Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Fantasy Review: 'The Riddler's Gift' by Greg Hamerton

At first glance, this is a very traditional fantasy story about a magic ring which slips away from its evil owner at a critical moment, and finds its way into the hands of the most unlikely person imaginable. There’s a benign wizard acting as mentor and guide, there’s an evil wizard spreading darkness over the land, with the help of some evil minions, and there’s a collection of good guys uniting to defeat evil. You might think you’ve read something with a plot not a million miles from this one before. But not so fast; this book is proof of the theory that even the oldest and most overworked tale can be infused with new life in the hands of a good storyteller.

The plot isn’t really as unoriginal as I made out. Tabitha is the teenage girl who ends up with the magic ring, but she uses it to sing the Lifesong, the music that (somehow) triggers or even transcends the magic in this world. Ashley is an apprentice Lifegifter (or mage) who finds himself with the convenient ability to read thoughts. Garyll is the Swordmaster (chief warrior and law enforcer), and also love interest for Tabitha. The Riddler is the good wizard, there to help Tabitha. Kirjath Arkell is one of the minions. And although there are good guys and bad guys, things aren’t at all as clearcut as is usual in this type of fantasy.

The worldbuilding has been quite carefully done. The setting, Eyri, is rather small, being no more than two to three days riding from one side to the other, but there’s a reason behind that, and hopefully a later installment will see the story expand into the outside world. One grumble: there is a point where some of these external places are mentioned, with a string of incomprehensible names like Lûk and Jho-down and lots more, in the worst kind of infodump. Fortunately this is brief. The setting is the usual pre-industrial-revolution affair - a rather idyllic and twee collection of villages filled with more or less honest, upright citizens. The author has made efforts to avoid the standard generic fantasy template for his settlements, so each one has some distinguishing characteristic. Russel, for instance, is an artists’ colony, with houses built on stilts. While these distinctions seem a little artificial, it’s better than every place being the same as all the others.

The magic system is very nice. There are three ‘axes’ of magic: the axis of darkness and light, that of energy and matter, and that of order and chaos. I liked the way that it’s necessary to keep the opposing forces in balance, which leads to some very elegant methods of keeping the heroine and the villain apart until the right moment. The Lightgifters (mages who use the magic of light to heal and uplift the spirits) call upon sprites to power their spells, which are charged each morning by a communal song. There are also Darkcasters, who control a dark equivalent to sprites, known as motes, and spread gloom and despair. This all works rather nicely.

The characters fall neatly onto the good or bad side of the equation, and although sometimes it’s not immediately clear which side a character is on, ultimately it’s a black or white distinction, there really aren’t too many shades of grey here. What’s even more depressing is that so many of the characters are quite passive. Tabitha and Ashley, the two youngest, are essentially pushed around by circumstance and the machinations of other characters, and when it appears as if they might drift into the wrong place or make a mistake, someone more competent comes along to rescue them. If that fails, then they just happen to realise what they ought to do - Tabitha by way of her magic ring, and Ashley by virtue of his oh-so-convenient ability to hear thoughts, although not all thoughts, you understand, just certain key thoughts. Even Garyll the Swordmaster with his named sword (Felltang, since you ask) who strides around fearlessly as the epitome of well-honed manly virtue, imparts backbone into his weaker subordinates, and accosts the bad guys in stern brook-no-nonsense tones, is pushed here and there by the schemes and devices of others. Meanwhile Kirjath the evil minion and his boss the Big Bad are running rings round everyone, and the Riddler - well, OK, the Riddler is actually interesting. He has a certain complexity, for a start, and isn’t a straightforwardly good or bad character, although he does tend to turn up at crucial moments to rescue poor Tabitha from yet another tricky situation.

The romance - no, on second thoughts, don’t get me started on the romance. Putting Garyll of the Manly Virtues together with Tabitha the Meek and throwing in a few burning glances and shivering touches does not a romance make. I’d rather an author skip that part of the story altogether than make such a ham-fisted effort, especially since a large part of it is just about motivation. Tabitha’s in danger, so Garyll must ride heroically to her rescue or Sacrifice All for her sake. But there is one interesting aspect in the apparent equating of sex with the dark side. The good guys go for romantic dinners and in moments of excitement hold hands or exchange chaste kisses. Even thinking about sex pushes them over to the dark side (apparently). Then they make very questionable decisions because they’re in love. The bad guys, on the other hand, indulge in wildly passionate sex while casting spells of extraordinary power (which sounds like a lot more fun, actually). But maybe I’m just overthinking this.

