Sunday, 30 August 2009
Scott Lynch announces 'Queen of the Iron Sands' - an online serial novel
From his website:
"In early 2008, I had a vivid dream about a book I had written. It was a pulp adventure of some sort, with swashbuckling and planet-hopping and flashing ray guns, and the cover art was killer. Lurid black-and-red, full of energy, downright beautiful... I held that physical book in my arms and gazed down at it with total contentment.
And then I started to wake up... and the book in my arms lost all of its weight, and the colors faded from the cover, and one bitter moment later I was sitting up in bed, holding empty air and swearing at the top of my lungs.
I suspect that most authors feel the way I do about our work... those books are like infants to us, and holding one in our hands for the first time is heaven on earth. Dreaming that you've had a bright, bouncing baby book in your arms and then waking up to discover that not a single word had ever existed- well, that's just a damn cold thing for a man's subconscious to pull on him in the middle of the night.
So I started that book, fumbling along on the few scraps of memory I still had. I wrote about six chapters before life and other business intervened, and then I put the story away and barely thought about it for a year.
Until recently, I was offline for a very long time. Longer than I'd meant to be, for personal reasons.
Now my cup runneth over with things to do, responsibilities I've stacked up, from revising and turning in certain manuscripts to rebuilding this website. And let's talk about my responsibility to you, my readers... you've gone for some time without seeing anything new from me. Not for lack of writing, but for lack of showing.
I'm going to start posting that dream-book I wrote, chapter by chapter, in weekly installments as a free online serial novel. And I'm going to finish the sucker in the grandest style I can."
Lynch is quick to confirm that this online serial novel won't in any way slow down progress on his Gentleman Bastard novels and that a new chapter will probably be added every Friday (the first five are already written).
Here's the blurb for Queen of the Iron Sands:
"At the height of the Second World War, Violet DeVere was a WASP-- a Women's Airforce Service Pilot, trusted with ferrying the most advanced warplanes in the United States arsenal. Five years after the war, she's barely making ends meet as a crop duster and part-time science fiction writer.
Kidnapped across a hundred million miles of space, Violet suddenly finds herself a prisoner in an impossible empire, an inhabited Mars shielded from earthling eyes by a scientific illusion called the Veil. Mars and its people are ground beneath the heel of the ruthless All-Sovereign, whose legions rule the skies. All resistance to his absolute despotism has been driven to the deadly red sands beyond civilization.
Outgunned and outnumbered, Violet DeVere and her few brave Martian allies make a desperate stand against the All-Sovereign... against an ageless tyrant with the power to destroy every living thing in the solar system."
Sounds like a lot of fun. Personally I think it's a great idea and a good way to repay the patience of his fans, who have been waiting over two years for The Republic of Thieves.
Thursday, 27 August 2009
Abercrombie announces next novel - 'The Heroes'
The premise sounds really interesting though - I can't think of another fantasy book that focuses entirely on a single battle over a period of a few days. Really intrigued to see how this one turns out.
My own 'Seven Essential Second-Step Fantasies' list...
What follows is a list of seven fantasy novels that I would recommend to people who want to dive into fantasy, having read only the likes of Lord of the Rings, Harry Potter, or - dare I say it for fear of my tongue withering and falling off - Eragon. Note that this is not a list of the best fantasy novels out there, but those novels that I think would be a solid, accessible introduction to the genre for relative newcomers. I've also made my choices on the assumption that different newcomers will have different reading backgrounds, while some might even have more specific ideas as to what sort of book they want to read in the fantasy genre, so I've tried to make my list as versatile as possible.
So, here we go...
A Game of Thrones by George R. R. Martin
This is an absolute no-brainer as far as I'm concerned, and its absence from The New Yorker's list bordered on scandalous. This will always be the first book I'd recommend to anyone looking to dip their toes into epic fantasy. Why? Because - apart from being the gripping first instalment in the best epic fantasy series every written - it is not going to scare away readers unfamiliar with the genre, as the knights-and-castles setting is surely familiar to everyone. Plus it's not too slow at the start - after the terrific prologue, events quickly gain momentum.
