Pure, unadulterated epic fantasy—this 600-plus-page doorstopper will leave readers simultaneously satisfied and frustrated...

EMPIRE OF GRASS

The shelf-bending second installment in Williams’ Last King of Osten Ard saga (after The Witchwood Crown, 2017) exemplifies the very best—and worst—that epic fantasy has to offer.

The novel begins with Osten Ard—which is inhabited by mortals and a variety of fantastical races—in flux. Although the kingdoms and factions are seemingly at peace, increasing political tensions and deep-seated animosity have turned the continent into a powder keg about to explode into all-out war. When King Simon’s grandson and heir to the throne, Prince Morgan, is thought to be kidnapped by savage “grasslanders” and his wife, Queen Miriamele, is caught up in a violent uprising while attending a wedding in far-off Nabban, he is left alone to deal with the chaos closing in around him. The nomadic grasslanders have a new leader who is uniting the clans for war, and the near-immortal Norns are inexplicably gathering and following their ageless queen into Hayholt, King Simon’s home. Williams initially braids together the multiple plot threads adeptly—an impressive feat when considering the multitude of characters he's following. The grand-scale storytelling, however, does become unwieldy in extended sequences, and that narrative bloat negatively impacts the book's momentum. Additionally, the ending is not a conclusion at all but a respite. Readers who have spent countless hours immersed in this story may be less than pleased with the abrupt stoppage. But the inconsistent pacing and unsatisfying ending are more than counterbalanced by deep character development, impressive plot intricacy, and rich worldbuilding. The extensive histories and mythologies that Williams has created in this realm (beginning in 1988 with The Dragonbone Chair) are comparable to fantasy’s most meticulously rendered realms, like Tolkien’s Middle-earth and Martin’s Westeros.

Pure, unadulterated epic fantasy—this 600-plus-page doorstopper will leave readers simultaneously satisfied and frustrated knowing how long they’ll have to wait to find out what transpires next in the sprawling realm of Osten Ard.

Pub Date: May 7, 2019

ISBN: 978-0-7564-1062-9

Page Count: 688

Publisher: DAW/Berkley

Review Posted Online: March 31, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: April 15, 2019

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A celebration of fantasy that melds modern ideology with classic tropes. More of these dragons, please.

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THE PRIORY OF THE ORANGE TREE

After 1,000 years of peace, whispers that “the Nameless One will return” ignite the spark that sets the world order aflame.

No, the Nameless One is not a new nickname for Voldemort. Here, evil takes the shape of fire-breathing dragons—beasts that feed off chaos and imbalance—set on destroying humankind. The leader of these creatures, the Nameless One, has been trapped in the Abyss for ages after having been severely wounded by the sword Ascalon wielded by Galian Berethnet. These events brought about the current order: Virtudom, the kingdom set up by Berethnet, is a pious society that considers all dragons evil. In the East, dragons are worshiped as gods—but not the fire-breathing type. These dragons channel the power of water and are said to be born of stars. They forge a connection with humans by taking riders. In the South, an entirely different way of thinking exists. There, a society of female mages called the Priory worships the Mother. They don’t believe that the Berethnet line, continued by generations of queens, is the sacred key to keeping the Nameless One at bay. This means he could return—and soon. “Do you not see? It is a cycle.” The one thing uniting all corners of the world is fear. Representatives of each belief system—Queen Sabran the Ninth of Virtudom, hopeful dragon rider Tané of the East, and Ead Duryan, mage of the Priory from the South—are linked by the common goal of keeping the Nameless One trapped at any cost. This world of female warriors and leaders feels natural, and while there is a “chosen one” aspect to the tale, it’s far from the main point. Shannon’s depth of imagination and worldbuilding are impressive, as this 800-pager is filled not only with legend, but also with satisfying twists that turn legend on its head. Shannon isn’t new to this game of complex storytelling. Her Bone Season novels (The Song Rising, 2017, etc.) navigate a multilayered society of clairvoyants. Here, Shannon chooses a more traditional view of magic, where light fights against dark, earth against sky, and fire against water. Through these classic pairings, an entirely fresh and addicting tale is born. Shannon may favor detailed explication over keeping a steady pace, but the epic converging of plotlines at the end is enough to forgive.

A celebration of fantasy that melds modern ideology with classic tropes. More of these dragons, please.

Pub Date: Feb. 26, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-63557-029-8

Page Count: 848

Publisher: Bloomsbury

Review Posted Online: Dec. 23, 2018

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 15, 2019

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With an aura of both enchantment and authenticity, Bardugo’s compulsively readable novel leaves a portal ajar for equally...

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NINTH HOUSE

Yale’s secret societies hide a supernatural secret in this fantasy/murder mystery/school story.

Most Yale students get admitted through some combination of impressive academics, athletics, extracurriculars, family connections, and donations, or perhaps bribing the right coach. Not Galaxy “Alex” Stern. The protagonist of Bardugo’s (King of Scars, 2019, etc.) first novel for adults, a high school dropout and low-level drug dealer, Alex got in because she can see dead people. A Yale dean who's a member of Lethe, one of the college’s famously mysterious secret societies, offers Alex a free ride if she will use her spook-spotting abilities to help Lethe with its mission: overseeing the other secret societies’ occult rituals. In Bardugo’s universe, the “Ancient Eight” secret societies (Lethe is the eponymous Ninth House) are not just old boys’ breeding grounds for the CIA, CEOs, Supreme Court justices, and so on, as they are in ours; they’re wielders of actual magic. Skull and Bones performs prognostications by borrowing patients from the local hospital, cutting them open, and examining their entrails. St. Elmo’s specializes in weather magic, useful for commodities traders; Aurelian, in unbreakable contracts; Manuscript goes in for glamours, or “illusions and lies,” helpful to politicians and movie stars alike. And all these rituals attract ghosts. It’s Alex’s job to keep the supernatural forces from embarrassing the magical elite by releasing chaos into the community (all while trying desperately to keep her grades up). “Dealing with ghosts was like riding the subway: Do not make eye contact. Do not smile. Do not engage. Otherwise, you never know what might follow you home.” A townie’s murder sets in motion a taut plot full of drug deals, drunken assaults, corruption, and cover-ups. Loyalties stretch and snap. Under it all runs the deep, dark river of ambition and anxiety that at once powers and undermines the Yale experience. Alex may have more reason than most to feel like an imposter, but anyone who’s spent time around the golden children of the Ivy League will likely recognize her self-doubt.

With an aura of both enchantment and authenticity, Bardugo’s compulsively readable novel leaves a portal ajar for equally dazzling sequels.

Pub Date: Oct. 1, 2019

ISBN: 978-1-250-31307-2

Page Count: 448

Publisher: Flatiron Books

Review Posted Online: July 1, 2019

Kirkus Reviews Issue: July 15, 2019

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