Wednesday, 29 February 2012

Review: 'Who Listened To Dragons' by Tom Kepler

I don't often read short stories - I'm more into sprawling multi-volume works at the moment - but this is a good reminder of what I'm missing. A seemingly innocuous and gentle ramble, and then - wham, the kick in the tail. Like a fine whisky, it slips down oh so smoothly, and then sets you on fire.

These three stories from the author of the wonderful 'The Stone Dragon' have the same timeless, classic simplicity of the novel, with an almost whimsical surface hiding something much more profound underneath. The longest of the three, after which the book is named, is a charming tale of family and differentness and the magic that lies therein and much more besides, because this is the kind of writing where you can take out of it as many layers as you want - every time you look, there's something more there. It's also the one with the biggest emotional kick at the end. The second story, 'River's Daughter', is beautiful even though I'm not at all sure I understood much of it. My favourite is the last, 'T'uk's Dilemma', which elegantly explains an intriguing quirk of the novel.

All are written in a lyrical style which would bear reading aloud, and both the first and third could easily work as bedtime fairytales for children (but perhaps not 'River's Daughter' - 'Mummy, Mummy, what does "urging the last of his seed to release" mean?'). And all of them share another quality with the novel: they silently work their way into your brain so that odd images and thoughts and layers of meaning hover around like smoke for days afterwards. Highly recommended. Four stars.

Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Review: 'The Wrong Time' by Robby Charters

This is what happens, folks, when you get a brand new Kindle and rush out to fill it up with all sorts of free stuff. Some of what you find is perfectly readable, and some of it is brilliant, and some of it is... well, not so much. It sounds fine - man finds himself in an alternate reality, married to someone different, tries to get back 'home'. And so on. But I couldn't get past the friend called Roary McGreggor. Really? And he got a train from London at Paddy's Station. Really? That's some alternate reality. And then he flew through the Bermuda Triangle in a heli-sphere and found himself in Neverland... And the writing wasn't stylish enough to make this readable. So no, not my cup of tea. An uncritical child might enjoy it. Possibly. One star for a DNF. Edited to add: OK, I finished it and I get the point. Still didn't like it.

Monday, 27 February 2012

Review: 'The Shadowed Path' by Simon Stone

This is an interesting debut, a very assured piece of writing, the first part of a trilogy set in a vaguely Romanesque world. There's a good, exciting opening - a gladiatorial combat followed by some desperate goings-on in the nightmarish Shadowland. Then, after something of a cliff-hanger, the pace drops abruptly as several years are skipped over. This reminded me a little of the Monty Python episode: a gentle tour through the English countryside ends up, after increasingly improbably twists, with our heroes facing a firing squad, then - tada!- 'Reel missing', there they are back home. 'Phew, that was a lucky escape!' Now I daresay four years in the Shadowland would have been a very different story, and not the one the author wanted to tell, and undoubtedly snippets will be revealed over the course of the trilogy (the mysteries of Shadowland are obviously central to everything), but I still found it a bit disappointing.

The world-building is fairly broad-brush: there's the decaying Romanesque empire with its slaves and decadent way of life, and the religious empire, with its blood sacrifices and fanaticism, now on the rise, and a few bits and pieces on the periphery. The Roman aspects are quite detailed (almost too much so for my taste; I don't really like a setting that feels too close to the real world), but the rest is just sketched in. The real star of the show, however, is the Shadowland, the mysterious interior of the continent, filled with evil inhuman creatures and now spreading at an unnatural rate. Then there are the Waystalkers, the strange beings said to have been created by one of the gods to fight the evil, enslaved to humans and compelled not to harm them. It's a very intriguing setting, although there isn't a great deal of detail.

With the background a fairly blank canvas, the characters need to shine and I'm not sure these quite do, not yet. Marcus is a likeable enough bloke, but there's nothing much about him to make him stand out. His experiences in Shadowland have obviously left him traumatised, so that he seems almost unnaturally calm. Tyacles and Lokan are interesting but nothing special, and Sheena (or Jinx) - well, let's give her time to bloom. Simply having a traumatic or difficult past doesn't necessarily add interest to a character, but this is the first part of a trilogy, so it may well be that both Sheena and Marcus will develop over the full course of the story.

A lot of new characters appear in the second half of the book, and there's an air of setting things up for the remainder of the trilogy. The few glimpses we get of Sulia and its people are only just enough to get a flavour of their very different world, without really fleshing them out very much. By far the most interesting characters are the inhumanii - the Waystalkers and their families, kept as slaves in Prast, trained to kill the evil creatures in Shadowland but not allowed to harm humans without driving themselves mad. Parellio Redhands is absolutely fascinating - creepily menacing, with his own agenda, very powerful and he may (or may not) be able to kill humans. And his connection to Marcus is very intriguing. A terrific character.

