Monday, 31 October 2011

Review: 'Daughter of Smoke and Bone' by Laini Taylor

This is an amazing book, in lots of ways. It's way outside my comfort zone - I just don't do urban fantasy, angels and demons, seventeen year old female protagonists, or paranormal romance. And it was expensive, to boot. But the reviews were extraordinary, so I checked the free Kindle sample and yes, she can write, I get it.

The opening drew me in straight away, always a good sign. Karou is immediately interesting, with enough personality and mysterious history to be intriguing. And by the time the bizarre creatures who constitute the nearest she has to family are introduced, I was definitely hooked. What's not to like about a protagonist who has unlimited 'wishes' and uses them to turn her hair blue and give people she dislikes unbearable itches? And I just love the idea of being gifted fluency in a new language every birthday. I'm adding that to my Amazon wishlist immediately. Akiva, the abnormally beautiful angel, is well drawn, and people respond to him in perfectly believable ways: did you see that? is it...? it can't be, can it...? with no sleight of hand on the author's part. An angel walking around in Prague is a showstopper, exactly as you would expect.

The story builds incredibly well. There are a few passages of exposition towards the end which feel a little heavy, it depends too much on Karou's ignorance of her past (why? what's wrong with telling people the truth?) and some of the writing is perilously close to over the top, but somehow it works. Occasionally, after a particularly emotional part, I would think: the guy's an angel, for goodness sake, with fiery wings and smouldering eyes, it's completely ridiculous and I'm not even tempted to laugh. And it ought to feel cliche-ridden - the orphan brought up not knowing about her heritage, the forbidden love, the portals to another world, the impossibly beautiful people, the kickass heroine - yet somehow it all works. The writing is that good. I was swept up in the story from start to finish.

Some minor criticisms: the world building is not great. The earthly cities are fine - Prague, Marrakesh and the rest feel like places the author has been to, and she evokes them well, but the 'other' world doesn't quite come to life in the same way. It felt rather perfunctorily sketched, an outline drawing rather than a fully nuanced painting. And really, did it have to be so patriarchal? That was disappointing. I can't quite believe in the chimaera, either, or a thousand year war. But I can let that pass.

The climax was brilliantly done, even if not totally unexpected. But after I stopped reading, I felt curiously flat. It was a very emotional book, yet I didn't feel emotionally drained or desperate for the next volume. It's a terrific story, beautifully done at every level, and yet it lacked - well, something. There was no profundity to it, no meaningful themes (beyond the trite: war is bad, angels/chimaera are people too, if you treat people badly, sooner or later they bite back) and too few moments of depth beyond the emotional storms. It's like a well-made souffle - exquisitely light, a delicate work of art, but still mostly air. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but I prefer a book with a bit more to it (more spicy or chewy or tart or meaty, say, to continue the food analogy).  At bottom, it's just a love story: a beautiful, forbidden, death-defying one, an extraordinarily well-written one, but still just a story of two people on opposing sides who fell implausibly in love at first sight. I would love to give this five stars on writing quality alone, and when I've read the rest of the story I may do just that, but for now this is a very good four stars.

Review: 'That Summer In Ischia' by Penny Feeny

This is a pleasant enough little book. The story is fairly slight - two friends filling a post-university hiatus with a cosy little job in Italy, and the after-effects when things go wrong. There is a bit of a mystery to resolve, but it wouldn't exactly tax the little grey cells of Hercules Poirot.

The characters are OK, without ever being very memorable. There are a few moments when they behave oddly, but on the whole they are believable, if uninteresting. The two settings, Liverpool and Italy, are well drawn and evocative. I know Liverpool quite well and that part certainly rang true, and the Italian parts seemed convincing enough to me too. Mind you, is there really so much street crime in Italy? It seems no one can move without being mugged. I doubt the tourist board will be promoting this book.

The plot was quite creaky in places. When Allie goes to Italy to seek out her father and is instantly accepted by the current generation at the villa where her mother worked, you can almost hear the author's thoughts: hmm, that was too easy, need some conflict there, and perhaps dreaming up the whole business of the withered arm to generate tension. And since the plot needs Allie to meet up with the policeman involved in the case from her mother's time, suddenly she is mugged (of course), hauled off to the police station and sent off for the night to a retired colleague now running a tourist operation. Oh look, it's Enzo. Well gosh, never saw that one coming.

