The Lessons Never Learned

Okay, so yes. I admit it. I’ve been putting off writing this review. In case you might have somehow missed my response to the first book in this series, ALONG THE RAZORS EDGE (EBR Review), it absolutely left me gasping for more. That story is easily one of the best dark fantasy stories I’ve read in the last year, and I haven’t only been noodling around in the self-published arena during that time. I’ve read some authors that I consider to be some heavy hitters. So to say that I was super excited to get into this book would be a pretty powerful understatement. I absolutely couldn’t wait. Like fingers twitching and stuff, grasping for more of The War Eternal. It stands to reason that there will be some spoilers here. So, if you haven’t read that first one yet… seriously, go buy it and read it and then you can come back for my thoughts on this one.

THE LESSONS NEVER LEARNED is the second book of Rob J. Hayes’s most recent dark fantasy series that follows Eskara Helsene on her journey of betrayal, recovery, and revenge. She’s finally escaped the Pit, and has done so with a few individuals that she might be able to call her friends. Life in the pit has taken its toll on her mind, body, and spirit, and it will take a considerable amount of TLC to return her to a condition even approaching whole. It is a journey though that she will not have to make alone, be it with company from without… or within.

Before I get into this review, I want to mention that these are the first self-published books that I’ve bought physical copies for myself since getting the Books of Babel from Josiah Bancroft (EBR Archive) — another great series that had its genesis in the self-publishing world, if you somehow haven’t heard of that one — and I’m absolutely pleased that I did. Tracy Hickman has said that a paper book is a physical representation of the emotional experience of a story and seeing that book will always tend to remind you of the experience you had while reading it. That’s a paraphrase, but it’s pretty close. To say the least, I’m going to be enjoying the memory of my reading experience with this series for a long time to come.

I felt like the story started off really good. It picks up immediately after the end of RAZORS EDGE, as Eskara and her friends are fleeing from their point of escape. They know there are those who would have them returned to the Pit, and that they will not be far behind them. As they travel, she begins to learn what she can from both Hardt and Tamura. Hardt teaches her physical skills of attack and defense, and Tamura tries to teach her the ways of being a Sourcerer and finding strength and stability from within. These are skills that will come to define her in the future, but it takes time and effort and several failed attempts of applying each in turn and together, before this tale is over. We also get to learn more about who Tamura is/was, and the history of the Djinn and the Rand and their floating cities.

Two surprises come to light fairly early on. I totally expected one and was completely blind-sided by the second. Each of these twists in Eskara’s story had potential to make major impacts to the story. Interestingly enough, by the end of the book, neither one really had. Although the first twist led to some great character moments and some of the direction the story took, I never really felt like it impacted the drive of the story all that much. On the whole, the pacing of the story seemed… sluggish. Unlike RAZORS EDGE, where there is a single goal and everything in the entire book drives Eskara relentlessly toward that goal, this one never really seemed to have a single goal to approach or a single antagonist from which to run, and that made my enjoyment of the story wane quite a bit. There are lots of instances where “time passes” and Eskara recovers or learns or develops.

Despite this slow pace, there are some great character building moments and events portrayed that make a significant impact on who Eskara is. Who she’s going to become by the end of this tale. However, the large majority of the turns and reveals here came not for character but for world-building. This absolutely felt like a book where the author focused on building the world and the story that provides the backbone for the series. When reading RAZORS EDGE, I don’t know that I ever really got a solid grip on the story’s connection to the name of the series. After reading this book, I absolutely do. In many ways though, it was too much world-building and not enough connected character moments for me. The fact that the narration of this part of the story was much more prominently told from the future-version of Eskara might have also played into that impression. It definitely removed a lot of the immediacy of the exciting moments to be sure.

This book, while decent, really suffered from second-book syndrome. It never really felt like it took on a life of its own, but seems to have done a pretty good job of setting up book three. I wanted to like this book so much more than I did. That’s one of the reasons why I took so long to write this review. I kept looking at my experience and turning it over, and trying to decide if I I could give it a rating any different than my first impression. Regardless, I’m totally looking forward to reading the final book in the series and still hoping for some great storytelling. Will also be enjoying the way these book look on my shelf (and reminding me of this experience) for many years to come.

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Sep 13, Grand Remembrances

Today is Grandparents Day in the United States. Being a Grand is a special honor. I feel very blessed that my wife and I have two grandchildren. We were able to visit them today. Yes, we are still being cautious with the coronavirus, but we also find it very difficult to not see them when they live so close. So today we did drop by to visit Jacob (age 10) and Sophia (age 7) along with their parents. We brought donuts and caught up with them. Our grandchildren are still pretty young and this is a precious time in their lives – and ours!

