Reader Dad – Book Reviews

Dark Crime and Speculative Fiction book reviews



THOSE ABOVE by Daniel Polansky

those-above-cover THOSE ABOVE (The Empty Throne Book 1)

Daniel Polansky (

Hodder & Stoughton (


It is almost thirty years since the war between mankind and Those Above, the godlike creatures who live at the top of the great mountain city, The Roost. Now, as the warlike Aelerian people contemplate breaking the truce that has seen peace reign over the continent since those terrible days, a second war seems inevitable. Bas, general of Aeleria’s great Western Army and the only human ever to have defeated one of Those Above in single combat, has been promoted, and tasked with raising a new legion who will lead the charge; behind him is Eudokia, the most powerful woman in the country, whose husband was killed during the first war, and who has a thirst for revenge; in the lowest rung of The Roost, young Thistle progresses from petty criminal to murderer, and finds himself at the centre of a rebellion still very much in its infancy; at the top of the mountain, all but oblivious to the creatures with whom they share the continent, Those Above believe themselves untouchable, inviolate.

I fell in love with Daniel Polansky’s The Straight Razor Cure within the first handful of pages when I read it back in 2012. The unique mix of fantasy and hard-boiled crime appealed to me, and the central character, Warden, demanded that I keep coming back for more. The Low Town trilogy went from strength to strength (to the point where I was unable to write a review of the final book, She Who Waits, because of how completely Polansky broke me in the process of laying out his story). It was, then, with some trepidation that I picked up Those Above – it, and the series that it begins, The Empty Throne, has a lot to live up to. Focussing more on the fantasy, and ditching the crime in favour of an ancient Roman vibe, it is, in many ways, a much different beast to Polansky’s first trilogy, while still keeping the hard core that made those books so enjoyable.

The first major difference is the novel’s scope, both in terms of the area it covers, and also in the number of point-of-view characters Polansky uses to tell the story. The story is told from four key points of view: Bas, Eudokia, Thistle and Calla, the human servant of the Aubade, one of the most powerful of Those Above. It’s interesting to note that, while we get dispatches from the lords of the First Rung through Calla, we never really get to see their direct point of view. For the others, the spread gives us an interesting insight into this new world of Polansky’s and the various types of people that populate it. The most interesting part of this world is The Roost itself, a mountain city that is split into five rungs, with the inhabitants split according to rank or status: Those Above live in the first rung, at the mountain’s peak, while society’s dregs (which includes young Thistle) populate the city’s lowest, or Fifth, Rung.

The history of the creatures that live in the First Rung is scarce, though we know that they are a long-lived people who differ physically from humans in many ways: their size, their four fingers, to name but a few. Their politics and rituals are shown through the eyes of Calla, and feel slightly less alien to us, the reader, because of her own closeness to the Aubade, and familiarity with their ways. Their lack of emotion, and their superior approach to humans – they are to humans what humans are to bugs – are a frightening concept and lead to some beautifully-wrought scenes of horror as the novel progresses.

Outside of these godlike creatures, Polansky presents us humanity in all its glory: the field general and his men; the political machinations in Aeleria’s capital city, machinations that would give George R. R. Martin nightmares; and the childhood gangs and violence spawned by poverty in the lower reaches of The Roost, which are a stark contrast to the conditions deeper within the city.

As I mentioned earlier, Those Above has a dark, hard core, a gritty sense of reality that can often be missing from fantasy novels, and a voice that is unmistakably that of the brilliant writer who brought us Warden’s adventures in Low Town. If I have one complaint, it’s that Those Above feels like what it is: the first book in a fantasy series that needs to put everything in place in order for the reader to feel at home. There is plenty of action, but it takes second place to the world-building and chess-like manoeuvring, and there is little more than a token gesture at encapsulating a complete plot within the confines of the book’s four hundred-odd pages. Not a shock, by any means, to fans of this kind of epic fantasy – and let me make that point clear, this is epic – but worth knowing at the outset. That said, what does exist within those four hundred-odd pages is pure gold, compelling character-building, world-building and story-telling by a master of his art, and more than enough to have me coming back to Aeleria and The Roost for many, many more visits.

Dark fantasy with a decidedly military bent, Those Above is the perfect opener for Daniel Polansky’s career beyond Low Town. With his unmistakeable voice and his highly original new world, he draws the reader slowly in until it’s impossible to put the book down and escape back to reality. A brilliant start to what is sure to be one of the fantasy epics of all time, Those Above is the work of an author at the top of his game and brings with it the promise of a lot more to come.


The-Relic-Guild-Edward-Cox Name: EDWARD COX

Author of: THE RELIC GUILD (2014)

On the web:

On Twitter: @EdwardCox10

The great question: why do I write? I’ve been asked this a number of times, and my answers have been varied. I’ve taken the pretentious route, proclaiming that no one chooses to be a writer, writing chooses you. I’ve tried to brush it off by saying that writing is the only thing I know how to do. The truth is, I definitely do know why I write, but it is difficult for me explain simply. It comes from an experience, a visceral reaction that I now call the Feeling.

So what’s a good example of what I’m talking about?

Take The Diamond Throne by David Eddings. I bought this book in the late 80’s. I read it in a single sitting in my bedroom. Outside, the sky was dark, full of black clouds, and rain was pelting my window. To the distant rumble of thunder, the flashes of lightning, I turned to chapter one and discovered a knight riding a horse through a storm. Accompanied by the sound of hooves on cobbles, the knight slowly made his way along the streets of the city from which he had been exiled, as the dark sky drenched him with rain. Call it art imitating life (or should that be the other way around?), but it felt as though the weather outside my bedroom window was the soundtrack for this story, and I was sold.

I’m sure that the coincidence in atmospherics is what hooked me initially, and it sharpened up my receptors for what came next. I remember needing to know why this knight was returning to the home that had exiled him. I had to discover what adventures lay ahead for him. I remember battle scenes that made my heart race, camaraderie that made me laugh aloud. There were scary moments that made me acutely aware of being home alone, and that the only light on in the house was the reading light in my bedroom. I welcomed the knight’s friends, despised his enemies, and I wished to be a member of his fellowship that was on a quest filled with such wonder and magic. I was hooked by The Diamond Throne because it had given me the Feeling.

The Feeling is investment, the moment a story grabs you by the collar and drags you into the fray . . . it’s being Luke’s co-pilot as he storms the Death Star; it’s taking Sansa’s hand and running away to safety; it’s telling Harry to be brave in his cupboard beneath the stairs; it’s standing alongside Druss on the battlements of Dros Delnoch; it’s begging the crew of the Nostromo to stay inside the ship. There is nothing on Earth like a good story, and I want someone, somewhere, to read my stories and experience the Feeling. That is why I write.

The Relic Guild by Edward Cox is published on the 18th of September by Gollancz in Trade Paperback, eBook and Audio Book. Be sure to visit the other stops on the blog tour (see the banner to the right). 


TRAITOR’S BLADE by Sebastien de Castell


Sebastien de Castell (

Jo Fletcher Books (


The Greatcoats are the stuff of legend. Traveling Magisters, their job is to travel the country bringing the King’s justice to his subjects and ensuring his laws are upheld. Falcio val Mond, once the First Cantor of this elite group of men and women, now hires himself out as security for caravaners in the vain hope that he will be able to persuade them to reinstate the Greatcoats as the guardians of the roads. The king is dead, the Greatcoats now branded Trattori and tatter-cloaks, disbanded and gone their separate ways. When Falcio and his friends get wind of a plot to put a representative of the Dukes on the throne, it becomes clear that they must do something quickly, or watch as their land slowly destroys itself from the inside out.

Sebastien de Castell’s Traitor’s Blade introduces us to a fascinating new fantasy world, and a cast of unforgettable characters. This is a very political world that, it turns out, is an extremely dangerous place for the three men at the story’s heart, and the one hundred and forty one others like them. These are the Greatcoats, a group of men and women sworn to uphold the King’s laws across the country. This is not an easy task: the country is split into a series of Duchies, and each is subject to the laws set by its own Duke. It is this divide that has caused the war between King and Dukes, leading to the ultimate demise of the king, and the current status of Falcio val Mond and his brothers and sisters. This country-wide scenario plays out in microcosm during Blood Week in the city of Rijou; here, driven by the need to uphold the laws in which he believes, Falcio stays behind to ensure the safety of the only surviving member of the Tiarren family, a young girl who, it seems, may be destined for greater things in times to come.

The story revolves around Falcio val Mond and his two companions, Kest – the world’s greatest sword-fighter – and Brasti – the world’s greatest archer. Behind them lies the weight of the legend of the Greatcoats, a group that would only be necessary in this fractured land where each Duke rules supreme over his own area, the King less of a figurehead and more of a nuisance to be dealt with. The coats themselves – armour, shelter, storage – set their wearers apart from knights and other assorted soldiers, bringing respect when times are good, and instant recognition as traitors when times are bad. They also allow de Castell to add little touches to the narrative that set these men apart from anyone else we’ve ever come across in the realms of fantasy fiction – the Game of Cuffs, or the ever-burning question of whether, if a man were quick enough, the coats might be able to stop a lead ball. These men, as individuals, all have their own traits: Falcio’s quick wit and quick rapiers; Brasti’s joking nature and his ability to hit the seemingly impossible target with his bow; Kest’s quiet, serious demeanour coupled with an unrivalled skill with the sword. They fit perfectly together, three personalities so complementary that it’s impossible to imagine Traitor’s Blade without one or other of them.