The ending seemed a bit flat to me. The 'mystery' of what happened to Mimmo is resolved by Allie saying: well, I think it must have happened like this. Not that it was a big surprise, of course, I expect everyone worked it out several chapters before, but still, a bit more drama might have helped. And the astonishing reveal about Allie's father - well, huge surprise (not). And then we drift into an epilogue which summarises what happened to everyone, by way of some slightly forced business with old friends. All rather contrived. I don't know anything about the author, but the whole book has the feel of a formula, a sort of 'writing by numbers' effort, with just the right amount of tension here and partial reveal there and a carefully balanced mix of characters.

I don't mean this to sound too harsh. It's a professional piece of work, with no glaring problems, and some parts were excellent - the little descriptive flourishes, for instance, and the two older women, Liddy and Helena, who were the nearest this to fully rounded characters. Jake's story was also well done, cleverly revealed in tiny doses along the way, although, again, some contrivance was needed to get the final stage into the open. It's a perfectly readable book, although I have to confess that I never got totally absorbed in it, finding it all to easy to set aside. Basically, I never cared much about any of the characters, I never got invested in the story and it was almost a relief to get it finished. So that makes it three stars, a competent effort that would pass muster for light holiday reading, especially if you were going to Italy. Or Liverpool, maybe.

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Review: 'Skein of Lament' by Chris Wooding

This is the seond part of 'The Braided Path' trilogy. Despite having read the first part relatively recently, I had forgotten quite a lot of it, and although Wooding reminds the reader of most of the salient points, there were still a few places where I was confused.

The author's world-building is awesome. This is not a word I use lightly, but nothing else quite covers it. Everything about Saramyr and its neighbouring territories - history, mythology, races, cultures, natural history, geography - is defined in infinitely layered and nuanced detail. Sometimes an almost throwaway line gives me a frisson of total pleasure - the flight of a bird, the noise of an insect, a rock formation, a character's tattoos, the way food is eaten. It's all there, all thought about and carefully dropped here and there for best effect, creating a world which truly feels 'other', almost alien.

I particularly liked the three moons, all different, which occasionally come into conjunction causing sudden moonstorms, followed by drifts of tiny ice crystals. I have no idea whether that is feasible in real-world physics, but it's extraordinarily evocative. And the moons are relevant to the plot, even. I love a fully worked out secondary world, and so many fantasy writers make do with some cobbled together mishmash of recognisable environments - medieval Europe, or Roman Empire, or whatever. That's OK, just a little disappointing (and lazy, maybe). Authors, this is how it should be done. My only criticism - could have done with a better map, showing all the places mentioned, and in hi-res.

The characters, on the other hand, don't work quite so well. It's not that they're uninteresting, for some of them - Saran, Tsata, Lucia, for instance - are intriguing enough, and Asara is downright creepy. Nor are they fantasy cliches. But somehow, it's as if Wooding has drawn up a laundrylist of defining characteristics (Mishani: small, delicate, ankle-length hair, reserved, diplomat) and they never acquire much depth beyond that. Apart from Kaiku learning to control her powers, there's not much growth in evidence, although Kaiku's relationship with Tsata is nicely developed. This makes them, on the whole, unengaging and hard to care much about. And maybe it's just me, but the male characters seem to have marginally more depth than the female ones.

Plotwise, there's no slow build-up or scene setting - it's straight into the action, which never lets up. Almost, there is too much action, really, and it seems as if Our Heroes can barely put their noses outside the door without finding themselves in yet another life-threatening encounter. So perhaps a little contrived in places. There are numerous different points of view, and the story hops from one to the other like a demented frog, including to minor characters, but at least this avoids tortuous tricks to reveal incidents we couldn't otherwise have seen. Along the way, there are several totally breath-taking shocks and twists - one in particular which completely blew my mind. And yet (like all the best such moments) it was completely predictable, if only I'd been paying proper attention. Clever author.

The climax brilliantly pulls all the different plot-threads together in a very satisfying way. All the various characters were needed to achieve the resolution, and it was done without any sleight of hand. Very neat. There were a number of blood-and-guts encounters, rather too many for my taste - I'm not over-fond of all that hewing, hacking, gutting, bone-crunching and disembowelling. Oh, and let's not forget the skinning. Nice people, the Weavers. But in between the episodes of slaughter were the really interesting (to me) parts - the time spent 'in the weave', the other-dimensional place where the Weavers and certain others can do - well, whatever it is they do. Is it magic? Or just something unexplained? Who knows, but it's a terrific concept, and definitely the best part of the story. And now everything is set up for the ultimate confrontation on a grand scale. A good four stars.

