Gladiator Meets The Count of Monte Cristo in the African-Inspired Fantasy Epic The Rage of Dragons

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The Rage of Dragons, the debut epic from self-publishing success story Evan Winter, distinguishes itself by its setting, a fantasy world inspired by Africa, but truly impresses with its storytelling. It weaves a tale of determination, love, revenge, and war that is, at its core, the story of one young man who, even as he seeks to improve his life by learning the art of war, must grapple with deadly politics, powerful magic, and a threat that could destroy an entire civilization.

The novel starts off with a obligatory prologue that provides essential background information in the guise of an action sequence, as a colonizing force fights to establish a foothold on a unknown, hostile continent: Queen Taifa and her people, the Omehi, having crossed an ocean, attempt to wrest control of a new land from the local inhabitants. This opening reveals a lot of the fantastic elements of the setting that slip into the background for much of the book (these early pages provide our most extensive view of the titular dragons).

From there, the book picks up two centuries later with the story of the protagonist, Tau, one of the Omehi people, who have been fighting the local inhabitants ever since to maintain their hold on a precarious peninsula. The conflict has ranged from raids to full scale combat, and there is always the need for more warriors.  Tau is a young man in a war-torn society, seeking a martial path to greatness. He has ambitions to be Ihashe—an elite military fighter—a rank that he, as a member of one of the lower classes in his rigid, caste-based society, can never surpass. Were he to prove his skill to be accepted to train to become an Ihashe, he could support and provide for the woman he loves, Zuri.

It’s a good plan for a life—and quickly dashed. A grave injustice committed against Tau causes him to redouble his efforts to join the Ihashe—but this time only so he can take revenge against those who wronged him. Tau has a long list of enemies, and he intends to deal with them one-by-one, and violently. To do so, he must first learn the art of combat and shape himself into an instrument of vengeance. Edmund Dantes would completely understand. Even as he trains and continues to try to win Zuri’s heast, the fires of Tau’s violent desires burn bright within him, threatening to overwhelm his dream of a peaceful future.

The meat of this series-launching novel is concerned with Tau’s training to be an Ihashe and his attempts to fulfill his plans of revenge. Over time, he learns to fight individually, then as part of a unit, then as a leader of one. The narrative is replete with scenes of small and large-scale battles and skirmishes, as all the while, Tau continually plots and plans. These sections are rich in verisimilitude and light on the genre trappings; Tau’s becoming often reads more like a realistic tale of bronze age warfare than something unfolding in an epic fantasy setting. It’s all very well-structured and compelling; readers with an interest in the minutiae of military tactics and hand-to-hand fighting will especially love this middle portion of the book. And for the fantasy fans, well: Tau does eventually engage with the fantastical elements of the world while on his quest to master the blade.

As events progress and a new threat to Tau’s world arises, the book shifts gears yet again, becoming a story of political turmoil, intrigue, infighting, invasion, and revolution. What could’ve been a jarring transition works surprisingly well, and feels natural after all the time we’ve spent with Tau as he levels up and develops the strength and skill to deal with concerns far greater than a single opponent or a singular quest for revenge. The fate of nations hangs in the balance, and Evan Winter does a great job aligning and contrasting these larger concerns with Tau’s personal desires. It’s also in the lead-up to the finale that all the fantastical elements glimpsed throughout the novel come to the fore, resulting in a frantic, pulse-pounding siege that pays off on all the promises made in the hundreds of preceding pages.

While the plot is engrossing, Winter excels at theme and worldbuilding. Tau’s society is a highly stratified by social class, and his attempts to make a name for himself despite his lower-class origins give him drive as a character even before he is pushed onto a path of revenge and rampage. Themes of the injustice of war, the importance of love and friendship, and the utility of sacrifice serve to lend the characters rich inner lives. We get to know Tau best of all, given that the point of view that sticks closely to him, but our window into his world is wide enough to give us a good look at all of the people in his life, providing a set of characters for the reader to cheer and fear for, especially when the odds are stacked so high against them.

If you favor comparisons in your book review, The Rage of Dragons is a a Xhosan Gladiator crossed The Count of Monte Cristo, with a dose of the politicking of A Game of Thrones politics in for good measure. All in all, it’s a winning formula for an impressive fantasy debut.

