Tuesday, 29 May 2012

Review: 'The Duchess of the Shallows' by Neil McGarry and Daniel Ravipinto

Some books draw you in with some dramatic piece of action right at the start; a battle, perhaps, or something intriguing and unexplained. Some start off slow and gentle, and build up to the action later. This one starts with the characters, with Duchess and Lysander, a relationship, a little bit of history and yes, a bit of a mystery, too. And within a chapter, it's tugging at me, making me care about these people. Some books take their full length to do that, and some (quite a few actually) never do it, but these two authors have a sure touch for creating the emotional resonance that I look for in a book.

The heart of this book is Duchess, the sixteen year old orphan from a noble family, who was brought up in anonymity by a baker and has now been turfed out to make her way on the streets. This all sounds fairly ho-hum, but it's given a fresh and original twist here, and the mystery of what really happened to Duchess and her family underpins the whole book. Then there is Lysander, her sort-of-but-not-really boyfriend, who is, to be honest, more interesting than she is. Or maybe I'm just naturally drawn to roguish, amusing, charming men rather than to sixteen year old girls, who knows. But their relationship is lovely, most unusual, and beautifully revealed.

The world-building is, in one sense, limited, because all the action takes place within the city of Rodaas. However, the city is well described, with all its different districts, each with a very distinct feel. I'm not sure I find it totally credible that they would stay so separate (in real life they would blur at the edges and blend together, I would think), but I suppose it all happens by imperial edict. Still, it worked very well to give the city a believable feel, and the very nice map helped. I also liked the atmospheric fogs that roll in from the sea at regular intervals - that's a very evocative idea, which works well to give the place an other-worldly quality, mysterious and slightly creepy.

In some ways this is a conventional setting for a fantasy novel. There's an Empress and the nobility, where men rule the roost and women do what they're told; there are merchants and craftsmen and traders and guilds, and all the usual paraphernalia; and at the bottom of the heap are the thieves and street urchins and beggars. There is law and order (of a sort) but also corruption and a degree of brutality. And there are prostitutes (male and female) who tread an uneasy path between the classes, being low in the social standing themselves but taking their clientèle from the upper ranks. There's religion, too, three main ones, recognised by the empire, and numerous minor or unusual ones, and again there are intriguing but well delineated differences between them. Magic? Possibly, but it's not very clear.

Then there's the plot. The premise is that Duchess has been thrown out of the bakery (for unknown reasons) but has been given a special coin which might allow her to join one of the elite gangs of the city, the Greys. To do this she has to undertake an initiation test. Now, there's a long tradition in the same vein: the hero (or heroine, in this case) is called upon to undertake a seemingly impossible task, and this has certain advantages. It drives the plot, for one thing, and it ramps up the tension, by setting up the possibility that if she fails, she will die (or worse). I'm not a big fan of this kind of plot device. For one thing, it always seems so much more sensible to just say no, and settle for a nice respectable job, or at least guaranteed survival. And of course no one really believes she's going to fail. So it's all a bit artificial. But never mind.

Once the Impossible Task (tm) gets under way, there are a few contrivances to allow Duchess to get to where she needs to be, and to case the joint, as it were, and this part is all a bit predictable. But once things start moving, the story hits the turbo button and becomes a terrific page turner, and not predictable at all. In fact, there's a moment in the middle of the action where Duchess has to make a difficult decision. I expected the authors to opt for cheap sentimentality here and take the easy route, but no, not at all, and they faced up to the consequences too. This was a very nice piece of writing. Details: (see SPOILER below.)

The ending was neatly done, even if very slightly predictable (well, even I guessed bits of it), and it did seem sometimes as if things just worked out a little too conveniently, although partly that was just the complications of the various factions. I'm not sure that I've got them all clear in my head, even now (it was complicated), but even so I liked the way it all felt like a whole array of multi-layered games going on simultaneously, with only odd moves becoming visible here and there. To say that everyone's motives were questionable would be an understatement. But the authors managed to create a satisfying resolution for this book, while also laying the foundations for future books, not always easy to do.

I have a few minor quibbles: I would have liked to see something of the world outside Rodaas, for example. The city felt just slightly claustrophobic. And while I don't normally comment on cover images, this one, while it nicely depicts Duchess herself, is a bit too much the conventional fantasy-character-in-a-hood. I would have liked to see Lysander on there too (but maybe that's just me!), and also something of fog-bound Rodaas as well. Also, although the authors have attempted to create something of a past for Rodaas, the few snippets of events and stories we get don't really give the impression of a fully realised history.