I liked the writing style, and although there are a lot of point of view characters, the author uses them to good effect to drive the story forward. I enjoyed the little 'riddle' at the start of every chapter, too. But this is a huge book. I’m a fast reader but it took me forever to get through it. In a sense, this is a strong point, because the story is detailed enough to sustain it, and there's very little filler. There are a few places where scenes dragged on a bit too long, and some questionable motivations, where the plot was pushing characters along, but most of it felt necessary. Nevertheless, I found myself tiring of it more than once, especially during the more horrifically graphic torture scenes or the multitude of depressing oh-no-the-bad-guys-are-too-powerful moments.

There was one major irritant to me and that was Tabitha’s complete inability to work out what she needed to do. I wouldn’t say she was stupid, exactly, just very, very slow on the uptake. Even when the Riddler led her step by step, she never seemed to make the necessary jump until it was blindingly obvious. It was quite painful sometimes. I enjoy a story where the author drops enough clues for the reader to work things out a moment or two before the protagonist does, but not when it happens ten chapters before and I find myself muttering: ‘Come on, it’s so obvious!’. I wanted to slap her upside the head sometimes.

The ending was suitably dramatic, and the last few chapters flew by with all the usual swings and reversals, one or two not terribly surprising reveals, and a satisfying, if slightly overwrought, conclusion at both the overarching plot level and the human level. For those who like a straightforward traditional fantasy, with clearcut heroes and villains, a battle between good and evil, and a young innocent discovering amazing powers, this is an excellent example. It's very well written, with a large cast of characters who are well drawn and memorable, and a clever and elegant magic system (and bonus points for the very ingenious use of mathematical principles; any author combining magic with möbius bands has my vote). I found it just a little too predictable for my taste, and I look for a bit more complexity in my characters, but that's personal preference, and the solid ending and neat magic system make it a good four stars.

Thursday, 22 November 2012

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

Mystery Review: 'The Last Exile' by E V Seymour

This has quite a bitty opening, as the author tries to squeeze in a lot of backstory as well as a dramatic first chapter. Inevitably there’s a lot of jumping about as a result. However, things soon settle down and it’s into the main plotline. The main character, Paul Tallis, a former cop with obligatory tricky past and now down on his luck, is recruited for a secretive undercover job - track down four criminals recently released from prison and inadvertantly not deported back to their home countries afterwards. The four cases are tackled one after the other, an unusual approach for a book like this, and everything gradually becomes more complicated as Paul realises things are not quite as they seem.

I rather enjoyed this. Each individual storyette is solved relatively easily, but there’s enough going on in the background to make this an absorbing read. The slow build of tension and the gradual revelations of back-scene machinations make for a solidly pacy story. Paul is an interesting character, with a past which is intriguing while avoiding the usual hackneyed stereotypes (he’s not an alcoholic, reformed or otherwise, he doesn’t have a broken marriage and he’s not a cynical, world-weary type). He’s intelligent and physically fit without being a superhero, and his decisions are generally sensible ones, albeit slightly naive. Perhaps he’s a little too unrealistically good, in the moral sense. The minor characters are believable, too. I particularly liked the chainsmoking cop. The writing style is nicely unobtrusive, and works very well, and it was good that not every tricky situation was resolved with a shootout.

The story builds to the inevitable dramatic climax, and the usual whirlpool of double-crossing and trying to work out just who are the good guys and who are the bad guys in all this. I have to say that this wasn’t entirely convincing, and the big reveal at the end was just too easy. There was also a bit too much political soapboxing over the last few chapters for my taste. Yes, we get it, these are Very Bad People. But despite a few minor flaws, I found this an enjoyable read which kept me turning the pages. Four stars.

Monday, 19 November 2012


I've joined forces with fellow fantasy reviewer Nathan (Skynjay) to collaborate on a joint blog, Nathan's Fantasy Reviews. That way we can cover more ground and include more reviews than we could individually. More reviewers may be added later. In future all my fantasy and sci-fi reviews will be posted both here AND at the new blog. Some of my old reviews will also be reposted there. New blog is here.

