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Saturday, 16 August 2014

Announcement

When I started this blog, a whole three years ago (a lifetime in computer terms), it was purely as a place to dump my Goodreads book reviews. Goodreads is a wonderful place and I love it dearly, but it isn't the easiest place to navigate (she said with commendable understatement). It takes forever to find my own reviews, and the search engine is inscrutable. But here, the cloud of author names makes it a breeze to find old reviews, so I can check what I said about parts 1, 2 and 3 while reviewing part 4 of a series.

In those three years, I became a contributor to another blog focused on speculative fiction, and I also became a writer, after years of dabbling and tinkering, and started a blog about my writing adventures. And, to be honest, three blogs is at least one too many. So I'm going to rationalise. This blog will now fossilise, keeping what's here as an archive, but without adding new material. All my future book reviews and book-related ramblings will now be posted at my writing blog, along with my occasional progress reports on my own writing and rants about the more arcane aspects of self-publishing. My fantasy and sci-fi book reviews will continue to be posted at Fantasy Review Barn, along with fellow contributors Nathan and Anachronist.

So hop over to one or other (or both) of those sites to keep up with my future book reviews:

My writing blog, with reviews of fantasy, sci-fi, mystery, romance and the occasional literary fiction affair that my book group insists on.

Fantasy Review Barn, for fantasy and sci-fi reviews from three very different bloggers.

Or you can catch all my accumulated book reviews at Goodreads.

Thursday, 14 August 2014

Fantasy Review: 'The Widow's House' by Daniel Abraham

The Widow's House (The Dagger and the Coin, #4)

Warning: this is the fourth book in a five-book series, and for anyone who hasn't read all the previous books, there will be spoilers ahead, so read at your own risk.

When I first saw the title of this book, I deduced that the widow was Clara, whose husband Dawson was executed as a traitor in a previous book. Clara had a walk-on part in the first book, and her own chapters thereafter, but now she finally takes centre-stage, not necessarily as a player in her own right (although to some extent she is), but more specifically as the mother of sons involved in different ways in the ongoing war. So, the widow's house: not a physical house, but house as in family.

Clara is one of four point of view characters, to cover the full scale of the war that's been gradually building since book one. The four are: Geder, the Regent and spider-priest-motivated driving force behind it; Cithrin, the banker opposed to him for personal as well as ideological reasons; Marcus the soldier with a long, battle-scarred history; and Clara herself. The book follows the Game of Thrones principle, where chapters from different characters rotate, although here the rotation is quite regular. This has the usual disadvantage: a cliff-hanger at the end of a chapter can't be resolved until that character's turn comes round again, usually four chapters later. Authors, please don't do this, it's very annoying. At its best, the plot flows seamlessly from one character's point of view to the next, but mostly there's that little hiccup of adjustment when you flip to a new chapter, that where-were-we? moment.

When Abraham pitched this series, he offered either a three book version or this, the five book version. This is the first point at which I'm tempted to say: three might have been better. The actual events of this book could be written on half an A4 sheet of paper, and not using an abnormally small font, either. The story doesn't sprawl in the way that some other, very expansive, series do (George R R Martin, I'm looking at you...), but it isn't tightly written, either. Now, in the hands of a master wordsmith like Abraham, this isn't a problem. A chapter curls around you like smoke, warm and comforting (like Clara’s pipe, if you want the full analogy), and it's only afterwards that you think: nothing very much happened there. This is particularly obvious with Clara's thread, since she's thrown into the role of an observer of the war and not much else. I like Clara, but her plotline was stretched very thin here.

The author's great strength (OK, one of his many great strengths - can you tell I'm a fan?) is the depth of characterisation and so it is here. All the characters feel fully rounded and as real as anyone you could meet in real life. Even Geder, or perhaps especially Geder. In many ways he’s a villain of the first order, but also a deeply insecure and uncertain man. And some of his moments with Prince Aster, the heir to the throne, show him as a caring, even compassionate man, with a certain wisdom. His care for the pregnant wife of his best friend (and possibly only friend) is both moving and slightly creepy in its intensity. The previous books were littered with horrifying 'Geder moments' like the burning of Vanai, or the summary execution of his closest advisers, with the result that you tiptoe through Geder’s chapters wondering when he’s going to explode. He still has no sense of perspective, and puts far too much trust in the spider priests who have an agenda of their own. The most worrying aspect of Geder, for me, is that I actually like him, or, I suppose, pity and sympathise with him. He's done some terrible things, but he's also an enormously tragic character, and part of me desperately wants him to find a happy ending, to settle down somewhere to a quiet, obscure life with his books.