On the plus side, the writing is excellent, drawing out the atmosphere of Rodaas and creating fully rounded characters. There are virtually no typos or clunky moments. I particularly liked the subtleties of the exchanges with Minette and Uncle Cornelius, with all their double meanings and innuendo, where the reader is given just enough information to work out what is really being said without being spoonfed. Duchess is a sympathetic main character right from the start, and did I mention that I really like Lysander? I think I may have... A really enjoyable read. Four stars.


I thought she would race to Lysander's rescue, for sure, when he was captured by the Brutes, and was pleasantly surprised when she turned away and left him to his fate. In a grittier book, he would have died or been maimed as a result, but this is not a gritty book and fate intervened to rescue him more or less unscathed. But it did damage their relationship, as it should (although this gets slurred over a bit later, sadly). It did cross my mind, however, that if the Brutes had dragged Lysander off to the underground chamber to be tortured, as they intended, they would have been there just as Duchess needed to make her escape that way. Which would have been interesting.

Sunday, 27 May 2012

Review: 'High Wizardry' by Diane Duane

This is the third in the Young Wizards series. I quite enjoyed the first, but no more than that, and was prepared to abandon the series. However, I was persuaded to read the second, and after a mediocre first half it turned out to be wonderful - unexpectedly deep and moving for a young adult book. I bought this one at the same time, since it was about computers and therefore highly appropriate for geeky me.

Memo to all authors: technology moves on so fast that whatever current gadgets you include as part of your plot will undoubtedly be obsolete before the book hits the stores. All the references to green screens and MBasic and diskettes and ones and zeroes - they just don't age well. Much better to be vague about the details, rather than have your readers rolling on the floor in hysterical laughter only a few years later.

Rather than focus on Nita and Kit, the newbie wizards of the previous two books, this one is about younger sister Dairine, a paragon of intellect and self-taught knowledge, who becomes a wizard too, and sets off into the universe armed only with a magic computer and a frighteningly high level of self-confidence. This part of the story was quite dull, unless you like a lot of details about planets and moons and galaxies. I rather liked the inter-galactic travel terminal, though, although I rolled my eyes rather at the inexplicably helpful stranger who gets Dairine out of a jam. Even though the author explains it away with an airy handwave - sometimes people do help out strangers - it still feels like a plot cheat.

But eventually Dairine gets to somewhere more interesting, and Nita and Kit set off in pursuit and... no, honestly, this is not working for me. There a section where they're trying to think of the worst possible thing ever, and decide that, actually, burning dogs in cars is the worst, far worse than killing children or adults, and they would do absolutely anything to stop it. No, sorry, I can't subscribe to a philosophy like that. There are far worse things. Destroying entire planets, for one thing. Or stars, or galaxies, or whatever it is the Big Bad is supposed to be doing. Get a grip, people.

But then, eventually, Dairine gets to where she's going and starts doing stuff, and yes, it gets more interesting. There's a point where she's arguing logic and philosophy with a bunch of computers, essentially (not wanting to give away too much here), which is terrific and reaches the heights of 'Deep Wizardry'. But then it's back to hurling spells round, and the book lost me again. To be honest, by the time it got to the final confrontation with the Big Bad, it all got too easy. Dairine was just too powerful, and really, that's not interesting. She knows everything, she can do everything, she understands everything that's going on, and she can respond far quicker than anyone else. She didn't even have to learn how to do this stuff, she just knows, or else the computer tells her. And the whole parrot business... bleah.

I'm not really sure how this would play out for the target young adult demographic. There are some incredibly clever and imaginative ideas in here, and a lot of knowledge or research behind it. Unfortunately, I found there were just too many info-dumps explaining physics or computer theory, the magic was too easy, and the plot not interesting enough to compensate. Two stars.

Sunday, 20 May 2012

Review: 'Killing Cupid' by Mark Edwards and Louise Voss

I don't quite know what to make of this. I wasn't much impressed with the only other book I've read by these authors, 'Catch Your Death', which had a great premise and some high-energy action, but suffered from poor characterisation and implausible plot devices. So it crossed my mind that this book might turn out to be a mistake. It's cheap, however, and the writing is competent enough, and on certain levels I found it enjoyable.

