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Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Mystery Review: 'Gently By The Shore' by Alan Hunter

The second in a very long series of British police procedurals (sort of) with all the faded charm of their post-war era - quaint references to Brown Windsor soup and jam roly-poly, diggings and National Service, plus a seaside town with two piers which haven’t yet been burnt down, and tourists who arrive by train on Saturday for a week’s full board. There’s a certain interest in these little details even without the murder mystery.

Other aspects haven’t worn quite so well. The writing style is not quite up to snappy modern standards, and the characters are more like caricatures. Here’s the Scottish sea captain called in to tell the police his story: “We drappit down here owernight and fetchit up at Wylie’s before the toon was astir. I paid aff the crew bodies and saw them awa’ to the station, then I lifted the hatch and huiked out the cargo. He wasna in the best o’ shape, ye ken – it gi’es me a deal o’ consolation thinkin’ o’t – but I gar him ha’ a wash, whilk he did, and a swig at the borttle, whilk he didna, and betwixt doin’ the ain and not doin’ t’ither he was sune on his legs agin and marchin’ off doon the quay.” Got that? Good.

The plot, which starts off as a traditional body-on-the-beach, soon descends into fifties Iron Curtain paranoia, with a Trotskyite conspiracy, no less, and an over dramatic finale. Gently himself, the peppermint cream sucking detective, has his moments, but he is helped rather by just happening to go into a particular cafe, or see a particular car, or notice a particularly suspicious character, which chance event inevitably leads to the revelation of a Big Clue. And this particular plot was greatly helped by a significant character deliberately and voluntarily giving him a great deal of important information. I’m tempted to go for two stars, but in honour of the Brown Windsor soup and two piers, I’ll be generous. Three stars.

Sunday, 29 July 2012

Fantasy Review: 'Ready Steady Dig!' by Rosalind Winter

This is one of a bunch of cheap ebooks I picked up early in my Kindle days, and they’ve turned out to be a rather mixed bunch, some brilliant, some meh, and some... well, at least they were cheap. This is more ‘meh’ than anything else, but that’s partly because it’s really a children’s book, which limits the options. The plot revolves around a collection of Roman household gods, or Lares, essentially little stone people imbued with magical powers, who’ve been left behind by their family at their Roman villa in Britain to guard the household treasure. There’s also a nymph, a dryad and a Genius Loci (a spirit of place), as well as a lot of humans, including a troop of TV archaeologists bent on digging up said villa for the cameras. Oh, and some descendents of the original Roman family.

Now, all this leads to a lot of fun moments, some sly digs at real TV archaeology (ie Time Team), and a smattering of Latin and other historical information, as the TV guys try to tear the site apart in two days flat, the various locals try to stop them, and everybody tries to get their hands on the treasure. Unfortunately it tips over the edge into outright silliness more often than I would have liked, but it’s still a moderately entertaining read. Three stars.

Wednesday, 25 July 2012

Romance Review: 'The Taming of Annabelle' by M C Beaton (Marion Chesney)

The second in a series of sub-Georgette Heyer Regency romances about the six daughters of a country vicar. This one is actually much better plotted than the first, depending far less on increasingly unlikely events and a very stupid heroine. Not that the heroine here is a paragon of thoughtful intelligence; she's actually pretty silly, and selfish and small-minded to boot, not to mention immature, and frankly it's hard to see what the hero sees in her, apart from the big blue eyes and blonde hair.

So the plot, such as it is, consists of the heroine marrying her sister's fiance's best friend because she's in love with said fiance and wants to get her hands on him, somehow, and spite her sister at the same time. The best friend then sets out to gently and indirectly win her affections with a great deal of subterfuge. And of course things go wrong along the way, problems which would be resolved in a moment if the hapless pair would simply talk to each other. But this is all part of the game with a book like this. The romance genre would practically disappear overnight if ever it became compulsory for hero and heroine to explain things to each other.

