Monday, 29 October 2012

Fantasy Review: 'Zombie Attack!!!' by Robert Bevan

This is another mini-story for fans of the characters in the full length novel ‘Critical Failures’. It probably works best if you’ve read that first, but there’s enough explanation within the story for first-timers to keep up. The idea is that a group of friends have become trapped in a real version of the roleplaying game 'Caverns and Creatures'. If you’ve ever thought it might be cool to be a half-orc barbarian or a dwarf healer or an elf sorcerer for real, this book is probably enough to put you off permanently. Or at least to convince you not to have a half-orc barbarian in the party unless you have a very strong stomach. But it’s riotously funny, if you don’t mind the bad language, the preponderance of vomit (and worse) and the gleeful descriptions of dangling intestines. Not deep, but an entertaining, albeit brief, read. Three stars.

Friday, 26 October 2012

Fantasy Review: 'Legion' by Brandon Sanderson

It’s hard to know quite what to make of this novella. Like the curate’s egg, it’s good in parts. The good part is the lead character himself, Stephen Leeds, with his multitude of ‘aspects’ (hallucinations), who act as independent beings with a variety of personalities and areas of expertise, even though they’re invisible to everyone else. They hold conversations with Stephen, and with each other, and ‘advise’ him during his investigative work. When he needs to speak a new language, for instance, he skim-reads a book and then an aspect appears who translates for him. This is great fun, and the interaction between the different aspects, and between them and Stephen, is terrific. I have no idea whether such a situation is plausible, but it’s an entertaining read.

The actual plot, however, is a lot more flimsy, involving a camera with the ability to take pictures of the past, its reclusive inventor and the various organisations that want to exploit the device. Frankly, this part was quite silly, and the heavy overtones of religious debate tedious (the idea being that the camera could conclusively prove or disprove fundamental tenets of various religions). Then the whole dramatic climax and resolution seemed very rushed to me. I know it’s only a novella, but this felt like a full-length novel that had been cut down to fit, rather than having the structure and pacing of a true novella.

I don’t know whether this is intended as a one off, or whether the author is laying out the groundwork for a series of books later. There’s some unresolved backstory about a former girlfriend which suggests there’s more to come. There’s certainly scope for development, and the aspects have loads of potential (although it does seem a little convenient, since whatever expertise Stephen needs, he can summon a hallucination with the requisite knowledge and experience). Hopefully, any future stories will have a more believable plot. Three stars.

Tuesday, 23 October 2012

Fantasy Review: 'Champion of the Rose' by Andrea K Höst

Sometimes, when I feel as if I’m drowning in a sea of haven’t-I-read-this-before fantasy, the only antidote is some Andrea K Höst. Her work is original, intelligent and quirky, and reassures me that there are some authors out there who aren’t simply recycling the tired old tropes.

The premise here is that the country of Darest, ruled by the Rathen family, has been without a monarch for two hundred years. Being hedged about by unbreakable magic, however, which manifests as a rose bush, it continues to rumble along as if one will turn up any day, creating champions (guardians of the monarch) and protecting the royal palace. Until one day the rose bush produces a flower - an heir has appeared once more. The plot is largely about how the champion finds the heir and the ramifications of that, together with an intriguing mystery - why did all the heirs disappear anyway, and why has Darest been in decline for the past two hundred years?

The magic of the rose is one of the most intriguing aspects of the story. There isn’t anything terribly outlandish about the type of magic the author’s world can produce - there are spells created through spoken words or casting with the hands or carved runes, basically - but the way it is bound up through the rose, the champion, the Rathen heirs and the royal palace is fascinating. It’s also very creepy in the way it is actually a more-or-less physical part of the champion, giving her powers while also controlling her mind and body in very scary ways.

Soren, the champion, is an all-too-rare type of heroine - neither a warrior babe nor a princess nor a mage, just an ordinary woman chosen for no obvious reason for a job she feels spectacularly unsuited for, but which she nevertheless does to the very best of her ability. She doesn’t make stupid mistakes, she doesn’t turn into Wonder Woman, she doesn’t turn to jelly at the thought of a man, she’s just a normal woman using her common sense and intelligence. The romantic relationship resolves itself rather fast for my taste - I would have thought it would have taken longer to get over the traumatic early events - but it wasn’t a huge problem.