It's unusual to have two authors, but this book is perfect for it. The two characters, Siobhan and Alex, have alternate chapters, both written in the first person, and I presume that Mark Edwards wrote Alex and Louise Voss wrote Siobhan (although perhaps it would be more interesting if it were the other way round). Alex is perhaps the more convincing character. He comes across as a very believable young man of a certain type - socially inept, self-centred, arrogant but also insecure, and thinking about sex the whole time. Or perhaps I should say, he conforms to my idea of young men of a certain type; I don't really have a clue whether this is an accurate portrayal of the male psyche, but it seems convincing enough to me.

Siobhan is a little less believable. She's required to fulfil the role of self-confident older woman (in Alex's eyes), while also being quite timid and insecure, and it's an uneasy juxtaposition. In particular, when Alex starts stalking her, she is remarkably slow to realise what is going on. She is obsessively tidy, for example, yet she convinces herself that she left things scattered around her house, rather than remembering the missing key and realising straight away that someone had broken in. And you have to be peculiarly dense to imagine that you could order expensive lingerie online and not remember it. But it's a small point.

One thing makes me a little uncomfortable. Because we can see inside Alex's head, we know that he means Siobhan no harm. He is, in his twisted little way, courting her. He sends her flowers and lingerie and expensive clothes. OK, he breaks into her house and uses her credit card to do it, but still... She is freaked out but she also thinks - well, he's kind of cute. Wrong. There's nothing romantic or cute about a man stalking a woman. It's just creepy. Even if the point is that he's superficially normal and there's a psychotic nutter inside all of us (a fairly questionable premise, but never mind), it's still creepy, and no rational woman, surely, is going to be turned on by it. Well, not in real life, anyway, but this is fiction, and there does seem to be a huge demand for books with creepy stalker-type heroes, especially the blood-sucking type, so what do I know.

And oddly, as the plot burbles along, it actually begins to feel quite plausible. Alex's instant distraction by another woman (and sex!) is perfectly in character, and even Siobhan's slide from freaked out victim to angry obsession seems no more than mildly odd. She already has an obsessive personality after all. And each little step along the way seems, if not exactly natural, then at least not such a stretch from what went before. I would probably have enjoyed it more if I hadn't been constantly wondering - would a real person actually behave that way?

In the end, it never quite worked for me. I could admire the carefully thought out plot and the neat little twists and turns at just the right places, but the characters never quite came alive for me and the story was just a little too laboured at times. I see what the authors were trying to do and I admire the attempt to rationalise just how a couple of seemingly normal people can end up in that situation, but I'm not quite sure what position the reader is expected to take - sympathise? be horrified? be amused? or simply feel there but for the grace of God and all that? Are we really supposed to empathise with people who do this kind of stuff? I'm all for the anti-hero and likeable villains and so on, but these two are fairly charmless. An interesting idea, but for me, ultimately unsuccessful. Three stars.

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Review: 'Draykon' by Charlotte E English

This is right on the very edge of my comfort zone. The main character, Llandry, is a diminutive humanoid with, erm, wings. Are we talking about a fairy here? I'm not sure I really DO fairies. And yet... There is enough here to intrigue. There are various different adjoining kingdoms, some with some kind of technology, which is interesting enough all by itself. And then some seem to live in permanent day, some in permanent night, and some in a kind of twilight zone, if I've understood correctly (which I probably haven't; it's complicated). Then there are the 'gates' to the Upper world and the Lower world, and various creatures can (and do) pop through from the other side, and that is another kind of interesting. There are sorcerers and summoners and all sorts of magic going on, and yes, I'm definitely intrigued. And this world is populated with people who have proper families and relationships and jobs and pets even (creatures from beyond the gates, but still...) and I have to say, I like it. And Llandry herself is not like any heroine I've ever come across before. She has panic attacks, for one thing. So it's different, but I really like it. Just don't mention the wings.

The opening is lovely; a little fey, rather strange but quite beautiful, in its way. And once the main story gets under way, it sucks you in and it's hard to put down. What is going on with these odd gems that Llandry has discovered? What are the creatures popping up here, there and everywhere? Why are random gates appearing? It's a rapid acceleration into a fairly breath-taking sequence of events, which I found very readable - one of those just-one-more-chapter type books.