Around this solid core, de Castell has built a cast of characters that imprint themselves indelibly on the reader’s mind: the cruel Dukes; the young King who is wise beyond his years; princesses, assassins, minstrels and the old Tailor, who has a habit of popping up when we least expect it. de Castell sets the precedent early on: very few of these people are what they appear to be; and, still, we can’t help but be surprised at the level of duplicity we’re likely to encounter as we fly through the novel. Here is a world where magic exists, but in small quantities; a world where political strife impacts on the common man, not just the privileged few who are part of the scheming; a world, and a cast of characters, built on a solid foundation with a supporting history that is as engaging and engrossing as the main story arc itself.

As you might expect from a novel whose central characters are men of the sword, Traitor’s Blade is a constant blur of movement and action, one fight sequence following so closely on the heels of the one previous that it’s difficult to work out where de Castell has managed to fit so much story. But there is plenty of food for thought here, amongst all the action, as de Castell embarks on epic world-building designed to support the rest of the Greatcoats saga. There is a lot of wit and a lot of heart in this novel (which, when compared to its contemporaries, is relatively short at less than four hundred pages) and both serve the story well, setting a tone and a mood that can quite often be missing in these quest-type fantasy epics.

‘Sure,’ I said. ‘We teach them the first rule of the sword.’
One of the guards, the one closest to Kest, tightened his grip on his pike in preparation for the attack and said jeeringly, ‘And what’s that supposed to be tatter-cloak? Lay down and die like the traitors you are?’
‘No,’ Kest said. ‘The first rule of the sword is–‘
His words were cut off as the guard jabbed his pike with the speed of a metal ball flying from the end of a pistol.
‘– put the pointy end into the other man,’ Kest finished.

I’ve been on a lucky run with fantasy novels of late. Sebastien de Castell’s Traitor’s Blade, the first book in the longer Greatcoats saga, is not the book to break that run. Full of wit, intrigue, action and violence, it’s a wonderful introduction to a new fantasy world and the people that inhabit it. And, from what we see on our first visit, there are plenty of reasons to come back for more.

An Interview with DEN PATRICK

Den Patrick Name: DEN PATRICK


On the web:

On Twitter: @Den_Patrick

Den Blog TourDen Patrick was born in Dorset in 1975 and shares a birthday with Bram Stoker. He has at various times been an editor, burlesque reviewer and Games Workshop staffer. He lives and works in London, and The Boy With the Porcelain Blade is his first novel.

Thank you, Den, for taking the time to chat with us.

My pleasure, thanks for having me on the blog.

First off, I’d like to explore the origins of the world you have created in The Boy With the Porcelain Blade. We get a potted part-history/part-mythology during the novel, but give us some insight into Landfall and the wonderful Demesne, a castle like no other I’ve ever encountered in fiction.

The world really grew around the characters. My agent asked for more world building after she read the draft I submitted to her. I knew there were four great Houses; Contadino for the famers and teamsters, Erudito, a House of scholars and teachers, House Prospero for the artisans and merchants, and lastly House Fontein, the soldiers. I love the idea of feuding Houses, something I enjoyed in Dune. As I re-drafted the novel the secondary characters, the history and the Houses gained depth. It was quite an organic process and Landfall grows each time I sit down to write a new book.

The Orfano (of which Lucien, the book’s protagonist is one) are strange, misshapen foundlings who appear on the steps of the great houses every few years. No one knows where they come from, which causes a lot of unease. The reclusive King has set down an edict where the Orfano are protected, which only adds to the suspicion and distrust.

There’s something very familiar about this world in which we find ourselves: Italian seems to be the language of choice, and the histories seem to be our own (as evidenced by the names of the drakes, and their origins). Was this a deliberate decision, and should we read anything in to it?

I suppose I was attempting a cultural shorthand. The Italian Renaissance is packed with warring city states, vendetta and politics. By using Italian as the old tongue of Landfall I’d hoped to create that sort of atmosphere. Giving the characters Italian names just reinforced that cultural shorthand.

The histories and mythic names are shared with our own, and that’s something I may explore more deeply one day. I’ve always liked the fact you never really know if Gormenghast is set on this world or is a secondary world of it’s own.

The ceramic blades are an interesting concept. What’s the origin?

So, this is a massively geeky answer. I love Star Wars and one of the things about TIE fighters is that they are fragile (no shields) and are reliant on the Star Destroyers that carry them. They have no landing gear and can’t travel between systems like say the X-wing. A TIE fighter creates reliance by the pilot for the officers commanding him, he needs them.

So it goes with ceramic blades. You’re reliant on House Fontein to receive a new blade should you break your own. You’ll reach a fairly short end the moment you come into contact with someone wielding a steel blade should you disobey or openly rebel.

And lastly the literary metaphor, if you’re into that; Lucien is ferocious, but he’s also very young. Teenage years are a strange time when we think we’re indestructible but are often quite fragile.

There is a hugely political element to the story: the four major houses collected together in a single space; the "floating" nature of the Orfano and the adoption process that sees them enter Houses when they come of age. How much of this existed before the story, and how much developed as you progressed through the plot? Is there any pressure, given the popularity of the Song of Ice and Fire (Game of Thrones) series, to produce "political fantasy" to keep the readers engaged?

I’ve never read A Song of Ice and Fire. Don’t tell anyone, OK? Otherwise people won’t believe I’m a proper Fantasy author. I do love the TV show though.

A lot the Houses really grew as I fleshed out the plot. I surprised myself with how political it became. I do remember watching a lot of West Wing when I wrote the first book, so maybe that bled in subconsciously.

Lord Marino. I’m offering the name without further comment, but I can’t help but think we might begin to see the world outside of Landfall as this series progresses. Can you give us some hints about what might be in the near future for Lucien and friends?

The action stays firmly focused on Demesne for the next two books. Book two has a new point of view character, but I can’t tell you who for reasons of spoileryness. Book three has two female point of view characters. I have two stand alone novels planned, and both take place in the new town of San Marino, but I’ve no idea if I’ll have the chance to write them. Lucien will pop up from time to time as a secondary character, but the new books will all have new lead characters.

What authors or works have influenced you as a writer?

I really love Jon Courtney Grimwood’s economy. He does so much with so little and the dynamics he creates between characters is fantastic. Richard Morgan has this bruising swagger to his writing, it’s so hard boiled, so spoiling for a fight, it makes his writing electric. Chris Wooding has this wonderful sense of fun and adventure, the Ketty Jay books are so good. China Miéville is obviously a master craftsman of prose and ideas. Steph Swainston has this incredible world populated with grizzled, often cynical, frequently flawed characters. And then there’s Joe Abercrombie, of course.

And as a follow-on, is there one book (or more than one) that you wish you had written?

I don’t want to write other people’s books, I’m having way too much fun writing my own.

What does a typical (writing) day in the life of Den Patrick look like?

Short controlled bursts, just like the Colonial Marines. I try and write 500 words, then break for a coffee, shower, bacon sandwich or whatever. Then another 500, another break, another 500 and so on. By 13:00 I’m a bit brain dead, so I’ll have lunch and watch an episode of something. In the afternoon I’ll re-read what I wrote that morning and tidy it up.

And what advice would you have for people hoping to pursue fiction-writing as a career?

Write everything. Write reviews, write articles, write comic scripts, write outside of your genre of choice. Study storytelling in all it’s forms be it novels, film, comics, television or theatre. The more you write the more you think about words and how to best communicate an idea through that medium.

What are you reading now, and is it for business or pleasure?

I’m reading Jen Williams’ The Copper Promise. And it’s very much for pleasure, and a lot of fun.

If The Boy With the Porcelain Blade ever makes the jump from page to screen, do you have any dream casts/directors/whatever?

I’d like the score to composed by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. I always imagined Duchess Prospero as Monica Bellucci. Gary Oldman would make an astounding Virmyre. Romola Garai for Camelia. In fact everyone who appeared in The Hour is fantastic. I struggle to think of people for the younger characters.

And finally, on a lighter note…

If you could meet any writer (dead or alive) over the beverage of your choice for a chat, who would it be, and what would you talk about (and which beverage might be best suited)?

My tastes are very contemporary, so I’m lucky in that I get to chat to authors I admire at conventions. I forgot to mention Scott Lynch earlier when I listed my influences. So yeah, Scott Lynch, a single malt, and as for what we’d talk about… who knows?

Thank you once again, Den, for taking time out to share your thoughts.