The writing is literate and well-edited, on the whole, although the book is sprinkled with that curse of the self-publishing author, the sound-alike spelling ('reign' instead of 'rein', for instance, or my favourite - 'grizzly' instead of 'grisly'), and a few other minor typos. [Edit: removed reference to typos since fixed.] I'm not mad keen on the author's policy of putting the reader into the head of a new character who then disappears for ever a few pages later. It's disconcerting at first, and then it just gets irritating. Nevertheless, the plot flows seamlessly from chapter to chapter, and it's clear that this is all very carefully planned.

The plot, it has to be said, is a little slow. It seems to take a long time for Marcus to find out what's been happening back home while he's been off battling beasties and the whole nightmare of Shadowland, and there's a fair amount of angsting going on as well. This is quite useful, since it shows us the turmoil inside the calm exterior, and perhaps suggests that Marcus is not so much passive as numbed by his experiences, and almost unable to feel any emotion at all, and that gives some potential for things to change, but still, there was a little too much angst for my liking. Nevertheless, the story was trundling along quite well, the journey to Agotha was good, there was Jinx and Parellio to keep everything jumping and I was really enjoying it, and even beginning to get interested in Marcus and friends.

And then it all went wrong, in the last few chapters. It's a shame, because it was great up until that point, an enjoyable, well-written story, with enough interest and mysterious backstory to keep me turning the pages and a whole swathe of cliff-hangers to ensure I'm looking forward to the rest of the trilogy, heading for a good four stars - and then, whump. Sorry. Can't give it more than three stars. I daresay it's just me being contrary, and others wouldn't care about it at all, but for me it just didn't work. Mind you, I'm still probably interested enough to read the rest of the trilogy.

Here's the detail of the ending that I disliked:


Well, first of all, there's this invasion of strange northern barbarians, who have apparently travelled the length and breadth of the continent to trash a random Prastian city. Well, fine. I can buy that, I suppose. Even though they've hardly merited a mention beforehand. Even though it makes no real sense. Whatever. This is fantasy, after all.

And then there's Evrethia. She's the one who arranged for Marcus to go on his ill-fated jaunt into Shadowland, the one he spent years planning revenge on, the one who (he has discovered) has taken all his father's money and left him to die in squalor, the one Marcus himself has travelled for weeks to catch up with. And finally he does. And the conversation goes something like this:
Marcus (brandishing large dagger): I hate you, you stole my money and killed my father, and now I want my revenge!
Evrethia: Yes, SO sorry about all that. My father made me do it.
Marcus (putting dagger away): Oh. Well, that's all right then.
W-e-e-e-l-l. OK. I suppose. Whatever.

And finally, we have Marcus traipsing off into Shadowland, the one place in the world he never wants to see again. Why? Because the women need rescuing from the barbarians. Which women? The one who tried to kill him in the night, and the one who stole his money, killed his father, etc, etc. Now, Marcus is the guy who's been through so much in Shadowland that he is completely passive, uncaring, devoid of feeling. This has been underscored for the entire book, it's his defining characteristic. And suddenly he cares enough to go to the rescue? And for these two women, of all the women in the world? It's bad enough to resort to the women in peril routine as motivation at all, but for these two, it would be much more believable for Marcus to say - screw them, the barbarians can have them.

Now I suppose, if I'm being fair, this is all to show that Marcus isn't, in fact, the emotionless character he's been portrayed as, that a beautiful woman or two (even women who try to kill or cheat him) have the power to soften that iron heart of his, and if that works for you, that's fine. It just didn't work for me, it was too abrupt a change. And I would love it, actually, if Sheena/Jinx and Evrethia were to extricate themselves from their captivity, pulp a few barbarians and turn up, bright-eyed and bushy tailed, to greet Marcus before he's gone ten paces into Shadowland, but somehow I don't see that happening.

Thursday, 23 February 2012

Review: 'Darkness Rising' by Ross M Kitson

It's always a pleasure to come across a richly imagined secondary world, and the author has produced a terrific example here. There are whole continents, mountains, islands with realistic climates and distances worked out; there are humans with clearly differentiated races; there are cities and keeps and ports with distinctive characteristics; there are details of languages and religions and clothes and food and customs. There is a long list of intriguing sentient non-human races - the hermaphrodite Galvorians, for instance, and the avian Netreptans who live in cloud cities. Oh, and mer-people. There are knights who fly on griffons. There are numerous different nations, a multitude of alliances and a several thousand year history. All of these combine to create a wonderfully textured and nuanced backdrop to the story. And there are maps - lots of maps, very detailed, and a list of characters and a glossary and a timeline. This is great stuff, and I love it.

The magic system is not well defined yet, although mages are aligned with the four elementals of earth, air, fire and water, there are wild mages and dark mages and rebel mages, and there have been mage wars, suggesting a turbulent history. And the prisms of the series title are clearly an important part of things. There are also clear limits to what is possible with magic, and costs involved, which I like to see. Nothing is as dull as a character with virtually unlimited powers.

