The Dark Defiles (A Land Fit for Heroes #3)


What it’s about: The last book in the trilogy sees the three heroes achieve their respective destinies, and the truth of the world is revealed.


  • Reading this book has been a long time coming – one could say that I started the series way back in 2008 when the first book came out, and I’ve only just finished the third book in 2017.
  • The Dark Defiles, by and large, shares many of the flaws of the series as a whole – notably its tendency to get stuck in somewhat repetitive plot loops in which characters get pulled into dire situations only to be rescued by plot armour – Ringil with his terrifying spirit vanguard, and Archeth with her growing proficiency with her magic knives.
  • But the last book does take the series in an interesting direction, most notably in the culmination of its long running attempt to set up Ringil for on the path of  the classic hero’s journey, only to have him realise this and reject it in soundly characteristic fashion. It is revealed that the plot has a meta-plot – the events that happen to the characters are all orchestrated by higher deities that have to intrude into worldly affairs in a narratively circuitous fashion in order to follow a set of rules imposed by an even more inscrutable set of beings that have set the laws of that present reality after it was almost torn apart by a cataclysmic war.
  • These gods have been grooming Ringil (and similarly, the Helmsmen have been grooming Archeth) – so that he can fulfill the destiny they have in store and thereby achieve their inscrutable objectives. And Ringil follows the tracks and grows in power akin to some shounen anime protagonist, protected by the plot armour bestowed upon him by the gods, until he reaches that crucial point where he is expected to seize the reins of his destiny – but he acts, in true bloody-minded fashion, opposite to what is intended, to grasp his own destiny.
  • Similarly, Archeth was maneuvered by the Helmsmen into embarking on a quixotic quest north, which was a facade for their machinations to set her up as Empress – but she instead goes in a completely different direction.
  • Egar, out of the three, had no greater destiny, and his death was genuinely quite shocking, although in the context of the greater character carnage Morgan was wreaking on his characters, not entirely discordant with the theme. He was a normal bloke after all, and he, too, was manipulated like a pawn by the gods and used to serve a tangential purpose in the larger scheme of things. But it is Egar’s death that derails Archeth’s particular pre-set destiny chosen for her, although events conspire to suggest that she may heave closer to that fate than she thinks (as she rides back to Yhelteth, not knowing that her Emperor Jhiral has reclaimed Ishgrim for his own).
  • There are echoes of a technological past and a tenuous connection with Morgan’s Altered Carbon series of books too, connections that are more spiritual than suggestive of an actual canonical relation. But the parallels and hints are exactly the kind of thing I like in fantasy.
  • All in all, a well-executed conclusion to the series, both in terms of its thematic payoffs as well as the way in which the various plot threads were ultimately tied together – in what I must say was quite a miraculous fashion, considering that 50 pages to the end I was starting to wonder if there was supposed to be a sequel to this book.

Verdict: The Dark Defiles is a thematically satisfying conclusion to the series, and ties off the various loose ends in a pleasingly ambiguous fashion.

I give this: 4/5 smart daggers


The Cold Commands (A Land Fit for Heroes #2)


What it’s about: The story of the three antiheroes, Ringil, Archeth and Egar continues. Ringil cuts his way into the centre of yet another dwenda conspiracy, Egar gets himself into successively worse situations, and Archeth, having received a dire warning, mounts an expedition to find a lost Kiriath city in the North.


  • This is an odd middle novel. It feels less like the continuation of a first part and more like the start of a sequel series to the first book. Part of the reason was because the first novel could have been a standalone work with a number of minor modifications. The Cold Commands also opens with the characters, particularly Ringil, in very different circumstances – Ringil himself has developed magical powers the provenance of which is not made clear until quite a ways into the book, and is now an outlaw that hunts down and kills slavers.
  • In that sense, it feels a bit disjointed at first, because of the introduction of new world elements that were not really present in the first book. The ikinri’ska magic that Ringil seems to have picked up out of nowhere, the vague portents and weird things that keep happening to him, and his mysterious vanguard of wraiths – the cold commands of the book – that show up at just the right time to slaughter his enemies when he’s on the verge of being overwhelmed, and the weird time-warped relationship between him and the mysterious, out-of-nowhere Hjel and his band of followers.
  • Clearly, the deities and powers-that-be in the book are trying very hard to set Ringil up to be the hero-savior keystone to basically solve all the accumulating plot-threads he’s weaving together – power-leveling him through tribulation after tribulation and giving him all sorts of weird powers, even as the series tries to subvert the very idea of there being a world-savior type hero. Ringil suffers from an extreme form of plot armour, emerging unscathed even after a dwenda bites a chunk of his face off – but it could be construed, to a certain extent, to be deliberately seeded as part of the meta-narrative. But the way in which he rebounds is a testament to his pure, shonen-like bloody-mindedness.
  • The other two threads featuring Egar and Archeth aren’t nearly as weird, but they do take the series in interesting new directions. The full weirdness of the Kiriath wasn’t quite apparent in the first novel, but there is significant development in the second that really hints that they are essentially a technologically advanced race that just keeps up appearances with the barbarian locals in an effort to “uplift” them to their own standards of civilization. There’s even that intimation that their helmsman servants are just glorified AIs. I have a weakness for that sort of thing.