Cithrin, on the other hand, irritates me. She always has, although her juvenile behaviour in the early books was at least understandable by virtue of her age and social inexperience. Her sole function seems to be to do incredibly stupid things for most of the book, or to lounge around in a drunken depression, getting into trouble and being rescued by everyone else, and then pull a rabbit out of a hat at the last minute and have everyone proclaim her a genius. Two cities have fallen solely because of her stupidity, and she's not done yet. Pah. Marcus I like a lot, although he's typical of the stoical, worldly-wise, slightly cynical warrior type, whose experience keeps him out of a lot of trouble. And keeps others out of trouble too. But then I have a soft spot for stoical, slightly cynical warrior types. And I do like sidekick Yardem. Especially his ears. It was nice to find out a little more of their dramatic history, and highly entertaining when the pair of them turned up at Carse to have everyone say: ‘Yeah, yeah, sure you’re Marcus Wester and Yardem Hale… Whoa!’

While we're on the subject of characters, I’m a big fan of Vincen Coe, Clara’s servant-turned-lover, but please, Mr Abraham, will you stop beating him up? However, my absolute favourite in this book has to be Inys (and if you don't know who Inys is, go back and reread book three, last chapter). Everything he says and does is entirely believable, given his history and his nature. Plus he has some of the best moments in the book. Him and the pirates. I mean, pirates and a dragon - what are you waiting for, folks? Go out and buy this book immediately.

There are a few minor grumbles. The cunning men (sorcerers, basically) become even more useful in this book, but there’s no explanation of what they do or how it works. Much of their capability is dismissed as mere trickery, put on to impress people, yet their talent for healing seems to be quite real and rather useful. A little more detail about them would be nice. And a surprising grumble: my Kindle version had an astonishing number of typos in it, far more than I would expect in a major release like this (and this wasn’t an ARC copy, it was the actual day-of-release version).

This book feels far more like a transition than the previous ones in the series. Everything is being put in place for the final confrontation, but there were no huge out-of-nowhere moments, just some nice little twists that made me smile. And somehow it felt repetitious, both in phraseology (fingers were repeatedly laced together, cotton was fresh from the boll), but also in plot terms - the Cithrin plan, the dramatic escapes, the out-of-nowhere attacks, yet I never felt that the main characters were seriously at risk. Even Geder was milder this time round, still creepy as hell, especially over Cithrin, but perhaps less likely to explode at any moment, channelling his energies into his best friend’s wife and baby, and a clever little piece of engineering research. However, the important factor in this book was the shift in attitude. From being an unstoppable force, Geder and the spider priests now have vulnerabilities, and the opposition have plans and weapons. And a dragon. Inys wasn't the get-out-of-jail-free card that might have been expected, but he's still a wild card. I have no idea how this is going to end, but I can't wait to find out. Four stars.

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Fantasy Review: 'The Heart of the Mirage' by Glenda Larke

Heart of the Mirage (Mirage Makers, #1)

So here we are in the Roman Empire - sorry, no, not the Roman Empire, definitely not, this is fantasy after all. This is Tyrans, nothing to do with Rome. But - centurians and latin-esque names and so forth. Well. For some people, it doesn’t much matter, but for me I prefer the ‘vaguely inspired by’ type of world-building, rather than ‘pretty damn close’, with a few novelties thrown in. So that’s the first hurdle, a not terribly imaginative backdrop to the action.

The second problem is the main character, Ligea, a woman from recently subdued Kardiastan, taken as a child and brought up as the adopted daughter of a famous general. When you realise how much her compatriots are despised, the arrogance of the Tyranians and also that slavery is legal, this strikes me as an extraordinary thing to do, to take a foreign child into your house and raise her as your own. Even when the reasons for it become clear, it's pretty silly. It makes her a peculiar mixture: she has the arrogance of her adoptive land, as well as education, and an unquestioning acceptance of the ways of the victors, believing that slavery, for instance, is perfectly sensible and proper, yet she’s still seen as a foreigner.

