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Thursday, 29 March 2012

Review: 'A Death in Beverley Hills' by David Grace

Another free ebook download, but this one is rather good. Yes, it's got its fair share of typos, but mostly it's a missing or extra word here and there rather than spelling errors or grammatical howlers, so it didn't impinge on my enjoyment too much. In fact, the few spelling mistakes were actually quite funny. The author obviously has trouble with double consonants, so there were a lot of scared tables and shinny clothes and so forth, which was quite entertaining. Well, it amused me.

The plot revolves around an ex-cop called in to reinvestigate the murder of a celebrity's wife, but since the ex-cop's wife was also murdered, there are echoes of the previous case. The style is confusing at first - there are here-and-now scenes, scenes recalled from the present murder's investigation and flashbacks to the ex-cop's past, all jumbled up without much explanation, but you get used to it after a while. It would have helped, though, to have some more memorable names - Steve, Tom, Greg, Simon... they're just too easy to mix up. Even the author gets them mixed up occasionally. The author has a habit, too, of using both first name and surname interchangeably: "Steve said... Janson nodded..." sometimes in the same paragraph, but you get used to that, too, in time.

The first half of the book is quite slow. The ex-cop reads the investigation files and sometimes visits the key people in the case, and it may seem as if nothing much is happening here, but I really liked the subtle way characters are built up in layers, and events are revealed piece by piece. If you pay attention, too, there are all sorts of clues as to what really happened - or are they just red herrings? I found myself devising possible scenarios in my head - always a good sign in this kind of book.

The characters had more depth than is usual for a murder mystery. The cops all tended to come from the same cookie cutter - brusque, wise-cracking, macho types, but the women were more varied and less predictable, and the accused was a wonderful mixture of bravado and sheer stupidity. The ex-cop's history was interesting, and there's a thought-provoking theme on the question of justice - not just the commonplace one of ensuring that the innocent are not unfairly convicted, but the more awkward one of when (or whether) it's acceptable to take the law into your own hands, and how a civilised society deals with that.

It surprised me that this book has received quite a few critical reviews in some places. It's not perfect, it needs some solid editing and it's not great literature, but then it doesn't pretend to be. It did exactly what I expected of it - created a satisfyingly tangled plot and characters who behave believably, without depending on car chases or gun fights or unlikely coincidences. In the end, the identity of the killer was very logical without being blindingly obvious, and didn't come out of left field in the final chapter. Too many authors use sleight of hand to conceal vital clues, allowing them to reveal the killer with a triumphant flourish at the end. My only complaint is that I found the courtroom scenes an unnecessarily drawn-out extension to the plot, and I suspect the author was overly focussed on the visual dramatics of a possible film version. It made the ending a little simpler than it could have been. But it was still good exciting stuff, a thoroughly enjoyable read. Four stars.

Saturday, 24 March 2012

Review: '99 Reasons Why' by Caroline Smailes

This is a weird book, in several ways. It's written in the first person by a young woman who's obviously several sandwiches short of a picnic, and set in the sort of estate most of us are thankful we never have to live in. From the argot, I presume it's around Newcastle, but with few changes it could be any major city in Britain. Warning to those averse to bad language - there's a lot of it here, and also some moderately graphic sex, but it's totally in character and not gratuitous.

The protagonist writes as she would speak. Random sample: "The leaflet'd come through the door with that free Herald local newspaper. The newspaper'd been pushed through the door and left on the mat for a couple of days. I pick it up and two leaflets fall out. One's a leaflet offering a free garlic bread if you buy two pizzas from Nice Kebab. It's all glossy. I go in the front room and give the leaflet to me dad." And so on. Now, this could get seriously tedious, but somehow it has the same oddly hypnotic pull of the TV in the corner of the pub showing some random European football game or a quiz show - you just can't tear yourself away. Not sure how it would play with non-Brits, mind.

