Thursday, 31 January 2013

Mystery Review: 'Convictions' by Julie Morrigan

This starts out as a straightforward child abduction case, but quickly becomes something more complicated. Two sisters, aged twelve and eight, sneak out from Grandma’s house during an overnight stay to go to a concert. When they find they’re too late to catch a train or bus home, and have no money for a taxi, they accept a lift from an apparent good samaritan. The older daughter manages to escape but the younger vanishes. The family implodes during the police investigation, there’s a suspect but no evidence and no sign of the missing daughter. But then, strangely, the suspect confesses. The story then jumps forward several years...

The biggest problem for me is that all the characters are completely colourless, and never come to life. Even when they’re ranting and raving and falling apart, there’s no impact behind it, no emotional engagement. The facts of a child abduction, a guilt-ridden survivor, a cruel mother are not enough in themselves to arouse sympathy in the reader. After all, it's not an original idea, we've all read similar tales and seen them on TV. It needs something more from the author to make us feel for these characters. It doesn’t help that there is no real focus. Who is the book about? Is it Tina, the daughter who survives? Or is it Ruth, the police officer who stays with the case and the family over the years? And the story hops about from one character to another, never long enough or in enough depth to give any real insight into motivations.

Another problem is that the settings are not terribly convincing. There’s no sense of place (apart from the odd use of ‘pet’ to suggest the north-east, and name-dropping one or two real locations), and the prison seems to be a terribly nice, cosy affair, less brutal than the average girls’ school, where the inmates fall out over a bar of chocolate. The police don’t seem very convincing, either. Right the way through, they fail to ask obvious questions and follow up on possibilities that would occur to any reasonably sensible person.

However, once the police manage to get themselves on track, the book beomes something of a page turner, although there's never any real tension. It's not just the prison inmates who are unusually nice here, even the child abductors are mild-mannered gentle souls, shocked by the occasional swear word and clearly incapable of actual violence, so despite the police flap, the reader feels no real fear that the abductees will ever be killed. This is revealed at an early stage, along with the abductors' motives, so the only real excitement comes from watching the police gradually circle in on the perpetrators.

And then it ends, just like that, leaving readers to imagine for themselves just what would become of the various characters, which isn't very satisfactory. On the whole, this is a readable little book with a few logic flaws, which suffers from trying to cover too many aspects of the story. I get the point of the prison story, another instance of a vulnerable youngster falling under the influence of a strong character, just like the obedient young people of the church, but it felt like an unnecessary distraction. The story would have been stronger, I think, if it had focused solely on one side or another. This just about scrapes three stars.

Wednesday, 30 January 2013

Romance Review: 'Deirde and Desire' by M C Beaton (Marion Chesney)

This is the third of the six book series of Regency romances by the author of the Agatha Raisin murder mysteries. They are, of course, no more than fluff, mildly entertaining yarns of misunderstandings and infatuations and cross-purposes and secret elopements, leading to the inevitable happy ever after at the end, but enjoyable enough to while away a few hours.

The plot is much as before: the Squire is impoverished again, despite having married off his two eldest daughters to wealthy husbands, so he decides to set up a marriage for the third daughter, Deirdre, with Lord Harry Desire, a young man who stands to inherit a fortune, but only if he marries. Unfortunately for this beautiful plan, Deirdre is in love with the ne’er-do-well from a neighbouring estate, and so the merry-go-round begins. The trouble with books like this is that they stand or fall on the strength of the characters, since the plot is essentially a formula. Deirdre, sadly, is almost as silly as her older sisters were in the two previous books. It’s a pity the author can’t find a way to reconcile naivety and immaturity with just a modicum of common sense, because it seems so implausible that any reasonably intelligent young man would want to marry anyone who does quite so many silly things. Luckily, Our Hero is not just intelligent, but perceptive enough to detect the many good qualities of the heroine, buried as they are beneath so much seeming stupidity.

Once the plot gets properly underway, things build nicely to the usual unravelling of all the misunderstandings. There are a few genuinely amusing moments, a certain amount of farce and a rather likeable hero, even if the heroine never really seems to deserve him. As with the previous books, it’s the man who has to show initiative and common sense, while the woman runs around being childish, and this pattern is becoming repetitive. The conclusion was enjoyable enough to merit three stars but I’m not sure I’ll continue with the series after this.

