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Shadowhawk reviews the second and third books of the Shotguns & Sorcery trilogy from Matt Forbeck’s 12-for-12 project.
“This is when my inner fanboy comes out all giddy with excitement, because my favourite author has written two more kick-ass awesome novels.. This must be how Brandon Sanderson die-hard fans must feel.” ~The Founding Fields
Note: Review contains mild spoilers for the first novel in the trilogy, Hard Times In Dragon City, and also a few mild spoilers for End Times In Dragon City.
I keep saying this, and it never gets old for me: Matt Forbeck is amazing. Whether he is writing superheroes, or noir fantasy, or TV show tie-ins, or near-future SF, or vampire/Titanic mash-ups, he is always on top form. 9 novels and 11 comics issues later, he hasn’t written anything that I found to be less than decent, at the least. He is also an inspiration as a writer, and the amount of work he breezes through is nothing short of astounding.
I realise that my high (and constant) praise for his work might put off some people, but I say it truly that he is pretty much the best author in speculative fiction right now. I can always expect his work to impress and amaze, to charm me with the way he writes his dialogues, teases out mysteries, handles the action, balances the pacing, and so on.
I loved the first Shotguns & Sorcery novel when I read it last year: Hard Times In Dragon City. The best thing about the novel was that the action was entirely focused on a very small cast of characters in a fairly small location, but the way the novel is written, you get the vibe that things are much more epic than they come across as. There was that welcome dichotomy about the novel, and it made it an instant hit for me.
Going into the sequel, I expected Matt to up the ante in every possible way, and that is exactly what he did. He takes the ending of Hard Times and ratchets it all up to eleven, introducing more twists and turns into the larger story, as well as adding some new characters. We finally get to see some of the dwarfs of the Bricht clan who were quite influential behind the scenes in the first novel. We finally get to go to the Academy and meet some of Max Gibson’s former friends from his wizarding days. We learn more about his strained relationship with his father. We learn more about his personal relationship with Bellezza and how this relationship has brought both of them to the point they are at now in their lives. The family relations between Bellezza, her parents, and her sister are also explored here.
Of course, we also learn more about the consequences that come from having the Dragon Emperor’s only heir being bonded to Max Gibson, and how that affects his professional life in terms of his interactions with his allies, friends, and acquaintances. Its all about a major shift in the power dynamic that exists within the Dragon City since Max has gone from a relative nobody to someone who is essentially best pals with the “prince” of the city, the son of the Dragon Emperor himself.
Additionally, Bad Times also exposes a shocking truth about the founding of the Dragon City, related to the pacts made between the Dragon Emperor and the prominent families and clans that first came together to found the last bastion against the might of the Ruler of the Dead.
The characters, whether we are talking about Max or Bellezza or any of the others, all have so much more depth to them this time around. In Hard Times Matt Forbeck established all the characters, and gave them the necessary context. In Bad Times, he has built it all up further. The only negative element of the book is that the narrative is Max’s first person perspective, so we never are able to get into the minds of the other characters. That would have added a whole lot more to the novel, I’m sure of that. The characters that Matt has created are all wonderfully complex in their own ways and seeing the events as they happen from their perspectives would have been an excellent bonus.
All in all, there is a lot going on in Bad Times, and all of it is really enjoyable. Cover to cover, it was a blast reading this novel. Matt Forbeck’s sense of pacing here is impeccable. His characters are just as intriguing as ever, and so is his world-building.
The excellent writing continued in the final book of the trilogy, End Times In Dragon City. Here, Matt Forbeck continued to build upon the setting, introducing more conflict, more action, more non-stop adventures, and more shocking revelations. Not to mention that he continues on with the mind-boggling cliffhanger ending of Bad Times (a good cliffhanger that is!). The way that Bad Times ended, I was left stunned. With the way that End Times begins, I was seriously apprehensive, since the characters were having a really, really bad time of things. To add to it all, Max got thrown into jail, and not just any jail, but the one for the hardened criminals, the worst of the worst.
Things looked especially bleak this time around, and that was the charm of the novel. You see, in the first two books there was always the feeling that things would work out, that nothing too dangerous would happen and that the characters would always come out on top. In End Times, Matt takes away that comfort zone and puts the characters, and the reader by extension, in a really tense situation that is unmatched in either of the first two books. The stakes this time around aren’t the life of a single person, because this time the survival of the Dragon City itself is on the line, along with the life of every single being within the city, irrespective of his/her social status or race. The survival of the world as it were.
And the reason for all this is because the Ruler of the Dead finally makes her play on the Dragon City and begins a long dreaded attack. Where she was content before to let the Dragon City continue existing, now she seeks its utter destruction. And its up to Max, Bellezza, and the others to make things right.
Once again, the novel is about doing the right thing, irrespective of the consequences. The novel is about making the morally right decisions and keeping your conscience untainted, its about standing up for your ideals. This was never that much of an issue in the previous book, but this time it is front and center. Consequences, it all comes back down to consequences. Max has to wrestle with the consequences of his actions, and his time in the dog house is not a pretty one. I suppose that’s what you get for being the most hated person in the Dragon City!
End Times concludes the story of the heroes we’ve seen so far in the trilogy. Each character is given their time to shine, most notably Kells and his wife Cindra, who were my favourite supporting characters in the trilogy. I would have loved to see much more of them, because of their unique place as the only couple in the series, and a pretty badass couple at that too.
The conclusion of the various character arcs was something that I was not looking forward to because of what it represented: the end of the trilogy, and the end of the road for these characters since currently Matt Forbeck doesn’t have plans for a follow-up I don’t think. The climax of End Times is almost bittersweet and I really wish that the book hadn’t ended when it did.
With this book, what I really appreciated was that Matt Forbeck wasn’t averse to using some of the “bad guys” to do heroic actions when the situation needed it. The bad guys I’m speaking of here are the various unsavory characters who populate the book, especially Max’s fellow criminals at the max-security prison he gets thrown in early on in the book. That showed how the entire city can come together to do the right thing, to stand up to the true evil that threatens everybody. Suddenly, Goblintown doesn’t seem all that bad a place. In their own way, these people show how true Goblintown Justice is served. [Side note, Matt also has a short story available through his site that is titled Goblintown Justice that is a bit of a prequel to Hard Times In Dragon City, and shows the seedier side of Dragon City, and the Goblintown area in particular.]
Ultimately, End Times In Dragon City gives a good conclusion to the series, and shows how things have changed over the course of the series, and how far the characters have come since we first saw them. The conclusion is a bit rushed, and the ending itself is a bit abrupt, but overall, this is pretty much the novel I wanted as the finisher for the series. So I’m happy with that.
Rating, Bad Times In Dragon City: 9.5/10
Rating, End Times In Dragon City: 9.5/10