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Review: 'Flatland' by Edwin A Abbott

This is proof, I suppose, that not all classic texts survive the passage of time unscathed. The concept of a two-dimensional world, and an inhabitant trying to get to grips with the idea of three dimensions, is a brilliant one, and much of the book rather elegantly takes a side swipe at Victorian culture, which is a bonus (and often very funny). I am not sure just how educational it is - it seems rather a lengthy work for the amount of information conveyed.

However, the turgid and long-winded prose is alien to modern sensibilities. There are quite a few typos in my Kindle edition, too, which didn't help. In several places, it seemed to be referring to a diagram which was missing, although this too may be a deficiency of the ebook. Not bad, overall, and with some wonderful moments, but too ponderous to be completely enjoyable. Three stars.

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Review: 'Replica' by Lexi Revellian

I very much enjoyed a previous book ('Remix') by this author, so this seemed like a good bet and I wasn't disappointed. The only difficult part is the initial premise: that a scientist has developed a method of cloning which produces a robotic-like copy under the control of the original, intended for military use, and decides his first human test subject will be his secretary Beth, whereupon things go slightly wrong - the copy is fully autonomous. Yeah, right. But the author addresses our scepticism: the process has already been extensively tested on animal subjects with the expected results. But why would the secretary agree to it? Because she's a meek little doormat. On the whole, it doesn't require much effort to go along with this.

Once you get past this point, the plot flows along in a totally logical and believable way. The scientist's boss sets out with a team of hitmen to capture, test and ultimately kill the replica, and the story follows her attempts to escape this fate. Because we see both sides, both hunters and prey, the tension is built up beautifully. There are narrow escapes and things going horribly wrong for both. The people the replica (Beth Two) meets all behave in credible ways - the officious security people who move her on, the doctor who disbelieves her story but doesn't try to hinder her, the friendly homeless people, the slight acquaintance she turns to in desperation who is so baby-befuddled that she asks no questions.

In the previous book, the characters had a certain eccentric charm, but the main characters here are less appealing. Beth One is - well, a doormat, and Beth Two, although she turns out to be moderately resourceful, is just a doormat scraping by in difficult circumstances, and I never found her very likeable. As for the male protagonist, Nick - look, I know the story is partly about his redemption from selfishness and arrogance, but I honestly don't see him being any different from Beth's obnoxious previous boyfriend. He hits on the woman he's supposed to be protecting when she's vulnerable, while simultaneously planning to kill her doppelganger. Yes, yes, I know he loves his son, and he's loyal to his friend, blah, blah, but a selfish jerk is still a selfish jerk. The other characters are better. I liked the Polish friend, and I loved the doctor caught up in the middle of a potentially lethal situation, spluttering in outrage - you just can't do that, this is Britain, we don't do things like that here! And the oily and cold-blooded boss is totally believable.

This is a well crafted book, and one of the most tightly plotted I've ever read. It's a real page turner almost right from the start, and a thoroughly enjoyable read. Four stars.

Sunday, 9 October 2011

Review: 'The Book of Caradoc' by James Leigh

Strange book. I'm not at all sure what to make of it. The premise: after some unspecified global apocalypse (known as the Withering), the survivors in Britain have coalesced into numerous small, semi-autonomous farming and manufacturing communes, and larger administrative centres (or Authorities), which manage trading and defence, all of them harrassed by roving bands of raiders known as Metros. So far, so normal. The conceit of this particular book is that it purports to be a history of one particular war leader who was intrumental in dealing with the Metros and ushering in a more settled age of greater prosperity, compiled from the writings of those who knew him. I don't know how common a technique this is, but I've never read anything quite like it.

This author follows this idea through rather well. It really does read just like a history book much of the time, as written by a rather pedantic academic ("Caradoc arrived in Felixstowe around Whitsun. Riding by way of Puckeridge, he crossed the Chelmer at Waltham and Blackwater at Coggshall before halting for a few days in a fishing commune near Maldon..."). People the hero meets are introduced as "Colonel (now Chief Alderman) Fellowes" and so forth, there are few descriptions of people, and there are long paragraphs describing how the various settlements interacted or managed their affairs ("currencies of the larger Authorities were generally convertible at that time..."), while other aspects were glossed over as "being of no interest to most people today".