The Rage of Dragons is available now as an ebook, and in hardcover on July 16.

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6 Books Featuring Killer Blade Fights

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Today we are joined by guest author Anna Kashina—whose latest book, Shadowblade, is out now from Angry Robot—as she discusses the skillful presentation of sword fighting in fantasy novels. 

My favorite genre—as a writer and as a reader—is historical adventure fantasy. I tend to pick medieval multicultural settings, with the level of technology preceding the invention of the firearms. As a writer, this gives me one very important tool: blades.

Top-level blademasters are recurring characters in my books, and central to my most recent novel, Shadowblade. For me this means doing lots of research about blade fighting techniques so that I can then pick the best weapons for all my characters, and populate the book with the coolest blade fights I can come up with.

Blade fighting is not just about weapons. There’s so much more that goes into being versatile and skilled with blades. One has to have superb reflexes, to be street-smart and stealthy, and to be a very quick thinker, among many other things. In my mind, this is also an irresistible set of qualities for a strong character.

I rarely go into all the technical details when describing blade fights. After all, it’s all about characters; the fights are only one tool that show off their interactions and their special qualities. Accordingly, my approach to describing blade fights usually goes one of two ways: the first is using the point of view of an expert who doesn’t see the need to focus on every move, but instead notes only a few that are especially well done. The second is from an amateur’s perspective, offering unbiased reactions without any technical knowledge, and thus relating directly to those readers who aren’t proficient with weapons themselves. (There is also a third way I’ve seen employed effectively, one that determinedly avoids describing any fights at all, only the results, leaving the rest to the reader’s imagination.)

In Shadowblade, a young girl, Naia, in training to become a top-level blademaster, accepts a very high profile, near-suicidal assignment for the Empire. Writing this book, I had an opportunity to employ both of my favorite points of view to describe blade fights. Naia starts out an amateur and can only admire the skill of some of the top warriors in her Order. Later on, as a ranked professional, she shifts into the expert mode. Being able to use both approaches in application to the same characterwas very gratifying.

I feel very special when I find a book that resonates with my own way of thinking about blade fights in fiction—but I find they are rare indeed. Here is a very short list of books that I think handle the subject well.

The Way of Shadows, by Brent Weeks
Highly skilled fights are the absolute centerpiece of this book, the story of a young street boy who escapes his gang and trains to become one of the most skilled assassins in the world. He goes through deadly challenges and humiliation, dangers and betrayal, and comes through it all as one of the best of the best. When you read this book, you believe that this is how this kind of training actually works; without glorifying the assassins’ profession, it carefully conveys the skill required to become a master. It’s not for the faint hearted, and on the gory side compared to the books I usually read, but the fights are worth it.

Throne of Glass, by Sarah J. Maas
The main character, 18-year-old assassin Celaena Sardothien, starts off as a prisoner in the king’s salt mines. She is summoned by the Crown Prince to become his champion and face some of the worst in their kingdom to win the contest for her freedom. This book is a pure joy to read, and a great example of the very effective “expert” point of view: Celaena has finished her training and achieved her highly notorious reputation long before the start of the book. Every bit of her experience and skill shows—not just in the fights, but in every one of her interactions; she can keep people on their toes with just a glance. I highly recommend this book and the entire series it’s a part of.

Magic of Blood and Sea, by Cassandra Rose Clarke
Assassins are creatures of shadows and blood magic. Dying by an assassin’s hand is the ultimate way to die, because no one could possibly expect you to escape them. With this introduction, we meet Naji, an attractive, mysterious, and complex blood magician, who moves through the shadows to unseeingly approach his victims. A curse binds him to a young pirate girl, and they are forced to travel together until they can find a way to break the spell. All we see of Naji’s blade work are the occasional glints of his steel—he moves too fast for the eye to follow. With all that, the way his fights are described is just so compelling that it is impossible to stop reading. This is a great example that when the details are left to the imagination, the resulting scene can be even more powerful.