Den Patrick (

Gollancz (


On the weather-beaten island of Landfall stands the sprawling Demesne – four great Houses built around a central Keep which houses the reclusive, and reputedly mad, King. Lucien ‘Sinistra’ di Fontein is Orfano, a disfigured foundling taken in by the nobility of Demesne and trained as a swordsman. When he turns eighteen he, like all the Orfano who have come before, and all those who will come after, will face his final test and gain acceptance into one of the major Houses. But there are forces arrayed against Lucien, and against his Orfano brothers and sisters. The political climate in Demesne is shifting and Lucien must shift with it. His very existence depends on his skill with the sword, and his cunning.

Den Patrick’s first novel introduces us to the closed community on the island of Landfall. Centred around the castle-like structure of Demesne, Patrick introduces us to a world that bears remarkable parallels to our own. Using the Italian Renaissance as his model, Landfall is an insular world built around a mad and reclusive King who has created four great Houses – the military Fontein; the agricultural Contadino; the educational Erudito; and the craftsmen of House Prospero – around him to ensure the continued existence of his people. Into this fragile political ecology Patrick introduces the Orfano, rare beasts who normally appear three or four years apart, disfigured foundlings who have the protection of the King and his sinister Majordomo, and who play an important part in the inter-House dynamics.

Lucien, the book’s central character is one such Orfano, a young man about to move into adulthood and the responsibilities that invariably involves. In the background, plans are put in motion, plans to cross the King and his beloved freaks and wrest control of Demesne from the hands of the mad hermit who hasn’t left the central Keep in almost two hundred years. As Lucien finds himself drawn inextricably into this plot, he discovers that it is but a single layer of a more complex web of deceit. As we follow his journey through the political minefield, we are given insight into this young man, and the people who surround him, in a series of flashbacks to various points in his childhood. The Boy With the Porcelain Blade is as intricately-plotted as any novel of intrigue – not a word is out of place, and every scene that plays out in front of our eyes, regardless of how relevant it seems at the time, is key to the ultimate reveal – while still maintaining a pace and sense of action that we’ve come to expect from this type of fantasy fiction.

Patrick surrounds Lucien with an unforgettable cast of characters: the other Orfano, each with their own unique disfigurations and crosses to bear; Superiore of the Maestro di Spada Giancarlo, who has a severe dislike of Lucien; the wise Virmyre, one of the most important influences in Lucien’s education; Camelia, the cook who plays the part of Lucien’s mother as he grows; and, most striking, the sinister, hooded Majordomo, the voice of the King and that madman’s sole representative within Demesne. Demesne and Landfall themselves are locations that stick in the mind of the reader: we get a potted part-history, part-myth about the origins of the island nation (cleverly and naturally told), but Patrick never spends time examining ancient history. There are hints – the Italian language; the histories that the characters read – that Landfall might be related, in some strange way, to our own world, but the novel still maintains the sense of a secondary-world setting, where our own rules don’t necessarily hold true and where, as a result, anything is possible.

There are some deft touches that set The Boy With the Porcelain Blade above the competition: here is political intrigue to put even George R. R. Martin to shame; here a sense of horror that makes this excellent debut a novel that blurs the genre lines quite significantly; here references to technology that show us that this is a world of science rather than magic. The most intriguing aspect is the one that gives the novel its title: the ceramic blades with which the Orfano are issued before they have proven their worth. It’s a strange choice of material for a fighting blade, but Patrick makes us believe it nonetheless.

With elements that will appeal to a wide range of readers – from fans of The Three Musketeers, to those who love to immerse themselves in the Song of Ice and Fire series – The Boy With the Porcelain Blade is a dark, gritty, horrific piece of fantasy fiction that grabs the reader on the first page and keeps them engaged to the end. The sense that this might not be a secondary world makes some of the horror more immediate than it might otherwise have been, and the character of the Majordomo, with his grating, monotonous voice, is one that will haunt your dreams for some time to come. A stunning introduction to a fascinating world, peopled with characters in whom the reader will be entirely invested, Den Patrick leaves us with only two questions: how long must be wait before we can return to Landfall? And, with a debut this strong, how can the second book in the series possibly stand up to our expectations?

Extract: WORDS OF RADIANCE by Brandon Sanderson

Sanderson-SA2-WordsOfRadiance-Blog WORDS OF RADIANCE (The Stormlight Archive Book Two)

Brandon Sanderson (

Gollancz (


Today on Reader Dad, we’re very pleased to present an exclusive extract from Brandon Sanderson’s new novel, Words of Radiance. Below you will find Part 1, Chapter 1 of the novel, following on from yesterday’s extract at Sci Fi Now. Alternatively, click on the cover image above to download a PDF file of the same text.



To be perfectly frank, what has happened these last two months is upon my head. The death, destruction, loss, and pain are my burden. I should have seen it coming. And I should have stopped it.

—From the personal journal of Navani Kholin, Jeseses 1174

Shallan pinched the thin charcoal pencil and drew a series of straight lines radiating from a sphere on the horizon. That sphere wasn’t quite the sun, nor was it one of the moons. Clouds outlined in charcoal seemed to stream toward it. And the sea beneath them . . . A drawing could not convey the bizarre nature of that ocean, made not of water but of small beads of translucent glass.

Shallan shivered, remembering that place. Jasnah knew much more of it than she would speak of to her ward, and Shallan wasn’t certain how to ask. How did one demand answers after a betrayal such as Shallan’s? Only a few days had passed since that event, and Shallan still didn’t know exactly how her relationship with Jasnah would proceed.

The deck rocked as the ship tacked, enormous sails fluttering overhead. Shallan was forced to grab the railing with her clothed safehand to steady herself. Captain Tozbek said that so far, the seas hadn’t been bad for this part of Longbrow’s Straits. However, she might have to go below if the waves and motion got much worse.

Shallan exhaled and tried to relax as the ship settled. A chill wind blew, and windspren zipped past on invisible air currents. Every time the sea grew rough, Shallan remembered that day, that alien ocean of glass beads . . .

She looked down again at what she’d drawn. She had only glimpsed that place, and her sketch was not perfect. It—

She frowned. On her paper, a pattern had risen, like an embossing. What had she done? That pattern was almost as wide as the page, a sequence of complex lines with sharp angles and repeated arrowhead shapes. Was it an effect of drawing that weird place, the place Jasnah said was named Shadesmar? Shallan hesitantly moved her freehand to feel the unnatural ridges on the page.

The pattern moved, sliding across the page like an axehound pup under a bedsheet.

Shallan yelped and leapt from her seat, dropping her sketchpad to the deck. The loose pages slumped to the planks, fluttering and then scattering in the wind. Nearby sailors—Thaylen men with long white eyebrows they combed back over their ears— scrambled to help, snatching sheets from the air before they could blow overboard.

“You all right, young miss?” Tozbek asked, looking over from a conversation with one of his mates. The short, portly Tozbek wore a wide sash and a coat of gold and red matched by the cap on his head. He wore his eyebrows up and stiffened into a fanned shape above his eyes.

“I’m well, Captain,” Shallan said. “I was merely spooked.”

Yalb stepped up to her, proffering the pages. “Your accouterments, my lady.”

Shallan raised an eyebrow. “Accouterments?”

“Sure,” the young sailor said with a grin. “I’m practicing my fancy words. They help a fellow obtain reasonable feminine companionship. You know— the kind of young lady who doesn’t smell too bad an’ has at least a few teeth left.”

“Lovely,” Shallan said, taking the sheets back. “Well, depending on your definition of lovely, at least.” She suppressed further quips, suspiciously regarding the stack of pages in her hand. The picture she’d drawn of Shadesmar was on top, no longer bearing the strange embossed ridges.

“What happened?” Yalb said. “Did a cremling crawl out from under you or something?” As usual, he wore an open-fronted vest and a pair of loose trousers.

“It was nothing,” Shallan said softly, tucking the pages away into her satchel.

Yalb gave her a little salute— she had no idea why he had taken to doing that—and went back to tying rigging with the other sailors. She soon caught bursts of laughter from the men near him, and when she glanced at him, gloryspren danced around his head— they took the shape of little spheres of light. He was apparently very proud of the jape he’d just made.

She smiled. It was indeed fortunate that Tozbek had been delayed in Kharbranth. She liked this crew, and was happy that Jasnah had selected them for their voyage. Shallan sat back down on the box that Captain Tozbek had ordered lashed beside the railing so she could enjoy the sea as they sailed. She had to be wary of the spray, which wasn’t terribly good for her sketches, but so long as the seas weren’t rough, the opportunity to watch the waters was worth the trouble.

The scout atop the rigging let out a shout. Shallan squinted in the direction he pointed. They were within sight of the distant mainland, sailing parallel to it. In fact, they’d docked at port last night to shelter from the highstorm that had blown past. When sailing, you always wanted to be near to port— venturing into open seas when a highstorm could surprise you was suicidal.

The smear of darkness to the north was the Frostlands, a largely uninhabited area along the bottom edge of Roshar. Occasionally, she caught a glimpse of higher cliff s to the south. Thaylenah, the great island kingdom, made another barrier there. The straits passed between the two.

