FIRE IN THE BLOOD, by Erin M. Evans

19288530Fire in the Blood
(Book #4 of the Forgotten Realms Brimstone Angels Series)
By Erin M. Evans
Published by Wizards of the Coast – 14th October 2014
ISBN 0786965290 – 464 Pages – Hardcover
Source: NetGalley


An immediate continuation to The Adversary (Evans’ contribution to The Sundering series of loosely-tied together stand-alone novels detailing world-shifting events to the Forgotten Realms shared universe), Fire in the Blood is also the fourth novel in her successful Brimstone Angels plot line. I entered into Evans’ series with The Adversary and reviewed it here, explaining that it worked remarkably well for a reader who was unfamiliar with the characters and storyline. Moreover I was staggered over how much I enjoyed her rich characterization and pacing, remarking that it was easy to forget this was a media tie-in, which while frequently fun aren’t noteworthy for originality or depth. Most all of my thoughts on The Adversary held equally true for Fire in Blood. In many aspects I think it is even improved.
The one caution I mention is that I’m not sure this would be an ideal entry point if you are unfamiliar with the story/characters. To Evans’ credit, she does a great job at summarizing what has previously passed without making it intrusive on the current story. So it is possible to start here, but not the most logical choice. Go back at least to The Adversary, or as I have just finally done, find a copy of the first Brimstone Angels novel and enjoy the catch up. This is a series for fantasy fans worth investing in even if you don’t read Forgotten Realms, as long as one likes classically styled epic fantasy with compelling characters male and female both. Evans is an asset to this shared universe, and judging by comments she made in an interview in Women Destroy Fantasy!, her style and concerns for diversity may hopefully become more familiar and present in the world of media tie-in novels.
But back to Fire in the Blood
To start with, Fire in the Blood already improves over its predecessor with a more compelling title, an evocative description of Evans’ characters, particularly the twin stars Farideh and Havilar. These women (tieflings) have had difficult lives with various forces mortal and immortal trying to influence and control them, to possess them. Yet despite these forces of the world seeking to define them, they remain strong-willed individuals with fire inside to keep struggling for independence and a bit of their own happiness. The theme of forces larger than an individual forcing people into difficult choices and compromised promises and principals is common to all of the characters in Fire in the Blood and The Adversary. It is the heart of what makes the books so interesting and characters so compelling.
The plot of Fire in the Blood adds complexities from previous events, twists and turns that are almost Whedon-esque. Sometimes enemies are not so clear, and assumed friends may not be able to really support someone because of complications in their own lives, plots. I won’t try to summarize all the different plot elements here in the story, the official blurb for the novel is somewhat vague presumably because so much is happening here, much dependent on what has gone before. The plots are a complex web, encompassing a large extended cast of characters that include even additional numbers from the previous installment. Erin Evans is a superb juggler. The pacing stays tight and the various balls of each plot element are kept in play, blending and separating with no breakdown in the trick. All of this while still recovering details of the past to make sure that readers don’t become lost. Impressive.
In The Adversary one of the things I didn’t enjoy much compared to the rest was her male characters. They seemed to be stronger ‘types’ than the females, not as rounded, and not nearly as interesting (except for Lorcan) compared to the others. In Fire in the Blood these male characters grew more on me, particularly due to escalating dilemmas for the character of Brin who is facing engagement to a royal, and his heart isn’t really in it. As I became invested in more and more of Evans’ characters the more the entirety of the plot and the world opened to me, like the best of epic fantasy reading experiences.
A healthy mixture of action, romance, and rich characterization in a nicely readable package makes this one that I’m looking forward to rereading within the order continuity as I go back to start at the beginning before the next volume comes out.