Now there’s nothing wrong with the setup, it’s an interesting scenario, but it makes Ligea a horribly unlikeable character. It also makes it blindingly obvious when, in chapter 1, she is told she is to go to Kardiastan, that she’s going to have a revelation and realise the error of her ways, rediscover her roots and all that. That’s fine, so long as the way she gets there is convoluted and filled with unexpected twists. And there are some twists, it has to be said, but all the interest (for me) lies in the relationships between Ligea and her slaves and the people she meets in Kardiastan. The plot, such as it is, never really rises above the ho-hum, although there are one or two nice reveals along the way.

The other characters are quite interesting, more interesting than Ligea herself, in fact, and at least some of them behave logically and sensibly, unlike her. She seems to follow her emotions when it suits the plot and logic at other times. I liked her best when she was reading the books helpfully provided by the Mirage and working things out for herself, using the incisive brain we were told about many times, but rarely saw.

The magic - sigh. Yes, let's talk about the magic. This is one of those worlds where those select few who have magical capability can do pretty much anything they want with it, except things that would make the plot too simple. They have to learn how to use it, and there is a price to be paid for it, but sometimes it seemed as if, whenever there was a crisis, someone would say - but didn't you know, you can just do X? And Ligea does X, and lo, she is saved. Well, that's not really very interesting.

Once we get away from Rome - sorry, Tyrans, and into Kardiastan, the world-building perks up a bit. The Shiver Sands and the Mirage are fantastic creations, and the author is always wonderfully inventive with animal life. I loved the gorclaks and shleths, and the descriptions brought everything - the buildings, the people, their clothes, even the earth - to glorious life. And if the plot went on pretty much as predicted, still it was fun and a dramatic ride.

But the ending - that was a real bummer. I expected, or at least hoped, that there would be some *emotional* resolution, some conclusion at least to the relationships tangle even if the plot rumbles on into book 2. But no, Ligea reverts to her illogical, and (frankly) downright stupid self, and there's an all-too-convenient bit of arm-waving regarding one of her slaves, presumably for plot-related reasons. Sorry, but you can’t just say ‘X had changed’ so everything’s suddenly all right. It was very disappointing. I've already bought the rest of the series, so I'll undoubtedly read it at some time, but I'm not in a rush. Three stars.

Saturday, 2 August 2014

Mystery Review: 'The Janus Stone' by Elly Griffiths

The Janus Stone (Ruth Galloway #2)
I loved ‘The Crossing Places’, the first in the series about forensic archaeologist Ruth Galloway, set in England’s atmospheric East Anglia. This one works almost as well - great characters, an intriguing plot and plenty of laugh-out-loud humour of the dry, British variety.
The formula here isn’t an unusual one: bones are discovered buried under a doorway, Ruth is called in to help in her professional capacity, there’s a police investigation going on led by Harry Nelson, clues and suspects are gradually uncovered as Ruth increasingly becomes the target for the murderer, culminating in a dramatic and, it has to be said, highly implausible finale. I understand why authors like to make the lead character the focus for the villain’s malevolence, but there has to be a bit more effort than this to make it plausible.

Where this book shines is in the characters. Ruth is a wonderful heroine, a perfectly sensible woman no longer in the first flush of youth, down-to-earth, unconcerned with her appearance, not dependent on a man - only her cat. In this book, the romantic entanglements take centre stage. After Ruth’s one night stand with Harry in book 1 results in Consequences, in this book she also strikes up a mini-romance with a fellow archaeologist. I began to wonder whether this series is going to end up being more about the soapy relationship dramas, with the murder being pushed into the background, but so far the balance seems to be pretty good.

Apart from Ruth, Harry begins to shine in this book, and we see more of his home life, which is rather interesting, in view of the Consequences mentioned above. Cathbad the druid with his purple cloak is a fun character, too, and I rather liked the Catholic priest that everyone is terribly suspicious of, because he just seems to be too good. Everyone assumes he must be hiding something. How cynical, and yet how true to life. The setting is less interesting this time. In the first book, the atmospheric Norfolk coast was a major element of the story, but here most of the events are set on the derelict site of a Victorian mansion, with Roman history woven into the background. A little duller, to my mind.