I love the world-building in this book. I have absolutely zero idea how it all hangs together - there's an Upper World and a Middle World and a Lower World and... well, that's about it really. But I love the ideas - the sudden shifts and the strange plants and colours and wildlife. And the odd light. It's all slightly surreal, like a dream-world, and the author conveys that brilliantly. It would make a cracking film, actually.

The characters are all very likeable in realistic ways. I very much liked Llandry and her parents, and the mysterious Devary. The other main character is Eva, a Summoner (someone who has an empathic bond with various creatures, and can find them and bend them to her will). The various minor characters - sorcerers, summoners, Eva's fiancé - have their own quirky charm and feel realistic, with histories and emotions and relationships. And many of the odd creatures are very much characters in their own right.

Some quibbles: there are a lot of characters to keep track of, of various races, and the names are no help, being seemingly random collections of letters strung together. Without a map or some kind of guide, it's impossible to separate the various kingdoms (countries?), or work out what all the different plants and animals are (although, on the whole, it doesn't matter much). And I struggled to understand the whole business of Daylands and Darklands and the Night Cloak. At one point I was reduced to trying to draw a basic map, just to work out some of the journeys later in the story. The author is working on a proper map, so that will be a great help when it's available.

I have to confess that this is one of the most unpredictable books I've ever read. There was simply no knowing what was going to happen next, and none of it felt contrived at all (well - only a little, and not in an unbelievable way). And there's an event at the end which completely blew my mind; there was no way on earth I could ever have seen that coming. And, yes, I will definitely be reading the rest of the series, I absolutely have to find out what exactly is going on and how it all works out. This is not a book for everyone, it would be too quirky and fey for some tastes, but it's a nicely written, intriguing story and I really liked it. Even the wings stopped bothering me after a while. Four stars.

Thursday, 10 May 2012

Review: 'The King's Blood' by Daniel Abraham

Daniel Abraham is one of my must-read authors. I reckon his Long Price Quartet to be the finest work of modern fantasy I've yet read, and his current sci-fi and urban fantasy series are coming along nicely too. Yes, he's prolific, and, even better, he writes fast - a new book a year for each series. No long waits. This book is the second in the Dagger And Coin Quintet, his first attempt at a more traditional form of fantasy, and as such is still settling in. The first book was promising, if a bit uneven. This one follows the same four characters, Cithrin, Geder, Dawson and Marcus, plus one extra, Dawson's wife Clara. Cithrin is the figurehead for her bank, but kept on a short leash by the bank's notary, Pyk, who has an unimaginative risk-averse strategy and a strong personal dislike of Cithrin. Marcus is still a guard with a history. Geder has accidentally reversed into a position of great influence. Dawson is still a traditionalist nobleman and friend of the king. Clara is still the smart woman behind the public figure of her husband. These last three are involved in the political machinations surrounding Aster, the king's son and heir, in Camnipol. Meanwhile, Master Kit, an apparently minor character in the previous book, is following his own agenda against the spider goddess.

Like most fantasy, this one takes a while to get going. The early chapters are reflective, and work well to set the scene as well as gently reminding the reader of the events of the previous book. I never felt at a loss, wondering who a character was or what was being referred to. The writing style is elegantly spare, with some nicely lyrical flourishes that never seem overblown. This is a writer at the very top of his game (did I mention I'm a big fan?). Even so, the slow pace early on is a bit of a turn-off. I'm not mad keen on the current fad for named point of view chapters; it's all too easy to turn the page and think: hmm, another chapter about X, and put the book down. But after the initial settling in phase, things begin to get going and the pace picks up nicely, and somewhere around the midpoint, the proverbial hits the whatsit and all hell breaks loose.

The world-building is a little less perfunctory in this book. For the first time, there seems to be some real depth and structure to the various nations, so that the few cities which have a role seem less like islands in the midst of vast expanses of nothing very much. There is some attempt, too, to expand on the various races (the original First Bloods, and the twelve races created by the dragons long ago to fulfil various roles). I still get them mixed up, mind you, but it doesn't seem to matter much, and it was nice to see the Drowned close up (I have a suspicion they're going to be important). There are some hints about the dragons themselves, too, and what happened to them. There is also plenty of description of places and little snippets of history, which work very well to illuminate the author's created world without becoming too heavy on the info-dump scale. We also get to see a little more of the religion (or cult, maybe?) of the spider goddess, and there are some moments here that are truly chilling.