So I more or less got drawn into it, and as the story goes along, the complexities of life on the estate and the family life of Kate, the protagonist, became more interesting. There's a sort of horrified fascination at all the goings on, which are fairly bizarre but just close enough to most people's idea of sink estate life to be credible (which I suspect may not bear any resemblance to real life). It's a testament to the author's skill that she makes these slightly cartoonish people real enough to generate genuine pathos. Of course, since Kate isn't all there, there's also the amusement for the reader of working out the tensions and undercurrents and relationships that sail blithely over her head. So none of the endings come as much of a shock.

And that brings me to the book's big gimmick. Each chapter is titled as one of the 99 reasons ("21: the reason why I'm square" for example), but after number 88, there's a mini questionnaire, where you pick a colour, a number and an object, and are then given one of 11 possible endings. There are 9 in the book, another one on the author's website, and the final one will be hand-written and auctioned for charity. On the Kindle, you can choose a different ending if you like, and it's also possible to simply page past the questionnaire and read all the possible endings, one after the other. [Note: on the iPad version, there's a wheel to spin to get an ending, but I don't know whether you can see them all). They vary from happy ever after to - well, less happy. There's a certain amount of overlap, obviously, but all of them fit perfectly well with what's gone before.

Now this is all very clever, and the publishers are marketing the book as state of the art, new use of technology and all that, so that ebook readers get the ending they want. Which is nonsense, of course. Links in ebooks are very nice, but they aren't exactly a quantum leap away from 'turn to page 99' in a printed book. And as for getting the ending you want, what you actually get is completely random. Maybe there's some deep psychological theory as to why one combination gets you an upbeat ending and another gets you something tragic, but since you can immediately go off and read a different ending, it hardly matters.

The real problem with this sort of strategy is that it completely destroys any suspension of disbelief. Yes, of course we all know that there's no Kate Jones, no mam, no Uncle Phil, no Andy Douglas. But the whole point of telling a story is to make us knowingly go along with the pretence that there is, to the extent that we can feel real emotion for these completely imaginary characters. As soon as an author says: well, I could have a real prince come along and sweep the heroine off her feet, or I could have them all wiped out by a meteor (not a spoiler), what do you think? Well, then it just becomes an academic exercise. The bubble has burst. I'm sure this was an interesting challenge for the author to write, and it's definitely a marketable technique (I bought the book because of it, after all), but I really don't think it works for the story. Some of those endings would have been very affecting to read, had they been the only one, but being one of many reduces the impact.

On the plus side, the story is absorbing (up to the alternative endings, anyway), it's well written and the characters are genuinely interesting and (on some level) emotionally engaging. But the gimmicky multiple endings drag it down to three stars.

Friday, 23 March 2012

Review: 'Treespeaker' by Katie W Stewart

This was another free book, although I have no idea where I got it from (it's still cheap on Amazon). I've learned to be wary of freebies, but there's no need with this one - it's a charming and absorbing story, well-written and thankfully also well-edited. It's a quiet tale of one man and his son trying to protect their people's way of life from encroaching outsiders. Those with a liking for action should look elsewhere; there are no battles, no sword fights and not a single buckle is swashed.

I very much liked the setting - a gentle society living (rather idealistically, it must be said) in harmony with their forest, protected by their god Arrakesh and his mouthpiece Jakan, the Treespeaker of the title. It's probably not a realistic way of life (acorn bread?? and how do they manage to find so much firewood without impacting the forest?) but then this is fantasy. The most disappointing aspect, for me, was the traditional division of labour - men hunt and collect firewood and mend the roof, women tend goats and vegetables, and cook and sew. But at least the women could become Elders, which is something, I suppose. But I would have liked a little more information about the lifestyle of the Arrakeshi. And a map - fantasy is always better with a map, in my opinion (I did eventually find a rather sketchy one on one of the author's numerous websites/blogs).