The lookout had spotted something in the waves just north of the ship, a bobbing shape that at first appeared to be a large log. No, it was much larger than that, and wider. Shallan stood, squinting, as it drew closer. It turned out to be a domed brown- green shell, about the size of three rowboats lashed together. As they passed by, the shell came up alongside the ship and somehow managed to keep pace, sticking up out of the water perhaps six or eight feet.

A santhid! Shallan leaned out over the rail, looking down as the sailors jabbered excitedly, several joining her in craning out to see the creature. Santhidyn were so reclusive that some of her books claimed they were extinct and all modern reports of them untrustworthy.

“You are good luck, young miss!” Yalb said to her with a laugh as he passed by with rope. “We ain’t seen a santhid in years.”

“You still aren’t seeing one,” Shallan said. “Only the top of its shell.” To her disappointment, waters hid anything else—save shadows of something in the depths that might have been long arms extending downward. Stories claimed the beasts would sometimes follow ships for days, waiting out in the sea as the vessel went into port, then following them again once the ship left.

“The shell is all you ever see of one,” Yalb said. “Passions, this is a good sign!”

Shallan clutched her satchel. She took a Memory of the creature down there beside the ship by closing her eyes, fixing the image of it in her head so she could draw it with precision.

Draw what, though? she thought. A lump in the water?

An idea started to form in her head. She spoke it aloud before she could think better. “Bring me that rope,” she said, turning to Yalb.

“Brightness?” he asked, stopping in place.

“Tie a loop in one end,” she said, hurriedly setting her satchel on her seat. “I need to get a look at the santhid. I’ve never actually put my head underwater in the ocean. Will the salt make it difficult to see?” “Underwater?” Yalb said, voice squeaking.

“You’re not tying the rope.”

“Because I’m not a storming fool! Captain will have my head if . . .”

“Get a friend,” Shallan said, ignoring him and taking the rope to tie one end into a small loop. “You’re going to lower me down over the side, and I’m going get a glimpse of what’s under the shell. Do you realize that nobody has ever produced a drawing of a live santhid? All the ones that have washed up on beaches were badly decomposed. And since sailors consider hunting the things to be bad luck—”

“It is!” Yalb said, voice growing more high pitched. “Ain’t nobody going to kill one.”

Shallan finished the loop and hurried to the side of the ship, her red hair whipping around her face as she leaned out over the rail. The santhid was still there. How did it keep up? She could see no fi ns.

She looked back at Yalb, who held the rope, grinning. “Ah, Brightness. Is this payback for what I said about your backside to Beznk? That was just in jest, but you got me good! I . . .” He trailed off as she met his eyes. “Storms. You’re serious.”

“I’ll not have another opportunity like this. Naladan chased these things for most of her life and never got a good look at one.”

“This is insanity!”

“No, this is scholarship! I don’t know what kind of view I can get through the water, but I have to try.”

Yalb sighed. “We have masks. Made from a tortoise shell with glass in hollowed-out holes on the front and bladders along the edges to keep the water out. You can duck your head underwater with one on and see. We use them to check over the hull at dock.”


“Of course, I’d have to go to the captain to get permission to take one. . . .”

She folded her arms. “Devious of you. Well, get to it.” It was unlikely she’d be able to go through with this without the captain finding out anyway.

Yalb grinned. “What happened to you in Kharbranth? Your first trip with us, you w ere so timid, you looked like you’d faint at the mere thought of sailing away from your homeland!”

Shallan hesitated, then found herself blushing. “This is somewhat fool-hardy, isn’t it?”

“Hanging from a moving ship and sticking your head in the water?”

Yalb said. “Yeah. Kind of a little.”

“Do you think . . . we could stop the ship?”

Yalb laughed, but went jogging off to speak with the captain, taking her query as an indication she was still determined to go through with her plan. And she was.

What did happen to me? she wondered.

The answer was simple. She’d lost everything. She’d stolen from Jasnah Kholin, one of the most powerful women in the world—and in so doing had not only lost her chance to study as she’d always dreamed, but had also doomed her brothers and her house. She had failed utterly and miserably.

And she’d pulled through it.

She wasn’t unscathed. Her credibility with Jasnah had been severely wounded, and she felt that she had all but abandoned her family. But something about the experience of stealing Jasnah’s Soulcaster— which had turned out to be a fake anyway— then nearly being killed by a man she’d thought was in love with her . . .

Well, she now had a better idea of how bad things could get. It was as if . . . once she had feared the darkness, but now she had stepped into it. She had experienced some of the horrors that awaited her there. Terrible as they w ere, at least she knew.

You always knew, a voice whispered deep inside of her. You grew up with horrors, Shallan. You just won’t let yourself remember them.

“What is this?” Tozbek asked as he came up, his wife, Ashlv, at his side. The diminutive woman did not speak much; she dressed in a skirt and blouse of bright yellow, a headscarf covering all of her hair except the two white eyebrows, which she had curled down beside her cheeks.

“Young miss,” Tozbek said, “you want to go swimming? Can’t you wait until we get into port? I know of some nice areas where the water is not nearly so cold.”

“I won’t be swimming,” Shallan said, blushing further. What would she wear to go swimming with men about? Did people really do that? “I need to get a closer look at our companion.” She gestured toward the sea creature.

“Young miss, you know I can’t allow something so dangerous. Even if we stopped the ship, what if the beast harmed you?”

“They’re said to be harmless.”

“They are so rare, can we really know for certain? Besides, there are other animals in these seas that could harm you. Redwaters hunt this area for certain, and we might be in shallow enough water for khornaks to be a worry.” Tozbek shook his head. “I’m sorry, I just cannot allow it.”

Shallan bit her lip, and found her heart beating traitorously. She wanted to push harder, but that decisive look in his eyes made her wilt. “Very well.”

Tozbek smiled broadly. “I’ll take you to see some shells in the port at Amydlatn when we stop there, young miss. They have quite a collection!”

She didn’t know where that was, but from the jumble of consonants squished together, she assumed it would be on the Thaylen side. Most cities were, this far south. Though Thaylenah was nearly as frigid as the Frostlands, people seemed to enjoy living there.

Of course, Thaylens were all a little off. How else to describe Yalb and the others wearing no shirts despite the chill in the air?

They weren’t the ones contemplating a dip in the ocean, Shallan reminded herself. She looked over the side of the ship again, watching waves break against the shell of the gentle santhid. What was it? A great- shelled beast, like the fearsome chasmfiends of the Shattered Plains? Was it more like a fish under there, or more like a tortoise? The santhidyn were so rare— and the occasions when scholars had seen them in person so infrequent—t hat the theories all contradicted one another.

She sighed and opened her satchel, then set to organizing her papers, most of which w ere practice sketches of the sailors in various poses as they worked to maneuver the massive sails overhead, tacking against the wind. Her father would never have allowed her to spend a day sitting and watching a bunch of shirtless darkeyes. How much her life had changed in such a short time.

She was working on a sketch of the santhid’s shell when Jasnah stepped up onto the deck.

Like Shallan, Jasnah wore the havah, a Vorin dress of distinctive design. The hemline was down at her feet and the neckline almost at her chin. Some of the Thaylens— when they thought she wasn’t listening— referred to the clothing as prudish. Shallan disagreed; the havah wasn’t prudish, but elegant. Indeed, the silk hugged the body, particularly through the bust—and the way the sailors gawked at Jasnah indicated they didn’t find the garment unflattering.

Jasnah was pretty. Lush of figure, tan of skin. Immaculate eyebrows, lips painted a deep red, hair up in a fi ne braid. Though Jasnah was twice Shallan’s age, her mature beauty was something to be admired, even envied. Why did the woman have to be so perfect?

Jasnah ignored the eyes of the sailors. It wasn’t that she didn’t notice men. Jasnah noticed everything and everyone. She simply didn’t seem to care, one way or another, how men perceived her.

No, that’s not true, Shallan thought as Jasnah walked over. She wouldn’t take the time to do her hair, or put on makeup, if she didn’t care how she was perceived. In that, Jasnah was an enigma. On one hand, she seemed to be a scholar concerned only with her research. On the other hand, she cultivated the poise and dignity of a king’s daughter— and, at times, used it like a bludgeon.

“And here you are,” Jasnah said, walking to Shallan. A spray of water from the side of the ship chose that moment to fly up and sprinkle her. She frowned at the drops of water beading on her silk clothing, then looked back to Shallan and raised her eyebrow. “The ship, you may have noticed, has two very fi ne cabins that I hired out for us at no small expense.”

“Yes, but they’re inside.”

“As rooms usually are.”

“I’ve spent most of my life inside.”

“So you will spend much more of it, if you wish to be a scholar.”

Shallan bit her lip, waiting for the order to go below. Curiously, it did not come. Jasnah gestured for Captain Tozbek to approach, and he did so, groveling his way over with cap in hand.

“Yes, Brightness?” he asked.

“I should like another of these . . . seats,” Jasnah said, regarding Shallan’s box.