With so much detailed background, it does mean that the early part of the book is littered with references to people, places, events which are a mystery, but this is traditional in fantasy and it isn't hard to keep up. Besides, the reader is drawn in by the other great strength of the book - its characters, who all feel like real, well-rounded people. And if the early focus, the slightly naive Emelia, is not particularly interesting yet, there are others who are - Jem and Hunor, for instance, and the shape-shifting Marthir and her pals. I like the female knight, as well - nice to see women in non-traditional roles, doing their own thing, not simply there as motivation for the blokes.

I do have one quibble about Emelia. For an otherwise meek and sensible person, she shows a reckless tendency to listen at doors or chase after people she shouldn't. It's like those cheap horror films when the hero(ine) hears noises in the basement at night... Sometimes you should just run the other way. To be fair, the author establishes this aspect of her personality right from the start, but still it seemed a slightly implausible way to get her to overhear or see things. But I like the way she takes control of her own destiny, and isn't simply pushed around as a victim. There are times when she seems quite passive, following the others' lead, but it isn't unreasonable, given her age and experience.

The plot is nothing very original. There's a servant girl who has innate powers which make her special, which she has to learn to control. There appears to be an evil mage with a dastardly plot to enhance his abilities and make himself super-powerful. There are political machinations going on. There are some clichés around - the dreams, for instance, although this is part of the title [Edit: or it was; the original title of 'Dreams of Darkness Rising' has now been shortened], and actually I think they work rather well. Some of the plot devices are a little threadbare - the debauched son of the house, the I-don't-know-what-came-over-me blackouts, the mysterious stranger in the graveyard and so on. Once the story gets properly under way, however, there's plenty of action going on, with sword-fighting and mage battles and the like, and we get to travel around this wonderful world too, which is great fun. I very much liked the ruined or changed cities which dramatically paint in the historical background, far more effectively than the mini info-dumps, or characters explaining it.

Some minor issues. The author's writing style is nicely evocative without being overblown, but there are a few typos, especially with names, and there are numerous sound-alike spelling howlers and a grammatical error or two which had my inner pedant screaming. This is not uncommon in self-published works, but it does detract from an otherwise well-written  book. However, the series has recently been picked up by a publisher, so hopefully these problems will be fixed.

The middle sections sagged a little in places, but mainly because I was so invested in the two threesomes (Emelia, Hunor, Jem; and Marthir, Ygris and, um, the other one) that any digressions from their stories seemed annoying to me. I'm not sure that we really needed to see the bad guys up close anyway, busily pursuing their evil sorcery, with a little recreational dismemberment thrown in. This can work to explain their motivation, but (unless I missed something) the objective seemed to be the usual thing: power, global domination, yada yada, without much more underlying it than irredeemable evil. But these episodes did serve to fill in some of the backstory. There is a whole heap of backstory to fill in, it has to be said, and the author seems keen to ensure the reader knows every last drop of it.

What I liked: the wonderful characters and their interactions; the world and everything about it (the detail here is incredible); Emelia's 'inner voice', who even has her own name - Emebaka (is she really a separate entity, or just a part of Emelia? this had me guessing all the way through); the complexity of characters' motivations and actions (Orla's rigid knightly code versus Hunor's pragmatism, for instance, and the difficulty of knowing who is on who's side). There's also some very nice thinking in the different cultures: the Goldorians have a repressive religion which keeps women well wrapped up and burns mages at the stake yet is very liberal with the workers, while the Eerians have slavery and a knightly code of honour. It's terrific to find such thoughtful details in the background. I also liked the romantic tension between the main characters, which was extremely subtle and nicely done.

What worked less well for me: there's lots of action (which is fine), but all too often it was hard to see a logical reason for it and every journey seemed fraught with bad guys and various monsters leaping out of nowhere; and then it was surprising how often someone quite unexpected would come to the rescue at the last moment. To be honest, the numerous skirmishes got a little repetitive after a while. I'm not a big fan of fight scenes, so I tend to let them just wash over me, but they all seemed to be pretty well thought through and moderately realistic, as far as I could tell. There was a certain amount of beheading and dismembering, and blood gushing and so forth, but it never got too gross. The backstory just got too complicated sometimes (too many empires and wars and magely goings on to keep track of). I also lost track of some of the characters from time to time, so I was mystified when they turned up out of the blue (Livor, for instance, or Torm). Happily, my Kindle makes it easy to check back to previous appearances.

The ending seemed a little disjointed. The various characters split up into numerous subgroups each with its own action, and sometimes I had trouble keeping up with who was where and who was fighting whom. One big climactic battle would have been more satisfying, somehow. I was left puzzled by a couple of things - where did the wolf-like thingy come from? and where exactly was the crystal? But I assumed that was just me not paying attention - I was racing through it at the end, desperate to see how it all turned out.  On the whole, despite a few minor quibbles, this is an excellent start to the trilogy - richly imagined, well written and thoroughly absorbing. I loved all the main characters, with their quirks and complexities and quarrels and insecurities, and I loved this beautifully detailed world, which feels completely real. A very enjoyable read, and I look forward to the rest of the series. Four stars.