Pauline's Fantasy Reviews will continue unchanged, featuring all my Goodreads reviews, including an assortment of murder mysteries, the odd historical romance and my occasional essays as well as my fantasy and sci-fi reads.

Sunday, 18 November 2012

Essay: On Choosing A Fantasy Book To Buy

There was a time when choosing a fantasy book was easy. You went to the library, and looked for something - anything - you hadnt read before. You went to your local bookstore and scanned the one or two shelves of genre books. Once in a while you went to the big smoke and found a proper-sized bookstore, and came back loaded. I was lucky enough to live not far from London, so from time to time I got lost in Foyles, wide-eyed by the sight of so many books. Amazon changed all that, and now the difficulty is trawling through the thousands of offerings there. Just how do you evaluate a book well enough to decide whether youll enjoy it?

The advent of self-published books has made this process more difficult. When every book had been through the hands of a traditional publisher, a reader could assume a basic degree of competence and, although occasionally such optimism was misplaced, it wasnt a bad guide. But self-published works are variable - some are every bit as professionally presented as anything from the big six, and some are appalling. Many are just unpolished, the work of first-time authors that could have done with a little more editing.

Ive been burned more than once, buying a book that sounded terrific, but turned out to be trite and unoriginal, or full of dangling plot threads, or populated by cardboard characters (and this applies just as much to traditionally published as to self-published). Sometimes the typos and creative grammar were overwhelming. As I already have a backlog of many months worth of reading, a book has to be quite unusual to tempt me to buy it. So Ive devised a fairly rigorous evaluation system, and it occurred to me that it might be helpful to self-publishing authors if I document the steps I go through when deciding whether to buy a book.

The first thing I see is...

The Title

And it might well be the last. Yes, if the title doesnt strike me as interesting, that may be the end of it right there. Im quite happy to reject a book purely on the basis of a dull title.

Fantasy titles tend to follow a pattern: The Talisman of Doom, The Tale of the Ravens Stone, The Orphan of the Lost Storm and other such nonsense (I just made those up, so I hope theyre not real books). Titles like these tell me the book is fantasy, but they also suggest that theyre fairly conventional fare. I like something a little different, so they dont hold much appeal for me. Whats an appealing title? For me, its something I dont immediately understand, something that makes me stop and think: what does that actually mean? Some examples: The Silence of Medair, The Adamantine Palace, Ravenmarked.

Every day I get a list of free Kindle books from eReaderIQ, which usually gives me four fantasy titles. Here are four recent offerings:
Whill of Agora - By: Michael Ploof (Createspace) - 4.0 Stars (4)
Sea Change - By: Iain Rowan - 5.0 Stars (2)
Elf Killers - By: Carol Marrs Phipps (Carol Marrs Phipps & Tom Phipps) - 5.0 Stars (1)
Of Elvan Heroes (The Chronicles of Brawrloxoss) - By: J. R. Knoll - 5.0 Stars (1)

So how do they strike me? Im not big on elves, really (theyve been done before, just a few million times). I dont mind a few in the background, but any book focused largely on elves is out, for me. And The Chronicles of Brawrloxoss??? Thats a fail in the bizarre spelling category. So two are out purely because of their titles. And Sea Change, although the title is quite appealing (what sort of change?), turns out to be YA (young adult), which is not my preferred type of reading.

That leaves just Whill of Agora. The titles unusual enough to pique my interest. Who or what is a Whill anyway? And Agora might be a place, or it might be something more interesting. Minor points: I like that the author puts his publisher as Createspace, so hes not trying to hide his self-publishing, and the ratings are realistic, not just an array of 5*. So the next stage is to click the link to Amazon, and have a look at...

The Cover

This isnt a bad cover at all. The two characters in the foreground are very fantasy, without being horribly clichéd, and I like the light on the water, and that intriguing city with its tower and odd sculpture. It suggests some interesting world-building, although covers are nototiously unrepresentative. I dont judge a book solely by its cover, but it gives me an indication of how serious the author is. A cheap-looking cover is a warning sign that the author has cut corners, or not bothered to pay a professional. Im no expert, but this one doesnt look cheap to me, just a little old-fashoned perhaps, and not as mind-blowing as the best of the traditionally published covers (but if its only to be sold in ebook format, it doesnt need to be - its physical books that need the spectacular artwork).

So then I move on to...