The supposed historian also jumps in from time to time to explain his knowledge, or speculate on Caradoc's motives, or simply to editorialise ("We think of the need for revenge as itself an emotion..."). This sounds quite dry, and some of it is, but there are also some gloriously funny episodes, such as when the great hero, whose battle successes have been detailed in reverent awe, suddenly makes what can only be described as an ill-advised second marriage (this at a time when he had no idea whether his first wife was still alive). The historian is almost squirming with embarrassment as he describes these events. Then there is the Hundred-And-One, an elite, self-appointed militia guarding Caradoc, whose elegantly out of control exploits are no more than synchronised slaughter.

The background of a society still adjusting and settling, still only barely on the edge of civilisation, is well done. There is an astonishing amount of detail tossed in about places - how they would have changed once civilisation collapsed, which were still usable and how they would have been adapted to the new era, clearly warmer than now. Rivers have changed their course, open areas have reverted to woodland, parts of southern England are described as desert, there are vineyards and locally grown tobacco. There are very detailed descriptions of some activities - snaring rabbits, for instance, or the work necessary to restore a water mill to functionality - while other aspects are glossed over. I found it difficult to reconcile the relatively primitive way of life in some of the communes, with the more sophisticated life in the Authorities (the obviously wealthy dilettantes of the Hundred-And-One, a woman described as a bluestocking, implying an academic life, an apparently inexhaustible supply of manpower for militia or rebuilding programs). We never find out just what the catastrophe was, but there is one chilling section where Caradoc rides through a previously built-up area still littered with bones. I'm not sure how non-Brits would deal with the laundry lists of placenames; I'm a Brit myself, and I found it difficult to follow. A good map would have been a big help.

As for the story - well, it reads like a history book, not a work of fiction at all. Apart from Caradoc himself, characters simply pass by, sometimes reappearing later, sometimes casually written out ("Pierson... having been killed on Sylt - crushed between the 'La Perle' and the Hoernum quayside"), often simply disappearing, and even the hero is only glimpsed second or third hand, as it were, so we never really get under his skin or develop any empathy for him. Of course, very little dialogue is taken verbatim from Caradoc himself, apart from a few key speeches, and the supposed historian guesses at his motives, so we never really understand how he came to be so famous. It seems to be as much a matter of luck as anything else. Many of his early encounters end surprisingly easily, a combination of chance and arrogance, and later his reputation (and arrogance again) cause people to capitulate without much of struggle. It all seems credibly implausible, if I can put it that way (just like real life).

It may sound strange, but I can't decide whether I liked it or not. I finished it, which is in its favour, I was never tempted to toss it aside, and I have written quite a lot about it, so it obviously got under my skin. On the other hand, there were none of the qualities I tend to look for in a book - interesting characters, great plot, resonant ending, well-written dialogue, emotional engagement. The writing style was literate but very dry, with long dull descriptive passages, a few mildly exciting parts, and the odd outbreak of near-farce. The editing was execrable - not typos and apostrophe abuse, nothing so ordinary, rather it felt as if the author had started a sentence and changed his mind mid-stream without cleaning up. Mostly the mangled result was interpretable, but it happened so frequently as to be very distracting. But on the whole, this was an interesting rather than absorbing book. An oddity, definitely - three stars.

Wednesday, 5 October 2011

Review: 'Spirit of Shehaios' by S A Rule

And so on to the final part of the 'Shaihen Heritage' trilogy. I am rather at a loss as to where the story is going at this point. The second book seemed to tie up a lot of loose ends with neat little bows, leaving a more or less stable situation, and there isn't an obvious big threat looming on the horizon. In addition, the most interesting character by far in the first two books was the mercurial Kierce, whereas the focus this time is a quartet of blank-slate characters - the painfully naive priest Aruath, the new king Sheldo, Caras's daughter Alsareth, and the son of a merescaii nobleman, Qintal. None of them enthuse me particularly.

The story is quite slow to get going this time. Book 2 opened with a major crisis, and everyone scrambling to react, but this one opens 10 years later, so there's a fair bit of backstory to be filled in, as well as several characters to be established, so it feels very leisurely. This is not necessarily a problem, but given the lack of an obvious threat, it seems a little like ambling around just passing the time until something happens. Qintal's sojourn in the southernmost reaches of the empire is a nice little look at some more of the world, but it doesn't appear to have a clear (plot-related) purpose, beyond establishing his character.