I enjoyed this one a lot better than the first in the series. I actually felt sorry for the heroine at some points, and wished she would just burst into tears and show the hero how much he was upsetting her. She wasn't a particularly likeable character, but she had to grow up very quickly. The hero was fairly charmless, as well, behaved quite stupidly at times and neither of them had any outstanding qualities, apart from being very beautiful, of course, but I felt they deserved each other. Big downside of this book is the author's habit of dumping her research into it wholesale. I can see the point of details about costumes and furnishings and the like, but entire paragraphs about the historical or social background, devoid of plot relevance? Not interesting, and a big irritant. So I didn’t have to wrestle with my conscience over whether to give such a piece of fluff more than three stars.

Monday, 23 July 2012

Fantasy Review: 'Ravenmarked' by Amy Rose Davis

I’ve been enjoying the author’s articles for Fantasy Faction for some time now, but never thought to check her own website. Lo and behold, here’s the first part of a traditional-style epic fantasy. I had a look at the sample, and just kept on reading. To me, this kind of story is like coming home after a horrendous long-haul flight, or falling into your own bed after a week’s camping, it just wraps itself around you like a warm duvet. There’s a strong warrior with a secret, an innocent long-lost heiress to the throne, a prophecy, a rebellious princess, a usurper with a conscience and lots of magic, and although this sounds terribly clich├ęd, Davis gives it all a fresh feel and a bit of romantic fairy dust.

Like most multi-book fantasies, the opening chapters feature a deluge of names and places and incomprehensible references, but things soon settle down and there are numerous excuses for explanations along the way, so that details are revealed in small, natural doses rather than in dry info-dumps. The world-building is terrific: the various cultures, the different forms of magic, the religious practitioners and the history of their interactions going back a thousand years, at least, have all been carefully thought out, together with the resultant complications and consequences. And it all feels completely and utterly real. I love the various symbolic tattoos of the tribal people, for instance, and there are tiny details, such as the fact that Connor’s lover at the start of the book signals her rank with rows of gold rings on her ears.

Sadly, the background is the default off-the-shelf pseudo-medieval fantasy world, with all the usual paraphernalia. I don't object to the castles, dukes, and monarchy (there has to be some political system, and it's as good as any other), and low-tech necessarily leads to swords and bows and daggers, but it's just a pity to fall back on the tired themes of slavery, the neglected poor, mistreated whores, riotous taverns and so forth. And ho, hum, the heroine on the brink of being raped... I might have seen that scenario once or twice before.

There are four main characters. Connor is the rather roguish warrior, who makes a casual if profitable living as a hired sword protecting travellers. Mairead is the rightful heiress to the throne, an innocent who has led a sheltered life in a religious order. Braedan is the usurper of the throne, who is being manipulated but still hopes to be a benevolent king. Igraine is the feisty daughter of a foreign king, who wants a proper job, not a husband and babies. Then there are a few other characters who get their own point of view at times when there's none of the main characters around. None of these are outstandingly original types, but the author makes them very believable and likeable (even Braedan, who ought to be the villain). And there’s just that touch of romance fizzing below the surface right from the start. I’m not mad keen on too much love interest in fantasy as a rule, because the afflicted characters are sometimes inclined to stupidity on account of it, but here there are only occasional outbreaks of plot-driven stupidity, and the two pairings are actually great fun - both the verbal sparring of one pair, and the sexual tension of the other.

Some minor grumbles. Braedan has overturned a thousand-year regency and declared himself king, yet he's swanning around court as if he has every right to be there and no one seems to be objecting very much. Why no major rebellions in the land? The names - OK, they're vaguely Celtic, but it's kind of a mish-mash of influences (Sean Mac Rian, Igraine, Bronwyn - sort of Irish and Welsh with a bit of King Arthur thrown in). And the dialects - the 'dinna ye' stuff, is kind of Scottish, but every time Igraine said 'lass' or 'lad', I heard it in broad Yorkshire, so I half expected her to say 'ee bah gum, trouble a't mill'. But maybe that's just me. As for the romance - there are just a tad too many meaningful glances and tingling touches and weak-kneed moments for my liking, and a lot of should-we, shouldn’t-we angsting. And everyone's so beautiful. And terribly noble and restrained and self-sacrificing and implausibly chaste. Not that I object to these ideals in principle, you understand, but some of the characters are quite astonishingly virtuous.