The Blurb

Its difficult to write a good blurb, one that gives the flavour of the book and also intrigues, without revealing too much. This one is very good, I think, and tells me plenty about the book. Here it is in full:

Every so often, an epic adventure emerges that makes the blood surge, the spine tingle, and the heart smile page after exhilarating page. Such is Whill of Agora, Michael James Ploofs action-packed fantasy that visits strange new lands as it unveils how one exceptional young man named Whill makes full use of fierce wits, superior skills, and relentless will to help defend the land of Agora from the monstrous Draggard. With plenty of drama and action packed battle scenes, Whill of Agora will enthrall anyone on the quest for great adventure, good times, and an infectiously optimistic outlook on even the darkest and most dangerous of days.
It is the year 5170 in the land Agora, where humans, dwarves, and elves have existed in peace for centuries. Now, however, the human King Addakon has invaded and waged war on neighboring Isladon. The once peaceful Kingdoms of Agora are on the brink of continental war. The Dark Elf Eadon, Addakon's master, and his army of Dragon-Elf crossbreeds, the Draggard, threaten to conquer all kingdoms. The final hour has arrived.
Enter young Whill, a nineteen-year-old ranger with battle savvy and untapped abilities. Having spent years roaming Agora and training with his mentor Abram, Whill has become a bright intellectual and a master of combat. What he seeks most, however, is the identity of his birth parents. Instead, he finds a tumultuous terrain and a prophecy placing him in the center of the struggle.
Along the way, Whill encounters an equally inspired group of companions that are matched in skill and mission. These include Rhunis the Dragon Slayer, the young Tarren, the fearless Dwarf Roakore, the beguiling warrior Elf Avriel, and the powerful Zerafin. As Whill joins forces, he forges bonds far mightier than their escalating travails. With high adventure and fierce friendship, Whill of Agora will capture your imagination and grip your heart during every super-charged escapade that Agoras bold and grinning brotherhood embraces.

Its clear that this is a very traditional type of fantasy: keywords like quest, prophecy, mentor, brotherhood, war, elves, dwarves, dragon slayer and so on. Theres also the unknown identity of his birth parents - so I guess hes the orphaned heir to the kingdom. That may have been done once or twice before. The blurb also tells me that this is a cracking good read, without being too obvious about it: all that surging blood and tingling spine stuff, and phrases like great adventure, grip your heart, action packed battle scenes and so on. And I like the sound of infectiously optimistic outlook, which sounds like the touch of humour which always lifts a book, especially fantasy which is often pretty grim.

More generally, there are no typos in the blurb, no extraneous exclamation marks and only a few capital letters scattered around. Nor does the author assure me that his book is the best thing Ill read all year or as good as [insert famous author here]. This is all positive - nothing here to frighten the horses. Thats given me a good idea about the book, so next I look to see what other readers thought in...

The Reviews

Now some people only really skim reviews - if there are plenty of 5* reviews and not many negatives, they will take the plunge. But I like to read them more thoroughly than that. Its what they actually say that matters, not the rating or the volume of them. (my local, so to speak) has only 4 reviews, 2x5*, 1x4* and 1x2*. The most gushing ones may have been written by the authors friends and family, or may even be paid for, but anything negative is likely to be real, so I always look first at the lowest rated. Heres the 2* review:
Good intentions isn't enough to make it work  In many ways this is a very sympathetic book. The main caracters are likeable, the story is not uninteresting per se. But someting is missing. There is nothing original or new, the characters lack depth and I never really came to care about them. It seems like a rehash of Robert Feists Magician/Krondor series, but without the charm, humour and character og those books.

And heres one of the 5* reviews:
great book: At last another author to stand along side David Gemmell, Joe abercrombie and Patrick Rothfus. More please.And a good price to boot.

Abercrombie? Rothfuss? I dont think so (meaning no disrespect to the author here, he may really be the next Rothfuss, but statistically its improbable). I really distrust reviews that say the author is another X, they sound too gushing by half. The 2* review, by contrast, sounds all too plausible.