I feel the slightest tinge of disappointment that Abraham, a man of infinitely fertile imagination, has plonked his characters into such a conventional world. Even though he set out from the start to create a more traditional form, this is very much the off-the-shelf fantasy world - a patriarchal society where men rule and plot and fight as kings and dukes and soldiers, women stay home and raise families and broker marriage deals, slaves do a lot of the work, and virginity is prized in a bride. Beyond the nobility and wealthy, fortunately, there is more variety, and the economic element (the coin of the series title) introduces a different perspective. Within the banking world, for instance, women can and do take an equal part in affairs (as Cithrin demonstrates). And it has to be said that so far the author has done a very good job of pointing out the deficiencies of a hereditary patriarchal system, which throws up a fair number of idiots and incompetents, thrusts unsuitable people into roles of great power, sometimes entirely by accident, and wastes fifty percent of its resources by leaving them sitting at home with their embroidery. It's also a system which doesn't seem to leave many options apart from war or not-war. There are three more books in the series for him to make his point (or not) on this, so I'll reserve judgment until it's done.

The characters always felt like real, rounded personalities, and that is even more true now. Geder, in particular, is one to ponder. I've no doubt readers will be arguing for years about his peculiar mix of naivité, insecurity and sudden bursts of vicious cruelty, but Cithrin and Marcus also have abrupt swings between common sense and reckless stupidity. Dawson I still find dull, and although Clara has her moments, she has too little to do here to really shine. Even the minor roles have great depth, and you really feel that they have lives outside the confines of the story, where they just get on with things until their arcs intersect with the main plotlines once more. Abraham has an amazing ability to show both the good and bad in people, so that even someone like Pyk, the notary, or the pirate, either of whom could have been made into a caricature mini-villain, are given complex motivation which brings them perilously close to being sympathetic. All the characters behave in believable ways, and if occasionally you feel the author's hand nudging them along so that they meet up at convenient times, that's acceptable, I think.

I found the politics of the first book quite confusing - so many odd names and titles and nations and shifting allegiances, and the difficulty of not knowing quite who's important and who is just passing through for a chapter or two. This one is much easier to follow, although whether this is the author's surer hand or just comes from greater familiarity with the story I can't say. But Abraham has an uncanny ability to toss up the difficult questions. Is a decision right just because it seems logical? Where exactly does (or should) loyalty lie? Who can you ever trust? Which is the greater power, military might or money (the fundamental question of the series)? The hazy boundaries between truth and faith and certainty. And then there's the matter of unintended consequences - in the last book, it was the events at Vanai that changed everything, this time it's Dawson's conscience that spirals out of control. And as always Abraham shows us both sides of every equation, so that there is no black or white, no good or evil, only people doing the best they can with whatever they have to work with, and trying to do what seems right at the time. Sometimes it turns out well, and sometimes it doesn't, and sometimes it's impossible to tell, and sometimes you just wonder, what on earth were they thinking? (Cithrin, I'm looking at you here.) And yet in all sorts of ways it makes sense.

Abraham is often compared with George R R Martin, which is probably unfair to both authors, and I suspect arises largely because they are personal friends. In reality, they are very different writers. Martin has larger than life characters, a cast of thousands, a depressing hyper-medieval setting and a sprawling mess of tangled plotlines spilling over two continents and numerous doorstopper volumes. Abraham populates his books with believably realistic characters, a tightly woven plot and a deeply intelligent sub-text. If Martin were a painter, he would be hurling great sweeps of colour over the entire gallery wall; Abraham would be more of an oil on canvas man, painstakingly building the layers, every brushstroke placed with considered precision. I love them both in their different ways.

A better comparison for this series is with The Long Price Quartet, Abraham's much admired debut work, and no, this doesn't quite reach those heights of awesomeness. The Dragon's Path was a good, promising start to the series, and The King's Blood is better, an excellent next step, but not quite extraordinary. For me, fantasy is about the otherness of a world that is alien, not like ours, and where the differences emerge - the spider priests, the cunning men, the lost dragons, that tantalising glimpse of the Drowned - the book is spine-tinglingly good. There are moments, too, when the characters step outside the boundaries and do something quite unexpected (well, unexpected to me, anyway, although always within the parameters of their natures), and these too raise the book to a different level.