The good points. When people are hurt, they bleed, they bruise, bones get broken, and it takes time to heal. It isn’t always the bloke who saves the woman, sometimes she does the saving (hurray!). In fact, this is one of those rare books where the female characters really are strong, independent people, acting on their own initiative, not just there as love interest and motivation for the blokes. They can be just as handy with the weaponry or magic, too. I liked, too, that minor characters along the way are generally helpful and decent; so much fantasy these days seems to have a default position that everyone is irredeemably evil, just because.

I rather liked the various magic systems and the different races with their different powers. It seems at first sight like a bit of a muddle, but it's been very carefully thought through and everything seems to work nicely. Of course, it suffers from the usual problem with magic - sometimes it's just a get-out-of-jail-free card. A character gets into a mess and lo, there's a magical thingummy to hand or a magic-imbued creature appears from nowhere. And unlimited healing power is a bit of a fudge (although to be fair, it doesn't always work, which is rather cool).

The ending is a nice page-turning climax to events, with a bit of a battle, some neat twists and turns, and some very satisfactory resolutions while also setting things up beautifully for the next book. This was a totally enjoyable reading experience, pure pleasure, and the few minor niggles never affected that, although the romance level probably makes it one for the ladies. Very much looking forward to the next episode. Four stars.

[Edit: October 2012. All Amy's books appear to have vanished from Amazon and other likely places. She announced a break from blogging and writing online articles in July, and has withdrawn from Goodreads too. I can only hope that this is a temporary hiatus while she gets back to writing, and preferably the followup to 'Ravenmarked', which was one of my favourite books of 2012. I'd be upset to hear no more about these wonderful characters :-( ]

Sunday, 22 July 2012

Mystery Review: 'Gently Does it' by Alan Hunter

The first in a very long series of amiable detective murder mysteries, in the tradition of Agatha Christie. There’s a murder, local plods jump to the obvious conclusion, our hero patiently steers things in the right direction, the villain is apprehended and all is well with the world. There are some nice characterisation touches - the daughter of the Dutch businessman has been very sheltered, and still has a noticeable accent, while the son, more out in the world, has mostly lost his. But the author tries a little too hard with the charming eccentricity of the detective - the bumbling act, apparently not taking too much notice but seeing a great deal, the peppermint creams, the ambling about without obvious purpose but just happening to be in the right place at the right time. I see what he was getting at, but it doesn’t quite convince me. But things might settle down in future books (I got several when they were a very low price). A lightweight, unchallenging but enjoyable read, with some nostalgic details from its era (1955). Three stars.

Friday, 20 July 2012

Mystery Review: 'Alison Wonderland' by Helen Smith

OK, I’ll be honest: life’s too short to read stuff that just isn’t working. I don’t know whether this is brilliant and I just don’t get it, or whether it really is the stream-of-consciousness writing exercise it appears to me to be, or whether it’s all terribly edgy and post-modernist (or something) and I don’t have the right receptors in my brain for it, but it doesn’t do anything for me, so I’m abandoning ship. Other readers, cleverer than me or more tolerant of weirdness, might very well get on better with it. One star for a DNF.

Thursday, 19 July 2012

Review: 'The War Master's Daughter' by Elly Zupko

I find my reading material in odd places. Two books I picked up because the authors were having a miserable time trying to attract attention to it, and mentioned that in passing on a forum. This one I picked up because one of the author’s blog posts was referenced disparagingly in a different blog discussion. Obviously, I don’t read books just out of sympathy for a struggling author, I check out the blurb, reviews and sample, as always, but it does lead to some interesting and unusual reading.