Friday, 17 February 2012

Review: 'The Hare With Amber Eyes' by Edmund de Waal

I found this very hard to get into. It's a dry-as-dust history of the author's family, based around a surviving fragment of their at one time vast art collection. The academic style and lengthy descriptions of architectural features plus the use of words and expressions unknown to my dictionary made it heavy going. Occasionally there would be a shaft of light - a picture of one of the people talked about, or talk of a lover - which brought these long dead characters to life somewhat.

Gradually, however, as the decades pass and the author reaches a generation he knew personally, people who left diaries and postcards and letters and word of mouth descriptions, the book becomes a little less heavy-footed. Even then, even when the tragedy of the First World War rolls over the family and flattens them, it is hard to sympathise over much. Yes, they lost a lot of money, and the footmen were all called up, there was no fuel to run the car and it was impossible to get to the country house or visit the cousins, but still, they all survived, they had enough to eat (unlike millions of others), they still lived in their vast Palais in the centre of Vienna with all its paintings and books and sculptures intact.

Eventually, we reach the moment which has been inevitable from page 1. For this particular family is Jewish, living right in the centre of the maelstrom of Hitler's Europe, and it was impossible for them to emerge unscathed. This part of the story is deeply moving, as all such stories are, and the author underscores the tragedy by the contrast between the life they lived before the war, with its endless round of social occasions, the arrays of costumes necessary, the lavish food and drink, the minutiae of the wealthy bourgeois daily and yearly round, and the transition to modest suburban life, virtually all their possessions lost, extended family scattered around the globe or dead.

The final part of the book takes the collection of 'netsuke' (carved toggles designed to be hung on kimono sashes) back to their origins in Japan, and this is a more upbeat read. Despite all that has happened, there is still the same acquisitive purchasing of art going on, the same moving through a landscape of social functions and mingling with the great and good of the art world which has characterised the family since the netsuke were first purchased in Paris close to a century earlier. This is not a family which is sliding into obscurity, despite its trials.

On the whole, I found the snippets of family life more interesting than the endless catalogue of furniture, architecture, art works and decoration. As an insight into the treatment of Jews, it probably does not add much to the canon, although the snapshot of a certain way of life has its interest. The book would be enjoyed best by those more knowledgeable about art and history than I am. Three stars.

Sunday, 12 February 2012

Review: 'Relentless' by Robin Parrish

This is an OK read, better than many of its type if a little uneven, with a compelling ending and well named - the pace truly is relentless. Not even sure what genre this is. I had it as fantasy, but the opening chapters seem more like technological thriller, but after a while elements of fantasy start creeping back in. It's the first part of a trilogy, after all, and there's a prophecy... Anyway. Good, fast start, with an intriguing premise - man suddenly realises he's in a different body, and he can actually see his normal body across the street. What has happened to him and why is the central mystery of the book.

This is one of those books where the frenetic pace substitutes for depth, and neatly covers any cracks in the plot. Several times, I was thinking: hang on a minute, that can't be right... and then another man with a gun or a sword jumps out and off we go again. There's a lot of action here, and people getting hurt, and then having to go out into the action again and get hurt all over again. Anytime the action lets up for a moment, it's time for a mini-info-dump. And sometimes the scene jumps were a bit too abrupt, and I couldn't quite work out where we were or why or how they knew something or other.

The characters are a little unbelievable, and why is the hero's love interest is always so beautiful? But at least the author has made some effort to paint in the backstories of several of the characters and give them a little more depth than is usual. And the women are just as capable, feisty, aggressive and/or devious as the men. I found the hero just a bit irritating. One minute he's aggressively pursuing bad guys and demanding answers or else, the next he's reduced to jelly. But it is a strange situation he finds himself in, I suppose I can cut him some slack.

A number of people have categorised this as a Christian book. There's certainly no overt religious theme or characters, and the only unusual aspect is the small number of deaths for a book of this type. A great many get injured, sometimes repeatedly, sometimes badly, and some of them survive brushes with death an improbable number of times, but rarely is there an actual death. But those who are forced to kill agonise over it, there's a theme of forgiving even those who betray you and there's a recurring theme of good and evil, so perhaps it's right there without being preachy.

This is not at all bad, as such books go, although I never quite believed in it or got into that sucked-in page-turning mode. It's patchy - there are moments where it gets close to something more profound, and then it veers off into yet another car chase or racing down fire escapes or some such. I think the author visualises it as a high-action movie. The ending was rather good, with a number of very neat twists. Those with a greater ability to suspend disbelief, who don't mind the hero evading death by a whisker yet again or who enjoy high-action stuff with gun-fights AND sword-fights would probably like this a lot. Three stars.

Tuesday, 7 February 2012

Review: 'Unclean Spirits' by M L N Hanover

I'm really not a big fan of urban fantasy. Discovering the author's created world is (for me) the most exciting part of fantasy, and starting in the real world takes a lot of the fun out of it. Besides, our own world but with magic, vampires, demons, werewolves and the like? It's so implausible that it only really comes off as comedy, like Harry Potter or Buffy. But I have this hypothesis that Daniel Abraham (as Mr Hanover is better known) can't write a bad book, so here I am, reading an urban fantasy with a semi-clad young woman on the cover.