Biggest irritant in the book is the use of first person present tense, which had me grinding my teeth with annoyance, sometimes. For anyone who’s allergic, this would be a deal-breaker. The redeeming feature to me, which more than offsets the tense issue, is the humour, which is vintage eccentric British. The scenes in the hospital were spectacularly funny, with all three of Ruth’s male friends turning up at her bedside at once, and some perceptive observations that most of us can identify with (“…a teenage boy masquerading as a doctor…”). Although it did seem to be a particularly relaxed corner of the National Health Service, not quite as time-stretched as most of it is these days.

All in all, a pleasant read, and I’ll definitely read more of the series, but the tense annoyance, the implausible plot contrivances and the less interesting setting keep this to three stars.

Saturday, 19 July 2014

Romance Review: 'His Grace Regrets' by Kate Harper

His Grace Regrets

This is a Regency romance with an interesting premise: three years earlier, the heroine, Cressida, was about to marry Morgan, Duke Hot-but-Mysterious, except that he failed to turn up for the wedding. Then he vanished, and no explanation was forthcoming. Now, she’s engaged to Mr Robert Nice-but-Dull. And guess what? Oh - so you knew Duke Sexy-Pants was going to turn up again? Well, so did I, of course, but this could still be an intriguing story, if only…

But wait a minute. This is a Duke here, one of only a handful of the top people in the country. A man with vast estates to run, and hordes of minions to do his bidding, and known to absolutely everyone in society, and he just disappeared? How is that even possible? There are only a handful of Dukes, and they’re not just rich and (apparently) devilishly handsome, but they also help to run the country. If one vanishes, half the army would have been sent to find him.

And even if (let’s suppose) something terribly urgent and important came up, delaying the wedding, later, when he returns from the terribly urgent and important thing, why doesn’t he simply look up the bride and say: so sorry, old thing, but something terribly urgent and important came up, but I’m free now, so let’s get married? Or he could have, you know, written a nice, long letter, explaining precisely what was keeping him.

But no. So this fails one of my acid tests, where the whole plot would unravel if they just talked to each other right away. And yes, there is an explanation for why he doesn’t explain everything, and no, I didn’t find it terribly convincing.

Then there’s Mr Nice-and-Deeply-Worthy, who is obviously going to get ditched at the end because - well, true love, and irresistible lust and all that, but it would have been nice if the author had at least attempted to make him a player who acts in his own interests instead of nothing but a passive obstacle for true love to overcome, someone to be swept out of sight as soon as the two main characters have stopped huffing around long enough to listen to each other.

In other grumbles, I do wish that authors of Regency romances would at least attempt to bone up on correct forms of address. The daughter of an Earl is always, always Lady Rosalie, and never, ever Lady Wortham. Then there are the incorrect uses of words like ‘doff’ and ‘distaff’ and ‘spencer’ (a rather fetching short-waisted coat, here described as a warm undergarment). So a little research wouldn’t go amiss.

One final grumble: there are typos and even grammatical errors on almost every page. This is such a shame, because the writing style is rather well suited to the period, without being difficult to read (apart from some over-long sentences). I don’t normally comment on these kinds of mistakes, because every book has its share, but sometimes I wondered whether this book had had any proofreading at all.

And despite all of that, I rather enjoyed the book. The settings and events felt realistic, and if the weather was somewhat convenient to the plot, it didn’t bother me. The main characters were quite believable and behaved (mostly) sensibly, if not always quite in keeping with the morality of the Regency period (but that’s not a problem). The minor characters (with the exception of Mr Nice-Doormat) were also realistically helpful and supportive and generally behaved like nice, normal people. The heroine’s family were particularly nice, and I loved the youngest daughter, Daisy. This is my favourite scene, where she’s playing some mysterious game:

‘What are you doing?’
‘Pirates.’ That one word seemed to say it all as far as the youngest Miss Grenville was concerned.
‘You are being rescued by them?’
‘I am the Pirate Queen,’ Daisy returned, apparently offended by the very idea that she would require rescuing. ‘People need rescuing from me.’