However, the conventional nature of the setting is too commonplace to be interesting; there's nothing surprising about men waving swords around while women stitch, and I do like to be surprised. Nor do the characters draw me in. Geder, of course, is fascinating, in a horrifying way, and Cithrin and Marcus are interesting too; Dawson and Clara not so much (I hope Clara has more to do in later books, since she has potential). But none of them really resonate with me (by which I mean, do I care what happens to them? and the answer is no, not a great deal, not yet). More worryingly, the book never pulled me into that desperate got-to-know-what-happens-next state; even at the height of the Camnipol mayhem, it was just too easy to put the book down (partly those pesky chapters named after characters, I suppose - it just breaks the tension). So no staying up till 3am to finish it. The final few chapters were a bit choppy, too, because of the need to tie up loose ends and set the pieces in place for the next book.

Having said all that, these are trivial complaints and this is still way better than the vast majority of fantasy around these days. It's not high on action, but what there is makes sense and has consequences that have to be dealt with. Abraham's elegant prose is a pleasure to read, the tight plotting is masterful, and the characters have a very human mixture of intelligence and idiocy, common sense and irrational impulse, completely believable. As always, there is a raft of thought-provoking ideas here for those who want them, particularly in the latter half of the book. I have every confidence that (as with The Long Price) each individual book in the series will be even better than the one before. A good four stars. Highly recommended.

Friday, 4 May 2012

Review: 'A Wizard of Earthsea' by Ursula le Guin

The is only the second of le Guin's books I've read, and the first fantasy (the other was the sci-fi 'The Left Hand of Darkness'), so it's hard to generalise but there are some similarities. The dense, even-toned prose works well here, turning a simple coming-of-age story into something more mythological, with all the necessary poetic and lyrical expressions which never become too flowery. This is not your average fantasy, and perhaps it's more suited to its age (it was first published in 1968) than the present, which specialises in faster, action-packed adventures, but it reminded me a little of the style of 'The Lord of the Rings' and I rather liked it.

The world is an archipelago, a mass of mostly small islands, some little more than rocks or sand bars, so that everything depends on boats and sea-faring, and that gives a very unusual feel right from the start. A great deal of the book is spent skimming the waves in one boat or another, sheltering for a day or two at this island or that, and then off again, and le Guin makes this seem perfectly normal. There are little two line descriptions of towns or ports or island communities, each one subtly different from the last, which effortlessly convey the variable nature of the world of Earthsea. So many fantasy writers forget that variability, so their worlds seem blandly uniform and therefore unreal, but here it is done exceptionally well.

The magic system is hard to describe. It depends on knowing the 'true' name of things, and calling upon the innate power of the world, but it comes at a price, and the use of magic is restricted by the need to keep all things in equilibrium. There is also an element of 'with great power comes great responsibility'. There are many people with some magical ability, but most become no more than informal village witches or sorcerers, and only a few become true mages.

The story centres around Ged, following his life from his tiny mountain village through a brief apprenticeship to a mage, and then to the island of Roke, to learn at the academy there (a wizard school, if you like), where his great ability is unleashed, but the flaws in his youthful personality lead to near disaster. Since we're told at the start of the book that Ged goes on to become famed in legend for his skills as a wizard, we never fear for him, but his journeyings to set right his mistake are no less interesting for that, and full of atmosphere and mystery. The ending, while quite easy to predict, was still very satisfying. Most of the characters are only lightly sketched, but they have a great deal of resonance for all that, especially Vetch, Ged's friend at the academy, and Ogion, his first mage tutor, who both have great wisdom, although in different ways.

This is a wonderful read, partly for the beautifully lyrical writing, partly for the simple but intriguing story, and partly for the underlying depth to much of it. There is a great deal here about power, about the nature of humanity, about the need for balance, about hubris and wisdom and faith and friendship, and many more such themes, which are very thought-provoking. While technically this is probably classed as young adult, it reads just fine for adults too. I recommend it to anyone who enjoys mythological tales or sagas. A good four stars.

Thursday, 3 May 2012

Review: 'Daughter of the Empire' by Raymond Feist and Janny Wurts

This book ought to have been right up my street; a non-medieval world, with limited magic, a slow pace driven by politics rather than endless battles, and a strong-minded female lead - what's not to like? In my case, the answer is: almost everything.