The two male main characters, Strake and Aristide, are much less ordinary, but then both have been part of the royal court from birth. They are both complicated and charismatic characters, and both have to suffer emotional shocks which they cope with in very different ways, but the way they inch towards a pragmatic working arrangement is very believable. The minor characters are well sketched out and perfectly believable, although I sometimes got confused about who was who. The Fae were particularly convincing, and the author beautifully captures the ‘other’-ness of them.

The created world is not especially unique, but that’s not a problem as most of the action takes place in and around the royal palace. Superfically the social structure is conventional: a ruling family, several other noble families, the usual array of soldiers, farmers, millers, innkeepers and so on. It’s nice to see that women are just as likely to be guards or monarchs or champions as men. The unique feature here is the prevalence of same sex marriage and also tribond marriages, which is thrown in as part of the background without much discussion or explanation. Much as I applaud this approach, I would have liked to know more about how it works.

The early part of the book feels both rushed and rather slow, if that isn’t too contradictory a description. It seems rushed because there is no background at all to Soren herself and not much about her role as champion before she’s tearing off to find the heir. And then the actual search for the heir feels a bit slow. But from then onwards, the pace picks up and becomes breathlessly fast, in that wonderful page-turningly riveting way. A lot of chores were neglected so that I could finish this as-fast-as-possible. The external threats - a magical killer on the loose and a possible assassin in the palace - plus the internal threat of the enchanted rose itself, which seems to have its own agenda, together with the political machinations of neighbouring countries and the tricky relationships between the champion and the monarch she has to protect, all of these combine to make a compelling story.

My only criticisms are the slightly bumpy start and a few confusing moments where it wasn’t quite clear to me what was happening. And I would have liked a map, too, but it wasn’t a big deal. [*] Overall, a refreshingly different story about believable, complicated people who behave in realistic ways, and revolving around a cleverly-devised enchantment which is almost a character in its own right. A good four stars.

[*] There's one on the author's website, here. Also some background to the story.

Thursday, 18 October 2012

Fantasy Review: 'The Black Mausoleum' by Stephen Deas

I was fairly grumpy about the first three volumes of the Memory of the Flames umpteenology, mainly because the author not only killed off virtually every character along the way, and in the most cavalier fashion, but also destroyed most of the infrastructure of his created world. Mind you, it was an exciting ride, without a second’s breathing space between bouts of mayhem and destruction, the dragons were mind-blowingly awesome, and the first chapter of the second book remains one of the best openers I’ve ever read (seriously). And somehow, for some reason, the thing just wormed its way into my mind and wouldn’t let go. So here I am, wondering just where things can go in this post-dragon-apocalypse world.

I wasn’t expecting to see any of the characters from the earlier books, since they’re all dead. Or at least, they’re probably dead, and in the unlikely event they survived, I’m sure the author would kill them off promptly. But actually, there is a survivor (yay!). Kataros is an alchemist, one of those previously in charge of keeping the dragons tame and under control, and now, not surprisingly, blamed for the ensuing catastrophe. Skjorl is an Adamantine Man, a highly trained soldier, manfully determined to fulfil his oath to defend the world from rogue dragons, now free and on the rampage. Siff is unconscious, but has information Kataros thinks is important. I don’t remember whether the two men showed up before, but Kataros spent some time with previous main character Kemir. Until he got killed.

This is a very different book from the first three. The complex social and political structures have been largely swept away, the vast array of squabbling characters has gone too, and even the places are different - they may have the same names, but the elegant towers and courtyards are gone and all that remains is rubble. I did wonder before I started reading just how much world there was left to discover and story to tell after the devastation, but happily the answer is - a great deal. There’s the vast array of interlinked tunnels underground, for a start, some hiding mysterious secrets. There’s the whole history to be uncovered, and the nature of the Silver King of legend. Then there are the strange Taiytakei from overseas - what are they all about? There’s also just a hint of zombie in the background, too. Real or myth? Quite a few myths turn out to have some truth in them here, so who knows. Maybe they’ll be crucial to the plot later on, or maybe the author just wanted to sneak in a zombie reference. Anyway, it’s not long before our hapless trio are knee deep in weirdness.