Disclaimer: I received a free advanced reading copy of this from Wizards of the Coast via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

The Herald, by Ed Greenwood

The Herald, by Ed Greenwood
Forgotten Realms: The Sundering Book 6
Publisher: Wizards of the Coast
ASIN: B00H6J6KQQ
336 pages, Kindle Edition
Published  3rd June 2014
Source: NetGalley

Rapper Ice-T recently made some amusing comments on a podcast about an unexpected D&D-related audio book recording he was set up to make. Reading his comments me original thoughts were that it was sad he was dumping on fantasy, role-playing-derived or otherwise based on what appeared to be stereotypes and the worst the genre has to offer. Now I see where he was coming from in his vulgarity-strewn phrases about “******* talking like Yoda” and “******* pegasi”.

Up until this volume I have really enjoyed “The Sundering” series of Forgotten Realms novels. The opening one had been the weakest I felt, but still enjoyable due to my familiarity with Salvatore’s characters. The novels that followed impressed me, and I’ve found a few new authors and series within this shared world to check out. Each book was unique, but provided a solid perspective on these events within the Forgotten Realms. But “The Herald”, well I struggle to find anything positive to say about it whatsoever.

Until this series I’ve only read Salvatore, and only his earlier novels. I’d heard of Greenwood’s character Elminster in name alone. While most of the other “Sundering” novels provided decent background to become familiar with their characters, “The Herald” provides almost none. And it is a huge, ever-shifting cast. The layout of the electronic copy probably didn’t help, where breaks between characters and points of view were not always obvious. This formatting issue of an advanced reading copy happened with earlier “Sundering” novels though and wasn’t nearly as problematic.

“The Herald” is just simply a mess. Having read it closely I still have little idea who the various characters are other than superficially. Some I could only figure out by using online resources. There is a good amount of action, but little time is spent getting to know any of the characters, you are just expected to know already I assume. Beyond the difficulties of trying to figure out who everyone is, there is also the matter of trying to figure out what is going on. I got bits and pieces, and a generic sense of good fighting evil, but other than that, nothing.

As Ice-T implied (even if he wasn’t talking about “The Herald”, his words certainly hold true), the writing is simply hard to slog through in many spots, filled with archaic style and grammar and an abundance of universe-specific vocabulary that unless you are a gamer or familiar with this, will go right over your head. Others effectively use context to help impart comprehension to the uninitiated. As the designer of Forgotten Realms, I guess Greenwood can’t bother with this. Elminster frequently switches back and forth from old English ‘thou’s to a modern ‘you’ with no apparent logic.

I assume that if you are a big fan of this universe and know all the Elminster novels you’ll read this no matter what. But for those like me who may read more casually, or how are looking to enter into this universe, go elsewhere, like some of the earlier “Sundering” novels. Although a series, thankfully these don’t all have to be read. Me, I’ll return to catching up with the adventures of Drizzt and discovering the other works by Dennings, Kemp, and particularly Evans.

One Star out of Five

The Sentinel, by Troy Denning

The Sentinel, by Troy Denning
Forgotten Realms: The Sundering Book 5
Publisher: Wizards of the Coast
ASIN: B00FO5W6VW
352 pages, Kindle Edition
Published April 2014
Source: NetGalley

“The Sundering” series of Forgotten Realms novels, small, personal stories detailing times of upheavals in the shared universe, continue to entertain me and surprise me with their successful range of style and subject matter. For a shared fantasy universe based on role-playing games. certainly ‘light fiction’ that not everyone would take seriously, these have each been impressive. I am again glad for this discovery of Forgotten Realms works beyond Salvatore’s.

LIke Salvatore, Denning is well-known for his Forgotten Realms novels, and certainly also for his Star Wars novels. Yet, I don’t think I’ve ever read Denning prior to this. What struck me about his style in “The Sentinel” is how cinematic the writing feels. When adapting written word for screen, much needs to be cut to keep the action moving, the essential details still provided, but able to fit into a short period of time of a film or TV episode. Denning manages to convey this sense of urgent story telling here. The novel immediately breaks out in mid action, a fight and a chase that quickly turns into the mad race/quest that becomes the plot of the story. Denning writes the action very well, believably, providing detail while still maintaining that quick economic pace of words and sentence flow. Amid the continuous drive forward of the novel, Denning still manages to put in moments of character introspection and interaction focusing on the emotions behind their lives, their decisions, or what may be more apt to say, their destinies. While some of the characters aren’t developed beyond their immediate role, the key characters of Kleef and Lady Arietta are rendered suitably complex for the size, scope, and style of this novel.