Aside from its brilliance, A Game of Thrones is a very good example of the direction that epic fantasy has been heading in recent years - moving away from the cushy, conservative farmboys-on-quests premise and into darker, more realistic territory. I actually recommended A Game of Thrones to my brother, whose experience of fantasy was limited to Tolkien and a few David Gemmell novels. He loved it and devoured the rest of the A Song of Ice and Fire series very swiftly, which was pretty impressive given that he's not much of a reader. I therefore think that this is a very good starting place for newcomers. In fact, the only possible negative is that it might actually be too good an introduction, as afterwards other epic fantasy might not compare...
A Cavern of Black Ice by J. V. Jones
I was no fan of Jones's The Baker's Boy, but with her second series Jones consciously moved away from the more traditional fare of her debut trilogy. A Cavern of Black Ice - book one in the Sword of Shadows series - is right up there with the very best of epic fantasy. It's representative of epic fantasy's more recent trends in that it's often dark and brutal, but at the same time it retains a few ties to the sub-genre's traditional past, meaning that it achieves the difficult balance of catering for both those readers who fancy something a bit more hard and visceral, but also those who prefer not to venture too far from their comfort zones.
A genre newcomer picking this up will find an accessible, superbly written story in an absorbing world, full of well-drawn characters. I think A Game of Thrones is a better starting point for epic fantasy, but if the person in question perhaps wants a little more of a traditional flavour than you might find in A Game of Thrones, then this might be more to their tastes.
Magician by Raymond E. Feist
While not representative of epic fantasy's current trends, Magician nonetheless remains a classic of the subgenre. This is the 'safe' option, and the book I'd recommend if someone said to me "I really liked Lord of the Rings and would like to read more epic fantasy, but something more like Tolkien as opposed to all this blood-and-guts stuff."
Admittedly there's no shortage of options for the newcomer who hankers after something more conservative - Terry Brooks, Tad Williams, Robin Hobb and Robert Jordan are all possibilities - but personally I think Magician is the best bet. It owes a lot to Tolkien (it features elves, dwarves and so on) but at the same time it does veer off in a different direction - whereas the likes of Brooks, Jordan and Williams all wrote novels that featured some form of 'dark lord', Feist shied away from that. Instead, Magician focuses on the arrival of a civilisation of humans from another dimension, and the subsequent war that ensues between the inhabitants of Midkemia and the invaders from Kelewan.
Magician is suitably epic and engrossing, and should prove easily accessible for newcomers. I would warn said newcomers though that this novel is by far and away Feist's best work, and that his career - in terms of quality output - has been on the slide ever since (although he did write some other decent novels, such as the four books in the Serpentwar Saga).
This is one of my all-time genre favourites; I've read it twice and loved it both times. It was one of those few books that I actually tried to find time to read outside of my normal reading time. I'd recommend it to a genre newcomer for three reasons: firstly, it's a good indicator of the 'gritty' approach that many more recent authors have started taking in their work, secondly the setting of Camorr is very reminiscent of Venice, making it both familiar and accessible, and lastly because it's just a very, very entertaining read. On top of that, it's a stirling example of the urban fantasy genre, proving that fantasy is not just about dark lords, dragons and epic battles.
I would add the caveat that the follow-up, Red Seas Under Red Skies, is disappointing. The Republic of Thieves - when it's finally released - will hopefully prove which of the first two books in this series is representative of Scott Lynch's ability.
The Scar by China Miéville
This is a bit of a wildcard, since it is hard to classify - I don't even know what I'd call it. What is certain though, is that The Scar is an excellent example of what you can do with the fantasy genre. Miéville shies away from cliché, proving that you don't need to rely on well-trodden tropes to write a decent book. This novel really is a triumph for innovation and imagination over the conservatism and commercialism that often drags the genre down.
It's a book I'd recommend to genre newcomers with caution, as it's not as accessible as the other titles on this list. Nonetheless, I feel it's worth including because it's such a great example of the genre's potential...and also because it's a terrific story, with well-developed characters, impressive innovations and absolutely sublime prose.
Temeraire by Naomi Novik
This is my recommendation for anyone wanting to delve into historical fantasy, because it's a good example of someone getting the balance absolutely right: Napoleonic war + dragons = winning combination (and hundreds of thousands of books sold).
