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on 30 November 2012
I cannot remember the last time I started a book and didn't finish it.

Correction, I can. And this is that time.

I write this review as a fan of historical fiction and fantasy novels. Bernard Cornwell, Conn Iggulden, George RR Martin, Patrick Rothfuss, David Gemmell and Tolkien all rank as authors I read and enjoy.

I bought this book after having read some decent reviews. I like to give a new author a chance and heard some reasonably encouraging things about Ruckley.

So to the story. The concept is fine; a grim 'dark' or 'semi' fantasy world. Some grim and heartless characters to inhabit it. A good bit of violence and stabbing. Given the book's title none of this is unexpected. And that's why I bought the book. I love a good bit of violence and stabbing. Mix in some intrigue and a decent plot and you're onto a winner. So why the 2 stars?

Well, Ruckley's novel seems to have a decent plot, and it certainly isn't poorly written. The problem I have is one of visualisation. I have no idea where I am or who I'm looking at. At the time of writing I'm half way through the book and I don't have the first idea what sort of world I'm reading about. What do the characters look like? What weaponry and armour do they wear? What sort of buildings do they inhabit? If you could let me know Ruckley, that would be great.

You see, most dark fantasy novels I've read have a grounding in reality, and it's that reality which makes it convincing. Martin's Westeros is full of gilded armour and medieval pagaentry, so I know the type of environment within which the story is taking place. Clothing is properly described, further adding to the sense of knowing.

Ruckley's novel lacks this, and it lacks it big time. Without it I can't begin to visualise the world I'm reading about. Judging from the cover artwork, we're in a cold, snowy world where the warriors wear spartan-style helmets, but this isn't eluded to within the novel itself.

Don't get me wrong, I know that reading involves imagination, but I'd at least like to imagine the same world as the author.

Oh, and don't get me started on the names. Not a bad concept (they do actually make sense) but without being able to properly visualise the characters, it's difficult to attribute what are rather long and forgettable names to them. It makes for a toilsome experience all in all. Will I go back to the book? Maybe, if I'm really bored.

It's a shame really as the storyline is ok and Ruckley clearly has an idea where he's going with it.
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Arriving in the post with advertising that said "combines the epic scope of David Gemmell with the political human drama of George RR Martin"; this novel had a lot to live up to. Not only that but it was promoted with additional material stating that it would be enjoyed by fans of Robert Jordan, Bernard Cornwell and Steven Pressfield.

With so many big names on the material connected to the novel it put my back up to start with. Not that there's anything wrong with press like this but I reserve my judgement until I've read the piece rather than believe the hype that publishers tend to add to this sort of thing.

So, whilst this may sound like I'm on a negative vibe to start off with, I just thought that I'd clarify my position before getting into the novel. I'm not the sort of guy that's easily impressed with titles.

However that said, I have to admit that I did enjoy this novel, although the first 20-30 pages read a little on the clunky side the novel picked up quite sharply after that and became something that I enjoyed sitting down to read. Although I would say that the use of Jordan's name isn't something that I think is favourable. This author actually seems to have an idea as to where he's going with a definite plot and strong characters that don't conform to the stereotype presented by other authors.

They have a realistic 3d presence with subtle nuances that strike a chord with the reader. A hard trick to learn and an even harder one to pull off well. The tale moves along at its own pace which keeps the reader wondering what's going to happen and with the guerrilla war being fought within the pages the readership will be greatly split as to which side they wish to route for. The scenes are easily visualised with clear descriptive text that doesn't get too flowery or bog the reader down from the tale. Likewise the language flows (apart from my initial gripe) and the reader will find that they just fly through the novel, surprised at how little time it takes to devour. Set for a trilogy, it promises a tale that will keep you gripped right to the end with no real clear idea as to which side will emerge victorious.
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Well, 2006 is turning out to be the year of the hot debuts. Hal Duncan, Naomi Novik, Scott Lynch, Joel Shepherd, Joe Abercrombie, and now Brian Ruckley. In any other year, Winterbirth would undoubtedly be considered the best fantasy debut. But this year, the opening chapter of The Godless World trilogy must share the spotlight with powerhouses such as Vellum, The Lies of Locke Lamora, and a bunch of other spectacular debuts. Such is the quality of this year's new talent. . .