Lovely (and I’d totally read a whole book about Daisy). There are quite a few moments like this, where something wonderful shines through. For those who can overlook the implausibilities, this is a fun read. However, I have to be honest and say that what dragged this book down for me was the sheer volume of typos which spoiled an otherwise very readable story. The other problems were relatively minor and easy to overlook, but the poor editing keeps it to two stars.

Fantasy Review: 'The Curse of Chalion' by Lois McMaster Bujold

The Curse of Chalion (Chalion, #1)I  don’t know what anyone else looks for in their fantasy, but for me the number one requirement is characters I care about. This is hard to define, of course; I can’t describe what it is that creates emotional engagement in that way (if I could, I’d bottle it and sell it), but I know it when I see it.

And Cazaril is it, indubitably and without question. From the moment he walks onstage in his rags on page 1, he is a man I care deeply about, someone I’m rooting for all the way. He’s not great hero material (almost everything he’s been involved in seems to have gone wrong), he’s rarely called upon to wield a sword and he’s ill for most of the book, but he is a towering character of a kind that’s regrettably rare in all fiction, not just fantasy.

The other characters are fully rounded personalities, too. The princess who doesn’t like being manipulated and decides to take control of her fate. The handmaiden who doesn’t angst when rejected, but quietly waits for her moment. The mad woman who turns out to be far more interesting than that description would suggest. And the villains who are just as much tragic victims of their fate as anyone else. And hallelujah for that.

It’s curious that in many ways the characters fall into traditional fantasy stereotypes: the battle-weary warrior; the feisty princess about to be forced into an unwelcome marriage; the playboy prince; the evil advisor to the king. And so on. And yet they never felt in the least bit stereotypical, to me. Nor were their actions ever predictable.

The plot centres on returning warrior Cazaril, still recovering after being betrayed into slavery, and looking for work where he was previously employed as a page. To his surprise, he’s given the job of tutor/secretary to lively princess Iselle and her companion Betriz, and then accompanies them to the royal court with all its intrigues. From there, things roll along nicely, and only one stupendous coincidence near the end rocked the credibility somewhat. This is not a high-action tale, and most of the tension comes from the history (read: enmity) between Cazaril and the man who betrayed him. I liked very much that Cazaril isn’t hell-bent on revenge, though, and just wants to keep his head down and survive as best he can.
The magic is low-key, and revolves around the five gods, the Father, Mother, Son, Daughter and Bastard, and the way they interact with their human followers. I’m not normally a big fan of god intervention, but maybe that’s because few authors execute the idea as well as it’s done here.

What didn’t I like? The names, for one thing. If you’re going to have a traditional monarchy, it’s just as easy to call the participants king, queen, prince, princess, etc. Inventing all-too-similar terms like roya, royina, royse and royesse is just downright confusing. And if the titles are bad, the character names are worse: how are you supposed to pronounce Teidez and Betriz, anyway? I kept wanting to call them Tiddles and Beetroot. Then there’s the romance, which all felt ever so slightly perfunctory.

But truly my quibbles were few and minor. This is a beautifully written book, with a memorable and wonderful main character, a plot that doesn’t depend on villains who are evil just because, and a resonant ending which brought me to tears. It’s not a sword-waving type of book, depending more on dialogue and reason to drive things forward. And I absolutely loved the saints who fell on each other with glee (there’s someone else like me! How is it for you?) and the long, detailed and gloriously funny theological debates (which is not something I ever thought to write). Highly recommended. Five stars.

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Mystery Review: 'Below Zero' by C J Box

Below Zero
This was a book I picked up two years ago (must read faster...) as an Amazon daily deal, even though it was number 9 in the series. What was I thinking? Obviously, there's a whole heap of history to the characters, and much of it's relevant to this story, so it all has to be squeezed in. Fortunately, the author manages this very deftly, so for me, meeting these characters for the first time, the paragraphs of 'Six years earlier, Joe...' or whatever flowed along very nicely. I presume that long-term readers of the series would enjoy being reminded of events, too.

The plot involves a Chicago gangster, his environmentalist son and a girl who may or may not be the foster daughter of the main character, Joe Pickett. The catch is that the girl was believed to have died some years earlier. There are also numerous other threads running alongside, such as the Mad Archer (a man who injures wild animals for fun - such a nice guy), the falconer friend who's on the run, the Feds who have their own objectives and Joe's family - wife Marybeth and daughters Sheridan and Lucy. There are more twists and turns than a giant-sized pretzel, and all of it very cleverly worked out. There were moments when things fell out just a little too neatly, but by around the two thirds point, where the story really picked up speed and took off like a tornado, I was turning the pages too fast to care.