I’m not even sure what genre this is. It’s set in a fictional area of Eastern Europe in the sixteenth century, which makes it, I suppose, alternative history, not something I read often. The premise is that two neighbouring countries, once part of a greater whole, have been at war for more than ten years. The main character, Aurora, is the daughter of the War Master of one of the two, and when he dies she finds herself, orphaned and alone, washed down-river into the territory of the other, the enemy. What happens to her there, and the people she meets, form the bulk of the novel.

But this is not a book driven by plot. Rather the focus is on ideas, and quite often the characters do nothing very much except engage in philosophical debate (even when dying!) or play symbolic games of chess. This focus is strengthened by the characters’ near-complete dislocation from their setting. The two estates of Cathendria in Fairgos, the home of Aurora and her father, and its mirror-image Secernere in Mitoch, home of Cashel, the Mitochian warlord, are almost empty of people and virtually nothing is seen of the world beyond; they each exist in a bubble of isolation. Even within Secernere, Aurora spends most of her time alone in a single small room. The characters themselves are not well-rounded or realistic, nor do they ever behave in any way that I would regard as sensible, but then I imagine this is intentional. They read more as symbols, full of meaning, but not necessarily sympathetic.

The writing style is extremely literate, and there are passages where the author has attempted to write in the manner of the sixteenth century, which are only partially successful. She is excellent, however, in the vivid way she describes the surroundings and Aurora’s inner turmoil when she is alone. The dialogue is sometimes too stilted for realism (those outbreaks of philosophy), and occasionally this is jarring. There are some fairly gruesome sections, which I found quite disturbing at times, but the ending was nicely done.

This is an unusual book, and falls outside my usual thresholds of readability - I normally look for depth of character and detailed world-building, which I don’t find here. I do enjoy a thought-provoking theme, however, which this book has in spades. In fact, it’s possibly over-layered with meaning, with the ideas swamping the actual plot. I would have preferred a little more realism and less philosophy; as it was I found myself constantly looking for the underlying meaning of passages, instead of being swept up in the story. This may be the author’s intent, of course, and it’s not a criticism of the book, more a matter of personal taste. I have a sneaking suspicion that a lot was going on that just whizzed right over my head, so one for the intellectuals, maybe. An interesting, if not always comfortable, read. And I'm still not quite sure what genre it is (although that's definitely not a criticism). Three stars.

Wednesday, 18 July 2012

Romance Review: 'Minerva' by M C Beaton (Marion Chesney)

This is the first in a series of six Regency romances about the various daughters of a country vicar, similar in style to Georgette Heyer. It's years since I read anything like this, but at one stage I worked my way through pretty much everything Heyer wrote, so when the whole set were on Amazon's Daily Deal, it seemed worth a shot.

This one focuses on the eldest daughter, but there's enough interaction with the second in line, Annabelle, to set the stage for book 2 of the series. All these romances follow a set formula, with no real surprises, the plot (such as it is) is all about keeping the hero and heroine apart by misunderstanding, misadventure or circumstance until the very last page or two. This one is fairly contrived, and some of the early interactions border on farce.

Of the main characters, Sylvester (the hero) has a certain charm, and all the best lines, while Minerva is fairly silly, makes some unbelievably stupid decisions and doesn't really deserve her happy ending. Of the rest, the Marquess and the vicar have some interesting aspects, but almost everybody else is just silly. One would think there would be one or two people of intelligence or just common sense inhabiting Regency London, but apparently not.

For anyone looking for a Heyer substitute, this isn't really it. The author has obviously done her research and splatters about Regency slang and costume details with a heavy hand, but the writing has little of Heyer's intelligence or charm. There are a few laugh out loud moments, however, and things come together quite nicely at the end. Three stars.