Temeraire isn't the best book in the series (that honour goes to the excellent Black Powder War) but it's an engaging enough start, and again has the all-important attribute of being very easy to get into. The style of prose may annoy some readers, but it's hard not to be charmed by Novik's dragons.
The Terror by Dan Simmons
I can already hear the dissenting voices - "What? But The Terror is horror, not fantasy!" Well, yes I suppose it technically is - it is after all an utterly horrific story. Yet - in addition to the fact that you can argue that horror is merely a subgenre of fantasy rather than a primary genre in its own right - the novel features a supernatural man-eating monster than may or may not be related to Eskimo mythology, so that counts as fantasy as far as I'm concerned.
Anyway, dubiousness of this novel's validity for this list aside, The Terror is a novel I'd recommend anyone coming to the genre from a historical reading background. For a start, it's very authentic - Simmons gets the 'feel' of the period absolutely right. On top of that, he really gets inside the minds of the main characters and it's engrossing to watch them slowly unravelling. Add to this some excellent prose - I love the way Crozier's chapters are all written in the present tense - and the ever-present threat of the beast on the ice, and it comes together to form one of the best novels I've ever read. A real masterpiece. The only negative I can think of in terms of its suitability for a newcomer is its sheer size - it's a real beast of a book.
So...that's my list. I think it's more representative of the genre than The New Yorker list, as I've included three epic fantasies (representing the opposite ends of the sub-genre, and the middle ground as well), an urban fantasy, two historical fantasies and a what-the-hell-do-you-call-this fantasy. Some good variety there, I think. Some fans will no doubt look at my list and think there are some glaring oversights, so here's some of the more obvious novels/authors missing from the list and my explanation for not including them.
The Blade Itself, by Joe Abercrombie - like my fellow bloggers Aidan and Wert, I think Joe's material is more effective if you're already more familiar with the epic fantasy genre. Many of the trope inversions would be lost on someone unfamiliar with the genre's more traditional trappings.
The Name of the Wind, by Patrick Rothfuss - I've not read it, so can't recommend it!
Anything by David Gemmell - leaving Gemmell off my list caused me a bit of a headache, but I decided to leave him off as I couldn't think which of his books to best recommend to a genre newcomer. Legend? Great story but I'd be worried the often-clumsy prose might be a stumbling block. Waylander? Possibly the safest bet, but for some reason I remained unconvinced. Sword in the Storm? Better prose, but not up with the best of Gemmell's novels for me. Anyway, in the end I decided not to include him. Though if I was recommending ten rather than seven books, I think he'd make it on to the list.
Anything by Terry Brooks, Tad Williams, Robin Hobb - I don't think you need more than two traditional-ish fantasies on the list, and Feist and Jones are superior choices in my opinion.
Anything by Terry Goodkind - you're joking, aren't you? His books might be hugely popular (for a reason I don't think anyone has yet figured out) but I wouldn't recommend his books to anyone, especially a newcomer, in case they got the idea that every fantasy author was obsessed with rape and sex, and prone to spouting philosophical nonsense instead of actually telling a story...
Anything by Guy Gavriel Kay - again, not read any of Kay's work so can't recommend him.
Phew, that's it. Comments and criticisms welcome!
Monday, 24 August 2009
Artwork for Adrian Tchaikovsky's 'Salute the Dark'
Not convinced about the red font, but I love the rest. It's in keeping with the other covers in the series, yet manages to look completely different at the same time. The figure - I think it might be the moth-kinden Acheos (sp?) - is very well drawn, and the mystical red light makes the whole image very striking. Plus, if we're talking business, it's suitably commercial for the market.
Impressive stuff, and further proof that Tor were right to ditch the original artist that did the (average) cover for Empire in Black and Gold, as the covers supplied for the subsequent books by the new artist have been excellent.
Sunday, 23 August 2009
Video trailer for Andy Remic's upcoming novel 'Kell's Legend'
Wednesday, 19 August 2009
My thoughts on 'The New Yorker' essential fantasy list...
I'll go through the list book by book below, but first my overall thoughts: while it's good that such a publication is even bothering to feature an article on fantasy, the list itself is one-dimensional (all the listed novels - save perhaps for Kay? - are epic fantasy), conservative (Williams, Brooks, Hobb and Goodkind are rather middle-of-the-road) and not particularly representative of the current epic fantasy climate, let alone fantasy as a whole (unsurprising given that five of the novels were published in the nineties).
