writing about thinking about writing

Readux: Flintlock Edition

Title: The Powder Mage Trilogy (Promise of Blood, The Crimson Campaign, The Autumn Republic)

Author: Brian McClellan

Published: 2013-2015

Date Started: March 12, 2015 Date Finished: April 7, 2015

Rating (out of 5): ★★

Every book has a story: I learned of the first book in trilogy, Promise of Blood, in an interview with Brian McLellan on Chuck Wendig’s blog right when the book came out. I didn’t have to read any of the interview to be convinced this was a book I needed to read, though. As soon as I saw the cover with an old soldier slouching in a throne, a rifle in his hand, blood pooling at his feet, with the tagline “The age of kings is dead… and I have killed it,” I knew I needed to read this book. Yet, for all the impact of that first impression, I somehow never got around to reading it. I say “somehow” as if it were two years worth of accidents and bad timing, but now I’m convinced it was serendipity. When I finally picked Promise of Blood off my bookshelf in March, it turned out that the third and final book had been published only month prior. I could read the whole trilogy if I wanted! And I burned through the like wildfire. Or like a Privileged with an aptitude with fire.

… the man’s brown eyes left no question that he’d led armies on the battlefield. There was a single pistol, hammer cocked, on the stair next to him. He leaned on a sheathed small sword and watched as a stream of blood slowly trickled down each step, a dark line on the yellow-and-white marble.

A completed series seems to be a rare bird in contemporary fantasy these days. Part of that is on me, for picking up every latest thing as soon as it comes out. Even then, I don’t always continue on to subsequent books in a series after I read the first one. The last time I remember consuming a trilogy like this was when I read Lord of the Rings in the eighth grade. For The Powder Mage Trilogy, I was more than happy to lug around 600-page hardcover books for a month. I turned into the ultimate biblio-hermit, with my nose in a book every chance I got. The tale of Field Marshal Tamas’ coup had me hooked from the start, but as the story grew in conflicts and characters and magic, I became addicted.

The Kingdom of Adro has been abused by its royals for long enough, and we enter the story just as Field Marshal Tamas, longtime head of the Adran military and seemingly loyal servant of the king, has executed his coup. The Royal Cabal of magical Privileged are dead. The king and what royalists remain are being gathered for execution. And as the city of Adopest descends into anarchy, our characters converge and separate for what will become a long and difficult war not only between men, but between gods.

This is my first experience  with flintlock fantasy (please comment with any worthy recommendations!), but I have no reason to believe that the balance of magic systems in these books is anything less than spectacular. Privileged have skills in elemental magic, wearing special gloves to harness the Else they touch with their fingers. Knacks have specific aptitudes–one of our heroes, Adamat, has a perfect memory that he uses in his work as a private investigator; another character, Olem, never sleeps. And Powder Mages, so marked by the silver powder keg pins they wear on their uniforms, control gunpowder, whether it is their own to have supernatural prowess with their guns, or their enemies’ to cause large catastrophic explosions or even to blow up powder charges in people’s pockets–Powder Mages even consume gun powder as a kind of energy boost.

“You gorged them on the blood of the nobility… They drank, but were not filled. They ate of hatred and grew hungrier. Your intentions were… well, not pure, but just. Justice is never enough.”

Still, the magic is second to the realistic brutality of the warfare that spreads across these novels. Long marches, sieges, guerilla attacks, civil war. Perhaps the magic is even third: the growth and challenges of characters as they fight and survive is as gripping as anything else. Small, personal moments in the midst of catastrophes. An incredibly complicated relationship between father and son. Friendships tested by commands. Civilians thrust from the sidelines into violence. A strange man who makes a mean pot of soup.

There were, perhaps, a few too many characters with plot armour on. Cruel mistress as I am, I would have struck a killing blow in the instances were my heart was broken only to be conveniently taped back together a few pages later. And there was a certain relationship woven through all three novels that I felt had its strongest moment in the first book and never quite reached that pinnacle again.

The Powder Mage Trilogy rather ruined me for books that came after. Nothing has quite held my attention since then. Nothing is quite exciting enough, quite brutal enough, quite gunpowder-y enough. (I think I’ve been giving swords way too much credit over the years.) Nothing else has Field Marshal effing Tamas in it! This series certainly guaranteed that I’ll be reading anything else Brian McLellan writes in the years to come, and that my fantasy reading habits have become a little more trigger happy.


The past few months have been a funny ol’ time. Maybe it was because of Christmas, which has a tendency to bring out my starry-eyed childhood nostalgia. Maybe it had to do with the fact that I read a number of books in a row that were a return to characters or places I already knew: Longbourne took me back to Pride and Prejudice with a whole new cast and a very different perspective; Prince of Fools was a return to the Broken Empire, but with a guide the polar opposite of Jorg. Maybe it had to do with the release of The Battle of the Five Armies in December, which I had been anticipating basically since the credits rolled on The Desolation of Smaug and brought out that fourteen-year-old fangirl in me.