Saturday, 14 July 2012

Fantasy Review: 'Blood Song' by Anthony Ryan

Usually I buy a book for some rational reason: I enjoyed a previous book by that author, or I like the sample, or there's a really intriguing premise to draw me in. This one is different. I bought this because at the time it had 44 reviews on Amazon, and every last one of them is a 5*. That's either an author with a great many friends and relations (or sockpuppets, maybe), or it's one brilliant book. Now, I hardly ever find a book I regard as outstanding enough to merit a 5* review, so that's a bit of a challenge, it seems to me. Nothing is really that good, surely?

Well, OK, I confess I did read the sample before I stumped up the cash, as I always do, but I was pleasantly surprised. The prologue is not merely literate, but a powerful piece of writing, more than good enough to draw me in. The conceit of a famous (or perhaps infamous) warrior telling his life story is not a new one, but the character of Vaelin al Sorna is compelling right from the start.

The story proper begins with Vaelin's father leaving him as a child at the House of the Sixth Order to be trained as a brother there, one of those who fights to defend the religion of the country. Again, this kind of boyhood training is not at all an original idea, but the way the boys develop camaraderie and survive (or not) the various tests required of them is well done. There is also the backdrop of Vaelin's father, himself a famous warrior, his dead mother, as well as politics - the king and his family.

But the real theme of the book is faith - the (always capitalised) Faith of Vaelin's country, which is held to be the one true faith. Standing against that are the Deniers who want to live according to a different faith or none, perhaps, but are hounded down, tortured and killed for their beliefs. There is also magic out there somewhere (the Dark, as it's called here), and that too is forbidden.

As the plot progresses, Vaelin and his friends undergo the various tests that are part of their training, and this could, in other hands, have been boring or predictable. Not so here. Every time, something unexpected and dramatic happens, yet it never feels contrived. One example: the final test involves Vaelin and his friends each taking on three armed men at once, in a kill-or-be-killed fight. Since we know that Vaelin survives (he is retelling his life story, after all), there is no tension at all in the fight itself. However, there's a twist in there (which I won't reveal) which makes it extremely dramatic. Time after time, the author managed to surprise me - sometimes it's a reveal about Vaelin's family or the political situation, sometimes it's a character detail, sometimes it's a touch of magic, and many of these moments are spine-tinglingly good.

The growth of Vaelin (and his brother warriors) is totally believable, as is the parallel growth of Vaelin's reputation as a leader. I've read other books which chronicle the development of legendary figures, but I've never seen it done so well. Vaelin gradually becomes the man he was destined to be. Slowly the scope of the book opens out to encompass the political sphere of the king, his son and daughter and the senior courtiers, and eventually moves out to other parts of the realm, the front line for the Sixth Order, where the war against those who refuse to accept the Faith is taking place.

The world building is perhaps the weakest aspect of the book. The setting, both geographically and politically, is decidedly sketchy, and there were moments when I wasn’t quite sure exactly where we were. Sometimes when times or distances or locations were given in some detail, I still had trouble tallying that to the map. Descriptions were brief and not always particularly useful. I rarely knew, for instance, what characters were wearing. And the magic system, such as it is, is so vague as to be not much more than a plot contrivance, especially Vaelin’s oh so convenient ‘blood song’ instinct, which helpfully prevents him from doing the wrong thing, warns him of danger and always leads him in the right direction. But there may be more detail in later books, and perhaps it’s in the nature of magic to seem a little convenient.

The sudden shift to the invasion of the southern empire is rather jarring, and the battle with the so-called Hope was fairly incredible to me. This is someone whose death completely devastates his followers, yet he’s able to move about freely on an enemy infested battlefield? I don’t think so. Deeply symbolic political leaders don’t actually fight in person. After this point the story becomes rather disjointed, and for the first time it seemed that the needs of the plot were driving things forward. There's always a moment when the author has to start arranging the pieces to lead towards the climax, but it shouldn't really be as clunky as this.