The story is, it has to be said, somewhat simplistic. The Arrakeshi, with their principle of living in harmony with the forest, are definitely the good guys, and Carlika, the world outside, is the Big Bad, set on eliminating or enslaving the Arrakeshi and exploiting the forest resources. And although some attempt is made to justify these actions (they are forced to use slaves to dig for coal because they destroyed all their own forests, slavers have to earn a crust too and so on), it's fairly half-hearted. Carlika itself is rather glossed over - there are roads and farms and towns and villages, but the story jumps quickly from one place to another, and Jakan's reactions to this strange environment are only sparsely described. Since he has never left the forest before, it should feel more alien to him, yet this seldom comes across.

The magic systems used by the two societies are equally differentiated. The Arrakeshi have a Treespeaker for each tribe, who is in communication with the god Arrakesh through the forest itself, and follow orders regarding the number of deer they can hunt each year, and so on, to maintain a proper balance. The Treespeaker also has healing powers, augmented by a special kind of stone. The Carlikans have a more destructive kind of magic, which can control minds, create fire, fell trees and generally wreak havoc.

The characters are not overly deep, but they do have a certain quirky charm. I would have liked to see some of the female roles given more screen-time, rather than being used as background characters to help or motivate the leading men, or simply to move the plot along. The two main characters, Jakan and his son Dovan, would have worked just as well as women, I think. But it's a minor point, and some of the older women are interesting - Megda and Hekja, for instance. And all the characters are realistic mixtures of good and bad impulses.

The plot gets a little contrived towards the end, or maybe it's intended to be allegorical or some such, who knows. It could have done with a slightly slower pace, too. There was a lot of Jakan's journey that was just passed over, and in no time we were back in the forest. I understand the author's desire to get to the climax, but the whole quest seemed all too easy, somehow. In particular, he found Varyd without the slightest bother. The final confrontation produced a few nice twists, but generally the outcome was very much as you would expect, with some unexpected magical events (close to deus ex machina at points) to help things along, and everything set up nicely for a sequel (although this reads perfectly well as a stand-alone).

It's not a profound book, and some of the 'you just got to have faith' and 'there has to be balance' messages were layered on with a trowel. As the author says: "This is not a book about good versus evil. This is a book about belonging, balance and belief." OK, we get it. It is also a very readable, straightforward story of one man struggling to do the right thing, even when he isn't quite sure what that is. I found it a great page-turner, with emotionally engaging characters, a heart-wrenching problem for them to solve and an intriguing, if not overly detailed, setting. An enjoyable read. Somewhere between three and four stars, but I'll be generous, so let's say four.

Thursday, 22 March 2012

Review: 'Painless' by Derek Ciccone

This was a free book I picked up in my early Kindle days, and it's still cheap. It was in Amazon's top 100 free list for months, which is a good sign. There are two separate strands to the plot. The first is about a family with an unusual child, and Billy, who arrives to rent their cottage, and this part is very readable. The characters are not perfectly drawn, and some are more fleshed out than others, but they do feel more real than is usual in a book of this type, and they all have some serious history which gives them a bit of depth. Billy in particular is an interesting character, and there are intriguing mysteries in his past.

The other strand is about a secret military-type organisation, and this I found much less interesting. The focus is very much US-centric, with a great deal about Vietnam, Iraq, Iran and 9/11, and there are lengthy quotes from Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, and generally a lot of patriotism swilling about. Nothing wrong with any of that, naturally, but it seemed as if the author was using these events to create a certain emotional response and that doesn't play quite so well to those of us outside the US. It is also a somewhat clich├ęd plotline, with a predictable outcome.

The book's style strikes me as something a beginning author would produce - a little clunky, not really flowing, lacking self-confidence and over-heavy with the imagery, as if the author has taken a few creative writing classes, and hasn't quite developed his own voice. Frequently he explains or even repeats what has just been said in dialogue, as if not trusting the reader to follow along, even though there's nothing terribly convoluted in the plot. The pacing feels a little off, too - there are long descriptive or exposition passages, not all of which seem relevant. There are quite a few minor typos, but no worse than many such self-published books.