I learned about Winterbirth while browsing through the various threads on asoiaf.westeros.org. Some readers there opined that fans of George R. R. Martin would probably enjoy this one. Upon reflection, I agree with their assessment. Yet I wish to clarify one thing: Winterbirth is nothing like A Song of Ice and Fire in terms of story. In style and tone, however, Winterbirth is similar to Martin's series. It's a dark and gritty fantasy; don't expect humour and bantering dialogues in this novel. And not unlike GRRM, Ruckley is not averse to killing off his characters.

This book is a fine example of good worldbuilding, even though we only catch a glimpse in this first volume. Still, the author provides many hints which indicate that this universe has a lot more depth. A past not yet buried offers a few fascinating glimpses which truly piqued my curiosity. The dissension among the True Bloods was a bit predictable at times, though.

I enjoyed the way magic is subdued to some extent -- again very similar to the manner with which Martin portrays it. The na'kyrim resemble Katherine Kurtz's Deryni in many ways. The storylines involving the Bloods of the Black Road and the Inkallim were my favourites. The presence of those fundamentalists and their religion in a godless world added another dimension to this tale.

The characterizations are typical at the beginning of the book. But when Ruckley starts to kill characters that appeared to be there for the long run, one immediately realizes that the author has several surprises in store for his readers.

The pace is good, meaning that the novel contains no dull moments. The fact that this is a trilogy forces Ruckley to write a tight story, thus preventing him from leading readers astray with a panoply of subplots that serve little or no purpose.

I felt that the ending was a bit rushed. Other than that, I thoroughly enjoyed this novel. As the first volume in a trilogy, it is, in essence, an introduction to a vaster tale. Yet the ending brings closure to certain storylines and it leaves the door wide open for a lot more to come.

If you are looking for another fine debut, Brian Ruckley's Winterbirth should not disappoint. This title will be one of the first novels published by the new US Orbit imprint. Those who cannot wait can order it from amazon.ca. . .

Definitely one of the best fantasy novels of 2006.

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on 10 December 2006
I just picked up Winterbirth by Brian Ruckley. It's a brand new epic Fantasy debut in the UK which Orbit is very keen to market as one of the most promising new works in this field, and they are comparing it Martin, Erikson and Gemmell.

I have to say I really flew through this book. I was eager for it come out to see if this could be yet another worthwhile new debut ( after "Lies of Locke Lamora" and "The Blade itself") and IMO this is as good as any debut I've read this year. It's a good read, realistic, has a low magic setting, has some intriguing characters ( and some less so), definitly good worldbuilding and it can be very gritty.

I would actually say that from my reading experience, I would compare this mostly to David Gemmell's Rigante series, and to JV Jones's fine "Sword of Shadows" trilogy. It's clearly set in a northern country, with different clans duking it out with each other, but there are slightly supernatural elements as well ( similar to Song of Ice and Fire). The comparison with Martin is not bad, but Ruckley doesn't have Martin's skill at characterization. He uses different POV's but not so many as Martin or for instance Erikson. Gemmell and Jones are better indicators of how good this is, while Erikson fans who are not into Malazan purely because of the high magic might also really like this.

I do think it will lack the broad appeal of a series like The Gentleman bastards because this really is straight up epic Fantasy. The characters are not witty nor is the narrative sprinkled with quips. This is a serious drama that is unfolding. One of the most interesting things Ruckley has done is two have a "villain" with a character arc. This man, Aeglyss, is born of the union between man and Kyrinin and has a potential for power that hasn't been seen in hundreds of years. However in this first book he is mostly an insecure character with a pathological need to ingratiate himself and be accepted, having been outcast wherever he went ever since he was a small child. He has great potential ( those more wise but less gifted sense him as a "Black-hearted beast") but lacks the key to unlock his abilities. His is one of the two main character arcs of that trilogy, the other being the son of a brutally slain Clanlord.

You've also got factions like the Inkallim ( Hunters and warriors deeply devoted to their Black Road religion), human clan rulers who wish to use the war to advance their own position of power in as many ways as possible, when in fact they should be standing shoulder to shoulder ( very much ASOIAF that), and the Kyrinin, an Elflike race, except the Kyrinin have no magic and are not considered to be superior to men ( nor are they inferior). They are simply very different, and the insight Ruckley shows into their culture was a strength of this story.

I rate the book 8 out of 10. I thought his writing was a lot more coherent than for instance Steven Erikson, but his characterization is not on a Hobb/Martin/Kay level at this point. I mentioned parallels to Gemmell but would point out that Ruckley's world has more depth.
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on 8 September 2011
I feel a lot of people are being harsh, so I gave it an extra star (compared to some of the books out there averaging 4+ stars, this one isn't any worse!).