What I particularly liked about “The Sentinel” was how closely the style of its writing matched the overall theme in the story. Each novel of “The Sundering” series has dealt with ‘Chosens’ of various gods, serving almost as avatars of a divine battle in the material realm of Forgotten Realms. “The Sentinel”, however, is the first to fully dive into this concept of being a Chosen of a god, of having your life not necessarily be about your ‘choices’ as much as your ‘destiny’, what you need to do, what the gods are driving you toward. Denning’s novel thus becomes the closest to a Forgotten Realms version of mythology that I have yet seen, reading in parts not unlike the themes of Homer’s “Iliad”. The quick nature of the writing, and the constant propelling of action forward, starting characters mid-adventure and going head-forward towards the denouement parallel this theme of mythology so effectively. Characters have few moments to deeply consider or choose what they are going to do, they are being driven by an author, the particular god they worship and have committed to, imbued with the powers and responsibilities of being Chosen.

The plot of “The Sentinel” thus becomes rather simple, a straight-forward quest with few major complications, unlike some of the previous entries to the series. Yet, here that deficiency of a clichéd, simple plot doesn’t play as being all terrible because of this successful merging of style and theme by Denning, simply taking the focus of this story onto something more Classic, fantasy back to its roots of mythology with a modern twist.

Four Stars out of Five

Honor Among Thieves, by James S.A. Corey

Honor Among Thieves,
by James S.A. Corey
Star WarsEmpire and Rebellion Book 2
Publisher: LucasBooks
ASIN: B00F1W0DFE
288 pages, Kindle Edition
Published March 2014
Source: NetGalley

Years upon years ago I read several of the early ‘expanded universe’ Star Wars novels, but haven’t picked up many since then. Partially this was from general disappointment and disinterest caused by the prequel films, but it also was a result of simply falling behind on the many publications that came out. For newer novels the characters now had significant history I was unfamiliar with. It just seems daunting to catch up, particularly knowing these shared universe, media-tie-in novels can be hit or miss.

What’s really nice then about this novel is that it is straight up Star Wars enjoyment that can be approached with knowing nothing more than the original movie. Additionally, although this is the second in a series, I haven’t read the first and the novel works perfectly fine as a stand-alone. The novel has few aspirations and the story has little frills. It is a simple action/spy story with a lovable feature character, Han Solo. Constrained by the existing films and novels the threats facing the characters will not appear realistic dangers at any point. Instead, the story here is about watching Han Solo thrive in those conditions that make us love him. The authors (writing under a pen name) put the most interesting touch on the novel in their writing of Solo’s thought processes, taking advantage of this point of time in the grand story as Solo begins to move from selfish, conservative scoundrel to someone who has begun to care about others and reconsider his social positions. Han rings conflicted, but true to our vision of Harrison Ford’s performance and the film directors/screen writers characterization. Finally, the novel also includes an interesting female foil for Han in the form of a character that shares a bit more personality with him than Leia, which works nicely and isn’t overworked. While this novel isn’t aiming to be a significant lot in terms of fiction or even Star Wars fiction, a ‘minor’ tale like this could easily be treated as a throwaway and go south rapidly, but instead this one is kept respectable and entertaining for an easy read for those that like Star Wars and those that particularly would look for a story set in the familiarity of this time period in the mythology.

Three Stars out of Five

The Reaver, by Richard Lee Byers

The Reaver, by Richard Lee Byers
Forgotten Realms: The Sundering Book 4
Publisher: Wizards of the Coast
ASIN: B00EGMB6BU
352 pages, Kindle Edition
Published February 2014
Source: NetGalley

I have happily been reading the novels in the Forgotten Realms campaign series “The Sundering”. The first, by Salvatore who is familiar to me was okay (still my least liked of the series, though adequate), but the books that followed captivated my attention more and more, culminating in the previous book “The Adversary” by Erin M Evans.