With such a tight focus on a limited cast, it’s essential that the reader feels some connection with the three main characters. Frankly, I’m not sure that this works, since none of the three is particularly likeable. Actually, that’s not even close - they all turn out to be truly horrible people, with few redeeming characteristics. However, the tension between them is palpable (translation: each of them wants to kill the others, but they also need each other, so there’s quite a lot of hissed abuse and resentful co-operation going on). So there’s plenty of entertainment from watching the interaction and waiting for one of them to snap. Plus, there’s enough interest in the dragons and the backstory and the alchemist’s powers and Siff’s history to keep the pages turning. I loved some of the imaginative touches - the glowing tunnel walls, the golems in the door, the floating castle... There’s obviously a whole heap more about the Silver King, the Taiytakei and the hole in the realm of the dead to be revealed in future books, but these snippets are tantalising.

And, as always, there’s plenty of action. The struggle to survive and to adjust to the new world order form the backdrop here, where dragons rule the world once more and humans scuttle about in the dark trying to avoid being squashed or burned or eaten (and not just by the dragons), and it’s an interesting thought: what do you do when your function in life is gone? Once you were essential and respected and had a sensible lifetime career ahead of you, and now you’re worse than useless, you’ve failed so completely that the world has changed for ever. Do you get cynical and bitter and do whatever you have to do to make life bearable, or do you keep on doing what you’ve always done, clinging to the old ways for as long as possible? Or do you look for revenge? This is certainly a more thought-provoking book than its predecessors, but it’s a fairly grim tale, with limited humour and without the zest which made the earlier books so much fun.

If this paints a fairly depressing picture, it really isn’t. I quickly got swept up in the quest to find something - anything - to combat the overwhelming power of the dragons, and even the treks across the desert wastes, on the brink of starvation, never seemed dreary or dull. This was helped by the short chapters and the rapid jumps from one character and location to another, including time-hopping to fill in the how-we-got-here backstory, something I normally hate but which is very effective here. An aside: the points of view are tightly in character; Skjorl, who never swerves from his highly trained Adamantine Man viewpoint, always refers to his companions as the shit-eater and the alchemist, even internally, whereas Jasaan, less dogmatic, talks about outsiders and gets to know the dragon-riders by name. This is terrific detail.

There’s a great deal revealed here about the alchemists and their strange blood magic, which is all good stuff, and there’s a nice twist at the end which is perfectly logical and I should have seen it coming, but I didn’t. The whole end section is awesome, actually. It still feels, however, as if there’s a great deal more magic out there still to be revealed, as if we’re just paddling around in the shallows of what’s really going on in this world. The Taiytakei seem to be the key to it, somehow, and hopefully we’ll see more of them in future books. The goings on in the realm of the dead are interesting, too. I very much like the idea that there’s a fixed number of dragons in the world, and when one dies, it’s reincarnated in an egg somewhere.

A few minor grumbles: the author still hasn’t come up with a truly sympathetic character, the devastated world is implausibly empty of indigenous wildlife (what do snappers eat when they can’t get humans, for instance?) and we don’t see nearly enough of the dragons (but the awesome cover image almost compensates for that). But none of that matters. For me this book worked much better than the previous three. It doesn’t quite have the outrageous hell-bent-on-self-destruction air, or the wild physicality of all the dragon-riding and amazing sex (occasionally at the same time), nor the hordes of scheming and double-crossing dragon kings, queens and speakers. It’s a more serious and down-beat book altogether.

However, the restraint involved in following a small number of characters on a single, clearly-defined ‘quest’ (for want of a better word) creates, I feel, a much more intimate, closely-woven story, which really explores the characters and some of the underlying themes to greater depth. This is a tautly-plotted action-packed story, with perfect pacing and a terrific blend of character-driven incident and convincing world-building, a totally enjoyable read that I raced through in a couple of days because I just didn’t want to put it down. A good four stars.

Monday, 15 October 2012

Fantasy Review: 'Cave of the Kobolds' by Robert Bevan

For fans of the characters in the full length novel ‘Critical Failures’, this is a novelette set in the same world. To fully understand the setting, it’s better to read the novel first, but it probably works fine on its own. The idea is that a group of friends have become trapped in a real version of the roleplaying game 'Caverns and Creatures'. This story features three of my favourite characters from the book, Cooper the orc barbarian, Julian the elf sorcerer and Ravenus the... erm... raven. The plot is fairly flimsy, but it's the same fun and games ensuing, and the humour is as good as ever, although perhaps not quite as outrageously funny as the book. A good introduction to the author's work, and recommended for anyone a bit jaded by too much grimdark. Not recommended for anyone offended by frequent swearing and jokes about bodily functions. Three stars.