The book does suffer from being a bit clunky, and getting off to a bad start, but by the end it is rewarding and I may even have to read the sequel to find out what happens. One of the major failings of this book and other modern fantasy is to dump the world on them in the beginning and ignore the key, which is building characters that will make the readers want to keep going. Still, not as bad as it looked like it was going to be, and I did like the setting...

Most of the truly unpronounceable names (that others have complained about) die, and the logic of their construction soon becomes clear. Eventually the clunky beginning starts to sort itself out, but it still could have used a tighter focus, perhaps, and there's a lot of exposition (including scenes far from what should be the centre of the story) that it could really do without. I think the book could have cut a lot of these scenes and characters, especially because a lot of this "of stage" plotting actually reduced the tension! I found myself groaning inwardly whenever the book got off track. Contrast it with Abercrombie, who strictly rotated his 3 plotlines and kept his POV character discipline as well. Why is Taim Narran necessary? Why do we need to know what the Inkallim masters are thinking? Probably for the sequels, I know, but it did detract from this one.

That said, it does close on a very interesting note...still worth a read.
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on 17 April 2009
Ruckley has obviously gone for the magic is rare 'Tolkien, terry brooks' style rather than the magic is everything 'Rowling, Trudi Canavan' style. This is good because sometimes i can't see the point in books where battles can be won with bolts of lightening and cities can be destroyed in a matter of minutes. This book on the other hand is amazing. It is brilliantly and sometimes brutally realistic. It has a beautifully designed world and political situation. Well designed races (not the traditional elves, dwarves, humans and something ugly) plus an entire well thought out history.

At First it is a bit tedious at times, i'll give you that. But as soon as you get to know the different groups of characters and their struggles it turns to edge of your seat tension. Those who gave this book one or two star ratings should to be honest not be reading fantasy books. This book clearly shows the realistic horrors of a harsh, winter war but also the political dealings which go on in the background between the two high thanes, the shadowhand and the heads of the inkallim. Also Aglyss is a brilliant character, the only true 'bad guy' i could find in the entire story.
This book shows the slow steady descent of the land into darkness, something which is carried on in the second book- Bloodheir and hopefully the third- fall of thanes.
This epic fantasy series, i think is up there in the top then fantasy stories ever.
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on 22 May 2011
I'd like to say that I read some of the negative reviews on hrer and I chose to ignore them and buy the book anyway. I think that was a big mistake on my part. I really should have listened. I hoped this was going to be a good read, from all the positive reviews it had, but it really was a let down. the characters have some of the most daft and longest names I've ever had the misfortune of reading. many people say that the place names are fogetable and I'd agree with them. I'm not sure why the author bothered calling his races these daft names, it's obvious that the wood-wights are meant to be elves, even though they seem to be based on native americans. the style of writing the author writes with is just to drawn out and to be honest boring, the book just doesn't seem to grab you and when it does seem to get going, the author takes you somewhere else and dribbles on about some other people that really didn't need to be in the story and don't seem to have any use within the plot, other than to slow it down.
if the author trys to wright another series i really hope that he learns alot from his mistakes.
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on 23 September 2007
It is a World of People with names like "Tarian nan Hyrgian oc Lannis-Gyre-Haig", who aren't shy about having long, tedious conversations with similarly named companions about clan rights and tracts of land. Then, when this becomes too much fun to bear, they start on a hopeless trek to nowhere in particular. Occasionally, we switch back to the bad guys who go about slaughtering everyone the good guys ever cared about with a depressing thoroughness. There's also something about dark magic which will probably be significant later, but he never really gets round to exploring it.

I just kept waiting for this to get going, basically. There's the bones of a good story in there, but I don't think I'll be coming back for the rest of the series. It's a shame, because I had high hopes for it. If you like your fiction unrelentingly grim and 'gritty' though, check it out, but it's not for me.
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on 17 February 2013
I like Brian Ruckley's writing style and I liked his last book 'The Edingurgh Dead' very much, so I was very much expecting to like this...and I did but I don't think I will be following the series to it's conclusion. From this you will gather I had a couple of problems with it which I shall explain.

Firstly Ruckley's world is completely bewildering as he invents it from the floor up..now I admire the ambition in this but I am not sure it always helps. Lets take the Kyrinin. These are wood dwelling humanoids (though of a differing race to man)who are able to move silently, are very graceful and are experts with spear and bow..Look their elves! why not just call them elves and have done with it, we then have a reference point we know in place. I get the desire to build your own world and not be accused of borrowing from Tolkien, Fiest et al but when the world you then do create is essentially the universal D&D world we all know and love why bewilder us with a load of new names for things.