The major drawback is credibility. The fundamental premise is that the family would take on an unknown man, not just as a lodger, but also as a more or less full time child carer for Carolyn, the four-year-old girl, without checking his background or asking any proper questions. It would have been interesting, I think, to read about the first meeting between Billy and the parents to see just what took place and why they felt able to trust him, but although the author wrote this part, he edited most of it out. It would have been more believable, I think, if Billy had been around for a while - as a long-standing tenant, or perhaps employed as a groundsman or some such - and then got called upon to babysit later.

And then - the big stumbling block for me - after numerous incidents where Carolyn has been injured on Billy's watch, and after she was almost snatched from her home, he leaves her on her own while he chases after a potential kidnapper. No, I don't think so. No one could possibly be that stupid - could they? But then her parents are pretty stupid too - they let their feel-no-pain reckless daughter run about the wilderness with sparklers. And sometimes you wonder if Billy is really all there. Having chased a guy across Montreal and tracked him down to a bar, he sits watching his quarry and eating a meal until the guy gets up to leave, when - surprise! - the chase begins all over again. Why wait? And if he doesn't want to approach him directly, why not use the waitress to take a message?

I confess that I began to lose interest at this point and started skimming to get to the end. This is not a bad book, if you like this sort of thing, and the plot is neatly worked out most of the time, although the characters have to do some crazy things sometimes to get it moving in the right direction. But the writing isn't strong enough to create any real tension or excitement, the twists are visible from five miles away and the ending was never in doubt. Even the big reveal about Billy's past was hardly a surprise. Ultimately, it wasn't for me, but those who don't mind the illogicalities and the obvious plotlines and the endless descriptions of banal meals and clothing might enjoy it. Two stars.

Monday, 19 March 2012

Review: 'Cat's Eye' by Margaret Atwood

This is an astonishing book, at a number of different levels. The surface story is of Elaine, a middle-aged artist who returns to her childhood home of Toronto for an exhibition of her work, which activates all sorts of long-buried feelings and memories, but as a summary, that doesn't even come close to capturing the essence. The approach is first person present tense ("I stand in the snow...", "I walk up the street...") for describing both present and past, which sounds confusing, but actually the switches in time cause only the slightest joggle before the mind adjusts. Using the same style for all eras of Elaine's life also works brilliantly to underscore one of Atwood's major points - that "Time is not a line, but a dimension, like the dimensions in space. If you can bend space you can bend time also, and if you knew enough and could move faster than light you could travel backwards in time and exist in two places at once."

The prose is literate without ever being flowery or overblown, and Atwood has an uncanny skill for choosing exactly the perfect word every time. Whatever a reader may think of the story or themes, the book is a delight to read purely for the precision of the writing. Atwood writes with a painter's eye. "We wear long wool coats with tie belts, the collars turned up to look like those of movie stars, and rubber boots with the tops folded down and men's work socks inside. In our pockets are stuffed the kerchiefs our mothers make us wear but that we take off as soon as we're out of their sight. We scorn head-coverings. Our mouths are tough, crayon-red, shiny as nails. We think we are friends." And, like a painter, she carefully builds a picture of Elaine's life, brush-stroke by brush-stroke, layer by layer, to create a nuanced depth of character.

There are many different themes that resonate throughout the book. The art world. Gender roles and how women interract differently with men and women. The feminist movement. Childhood and adulthood. The nature of time. The casual cruelty of adults towards children and of children towards each other. The need for resolution. Science and art. Atwood takes sly digs at Toronto, old and new, and the modern world generally. Undoubtedly there are many more layers that whizzed over my head.