Some minor issues. There are a couple of eye-rolling moments - the whole knife to the throat of the woman situation is incredibly hackneyed. There are several places, in fact, where women need to be rescued as a demonstration of Vaelin's manly skills and compassion. None of the female roles are well developed, but that's inevitable in a book focusing on an all-male celibate order, and there are signs of depth to come. Princess Lyrna, in particular, intrigues me. And there are numerous silly typos. But none of these flaws impacted overmuch on my enjoyment of the book.

The book works pretty well on every level - the basic story, the depth of the characters, the gradual revealing of key background information and the transformation of Vaelin himself from child to leader to legend. The character of Vaelin is beautifully complex; on the one hand, he has his mother's devoutness and desire to do the right thing, on the other his father's loyalty and fighting ability, and he also has the intelligence to see beyond them. And although we never see inside any other head but Vaelin's, his charisma is obvious too. Underneath it all, there's the discussion of faith - of what people believe, and the fanaticism it can lead to. I very much liked that Vaelin's people believe only in the Departed (the dead), and it's a fundamental tenet that there are no gods, while other societies believe in one god or many or other things altogether.

It would be easy to compare this with Patrick Rothfuss's book 'The Name of the Wind', also about a legendary figure telling his life story to a scribe, also focused on a warrior's growth to adulthood and the beginnings of the fearsome reputation. But where Rothfuss inflates his story to such an extent that it often sags, Ryan keeps 'Blood Song' taut more or less from start to finish. However, he doesn't have Rothfuss's gloriously lyrical writing style, and the ultimate depth of both books can only be judged when the two series are complete.

The ending, when it comes, is a bit of a dog's breakfast. The actual duel, the focus of the book right from the start, is quite nicely done, even if totally implausible (but this is fantasy, it's allowed to be implausible). However, the whole fairly dry military campaign, the unlikely romance, the obvious contrivances to produce a resonant moment later, the frequent time-hopping, and in particular, the author's habit of half hinting and half hiding key facts to reveal them with a flourish later, all of it just got tedious for me. Authorial tricks are a useful technique when used sparingly, but this was way too heavy handed. The final chapters are just a mish-mash of loose ends being tied up with bows on, and there was no emotional resonance, despite the deaths of named characters. However, the quality of the earlier sections, the underlying depth of the themes of faith, loyalty and doing the right thing, together with the compelling character of Vaelin himself, manage to raise this to four stars.

So what's with all those 5* reviews? I've never yet come across a book that was almost universally liked; it's always a matter of personal taste, after all, so most books have a spread of ratings. The number of reviews on Amazon is now up to 189, of which 179 are 5*, and the majority are only a few lines long, very gushing and the person has very few or no other reviews. There were 100 reviews added in June alone. Are they all genuine? Possibly. Could a mix of sockpuppetry, bought reviews and lots of friends produce the same result? Absolutely. But there’s no way of knowing. All I can say is that if there was any gaming involved, it was unnecessary; the book is certainly good enough to stand on its own merits.

Thursday, 5 July 2012

Fantasy Review: 'Prophecy' by S J Faerlind

This is the author's debut publication, and although the idea of a prophecy is anything but original in fantasy, the combination of telepathic Gryffin, and magic-wielding shy human-like Orryn is an unusual one. And the prophecy is a Gryffin one, but relates to someone human, or in this case part-human, which is a nice touch.

The two main characters are Anarion, raised as Orryn but mostly human, and the subject of the prophecy, and Teryl, a young gryffin. Anarion is very nicely drawn, a young man having trouble fitting into the polite, restrained Orryn society because of his unafraid, curious human blood. Teryl is of similar age (in Gryffin terms) and although the two are initially at odds with each other, they inadvertantly become mentally linked together (a sort of telepathic bonding). The affection they share is charming, and the scene where the two realise they are bonded is one of the most delightful in the book. The other characters are not quite so well rounded, but they are mostly likeable (those who are meant to be likeable, that is). I would have liked to see more of Sharra, who interested me, but after the prologue she was very much in the background. The humans in their village were a bit of a disappointment, no more than stereotypical peasants, who never quite came alive for me.