The first book of a series is always the trickiest. The author has to establish the world, establish the premise, introduce the characters, deal with the 'oh no! this can't be happening to me!' stuff, and also produce a plot which captures the essence of the style, whether kick-ass action or romance or mystery or whatever, in a sufficiently entertaining way that the reader wants to rush out and buy the next book. It's a hard act to pull off, and very often it takes several books before the author hits his/her stride.

So I was kind of expecting this to be spotty, and yes, it is, a bit. The writing feels uneasy in places, almost like the author's trying too hard to be edgy: "Across from Eric in the dim orange light of the bar, a man laughed and the waitress smiled a tight little smile that didn't reach her eyes. Eric tapped his glass, the tick-tick-tick of his fingernails sounding like the rain against the window." And the names: Jayné. Chogyi Jake. Midian. Ex. And Aubrey - that one sounds like a gay bloke to me, or maybe an elderly classics professor at Oxford, not the cute love interest.

Maybe it's me, but I found Jayné's barely-out-of-her-teens angsting a bit tedious. Tears, tantrums, shopping sprees, more tears, breathless sex, tears again, sleepless agonising, frantic housecleaning and yet more tears, with instant wild mood-swings between despair and euphoria - tedious. Even though she has reason for a certain amount of mental instability, it doesn't make for entertaining reading (although the euphoric phases can be very funny). And is it a bit creepy that a man in his forties or thereabouts writes this sort of stuff? Although if I didn't know the author was a man, I wouldn't guess. He's always written women well, and I think that after one or two more books, when Jayné learns to stop agonising, she'll be an interesting character. Not sure about the love interest, though. He seems a bit insipid to me. The other two blokes are far more interesting (and one woman and three men? how is that going to work out in the long term, I wonder?).

But underneath it all is a readable and (when Jayné leaves the angst behind long enough to get on with it) pacy plot, and the action moments are terrific. Nothing quite goes right, despite all the careful planning, and it helps that the Big Bad is intrigued enough not to just kill everyone on sight and stops to talk about it first (why do they always do that?), but I very much liked that in the end it needed a lot of teamwork and people helping each other out to get things to work. There wasn't a huge amount of tension in it (well, they weren't all going to die, were they? and it is the first of a series...), but it was nicely done. A good three stars.

Sunday, 5 February 2012

Review: 'The Demon Queen and the Locksmith' by Spencer Baum

Strange book, quite surreal. It's young adult, which limits the scope, but nevertheless there's some depth to it. The premise: three teenagers meet by chance, it seems, in the park and witness some strange events which lead to them developing superpowers. And if the idea is not the most original ever, the author gives it a whimsical, bizarre spin which is anything but hackneyed. There are butterflies and bugs and an oak tree and strange swirly patterns and a Hum emanating from a mountain and espresso - lots and lots of espresso.

About half-way through the story changes from the whimsical to a straightforward race to flee from the bugs and survive long enough to work out what is actually going on, and this part is a real white-knuckle ride. Of course, this being young adult, the outcome is not much of a surprise, but the story is very readable, there is some knowledge gained along the way (about bugs and pitcher plants and how social insects organise themselves, among other things), and there is a teeny, tiny amount of advice about dealing with bullies hidden in there too. A short but sweet book, and it was free too. Not entirely my thing,  which keeps it to three stars.

Thursday, 2 February 2012

Series Review: 'The Riyria Revelations' by Michael J Sullivan

This is a review of the entire series, originally published as six books: 'The Crown Conspiracy', 'Avempartha', 'Nyphron Rising', 'The Emerald Storm', 'Wintertide' and 'Percepliquis'.  Now republished in three volumes as: 'Theft of Swords', 'Rise of Empire' and 'Heir of Novron'. There is also a free short story prequel: 'The Viscount and the Witch'. The author is now writing a series of novel-length prequels.

Many spoilers below - don't read on if you haven't read the whole series.

I have something of a love/hate relationship with Michael J Sullivan (not at a personal level, I hasten to add, I've never met the man). His Riyria series was one of my earliest introductions to self-published ebooks, and taught me that you definitely don't have to be with a mainstream publisher to be any good. Not great literature, but easy to read, entertaining and riotously funny - what's not to like? I was steadily working my way through the six-book series, which got better and better, when it was picked up by a big name house, and publication of the final book of the series was delayed. I was pacing myself with this delay in mind, and, having read the first four books, I decided it was time to buy the fifth, only to find - nothing. All the ebooks had been pulled, ready for the big re-release. Damn. Should have paid more attention. So annoying.