The fourth volume, “The Reaver” lies somewhere in between the others in terms of personal appreciation and enjoyment, but it does have notable strengths over the others for anyone new to the series or to Forgotten Realms. Firstly, “The Reaver” works best as a stand-alone story requiring little familiarity with the campaign setting; with no basis (that I know of) on existing characters or series by Byers there is also no period of adjustment to this novel, unlike the others which are each continuing adventures of existing casts. While further tales with these characters is of course possible, Byers does the best job so far of making this a story unto its own rather than a secondary side excursion to bridge one set of novels to another. Secondly, “The Reaver” is stylistically simple, an exciting fantasy adventure, no more no less.

Simple isn’t meant as disparaging (though I do prefer the style and complexity of a story like Evans’ novel). Some people want nothing more than a great adventure to read. And Byers delivers that. At first I thought this novel would be a bit too simple, and I wasn’t convinced at the start by Byers’ writing or plotting, which just seemed average to me. Happily though I found my appreciation for the story and for Byers’ style to grow as the novel continued. Sharing many of the strengths at writing these kinds of novels as Salvatore has, Byers work comes off as far less cartoonish despite featuring godlike characters.

Three Stars out of Five

The Adversary, by Erin M. Evans

The Adversary, by Erin M. Evans
Forgotten Realms: The Sundering Book 3
Publisher: Wizards of the Coast
ASIN: B00DACWB16
352 pages, Kindle Edition
Published December 2013
Source: NetGalley

The stand-alone Forgotten Realms novels that loosely tie together into the series called “The Sundering” seem to get better with each addition. I enjoyed this enough that I plan on going back to read Evans’ previous novels. Having mostly read Salvatore prior to this, I was a bit shocked at how more developed and complex the characters in this series are, and Evans’ voice is so unique and refreshing that at times I forgot I was reading a media-tie in, shared-universe genre novel. This is simply a good fantasy.

Evans writing is strong, often evoking a Medievalesque vocabulary and style of dialogue that places the story squarely in a high fantasy world without it seeming ridiculous. The style of her language is not artistic in a high literary sense, but it is fluid and unique, suiting this story well. Her plotting is also spot on, moving the story at a brisk pace without resorting to any tired troupe of merely moving heroes from one action sequence to another, overcoming each and every challenge in relative ease of a daily routine. Here victories are bittersweet, exacted with a price, and the most succulent bits of the story are not the physical clashes but the verbal and psychological battles.

Getting into the novel was a bit slow to start due to my unfamiliarity with the characters, and Evans does place a wide variety of settings and characters (basically those from her first two books) into the complex intersections of the plot here. Things therefore do get a bit jumbled now and then, particularly in the second portion of the novel. Nonetheless this story stands far better as a stand-alone novel than others (say Salvatore’s entry). While “The Adversary” sets up future directions, the whole point of “The Sundering series”, a full story arc is still covered here, and in-depth knowledge of the previous books, while helpful, isn’t necessary. The next volume of the series is already in my queue to read, but I’ll be really surprised if any can top what Evans accomplishes here.

Five Stars out of Five

The Godborn, by Paul S. Kemp

The Godborn, by Paul S. Kemp
Forgotten Realms: The Sundering Book 2
Publisher: Wizards of the Coast
ASIN: B00C8RZHLU
400 pages, Kindle Edition
Published October 2013
Source: NetGalley

This is the first non-Salvatore book I’ve read in the Forgotten Realms universe, and for a book in this shared-universe genre I found it quite good with writing superior to what I typically would see even in the best of Salvatore’s or similar. As a stand-alone novel in the loosely tied “Sundering” series, I found that Kemp managed to keep this novel far tighter and less mysterious than Salvatore’s “The Companions” despite my being utterly unfamiliar with any of the characters here.