Over on big Amazon, there are 26 reviews, 13x5*, 8x4*, 3x3*, 2x2*.
Heres one of the 2* reviews:
Fast and shallow This is yet another YA fantasy written to an overused formula: boy (Whill) has a mysterious background and is accompanied in his (initially pointless) travels by a wise older person, boy has some sort of undefined destiny, boy discovers he has untrained magical power and discovers he is an uncrowned king. Great evil stands in his way, but we all know he will overcome. Dwarfs, elves and other characters abound. Whill is unbelievably good at everything he does and is too good in the moral sense, and his adolescent love interest is indescribably beautiful.
The story is not badly written but the characters are shallow, sometimes stupid, and lack any dimensionality beyond being very good or very bad. Where are the mistakes made for which a price must be paid? Where is the confusion and uncertainty that any young man feels? Where are the unpredictable events and detours in the storyline?
I was unable to identify with the story and will not bother with the next in the series.

And by contrast, heres one of the 5* reviews:
Move over Tolkien Fantastic book. I had low expectations, having never heard of the author and seeing the discounted price. This has the potential of becoming a classic. I can't wait until the next in the series is published.

This is very similar to the previous pair of reviews (except that the comparison this time is to Tolkien!). A pattern is beginning to emerge. Goodreads (my review source of choice) has 21 ratings for the book, mostly 5* and 4*, but no reviews yet, so no information from there. I feel Im getting a good picture of the story now and whether its likely to appeal to me, but theres still the final step...

Look inside/sample

Amazon now seems to have the Look Inside feature for pretty much everything, and its really eliminated the need to download a sample. It doesnt always format quite right, but its quick and easy to read the first few chapters. The first thing I find inside Whill of Agora is a map - yay! And its properly drawn, so bonus points for that. And the chapters have proper titles: The Road to the Mountains, Unlikely Companions, The Drums of War for example. Thats a small point, but it makes it much easier to keep turning the pages when each chapter has some sort of intriguing title.

So to the writing. This book is written in fairly formal language, literate and descriptive without being overwrought. I didnt spot any typos or grammatical errors. Theres action interspersed with quieter passages. The setting is the usual pseudo-medieval affair, with knights and inns and tournaments, the pacing seems good and the characters are likeable enough. At this point, I have enough information to make a decision, but theres just one more factor I take into account - the price. For an author Ive heard of, or read before, Im happy to pay mass market paperback prices, but for an unknown - no more than half that. Its just too much of a risk. This book is free today, however, so that isnt a consideration. So finally...

Did I buy it?

No. I like my fantasy to surprise me, and this one is cut from a very familiar template. I know theres a huge market for this kind of story, and there are some very like it in the Amazon bestseller lists, but its just a little too predictable for my taste. There's nothing wrong with the author's presentation, in fact it's rather well done, but there's a fundamental mismatch between this book and my personal interests.

I should point out, perhaps, that theres no significant reason for choosing this particular book to analyse in this way, except that it happened to crop up on the email, and I went through all these steps to make my decision. It takes a lot less time to do than to write about, of course. But the moral is clear: for authors trying to attract sales, every part of a book's presentation - title, cover image, blurb, reviews and sample - is important to draw potential readers. Even if an author does everything right (as in this case), the book simply may not appeal to many readers, who may be looking for more (or less) action, more (or less) romance, more (or less) magic and so on. It's only a failure if the reader turns away for the wrong reason - because the cover image is poor, or because of typos or self-aggrandisement in the blurb. Once the book is bought, its all down to the quality of the storytelling and the authors skill, but the very first task is to sell the book, and thats where the initial presentation is crucial.

Friday, 16 November 2012

Fantasy Review: 'Ice Diaries' by Lexi Revellian

I’ve enjoyed the author’s previous books ‘Remix’ and ‘Replica’, so this was a must for me. It’s a bit different, being post-apocalyptic with a twist of romance, and the basic premise is a bit of a stretch: after an epidemic wipes out most of the earth’s population, a sudden climate switch leaves the whole UK buried under metres of snow. The main character, Tori, has been left behind by the evacuation process and is trying to survive, along with a strange collection of others who missed the last helicopter out. There seemed to be a surprising number of couples who survived the epidemic, and everyone manages to get around rather well on all that freshly fallen snow, but never mind.

I love the idea of survival by committee (with fully minuted meetings, naturally), and scavenging by Argos catalogue, and the very British approach to keeping up one’s spirits in adversity - let’s start a book club, and have a monthly ceilidh. The author's great strength is always her characters, and the motley collection of survivors is very believable. Even the walk-on parts, like Sam and Charlie, were well-sketched with just a few light touches, and everyone knows a Nina (I certainly do), running everything in her own insistent way and brooking no argument. And Tori feels like someone you could bump into in any pub in Britain. This early scene-setting draws rather a charming picture of the post-apocalypse world (in London, anyway).