Tuesday, 29 January 2013

Fantasy Review: 'The Black Prism' by Brent Weeks

This is one of those authors I’ve been meaning to catch up with for ages, and this finally got to the top of my to-read pile. The opening is snappy - short chapters, lots of action, plenty of background detail that just about stops short of info-dump and a magic system that has me hooked right from the start, even if I don’t quite ‘get’ it yet.

But only a few chapters in, and already there are irritants. One of them is Kip. On the one hand, hurray for a main character who’s not super-handsome, super-intelligent, super-powerful, that’s fine. But he really is stupid, sometimes. And all the oh-no-he’s-going-to-die drama - no, actually, he’s not, he’s a main character, he’s going to escape by the skin of teeth. Again. And yet again... this is tiresome. Then there’s Gavin. He’s so powerful he can do a dozen impossible things before breakfast, and that’s just not interesting. And there’s the author’s habit of switching tense for a sentence or two. It’s intended (I think) to indicate internal thought, but with no other marker to differentiate it, it’s just confusing.

But the pace is fast, there’s lots of things going on and the magic system, with its use of colour to create physical artifacts, is unusual and interesting. There was a sticky patch of super-implausibility (Gavin, his long-lost son and the rebel king all meet at the same hick town at the same time, purely by happenstance? Really?) that almost had me abandoning the book altogether. And then there's a Shocking Twist which even I, who gets surprised when farmboys turn out to be the heir to the kingdom, saw coming. And later there's another Shocking Twist which is only marginally more unexpected.

The book could have done with another thorough edit. It's not full of typos, but it feels quite rough in places and there are some big 'what?' moments. An example: Gavin learns that he has a son called Kip in a very early chapter, and he even muses a little on Kip. But when he actually meets him and hears that his name is Kip, it doesn't register. Only when Kip's mother is mentioned does he have his can-this-be-my-son moment. This sort of thing is just untidy, and it’s far from the only example. On pacing, the author has clearly read The Rules of Fantasy, especially the parts that say Thou Shalt have a Fight in every Chapter, and Thou Shalt end every Chapter on a Cliffhanger, but not, apparently, the one that goes Thou Shalt not take too much notice of these Rules, lest Thou seriously annoy Thy Readers, for Verily such tricks soon grow Tedious and make Thy Readers roll their eyes.

Kip the ‘natural’ son remained an irritant, and Karris wasn't much better. Honestly, authors, can we please retire this tired old cliche of bastard children causing huge angsting and grief? This is fantasy, there are worse things around than the odd child conceived out of wedlock (like global wars, and out-of-control mages). And Karris... yes, let's talk about Karris. Authors, a strong female character is not simply one who is physically strong, has extraordinary abilities, is the only woman in a man's job. It means a character who is not defined by her gender OR by her relationship with a man. Karris may be the first woman in the Blackguard, may be the fastest drafter (colour-magic user) in the universe, but what drove her to that? She was betrayed and abandoned by a man. She goes to pieces around her man. She learns about the bastard child, conceived while they were betrothed, and she falls apart. Please. This doesn't make her interesting, it makes her tedious.

Fortunately, things do eventually settle down into a more readable and less irritating story. The whole magic setup is nicely worked out to the last detail, and if it makes drafters incredibly powerful, there are subtleties in there which are quite brilliant. For instance, drafters use light in one of the colours to create physical artefacts, but what they can create and how the object can be used is entirely a matter for the individual, defined not just by their degree of ability but also by their imagination and intelligence. A smart drafter, even one of below average capability, can use their power in inventive and original ways, a great asset in war. There are also some nice details in other aspects of the author’s world. For example, it’s not polite to address a slave by name unless the slave has previously revealed it to you.

There’s a really interesting backstory lurking behind all the dramatic action and not-quite-believable characters, the story of the war between the two brothers, their family and the relationship with Karris’s family, and when the author focuses more on that and less on the Prism showing off his superpowers, the book actually rolls along very well. In time, I even became interested, up to a point, in Kip and, to a somewhat lower point, in Liv, the disgraced general’s daughter. The prisoner in the dungeon is also a great story, and I wish he’s been a bigger part of things (although to be fair there isn’t a lot to say about a man permanently locked away from the world).