At a personal level, I felt an unusually strong affinity for the lead character. Certain aspects of her childhood life resonated with my own. Not that I was ever bullied, but the sense of dislocation from those around you, the desire to fit in at all costs and not make waves, the lack of connection with a childhood home and the unexpected connection with somewhere quite different (in Elaine's case it was Vancouver: "...as far away from Toronto as I could get without drowning", in my case Scotland). And I liked that Elaine was on the outside just a rather ordinary middle-aged woman, but her art seethed with violent emotions (not directly like me, there, but I can understand it).

But even without any personal connection, this book is a wondrous affair, every line a joy to read. The story itself is fairly slight, but the undertones have as much depth as the reader cares to draw out. And if it sounds dry, it's not, it's salted with humour that had me laughing out loud many times. I highly recommend it. Five stars.

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

Review: 'The Order of the Scales' by Stephen Deas

Again, this third book of the trilogy starts where the previous one left off, with the war still going on and the rogue dragon Snow still working to free more of her dragon pals from human slavery. The author's strength is in action, and there's no shortage of it here. The dragon/human battles are terrific, and Deas constantly reminds us of the dragons' vastly superior size and strength - the earth shaking as they land, the turbulance in the air when they take off, the heat and smoke when they spit flames, and the numerous ways in which they can kill humans without even trying. He captures the physicality of riding them brilliantly too.

Unfortunately, the action seems to be a substitute here for a coherent story. The one truly interesting story - the dragons, their ways and their history, and dealing with the escaped Snow - is muddied by various distractions, such as the ill-fated religious uprising, and the political in-fighting between the royal families which culminated in a disastrous war. This ensures that the final confrontation with the rogue dragons is a desperate battle for survival, but it's hard to believe that the dragon kings and queens can be quite so stupid. To be honest, everyone comes across as stupid, dragons and humans alike, which is a pretty nihilistic world view, it has to be said.

Creating realistic characters or relationships has not been the author's strongest suit in this series, but the surviving characters have built some history over the course of the trilogy, and thereby acquired at least a little depth. For some of them, in fact, there are the beginnings of something more profound. Kemir's wavering between suicidal bravado and survival at all costs never seemed totally believable, but it does give his character an edge of pathos. And, astonishingly, I had a lot of sympathy for Jehal in this book. It's bad enough to be shot at by your mother-in-law, but to be taunted for being a cripple by the man who put the crossbow in her hands is a bit rich. I'm still not quite sure whether he cares more for his wife or his lover, though. It seems to depend a great deal on which one is with him and available, and therefore boring, and which is believed dead or held prisoner, and needs to be avenged or retrieved, and is therefore more desireable. The grass is always greener, I suppose.

The ending is not one of those uplifting, heartwarming, victory-against-all-odds affairs. This is not really a spoiler, because anyone who has read the first two books will know all about the author's wanton destructive tendencies. Towards the end, there was a real question in my mind as to whether even one main character or eyrie or tower would be left standing at the finish. As I said in my reviews of the previous two books, I think it's a dangerous strategy for an author to wilfully kill or maim quite so many main characters, since it tends to disconnect the reader - what's the point in getting invested in a character who might die at any moment? And these are not satisfying redemptive deaths, or even (it seems) essential for the overall plot, rather they are simply throw-away moments, not even shocking after so many previous examples. Characters simply disappear without trace, or are presumed to be dead. Sometimes they turn out to be alive after all, only to die for real a few pages further on, or else they survive endless trauma only to be casually dispatched with hardly a mention. At least one disappeared without my noticing at all. Maybe this is all meant to be a Terribly Clever Commentary (life's a bitch and then you get squashed by a dragon, maybe?), but I got tired of it pretty quickly.

At the end there were enough dangling plot-threads to knit quite a long scarf. Like who did steal the white dragon, for instance. Actually, I thought we solved that in book one, but obviously I was wrong. How the magic spear works. Who or what the Silver Kings really are, and their relationship with the Taiytakei. Why they wanted dragons, and why (since they had some seriously powerful magic) they couldn't just take them. Actually, the whole magic system was a mess, a real hotch-potch of this and that, none of it made clear or apparently connected to anything else. It felt as if we needed another book just to join all the dots (assuming they could be joined).