Here's my thoughts on each novel in terms of its merits as a starting point for genre newcomers.
1) The Dragonbone Chair by Tad Williams
Not a good starting point for a fantasy newbie as far as I'm concerned. It's plodding, overblown and the prose is marred by pointless similes. The endless songs are also annoying (songs in epic fantasy novels are invariably crap, unless you're GRRM or J. R. R. Tolkien). Still, the book (and series) does have its fans, although its only redeeming quality in my eyes is the fact that it inspired GRRM to write ASOIAF. Still, I guess a genre newcomer could do worse...
2) Anything by Guy Gavriel Kay
Ah, we come to a glaring gap in my genre reading. I've never read a single Kay novel, so can't comment on his suitability as a starting point for newcomers. However, I've heard many good things about his work and suspect that he might well be a decent starting point, especially as he's allegedly written a number of stand-alone books that won't require a big commitment.
3) Wizard's First Rule by Terry Goodkind
I've read three of Goodkind's Sword of Truth novels (I was young and foolish, you understand) and didn't think an awful lot of them, but never actually read the first book in the series, Wizard's First Rule. To put it bluntly, I wouldn't recommend Terry Goodkind's books to anyone, let alone a person new to fantasy. The article goes on to say: "Sadly, Goodkind did so well on this completely self-contained fantasy that he wrote ten sequels, each one worse than the one before and more prone to excruciatingly long Ayn Randian monologues from the main characters (needless to say, I read them all). Read this book, and then pretend the others don’t exist." Enough said, I think.
4) Assassin's Apprentice by Robin Hobb
I've never read any of Hobb's novels and have not really felt the urge to do so. From what I gather, her earlier work is quite traditional (although meant to be rather good). Subsequently, I can't really say whether this would be a good starting point - anyone care to enlighten me?
5) The Scions of Shannara by Terry Brooks
Admittedly Terry Brooks was my first taste of epic fantasy, yet I wouldn't recommend this book as a starting point in the genre. Why? Firstly, The Scions of Shannara - in my opinion - is not as good as his first three novels in the Shannara sequence. If you want to read Brooks, start with the excellent Elfstones of Shannara. Secondly, epic fantasy has moved on a bit since Terry Brooks was first published. By today's standards, his earlier books come across as conservative and rather cushy, so I don't think - despite reading and enjoying many of his books - that I'd recommend them to someone who wanted to see what epic fantasy is all about.
6) The Name of the Wind by Patrick Rothfuss
This remains a glaring gap in my genre reading, which I intend to remedy soon. Still, based on the fact that it's been probably the biggest success story in the genre in the last few years - and received plenty of accolades in the process - I imagine it's a decent starting point for genre newcomers, though again it's perhaps not representative of the direction the genre is taking...
7) Gardens of the Moon by Steven Erikson
Now, this is a difficult one. Personally I love this novel, but my main concern is that even seasoned fantasy fans have struggled with it, such is its chaotic nature. I rather suspect that giving this book to someone who has never read epic fantasy might be the literary equivalent of stripping someone down, smearing them in blood and throwing them into shark-infested waters. Then again, I guess it depends entirely on what sort of reading background the genre newcomer has - if they've read some historical novels with large casts, then perhaps they might be able to handle Erikson. I certainly think Gardens of the Moon is a far better example of the genre than many of the other suggestions.
Anyway, those are my opinions...as always, feel more than welcome to give your own thoughts. I might post my own list of suggestions for genre newbies in the next few days...
In the meantime, check out the thoughts of other bloggers/commentators here, here, here and here.
Tuesday, 18 August 2009
In your face, Goodkind!
How dare you give I, Ming the Merciless, a B minus?!
"If it takes a while for Alex — and the reader — to understand what's going on, it's because the writing is blocky and strained, especially during the high-octane scenes of carnage that occur every few pages. (Alex, an artist by trade, quickly morphs into an efficient killing machine.) Despite the rollicking plot, Goodkind just doesn't seem nearly as comfortable in the straight-thriller vein as he does with fantasy."
