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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,
Jia

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

Jia is an avid reader who loves fantasy and young adult novels. She's also currently dipping her toes in the new adult genre but remains unconvinced by the prevalent need for traumatic pasts. Her favorite authors are Michelle West and Jacqueline Carey. YA authors whose works she's enjoyed include Holly Black, Laini Taylor, Ally Carter, and Megan Miranda. Jia's on a neverending quest for novels with diverse casts and multicultural settings. Feel free to email her with recommendations at [email protected]!

18 Comments

  1. LG
    Jan 24, 2012 @ 19:19:21

    I haven’t read anything by this author before, but this sounds interesting. What book would you recommend newbies start with? I saw mentions of both the House Wars series and Sun Sword series. Can you start with the first book in the House Wars series, or would it be better to start with the Sun Sword series?

    And also, I would like to add that it would be nice if every single author who writes series books, especially series with sub-series, had answers to these questions on a FAQ page. I was much more willing, when I was in high school, to just dive into a series and hope I was starting with the right book. Now, not so much. I think I worry more about wasted time than I used to.

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  2. Bonnie L.
    Jan 24, 2012 @ 19:20:22

    I’ve been meaning to check out Michelle West’s work. She first crossed my radar when I was looking through artist Jody Lee’s portfolio. She does some of the best cover artwork in fantasy and I love her work for Mercedes Lackey’s books. I’ve been in the mood for a good non-GRRM fantasy. Here’s crossing my fingers that Michelle West’s books feed me!

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  3. LG
    Jan 24, 2012 @ 19:26:43

    @Bonnie L.: Heh, the cover art was part of what caught my eye too! I know you’re not supposed to judge a book by its cover, and that habit has bitten me on the butt several times, but that artist has been responsible for introducing me to several “new to me” authors. :)

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  4. Lazaraspaste
    Jan 24, 2012 @ 20:01:39

    Thanks for the review! This sounds really interesting and I want to try the series. I’m actually looking to get back into fantasy, even though I have been burned in the past by the genre. Is this series going to have a conclusion?

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  5. Merrian
    Jan 24, 2012 @ 20:06:21

    Here is the bibliography link from the author’s website http://msagarawest.wordpress.com/bibliography/

    This author writes under two names. As Michelle Sagara she has a series now up to 7 books that is borderline YA and I would categorise as ‘if you like
    Tamora Pierce’. It is about a young girl who is a peace keeper/police officer in a world/city with many races ruled by dragons the ‘Cast in … ‘ books all follow quite closely in time and have an advancing story arc about the coming conflict with the big bad. The heroine is wilfully ignorant for reasons that to her are valid, she is used by magic as much as she is a user and is a catalyst for great events. She is maturing through the books. I enjoy this series but it isn’t as complex or high fantasy as the books under her other name.

    As Michelle West there are three overlapping series and you could begin with the duology ‘The Sacred Hunt’ bk 1 Hunter’s Oath and bk 2 Hunter’s death. Things in these books are taken up in the house and sun sword series.

    I love the cover art for the MW books and the complexity of these series.

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  6. Helen
    Jan 24, 2012 @ 20:41:26

    She also wrote the marvelous light and dark series (The Sundred) which I would characterize as romantic fantasy. Although actually much more simplistic than her current writing I liked this series the best of all her books. They are under her Michelle Sagara name and are-Into the dark lands, Children of the Blood, Lady of Mercy and Chains of Darkness Chains of Light.

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  7. Jia
    Jan 24, 2012 @ 21:19:21

    @LG: I personally would recommend starting with the Sun Sword series before the House War series. It just makes things easier. The author apparently wrote up “The story thus far…” summaries for people jumping into the House War series first but I have no idea how good they are. (They can be found linked here and here.

    @Bonnie L.: Confession time! I first discovered Michelle West via The Broken Crown (first book of the Sun Sword series) because of the gorgeous cover of Diora standing in the lake. The pale blue really stood out against the usual fantasy cover palette (navy, green, brown).