Tozbek quickly had one of his men lash a second box in place. As she waited for the seat to be ready, Jasnah waved for Shallan to hand over her sketches. Jasnah inspected the drawing of the santhid, then looked over the side of the ship. “No wonder the sailors were making such a fuss.”

“Luck, Brightness!” one of the sailors said. “It is a good omen for your trip, don’t you think?”

“I shall take any fortune provided me, Nanhel Eltorv,” she said. “Thank you for the seat.”

The sailor bowed awkwardly before retreating.

“You think they’re superstitious fools,” Shallan said softly, watching the sailor leave.

“From what I have observed,” Jasnah said, “these sailors are men who have found a purpose in life and now take simple plea sure in it.” Jasnah looked at the next drawing. “Many people make far less out of life. Captain Tozbek runs a good crew. You were wise in bringing him to my attention.”

Shallan smiled. “You didn’t answer my question.”

“You didn’t ask a question,” Jasnah said. “These sketches are characteristically skillful, Shallan, but weren’t you supposed to be reading?”

“I . . . h ad trouble concentrating.”

“So you came up on deck,” Jasnah said, “to sketch pictures of young men working without their shirts on. You expected this to help your concentration?”

Shallan blushed, as Jasnah stopped at one sheet of paper in the stack. 39 Shallan sat patiently—s he’d been well trained in that by her father— until Jasnah turned it toward her. The picture of Shadesmar, of course.

“You have respected my command not to peer into this realm again?” Jasnah asked.

“Yes, Brightness. That picture was drawn from a memory of my first . . . lapse.”

Jasnah lowered the page. Shallan thought she saw a hint of something in the woman’s expression. Was Jasnah wondering if she could trust Shallan’s word?

“I assume this is what is bothering you?” Jasnah asked.

“Yes, Brightness.”

“I suppose I should explain it to you, then.”

“Really? You would do this?”

“You needn’t sound so surprised.”

“It seems like powerful information,” Shallan said. “The way you forbade me . . . I assumed that knowledge of this place was secret, or at least not to be trusted to one of my age.”

Jasnah sniff ed. “I’ve found that refusing to explain secrets to young people makes them more prone to get themselves into trouble, not less. Your experimentation proves that you’ve already stumbled face-first into all of this— as I once did myself, I’ll have you know. I know through painful experience how dangerous Shadesmar can be. If I leave you in ignorance, I’ll be to blame if you get yourself killed there.”

“So you’d have explained about it if I’d asked earlier in our trip?”

“Probably not,” Jasnah admitted. “I had to see how willing you w ere to obey me. This time.”

Shallan wilted, and suppressed the urge to point out that back when she’d been a studious and obedient ward, Jasnah hadn’t divulged nearly as many secrets as she did now. “So what is it? That . . . p lace.”

“It’s not truly a location,” Jasnah said. “Not as we usually think of them. Shadesmar is h ere, all around us, right now. All things exist there in some form, as all things exist here.”

Shallan frowned. “I don’t—”

Jasnah held up a finger to quiet her. “All things have three components: the soul, the body, and the mind. That place you saw, Shadesmar, is what we call the Cognitive Realm— the place of the mind.

“All around us you see the physical world. You can touch it, see it, hear it. This is how your physical body experiences the world. Well, Shadesmar is the way that your cognitive self—y our unconscious self— experiences the world. Through your hidden senses touching that realm, you make intuitive leaps in logic and you form hopes. It is likely through those extra senses that you, Shallan, create art.”

Water splashed on the bow of the ship as it crossed a swell. Shallan wiped a drop of salty water from her cheek, trying to think through what Jasnah had just said. “That made almost no sense whatsoever to me, Brightness.”

“I should hope that it didn’t,” Jasnah said. “I’ve spent six years researching Shadesmar, and I still barely know what to make of it. I shall have to accompany you there several times before you can understand, even a little, the true significance of the place.”

Jasnah grimaced at the thought. Shallan was always surprised to see visible emotion from her. Emotion was something relatable, something human— and Shallan’s mental image of Jasnah Kholin was of someone almost divine. It was, upon reflection, an odd way to regard a determined atheist.

“Listen to me,” Jasnah said. “My own words betray my ignorance. I told you that Shadesmar wasn’t a place, and yet I call it one in my next breath. I speak of visiting it, though it is all around us. We simply don’t have the proper terminology to discuss it. Let me try another tactic.”

Jasnah stood up, and Shallan hastened to follow. They walked along the ship’s rail, feeling the deck sway beneath their feet. Sailors made way for Jasnah with quick bows. They regarded her with as much reverence as they would a king. How did she do it? How could she control her surroundings without seeming to do anything at all?

“Look down into the waters,” Jasnah said as they reached the bow. “What do you see?”

Shallan stopped beside the rail and stared down at the blue waters, foaming as they were broken by the ship’s prow. Here at the bow, she could see a deepness to the swells. An unfathomable expanse that extended not just outward, but downward.

“I see eternity,” Shallan said.

“Spoken like an artist,” Jasnah said. “This ship sails across depths we cannot know. Beneath these waves is a bustling, frantic, unseen world.”

Jasnah leaned forward, gripping the rail with one hand unclothed and the other veiled within the safehand sleeve. She looked outward. Not at the depths, and not at the land distantly peeking over both the northern and southern horizons. She looked toward the east. Toward the storms.

“There is an entire world, Shallan,” Jasnah said, “of which our minds skim but the surface. A world of deep, profound thought. A world created by deep, profound thoughts. When you see Shadesmar, you enter those depths. It is an alien place to us in some ways, but at the same time we formed it. With some help.”

“We did what?”

“What are spren?” Jasnah asked.

The question caught Shallan off guard, but by now she was accustomed to challenging questions from Jasnah. She took time to think and consider her answer.

“Nobody knows what spren are,” Shallan said, “though many philosophers have different opinions on—”

“No,” Jasnah said. “What are they?”

“I . . .” Shallan looked up at a pair of windspren spinning through the air above. They looked like tiny ribbons of light, glowing softly, dancing around one another. “They’re living ideas.” Jasnah spun on her.

“What?” Shallan said, jumping. “Am I wrong?”

“No,” Jasnah said. “You’re right.” The woman narrowed her eyes. “By my best guess, spren are elements of the Cognitive Realm that have leaked into the physical world. They’re concepts that have gained a fragment of sentience, perhaps because of human intervention.

“Think of a man who gets angry often. Think of how his friends and family might start referring to that anger as a beast, as a thing that possesses him, as something external to him. Humans personify. We speak of the wind as if it has a will of its own.

“Spren are those ideas—t he ideas of collective human experience— somehow come alive. Shadesmar is where that first happens, and it is their place. Though we created it, they shaped it. They live there; they rule there, within their own cities.”


“Yes,” Jasnah said, looking back out over the ocean. She seemed troubled. “Spren are wild in their variety. Some are as clever as humans and create cities. Others are like fish and simply swim in the currents.”

Shallan nodded. Though in truth she was having trouble grasping any of this, she didn’t want Jasnah to stop talking. This was the sort of knowledge that Shallan needed, the kind of thing she craved. “Does this have to do with what you discovered? About the parshmen, the Voidbringers?”

“I haven’t been able to determine that yet. The spren are not always forthcoming. In some cases, they do not know. In others, they do not trust me because of our ancient betrayal.”

Shallan frowned, looking to her teacher. “Betrayal?”

“They tell me of it,” Jasnah said, “but they won’t say what it was. We broke an oath, and in so doing off ended them greatly. I think some of them may have died, though how a concept can die, I do not know.” Jasnah turned to Shallan with a solemn expression. “I realize this is overwhelming. You will have to learn this, all of it, if you are to help me. Are you still willing?”

“Do I have a choice?”

A smile tugged at the edges of Jasnah’s lips. “I doubt it. You Soulcast on your own, without the aid of a fabrial. You are like me.”

Shallan stared out over the waters. Like Jasnah. What did it mean?


She froze, blinking. For a moment, she thought she’d seen the same pattern as before, the one that had made ridges on her sheet of paper. This time it had been in the water, impossibly formed on the surface of a wave.

“Brightness . . .” she said, resting her fingers on Jasnah’s arm. “I thought

I saw something in the water, just now. A pattern of sharp lines, like a maze.”

“Show me where.”

“It was on one of the waves, and we’ve passed it now. But I think I saw it earlier, on one of my pages. Does it mean something?”

“Most certainly. I must admit, Shallan, I find the coincidence of our meeting to be startling. Suspiciously so.”


“They were involved,” Jasnah said. “They brought you to me. And they are still watching you, it appears. So no, Shallan, you no longer have a choice. The old ways are returning, and I don’t see it as a hopeful sign. It’s an act of self-p reservation. The spren sense impending danger, and so they return to us. Our attention now must turn to the Shattered Plains and the relics of Urithiru. It will be a long, long time before you return to your homeland.”

Shallan nodded mutely.

“This worries you,” Jasnah said.

“Yes, Brightness. My family . . .”