My unfamiliarity with Kemp’s characters may be partially why this novel felt nicely fresh and new compared to the well-tread tales of Salvatore. There are fewer cleanly good, upright moral characters in this compared to Salvatore’s, and Kemp doesn’t turn aside of moments of discomfort, horror or vulgarity when necessary. I also appreciated that this novel by Kemp is a proper story in completion. Though it obviously sets the stage for future adventures of the characters, it stands on its own with a sense of completion and payoff.

The only weakness I saw in this was Kemp’s handling of action sequences. They are often related in a straightforward manner, one event listed after another, each sentence with similar construction and flow, almost as a dry summary. I don’t think anyone would look at this expecting some amazing piece of literature, it certainly isn’t. But it is an enjoyable, easy fantasy read with enough complexity and style to make it worthwhile. In the end I don’t know if I’ll read the remaining novels in the “Sundering” series, but I’m glad I had the opportunity to be freely introduced to Kemp’s work, it provides a welcome alternate to the over-familiar quaintness of Salvatore.

Four Stars out of Five

The Companions, by R.A. Salvatore

The Companions, by R.A. Salvatore
Forgotten Realms: The Sundering Book 1
Publisher: Wizards of the Coast
ASIN: B00BE24W0W
384 pages, Kindle Edition
Published August 2013
Source: NetGalley

Prior to this I had only read up through the “Legacy of the Drow” series of Forgotten Realms books by Salvatore and am fairly unfamiliar with the universe of Forgotten Realms as a whole. Jumping ahead in the stories of Drizzt, Bruenor, Catti-brie, Wulfgar, and Regis (The Companions) was therefore slightly harder to get into. Additionally, this is the first book of a multipart series of novels that are related primarily only in describing an event called “The Sundering”. Having no idea what this was, no clue what the “Spellplague” is, and no introduction to many of the groups and settings featured at the start of the novel additionally made it hard to start without doing a bit of research on background. So if you are coming into this new, I would say don’t, unless you are fine with a lot of aspects of the story being not entirely clear. Start elsewhere, or be prepared to look up background info. If you are familiar with the setting and characters then I imagine you would probably be already eager to read this. If you were like me and somewhat tired of Salvatore’s simplistic novels and mediocre writing, then you might want to give this a try.

I had decided to read the remaining Drizzt novels I owned at least, but wasn’t sure if I would continue. Reading this I am impressed with how far Salvatore’s writing has progressed since his earlier novels. This is the best I’ve seen of his work, and partially that may be from a plot that allows him to ‘reboot’ the characters in a way as they are reborn into new lives. Contrary to the cover, Drizzt and his magical cat are not really in it other than a few pages. The focus instead is on Catti-brie, Bruenor, and Regis as each struggles with the consequences of their choices to be reborn into new bodies with all their previous memories in an attempt to help Drizzt face a future danger. Rather than having the character’s each revert back to their usual well-known and now clichéd behaviors, Salvatore nicely has them struggle with their rebirths as they try to work out how much their previous lives will influence their new ones, and how involved they wish to become with their new families and opportunities for a second, perhaps different life.

In these ways the book is outstanding for the genre. The downside to it all, however, is that it doesn’t end up concluding like a true complete novel or story. Instead its entirety is merely setting up the varied protagonists and antagonists on the chess board. Thus, it ends up being like one big prologue with the only resolution being will they come back together and honor the agreement to help Drizzt or use their new lives to do something different. Despite the attempt to make things conflicted for each character, this all goes predictably for all the characters, re-raising the specter of limitability in Salvatore’s work. Whether caused by his own faults or by the unreasonable demands of his fans or publishers, Salvatore is incapable of closing the coffin lid on big, popular characters – good or bad. With this the book falls into children’s fare, simplistic hero stories with entertainment, familiarity, and predictability. While it is nice this has strong entertainment and improved writing, I wish Salvatore could take these tales into something a bit more complex and less obvious, not just a rebooted ‘twist’.

Three Stars out of Five