But then the author released a free short prequel (which was nice), and since he writes the best blog I've ever come across, with a self-effacing manner and a truly wonderful sense of humour, I forgive him. For those who had bought all five previously published books, he made sure that they could get the sixth in matching format, which is totally cool. He's very good at connecting with his readers and participating in online discussion groups, and sometimes that veers into over-enthusiastic self-promotion, but that's just part of the digital age, I suppose.

The Riyria series has been billed as a return to traditional fantasy, adult books but without swearing or graphic sex, with each book readable on its own while nevertheless having an overarching story. So how well does it measure up? Well, there's certainly no swearing or sex, but there is some violence (that's unavoidable in this type of story), and there is an attempted rape in 'Avempartha', plenty of implied sex and plenty of whores, too. So adult reading, yes, but it works well as young adult too. And while you could, I suppose, read any of the books on their own, they make most sense read together in the proper sequence.

The traditional fantasy aspect is a problem for me, because almost invariably it means a pseudo-medieval setting with all the usual baggage - kings, knights, castles, tournaments, mud-bespattered and stupid peasants grubbing round in the dirt, ragged urchins in the towns picking pockets, a few wizards, elves, goblins and dwarves in the background, and women reduced to a handful of minor roles - princess, whore, serving wench and (if she's lucky) warrior babe. Sullivan has bought into this wholesale, and I suppose I shouldn't compain, since so many other authors do the same. Tolkien set the standard here, after all. But it is tired and clichéd and (frankly) lazy.

In a few ways, Sullivan has added his own touches. For most of the series elves are sad half-breeds, enslaved and badly treated and eventually exterminated, and the only dwarf is a total scumbag. And there are some fabulous magical places - Gutaria, the enchanted wizard prison, Avempartha, the exquisite elven tower, and Drumindor, the dwarf-built tower on a volcano. Some of the fringes of the created world, like Dagastan and Calis, are well-drawn, too. But the legendary lost city of Percepliquis was a disappointment to me.

The magic system is unoriginal, too. A wizard waves his hands in the air and harnesses natural forces to achieve his spells, and there seems to be no limit to this. That's about it. Fortunately, the story never devolves to the level of wizards hurling thunderbolts at each other, which would have been tediously uninteresting. Magic is used sparingly, and is generally a surprise when it appears.

The characters all fall into stereotyped roles - warrior, princess, thief, whore and so on - and in the early books they had little depth, but over time the main characters developed more rounded personalities. Royce, in particular, is a complex and fascinating character, and I think it was essential to see him at his rawest and worst, immediately after Gwen's death, to realise just how far he had come over the course of the story and understand just how low he could fall, left to himself. We were repeatedly told how dangerous he was, but that was the moment when we actually saw it. Hadrian is a much simpler person, with a touching faith in the innate goodness of people. Very likeable, and the two make a great team. The joking between them is one of the highlights of the books (far too much fantasy is overly serious). I loved the way they worked together seamlessly (climbing out of the well back to back, for instance, or instinctively watching each other's backs while meeting the Diamond on the bridge at Colnora). But I also liked their very different personalities: when they meet the Diamond at the inn, Royce remains motionless, alert, while Hadrian ambles round the room eating walnuts.

The other characters work less well. I loved Myron's innocence, but I simply didn't believe he could know so little of the world after all his reading and living at an abbey frequented by travellers, and I found him unconvincing as a philosopher guiding Royce through his darker moments. The rest are fairly one dimensional, even after six books: Alric the whiny aristocrat, Mauvin the warrior, Degan the prat, Magnus the grumpy stonesmith, Archie the fool and so on. That doesn't make them uninteresting, it just means they aren't emotionally engaging.

I have to mention the four main female characters: Arista, Thrace/Modina, Amilia and Gwen. I didn't notice it the first time through, but rereading the first four books while waiting for the release of the last two has highlighted for me just how depressingly caricatured and helpless they were. Maybe it's because in the interim I read several books where women were just as competent and realistic as their male counterparts, but this time through it just jumped out at me. Gwen is the classic good-hearted whore. She was an independent woman who ran several successful businesses, but ultimately her role was to be loved by a man, and be the mother of his daughter. Oh, and to make prophecies so that the plot could progress. And Amilia never really progressed beyond downtrodden servant, and love interest for a man. She certainly never developed any self-confidence.

Thrace/Modina made the leap from peasant girl to empress, but to be honest, I never really found it totally convincing. In 'Avempartha' she is sent off by Esrahaddon to find Royce and Hadrian, where she promptly falls victim to a potential rapist and has to be rescued. She then spends most of the book being silly, doing stupid things, running round shouting 'Daddy, Daddy!', getting captured and having to be rescued. She has a moment of lucidity when she takes the sword hilt, but actually killing the beastie seems to be more by accident than design. She spends the whole of 'Nyphron Rising' in a state of catatonia. She is only marginally better in 'Emerald Storm' and 'Wintertide', and now she's suicidal too. It's only the arrival of Mince with Esrahaddon's cloak that knocks her out of her depression. Was it Mince's words which did the trick, or the magic cloak? No idea, but I prefer to think it was the cloak, since surely only magic could explain her otherwise miraculous transformation into serene (and sane) empress.