But then, just when I was getting interested and the story was starting to fly, Kip goes off and does something totally stupid. Again. Now, I’ve given this book a good go, I’ve got two thirds of the way through and there’s stuff in here I really enjoy - the magic system is awesome, and the family history is intriguing. But... I really have very little tolerance for a book which substitutes relentless action and carefully contrived plot twists for character depth, believable motivation and emotional engagement. Lots of people love this book, so I accept that I’m in a small minority here, but I’m giving up on it. One star for a DNF.

Monday, 28 January 2013

Paranormal Review: '2012: Midnight At Spanish Garden' by Alma Alexander

One of the pleasures of reviewing books on a blog is that from time to time an author will suggest you read their book, and as a result a little gem drops into your lap completely out of the blue, something that you would never, ever have found by yourself. This is one such book. It’s rather a shame, actually, that the paranormal aspect will cause it to fall into a genre black hole, because it truly deserves a wider audience. Yes, it’s paranormal fantasy, and perhaps it’s technically urban, too, but it’s not a romance, and there are no vampires or werewolves. It’s about people, and the choices they make, and it’s much closer to literary fiction than fantasy.

The premise is a simple one. Five friends from university days hold a reunion twenty years later on the eve of the predicted Mayan calendar apocalypse. During the evening, all five of them are mysteriously shown an alternate life and get to choose which one to stay in: the current life or the alternate. The five alternate histories are, in certain ways, like short stories, but they are all compelling and they fit perfectly into the overall story arc without feeling forced. There are some odd pacing choices - the earlier episodes are noticeably longer than the later ones, which puts them right on the edge of starting to drag. Quincey’s alternate history in particular was both slow and overly schmaltzy, and I really wanted to hurry things along to find out how she would choose. Fortunately, the author’s elegant writing style stops things from tipping over into overt sentimentality.

As the five step into their alternate existences, and decide which of the two lives they will choose, we learn a great deal about each of them, their personalities, the influences for good or bad on them, and their relationships. The choices are never easy, and in at least one case heart-wrenchingly difficult, but there are no right or wrong answers here, and this is not about correcting past mistakes. Rather, it’s about who you want to be, who you are and about being true to yourself, even if that means giving up something else along the way. These are profound questions, and I’m sure everyone who reads this will find themselves in contemplative mood afterwards.

The ending is deeply poignant, and yet perfectly fitting. This is a beautiful book, elegantly written, with wonderful and memorable characters, and a thought-provoking subtext. It is barely-there fantasy, and would fit comfortably into mainstream literature. If the author hadn’t suggested I try it, I would probably have passed over it as being ‘not my thing’, and I would have missed a treat. The only minor criticism is that some of the alternate lives are slightly idealised, but I enjoyed it so much I can overlook that. Five stars.

My Other Blog: Weekly Roundup

Here are the reviews added to Fantasy Review Barn, my shared blog, by my fellow bloggers Nathan and Anachronist for the past week which might interest you:

The Pratchett review is part of Nathan's ongoing project to reread the entire Discworld canon in sequence.

You can find the blog here. Naturally, all my reviews will continue to be posted here and on Goodreads, and my other ramblings will be posted here. All my fantasy and sci-fi reviews will also be posted on Fantasy Review Barn.

Wednesday, 23 January 2013

Fantasy Review: 'The Five Elements' by Scott Marlowe

I’m not at all sure how to categorise this. There are elements of steampunk, there’s alchemy, there’s a fairly standard form of elemental magic and there’s a fair dose of science in the mix as well. I don’t know whether it’s intended as YA, but the protagonists are fifteen and there’s nothing that would trouble a reader of that age, although some of the ‘experiments’ are a little gruesome. There’s an interesting premise - one of the main characters, Aaron, is a sorcerer’s apprentice, but unlike the usual such character, he’s a scientist, using logic and scientific knowledge to investigate effects related to his master’s work. Less radically, the second main character, Shanna, is apprenticed to a soap-maker, but on the side is also a thief and scavenger. Then there is the intriguing idea of the fifth element, in addition to the usual earth, air, fire and water.

The opening is a little wobbly. We see the two main characters in their environment, and they’re both very likeable, but some of the events seem a little forced. Would the ogre really toss the head sorcerer’s apprentice over the cliff-edge? Is there no justice system which would step in, this being (apparently) a well-ordered city? Would Shanna really be able to push the ogre over so easily? But even so, I liked the relationship between Shanna and Aaron.

