hooks into you early and never lets go.
The Black Guard (The Long War #1) by A.J. Smith
Although it does suffer from some pacing issues (a great start, a bit of a slog, a fantastic middle, and a rushed finale), this delivered on everything it promised. The storytelling was strong, and the world-building both deep and thorough. This isn't grimdark in any sense, but it is a realistic world where people have needs, where they get hurt, and where they need the escape of illicit pleasures.
It's become increasingly rare to find admirable, likeable protagonists in the genre, so it was refreshing to find them here. Smith's characters are largely what you would expect from a more traditional fantasy novel, with heroes who are (mostly) good and villains who are (mostly) bad. They're not perfect, so don't worry about clichés, but their flaws are subtle and reasonable. As for the magical element and the mythology, it's really exciting. At this point in my reading, I thought I'd seen just about everything in fantasy, but there are some cool twists and surprises here that make for a fun read.
I have to be honest. I like my epic fantasies to be big and deep. I like a heavy page counts, long chapters, and a large cast of characters. I want to get so immersed in the tale that I'm surprised at how much time has passed between looking up from the last chapter. This delivered.