 The opening felt surprisingly clunky and uncertain.Many fantasy works start with a dramatic event to draw the reader in, and leave the details of the background to wait for a quieter moment, but this tries to do both at once, with unconvincing results. To some extent it's necessary to explain the unusually high levels of required etiquette, which is required to account for the protagonist's unnatural calmness in a crisis, but the authors simultaneously tried to convey her deep emotions, and this made for a very uneven few chapters. And somehow the situation felt rather forced to me. Are there really no other members of the family? This seems oddly shortsighted in a hereditary system (lots of babies, people; how hard is that to understand?).

The whole story rests on the shoulders of Mara, the seventeen year old protagonist. Given that the story opens with her about to take lifelong vows at a religious order, she seems initially unsuited for the leadership role thrust upon her, and perhaps that would have been a more interesting line to follow. However, it soon becomes clear that she is the conventional spirited and ambitious protagonist, quite prepared to be ruthless to achieve her political aims, and also prepared to take risks and break with tradition where she deems it necessary. Unfortunately, this very ruthlessness makes her something of an unsympathetic character. She has no qualms, it seems, about killing off slaves, rebellious soldiers or anyone else who gets in her way, or simply to send a message to her rivals. And considering that the concept of honour is deeply embedded in this society, she has (in fact, they all have) a very curious sense of honour which allows her to do (apparently) whatever the hell she wants.

The other main characters are all very black and white. Her family servants are the ultimate in loyal retainers, willing to die for her, but also intelligent, resourceful, competent... you get the picture. Her husband, carefully selected solely to create a protective alliance and give Mara an heir, is portrayed as an uncaring and violent brute. Some attempt is made to paint a more subtle picture of Buntokapi later on, but it's really too late by this time. Her enemies are no more than ciphers: the rival leader, driven by long-standing feuds whose origins are lost in time; the stupid men driven by lust; the vengeful woman. Only the Warlord has seems like a genuinely complex character. The rest are no more than lightly sketched background the better to illuminate Mara's perfection .

And here we come to the real problem with this book. [See SPOILER below]

So at this point I'm seriously disappointed. But then there's a seemingly trivial interaction between two supposedly minor characters, at the end of which there's a reveal which changes everything. All of a sudden the political shenanigans become much more complicated and very interesting indeed. For a moment the book gleams with possibilities. Sadly the rest of the book isn't like this. And in fact, immediately after this we're back to Mara being terribly clever and underhanded and devious. I would like her a bit better if she were not so downright nasty to people. Yes, I know she has reasons to be cautious of anyone approaching her, but surely the honour system would deny the sort of ritual humiliation she indulges in.

I was really looking forward to reading this. It presses all the right buttons for me. I like a world that's not a mud-bespattered caricature of the middle ages. I like the system of honour and the rigid protocol. I like a book which builds slowly without leaping from one set-piece battle to the next. I like a story built around characters. And yet none of it worked for me. The protocol and honour seemed to be no more than a clever plot device. The slowness of the book made it draggy at times - there were whole chapters devoted to seemingly trivial events which I lost interest in long before their purpose was revealed. And I hated Mara - really, really hated her. Are we actually supposed to root for a heroine who devises such unpleasant - no, downright evil schemes? There is nothing at all likeable, to my mind, about such a cruelly manipulative person. I can see the attraction in a woman facing up to adversity with spirit and determination and yes, even ruthlessness, so other readers may enjoy it much better, but it's not for me. So two stars for effort, I suppose, grudgingly.

***** SPOILER *****

Everything Mara does, no matter how dangerous or risky, turns out implausibly well. This really isn't much of a spoiler, actually, since it's obvious right from the start that she will ultimately triumph, but I expected her to have some setbacks along the way. But no, everything works out exactly as she planned it and, honestly, this simply isn't interesting. She needs more warriors, so she goes out to recruit outlaws. She needs the cho-ja, she gets them. She wants her husband dead, so he dies. This was the final straw, for me. There were only three possible outcomes to Mara's nasty little plot against Buntokapi: global war, family war or the brutish, stupid husband who beats up his own wife suddenly turns all honourable and commits ritual suicide. I mean, really? All at once, he's being noble? And this man who can't control his own temper comes back to the wife who set him up and says magnanimously, 'Well, that was very clever, wife, you beat me fair and square there.' If it were me, I'd have gutted her first, and honour be hanged. What an evil witch. Ugh.