I am a little surprised at some of the distances involved. Qintal's journey to the southern outpost takes several months at sea, followed by 200 days by land - that's more than a year of travel. Assuming months and years are the same in this world, that's a very, very long journey. Yet from there Garro gets to Qivor and back in a couple of months, and Qintal gets himself back in a very timely fashion. I'm not quite clear where Qivor is, but I thought it was further north than that suggests, although later in the book it's proposed that a ship would sail down the east coast to reach Shehaios. Very odd. A bigger map might have helped. On the other hand, Alsareth is able to magically swap bodies to effectively teleport herself from Qivor to the minstrels' holding in Shehaios, just to spend the night with her lover. What a convenient plot device.

Fortunately it's not long before the fragile peace begins to crack, and all hell breaks loose. I'm not sure why it is, but this book is not quite as absorbing as the previous two. I find it much easier to set aside for a while. This is partly because it's set in Qivor, which I find much less interesting than Shehaios. It's just another city, and there's not much effort to paint in the backdrop, so it feels rather a nothingy sort of place. I'd like to know a bit more about it - the architecture, the street life, the way the inhabitants live, but there's not a lot to go on. Then there's the fact that most of the familiar faces from the first two books are either absent or very much in the background, apart from Caras, who was never my favourite anyway.

The main problem is Alsareth. I applaud the author for addressing the issue of a female magician, but she really is a dull character, too dull to sustain the story. She dithers and drifts, and then is irresistibly drawn to the enemy after a single glance (oh dear), after which she interferes with her father's sensible course of action because she's in lurve (oh dear, oh dear, oh dear). I'd like to slap her, but I don't think it would do any good. She's hopeless. Now, it turns out that she does have a cunning plan to convert the arrogant and fanatical Qintal to Shaihen values, but how much of this is devious political manoeuvring and how much is motivated by self-interest and lurve is unclear to me. I just don't like her much. Some of her interactions with Qintal had a certain spark, but beyond that she seemed rather flat. I felt that as the magician, she should be living in Shehaios instead of tinkering in her father's political world. Ditto Sheldo (who is the king, after all). In fact, I'm not quite sure why anyone from Shehaios is in Qivor (apart from Caras). Qintal himself turns out to be a much more interesting character, and the clash of cultures when the arrogant merescaii warrior strides into Shehaios is the best part of the book. More Shehaios and more Qintal would have improved things no end.

It's not that this is a bad book, at all. It is just the comparison with the first two that makes it seem weak. The first book had a light, fey touch (with dragons, unicorns and a phoenix), a terrific plot and lots of humour. The second book was much darker, but everything followed logically and the disintegration of the charismatic Kierce was fascinating. This book feels more lightweight. The setting is less interesting, the characters are mostly rather dull and the plot, while having a fair amount of action, feels trivial - tribal unrest in an Imperial city doesn't compare with a people fighting overwhelming odds in a desperate battle to keep themselves and their culture alive. We are on the wrong side now, as it were - this story is mostly told from the Imperial side, and we never quite develop the same sympathy for the downtrodden ascaii or the angry merescaii.

Even the magic is more perfunctory here, merely a convenient plot device. It is rather cool that Alsareth's magic is different from Kierce's - that seems logical to me - and I like that she sees people in colours, which explains why she's drawn to the passionate Qintal, whose energy transforms into particularly vivid colours. But the haziness of her ability to read minds also gives her less clarity as a character - she too is slightly fuzzy and wishy-washy. I am not at all clear why Kierce gave his cloak to Aruanth and his staff to Sheldo - maybe I missed something, but I didn't notice either an explanation or a purpose for this. Either way, this too would tend to diminish Alsareth's ability, I would have thought.

To be honest, the first two books worked very well as a duology. This one feels as if it was bolted on afterwards simply in order to tie up a loose end or two. I understand that there is a further trilogy in the pipeline, set many centuries after these events, so it may be that some of this book is actually setup for the later works - Aruath, in particular, may be important in some way, as the epilogue hints. Nevertheless, this is a perfectly readable story, and is, in many ways, very well crafted, with a number of events and characters from the earlier books turning out to be significant here. The author is brilliant at carrying these many threads from book to book. And the humour is back. I am torn between three and four stars, but I'll be generous.