Shallan felt like a traitor in abandoning her brothers, who had been depending on her for wealth. She’d written to them and explained, without many specifics, that she’d had to return the stolen Soulcaster—and was now required to help Jasnah with her work.

Balat’s reply had been positive, after a fashion. He said he was glad at least one of them had escaped the fate that was coming to the house. He thought that the rest of them— her three brothers and Balat’s betrothed— were doomed.

They might be right. Not only would Father’s debts crush them, but there was the matter of her father’s broken Soulcaster. The group that had given it to him wanted it back.

Unfortunately, Shallan was convinced that Jasnah’s quest was of the utmost importance. The Voidbringers would soon return— indeed, they were not some distant threat from stories. They lived among men, and had for centuries. The gentle, quiet parshmen who worked as perfect servants and slaves were really destroyers.

Stopping the catastrophe of the return of the Voidbringers was a greater duty than even protecting her brothers. It was still painful to admit that.

Jasnah studied her. “With regard to your family, Shallan. I have taken some action.”

“Action?” Shallan said, taking the taller woman’s arm. “You’ve helped my brothers?”

“After a fashion,” Jasnah said. “Wealth would not truly solve this problem, I suspect, though I have arranged for a small gift to be sent. From what you’ve said, your family’s problems really stem from two issues. First, the Ghostbloods desire their Soulcaster—which you have broken— to be returned. Second, your house is without allies and deeply in debt.”

Jasnah proffered a sheet of paper. “This,” she continued, “is from a conversation I had with my mother via spanreed this morning.”

Shallan traced it with her eyes, noting Jasnah’s explanation of the broken Soulcaster and her request for help.

This happens more often than you’d think, Navani had replied. The failing likely has to do with the alignment of the gem housings. Bring me the device, and we shall see.

“My mother,” Jasnah said, “is a renowned artifabrian. I suspect she can make yours function again. We can send it to your brothers, who can return it to its owners.”

“You’d let me do that?” Shallan asked. During their days sailing, Shallan had cautiously pried for more information about the sect, hoping to understand her father and his motives. Jasnah claimed to know very little of them beyond the fact that they wanted her research, and were willing to kill for it.

“I don’t particularly want them having access to such a valuable device,” Jasnah said. “But I don’t have time to protect your family right now directly. This is a workable solution, assuming your brothers can stall a while longer. Have them tell the truth, if they must—t hat you, knowing I was a scholar, came to me and asked me to fi x the Soulcaster. Perhaps that will sate them for now.”

“Thank you, Brightness.” Storms. If she’d just gone to Jasnah in the first place, after being accepted as her ward, how much easier would it have been? Shallan looked down at the paper, noticing that the conversation continued.

As for the other matter, Navani wrote, I’m very fond of this suggestion. I believe I can persuade the boy to at least consider it, as his most recent affair ended quite abruptly— as is common with him— earlier in the week.

“What is this second part?” Shallan asked, looking up from the paper.

“Sating the Ghostbloods alone will not save your house,” Jasnah said. “Your debts are too great, particularly considering your father’s actions in alienating so many. I have therefore arranged a powerful alliance for your house.”

“Alliance? How?”

Jasnah took a deep breath. She seemed reluctant to explain. “I have taken the initial steps in arranging for you to be betrothed to one of my cousins, son of my uncle Dalinar Kholin. The boy’s name is Adolin. He is handsome and well- acquainted with amiable discourse.”

“Betrothed?” Shallan said. “You’ve promised him my hand?”

“I have started the pro cess,” Jasnah said, speaking with uncharacteristic anxiety. “Though at times he lacks foresight, Adolin has a good heart— as good as that of his father, who may be the best man I have ever known. He is considered Alethkar’s most eligible son, and my mother has long wanted him wed.”

“Betrothed,” Shallan repeated.

“Yes. Is that distressing?”

“It’s wonderful!” Shallan exclaimed, grabbing Jasnah’s arm more tightly. “So easy. If I’m married to someone so powerful . . . Storms! Nobody would dare touch us in Jah Keved. It would solve many of our problems. Brightness Jasnah, you’re a genius!”

Jasnah relaxed visibly. “Yes, well, it did seem a workable solution. I had wondered, however, if you’d be off ended.”

“Why on the winds would I be off ended?”

“Because of the restriction of freedom implicit in a marriage,” Jasnah said. “And if not that, because the offer was made without consulting you. I had to see if the possibility was even open first. It has proceeded further than I’d expected, as my mother has seized on the idea. Navani has . . . a tendency toward the overwhelming.”

Shallan had trouble imagining anyone overwhelming Jasnah. “Stormfather! You’re worried I’d be off ended? Brightness, I spent my entire life locked in my father’s manor— I grew up assuming he’d pick my husband.”

“But you’re free of your father now.”

“Yes, and I was so perfectly wise in my own pursuit of relationships,” Shallan said. “The first man I chose was not only an ardent, but secretly an assassin.”

“It doesn’t bother you at all?” Jasnah said. “The idea of being beholden to another, particularly a man?”

“It’s not like I’m being sold into slavery,” Shallan said with a laugh.

“No. I suppose not.” Jasnah shook herself, her poise returning. “Well, I will let Navani know you are amenable to the engagement, and we should have a causal in place within the day.”

A causal—a conditional betrothal, in Vorin terminology. She would be, for all intents and purposes, engaged, but would have no legal footing until an official betrothal was signed and verified by the ardents.

“The boy’s father has said he will not force Adolin into anything,” Jasnah explained, “though the boy is recently single, as he has managed to offend yet another young lady. Regardless, Dalinar would rather you two meet before anything more binding is agreed upon. There have been . . . shifts in the political climate of the Shattered Plains. A great loss to my uncle’s army. Another reason for us to hasten to the Plains.”

“Adolin Kholin,” Shallan said, listening with half an ear. “A duelist. A fantastic one. And even a Shardbearer.”

“Ah, so you were paying attention to your readings about my father and family.”

“I was—but I knew about your family before that. The Alethi are the center of society! Even girls from rural houses know the names of the Alethi princes.” And she’d be lying if she denied youthful daydreams of meeting one. “But Brightness, are you certain this match will be wise? I mean, I’m hardly the most important of individuals.”

“Well, yes. The daughter of another highprince might have been preferable for Adolin. However, it seems that he has managed to offend each and every one of the eligible women of that rank. The boy is, shall we say, somewhat over eager about relationships. Nothing you can’t work through, I’m sure.”

“Stormfather,” Shallan said, feeling her legs go weak. “He’s heir to a princedom! He’s in line to the throne of Alethkar itself!”

“Third in line,” Jasnah said, “behind my brother’s infant son and Dalinar, my uncle.”

“Brightness, I have to ask. Why Adolin? Why not the younger son? I— I have nothing to offer Adolin, or the house.”

“On the contrary,” Jasnah said, “if you are what I think you are, then you will be able to offer him something nobody else can. Something more important than riches.”

“What is it you think that I am?” Shallan whispered, meeting the older woman’s eyes, finally asking the question that she hadn’t dared.

“Right now, you are but a promise,” Jasnah said. “A chrysalis with the potential for grandeur inside. When once humans and spren bonded, the results were women who danced in the skies and men who could destroy the stones with a touch.”

“The Lost Radiants. Traitors to mankind.” She couldn’t absorb it all. The betrothal, Shadesmar and the spren, and this, her mysterious destiny. She’d known. But speaking it . . .

She sank down, heedless of getting her dress wet on the deck, and sat with her back against the bulwark. Jasnah allowed her to compose herself before, amazingly, sitting down herself. She did so with far more poise, tucking her dress underneath her legs as she sat sideways. They both drew looks from the sailors.

“They’re going to chew me to pieces,” Shallan said. “The Alethi court.

It’s the most ferocious in the world.”

Jasnah snorted. “It’s more bluster than storm, Shallan. I will train you.” “I’ll never be like you, Brightness. You have power, authority, wealth.

Just look how the sailors respond to you.”

“Am I specifically using said power, authority, or wealth right now?”

“You paid for this trip.”

“Did you not pay for several trips on this ship?” Jasnah asked. “They did not treat you the same as they do me?”

“No. Oh, they are fond of me. But I don’t have your weight, Jasnah.”

“I will assume that did not have implications toward my girth,” Jasnah said with a hint of a smile. “I understand your argument, Shallan. It is, however, dead wrong.”

Shallan turned to her. Jasnah sat upon the deck of the ship as if it were a throne, back straight, head up, commanding. Shallan sat with her legs against her chest, arms around them below the knees. Even the ways they sat were different. She was nothing like this woman.

“There is a secret you must learn, child,” Jasnah said. “A secret that is even more important than those relating to Shadesmar and spren. Power is an illusion of perception.” Shallan frowned.

“Don’t mistake me,” Jasnah continued. “Some kinds of power are real— power to command armies, power to Soulcast. These come into play far less often than you would think. On an individual basis, in most interactions, this thing we call power— authority—exists only as it is perceived.

