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4.0 out of 5 stars
The Black Guard (The Long War)
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
TOP 500 REVIEWERon 3 August 2013
2013 seems to be a year for Debut fantasy novels for me, and they have all been fantastic books so far (Luke Scull, Stella Gemmell, Nathan Hawke), so how does the Black Guard stand up against those other debuts?

Like The City by Stella Gemmell it took me a little while to get into this book, maybe its the risk of a debut author landing such a hefty tome in my lap, at 640 pages its a serious expression of trust from the publisher Head of Zeus, and an announcement that they think they have a real winner on their hands, and for me a big time commitment with so many great books out there.

So how did it shape up? For me, I felt the style was on the epic fantasy scale, Brandon Sanderson, Tolkien style. Where my personal preference is more Gemmellesque. But at the same time the characters are very much to my liking, they are realistic, likeable and natural rather than the average OTT fantasy drone. So has AJ Smith hit his own niche part Gemmell part Sanderson? I'm not 100% sure, I don't think I read enough fantasy these days to be totally sure, I need more maybe when I see book 2?

The story however is very clever even though it takes a bit of time to get there, but when it does get going it keeps you turning the pages at a rapid pace, so much so that you will hardly realise the size of the book, and when the book ends it leaves you slightly bereft, needing more and knowing while there will be, its not going to be for at least a year.

There are clear signs in the book and writing of a true fantasy geek (not an insult) a man who has spent time becoming passionate with his genre and then building a world in his mind. Its that passion and desire to get his world down on paper I think that slows down the first third of the book, but it really is called for, that description pays off, that world building is key and I feel we will reap more rewards from it as this series continues.
In Summary read this book, you will find a book of subtle writing skill, with deep, careful world building and colourful real characters, written in a style all of his own.
I for one recommend this book and look forward to the next book in the series.

(parm)
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
on 23 October 2013
A good fast paced all action fantasy story in quite a well thought through world, somewhat let down by weak characters and generally poor dialog that leaves the book a bit empty and unmemorable.

The high pace keeps the book interesting but so much is going on that little time is available to explore the characters and little effort is made to make you care about them. Backing narrative is used to try and make up for the lack of time spent with the main characters but by the end of the book I still don't feel like you really know anything about any of the main characters. Brom in particular is still a boring 2D archetype at the end of the book, and its interesting to compare him to Jorg in Prince of Thorns, a far more interesting and better realized version of the same type of character.

The lack of character development isn't helped by the sheer number of characters and the fact the author keeps killing them off. Luckily you don't get any time to get used to any of them so their deaths don't interrupt the flow in any meaningful way, but that also means their deaths don't really seem all that interesting.

The dialogue is also pretty awful in places, and the author doesn't seem to trust us to pick up on the subtleties driving the dialog so after a section of dialogue you'll sometimes get a little paragraph explaining the context of what was just said.

Anyway despite these flaws its a good book and well worth a read but I do hope in the future books there's less plot threads and a bit more time is spent on each of them.
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TOP 500 REVIEWERon 28 August 2014
If you love your fantasy somewhat Machiavellian, in addition to it being somewhere more than just a recreation of medieval times, A.J. Smith's debut here is likely to be a good place to go to. In the meantime expanded with the second volume - The Dark Blood (The Long War 2) - it juxtaposes a by now relatively standard (in fantasy) somewhat medieval world with the questions of godhood and thereby creates a conflict on two intertwined levels - something that makes the book much more than just another copycat fantasy debut.

Like with writers such as George R.R. Martin (i.e. A Game of Thrones (A Song of Ice and Fire, Book 1)), or even J.R.R. Tolkien (The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring, The Two Towers, The Return of the King) for that matter you have a fairly extensive cast to get to know, and luckily - unlike the former author - he does not go through them like the grim reaper, either (although some do not feature all that long). But the story integrates the world building fairly seamlessly into the main flow of events, so that one manages to get to a position of grasping what it is all about relatively soon.

At the same time, the author ensures new extensions are being added throughout, be that via new players in the 'Long War' (both mortal and immortal), new geographical regions, etc.

This keeps you glued to the book and the length should not really deter you from the book at all - you will finish much sooner than initially anticipated.

Another aspect I liked is that the characters never quite ascend to the superhuman level, where you simply know the protagonist will easily overcome each challenge but definitely emerge from events in a realistic fashion, sometimes on top, sometimes not so much. Also they are never drawn in a highly clichéd form but have some real depth to them.

I can only recommend the book and luckily the sequel - The Dark Blood (The Long War 2) - is out already, so you can at least continue with the story once you have devoured this. A bit less brutal than A Game of Thrones (A Song of Ice and Fire, Book 1), less complex than The Stormcaller: Book One Of The Twilight Reign and definitely not as graphic in the description of violence as The Heroes: Three men. One battle. No Heroes. it finds a good voice all of its own and creates a world I will want to delve in repeatedly with the next instalments.
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8 of 10 people found the following review helpful
on 29 April 2014
Caveat: I stopped reading about a hundred pages from the ending, when I finally realized there were other and better ways to spend my time.