Shortly after this, all hell breaks loose, and suddenly we’re hurled into a breathless rush of dramatic, page-turning action. Many books don’t reach this level of intensity before the finale, but here it works perfectly to rip the main characters out of their setting in the most natural way possible, while raising any number of questions about what is going on. Neatly sidestepping the conventional gang-on-a-quest setup, the two main characters are separated and have to make their own way through their post-apocalypse world, and end up on different sides, which is an interesting twist on things. And although there is a quest, Aaron and Shanna are simply sucked into someone else's plans. This part of the book, the events at Norwynne, is terrific.

From then onwards, the pace is rapid and there’s a dizzying array of twists and turns, to the point that I had absolutely no idea what was going to happen next, or who was a good guy and who was a villain, almost to the end. Virtually all the characters have depth and behave believably. Aaron in particular is a terrific character, both immature yet intelligent and enterprising, perfectly aligned with his age. I absolutely loved his ability to approach any problem in a logical, scientific way, and find a rational solution. This is so refreshing in fantasy, which all too often turns to magic at such moments. Shanna I found less interesting, a bit too sulky and short on initiative, and not always terribly bright. Amongst the other characters, the dwarf and the savant both stood out. The mysterious Ensel Rhe worked less well, I feel. His backstory seemed a little contrived to get the reader’s sympathy, and he had an all too convenient knack of turning up in the nick of time to effect a rescue (not always successfully, it has to be said). The magic system is fairly simplistic, but the rest of the world-building is fascinating, with an array of (I suppose) steampunk additives for flavour. I loved all the various machines, even if the descriptions sounded a bit hokum.

The book could do with a final polishing edit, with a few mistakes and clunky moments, but otherwise the writing is excellent, perfectly judged to carry the plot without being intrusive. I particularly liked the author’s economical descriptions, which convey a great deal of evocative information in the minimum number of words. There were a couple of places where a character jumped to the right answer rather easily, which felt a little convenient, but there was enough foreshadowing to get away with it. The ending is appropriately grandiose and with unexpectedly thoughtful undertones. The author is to be commended for not taking the easy way out at this point. Overall, I totally enjoyed this, and tore through it at high speed - that just-one-more-chapter syndrome. It’s an unusual, pacy story, with an unexpected plot-twist in almost every chapter, and great fun to read. Four stars.

Monday, 21 January 2013

My Other Blog: Weekly Roundup

Here are the reviews added to Fantasy Review Barn, my shared blog, by my fellow bloggers Nathan and Anachronist for the past week which might interest you:

Nathan also has an ongoing project to reread the entire Discworld canon in sequence.

You can find the blog here. Naturally, all my reviews will continue to be posted here and on Goodreads, and my other ramblings will be posted here. All my fantasy and sci-fi reviews will also be posted on Fantasy Review Barn.

Sunday, 20 January 2013

Film Review: 'The Hobbit'

There must be a million reviews of ‘The Hobbit’ out there already - I’ve seen a few myself - and opinions are fairly mixed. Some say it’s great, no problem, and some say it’s a fun film, even if it’s not quite true to the book, and some say it’s a travesty. I don’t agree with any of those. It’s not great, it’s not a whole heap of fun, but it’s not a total travesty either.

It was always obvious that changes were going to have to be made from the book’s plot to accommodate the needs of cinema in the 21st century, and I’m not one of those who objects to the introduction of the pale orc to represent a visible Big Bad over the course of the three movies. I don’t object to some lengthening of the story, although possibly with a little effort it could just about have been squeezed into two films (she said sarcastically). I don’t much mind that Bilbo is something of a passenger for most of this film. I certainly don’t object to a sexed-up Thorin - who’d have thought, after seeing Gimli, that dwarves could be so attractive? But still, I found the film a disappointment, overall.
What I liked:

Gollum - Andy Serkis and the special effects/motion capture team stole the show (again). The whole ‘riddles in the dark’ episode was brilliant. Gandalf was, not surprisingly, terrific again, as were Galadriel, Elrond and Saruman. Their meeting at Rivendell was, I suppose, the famous council, which I thought could have been made a more important moment. And weren’t they supposed to drive the Necromancer out of Dol Guldur as a result? Not sure when that happened. I liked the whole of the Rivendell action, actually. The elves riding in as the dwarves closed ranks in suspicion was a good moment. The music was once more very effective. The dwarves singing in Bag End was the one moment of the film which sent shivers down my spine. That, and the dragon’s eye. I liked the goblin king as well. And Middle Earth (aka New Zealand) was spectacular, as always.