[Edit: October 2012. It appears that the author has been swept into an outbreak of Real Life (tm). I can only hope that she will eventually get back to the writing. Fortunately, the first three Shehaios books remain available from Amazon.]

Sunday, 2 October 2011

Review: 'Staff of Power' by S A Rule

Moving straight on from one book in a series to the next is a matter of both pleasure and trepidation. The pleasure comes from meeting old friends again in a familiar setting - another whole book about Shehaios! But it's a nervous moment too. Will it be different? Will things get worse? Or possibly much worse? Will some of those old friends, who survived against the odds last time, meet a different fate this time round?

Rule starts by recapping the previous book. First, by a brief overview, then by another look at the dramatic finale from a different point of view, and finally, by some background exposition. It's difficult to do this sort of thing well. I would love it if authors would take the Tolkien route, and put all the backstory in an introduction - it works for those who've read the book as well as newcomers - but it's old-fashioned, I suppose. Some authors sprinkle snippets throughout the book, some just expect you to remember and some (as here) spread it thickly upfront, which gets a bit heavy. Too much exposition too soon weighs down the book's opening, but Rule just about gets away with it.

I suppose after the dramatic turn of events at the end of the previous book, and this being the middle book of a trilogy, it was inevitable that this one should spiral straight into a miserable state of affairs. All the characters are in difficulties, and sliding into hopelessness. Things feel fairly hopeless to the reader too. The naive Shaihen are pinned down under the heavy hand of the Imperial army, there are barbarous raiders along the borders and the Emperor has decreed that everyone must conform to his own choice of religion. Nice King Rainur is dead, and Kierce the magician is paying a high price for his own mistakes. A very high price - some scenes are quite horrifying to read.

One has to hope that the old adage holds true: things have to get worse before they can get better. But this is a lot worse, and for most of the book everything that can go wrong does. I have to say, there were places where I hesitated to turn the page, fearing the next outbreak of awfulness. It was all perfectly logical, following on from earlier events or resulting from the characters' own nature and decisions, but still, I don't much enjoy this kind of relentless grimness, it's not why I read fantasy. I don't like Bombadil-esque tweeness either, but I do look for something with just a hint of upbeatness about it. Fortunately, towards the end of the book things start to look up a little, and there are hints that expectations and ambitions are becoming more realistic, and the Shaihen may be able to make an accommodation with the occupying Imperial forces.

One of the main themes of this book, made more explicit than in the previous episode, is the difference between the Shaihen hippy-dippy spirit-of-the-people tolerance, the irrational violence of the ascaii raiders and the fanatical, if illogical and hypocritical, followers of Tay-Aien (a rather sensible sounding religion underneath, interpreted somewhat flexibly by its adherents). I feel the author draws all the various factions in extreme black and white, in order to underscore the good and bad points, and it comes across as rather heavy handed. I would have liked a little more grey on all sides, instead of what appears to be a simplistic Shaihen-good, others-bad dichotomy.

Nevertheless, the fairly basic magic system (the Lord High Magician, Kierce, has the power to read and manipulate minds, and thus create illusions) is used to excellent effect here. We saw a little of this in the first book, when Kierce finds nothing but incoherent fear and ignorance in ascaii Orlii's mind, and now this is multiplied manyfold when he mingles with the greater numbers of raiders. It's a very effective technique, putting the reader literally into the mind of various characters, and Kierce's disintegration is beautifully drawn and very believable and sad. Kierce's magic is a little convenient sometimes - it also allows him to heal potentially fatal injuries, and also to swap bodies, thereby leaping from place to place, neither of which seem to be quite consistent with the basic premise, but never mind. It allows the brilliant manipulation of Ravir, which creates some electrifying moments.

This book wasn't as enjoyable as the first, mainly because of the catalogue of downright depressing events which fills the first three quarters of it, and a somewhat darker, more edgy, tone. The plot isn't quite as absorbing, to me anyway, but it is still exceptionally well thought out, and the main characters, Kierce and Caras, and perhaps Cathva, become much more complex over the course of the book. I was less sure about the developments regarding Elani and Madred, which seemed a bit contrived, and the ending, especially the rather too simple and romantic resolution of Aruath's problem, didn't quite ring true. I'm not sure what to make of Aruanth. He has potential but I will reserve judgment until I have read the third book. Overall, very slightly disappointing compared to the first book, but middle books are often thus. Four stars.