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  8. Jia
    Jan 24, 2012 @ 21:27:01

    @Lazaraspaste: Yes! There should be 2 books after this one. Her series do end (although they may expand on the way there — Sun Sword was originally supposed to be a trilogy, IIRC, but ended up 6 books in all) but they are interconnected. I know there will be a climactic series in this setting about the End of Days (when the final war against the Lord of Hell is waged).

    @Helen: Oh, I forgot about those books! It’s really strange. A lot of people love the Sundered books but I bounced off them very hard when I picked up the reissues a few years back. I was very surprised.

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  9. BlueRose
    Jan 24, 2012 @ 23:21:34

    You could shortcut this series by starting with the Hunter Duology (Hunters Oath and Hunters Death) as thats where it all starts, and then go straight to the City series, which is only 6 books.

    It will ultimately make more sense (now we are in the current timescape) to have read the Sun Sword books, particularly going forward, but you could do the above and then go and read the Sun Sword series.

    I recommend either starting the whole lot with the Hunter Duology or with The Sun Sword THEN Hunter Duology and then the City series.

    Be advised tho for two books of the City series it is a lot of rehashing ground we have already covered but in more detail for key characters and much more backstory, so it does feel like dejavu for a good deal of both of the first two City books.

    I really enjoyed Skirmish, I got a bit annoyed with Jewels willful blindness to the fact that if she was to survive (and her ‘family’) and if she was to fully honour the Terafins wish, then she WAS having to step up, and do the political thing. I know she wanted the three days but it really felt like she was resisting the concept as a whole (ref the conversations with the Terafin House Ghost) and it started to annoy me. I guess thats the power of the writing :)

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  10. Estara
    Jan 25, 2012 @ 12:42:01

    @Bonnie L.: So This! I discovered so many great female fantasy authors (and a few men) in the 80s just by following Jody Lee’s DAW covers.

    If anyone is a fan and has some money, she’s selling some postcard sized oils on Etsy.

    @Jia: MICHELLESAGARAWEST LOVE!! Thanks for spreading the joy ^^.

    As for series order – Michelle West has said on her blog that she would prefer people to read the Essalieyan series with the first three books in the House War series first (only reading the Hunter’s Oath duology if you are already hooked) – on the one hand, a LOT of the plot of those two books is covered again in the House War series, if from a different viewpoint and on the other hand the House War series is centered around Jewel Markess who is the main thread that shows up in equal importance in the Sun Sword series (which should be read after the first three House War books, or alternatively read the synopsis that Jia linked to in a comment, two of the pdf-files are actually additional dialogue scenes where Jewel updates the Den in House Terafin after her return about what happened to her in the Sun Sword series).
    Then come back to read Skirmish which does move beyond the timeline of the other books in this series and is all new in development.

    Caveat: If you find yourself liking Diora and Valoran and the Voyani in the Sun Sword series, they are NOT the focus of the House War series and don’t seem to be showing up at all so far. Considering who Kiriel worked for, she might show up… nothing has been mentioned there.

    Additional FYI:
    - All the Essalieyan books have Jody Lee covers ^^
    - The Sun Sword series is on the e-book burner at DAW, but is in the backlong and when it will be available is not clear yet.
    - The Elantra novels (Cast in…) for Luna are also available as ebooks (all of them now) and are being turned into audiobooks.

    MSW is an auto-buy author for me and all her books are comfort rereads depending on what mood I am in ^^

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  11. Jia
    Jan 25, 2012 @ 12:53:29

    @Estara: It’s a serious bummer that it’s taking a while for the Sun Sword series to come out in digital format because I really think a lot of new readers would like them but those readers no longer buy print. Sigh.