What I disliked:

Young Bilbo. Sorry, but Martin Freeman is and will forever be that nice Tim from ‘The Office’ (UK version) and hapless Arthur Dent from ‘Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy’, roles which he was born to play. Bilbo? Not so much. He was a little too understated and human for my taste, although I may be in a minority of one on that point. The Shire was, somehow, not quite as effective as in ‘Lord of the Rings’, possibly because the director thought the audience knew all about it already. The Bag End interiors were very effective, but the exteriors lost something, I felt. Radagast the Brown - no, let’s not talk about that <shudder>.

The biggest problem for me was the endless over-the-top chased-by-orcs (or wargs or goblins or whatever) moments. I withdraw all my complaints about the Moria scenes in ‘Fellowship of the Ring’; the escape from the goblins’ lair was far worse and possibly the most ridiculous piece of cinema I’ve ever seen. And it went on and on and on. Then there were the mountain giants - how long can we cling on to a six-inch-wide ledge on a mountain engaged in battle with another mountain? Oh, indefinitely, obviously. And not a single dwarf is so much as bruised, apparently. And the pine trees? No, don’t get me started on the pine trees. And then we have to have the dramatic confrontation between the sexed-up Thorin Oakenshield (with his oaken shield, naturally) and the created Big Bad, and Bilbo’s heroic moment, and all that stuff beloved of Hollywood which wasn’t in the book and is only there because the story was split over multiple films, but we still need to have resolution for this part.

This is not a bad film, I suppose. Taken at face value, it’s a big budget, special effects heavy, typical piece of Hollywood-esque action, with the wargs substituting for cars in the chase sequences, and no explosions. For those who like that sort of thing, it’s a middle-of-the-road effort. As a portrayal of ‘The Hobbit’ - well, it was only ever loosely connected to the book.

Where it fails is in comparison with the three ‘Lord of the Rings’ films. There are glimpses of the greatness of those works in the Rivendell scenes, and some more thoughtful moments with the dwarves. But it otherwise fails to capture any echoes of the magic and the majesty of the greater work. It substitutes relentless action and chase sequences for genuine heart-stopping moments. The escapes are eye-rollingly bad, and there is too much effort expended on out-SFX-ing the predecessors. There are nods to the earlier films, but they are both self-concious and self-indulgent. Worse, it’s forgettable. I came out of the theatre a bare three and a half hours ago, and already there’s very little that sticks in my mind, good or bad.

I find it quite distressing to write this. I regard ‘The Lord of the Rings’ as a defining moment of my life (both the book and the film). I was overjoyed to see the Shire realised exactly as I’d imagined it, I shivered when the Moria orcs chittered and the Balrog appeared, Helm’s Deep was just awesome, Edoras was amazing and as for the Ride of the Rohirrim - I cried. I never believed anyone could reproduce it so perfectly. There were oddities and excesses, of course, but mostly it was unbelievably wonderful. But this - it’s just a film, as disposable as popcorn. Will I watch the rest of the series? Of course, and perhaps Peter Jackson can pull a rabbit out of his hat, but I’m not optimistic.

Sunday, 13 January 2013

My Other Blog: Weekly Roundup

Here are the reviews added to Fantasy Review Barn, my shared blog, by my fellow bloggers Nathan and Anachronist for the past week which might interest you:

The Pratchett review is part of Nathan's ongoing project to reread the entire Discworld canon in sequence.

You can find the blog here. Naturally, all my reviews will continue to be posted here and on Goodreads, and my other ramblings will be posted here. All my fantasy and sci-fi reviews will also be posted on Fantasy Review Barn.

Friday, 11 January 2013

Fantasy Review: 'Pool of Souls' by Cheryl Landmark

I got off on the wrong foot with this one. The first thing that happens is that a man tries to steal the heroine's horse. Being telepathic, the horse warns her about this, but then goes on to say of the thief, "Oh, my, Caz, he's a handsome devil!" This strikes me as odd in so many ways. No, not the telepathic horse, actually - this is fantasy, after all - but the idea that a horse would have any concept of what would constitute a handsome man. And then there's a bantering exchange between the two humans, with enough comments about firm mouths and bold eyes to scream ROMANCE! And within a handful of chapters, our feisty heroine has needed to be rescued three times - from beasties, getting lost and randy men. So not a great start.