But then Morgan arrives, and shortly afterwards his former pal Mike and his gang, and things take a turn for the more sinister. From here on, the book becomes a total page-turner, leading to tricky reader decisions involving staying up into the small hours to find out what happens, or going sensibly to bed and then lying awake wondering how Tori and co will get out of their current dilemma. The book is very much a thriller, and there are fights and gunshots and plenty of action and tense stand-offs, but time after time the author disarmed me by neatly avoiding the obvious resolution and coming up with some blindingly simple common-sense solution. It was all very cleverly done, and made perfect sense for the characters.

In the midst of all the mayhem, there are wonderful moments like Tori and Morgan’s spectacular way of reaching the shop several doors away, or what must rank as one of the most peculiar dinner parties ever. Many of the characters reveal their true natures along the way, and some rise unexpectedly to the occasion. Archie, the self-described God-botherer, in particular, has moments of true heroism.

The ending is in the same style, effective and very satisfying. The romantic element is perfectly judged, with enough doubts and hesitations on both sides to be credible, and no instantaneous leap into bed, just a gentle inching towards an understanding and a state of mutual trust. The book is a wonderful mixture of post-apocalypse thriller, romance and quirky British humour. It’s entertaining rather than profound, perhaps, but for those who can suspend disbelief enough to accept the basic premise, it's a thoroughly enjoyable read. Highly recommended. Four stars.

Saturday, 10 November 2012

Fiction Review: 'The Changeling' by Robin Jenkins

This is an old-fashioned book, but that’s not a complaint. Written in the mid-1950’s, it describes a world almost as remote and alien to us now as the medieval period or the Regency. Superficially there are resemblances - suburban houses, family life, schools with teachers and pupils, ‘difficult’ estates - but below the surface lurk strangenesses which are difficult to comprehend from a distance of fifty-something years. The style is odd, too. Modern novels insist on rigid points of view, so that the author stays firmly within the perspective of a single character for a time, before a clearly marked shift to another. Here, the author jumps from head to head with abandon, now telling us the thoughts and feelings of one character, leaping to another for three sentences and then on to yet another. So, this is not the easiest book to read, in many ways.

The plot revolves around a pupil and teacher at an east Glasgow school. Charles Forbes, the idealistic teacher, decides to take his star pupil, Tom Curdie, a slum child, on holiday with his family of wife, two children and mother-in-law. It will, he thinks, show the boy the possibilities of a better life. How this generous plan gradually unravels forms the essence of the story, although for modern readers the vignette of post-war life is at least as interesting as the story itself.

The characters are mostly finely drawn, particularly Charles and Tom, and it’s a pity that the slum-dwellers, namely Tom’s own family and his friends, are not much more than caricatures, simply wheeled on for comic or shocking effect. Gillian, Charles’s daughter, has a difficult role, being initially a jealous and spiteful thorn in Tom’s side, and later a sympathetic and compassionate helper, and the transition isn’t entirely convincing. The two women of the family, Mary, Charles' wife, and her mother, struck me as the most realistic, being a nice mixture of common sense, self-interest and prejudice which I found wholly believable.

The setting, a peaceful holiday resort and the gentle pursuits of the family, which the author brilliantly evokes, form a stark contrast to the inevitable disaster which concludes the story. It's obvious almost from the start that things are not going to end well, but still when the final moment comes, it's surprising and shocking. It's also a bit of a contrivance, depending on a whole series of coincidental events, as well as Gillian's somewhat implausible change of heart. This is in the nature of fiction, of course, to call on unlikely events, but I can't help feeling that a great deal of grief could have been avoided if some of the central characters had simply sat down and talked honestly to each other at key moments, and this strikes me as a major flaw.

On the other hand, perhaps reticence was too much a part of their characters, or perhaps it was just part of the social fabric of the time that adults didn't talk openly to children, or to each other, sometimes. Perhaps the gulf between classes was too great to be bridged under even the most favourable circumstances. And of course, it’s perfectly possible that the half century of distance makes it impossible for me to truly empathise with the characters and their dilemmas. Still, I felt it was a weakness, so despite the overall quality of the writing, that keeps it to three stars for me.