Sunday, 14 October 2012

Mystery Review: 'Deadly Sanctuary' by Sylvia Nobel

I don’t expect much from this kind of mystery story. It’s filler, basically, mindless entertainment with a bit of a puzzle to generate some suspense. A few interesting characters, a well-realised setting, a gradual reveal of clues - it’s not much to ask. Sadly, this book fails to reach even these minimal qualifications for me. None of the characters had much personality, especially the heroine, the desert setting never came alive and the solution to the mystery was fairly obvious (I skipped to the end to check my guess). Add in a rather bland writing style and an over-heavy romantic sub-plot, and it just didn’t work for me. That’s just a matter of personal taste, and it’s a perfectly competent effort which (apparently) lots of people have enjoyed, and there are more in the series, but I’ll pass. One star for a DNF.

Saturday, 13 October 2012

Fantasy Review: 'Critical Failures' by Robert Bevan

This is a really fun book. The basic premise: a group of friends are keen players of 'Caverns and Creatures', a game not totally unlike 'Dungeons and Dragons' (cough), but when they insult their new Cavern Master, he retaliates by sending them into the game for real. And so a half-orc barbarian, a dwarven cleric, a halfling rogue and an elvish sorcerer find themselves getting used to new bodies, learning to use their abilities, facing up to trolls, goblins, giant ants and a humourless town guard, and finding ingenious ways to survive, but all strictly within the rules of the game.

I've never played D&D, and my only contact with the culture was reading 'The Elfish Gene' many years ago, so a lot of this could have been incomprehensible to me. It's a testament to the author's skill that it wasn't; there was never a point where I felt I needed more explanation (apart from the title!), or that I was missing the point of a joke. And yes, it's funny, very very funny. The first half depends a great deal on the barbarian orc, whose low charisma rating manifests itself in explosions of bodily fluids and a great deal of swearing and aggression, which palls fairly rapidly, but the second half is much more clever, and laugh out loud humour right the way through. The appearance of the sister (as a half-elf druid with antler’s horns) and her boyfriend (a muscular type transformed into a wimpy bard) liven things up greatly.

The plot - well, it's all pretty silly, but completely logical within the constructs of the game. There were multiple times where a solution took me by surprise yet was satisfyingly consistent, and the ending is ingenious and unexpected, setting things up very nicely for the next book. The characters don't have a great deal of depth (but then a barbarian orc is bound to be fairly one-note), but they adapt very nicely to their changed circumstances and learn to use their abilities over the course of the book. The only big negative for me was that so many of the jokes depend on what can only be described as adolescent humour - a lot of four-letter-words, gross-out descriptions of blood, vomit and worse, dismembered corpses and the like. I'm not offended by such things, but it's a very cheap type of humour, and although a certain amount is fine, and it's in character for the barbarian, the best moments for me were the more subtle ones - such as the halfling having a sister who’s half-human and half-elf, or having to use a British accent to understand elvish. There's enough humour inherent in the situation to make the juvenile jokes unnecessary. This is an entertaining light-hearted read, and I'm tempted to say three stars because of the silliness, but I've had a bad week (stupid cold) and this book cheered me up no end and made me laugh. Four stars.

Non-Fiction Review: 'The Suspicions of Mr Whicher' by Kate Summerscale

The subtitle to this is ‘A Shocking Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective’ which is a fairly melodramatic summing up. All murder is shocking, in its own way, surely? As for the undoing of the great Victorian detective, he failed to get a conviction, which is hardly the world’s worst offence. But I suppose ‘Case Dismissed for Lack of Evidence’ doesn’t quite have the same ring to it, and although the detective in question was castigated for supposedly mishandling the case, he was subsequently vindicated. Not much of an undoing.