Verdict: Disjointed, hyper-violent, and initially confusing, The Cold Commands nevertheless opens up enough questions to keep the reader invested.

I give this: 4/5 space crabs 


The Steel Remains (A Land Fit for Heroes #1)


What it’s about: In a brutal medieval world, a lethal gay soldier, a womanising barbarian chieftain, and a half-breed last scion of her race grapple with the phantoms of their past and spectres that threaten their future.


  • You thought A Game of Thrones was the epitome of grimdark? It’s pretty tame compared to Richard Morgan’s The Steel Remains. The series drowns in blood and violence is often the only way the characters know how to react to their troubles. The world is a hellscape of superstition, ignorance, corruption and regressive social mores, locked in petty factional squabbles. And – get this – it just re-legalised slavery in a move called liberalisation. But it’s a world that is just recovering from a war that was black and white in its stark moral absolutism – a war against a race of animalistic lizards that demanded the highest valor from its warriors. It’s a prototypical attempt to crack the fragile eggshell of high fantasy tropism – by setting the story after the epic good-vs-evil struggle amidst a landscape of blinding ambiguity.
  • Ringil, our battle-scarred, hard-bitten warrior, is a frenetic mishmash of atypical character traits for a main character – a sexually voracious gay ex-soldier with a magic sword and the bearing of an aristocrat, noxiously jaded by the world’s barely-concealed corruption and barbarity to the point of reflexive violence, yet secretly yearning for a better world that seems out of reach, in which he will never belong by dint of the blood on his hands. There’s something to be said about the book’s portrayal of Ringil’s sexual appetites, which binds him to a network of lovers and rivals and becomes the driving force of his travails in the book. It is a human spectacle amidst a fantasy world that abominates homosexuality and punishes its sodomites with public impalement. It’s a rather nuanced and was probably quite novel for the standards of mainstream fantasy in 2008.
  • The second main character of the book, Archeth, is another interesting character, the half-blood daughter of a race of immortal humanoids with advanced technology and eldritch intelligences that do their whim – the sort of science-fiction advanced alien race stand-in for the series. As the last of her race on the planet, she is left to advise the savvy but hedonistic emperor of her people’s chosen empire. Of the three threads, hers is the most potentially intriguing in terms of narrative and worldbuilding possibilities.
  • Egar, the womanizing and out-of-place steppe nomad chieftain, is probably the least interesting of the lot, although effort has been made to insert pathos into his origin story. But it’s pretty cool that the steppe nomad savages aren’t portrayed as faceless barbarian hordes as so many fantasy novels like to portray them – sure, they’re violent and rambunctious, but also politically smart enough to know how to posture in the midst of their neighbouring polities.
  • There’s a lot else going on in this book – enigmatic plotting gods, eerie elven types that can flit in and out of different dimensions, shards of deep history and hints of advanced technology, plenty of gay sex described in loving, erotic detail, and a trail of bodies, blood and viscera left behind by all three heroes. In a way, perhaps Richard K Morgan’s long dalliance with cyberpunk has provided the superstructure for this book – triads of noir fantasy heroes exacting revenge on the prevailing power structure.

Verdict: The Steel Remains is a violent, eclectic fantasy debut with many good ideas and just enough going on to bear the weight of its portentous cynicism.

I give this: 4/5 fireships



Runaway is a short story collection by Nobel Prizewinner Alice Munro. As short stories go, they are impeccably crafted narrative nodules, written in limpid but evocative prose. In terms of content, however, Munro’s overarching theme is always about the lives women lead, particular a certain kind of woman of near-contemporary Canada who doesn’t quite sit right within the social, gendered or economic strictures that society places around her.

Many of these stories are about their relationship with men – their husbands, fathers, male relatives, mysterious strangers with whom they have an odd connection. I think her stories would by and large fail such measures of female agency in storytelling like the Bechdel Test. Sometimes, a man is the solution to their troubles – in one story, Passion, a woman escapes a joyless relationship by allowing herself to go under the power of a passionate stranger. In another, Tricks, another woman lives her whole life as a spinster because of what amounted to a case of mistaken identity, in an almost Shakespearean comi-tragedy of errors.

