Review: The Tainted Realm: Justice

If you follow this blog regularly, you’ll know my feelings on Ian Irvine’s Tainted Realm trilogy have been a little mixed. Irvine is my literary idol, and his Three Worlds novels are something that every fan of speculative fiction owes it to themselves to read, but the Tainted Realm has been a bit more inconsistent.

Cover art for "The Tainted Realm, book three: Justice" by Ian IrvineThe first book, Vengeance, showed great potential, but it was too unrelentingly dark, and it started to feel more like an endurance test than a relaxing read. Book two, Rebellion, was much more balanced, and had only a few minor hiccups.

Unfortunately, I think the third and final installment of the series, Justice, leans more towards the first book in quality than the second, though for different reasons.

Justice features the land of Hightspall torn by a three-way war. The vengeful Cythonians under King Lyf control much of the land, but they are rapidly losing ground to the Herovian army led by the resurrected Axil Grandys and his Five Heroes. Caught between the unstoppable force and the immovable object is the meager remainder of Hightspall’s military, led by the fallen noble Rixium “Deadhand” Ricinus.

Meanwhile, Mad Wil has thrown the Engine at the heart of the world fatally out of balance, and the land is on the brink of an apocalyptic natural disaster.

As is always the case in Ian Irvine novels, the plot hits the ground running, and there’s no shortage of action or peril, but despite this, I found the first half of the book quite uncompelling for one simple reason: It felt like a total retread of the opening of book two.

Tali has been captured by the bad guys, who seek to use her for her own ends. Tobry is falsely believed to be dead. Rix spares a rival and rapidly comes to regret his act of mercy. Rix and Glynnie constantly butt heads despite their feelings for each other.

Now, which book am I describing?

I found Rix and Glynnie’s troubles particularly bothersome. Partly because I didn’t find their spats particularly interesting the first time around, let alone the second, and partly because I really thought the friction in their relationship had been resolved by the end of the last book. It made all of their development in Rebellion feel rather pointless.

Once you get to around the halfway mark of the book, Justice starts to forge its own path and becomes a very gripping book, but it’s hard to get past that shaky start.

I think the thing I most enjoyed about Justice was how compelling its villains were. I’d say Irvine writes the best villains, but he writes the best everything, so that’s rather redundant.

Justice shows off Irvine’s talents by presenting examples of two completely different kinds of villain, each executed to perfection.

A map of central Hightspall, the setting of Ian Irvine's "The Tainted Realm" trilogyLyf is a sympathetic villain, to the point where it almost feels unfair to call him a villain. I had to keep forcibly reminding myself of all the horrible things he’s done, because it’s so hard not to feel for him. He has suffered so much for so long, and he loves his people with all his heart. Despite all his crimes, he wound up becoming one of my favourite characters.

On the other hand, Axil Grandys is irredeemably evil. Vile, brutish, savage, cruel, selfish, arrogant, vain… all words that describe him perfectly. He is rotten to the core, with no justification for his endless acts of barbarism. I grew to hate him with every fiber of my being, and any moment that saw Grandys being frustrated, hurt, or defeated had me grinning like an idiot.

The latter half of Justice is almost entirely thrilling, but the ending left something to be desired. It occupies a strange and uncomfortable middle ground. It’s not a cliff-hanger, but it doesn’t leave everything resolved. The characters don’t live happily ever after, but they don’t face a fatalistic defeat, either.

It feels… unfinished. Perhaps Irvine wants to leave the door open to more stories set in this world, but I think he could have done that while still providing a more satisfying ending. As it stands, it just feels oddly incomplete.

I have a theory for why this is. More on that in a moment.

The one other strange and noteworthy thing about Justice is that it reveals the Tainted Realm is not, in fact, an entirely separate story but is tangentially related to the Three Worlds series. I won’t spoil exactly what the connection is, but it’s something that becomes apparent fairly quickly if you know your Three Worlds lore.

I’m not sure how I feel about this. One the one hand, it’s interesting to learn a bit more about the history of the Three Worlds, and as a little Easter egg for fans of Irvine’s other work, it’s a nice touch.

However, coupled with that oddly incomplete ending, I start to wonder. I can’t escape the feeling that the Tainted Realm wasn’t intended to simply be another Three Worlds series in disguise, and that we might see the Tainted Realm and its characters spill over into the upcoming conclusion of the Three Worlds, The Gate of Good and Evil trilogy.

I’m not sure this would be a good idea.

To be fair, part of me enjoys the idea of all the Tainted Realm and Three Worlds characters being brought together in a “comic book crossover/all your favourites in one place” kind of way.

But we were already getting something like that with The Gate of Good and Evil, as it looked poised to bring all the myriad plots and characters of the Three Worlds together. Wrapping up all the loose ends of eleven Three Worlds books would already have been a monumental task, and adding the loose ends of the Tainted Realm on top of that would likely lead to nothing but a scattered and over-burdened plot.

Of course, this is all just my own tinfoil hat theory. Nothing may come of it.