Staring down the unknown as the New Year approached and looking back over 2014, I may have had a moment of panic and clung to the familiar, the safe, the reliable. I was standing in a tunnel with a birthday and a soon-to-end job contract coming at me like back-to-back bullet trains.

So I threw up my hands and learned how to stop worrying and love the nostalgia. I went back to my piano for the first time in years and learned to play something new. I wrote something that surprised me. Against all rational odds, I remembered my password and used that platform that I had turned to a decade ago to write something I had not written before. And I’m not ashamed to admit that getting favourites and reviews make me feel good about writing in a way that I don’t a lot of the time. It reminds me of a time when, yes, I was a terrible teenage writer, but I wasn’t afraid. I just wanted to create something and share it.

My mantra leading up to my 26th birthday is not to grow up or be more mature. This year, I’m unleashing my inner child who straightjacketed herself in a blazer and whose most widely read piece of writing has been her résumé.

I’m going to be that girl who wasn’t afraid to create whatever she wanted, in whatever medium she wanted, and who wasn’t afraid of what people would think. I’m going to write what I want without worrying about its future marketability. I’m going to dance to the Spice Girls every morning because it makes me happy. I’m going to embrace a piece of advice that I heard when I was six and forgot somewhere along the way: to take chances, get messy, and make mistakes.

It’s not a conventional aspiration going into my twenty-sixth year, but conventional was never my intention anyway.

Readux: Something Wicked This Way Comes Edition

Title: Something Red

Author: Douglas Nicholas

Published: 2010

Date Started: October 8, 2014 Date Finished: October 26, 2014

Rating (out of 5): ★★

Every book has a story: I like to try to read one scary novel a year. I’m a terrible sissy, but I love a good horror novel, so I have to limit my exposure with careful choosing. Honestly, in my limited experience, I’ve never read one horror novel I didn’t like. Dracula, The Woman in Black, and The Haunting of Hill House are books I constantly praise and recommend. Last year there was an article in The Huffington Post that had a list of new horror novels, and among them was Something Red. I held onto that title in my brain library and finally bought it early in the new year (before my brain library could fail me), just to hold onto it until October.

Hob began to feel an unease of spirit, an oppression. The sensation grew swiftly till his bodily woes shrank beside it. He looked left at the slowly passing forest, rightward across the ripping, smoking haunches to the trackside brush and more trees, climbing away to the west. He felt breathless and ill. He felt like a coney in a snare, and he could not tell why.

If combining or defying genres is truly all the rage, then Something Red is one of the most fashionable reads around. Part gothic horror, part historical, part coming-of-age, part fantasy, it weaves a single story from all of these threads, an uncommon tapestry of a tale. A group of travellers are venturing through the woods in a harsh winter in 13th century England, seeking sanctuary from the cold. Their leader is Molly, an Irish exile and wisewoman, trained in healing and magic. There is also her granddaughter, Nemain; Jack Brown, a former Crusader, whose exploits in the Holy Land left him silent and scarred; and Hob, an orphan boy chosen by Molly some time ago as an addition to her troupe.

They finally find sanctuary at a monastery hidden high in the mountains, where they meet several other groups of pilgrims and travellers taking shelter from the storm. All have similar tales of an eerie feeling on the road, the sense of being followed, of being hunted. After a monk is savagely killed, they all face the trepidation of returning to the road on their separate journeys and some groups decide to travel together. Molly’s troupe travels alone to their second checkpoint, a fortified inn. But bloodshed finds them again, and the farther they travel, the more violence they find.

Nicholas’ history as a poet is clearly on display even in this horror novel, rather the most unlikely of places. Though there are long periods of silence between the characters, the woods and the mountains constantly take on sublime lives of their own, sometimes protective, sometimes dangerous. The 13th century is early for what we call “gothic,” but Nicholas frequently uses the hallmarks of Victorian ghost stories to tell this monstrous story. Hidden monasteries, foreign travellers, a handsome ruler who may or may not be trusted. And what gothic horror novel would be complete without a parallel subplot of sexual awakening?

Something Red celebrates all the best qualities of horror, history, fantasy, and romance… if you can call torn-apart bodies and monster fights in a castle a celebration (which I certainly do). And for all the jumps and supernatural scares it provides, its less bloody subplot is no less potent. What it means to grow up, what it means to be overwhelmed by those first romantic urges, and is that really any less powerful than what it means to change form and howl at the moon?