Night Watch, by Terry Pratchett
I am aware that this choice is surprising; I greatly admire Terry Pratchett’s work, but Night Watch, while being one of my favorites of his books, is not really about assassins or blade fights. Yet, I think of it as featuring one of the best ways to describe fights: through not showing them at all. One passing character in this book is Lord Vetinari—the criminal who will later become the most effective ruler of Ankh Morpork. In Night Watch he is a young assassin who trails the main character—later to be Captain Vimes—and provides him with unseen help out of the toughest situations. Through glimpses of Vetinari, we learn some scarce secrets of the trade, such as that assassins’ favorite color is not black, but dark blue, because that is the color that blends the best with the darkness. We see Vetinari mostly as a silent shadow glimpsed over the rooftops, disappearing too fast for the eye to trace; no one has ever seen Vetinari with a weapon in hand, a seemingly reassuring thought that instead seems ominous and alarming. Other Terry Pratchett Discworld books occasionally show assassins as well, but this one stands out as the most memorable.

A Song of Ice and Fire, by George R.R. Martin
Here I mention an entire series rather than just one book, because to me it is really just one continuous, very long novel. (Incidentally, I am one of the nearly extinct dinosaurs who never watched a single episode of the Games of Thrones TV series, so everything I say here relies directly from the books.) There are many sword fights in A Game of Thrones, most of them gory and realistic. Real, non-choreographed sword fights are rarely as long and spectacular as they appear in movies. They usually end very quickly, and with lethal disfiguring injuries. There are many of those in this series, but only one swordsman stands out for me because of his pure skill: Jaime Lannister. (Curiously enough, he becomes truly interesting as a character only after he loses his hand, and hence his superb sword skill.) To me, the power comes in the way he thinks of the sword fights, especially when he misses being able to do it the way he used to. It made me think of lightness, and fluidity, and technique, and the fun behind it for someone like him. It’s testament to the author’s superb ability for character development that Jaime, who starts off as a despicable villain, can turn around and become the most likable characters, despite my full awareness that he cannot possibly end up well (no spoilers). His sword skill is an integral part of him, even after he loses the ability.

Anna Kashina writes historical adventure fantasy, featuring exotic settings, martial arts, assassins, and elements of romance. Her Majat Code series, published by Angry Robot Books, UK, received two Prism Awards in 2015. She is a Russian by origin, and a scientist in her day job, and she freely draws on these backgrounds in her writing. Shadowblade is available now.

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All the Books You Need to Read to Discover the Real Story of Game of Thrones

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Pop culture phenomenons like HBO’s Game of Thrones don’t come around all that often, and once they’ve wrapped up, it can be painful to say goodbye. The ending of this particular saga is bittersweet for a number of reasons, and not only because the fan reaction to the eighth and final season has been, shall we say, mixed at best. There’s also the fact that many of those currently in mourning over the fates of their favorite characters actually first encountered the world of Westeros in a completely different medium—A Game of Thrones, the first novel in George R.R. Martin’s voluminous fantasy saga A Song of Ice and Fire, upon which the show is based, released in 1996. Thus, with two books still to be published, these fans feel like the story isn’t really over yet, even as the adaptation has spoiled the ending.

But I, ever the book-loving optimist, have decided to cope with the loss in a different way: rather than shedding tears over the ending, I’m going back to the beginning: by re-experiencing the whole thing—or as much of it as I can right now—on the page, reacquainting myself the the characters the TV series never found time for and anticipating an ending I’ll find more personally satisfying, even if it’s the same in its broad strokes. Whether you are a seasoned book reader or a fan of the show missing spending time with your favorite devious dwarf, these are all the books you need to read to discover the real story of Game of Thrones.