And then there were the motivations: I was never very clear exactly why all the dragon-kings and queens were so hell-bent on war, and so ignorant (or perhaps careless) of the threat of the rogue dragons. I get that a lot of knowledge had been lost over the years, or had degenerated into myth and legend, and I also get the secrecy of the alchemists, but the whole point of a multiple realms arrangement is to prevent this kind of collective madness (checks and balances, and so forth). But maybe they were just too inbred after centuries of intermarrying. And as for the dragons, revenge isn't a very clever strategy either (and although they said that wasn't their objective, it's hard to think of another word for what they did). Once free of human enslavement, they should have been planning for their own future: finding safe, hidden eyries, and working out that the best way to provide themselves with a reliable food supply is to nurture the humans who breed the cattle. So not a lot of intelligence on display on either side.

There's a great deal to enjoy in this book. The battles are terrific, and if you like dragon action, this is definitely the series for you. The dragons are brilliant, actually. Daft, very often, but brilliant. The pacing is better this time, with less backstory to be shoehorned in, so that the action lurches page-turningly from battle to town burning to confrontation to battle again with hardly a pause for breath. There are also some laugh out loud moments, some deliciously spiteful exchanges and a wedding that ranks up there with one or two of George R R Martin's (no, no, not that one - and not that one either - Tyrion's, maybe, or Littlefinger's, in terms of gloriously mismatched but very funny couplings). This ought to have been a good four stars, but for me it never quite lived up to the promise of the first of the trilogy, and the muddled ending and the cavalier treatment of so many characters holds it down. If I'd cared much about any of the characters I'd knock this back to two stars out of spite at what the author did to them, but let's say three stars for the action and humour. And the dragons, of course. Gotta love the dragons.

Monday, 12 March 2012

Review: 'The King of the Crags' by Stephen Deas

The second book of a trilogy is always intriguing. Will there be a change of tempo or a new direction, or will it simply carry on from the first book? In this case, the answer is - both. The prologue overlaps directly with the last section of book one, and is perhaps the second best opening I've ever encountered after 'Tigana', although - obviously - for very different reasons. It's funny and tragic at once, it summarises some of the story so far while also capturing the essence of the characters involved. I won't spoil the surprise by saying any more, but it is brilliantly funny, in a macabre sort of way.

And then it's straight into new characters, new directions, a new religion even, and the fallout from book one, and - hmm, suddenly it's all a bit dull. Whenever the dragons are around, it's terrific, but I'm just not that into the humans. Trouble is, they're either very mad or very shallow, and all of them are slightly flat, and when it's just the same old deviousness as in book one, it feels a bit repetitious.

The fast pace of the first book is much more uneven here, so that there are moments of breathtaking action interspersed with long passages of quite dull description ('To the north, he could see... And to the east...'). Yawn. Especially when a lot of it seemed to contradict the map (and I don't think I had the map upside down). And quite a lot of the backstory came out by means of one character explaining it at length to another, or, worse, soliloquising (or, as often seemed to happen, talking to himself in a dream - lots of dreams in this series). It's not that it was uninteresting, in fact some of it was fascinating (the bits about dragons - the family history was just laundry lists of names), but it did slow the action down. And sometimes in the middle of a solemn bit, there was a laugh out loud moment, or some really black humour, which felt a bit jarring, somehow.

But there are glimmerings of depth to some of the characters - Jaslyn, for instance, and (can it be possible?) Jehal. And Meteroa intrigues me. But the Nightwatchman needs to get a grip on himself - he takes the moral high ground at every step, and claims he only follows orders, when he seems to be as devious as anyone else. I'm not quite sure what he's trying to do, actually, or why, or whether his hypocrisy is no more than a convenient plot device.

