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Michelle West

REVIEW:  Battle by Michelle West

REVIEW: Battle by Michelle West

Dear Michelle West:

I’ve made no secret of the fact that I have mixed feelings about the first three books of your House War series. I loved the fact they expanded on the pasts of Jewel and her den, but I also disliked that we retread familiar scenes from other books set in this universe. After the Sun Sword series, it seemed like we’d hit a roadbump. Those misgivings were assuaged with the previous novel, Skirmish, and in Battle, my doubts are gone. This is the reason I fell in love with the books set in the Essalieyan universe.

battle-michelle-westIn Battle, Jewel has finally assumed the title of the Terafin. It’s been a long time coming. This has been her aim ever since her debut in the Hunter duology and it’s satisfying to see her accomplish her goal. But nothing runs smoothly in Jewel’s life, however.

Ever since Jewel’s first appearance in the books, she’s had one singular and rare gift. She is a seer. It’s the trait that earned her a place in House Terafin. The value of the gift was worth so much that when she insisted her den be accepted into the house as well, her request was granted.

Hints dropped in previous novels bear fruit in this one. We learn the seer gift is linked to more powerful, and devastating, abilities and in the far past, these abilities gave rise to great cities. In the present time, however, these abilities may be the only thing that stands between the Empire and the Lord of Hell.

This is a big book and a lot happens in it. I won’t lie. These books are epic in scope and they are so interconnected that it is a definite investment of reading time. But I think they’re worth it. The inevitable confrontation between mortals and the Lord of Hells looms closer, and I can practically see the apocalypse coming on the horizon.

Jewel has always been the Chosen One. That’s her archetype and while that’s never been one of my favorite character types, the one thing I like about her is that her Special status comes with a price. Not everyone loves her. In fact, I’d say more people dislike her at this point. In the past she’s been the target of assassination attempts from humans and demons alike. The fight for the title of Terafin was not bloodless, and there were rivals for the head seat. Likewise, demons recognized the threat she posed and sought to get rid of her before she came fully into her power. Now that her abilities have awakened the land of the capital itself, the Emperors and high priests have turned their eyes towards her.

Themes of power — how it affects people and what people do with it — have always run through your novels. It’s one of the more interesting aspects for me. And I liked that Battle acknowledges a simple fact: intentions do not matter. No one denies that Jewel means well. No one denies that she is on the side of good. She was instrumental is averting a demon invasion as a teenager, and people remember that.

This doesn’t mean she can be trusted. Having good intentions is not enough when you can alter the structures of ancient buildings, make magical trees grow where they shouldn’t, and access hidden pathways that should be forbidden to mortals. She can even walk through dreamscapes. But she does not understand how her abilities work. She cannot control them. This makes her dangerous to those who would call her ally, which raises the question of whether letting her live is worth the risk.

Battle also tackles Jewel’s one great fatal flaw. She wants to protect the ones she loves. An admirable trait but not pragmatic for the head of the most powerful House and definitely not feasible when you’re trying to stop the end of the world. People die. They die everyday. It’s just a question of when. Jewel does not fear using the near-immortals and supernatural creatures that serve her, but it’s the humans — her den — that are her weakness. And it’s becoming increasingly apparent that’s a hurdle she’ll have to overcome if she’s to succeed at what she has to do.

While Jewel is certainly the focal point of this novel, there are other fascinating revelations. We learn about the world of dreams and the cause behind the mysterious sleeping sickness introduced earlier in the series. We find out more about the Sleepers and discover (finally) Meralonne’s true identity. I will certainly say that revelation alone was huge. I’m still reeling from it, honestly.

As I’ve said, Jewel is not my favorite characters from these books but Battle did something I never expected. It made me genuinely like her. I’m now anxious for the next installment and beyond that, the coming conflict with the Lord of Hells and the end of the world. B

My regards,

Previous books in this series: The Hidden City, City of Night, House Name (review), Skirmish (review)

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REVIEW: Skirmish by Michelle West

REVIEW: Skirmish by Michelle West

Dear Ms. West,

I love your books. Whether it’s under this pseudonym or Michelle Sagara, I make sure to read them all. It’s true that I find some more satisfying than others but I’ve never actually regretted picking any of them up. Given my growing disenchantment with the fantasy genre as a whole, this is a major point in your favor. So thank you for offering an early look at your latest fantasy novel. I’m sorry I wasn’t able to get to it sooner and it in no way reflects upon the book or your writing. It’s all on me.