A Song of Ice and Fire (A Game of Thrones, A Clash of Kings, A Storm of Swords, A Feast for Crows, A Dance with Dragons), by George R.R. Martin
It probably goes without saying, but if you have yet to read the books that inspired the series—George R.R. Martin’s still-unfolding epic A Song of Ice and Fire—you’ve only glimpsed a part of the story. Though the first four seasons of HBO’s Game of Thrones are more or less direct adaptations of the source material, even with 10 episodes to work with they streamline subplots, change character motivations, and eliminate huge swaths of plot in the interest of telling a more palatable story for weekly episodic consumption. However, by the time the fifth season—ostensibly based on book five, A Dance with Dragons—rolled around, it was clear the show was going to end before the books, and ever since, it has been anyone’s guess as to how closely the to narratives will align. Certainly the show seems to stand atop the foundation laid by the novels already published, but it includes so many missing or differently shaped bricks, it’s hard to say if the finished structures will look much alike. Moreover, much of the deleted material is fascinating stuff—rich in worldbuilding, dense political maneuvering, one shocking (and much-missed) character resurrection—so you’re missing out if you assume the television version is the “only the good parts” version of the story. Of course, the real issue is no less relevant for you as a reader than it was for the show’s writers a few seasons back: There’s still no telling when Martin will finally finish his version of this immense epic. Here’s hoping the furor over the adaptation’s decisive final season will light a fire under the author. But even if it doesn’t, I’d argue there is immense value in experiencing even this truncated version of the story.

A Knight of the Seven Kingdoms, by George R.R. Martin and Gary Gianni (illustrator)
So you’ve binged the entire television series and reread those five fat novels. What next? This collection of three novellas set 100 years before the start of the series, originally published across disparate anthologies, is exactly what you’re looking for. In following the adventures of knight-for-hire Ser Duncan the Tall and his squire (and unlikely future king) Aegon V “Egg” Targaryen traipsing through the Westeros countryside, Martin provides a glimpse at a (slightly) happier time in the history of the war-torn nation, while doling out key revelations that remind us, yes, winter is coming for this world. The hardcover edition collects all three stories for the first time, along with over 160 illustrations. George R.R. Martin has promised more with these characters too—at least three and as many as six additional novellas are planned—but, as ever with this saga, you’re better off savoring what’s already out there than playing wait-and-see.

The World of Ice & Fire: The Untold History of Westeros and the Game of Thrones, by George R.R. Martin, Elio Garcia, and Linda Antonsson
On screen and on the page, Martin’s fictional world is darkly beautiful, intricate, and deep. In this lavish compendium, largely written by Elio Garcia and Linda Antonsson, the webmasters of the popular (nay, essential) fan site, the author cranks up the backstory to 11, providing the most comprehensive (and illustrated) view yet of the wider history of the Seven Kingdoms and the landsacross the Narrow Sea. This battle-filled, rivalry-stuffed, usurper-heavy hardcover looks great on your coffee table, but it is more than mere backstory for the obsessive fan: The tragedies of the past tend to repeat themselves, and the events outlined here echo throughout A Song of Ice and Fire. Moreover, this book is also said to include clues as to the stories that will play out in the spinoff(s) HBO is currently developing to continue the franchise onscreen.

Fire & Blood: A Targaryen History, by George R.R. Martin, illustrated by 
If the sort of glancing, arc-of-history backstory featured in The World of Ice & Fire sounds too surface level for you, Martin’s most recent Westeros book will be exactly your goblet of wine. It is the first of a planned duology of in-universe histories laying out the tortured story of the Targaryen dynasty that produced one Daenerys Targaryen, First of Her Name, Mother of Dragons, Etc. Etc. The book began life as but one section of the aforementioned world history, penned solely by Martin, but it grew a bit in the telling, as they say, to the magnitude of several hundred thousand words (the finished volume stretches to 736 pages, including ample illustrations by Doug Wheatley). Like The World of Ice & Fire, Fire & Blood purports to be a book of history pulled straight out of the world of the novels; as such, it is written in the voice of various maesters of Westeros and includes intentional ambiguity over the absolute veracity of the events depicted. If you can get over the fact that it isn’t the sixth book of the series proper, it’s great fun. Unfortunately, it has also given us another book to wait for: the second volume probably won’t arrive until sometime after the publication of the seventh book, A Dream of Spring.

The Lands of Ice & Fire, by George R.R. Martin
With a story that spans the Seven Kingdoms and multiple other continents besides, A Song of Ice and Fire truly puts the “epic” in “epic fantasy,” and there is no better way to illustrate that than with a really cool map or twenty. This collection of lavishly illustrated maps goes way beyond the famous 3-D cartography of the opening sequence of the HBO adaptation, and will help readers (and viewers) orient themselves in this wide invented world. From tundra to desert, the lands of Westeros (and beyond) are vast, and The Lands of Ice & Fire is your passport to it all.