And speaking of which, there wouldn't be much of a story without a great deal of stupidity on Zafir's part. In the first book, her motives were very plain. Not commendable, but understandable. But this time round, it's not clear to me that she's driven by anything more than irrational jealousy, which, given the likely outcome of her little schemes, boils down to plain stupidity. It is always difficult for an author to dream up convincing motivation, especially when the character is hellbent on war and general mayhem and a lot of slaughtering of royalty, but I don't really get what Zafir is up to, frankly. Or maybe it's all that inbreeding, and she's just barking, who knows. Insanity is another big feature of the series.

But whether because of Zafir or the dragons or (maybe) just because the author felt like it, a lot of characters die in this book, some of them quite abruptly. This is a technique which has its attractions - there's a certain exhilaration, I suppose, to bumping off main characters or having them horribly maimed, and the likes of George R R Martin have used it with abandon. But there is a downside. For the reader, it can have a disconnecting effect - why get invested in a character when her or she is quite likely to be dragon food a few chapters further on? Once or twice has shock value, but the more this happens, the greater the desensitising effect. I would have thought that authors actually want readers to care about the characters, and this is not the way to do it.

But there again, there's actually no one here who has a half-way decent impulse in them. All the main characters are devious, scheming, selfish bastards and it's tempting to say that, actually, they deserve everything they get. Even the dragon feels obliged to point this out. So yes, maybe dragon food is all they deserve to be. The ending is a veritable orgy of double crossing, so it's very hard to work out who (if anyone) is winning. And by this time, I'm not at all sure I much care. Let's hope the final volume hits the high spots again. Three stars.

Saturday, 3 March 2012

Review: 'The Adamantine Palace' by Stephen Deas

Well, this is a whole heap of rip-roaring fun and no mistake. It's not profound, the characters are all selfish and devious bastards, the world-building is a bit flat and the writing is capable if not particularly memorable, but - what a cracking story. Of course, it's the dragons who make it. I've heard it said that dragons are a bit out of favour these days, and publishers are avoiding them. Maybe so, but I for one just love them, and these dragons are terrific - big, powerful monsters, just like they should be, and totally mean-spirited. And they feel very alien, nothing like the loveable pals from Pern, or even the riddle-swapping Smaug. Brilliant.

The plot revolves largely around the political machinations of the various dragon-owning families, and it's at a level which makes Machiavelli look like a two year old. There are lies and subterfuge and double-dealing, all layered up to create an incredible writhing snake-pit of deception. I kept up with it pretty well until about three quarters of the way through, when it got to the point of (for all I know) double double double dealing, and I kind of lost the thread altogether. So at the end, I'm not completely sure who was really in league with whom, and who was just pretending to be. It was complicated. But it really didn't matter, because all the twists and turns raced by so fast it was all a blur anyway. Talk about breathtaking.

The characters never really came alive for me. They all seemed just a little too - well, too much. Too clever, too smug, too beautiful, too sexed up, too devious, too self-centred. There were just a few moments where something deeper shone through - Kemir deciding not to kill Semian, for instance, but to inflict a much slower and more painful punishment on him, in pure revenge, and Jaslyn's grief for her dragon. But mostly the characters seemed distant, too unemotional and too wrapped up in their own cleverness to be truly three dimensional. A word of warning, however: don't get too attached to any particular character, as the author is shockingly ruthless about disposing of them without a moment's notice.

The real stars here are the dragons, and what stars they are. These beasts are not cute or cuddly, but they are intelligent, and once they start to break free from human control they make formidable opponents. While the political complications got a bit dull towards the end, every dragon chapter was a joy, even if edged with a tinge of fear. You just never quite knew when they were going to eat one of the named characters. Because that's what these dragons do. Very much looking forward to seeing where things go from here. This is a book with some flaws, but it was such fun to read it merits four stars.