Monday, 5 November 2012

Mystery Review: 'Gently Down The Stream' by Alan Hunter

This is the third in a very long series featuring the genial detective Inspector George Gently, he of the pipe and peppermint creams. This one is set in 1957 or thereabouts, and has the same faded postwar charm as its predecessors, describing an England which in reality probably didn’t survive the war, and certainly wouldn’t survive the brutal modernity of the sixties. This is an England where a landlady routinely provided three cooked meals a day for her guests, where everybody smokes and wealthy middle class suspects could be incredibly abusive to the police in their cut-glass accents and the police had no option but to politely grin and bear it. The past is a different country indeed.

Historical interest aside, the plot is a nicely convoluted affair, with a whole horde of suspects, all witholding information or outright lying, all in cahoots with one other, all with hugely plausible motives and a wonderfully tangled web of events to be teased into separate strands by our patient detective. Unlike previous books, this time our hero doesn’t just happen to bump into significant characters at exactly the right moment, or just happen to walk into the crucial location and conveniently spot a clue, he has to work things out from first principles. And this would be absolutely wonderful if only I hadn’t guessed the solution to the mystery instantly. Perhaps I’ve watched too many TV cop shows, I don’t know, but this one was really easy.

Nevertheless, I kept turning the pages just to see if I’d got it right and there were a satisfying number of red herrings. There are a few irritants, mind you. The cast of hick locals with unlikely regional accents is well to the fore and, sadly, just as irritating as in previous books. The author would do better to stick to straightforward English that needs less translation effort from the poor reader. Still, it doesn’t get in the way too much. This is a nicely gentle and readable story for those who can get past the odd accents and quaintness. Three stars.

Saturday, 3 November 2012

Fantasy Review: 'Blood of the Falcon' by Court Ellyn

This is sold in two parts for technical reasons, but since they really work better as a single story, I’m going to review the two together. In many ways, this is a very traditional fantasy - a young man discovers unexpected powers in himself as his country is on the brink of war. Of course, there's absolutely nothing wrong with tradition, if it's given a fresh twist and is well-written, as here. The twist in this case is that the young man has a twin brother, not manifesting any powers, so while Kieryn goes in one direction to learn about magic, Kelyn straps on his sword and rides off to war.

The setting is the common-or-garden pseudo-medieval affair, with castles and knights and kings and princesses, and off in the background are elves and dwarves and a mysteriously evil forest. Oh, and pirates. It's all quite nicely realised, however, and I very much liked the evocative descriptions of the scenery, which bring this created world fully to life without ever becoming excessively wordy. I could have done with less of the dancing and feasting at the start, but it serves as a painless, if unoriginal, way to introduce the setting and characters. Fortunately, we soon leave the frivolities behind, but the inevitable problem with such an over-familiar setting is predictability, and the author unfortunately has a habit of heavy foreshadowing. A group of travellers is crossing a mountain pass which has just received a late snowfall. "Watch out for avalanches," warns a passing wagon-driver. Oooh, I wonder what happens next? There are several places throughout the book where the plot twists are very obvious.

The other problem with the standard-issue medieval setting is that women are inevitably shoehorned into a narrow range of job opportunities - queen, princess, handmaid, cook... Now, this particular world has female soldiers, guards and knights too, but it sits uneasily in this clearly patriarchal world. Is there a creche for the offspring of lady knights, I wonder, or do they all have a househusband at home? Or do they have to give up the chance for a family life, and, if so, do male knights have to make the same sacrifice? There are ruling females, too, as well as kings, dukes, etc, but it seems they only get the chance in default of a male heir. And the idea of bastards as a plot-driving scandal really doesn’t fit alongside male primogeniture (they’re a useful backup, and therefore incorporated into the system without fuss).

I wasn't keen on the heavy romantic line. The love interests are flagged up almost from the start, and there's a great deal about pounding hearts and meaningful glances and accidental brushing of hands in one case, and verbal/physical sparring in the other. I don't mind a bit of romance in my fantasy, it's a normal part of life after all, and even the sons of dukes have to fall in love, I suppose, but there was a bit too much of it for my taste, and somehow it all felt a bit forced. Later on, when the inevitable complications arose, things got exceptionally melodramatic. It seems to me that everybody involved behaved badly or over-reacted, so I don’t quite see where the heavy blame-fest for one character in particular comes from.