I always enjoy a book where the author has taken the trouble to create a world which is believably different, and I very much liked the two societies of the Gryffin and Orryn, living in an uneasy co-existence. The Orryn are timid and terrified of the Gryffin, but their proximity protects them from the humans living elsewhere who would otherwise drive them to extinction because of their use of magic. Unlike humans, who have to use stones to power their magery, the Orryn have natural talents and are also inherently responsive by instinct to any creature in need. The telepathic and arrogant Gryffin also feel nicely 'other'; these are not just giant talking beasties! The societies depicted are rather simplistic. The Orryn are a little too idealised: the gentle, vegetarian way of life seems a bit implausible, but makes a nice contrast with the meat-eating Gryffin. I'm not sure that the political machinations of the Gryffin were quite convincing, but it's difficult to portray a society which determines leadership by brute force, while also displaying the intelligence and subtlety to plot against each other, and the author made a reasonable attempt at it.

Then there are the humans living on the plains as farmers, and the Lord Defender who keeps the population in check by ruthless cruelty, poverty-by-taxation and magic. I'm not a big fan of a villain who has no redeeming features, as seems to be the case here, but he's a very shadowy presence in this book and I'm hoping that in the later books the Lord Defender will turn out to be a little more complex and therefore interesting, and perhaps there will be a necessary reason for keeping the farmers in terror and abject poverty..

And as if there weren't enough races in the mix, there are also the Grovale, the little creatures who help out the Gryffin by doing all the difficult tasks that paws and beaks just aren't designed for, and who occasionally get eaten for their trouble. It interested me greatly that they were very drawn to the Orryn, and I would like to know the reason for that (if there is one, other than - the plot needed it).

The biggest problem I had with the book is the writing style. It's not a high-action book, but what action there is creates all the right levels of drama, which is fine. In between, however, the writing is very dry, with long passages of overly detailed and often repetitive exposition. Sometimes there is exposition followed by a dialogue making much the same points. And lots of exclamation marks! Everywhere! On the other hand, there are a few sudden lurches in time or key moments where a little more description would have been welcome. Here's a quote from the Prologue:

"Channelling red-spectrum energy through the ruby Stone he carried, he used it to create a Translocation portal. It snapped open in front of him, glowing red to his Stone-sight. He extended his hand to her. “Come and find out,” he invited. Sharra looked at him uncertainly for a moment and he held his breath, hoping she would agree. Finally she smiled and took his hand, and he sighed in relief. Sometime later he gazed down at her beauty shining in the sunlight and returned her smile. Sharra’s eyes sought his, her expression bemused. “As enjoyable as your company has been this afternoon, you still have not told me what it is that you need me to do,” she noted."

I have two issues with this. Firstly - Translocation portal? That's neat, but what is it like, how does it work, what does it feel like to go through... and a million more questions. And then - sometime later??? So where did they go? What happened? Actually, we do know some of what happened, because it turns out that Sharra is now pregnant, but a bit more information would be nice. Was it romantic or did he use magic to seduce her or (since it's part of the prophecy) did she feel inexplicably drawn to him? It feels like there's a chapter missing. [Edit: I was too impatient; many of these questions are answered in book 2.]

Now, a reader's response to writing styles is very much a matter of personal taste. Most of the time, I found it no more than a minor irritant, because I was drawn into the story, particularly the whole business of the prophecy and how it relates to Anarion, and I liked the characters too, but I can imagine that others would find it too dry and wordy. And I have to admit, there were times when things got very bogged down. A little less of the hard-to-read exposition, and a little more dialogue would have lightened a number of chapters. On the plus side, there are virtually no typos and only an occasional phrase that felt a little clunky to me. I liked, too, that the different races had their own ways of talking. The very polite and formal Orryn say 'It would please me to know...' instead of asking a question directly, while the Gryffin are much more forceful, and the humans have yet another manner of speech, like this: “Well ya talk like a lord,” she noted, examining him critically, “And ya sure don’t look like nobody ‘round here. In fact ya don’t look like nobody I ever saw b’fore. If ya don’t want ta be called ‘Lord’, then what should we call ya?” This is rather nice attention to detail, which many authors forget.