Skirmish by Michelle WestSkirmish is the fourth novel in the House War series, which follows the adventures of Jewel Markess ATerafin, a young woman who spent her early years living in the poorest slums of the capital before being adopted into the most powerful noble house of the empire. You see, Jewel is a seer and at the age of fifteen, she helped avert a demonic invasion. Her ability makes her very valuable.

The first three novels of this series cover Jewel’s life before she was adopted into House Terafin. This novel jumps forward in time to when Jewel is an adult and is a member of the House Council. She has just returned from the Southern kingdom of Annagar and the war that is reaching its climax there. (That story is covered in a previous 6-book series, The Sun Sword, which I highly recommend.) The Terafin’s leader has just been assassinated by demons, casting the house into chaos. In this world, house leadership is not hereditary. The leader earns it — by political savvy, by forming allies, and yes, by murder.

The Terafin was one of the most important people in Jewel’s life. But she also knows what her dead mentor wanted: for Jewel take up the title of Terafin and become the next leader of the House. The only reason why no one else knows this is because the last heir the Terafin chose was assassinated and Jewel is far too valuable to be put in danger like that.

But Jewel doesn’t want to think about games of power and the responsibility of leadership. She just wants three days to bury and mourn for the woman she respected most. Unfortunately, that luxury may not exist. If demons were responsible for the Terafin’s death, then that means others must be around. More importantly, Jewel’s power and abilities have begun to awaken, affecting the lands within Terafin property and beyond.

Given that not only is this the fourth book of a series, which in turn is connected to other series, this is absolutely not the best place to start for a new reader. I wish I could say otherwise, considering how weary of series people can be but I would hate for a reader to pick this up and think it’d work well without any context. It won’t. Along those lines, I’m also not completely sure someone who hasn’t read the Sun Sword series will pick up some of the nuances in this one. So this is a major caveat for new and unfamiliar readers.

All that said, however, I really enjoyed this book. I’ve been waiting a long time to see what happens after the events covered by The Sun Sword and finally, we have it. This is a very political book. While there are clashes with demons, longtime readers know that knock ‘em and drag ‘em out fights never figure prominently in your books. But even though I love fight scenes, I also love political intrigue. I can see readers who don’t care for that subgenre not being so thrilled with it, but it was very satisfying for me. I especially liked learning more about Haval and his past with Duvari. It makes me even more curious about Jarven. I found all those interactions extremely interesting.

A good chunk of the book is spent exploring the limits of Jewel’s abilities which, as we discover, extend far beyond precognition. It was very fantastical and as a reader who’s getting a little bored with the GRRM brand of gritty, “realistic” fantasy, I enjoyed it quite a bit. I do like a little — or a lot — of magic in my fantasy from time to time and I thought this filled a lack I hadn’t realized I’d been feeling. In addition, the talking cats (a staple of science fiction and fantasy) were hilarious.

I know the book covers a relatively short time period so there probably wasn’t room for it, but I would have liked to see Jewel interact more with the people who had officially declared for the seat. She interacts with Marrick at the end but not so much with the others. This goes back to what I was saying earlier: longtime readers will be familiar with the pre-existing relationships but new readers, or even readers who’ve only read this series and not Sun Sword, will not fully grasp the bad blood involving Rymark and Harraed.

A surprising thing I liked was the relationship between Jewel and Angel. I’d never really gotten a handle on Angel in previous novels and only began to understand him in this series. In Skirmish, we really see his devotion to Jewel and his utter disregard for anything not related to her.

In many ways, this is a book about grief. In the end, the dead don’t care about the actions of the living. They’re dead. How can they care? It’s a loss of innocence for Jewel in many ways but it’s also an important lesson for her to learn, especially if she’s to succeed in gaining control of the House.

I feel like this review is short for a book in which I thought a quite a bit happened, but on the other hand, there’s a lot of spoilers involved too and those events should be uncovered on their own. I admit that after the last book, I was growing impatient for us to move along already and I think many other readers felt the same way. I like to think they’ll be as pleased with this installment as I am. I’m glad we’re back in the present, no longer expanding on the past, and I hope we get to see serious struggles for House control in the next book. B+

My regards,

Previous books in this series: The Hidden City, City of Night, House Name (review)