One thing that really irritated me was the rapid head-hopping points of view. It works (just about) early on to paint in the family background to the two boys, so that we understand the relationships fully, but beyond that it just gets confusing. And there are just way too many different points of view, in fact too many characters altogether. If you’re showing a continent-spanning war, then a few different points of view to cover the whole picture is acceptable, but here absolutely everybody gets their own voice, and their sister/father/cousin etc. It creates a sprawling, undisciplined mess, frankly. There was a point in the first book where I turned the page to find yet another new character, in another new castle, with another new set of circumstances to get to grips with. I was so cross I went off to read another book altogether, and although I came back to this one, I resent the effort involved in trying to keep track of all these people and towns and rivers and horses and whatnot. It’s very common these days, but it does make the story very disjointed, and inevitably it gets confusing with so many characters to remember.

The plot follows two distinct threads. The larger part, or so it seemed to me, was the progress of the war, which we saw from every conceivable angle, every skirmish, siege and sea-battle described in painstaking detail. There’s nothing wrong with this, I suppose, although it seems to have been done a thousand times before, and there isn’t anything particularly unique about this particular war to draw the reader in. Neither the characters nor the methods employed are particularly special, and most of the time entirely devoid of magic, so I found this part rather uninteresting, and the descriptions of the effects of war rather heavy-handed. Those who enjoy battles would enjoy it more, and it’s certainly well described.

The other thread, of Kieryn learning to use his abilities as an avedrin, a kind of mage, is (to me) far more interesting. There’s a fair bit of info-dumping regarding the history of elves and men, but the elves are unexpectedly different and many of them are hostile to men in general and Kieryn in particular, which is intriguing. The elves are particularly well-drawn, being neither the whimsical creatures of fairy-tales, nor the far-above-the-mortal-plane elves of Tolkien. They’re also pretty handy warriors. Kieryn is perhaps the most sympathetic character in the book, always trying to do the right thing, and I very much liked the way he gradually learns about his powers and how to use them. His reappearance later in the war is unquestionably one of the highlights of the book, although latterly his dramatic nick-of-time reappearances to magically help things along came very close to deus ex machina.

As the book (and the war) progresses, the tone becomes darker. The war becomes more desperate, and from a small, localised affair bursts its banks and spills in all directions at once. There’s a scramble to defend, and a lot of tearing about the countryside to warn people, or groups getting sidetracked by a different battle. The author captures very well the urgency, the difficulty of making instant decisions, the consequences of a single minor event, the impact of a risky but unexpected strategy and the futility of it all. The focus is very much on the characters and the effect on them of the events they witness, and a number of them find out just what sort of people they are at this point.

This is in many ways a very good book, but I found it rather a frustrating read. It’s a fully realised and very ambitious epic fantasy, the world-building is exceptionally detailed, including using a properly worked out elvish language, and the writing is literate and evocative. There were plenty of moments when I was totally immersed in the story and couldn’t put it down, with occasional moments that were spine-tinglingly good. The second volume has more of these, and also more depth and thoughtfulness.

Unfortunately, there were other moments when it was all too easy to stop reading, where the writing was clunky or downright cheesy, or littered with careless typos. The frequent jumps in location and to a different character, and the sheer number of point of view characters, tended to break continuity rather drastically and made it difficult to care very much about most of them. A wonderful chapter might be followed by a jump to a completely unrelated plotline with a character hardly mentioned before. Interesting characters are passed over for chapter after chapter. The desire to cover all aspects of the war leads to sprawl. Some parts are obviously only setup for the next book. Excising some of the less essential parts of the story, like the pirate angle or the renegade elf, and focusing on a much smaller core cast would have made for a much tauter and more polished story.

I really found it difficult to rate this one overall. I actually struggled with it at times, and yet other chapters just sped by. I wanted to know what happened, but I didn’t much care for any of the main characters. It’s undoubtedly very well executed and would be ideal for those looking for a traditional epic fantasy with a cast of George R R Martin proportions. The characters are well-drawn, the sprawling plot strands are neatly managed and there's some depth to the underlying themes. So although I found it a little too uneven for my taste, I’ll be generous and give it four stars.