The parts that worked best for me were those involving Joe and his family. They all felt like very real people, behaving perfectly believably - like the older daughter shrieking with glee during a fast car chase instead of being frightened, the younger daughter petulant at being left behind, and the parents worried in case the daughters overheard them having sex. Nice, well-observed details of humanity.
The descriptions of the scenery were very well drawn, too, and even though I'm not familiar with this part of the world, I could visualise it (and even smell it) very clearly. It's obvious that the author has great affection for the area, and all the little oddities of the locals, because he describes them so vividly.

The villains of the piece, the gangster and his son, were less convincing to me. In particular, the son's transformation from totally controlled 'brains' to - well, something else (not wanting to give too much away, here) felt off, to me, and the fellow gangsters were a little too cliched to be plausible. The author shows us everything that happens, from all sides of the picture, so we do get to know these characters quite well, and the gangster, in particular, gains some sympathy over the course of the book, but the motive for what they did was a bit suspect. Environmentalists aren't quite that crazy! I have to give the author credit for putting forward a balanced view of the climate change issue (although his research on Bali is a bit suspect).

Ultimately, these were very small points. Despite some slow moments in the middle, and a bit too much of the villains for my taste, the great characterisation of Joe's family and a terrific climax made this a great read. Four stars.

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

Fantasy DNF: 'Spirit Gate' by Kate Elliott

Spirit Gate (Crossroads, #1)

I love this book. Or perhaps I should say - I did love this book, for a whole two chapters. It featured a wonderful, independent, self-assured female protagonist, who was completely comfortable in her own skin. Hurrah! A character I could really root for!

And then she’s never seen again. She existed for a whole two chapters purely to motivate a male character, who then mopes and whines and drinks and whinges (while also enjoying himself with other women) for (get this) nineteen years. I was so mad I almost gave up on the book altogether at that point. But OK, there are some points of interest in miserable Joss. His job, for instance, which requires him to ride a giant eagle (cool or what?). His friends are intriguing, too. And the world-building is detailed and interesting, although the author insists on hitting us over the head with endless minutiae. So, fine, I’m grumpy about losing my female protagonist, but I’m along for the ride.

And then we switch yet again to some other part of the world, which isn’t even on the map (aaargh!), and we have a whole other culture to learn about, and a new set of characters - quiet Mai, who’s deeper than she looks, her mysterious new husband Anji, and Mai’s uncle Shai, who’s - well, stupid is the first word that comes to mind. And they’re trekking endlessly and for no obvious reason through trackless desert, while periodically being attacked by bandits, sandstorms and demons. Why? What are they even doing there? Why are there no sensible roads between one populated part of the world and another?

It’s an odd thing, but in fantasy a group of travellers can never cross a desert without being hit by a sandstorm. You can bet they will run out of water as well, and only find an oasis in the nick of time. If they pass through hill country, they’ll be attacked by bandits. And any journey undertaken in winter will encounter a terrific snowstorm. If the author had cut out all this extraneous travelling and contrived drama, and just skipped to the real action, the book would be a quarter of its length, but it would rattle along nicely.

So here we are at 30% of the way through, and we’re still travelling endlessly with Captain Anji and Mai and Shai, no sign of the interesting eagle riders, and all that’s happened is that Mai has been inexplicably smitten with love for her dull husband, Shai is learning to use a spear and…zzzzzzz. What? Sorry, hard to stay awake. Oh yes, and nice Captain Anji has been keeping Very Big Secrets from his wife.
You know what? I don’t care. I just can’t get invested in any of these characters. I know something’s going to happen eventually, and I totally approve of epic fantasy that sprawls itself over whole continents at a glacial pace if it has depth (which this has), but it also has to have characters that carry the story. For me, these just don’t cut it, not when the most promising one was written out after two chapters. Lots of people love this series, and I’ve been told that this book gets better at the halfway point, but I just don’t have the will to keep going. One star for a DNF.