In most of these stories, therefore, the women protagonists are striving to obtain their own agency and meaning, but somehow the confines of the story almost always depends on a male presence as a sort of narrative fixture or lubricant. The women cannot gain their absolution but through the necessary presence of a man to which she is, to some degree, under the power of. Munro, I suppose, is therefore not really to be described as feminist but rather a writer of fully-imagined, rich stories about women and their emotional relationships with the men in their lives.

There are a couple of stories that buck the trend. Silence touches upon another aspect of the female experience – mother-daughter relations, and how sometimes, keeping one’s distance is a necessary act of love. But that story is a kind of a coda to a three-parter about the presumptive mother’s life and her decision to marry and live with a rugged fisherman in the wilds, in her own pursuit of romantic apotheosis.

Then there is Trespasses, about a child’s strange relationship with a woman who seems to have a strange obsession with her, beyond the usual social confines of the doting aunt role.

But these are just two, in a medley of several. Runaway is, therefore, compulsively readable, rich in allusion and wry with irony, but ultimately, a little one-note in its range of thematic interests.

I give this: 4 out of 5 green dresses

The Stone Sky (Broken Earth #3)


What it’s about: Essun and Nassun meet, with the fate of the world hanging in the balance.


  • The Stone Sky is the concluding novel of the Broken Earth trilogy of geo-punk fantasy novels by NK Jemisin. As such things go, while I thought it was serviceable in closing off the trilogy conclusively, I did think that the way in which it unpacked the grand mysteries of the series fell a bit flat.
  • The third book basically attributes the Fifth Seasons to the arrogance and exploitativeness of an advanced civilisation, that harnessed the energies of a latent Earth to bring about a post-scarcity economy. In doing so, it relied on the exploitation of an entire subjugated race of people, who are turned into living but comatose conduits to channel the magical energies of the Earth. Recognising this injustice, a bunch of artificial humans decides to end it all, but inadvertently awakens an angry, insane evil Earth-consciousness, which throws everything out of whack and creates the conditions that led to the new, broken world.
  • The way that world was portrayed didn’t quite sit right with me – it was written with a simplicity that just didn’t cohere with the moral complexity of the rest of the series: a civilisation so outright callous that it sees nothing wrong with what it does, a convenient strawman villain to motivate the plot, and also a way for the author to shoehorn in more thematic expostulations about the evils of unchecked extractionism.
  • Then there’s also the magic system, which kind of breaks one of my personal rules of fantasy – if a magic system becomes too complex but doesn’t quite rely on intuitively understandable and coherent precepts, it should probably be dialed down a little for lucidity. The way magic and orogeny interlap in the series just gets more and more bloated each book, and sometimes, plot developments are driven by leaps of logic arising from the magic system that are hard to follow, and give the whole thing an air of contrivance – much akin to Trekkian technobabble.
  • Also, Nassun’s Olympic feats of magic mastery are a little bit too conveniently-done to place her in a position where mother and daughter can grapple with each other over the fate of the world. Nassun’s unique brand of nihilistic altruism (“let’s blow up the planet/turn everybody to stone so no one has to suffer ever again!”) is oh-so anime.

Verdict: Not as groundbreaking as the first in the series and weighed down by the building expectations of its denouement nature, The Stone Sky nevertheless does end the trilogy in a way that is broadly in line with the series’ overarching scope and scale.

I give this: 3.5 out of 5 core transports

The Obelisk Gate (Broken Earth #2)


What it’s about: In the midst of the worst Fifth Season in generations, Essun searches for home while her daughter, Nassun, runs from it.