The murder itself, in 1860, and the events surrounding it, are actually quite a small part of the book. A three year old boy is removed from his cot in the middle of the night, has his throat cut and the body stuffed down an outside privy. The difficulty is that the house was securely locked up, so that only one of the inmates - twelve members of a middle class family and their servants - could have done it. There is a lot of detail given about precisely where everyone was and what they did and at what time, all gleaned from official accounts or other contemporary documents, but this is not an Agatha Christie novel, where everyone has a motive. The local police soon devise a favoured theory and pinpoint a suspect, but there’s a lack of evidence. So a detective is despatched from London to solve the case. He has a different theory and suspect, but again there’s no evidence beyond the circumstantial.

In a work of fiction, a story like this would be filled with a gradually revealed pattern of clues, but real life is not so neat. Instead, the author tells us a great deal of mundane detail about train times and weather and laundry arrangements and the entire life histories of the family members, the servants, the local people and the detective. There are maps and family trees and lists of principal characters and photographs. There are prices for items, and menus, and descriptions of people and places. Undoubtedly a lot of research has been done, but the dry-as-dust presentation and the choppy arrangement of it, hopping about from one character to another, remove any sense of engagement with the characters or the situation. It reads like a poorly organised research paper. There wasn’t much drama, either, despite the inherently sensational nature of the murder itself. The most interesting aspect (for me), the detective’s theory of whodunit (the suspicions of the title) and his reasons for that, are barely mentioned in passing, so that he appears to jump to that conclusion almost by instinct, and not by detective work at all.

The author has made some attempt to draw out significant aspects of social history which are relevant to the case. The policy of training specialised detectives for serious crimes was in its infancy, and this particular murder was a notable failure. There was also a certain amount of disparagement from local worthies and the press about the working class detectives setting out to scrutinise the respectable lives of their betters. Fictionalised detective stories began at about this time, and the country house murder behind locked doors was an inspiration for an entire genre. To my mind, the most shocking information was the family tree. The patriarch had fathered ten children by his first wife, of whom no less than five died in infancy and another as a young man, and a further five by his second wife (formerly the governess), one of whom was the murdered boy. Both wives died young.

In the end, there is a resolution of sorts, although (as with all such high-profile crimes) there continued to be doubts ever after about the exact sequence of events, and where the blame truly lay. The book is not the most well-presented I’ve ever seen, and is too loaded down with dull, irrelevant detail, nor do the characters and their desires and motivations ever really come to life, but perhaps it is in the nature of a factual book like this to scrupulously lay out all the possibilities, rather than over-dramatising the author’s preferred version of events. I found it a quick, easy read, engrossing in parts and mostly enjoyable. Three stars.

Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Fantasy Review: 'The Throne of Ao' by Robert Richardson

The author describes this as a bildungsroman (I had to look that up; it's a posh word for a coming of age story). As such, it's a very common theme in fantasy, but that doesn't make it uninteresting, and there's always scope for a retelling of the old stories, if the author can add an original twist or two. Here, the young man coming of age is Val, who sets off with his friend Uriel and a gnome called Maryl on a Lifequest, the test all young men and women have to undergo in order to be recognised as adult. They are, however, allowed to choose the objective of the Lifequest themselves, and Val chooses a near-impossible one - to find a cure for an illness which afflicts members of his village, and which is ultimately fatal. There's also a restriction (and a fairly arbitrary one, it has to be said), which is that the person on a Lifequest isn't allowed to kill another human.

The three questers make rather a nice group. Val is the idealistic one who's also a fine warrior and discovers magical abilities within himself, Uriel is the cynical one with hard-to-control magical abilities, and Maryl the gnome is an empath who sees the emotions in all sentient beings, and can manipulate them. They have a nice jokey relationship, in between battles. The other characters are less interesting and tend to fall into tropes: the beautiful warrior babe (a couple of those), the roguish thief turned revolutionary, and so on. The people of Val's village are introduced at great length early on, and some of them are interesting and I would have liked to know more about them and the village.

The plot - well, there's a quest which allows our three intrepid heroes to wander around the landscape, and there's a series of set-piece battles, which actually have nothing at all to do with the quest, and more to do with the idealistic Val being distracted by every captured slave and mistreated farmer's daughter and oppressed town he comes across, and deciding he has to save them. Despite some spectacular failures along the way and Uriel pointing out repeatedly that he can't save everybody (good advice, Val!), he keeps on doing it, and dragging his friends along too. Considering Val is honour bound not to kill any humans at all, the body count is quite alarmingly high, and I found it hard to believe he could be quite so naive as to get involved time after time. The fights are very well choreographed, however, and even I could follow them easily (this is a compliment - my eyes usually glaze over at these blow-by-blow accounts).