“You say I have wealth. This is true, but you have also seen that I do not often use it. You say I have authority as the sister of a king. I do. And yet, the men of this ship would treat me exactly the same way if I w ere a beggar who had convinced them I was the sister to a king. In that case, my authority is not a real thing. It is mere vapors—an illusion. I can create that illusion for them, as can you.”

“I’m not convinced, Brightness.”

“I know. If you w ere, you would be doing it already.” Jasnah stood up, brushing off her skirt. “You will tell me if you see that pattern— the one that appeared on the waves— again?”

“Yes, Brightness,” Shallan said, distracted.

“Then take the rest of the day for your art. I need to consider how to best teach you of Shadesmar.” The older woman retreated, nodding at the bows of sailors as she passed and went back down belowdecks.

Shallan rose, then turned and grabbed the railing, one hand to either side of the bowsprit. The ocean spread before her, rippling waves, a scent of cold freshness. Rhythmic crashing as the sloop pushed through the waves.

Jasnah’s words fought in her mind, like skyeels with only one rat between them. Spren with cities? Shadesmar, a realm that was h ere, but unseen? Shallan, suddenly betrothed to the single most important bachelor in the world?

She left the bow, walking along the side of the ship, freehand trailing on the railing. How did the sailors regard her? They smiled, they waved. They liked her. Yalb, who hung lazily from the rigging nearby, called to her, telling her that in the next port, there was a statue she had to go visit. “It’s this giant foot, young miss. Just a foot! Never finished the blustering statue . . .”

She smiled to him and continued. Did she want them to look at her as they looked at Jasnah? Always afraid, always worried that they might do something wrong? Was that power?

When I first sailed from Vedenar, she thought, reaching the place where her box had been tied, the captain kept urging me to go home. He saw my mission as a fool’s errand.

Tozbek had always acted as if he were doing her a favor in conveying her after Jasnah. Should she have had to spend that entire time feeling as if she’d imposed upon him and his crew by hiring them? Yes, he had offered a discount to her because of her father’s business with him in the past—but she’d still been employing him.

The way he’d treated her was probably a thing of Thaylen merchants. If a captain could make you feel like you w ere imposing on him, you’d pay better. She liked the man, but their relationship left something to be desired. Jasnah would never have stood for being treated in such a way.

That santhid still swam alongside. It was like a tiny, mobile island, its back overgrown with seaweed, small crystals jutting up from the shell.

Shallan turned and walked toward the stern, where Captain Tozbek spoke with one of his mates, pointing at a map covered with glyphs. He nodded to her as she approached. “Just a warning, young miss,” he said. “The ports will soon grow less accommodating. We’ll be leaving Longbrow’s Straits, curving around the eastern edge of the continent, toward New Natanan. There’s nothing of worth between h ere and the Shallow Crypts— and even that’s not much of a sight. I wouldn’t send my own brother ashore there without guards, and he’s killed seventeen men with his bare hands, he has.”

“I understand, Captain,” Shallan said. “And thank you. I’ve revised my earlier decision. I need you to halt the ship and let me inspect the specimen swimming beside us.”

He sighed, reaching up and running his fingers along one of his stiff, spiked eyebrows— much as other men might play with their mustaches. “Brightness, that’s not advisable. Stormfather! If I dropped you in the ocean . . .”

“Then I would be wet,” Shallan said. “It is a state I’ve experienced one or two times in my life.”

“No, I simply cannot allow it. Like I said, we’ll take you to see some shells in—”

“Cannot allow it?” Shallan interrupted. She regarded him with what she hoped was a look of puzzlement, hoping he didn’t see how tightly she squeezed her hands closed at her sides. Storms, but she hated confrontation. “I wasn’t aware I had made a request you had the power to allow or disallow, Captain. Stop the ship. Lower me down. That is your order.” She tried to say it as forcefully as Jasnah would. The woman could make it seem easier to resist a full highstorm than to disagree with her.

Tozbek worked his mouth for a moment, no sound coming out, as if his body were trying to continue his earlier objection but his mind had been delayed. “It is my ship . . .” he finally said.

“Nothing will be done to your ship,” Shallan said. “Let’s be quick about it, Captain. I do not wish to overly delay our arrival in port to night.”

She left him, walking back to her box, heart thumping, hands trembling. She sat down, partially to calm herself.

Tozbek, sounding profoundly annoyed, began calling orders. The sails were lowered, the ship slowed. Shallan breathed out, feeling a fool.

And yet, what Jasnah said worked. The way Shallan acted created something in the eyes of Tozbek. An illusion? Like the spren themselves, perhaps? Fragments of human expectation, given life?

The santhid slowed with them. Shallan rose, nervous, as sailors approached with rope. They reluctantly tied a loop at the bottom she could put her foot in, then explained that she should hold tightly to the rope as she was lowered. They tied a second, smaller rope securely around her waist— the means by which to haul her, wet and humiliated, back onto the deck. An inevitability, in their eyes.

She took off her shoes, then climbed up over the railing as instructed. Had it been this windy before? She had a moment of vertigo, standing there with socked toes gripping a tiny rim, dress fluttering in the coursing winds. A windspren zipped up to her, then formed into the shape of a face with clouds behind it. Storms, the thing had better not interfere. Was it human imagination that had given windspren their mischievous spark?

She stepped unsteadily into the rope loop as the sailors lowered it down beside her feet, then Yalb handed her the mask he’d told her of.

Jasnah appeared from belowdecks, looking about in confusion. She saw Shallan standing off the side of the ship, and then cocked an eyebrow.

Shallan shrugged, then gestured to the men to lower her.



Jen Williams (

Headline (


hrpv2For the fifth title in the Hodderscape Review Project, we move into the realms of fantasy with the debut novel from Jen Williams, The Copper Promise, released this month by Headline. Don’t forget to check in to the Review Project site to find out what my fellow reviewers thought of this title.

The Citadel of Creos has stood for centuries, a remnant and constant reminder of the ancient mages, reputed to have been built as a prison for the gods. Aaron Frith, Lord of the Blackwood and last remaining member of his family, has endured hardship and torture, and now wants revenge. He believes that the secrets that lie within the Citadel will give him the power he needs to find and defeat the monsters who destroyed his family and stole his lands. Hiring Wydrin and Sir Sebastian, a pair of sell-swords, the trio head into the depths of the Citadel. In finding the power of the mages, they unwittingly release Y’Ruen, a dragon goddess, and the army of lizard-like women she has spent her centuries of imprisonment creating. Now revenge must take a back seat: Y’Ruen must by stopped before she lays the entire world of Ede to waste.

I can be a bit hard to convince when it comes to so-called “high fantasy”, the type of novels which take Tolkien as their inspiration and spend more time creating races of funny-looking people and languages to go with them than they do developing a plot outside the basic quest structure. Thankfully, Jen Williams’ debut, The Copper Promise, is nothing like that sort of book. Yes, there is an element of the quest novel here, though it is abandoned and picked up and abandoned again as the novel progresses; yes, there are strange new creatures, but it is how Williams handles them that sets this apart from the norm. The emphasis here is on the characters and how their decisions impact on the world around them, while still managing to tell a story that moves at a rollicking pace and provides the requisite amount of wit, blood and fire-breathing dragons to keep even the most sceptical of fantasy readers turning the pages as fast as they can.

At the heart of the story is the Frith family, all but young Aaron tortured to death by invaders whose sole aim is to find the location of the family’s secret vault. Left for dead, Aaron makes his way to Creos, having heard the rumours and stories about the Citadel, and hoping to gain some of the mages’ magic for himself in order to get vengeance for his murdered father and brothers. When it turns out that all of the rumours about the Citadel are true, and Frith and his hired muscle release the savage dragon-god, Y’Ruen on the world, Aaron finds himself faced with the choice between getting his revenge, or saving the world. Aaron’s companions are Wydrin, who styles herself the Copper Cat, and Sir Sebastian, a disgraced knight who was once a member of the revered order of Ynnsmouth Knights. Where Williams sets herself apart is that the majority of the development of these characters happens when they are apart. Unlike the standard quest structure of “here to here to here”, the band fractures quite early in the novel, the three individuals going their own way to seek their own adventures. This is a pattern that will repeat later in the novel, and the story feels much fresher for it, a proper examination of these unique personalities, rather than a constant trading of banter and insults.

Along with the dragon, the trio find themselves faced with an army of lizard-like women who have been created by the god during her captivity in the Citadel. These creatures have been brought to life as a result of Sebastian almost bleeding to death within the confines of the monstrous edifice. This has an unexpected side-effect, and Williams gives us some insight into this process, as members of the army gain self-awareness and develop their own unique personalities, to the point that they are choosing names for themselves.

‘I want to keep these words with me,’ said the Twelfth. She tried to gather up all the books and dropped them again.

‘Tear out the pages?’ suggested the Ninety-Seventh. The Thirty-Third frowned. Somehow she felt their father wouldn’t approve of that.

‘No,’ said the Twelfth, who apparently felt the same. ‘I will make them my name. You will call me Crocus from now on.’