  • This is a rather different book than The Fifth Season, smaller in scope, more raw, intimate but just as emotionally scathing. Rather than telling the story of how things came to be, The Obelisk Gate brings the story forward, as Essun, the orogene protagonist of the three narrative strands in book 1, tries to survive in the apocalypse while trying to find her daughter, Nassun, and trying to find a way to set things right with the world.
  • But we also see the story unfold from Nassuns’ point of view, and with it, the story takes a slightly darker tinge, if it were possible. Essun was not a particularly nurturing parent, working Nassun to the  bone in a bid to make her control her fledgling orogenic powers, in the process showing her little of the love she needed. And now, abducted by her father and taken to lands far south, other forces begin to craft her a new destiny.
  • The weird machinations of the Obelisks start to slowly unravel in meaning and significance, and that mystery of their true purpose and power is a driving force in the book. Of course, the book slowly, deliberately draws out the bequeathing of its secrets, not in the most elegant of ways: Essun basically spends days and months learning the truth from her once-mentor, once-lover Alabaster, who is so weak that he can only divulge a few Truth nuggets to her (and the reader by extension) every chapter. But it’s a revelation as strange and innovative as any fantasy out there, a technology tied to the very Earth itself, an Earth not depicted in the typical Gaia fashion, but as an ancient masculine being full of abject malice and cruelty.
  • Does it suffer from middle-book syndrome? I think it does, a little. While it has its share of high-octane suspense and its moments of transcendent and magnificent catastrophe, very little actually happens, with much of the book devoted to fleshing out Essun and Nassun as characters. Cursed with a power that makes them killing machines, they are both angels of death and destruction, dealing havoc at every turn almost as a natural response to the threats around them. It’s a common fantasy conceit for one to not be in control of their powers, but what Jemisin shows is a situation in which the very fact of one’s powers creates a path dependency that leads to inevitable destruction and heartbreak in its wake – in a world that almost demands that one’s powers be used, at great emotional cost. That, more than anything, is what typifies this series to me. It almost reminds me of The Wheel of Time.

Verdict: Slower and smaller than the magisterial first volume, The Obelisk Gate nevertheless demands to be read, and has its share of the magnificent desolation and deep mystery that so characterises this series.

I give this book: 4/5 toruses


The Fifth Season (Broken Earth #1)


What it’s about: The world is destroyed. Amidst the ruins, a woman, cursed from birth with abilities that make her a monster in the eyes of humanity, seeks revenge against her husband, who has murdered their child.


  • The Fifth Season merges epic, geologic-scale fantasy with intimate portraits of the people who live in a world that is quite unique in the genre. The world of The Fifth Season is an Earth, which, having lost its Moon long ago, is wracked by intense geologic activity; once every few centuries, a massive volcanic eruption or some other natural disaster gives rise to protracted periods of catastrophic climate change, called Fifth Seasons. The civilisation of the day, a massive empire spread out across the single continent, has developed strict codes of oral and written history that dictate the precise actions that people must take in the event of a Season, in order that their communities can survive until the Season ends.
  • Within this context, there are orogenes, people born with the power to control the flow of energy in a system. Since the power is so innate to them, if untrained, they lose control and are liable to kill entire towns. As a result, they are feared and hated, and only sanctioned as part of an organisation called the Fulcrum, where they serve humankind by using their powers to stabilise the geologically hyperactive Earth, to minimize the incidence of Seasons.
  • This conceit sets up a lot of opportunities for the book to act as a commentary on race and gender relations. Certainly, The Fifth Season is a novel for the disadvantaged, one that eschews the stereotypical male white power fantasies so endemic to the genre’s canon and replaces them with deeply disadvantaged characters whose circumstances were theirs from birth.
  • However, the characters that populate the book are anything but passively resigned to their fate. The book is subdivided into three points of view in three different times, of orogene girls and women at different stages of their lives, trying to survive and make a life for themselves, in a broken world. This narrative triptych proceeds at parallel for most of the book, until it ties together in a not entirely unexpected, but very satisfying, fashion.
  • The book was feted almost hyperbolically upon release, winning a Hugo award. Certainly, it has its merits and a calibre of worldbuilding up there with Brandon Sanderson in its creativity. Its prose is rich with a kind of wry irony, a tone that almost knowingly knows what tropes the reader is expecting and either pre-empts or subverts them. The main character, Essun, for example, is originally portrayed as a broken middle-aged woman, shattered by the death of her son at the hands of her suddenly abusive husband. But as the plot progresses, Essun’s inner monologue begins to reveal a much more complex and prickly history, and Jemisin winks at the reader by just making Essun wryly self-aware of the disparity between who she is and who she appears to be.
  • A final point is that The Fifth Season has that spark in fantasy that always hooks me into it – that intimation, or suggestion, of deep history that suggests that the present world is the way it is because of mysterious events in the deep past, as evidenced by the various forgotten artifacts and ruins lying around, from a more advanced, hubristic time. And I like that the Earth is portrayed as a character, or at least an active agency in the book, but not your typical Gaia-like benevolence, but instead, as a vengeful, almost evil entity, evincing the exclamation, “Evil Earth!” from the lips of any of the denizens of the Earth. A reminder to us, in the real world, that the Earth can thrive perfectly well without us, and can – and will – kill us in a myriad of horrific ways, if we’re careless about exploiting it.

I give this book: 4.5/5 obelisks