Hear that, Tairy? The reviewer said you write fantasy. Now you're going to have to get - what's the phrase? - medieval on his ass. Here's a tip - if you want the guy to suffer, tie him to a chair and read him the longest 'holier-than-thou' speech that you can find in any of your books. It might take you some time though, as there are plenty of them in there. I'd help you if I could, but I burned my first three Sword of Truth novels, and used the other one as emergency toilet paper.
No, hold on Tairy - there's more!
"So has Goodkind managed to hook all those nonfantasy readers for a sequel that looks sure to come? That's the million-dollar question. From all indications, it looks like it will take place on Goodkind's home turf, the purely imagined world of another planet."
Hear that, Tairy? HEAR THAT?! Home turf. You're one of us whether you like it or not. Don't worry, we don't bite - as long as you don't insult us by saying that anyone that doesn't like your work is a negative person intent only on destroying things. Oh, wait...
No shit, Sherlock...
"It's imperative that zombies are dealt with quickly or else... we are all in a great deal of trouble."
Well, thanks for that amazing insight - never would have realised that myself. That's not all though, as the 'scientists' made a startling, mind-blowing discovery: "Zombies can come back to life."
OMG BET YOU DIDN'T KNOW THAT. If only they'd dropped me a line - I could have told them the above points and saved them a lot of money and trouble.
Seriously, do these people have nothing better to do than state the bleeding obvious? Like, for example, trying to find a cure for cancer or something?
Saturday, 15 August 2009
Cover art and blurb for 'Farlander' by Col Buchanan
"The Heart of the World is a land in strife. For fifty years the Holy Empire of Mann, an empire and religion born from a nihilistic urban cult, has been conquering nation after nation. Their leader, Holy Matriarch Sasheen, ruthlessly maintains control through her Diplomats, priests trained as subtle predators.
The Mercian Free Ports are the only confederacy yet to fall. Their only land link to the southern continent, a long and narrow isthmus, is protected by the city of Bar-Khos. For ten years now, the great southern walls of Bar-Khos have been besieged by the Imperial Fourth Army. Ash is a member of an elite group of assassins, the R shun - who offer protection through the threat of vendetta.
Forced by his ailing health to take on an apprentice, he chooses Nico, a young man living in the besieged city of Bar-Khos. At the time, Nico is hungry, desperate, and alone in a city that finds itself teetering on the brink. When the Holy Matriarch's son deliberately murders a woman under the protection of the R shun; he forces the sect to seek his life in retribution.
As Ash and his young apprentice set out to fulfil the R shun orders - their journey takes them into the heart of the conflict between the Empire and the Free Ports ...into bloodshed and death."
Nice cover, reminds me of the new Erikson ones. The blurb too is Erikson-esque as well. Doesn't seem to promise anything particularly fresh, but it sounds decent enough. Judging by Tor editor Julie Crisp's comments on her Twitter page (sigh...why is everything on Twitter these days...) she's pretty excited by this debut novel.
Farlander is set for release in hardback from Tor on 5 March 2010.
Friday, 14 August 2009
Friday funny + linky-links
And now linky-links :)
No doubt as to what has caused the most fuss this week - John C. Wright's (no, I hadn't heard of him either) pathetic rant about homosexuality. In short, it's disgusting. Not only are his views utterly repulsive, but as an up-and-coming author (he's only been around for a few years) he's displayed a pig-headed ignorance not seen since David Bilsborough managed to piss off the entire online genre community a few years back. Hopefully Wright's career will go into a nose-dive from here on - I certainly won't be reading any of his work. Unsurprisingly, Wert has already written a typically well-considered post on this distasteful matter...
Moving on to more positive things...
Orbit publisher Tim Holman has got a new blog in which he discusses the industry. Well worth checking out, as it's always interesting to get an inside look at what goes on behind closed doors...his latest post concerns what elements made up fantasy book covers in 2008.
Pat has been fortunate enough to spend some time with GRRM, and has blogged about this - and more - in the first part of his Worldcon report. Pat's also reported on Blake Charlton's Spellwright, which he suggests could be the debut fantasy novel of 2010. Personally the blurb leaves me unconvinced - some interesting ideas in there, but also some rather tired clichés...
If you missed Wert's excellent rant on the many Dune spin-offs, then be sure to check it out.