The plot builds nicely, and the author does a good job of making all the decisions the characters make perfectly believable, in line with their racial characteristics, their personalities and ages, as well as the needs of the story. Much of the drama centres on the need to keep Anarion in the dark about his history, but there are perfectly sensible reasons for this for all those involved so it never comes across as a contrivance for plot purposes. Anarion, in particular, is a perfect blend of mostly human and a little bit Orryn, and that affects everything he does. This aspect of the book was excellently done.

The climax, when it came, was nicely dramatic and worked beautifully both to resolve the issues for this book, and to set up the story for the next book. I loved the friendship between Anarion and Teryl, a most unusual pairing, and the prophecy and magic system intrigue me (and those Translocation portals...). However, the rather heavy writing style and the (so far) one dimensional villain keep this to three stars.

Sunday, 1 July 2012

Mystery Review: 'Bone And Cane' by David Belbin

This is a British political thriller and murder mystery combined set in Nottingham. A couple who were lovers at university have been separated by time and differing circumstances - Sarah Bone is now a Labour MP, Nick Cane is just released from a five year prison stint for growing and distributing dope. The murder mystery concerns a man acquitted after an appeal which Sarah helped to orchestrate, but who she discovers might be guilty after all. The story takes as its backdrop the 1997 General Election.

This is a strange book. It ought to be dull - nothing very much happens for a long time - but somehow I found it very readable. The characters are quite believable - not particularly original, just ordinary people getting by, although it has to be said that, for a man still on probation, Nick does some pretty stupid things - doing drugs, illegally driving a minicab and not mentioning the suspiciously large loan from an old friend. But for anyone looking for a high-action story, this isn't it. The political tension derives largely from whether Sarah will get re-elected and frankly, the result of the 1997 election isn't much of a secret (spoiler for the three people on the planet who don't know: there was an unprecedented Labour landslide). The personal tension centres on how long the author can have Sarah and Nick catch glimpses of each other or talk on the phone and even make dates without actually meeting up, and then, when they do get together, whether they will actually end up in bed or not.

There's actually more than one mystery burbling away in the background. The foreground one is the double murder of a policeman and his wife, for which local low-life Ed Clark was put away. It actually takes quite a long time before any progress is made on revealing what actually happened, or any other realistic suspects emerge. But in the background are two other mysteries: who sneaked on Nick's dope operation and got him imprisoned, and what is old friend Andrew Saint up to, lending Nick large amounts of money and cosying up to Sarah? Mind you, the snippets of tiny reveals that are dribbled through the book are overshadowed by the vast amounts of time given to the political situation (which would be mildly interesting if we didn't know everything that was going to happen), and the torrid sex lives of various characters. In the end, the solutions to the various mysteries are all a bit of a damp squib.

This is one of those books that has nothing particularly wrong with it - it's well written, well paced and reasonably entertaining - but there isn't anything particularly memorable about it either. Neither the story itself, nor the political background, are quite strong enough to carry it. There is a follow on book, so perhaps this is the first in a series, and it does have the potential to be something meatier. The two main characters are perfectly believable, and their relationship is complex enough to sustain a series. Some of the minor characters - the brother, for instance, and the friend in London - have potential, and the combination of a rising Labour politician with police connections and a brief involving prisons and a dope-smoking ex-con is one that has many possibilities. In particular, it would be interesting if a long-running series could comment on the Labour government, and the slow decline from landslide euphoria to - well, everyone will have their own views on what Blair's lot ended up as. Three stars for this one, but I'd be interested to see where the author takes the concept.