The covers for the "Tainted Realm" trilogy by Ian IrvineUltimately, I think the biggest problem with the Tainted Realm trilogy was one of expectation as much as one of its actual quality. I’m such a huge fan of Ian Irvine that I expect perfection from him every time — and to his credit, I’m usually not disappointed despite those unrealistic expectations.

The Tainted Realm isn’t bad. Not even close. Despite some significant stumbles here and there, they’re still very much above average in the fantasy field with some truly brilliant ideas and powerful moments.

But they’re not on the same level of quality as, say, The View From the Mirror or The Song of the Tears, and so I can’t help but feel a little disappointed.

In the end, I’ll stand by what I said in my review of Vengeance. The Tainted Realm books are very good, but I’m not going to go around telling everyone to read them the way I do for the Three Worlds novels. They’re a good read, not a must read.

Overall rating for Justice: 8.4/10

TSW’s Second Anniversary + Review: The Chaoswar Saga: A Crown Imperiled

As of today, The Secret World is two years old. Of course, that’s a great accomplishment for the game, but more importantly, it’s time for us all to drown in a sea of free loot.

Players defend Harbaburesti during the Guardians of Gaia event in The Secret WorldThe Guardians of Gaia event is back, bringing with it buffs to double or at least greatly increase the acquisition of ability points, black bullion, AEGIS XP, and… pretty much everything else in the game, really. There’s also an all new world boss in Tokyo, with new loot and new lore.

Also, there will not be a golem in Fusang Projects this year. That sound you hear is everyone in the Secret World breathing a sigh of relief.

I don’t really see anything topping last year’s Joelzilla Incident, but I fully expect awesome times ahead. TSW puts on fantastic world events, but none have quite topped Guardians of Gaia, in my view.

Today also marks the release of the first additional mission pack added to Tokyo (much sooner than I expected): Sidestories: Love and Loathing, which features five new missions from the various Tokyo NPCs. More Daimon Kiyota can only be a good thing.

Review: A Crown Imperiled

If you follow this blog regularly, you may have heard me say in the past that mediocrity is very hard to review. Without any brilliant moments to praise, or any monumental blunders to rant over, there isn’t much to say.

You may also remember my review of the first book of Raymond E. Feist’s Chaoswar Saga — itself a continuation of the enormous Riftwar Cycle, which tells the story of the embattled world of Midkemia — about two years ago.

I finally got around to reading the second book of this trilogy, A Crown Imperiled, and it is a very hard book to review.

It’s doubly hard because Feist’s writing has become so consistent and predictable that I feel anything I could say would just be repeating what I’ve already said many times before, even if I’ve technically only reviewed one of his other books on this blog.

Cover art for "The Chaoswar Saga: A Crown Imperiled" by Raymond E. FeistIn short, A Crown Imperiled is a classic example of the rut that the Midkemian novels have fallen into. Feist has created a world full of rich and memorable characters, terrifying threats, and fantastical wonders.

And he all but ignores them in favour of the mundane, the generic, and the predictable.

Every new Midkemia series splits its attention between the longstanding characters who have carried this series from the start — like the godlike magician Pug and the Dragon Lord Tomas — and new characters introduced for that series.

Two things invariably hold true: The new characters are nowhere near as interesting as the old ones, but they get the lion’s share of the attention.

The majority of characters in the Midkemia books are the very definition of forgettable. As in I had literally forgotten everything about most of them right down to their very existence in the time between reading this book and the last one. The only reason I remembered Ty Hawkins was that he has the same nickname as me.

So that’s a major knock against this book out of the gate, and the plot suffers from similar issues. There are some very interesting things going on, but they are not the focus of the story. The side-dishes have crowded out the entrèe.

Martin and Brendan — whom I could not tell you anything about — are digging in to halt the Keshian invasion, a war that the book makes abundantly clear is just a distraction for some other nefarious plot. I swear half the scenes with these characters were just them discussing the logistics of preparing for a siege. Or that’s how it felt.

Meanwhile, their equally nondescript brother Hal ends up running through the wilderness with the fugitive princess of Roldem, which ultimately accomplishes nothing other than providing an excuse for a very generic romance arc.

A map of Midkemia's Triagia continent, setting of the Riftwar novelsThe most interesting part of this book involves the return from the dead (sort of) of Miranda and Nakor. I was never the biggest fan of Miranda, but Nakor is awesome enough to make all the other tedium of these books worthwhile, and the fact they’ve returned, and the method of their return, raises some intriguing questions.

There’s also a potentially interesting plot involving a Dark Elf chieftain, but it’s largely abandoned after a few chapters because reasons.

Unfortunately, the mind-blowing twist at the end of the last book is largely ignored.

In case it wasn’t clear by now, I wasn’t very impressed by A Crown Imperiled.

It may be that I am being harsher than the book deserves. Certainly, it’s still a well-written book in the technical sense, and it’s not without its thrills. But it’s hard to ignore how much potential is being completely wasted.

At least Nakor is back. That almost makes all the other stumbles worthwhile. That guy is amazing.

Overall rating: 6.5/10 While the last few books felt above average for the flagging Riftwar series, A Crown Imperiled is a return to form, and not at all in a good way.