I wish I had known my grandparents better. We never lived in the same place. Dad was a career Air Force pilot, so we moved around a lot. But we did get to see them once in a while when they would visit us, or we them.

A Plague of Giants

There are five known magical ‘kennings’ or types: air, water, fire, earth, and plants. Each nation specializes in of these kennings, and the magic influences the society. There’s a big pitfall with this diversity of ability and locale–not everyone gets along.

Enter the Hathrim giants, or ‘lavaborn’ whose kenning is fire. Where they live the trees that fuel their fire are long gone, but the giants are definitely not welcome anywhere else. They’re big, they’re violent, and they’re ruthless. When a volcano erupts and they are forced to evacuate, they take the opportunity to relocate. They don’t care that it’s in a place where they aren’t wanted.

I first read Kevin Hearne’s Iron Druid books and loved them (also the quirky The Tales of Pell), so was curious about this new venture, starting with A PLAGUE OF GIANTS. Think Avatar: The Last Airbender meets Jim Butcher’s Codex Alera series. Elemental magic, a variety of races, different lands. And it’s all thrown at you from page one.

But this story is told a little differently. It starts at the end of the war, after a difficult victory, and a bard with earth kenning uses his magic to re-tell the story of the war to a city of refugees. And it’s this movement back and forth in time and between key players in this war that we get a singularly grand view of the war as a whole. Hearne uses this method to great effect.

There are so many interesting characters in this book that I can’t cover them all here. Often in books like this such a large cast of ‘main’ character can make the storytelling suffer, especially since they don’t have a lot of interaction with each other for the first 3/4 of the book–but it doesn’t suffer, thankfully. And the characterization is good enough, despite these short bursts, that by the end we understand these people and care about what happens to them.

If there were a main character it would be Dervan, a historian who is assigned to record (also spy on?) the bard’s stories. He finds himself caught up in machinations he feels unfit to survive. Fintan is the bard from another country, who at first is rather mysterious and his true personality is hidden by the stories he tells; it takes a while to understand him. Gorin Mogen is the leader of the Hathrim giants who decide to find a new land to settle. He’s hard to like, but as far as villains go, you understand his motivations and he can be even a little convincing. There’s Abhi, the son of hunters, who decides hunting isn’t the life for him–and unexpectedly finds himself on a quest for the sixth kenning. And Gondel Vedd, a scholar of linguistics who finds himself tasked with finding a way to communicate with a race of giants never seen before (definitely not Hathrim) and stumbles onto a mystery no one could have guessed: there may be a seventh kenning.

There are other characters, but what makes them all interesting is that they’re regular people (well, maybe not Gorin Mogen or the viceroy–he’s a piece of work) who become heroes in their own little ways, whether it’s the teenage girl who isn’t afraid to share vital information, to the scholars who suddenly find how crucial their minds are to the survival of a nation, to the humble public servants who find bravery when they need it most. This is a story of loss, love, redemption, courage, unity, and overcoming despair to not give up. All very human experiences by simple people who do extraordinary things.

Hearne’s worldbuilding is engaging. He doesn’t bottle feed you, at first it feels like drinking from a hydrant, but then you settle in and pick up things along the way. Then he shows you stuff with a punch to the gut. This is no fluffy world with simple magic without price. All the magic has a price, and more often than not it leads you straight to death’s door. For most people just the seeking of the magic will kill you. I particularly enjoyed the scenes with Ahbi and his discovery of the sixth kenning and everything associated with it. But giants? I mean, really? It isn’t bad enough fighting people who can control fire that you have to add that they’re twice the size of normal people? For Hearne if it’s war, the stakes are pretty high, and it gets ugly.

The benefit of the storytelling style is that the book, despite its length, moves along steadily (Hearne is no novice, here). The bits of story lead you along without annoying cliffhangers (mostly), and I never got bored with the switch between characters. It was easy to move between them, and they were recognizable enough that I got lost or confused. The end of the novel felt a little abrupt, but I guess that has more to do with I was ready for the story to continue, despite the exiting climax.

If you’re looking for epic fantasy with fun storytelling and clever worldbuilding, check out A PLAGUE OF GIANTS.

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The Artwork Of Gary Choo

Gary Choo is a concept artist/illustrator based in Singapore. I’ve know Gary for a good many years ( 17, actually ), working together in animation studios in Singapore like Silicon Illusions and Lucasfilm. Gary currently runs an art team at Mighty Bear Games, but when time allows he also draws covers for Marvel comics, and they’re amazing –

The Art Of Gary Choo
The Art Of Gary Choo
The Art Of Gary Choo
The Art Of Gary Choo
The Art Of Gary Choo

To see more of Gary’s work or to engage him for freelance work, head down to his ArtStation.

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