Likewise the names of the characters 'Gryvan oc Haig' 'Kanin nan Horin-Gyre' they don't exactly trip off the tongue and it was a good third in before I had sorted who was who and what sides they were on! Again I get that authors may have their little self created world in their heads but very few manage to make it a graphic and 3D landscape which you are able to immerse yourself in. That was what made LOTR so great. Likewise China Mielville's 'Perdido' world, reading those books was to leave planet earth for a while. For most authors I would rather they worry about plot, dialogue and character development. Get this right and the lead character can be called Tom, Dick. Bob or Harry and the quest take place in Croyden as far as I am concerned.

Also the aftermath of GRR Martin's 'Red Wedding' can be seen here, since that book it has become the norm to make fantasy saga's grim and tragedy filled and to have the reader waiting for their next favourite character to be killed horribly. But that shock tactic has now boarded the boat and gone, long gone! everyone is doing it and now it is just starting to get annoying. I like the tension of knowing an author will kill off a character and I want to feel moved when they do but Jees I want story continuation and something to smile at too! If I want pure grimness I'll watch Eastenders.

Now I have got that all off my chest.... Ruckley can write he really can and there was some cracking story lines here and a sense of complexity and world events that had huge promise and clearly some readers loved it. It may be now I am just a little jaded with the D&D format though I do still find some I love, but these are the ones where I feel I really know the characters and understand their motives and build a bond with them, this book did not quite get those 'bonding' juices flowing though and despite a great nail biting climax I am not going to buy the next two. Though definately would buy a sequal to 'Edinburh Dead'.
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Admittedly, I've come late to this party. Winterbirth, Book 1 of The Godless World Trilogy, was released at the end of 2006 and picked up some good press that put Ruckley firmly in the 'new wave' of epic fantasy writers alongside the likes of Abercrombie, Lynch, Rothfuss and Durham. With the second volume, Bloodheir, due in May, it seemed like a good time to catch up and see if this book warrants the acclaim.

The setting is the northern valleys of a continent riven by war. Centuries ago, the gods abandoned the world after a bloody war between two of the dominant races, the Huanin (humans) and Kyrinin (elves, with a few twists), and a third, the Wherinin (shapeshifters). The civilised human nations of the north-west fell apart in the aftermath of the war and the Bloods, tribes of warriors, arose in their stead. Among the Bloods a heresy took root, the Black Road, which states that the gods are merely awaiting for all of humankind to be united under the faith before they return. For their heresy, the Bloods of the Black Road were pushed back beyond the northern mountains and a guard set upon their return. But, after several centuries, the watch has grown lax and the Black Road has found new allies...

The set-up is pretty traditional for an epic fantasy. The Bloods of the Black Road, as perhaps can be predicted, launch a devastating invasion of the lands of the True Bloods, starting with the northern tribe of the Lannis-Haig. This family is almost wiped out save two members, Orisin and his sister Anyara, and their flight from the invasion over a towering mountain range is the principal driving force behind the narrative. Around this are an intriguing array of subplots revealing dissent within the Black Road, the political machinations of the most powerful True Blood warlord which is as great a threat to the Lannis-Haigs as their northern enemies; and the emergence of Aeglyss, the most powerful sorcerer seen in centuries.

The writing is pretty lean - Ruckley's writing is not as rich as Rothfuss nor as immediately striking as Abercrombie and Lynch - and Ruckley succeeds in transmitting a lot of information to the reader fairly quickly. There is a lot of groundwork to establish and unfortunately this requires moments of heavy-handed exposition or info-dumping, but once these are out of the way the story proceeds satisfyingly. None of the characters are particularly original, with Orisian falling into the 'young man doubtful of his ability who comes good in the end' archetype a little too predictably. On the other hand, Aeglyss is a very interesting antagonist and I suspect he will come to dominate the future volumes as a threatening force far greater than that of the Black Road. Winterbirth works well, with its action-adventure story forming a decent spine around which the political intrigue among and between the True Bloods and the Black Road is established and explored. On the other hand, it could be argued that the central narrative is rather slight for the book's length and the narrative is slowed by the groundwork being laid for future volumes. Also, the characters' names are very similar to one another, causing momentary confusion (and occasional flicking to the character list, which is never a good sign).

Winterbirth (***) is a solid, enjoyable debut novel which left me interested enough to pick up the sequel, Bloodheir, when it is published in May.
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