Aidan's got the artwork and synopsis for Lev Grossman's Magicians, which has received some high praise. Grossman's publisher was kind enough to offer me a copy, so I've got this one lined up for the near future. Sounds promising. Aidan's also got the synopsis for Guy Gavriel Kay's upcoming novel Under Heaven.
Neth has reviewed George Mann's The Affinity Bridge, which has been knocking around my spare bedroom for a while...must get around to it at some point...
Mark's posted the artwork for another upcoming novel, Farlander by Col Buchanan. Nice, reminiscent of the new Erikson covers...
Right, that's enough for now...hope you all have a good weekend. :)
Wednesday, 12 August 2009
Is The Wheel of Time going to go the same way as Dune?
Robert Jordan allegedly signed a contract for three prequels, of which only the first - New Spring - has been written and published. He also started discussing the possibility of a sequence called The Outriggers which would continue some major developments after the main WoT sequence had ended. So, we're looking at potentially two further prequels and any number of sequels to the original series.
I'm no fan of WoT, but this doesn't sit well with me. Getting Brandon Sanderson to write A Memory of Light based on Jordan's detailed notes is one thing, but writing a whole slew of new novels - presumably without such detailed notes - is completely different. To be blunt, it has the unmistakable whiff of dead horse about it and gives the impression that Tor are prepared to squeeze every last drop out of their star franchise, even if it means tarnishing the series' reputation even further.
Yes, publishing is a business - I get it. We hear this time and time again. I accept it. But it's a shame to see such a popular series be so exploited. No doubt there'll be a load of 'we're doing this for the fans' malarkey, but I wonder how much weight such statements will carry with a fanbase that has already voiced protest at the splitting of A Memory of Light into three volumes.
Perhaps a more pertinent question - how many of the fans actually want these novels? Correct me if I'm wrong, but New Dawn - the one prequel that Jordan did write - received a very lukewarm response and sold poorly compared to the main books. Will the new novels - if they are commissioned - go down any better? The decision to get Sanderson to finish WoT was not met with universal approval, so how will objecting fans feel if he writes more novels in the same universe? For the record Sanderson has already stated that he will write the two other prequels and the Outriggers novels, if asked.
No blame for this possible expansion beyond the original series can be laid at Sanderson's door - he's made his feelings clear: "I don't want to see the Wheel of Time turn into an eternal franchise. I said this last weekend at my signing in Montreal. Part of the value of a great work of art is, in my opinion, the ending. An ending loses power if it isn’t allowed to be…well, the END." He qualifies this by adding, "I have told Harriet, and I have repeated it on blogs, that I would say no (though it would hurt to do so) if a decision were made to go beyond the Outriggers and the prequels." Top bloke, Brandon Sanderson.
The fear remains though that - if these new novels are written and published, and if they sell well enough - future volumes could be commissioned with a different author if Sanderson sticks to his guns. The question then would be - what will happen to the integrity of one of fantasy's best-loved series? Well, it would probably suffer a similar fate to Dune, which has become a total and utter joke.
The real cynics out there might argue that WoT already has become a bit of a joke, and that would be partly true. But I can't help feeling that these further novels would just cheapen the series a whole lot more.
Thoughts? Any WoT fans out there who have strong feelings on this (either in support or against these potential new novels?). Interested to hear your thoughts...
Wednesday, 5 August 2009
Book review: Blood of the Mantis
By Adrian Tchaikovsky
(Tor, 7 August 2009)
Adrian Tchaikovsky's Shadows of the Apt series is something of a rare beast - a saga that contains all the usual traits associated with the best epic fantasy (warfare, deadly politics, etc) but is also refreshingly innovative at the same time, with its various insect kinden and their unique powers and abilities (or ancestor arts, as they're called). The series got off to a somewhat inauspicious start with Empire in Black and Gold, before really coming into its own with the superb Dragonfly Falling.
Dragonfly Falling was the best epic fantasy novel I'd read in a long time, so I approached the follow-up, Blood of the Mantis, with a mixture of excitement and trepidation. Excitement, because I was keen to discover what would happen next in this thrilling face-off between the Wasp Empire and the Lowlands. Trepidation, because Dragonfly is a tough act to follow, and I was concerned Mantis would pale in comparison. After all, how do you better a novel that has two epic sieges, a big land battle, and plenty of political backstabbing and betrayal on the side?