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  12. Estara
    Jan 25, 2012 @ 13:57:44

    @Jia: Indeed. Not to mention that they are out of print if you want to get them in paper – so the author won’t profit from the sales. DAW might only be a tiny cog within Penguin (I think) these days, but the more sales they have the more books Betsy Wollheim can afford to publish. Not all that many sf&f publishers in print headed by women these days (DAW and BAEN, I think, since Toni Weisskopf took over).

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  13. Jia
    Jan 25, 2012 @ 15:15:45

    @Estara: Have they officially gone out of print? I see that Amazon has books 1-4 and 6 in stock with the “more on the way” notices but book 5 is definitely out and the used prices reflect that. How annoying.

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  14. Hillary
    Jan 25, 2012 @ 18:46:37

    I have loved Michelle Sagara West since 1997 or ’98 and was around 16-17 years old :) I believe that the first 3 of Sun Sword were out, but I remember the agonizing 4 year wait until Sea of Sorrows finally came! Then there was another very long wait for Riven Shield. Sometime during those waits, I managed to get Hunter’s Oath and Hunter’s Death, which even then were hard to find.

    My personal rec for reading order is the Hunter Duology, followed by the 6 Sun Sword book and then finally the new House War books. I think that because there is so much repeated material from the Hunter books and the first books in House War (although as stated, from other viewpoints, so I don’t find it boring :), it really does help to have the 6 book Sun Sword series between the other two (so that the details are a little hazy, if you will).

    I’m not a huge fan of the Sundered books, although I do have them–I remember how excited I was when I found out they were being reprinted in trade :) But they are worth reading and they do show some of the earlier versions of themes that contine in almost all of her series.

    The Cast books, or Chronicles of Elantra, are also fun, and although the tone is different, you still know that it is the same author. I know that when I worked at Barnes and Noble, I was so obsessed, I ordered a copy of the Angels book (short story anthology), so the store would have it.

    Anyway, I love it that she has more fans! I really feel that she’s not talked about enough, or is only starting to garner more fame, and I love it that the House War books are in hardcover (I really wish all of the others were too, as I would buy them again as well). As it is, I do have some multiples of her paperbacks in case they start falling apart!!!

    Thanks again for this review :)

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  15. Estara
    Jan 26, 2012 @ 00:44:35

    @Jia: I’m not sure about officially out of print for the Sun Sword series completely (but MSW has confirmed it for the Hunter’s Oath on her blog, as far as I remember) but was basing it on the comments of various people who tried to purchase them recently – because they had discovered her with the Elantra books and wanted to read the Michelle West DAW books, too.

    The ebooks have been announced as in the work for at least a year now, but MSW said on the blog that because DAW itself is such a small team and they do careful copy-editing of their ebooks – which I can confirm about the sample I own – it simply takes a long time to digitise all the books they’re planning on re-releasing in digital (not to forget that some of the Sun Sword books are 800 pages of goodness – where else do you have a traditional print publisher publishing a female author doing real epic fantasy with strong female characters as well as strong male characters as protagonists?).

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  16. Destini Guillot
    Feb 08, 2012 @ 08:19:30

    This is one awesome blog post. Will read on…

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  17. What Jia’s Been Reading in January | Dear Author
    Feb 08, 2012 @ 10:44:48

    [...] Skirmish by Michelle West This is the latest in West’s fantasy cycle and the first in a long time that got me extremely excited about events in this world. That’s mostly because this is the first installment since Sun Sword ended that takes place in the present time. No more flashbacks, no more expanding the past. Good read and got me excited about the world again. (Full review here.) [...]

  18. Jia’s Best of 2012 List
    Dec 06, 2012 @ 08:02:17

    [...] The Diviners by Libba Bray A Midsummer’s Nightmare by Kody Keplinger (review) Adaptation by Malinda Lo Fracture by Megan Miranda (review) Unraveling by Elizabeth Norris (review) Strobe Edge by Io Sakisaka (review) Days of Blood and Starlight by Laini Taylor (review) Skirmish by Michelle West (review) [...]

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