Then there was Arista. Now, in one sense I liked how she turned out. Her final incarnation, as a regular human being rather than a haughty princess, was nicely believable. But the way she got there was to be manipulated, captured, rescued, dragged around the countryside, captured again, rescued again, and finally (just in case we suspected she was acting independently for once) to carry out Esrahaddon's last instructions. Oh, and then she became love interest and motivation for a man. Even though she was a powerful wizardess in her own right by then, at the final confrontation it was men with swords (and twirly knife things) who fought for the survival of mankind, while she stood on the sidelines wailing 'Oh Hadrian!', and waiting to be called upon to bring Royce back to life.

Now it may seem churlish to grumble about this. It's no more than almost every other fantasy writer does, after all, and it was Tolkien, bless him, who started the rot by making Arwen no more than Aragorn's reward, and even Eowyn only became the kickass warrior babe in despair after falling for the unattainable hero. And yes, Modina made a great empress and Arista was pretty useful in a crisis. I just wish they hadn't been so helpless along the way. Of course the men had their moments of being manipulated and having to be rescued, too, but they still came across as independent people, and as often as not they got themselves out of trouble. Only very rarely were they there mainly to act as motivation and love interest (Sir Breckton, maybe).

There's one last character I should mention: Nimbus. The whole Kile story was flagged up so many times that I should have seen it coming, but I didn't and it was a lovely moment. I'm not a fan of gods taking an active role in fantasy, they're just too powerful, but this was a beautifully elegant way to say, yes, there are gods in this world, but their interference can be a good thing. Very subtly done.

The six books all had plots which, while part of the overarching framework, were still workable as stand-alone reads, and the author pulled this off pretty well, I think. The individual plots were fairly flimsy affairs, on the whole, and some of them were actually quite silly, but they worked as entertaining capers. But when you get to 'Percepliquis', the final book, it becomes possible to see the story as a whole, and here the author's talent shines through. It takes a great deal of skill to write six books which weave together into a satisfying and united whole, without loose ends or forced motivations or sleight of hand, and Sullivan not only achieves this brilliantly, he also manages to leave open the central mystery (the identity of the true Heir of Novron) until the last possible moment. This is an impressive feat.

'Percepliquis' itself is, in many ways, the archetypal fantasy story: the quest to find a magical gizmo to save the world. The ten questers were a fairly motley crew, and some of them seemed to be there just to make up the numbers. I have to say, for a lost city, Percepliquis was remarkably easy to find, but then Sullivan has never been one to spin out a story, thankfully. The highlight of the journey was the tetchiness infecting virtually all the participants. Royce and Magnus are grumpy by nature, Alric and Arista had an outbreak of sibling rivalry, and Degan was an ass, as he has been from the start. And even the even-tempered Hadrian bopped Degan on the nose (a wonderful moment). Only Myron rose unflappably above the sniping. I liked the author's skilful pacing over the journey (and the whole book, really). The moments of high drama are masterfully interspersed with thoughtful passages, comic relief, gentle romance, simple description and, sometimes, despair. Beautifully done. And the challenge at the end is absolutely perfect.

The sixth book is full of twists and big reveals, and I have to confess to guessing most of them ahead of time. I didn't anticipate that Novron was an elf (but it makes perfect sense), and I definitely didn't suspect Arcadius of killing Gwen, but I marked Royce as (possibly) the heir the moment Mercy was revealed as an heir, I worked out the Patriarch's anagram and I knew Thranic would turn up. And as one piece after another fell into place, and the overall picture came into focus, it became clear just how cleverly plotted the story was.

Looking back at the complete series, Sullivan himself has said that he thinks the whole is greater than the sum of the parts, and I would agree with that. Each book revealed a little of the picture, but only when the whole of it is visible is it possible to see how everything works together - the elves, Novron, the Nyphron church, Esrahaddon, the Patriarch, Royce, Gwen, Hadrian, Arcadius, the whole enchilada. It's like one of those ingenious three dimensional puzzles that looks impossible until you push and twist just right, and everything falls into place. Of course, it's perfectly possible to read the books just as entertaining stories and not worry about the big picture, but it's a lot more fun to try to work it out for yourself. And the final book is just mystery heaped upon secret wrapped in enigma.

Reviewing some of the earlier books, I was moderately critical of Sullivan's writing. There were typos and clunky dialogue and poor grammar and Americanisms, none of which matter much unless you notice them, but I did. On rereading, I noticed them less, and it also became clear how much the writing improved over the course of the series. He'll probably never have the poetic flow of (say) Rothfuss, or the over-the-top gloriousness of (say) Martin, but he has a style of his own, which works fine for this type of story. In 'Percepliquis' the writing was so much more confident that it pulled off all the complexities of the finale - the deeper notes, the romantic interludes, the archaic language, the poems, the dreams - with barely a jarring note.