One solution is to do something different with the next book, and this is what Tchaikovsky decided to do. Mantis is subsequently very different to its predecessor, not just in size (Mantis weighs in at just 498 pages, compared to Dragonfly's 673 pages) but also in terms of content: the focus is more on covert operations and politicking than on large-scale warfare. Furthermore, for the first time the action shifts to new locations, namely the swamp-city of Jerez (a dingy backwater of dodgy deals and illicit trading) and the spider-ruled city of Solarno, on the great inland sea known as the Exalsee.
The plot itself has two main prongs - the struggles of both factions to retrieve the Shadow Box (an ancient item born of a dark, terrible power), and the attempt by Stenwold Maker's agents to prevent the Wasp Empire from establishing control over Solarno - and thus gaining a foothold in the spiderlands. Meanwhile, Stenwold himself tries to unite the bickering lowlanders into a force that can stand up to the might of the Wasp Empire.
For me, Mantis was something of a mixed bag. The main issue I had was that it felt too much at times like a middle book; I found it hard to shake the feeling that the novel's main purpose was simply to move all the necessary pieces into position, ready for a big smack-down in the fourth volume. Subsequently a sense of unimportance sometimes pervades the storyline, which lacks the urgency (and occasionally, it must be said, the excitement of the last book).
The focus of the novel, falling as it does on new locations, means that certain characters make only fleeting appearances. Drephos is the most conspicuous by his absence; as one of the most intriguing characters in the series, his all-to-brief cameo was disappointing. Likewise Totho, who is limited to just a few short appearances despite having one of the most interesting character development arcs of all the original protagonists. Felise Mien is another fascinating individual who barely features, while Thalric - who does play a prominent role - seems like a pale imitation of his former self.
The frequent changes of POV also became a bit of a hindrance to my enjoyment of the novel. Tchaikovsky's style is notable for the amount of POVs he uses, not to mention his habit of jumping between them mid-chapter. This has never previously been an issue for me, but in Mantis it did become a bit grating. This was mainly because some of the POVs just weren't that interesting (Brogan, the wasp commander, is a good example). The cast list continues to grow as well, and more than once I found myself having to refer to the (annoyingly inadequate) glossary. The new characters are mostly reasonably well-drawn, and as always there is the appearance of a new type of kinden, though sadly one type of kinden - introduced right at the end of Dragonfly - didn't make an appearance. Still, no doubt later books will rectify that.
The lack of a large-scale military confrontation is also keenly felt. Tchaikovsky handled these extremely well in Dragonfly, and while I understand how from both a logistical and thematic sense it may have made sense not to include any, it still left me feeling rather underwhelmed. A group of agents scurrying around rainy backstreets in search of a mystical artifact just isn't as gripping as the numerous epic set-pieces of the previous novel. Dragonfly also bore witness to some serious character development, such as Totho's struggle with his loyalties and Tynisa's troubled relationship with her father, but this is an aspect rather lacking in Mantis. That's not to say the characterisation is bad, as it's not at all, it's just that none of the characters really undergo any real changes, with the possible exception of Gaved.
All of the above criticisms probably make Mantis sound like a bad book, which it certainly is not. There's plenty for fans of the series (of which I am certainly one) to enjoy: daring dogfights, exotic new locations, a closer look at some kinden that have only been mentioned before, and two or three cool set-pieces - both Lake Limnia and the Exalsee are home to some rather scary (and large!) wildlife, which Tchaikovsky clearly enjoyed involving in proceedings. It's just a shame that it feels largely like a stop-gap book, merely setting the scene and putting everything into position for the next instalment.
Verdict: Blood of the Mantis inevitably suffers from having to follow up Dragonfly Falling, which was always going to be a difficult task. It does feel a bit of a lightweight offering compared to its predecessor, and the same could be said of the story itself, which is never dull but lacks the impact and epic feel of Dragonfly. Mantis is a decent novel, but does give the impression that it's merely lining up the pieces for a showdown in the next book. It's a solid continuation of the Shadows of the Apt series, but not the best example of what Tchaikovsky - and his series - is capable of. Still, it's not dimmed my enthusiasm for the series and I am already looking forward to the next novel, Salute the Dark, which is to be released in early 2010.