This in strong counterpoint to the journey that their father, Sebastian, is taking, sinking ever deeper into darkness until the point where he swears his sword, and all the blood that it spills, to a demon, as if his daughters are sucking the humanity from him in their own bid to become more like him.

While not quite as “un-fantasy” as George R R Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series, Jen Williams’ The Copper Promise is certainly a lot more grounded than most swords and sorcery-type fiction. Perhaps the most surprising thing about this book – and one of its biggest selling points for me – is the fact that it does in a single volume what many fantasy authors might try to do over the course of three or four books (five hundred pages before the dragon makes an appearance and our heroic trio finally escape from the Citadel, for example), while still leaving us with the promise of much more to come. The characters are well-rounded, fully fleshed-out and we find ourselves wanting to know what will happen to them next – this is most prevalent when they are apart, and we find ourselves wondering if they’re likely to get back together again, or whether they will continue on separate paths for the duration.

Fast-paced and wonderfully-realised, Jen Williams’ first novel is a delight, even for one so jaded as me when it comes to fantasy fiction. An intriguing premise made more so by the neat touches Williams adds to the story – the Secret Keeper is a prime example of these – the reader will encounter pirates, dragons, zombies, gods and demons, to name but a few, on their journey through this exciting new world. Not for the faint of heart, but you probably knew that already.



David Logan (

Quercus (


Junk Doyle was twelve years old when his mother stopped loving him.

When he is twelve years old, a strange-looking giant of a man sneaks into Colin "Junk" Doyle’s home and abducts his six-year-old sister, Ambeline. His parents find him at a nearby cliff top, having heard their daughter’s cries for help, and suspicion immediately falls on young Junk, who has never been particularly nice to his sister. Determined to clear his name and find – and kill – the man who killed his sister, Junk sets off into the world with the only knowledge he has about the man – the cross-shaped scar over one eye, and the tattoo of a shark’s fin and five stars, the symbol – he later learns – of La Liga de los Tiburones, The League of Sharks. After three years of travelling, Junk follows a man who looks like his sister’s abductor through a glowing green door on the seabed off the coast of Greece. On the other side, he finds a room filled with similar doors, and when he follows the man through a second door, he finds that he has returned to Earth some three million years into the future. Here, man is extinct, and animals have evolved into almost-human forms, and here is where Junk will find out what happened to his sister.

The League of Sharks is the first in a new young adult fantasy series from David Logan, the acclaimed author of Lost Christmas. Our protagonist, Junk, starts the story at twelve years old. Three years later – three hard years, working his passage on boats and ships, moving around the world – he seems much older than his allotted fifteen years. With this subtle tweak to the central character, Logan ensures that League – and everything that is to follow – will appeal not only to the target teen audience, but also to a much older fan of fantasy fiction.

Logan’s vision of a future three million years down the line is a depressing one for humanity, but an interesting one nonetheless. Humanity, it seems, is set to die out within a few thousand years of today, to be replaced by the results of our genetic experiments, beings that are part animal, part human. Earth in this far future is almost recognisable to twenty-first century eyes:

Jansia was part of a continent that vaguely resembled Europe, though, in comparison to a similar-sized map of Earth, the land mass was far smaller and there was a lot more water. This was true of the rest of this world.

Technology has surged forward in some respects – the land-ships, for example, which run on tracks like trains on land, and sail like ships when on water – and regressed in many others. This feels much more like a fantasy world than the science fiction setting that such a far-future setting might imply. There are comparisons to be made with the works of China Miéville, especially his most recent work, Railsea.

Junk meets a number of inhabitants of this future who are willing to help him. With some, the original species is quite obvious – Dr Octravinius the goat, or Cascér the shark – while others are less so – Garvan the elephant and Lasel the deer. Along the way, Junk will find himself facing strange birdmen who have not evolved as much as the planet’s other inhabitants; a lunatic religious cult which holds the key to the Room of Doors, and which seems to exist solely to ensure the destruction of Dr Octravinius; and the League of Sharks themselves.

The League of Sharks marks the start of young Junk’s journey, introducing the reader to this engaging young man who seems much older than his years and to the strange new world in which he finds himself. Logan has constructed a believable world that is at once dangerous and intriguing. He has also created the fundamental building blocks of not one, but two new languages that serve to add further dimensions to world and story. Perfect for fans of Michael Grant’s Gone series or the many and varied worlds of China Miéville, both young and not-so-young, it will leave you pining for the next instalment (The Nine Emperors, due August).

With a wit that will appeal to a wide audience, and a central character whose escapades will appeal, in particular, to young boys, David Logan enters the packed world of young adult fantasy with a fresh voice and an original take on an oft-told tale. Magical, thrilling and, at times, touching and sentimental, The League of Sharks – and whatever is still to come of this brilliant series – is sure to be a hit. Recommend it to your children, but be sure to have a sneaky read yourself. You might just find your new favourite read.

FEARIE TALES by Stephen Jones


Edited by Stephen Jones (

Illustrated by Alan Lee

Jo Fletcher Books (


For most of us, the fairy tale is one of the staples of growing up. Bedtime stories for young children, it’s only when we reach adulthood that we realise just how disturbing they are, how cruel our parents must have been to send us to bed with these images our final goodnight. Of course, Disney has helped somewhat in that regard, making the frightening seem less so, and often changing the structure of the tale to suit their own ends (see, for example, Disney’s treatment of Hans Christian Andersen’s "The Little Mermaid", which bears little resemblance, after a certain point, to the source material.

Most often used as cautionary tales, and used to instil the fear if God (or, at the very least, the Big Bad Wolf) into those more gullible than the teller (children), it’s sometimes difficult to believe that they’ve stood the test of time as well as they have. With Fearie Tales, noted horror anthologist Stephen Jones sets out to return the form to its roots. Using the original tales collected in the early 19th Century by the brothers Grimm as inspiration, Jones presents a collection of modern day fairy tales designed to frighten and unsettle, and written by some of the foremost practitioners of horror and dark fantasy currently working in their respective fields.

Each modern story is prefaced by one of the original Grimm tales, and what follows range from direct translations to more loosely connected stories which, perhaps, share a theme with one if the older tales. Ramsey Campbell presents a modern re-telling of "Rumpelstiltskin", while Neil Gaiman works his magic on the tale of "The Singing Bone". Robert Shearman takes a slightly different approach and puts a sinister twist on the later lives of Hansel and Gretel in a story that will make you reconsider reading the tale of the siblings to your own children. Another re-telling of "Rumpelstiltskin" closes the book, this time by the excellent John Ajvide Lindqvist (and ably translated by the ever-reliable Marlaine Delargy), who introduces the Swedish myth of the tomte, a creature which will likely be unfamiliar to most English-speaking readers.

As with any anthology of fiction, there are always one or two stand-out pieces. With Fearie Tales, the stand-outs are absolute gems, amidst a stellar line-up of authors, from two less likely suspects. The first is Christopher Fowler’s "The Ash-Boy". Fowler is probably best known for his quirky crime novels starring the elderly detective duo Bryant and May, but his roots lie in the horror genre, and it’s one he still frequently visits. In this case, Fowler tells the story of Cinderella with a twist. But it’s the final few paragraphs, where we realise that we’re listening to a father tell this story to his young daughter, that packs the punch and sets this apart from the other stories in the book.

Peter Crowther’s story, "The Artemis Line" is worth the price of admission alone. The titles refers to the physically connected line of bodies that must exist for a troll to move away from a body of water, yet remain connected to it through the connection with its brethren, and the story is a modern-day retelling of the story of the elves who replace a baby with a changeling. One of the longer stories in the book, it grips the reader from the word go and ends all-too-quickly. It is also one of the most frightening tales in the book, Crowther drawing on his vast experience of the genre to live up to the anthology’s title.

It’s a hand, he thought as the scarecrow’s head slowly fell from view, the hat dislodging, pushed up and back by the brim until it fell off completely, exposing a material dome beneath, sprinkled with dry straw.

It’s a hand grasping at my foot, he thought.

The book is illustrated throughout by Alan Lee, best known for his depictions of Tolkien’s Middle Earth. Despite the black-and-white nature of these illustrations – or perhaps because of it – they contain a level of detail and a certain gruesome quality that makes them as likely to stick in the mind of the reader as the stories themselves.

Jones has assembled a list of veritable superstars and set them the task of recreating the stories of  Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm in their own inimitable fashion. The result is an excellent collection of dark and thought-provoking tales by the people who do them best: Neil Gaiman, Michael Marshall Smith, Tanith Lee, to name but a few. The inclusion of the original Grimm tales serves as a reminder that those tales we remember so fondly would probably give us nightmares if we were to read them for the first time, in their original form, as adults. This is a must for horror aficionados everywhere, and doubly so for anyone with a penchant for fairy tales in particular. The usual high production values from Jo Fletcher mean this is a book that you’ll want to have displayed on your shelf, and that’s just the icing on the cake. Dark, disturbing but most of all: wonderful.

Powered by

Up ↑