The world-building is sketchy, to say the least. There seems to be an assumption that the landscape is too ordinary to need description - there are woods and farms and so forth - but I would have liked a bit more detail. ‘The trip through the dwarven tunnels was uneventful’ doesn’t exactly set my sense of wonder on fire. The underground city is dismissed with ‘Dwarven wrought buildings towered hundreds of feet into the air, as did statues and monuments’. One setting (which is introduced as a city, quickly becomes a town, and then is a mere village) merits no description at all. Surely Val, from his nameless village on the frontier, would notice whether the buildings were similar to those of home or very different (bigger, perhaps, or stone-built, or more ornate). What are the streets like, do people dress differently, is the food any different here? But sadly we never find out. And there's no map (every fantasy story that steps outside a single location needs a map, in my opinion). However, there is a fabulous array of strange creatures, some just tossed in as background to a scene or turning up at a battle. I particularly liked the giant insect thingy, used for riding, and the burrowing land-shark - very ingenious.

The magic system is extremely carefully thought out, and very well described when it happens. I find it a little too powerful for my taste, especially since absolutely everybody has some innate ability (varying from race to race) but that's a personal preference and not a criticism. There is always a price to pay when it's used, and it's often not quite enough to win the battle, so it's not quite the get-out-of-jail-free card it could be. I very much liked Maryl's empathy magic, and one of his battles, where he fights a hive-mind of wolf-like beasts within his own mindscape, is brilliantly done and very evocative. The healing powers are a little too convenient, but again, that’s just me.

A minor quibble: humans are called 'humes' in this world, and magic is called 'magick'. The former seems fairly arbitrary to me. The latter is, according to the author, a convention to distinguish it from the sleight of hand card tricks and so on performed by entertainer magicians. I can't see myself that there would be any confusion. Within a fantasy story, the use of magic is so commonplace, it surely needs no special measures to explain it. Besides, the ways magic occur in the book's world make it very clear that it has nothing to do with trickery.

And a major quibble: the story may be great, but the writing needs a very thorough edit. There are few spelling mistakes, but there are some grammatical errors that had my inner pedant, head in hands, screaming. The worst are things like 'he had ran' and 'he had tore'. Apart from that, the writing is merely heavy-handed at times. There are places where the point of view head-hops alarmingly, which is disorientating. Then there are pacing issues. In order to get to the action more quickly, presumably, a lot of setup is skipped over. For example, in the hostile city/town/village, Maryl uses his empath's magic to get them into the boss's house, by manipulating the servants' minds, but we never see this, it's simply mentioned in passing, and we jump straight from entering the town to breaking into the house. A paragraph or two describing how he does this would have been nice. There are occasional infodumps, places where an ability or a piece of history is simply explained, as if in the classroom, and a few places where modern terminology intrudes: 'it sucks' for example, or ‘flying by the seat of his pants’, and a rather eloquent and introspective section where Val is musing on his willingness to kill ends with talk of endorphins, andrenaline and hormones. Now, it's not impossible that they would have known and used such terms, but it stopped me in my tracks and spoiled a very nice moment. However, the writing improves noticeably as the book goes on.

There's a nice little story here. There are some very original and creative creatures, the magic system is well done, even if it’s a little too powerful for my taste, the battles are believably choreographed and the characters are interesting, especially the complex Uriel. Val’s journey from ordinary villager to war hero to legend is realistically detailed, and although he’s inclined to rush in overconfidently, he often pauses to reflect on the consequences afterwards. There are moments of real depth in these introspective interludes. Unfortunately, the plot is just too flimsy and episodic, there's a lack of description and the writing issues interfered with my enjoyment. For those who like lots of action with an array of weird beasties and a hero who always manages to rise to the occasion and aren't bothered by the rest, you'll love this book, and a good edit would give it the professional polish it currently lacks. Unfortunately, the negatives kept it to three stars for me.