How are you celebrating (or lamenting) the end of Game of Thrones?

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Tad Williams Empire of Grass Is a Melancholy Fantasy Epic

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Detail of Michael Whelan’s cover painting for Empire of Grass

When Tad Williams first announced plans for a new trilogy returning to Osten Ard—the setting of his landmark Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn trilogy—after over two decades away, I was nearly euphoric with excitement. Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn is one of modern fantasy’s finest epics, and its influence has rippled through the genre since its release in the late ’80s—chiefly, legend holds it was what convinced George R.R. Martin to sit down and write A Game of Thrones, thus launching a major resurgence of fantasy in mainstream culture.

Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn has maintained a truly impressive legacy, and the release of its sequel trilogy, The Last King of Osten Ard, has given fans and newcomers alike an opportunity to discover (or reacquaint themselves with) the beauty of Williams’ world. The Witchwood Crown, the first volume of The Last King of Osten Ard, was greeted no small amount of excitement by readers. But I admit I also felt some trepidation. How many times—especially in our recent, revival-obsessed pop culture—have fans been burned by creators returning to a beloved setting or series and failing to recapture what made the original so amazing? Williams is a master writer and storyteller, but 25 years is a long time to spend away from the texture, tone, and feel of a beloved series.Needless to say, I shouldn’t have doubted Williams.

The Witchwood Crown was just as sprawling and thematically interesting as its predecessor—not just another adventure in a familiar world, but a new experience enriched by what came before, building upon Williams’ work in a way that elevated the classic trilogy to new heights.

In my review of The Witchwood Crown for Barnes & Noble I said:

Williams’ prose, characterization, and worldbuilding are top-notch, as always… the return to Osten Ard is so seamless, it is difficult to believe that 30 years have passed since the story began. Like Memory, Sorrow and Thorn, The Last King of Osten Ard is shaping up to be an exploration of what happens to people—on a personal, societal, and political level—in the aftermath of war. Williams’ injects [the novel] with the same aged and thoughtful writing that gave the original trilogy its trademark air of melancholy, creating a lovely sense of reverberation for those of us who’ve grown up—and grown old—in this world.

When opening Empire of Grass, I was visited by familiar emotions. The Witchwood Crown was so satisfying. Could Empire of Grass continue to impress, or would it begin to retread familiar ground?

Happily for readers, the result is much the same the second time around: Empire of Grass not only meets expectations, but surpasses them in almost all ways. Few authors manage to write a series with as much depth and relevance as Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn once in a career. Williams is two-thirds of the way through doing it twice. [Editor’s note: Fans of Williams’ Otherland, feel free to pipe up in the comments.]

Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn was about the build-up to war, and how that affects people on a personal and societal level. The Last King of Osten Ard is set during the supposedly peaceful years after the war’s end, and via Williams’ trademark ability to weave dozens of themes into a dazzling, multi-layered tapestry, it reveals how a power vacuum and the difficultly of enacting change is anything but sure and safe.

In The Witchwood Crown, we begin to see the unravelling of Simon and Miriamele’s peaceful rule. Though they are benevolent leaders, the lands under their control are not at peace, but chafing at the possibility of greater freedom and independence. Little progress seems to have occurred in the decades since the climax of the original trilogy, and some might wonder at the monarch’s complacency. The Last King of Osten Ard is a portentous title, and Empire of Grass further reveals how Simon and Miriamele’s rule over Osten Ard is perhaps not the start of a new dynasty, but the end of an old story—a transition to a brave new world. Events set up in The Witchwood Crown begin to take more recognizable shape here, and the threat to Osten Ard appears just as dire as it was at the height of Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn.

I’ve long associated Williams’ Osten Ard stories with a feeling of melancholy; something about the slow atrophy of the Sithi and the Norns, and humanity’s fight against time, strikes me as profoundly sad. So often, epic fantasy focuses on the press toward something brighter—the resurgence of a golden past, when things were better and technology or magic were in ascendency. Osten Ard is different. Since the arrival of men and their iron weapons, Williams’ world has been in slow decline. It’s impossible to read Empire of Grass and not notice the way Simon and Miriamele’s peace, so hard-won, is giving way to renewed chaos.