Sullivan has given his readers something special: a story which works at multiple different levels. He has achieved his aim to produce clean traditional fantasy which is enjoyable and entertaining, while also providing a more complex puzzle for those who want it. The two main characters and their relationship, and particularly Royce and his distorted view of the world, provide a deeper layer of interest. Some memorable highlights from the whole series: Gutaria, Avempartha, Drumindor; Royce and Hadrian climbing out of the well, standing back to back on the bridge meeting the Diamond at Colnora, meeting the Diamond (again) at the inn; Alric charging the gates of Medford, Alric rescuing Arista, Lenare spitting Luis Guy; Myron mystified by his sister, Hadrian bopping Degan, Royce using Gilly to escape from the tomb. And the unforgettable: Royce going ballistic after Gwen's death. And a special mention for best performance by an inanimate object: Esrahaddon's cloak.

But I think Sullivan has achieved something more. He was one of the first to turn to self-publishing and actually make it profitable, by tirelessly working to promote his books and, of course, by having worthwhile material to sell. He then successfully transferred back to traditional publishing, thereby proving that the two systems can peacefully co-exist and support each other. He is one of the new breed of author, who has reached out directly to his audience and built a personal connection, and he's still doing that despite the new publishing deal. Of course, all of this attracts a certain amount of venom from some quarters - the pro-indie set who hate him for selling out, and the anti-indie set who hate him for making a success of going it alone. I hope he won't let that bother him. I hope he continues to write at this level, that he continues to be the same down-to-earth, self-effacing person, that he continues to be successful. But even if he doesn't write another thing, he has left a worthy legacy behind him: six books which make one terrific story, and an inspiration for all aspiring writers.

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Review: 'Percepliquis' by Michael J Sullivan

It's always special when you reach the end of a series, particularly one which was planned from the start, rather than growing organically. The mysteries will make sense, questions will be answered, characters will receive their dues and loose ends will be tied up, or so one hopes. And on the downside, it's likely some characters will die, perhaps even major ones, and it's always possible the ending will ruin the whole series. Fortunately, Sullivan ends on a high note. There are serious moments (but then the future of mankind is at stake), but he avoids the temptation to get too heavy or preachy, keeps the humour rolling and throws in some nice twists, although the ending is rather simplistic and overly sentimental.

Percepliquis pulls together virtually all the main characters into one questing group - a Fellowship of the Horn, as it were. Some of them didn't seem like main characters before, and I'm not sure they were all necessary to the outcome, but they have all been around pretty much from the start of the series. As with all six of the books, the plot of this one is fairly stand-alone, even though much of it builds on what has gone before. And as with them all, it's not always clear at the time who is manipulating events and who is acting under false pretences. Things are never quite what they seem. I can't imagine anyone would read this book without having read the previous five, because there's a lot of backstory to keep in mind, but the author does a pretty good job of filling in the necessary details.

I like my fantasy to surprise me, but actually there weren't too many surprises here. Maybe the foreshadowing was a little heavy-handed, or maybe my reread paid off, but most of the twists and turns were to some extent predictable. There were only a couple of moments that came out of the blue (but they were both terrific - very satisfying and making perfect sense). And yes, almost all of the questions were answered, there were deaths, but largely it played out as expected. Some of the reveals felt a little too contrived, there was a heavy layer of sentimentality everywhere, and there was a walk-on part for almost every character who survived the previous five books, but on the whole it worked pretty well. The author's writing reached a new high for this book; the poems worked well, the archaic language was much better than before and the dreams fitted perfectly, a hard trick to pull off. Even the romantic interludes were better. And the Royce/Hadrian banter and sniping was extended to the whole questing group, which was great fun and perfectly in keeping with their characters.

What didn't work? Well, the whole elf destruction routine felt very over the top. They were provoked, no denying it, but trying to kill every last human seems an excessive response. And given how powerful they were, their methods seemed a bit haphazard. The search for the underground Percepliquis was heavily redolent of the Mines of Moria in Lord of the Rings, with the pause to decide which of three passages to take, Arista cast in the Gandalf role, the Ghazel playing the orcs, and even a Balrog-type fire beastie being summoned. Fortunately, no one quite said 'Fly, you fools'.  And at the end of it, the ruined city of Percepliquis was - well, ruined, and (for me) not terribly interesting. 

I'm still not a fan of Arista. I understand what the author has tried to do with her development, and some of it is successful - she's not the whiny aristocrat any more, and seeing Alric again emphasizes just how far she's come. But she still can't manage to do anything by herself, even magic, without a man rescuing her or at the least holding her hand. Of the other characters, Royce is the most complex and therefore interesting, and Hadrian the shining foil to his darkness. Myron is a truly wonderful character, who comes into his own in this book. And even Magnus makes his peace with the world.

Eventually, all is revealed, and the ending is satisfying, although a bit too cute. There were a few implausibilities necessary to make it work, but on the whole everything fitted rather well. As with the whole series, an enjoyable, pacy read, page-turningly good, entertaining rather than deeply profound, although this final episode had more finesse than its predecessors. A good four stars.