A few weeks ago I had a long train journey ahead of me and I was looking for a book to take with me. I'm an avid fantasy reader and a great fan of Lovecraft's works, so when I stumbled on this book which promised a mix of George Martin and Lovecraft I was sold. A quick glance on Goodreads and Amazon showed loads of 5-star reviews, so I figured that even if it didn't live up to the high standards set by Martin and Lovecraft, it would at least entertain me during the trip.

I was proved wrong after reading only a few pages, I found out that the writing quality was very, very far removed from the authors mentioned on the flap. I now understand the author had created the world for the purpose of tabletop roleplaying; this is not necessarily a bad thing, but while having fun is easy when you're playing with friends, it's a lot more difficult to entertain a reader. For that, the story needs to be immersive. Unfortunately, that is not the case here. A fantasy story needs to be cool, epic and awesome; otherwise, why read fantasy? This book achieves exactly the opposite.

The writing is bland. The world is generic Fantasy Land with Viking lookalikes in the north, Thousand-and-One Night Arabs in the south, Medieval English knights in between and some sort of gypsy people on the side. The races (and yes, they're described as such) are neatly divided, with each having their own language and customs and gods and racial characteristics. The characters never come to life (and their names are apparently created by some random fantasy name generator). The author continually ascribes all sorts of traits to them without ever showing them behaving in a manner fitting their description. In fact, the entire book suffers from an overkill of "telling" instead of "showing". Plotwise, nothing exciting happens. The first few chapters are filled with characters spouting information about the world and other exposition, but even when that is out of the way the story goes nowhere. It is clear that the author is setting up the world for the next books in what I believe is to become a trilogy, but I find it unforgivable that the author expects his readers to suffer through a boring story just to get there. And last but not least, the author needs to make up his mind whether he wants to use a light, witty, bantering tone (in which case: real humour, please) or be gritty and dark. At the moment, the book mostly reads like Young Adult fantasy, but also contains some disturbing and disturbingly described scenes.

A few final remarks. Having one character backstab another in a political setting is not "like George Martin". I know publishers like to compare new authors to bestsellers, but Martin's Game of Thrones works because of his excellent, realistic characters, so if your author doesn't have them it's not Martin. And a few nods to Shub-Niggurath and a few scenes involving monstrous being don't make you Lovecraft. Lovecraft's main theme was human frailty in the face of vast, uncaring, cosmic beings, and there's nothing like that in this book, only some B-movie monsters.

I won't go so far as to claim this is the worst fantasy I've ever read, because I read a lot of fantasy and an unfortunate amount of it is bad, but it's certainly the worst fantasy book I've read this year. I don't understand all the five-star reviews here and on other sites. Either those reviewers are close to the author, or they have little experience of really good fantasy. If that is the case, rejoice! Go pick up Martin, Erikson, Bakker, Lynch, Lawrence or Abercrombie (to name just a few recent excellent writers) and have fun.
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on 20 August 2015
I enjoyed reading it. It had a wonderfully built world and engaging characters.

That said, it could have done with a hell of a lot of editing. There were a few case mistakes here and there (not jarring and not multiple just irritating) and a few instances where it was clear it hadn't been read through for flow.

I will read the next one, when it's a bit cheaper, and I'm a bit disappointed that A J Smith didn't spend just that extra bit of time to polish the book into the truly great thing that it could've been.
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10 of 14 people found the following review helpful
on 9 January 2014
I really don't understand all the great reviews of this book. It certainly is not anywhere near the standard of George RR Martin or Brandon Sanderson (who some reviewers compared this book to) and is one of the poorest written novels I have come across. My biggest gripe is the number of mistakes and poor dialogue that littered the book (to be fair, I only managed to get 24% of the way in before I gave up). Within a few pages I would read something that contradicted previous parts of the book.

There could be a great story there - and quite a few people obviously think so, but I just couldn't bring myself to carry on reading. It's not something I would do lightly, I read everyday and this is only the second book I have stopped reading in 20 years. It almost seems like it has been quickly published and not had a proper read through.
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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
A good start to new fantasy series

An interesting setting with a good religion/magic belief system.

I did notice a few hints from H.P.lovecraft sneaking in but thats got no bearing on the feel of the book - its not horror its definitely aimed at fantasy.

An eons old religious conflict erupts into life as the sisterhood of the seven switch from support of one god to another long dead god seeking ressurrection.
As nations fall under their sway men die and nations crumble - all to kill the last few with the blood of the gods in their veins.

An interesting fantasy debut - and one to watch.
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on 30 June 2015
A well written fantasy book, with good characters and a realistic world... well as real as a fantasy world can be ;)

It took a while to get going, but when it does... it's worth the wait!
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4 of 6 people found the following review helpful
To be honest this is a fantasy book that I had some trouble getting into. It didn't feel as smooth as it could have been but as the story developed I became more and more engrossed in this wonderful inventive world by AJ Smith. It is a story of a great many twists, has some solid prose and when added to a supporting cast of interesting characters really makes this a starter for a fascinating series.

Yet all said, for me, it was the principle characters that stole the show, they were fully rounded, had some great flaws alongside strengths and when added to what I would have thought of as realistic points of view took this book to a new level. All round a solid start and I'll definitely be watching out for the second title in the series to see what lessons are learned alongside having the chance to check that the second book curse doesn't strike.
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on 25 July 2015
Fantastic all round, bring on book two and however many more make up the series. Great characters and interlinked storylines, will definitely be back for more
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