Like our willingness to turn a blind eye toward climate change, rumors of Queen Utuk’ku’s return to Osten Ard, and the impending invasion of human lands by her army of Norns, are met with apathy, scorn, and doubt by many who would prefer to turn their energies and attentions to personal conflicts. In that way lies only defeat—not a return to a glorious past, but a continuation of the death and destruction that has plagued the land since the first meeting between the Gardenborn and the iron-bearing humans from the west. Empire of Grass is an examination of colonialism’s long, bloody reach, and of how even the greatest empires eventually eat themselves.

It’s remarkable that Williams can add so much volume to a world already as rich and deeply explored as this one—layers upon layers of worldbuilding enriches the reader experience immeasurably, while also seeding questions about the truth of the previous trilogy’s “happy ending.”

Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn is in fact often criticized for its ending, which sees Simon take the throne as Miriamele’s wife. For a trilogy with such thematic complexity, the prototypical fairy-tale fade-out seems a little too easy. But by the mid-point of Empire of Grass, Williams has done a wonderful job reexamining Miriamele and Simon’s strengths and weaknesses as monarchs, illustrating the way their inherent goodness both strengthens and weakens the realm. (Even as an older man, Simon’s low-class upbringing has a direct effect on his rule, for good or ill. The novel explores the complex marital challenges the couple faces—from the death of their son and daughter-in-law, to being forced to separate in an effort to save their realm.

Over the course of these new books, my opinion of the previous trilogy’s ending has favorably evolved. It’s clear now that ending was only a pause, concluding one set of challenges for Miriamele and Simon—those most recognizable to trope-y epic fantasy heroes and heroines. Now, they face a new and unprecedented set of challenges. It’s incredibly refreshing to see these characters that we got to know as children grow up into adults with problems ranging from marital boredom to royal responsibility. Williams earns this complexity, capturing the nuance and depth of a long-term marriages.

While characterization and theme have always been my favorite elements of these novels, they are wrapped up in some of the genre’s best worldbuilding, politicking, action, and plotting—qualities on fine display throughout Empire of Grass. Where The Witchwood Crown was a bit of a slow burn, the stakes raise immeasurably in the trilogy’s second volume, with the characters in peril, both personally and at large. The last book ended with its major players blown to separate corners of Osten Ard, pursuing various quests that appear unconnected, but start to tie together in surprising ways throughout Empire of Grass.

The growing threat of the Norns in the north provides a grand, sweeping threat, enough to excite any ardent epic fantasy fan. Meanwhile at the Hayholt, seat of Osten Ard’s monarchy, the king’s trusted advisor hides a murderous secret; Tiamak the scholar delves into troubling rumors about an ancient dark magic; and Miriamele leaves the castle’s safety on a journey south that brings with it many secrets and dark memories. Like his grandfather a lifetime ago, Prince Morgan is lost in the dark Aldheorte forest, cast out by the mysterious Sithi, his companion and trusted friend Eolair captured by bandits.

To use a cliche, this is a book fit to be used as a door stop, but every page is packed with conflict and the deepest lore this side of Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen. It is, of course, a middle volume, which means it falls prey to a predictable set of criticisms (it doesn’t quite have a beginning or an end, and finishing it will leave you desperate for the concluding volume), but it does not suffer for an exciting, consequential story.

Unlike The Witchwood Crown, what Empire of Grass is not is a suitable starting point for new readers. Its picks up in the immediate aftermath of the previous book, and while Williams’ does a good job of reminding readers of those events—beginning with a long and detailed synopsis of The Witchwood Crown, a trend I would like to see continue in all big, fat fantasy series—it’s all too much . Even if a fresh-eyed reader could keep up with the plot, they’d be missing out on way too much important context.

At this point, Williams’ readers likely know exactly what to expect from Empire of Grass, and the book delivers on all points. It’s a sprawling, melancholic epic exploring themes of post-war colonialism, aging, regret, and responsibility. Continuing the story of Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn was no small feat for Williams, but the fact that this new trilogy stands toe-to-toe with the original is remarkable. Empire of Grass is sure to be one of the year’s best books, and additional proof that Tad Williams stands with the best fantasists of his generation.

Empire of Grass is available now.

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