Thursday, 4 October 2012

Fantasy Review: 'Warbreaker' by Brandon Sanderson

I was very critical of the author’s debut work, ‘Elantris’, feeling that although it had an awesome magic system, the characters were cardboard and the plot mostly flat. This one is not simply better, it’s in a different league altogether. Another awesome magic system, plus well-developed characters and plot - and it’s funny! OK, it’s a little ponderous at times, but lots of extra brownie points for humour. There are some similarities - the princess uprooted from home, the all too human gods and the action largely takes place in a single location. And there’s a depth to it, a thoughtfulness, which I never found in ‘Elantris’.

This one focuses on four main characters. Not one but two of them are in fact princesses uprooted from home - two sisters, one of whom, Vivenna, was trained almost from birth to marry the mysterious god-king of the neighbouring realm, and the other, Siri, who is, at the last minute, sent in her place. Then there’s the flippant Lightsong, one of the pantheon of ‘returned’ gods. And the mysterious Vasher, a disreputable character with a sentient sword (ooh, I love talking weaponry!). In addition, there are also some wise-cracking mercenaries, various gods, priests and minions, and the god-king himself.

The plot is largely about the political machinations surrounding the god-king and a threatened war against the homeland of the two princesses, but the real depth to the book comes from the subtly different religions they follow. The questions of faith and who you trust and what you actually believe underpin the whole story, together with the theme that nothing is ever quite what it seems. Who is really good and who is evil? Who has real power, and who merely has the illusion of it? As the two princesses gradually adapt to their changed circumstances, they learn that everything they believed about themselves and the world may be wrong.

The magic system is hugely complicated and yet it all makes sense. It’s not as elegant, perhaps, as the air-writing system seen in Elantris, and it has a few contrivances that - surprise! - turn out to be essential for the plot, but on the whole it fulfils everything I expect of it: a few basic rules which can be adapted in a myriad different and ingenious ways. This results in a delightful surprise round every corner - someone gets into trouble, and the magic (called Breath here) is used to devise a way out. It never feels like a cheat, because the rules are laid out ahead of time. Not everyone likes this kind of magic system, admittedly, preferring the mystery of a more fluid type of magic, but I love those moments where it comes into play and you think: oh, of course, so obvious. Much better, to my mind, than those wait-what? moments where the wizard waves his staff to invoke some hitherto unsuspected spell.

I was drawn into this right from the first page, and it just got better. There are some very slightly saggy moments in the middle where I was thinking: not another Lightsong-being-daft chapter (there was a little too much of Lightsong, for my money), but then there's a terrific twist which turns everything upside down and after that the pace never let up. OK, the climax was a tad melodramatic, and the ending marginally implausible, and the big with-one-bound-they-were-free moment was one that was flagged up almost from the beginning, but nevertheless this was a terrific read with a tightly woven plot with reveals and reverses and unexpected outcomes all the way through. I loved it. Five stars.

Fantasy Review: 'The Tough Guide To Fantasyland' by Diana Wynne Jones

This is a wonderful, wonderful book. It’s the perfect antidote to all those terribly solemn tomes full of wizards speaking portentously, hidden heirs to the kingdom, the sort who instantly become amazingly adept with a sword, and tediously earnest quests for magic McGuffins. In the guise of a guidebook (with a map - naturally), it’s actually an encyclopedia of fantasy tropes. Instead of a proper review, I can’t do better than to give some examples:

NUNNERIES. The Rule is that any Nunnery you approach, particularly if you are in dire need of rest, healing or provisions, will prove to have been recently sacked. You will find the place a smoking ruin, littered with corpses. You will be shocked and wonder who could have done this thing. Your natural curiosity will shortly be satisfied, because there is a further Rule that there will be one survivor, either a very young novice or a very old nun, who will give you a graphic account of the raping and burning and the names of the perpetrators. If old, she will then die, thus saving you from having to take her along and feed her from your dwindling provisions; if a novice, she will either die likewise or prove to be not as nunnish as you at first thought, in which case you may be glad to have her along.
PRINCESSES come in two main kinds: 1) wimps; 2) spirited and wilful. A spirited Princess will be detectable by the scattering of freckles across the bridge of her somewhat tiptilted nose. Spirited Princesses often disguise themselves as boys and invariably marry commoners of sterling worth. With surprising frequency these commoners turn out to be long-lost heirs to Kingdoms.

Essential reading for all fantasy fans. Five stars.

[*] This reminds me of the very old joke - Recursion: see Recursion.