Unfortunately, it doesn’t get better. There’s nothing I like more than a spirited female protagonist, but although Caz certainly has spirit, she also has a quite unbelievable amount of luck. Having followed her brother in order to join up with the rebel army, and fortuitously gained valuable information about enemy movements, she is immediately allowed to see the army’s Commander in person. He takes her under his wing and gives her a job amongst his closest confidantes (with her own little tent next door to his - how sweet), helpfully explaining plotpoints to her and taking the time to reassure her when she gets nervous. Is this likely? The leader of an army heading into battle? I don’t think so.

Then there’s the magic. The army has a mage with it, and boy can he do some amazing stuff. Really, why do they need the army at all, when it seems the mage is powerful enough to take on the enemy all by himself. Now, it may be that things improve as the book goes on. Maybe people stop being improbably nice to Caz, maybe the mage turns out to have limitations, maybe Caz stops sniping pointlessly at the Designated Love Interest, maybe something actually happens, who knows. I loved the idea of animal telepathy, but the rest of it wasn’t for me. For those who like their fantasy rather gentle, with a soft centre, this might be right up your alley, but I gave up on it. One star for a DNF.

Thursday, 10 January 2013

Mystery Review: 'Gently Through The Mill' by Alan Hunter

The fifth in the long series of George Gently detective novels, there are no radical departures here. A murder is committed in a small town mill, the local plods can make nothing of it and send for help. Gently arrives and in his quiet, understated style uncovers all the hidden secrets and solves the murder. As always, the charm is in the portrayal of English post-war life, captured as effortlessly as clicking a camera shutter. This was published in 1958, and the first few pages alone reveal a different world: hot cross buns made only for Good Friday, for instance, instead of appearing in the shops shortly after the Christmas decorations come down, and a stag party which is an annual affair and has nothing to do with weddings, being simply a male-only excuse to get plastered (so some similarities to the modern do, obviously).

Food is a big part of Gently’s daily life, and although the peppermint creams, the signature of the earlier books, rate only a single mention here, there are still plenty of edibles about. Gently likes a proper breakfast, with bacon, egg and kidney. Lunch might be onion soup, followed by ‘a very good sole with sauce tartare’, then apple charlotte. And cheese, of course. Another day it might be beefsteak pudding, followed by treacle tart and custard, with hot rum beforehand and a liqueur and cigar afterwards. A picnic lunch is cold chicken and salad, apple turnover, biscuits, cheese and fruit, and four thermoses of coffee. Good, solid working lunches, these. And given that the plot centres around a mill and the attached bakery, there are cakes and pastries abounding, too.

In between these energy-sapping meals, Gently sits about watching the likely suspects until their concocted stories quietly unravel. This is possibly the best of these books so far, since none of the revelations depend on Gently luckily finding himself in just the right place at the right time. He also makes a few mistakes in his investigations, which makes him seem much more humanly fallible. The villain turns out to be a very satisfying and plausible possibility, the local plods, while confident the murderer can’t possibly be a local man, are much more realistic in their protestations, and there are signs of depth in some of the minor characters, too. And thank goodness, there are no painful transcriptions of local dialect to contend with. This is not quite four stars, but it’s certainly a very good three stars.

Tuesday, 8 January 2013

Alchemypunk Review: 'The Demon of Cliffside' by Nathan Fierro

I spend a lot of time seeking out interesting new reading, but sometimes plums just drop into my lap. This was recommended to a reddit member seeking original, unusual fantasy and that it is. So original and unusual, in fact, that I have no idea how to categorise it. The blurb describes it as ‘alchemypunk’, and if I fully understood what that was, I might agree. The demon of the title is the central character, unnamed and of unknown species, living where she has always lived, once alone but now in the shadows of a human city. She has swirling alchemical markings on her body, long claws which can cut through metal or stone, and great strength and agility. She likes to walk on ceilings when indoors because humans never look up.

Her world is just as unusual. The city of Cliffside is built on some unfathomably high - mountain? plateau? - hard to say, but so high that clouds roil round below and cause massive rainstorms every night. Water, therefore is a major feature of the city, having to be piped and funneled away, but also powering machinery and transport. Recently, the inhabitants have discovered glowstone which powers alchemical lights and other machinery, and the ‘demon’ finds she has an unusual innate connection to the glowstone. She is, in some way, herself entwined with alchemical power.

The strength of the book rests, naturally, on the main character, and what a fascinating character she is. The author beautifully captures the ennui that inevitably arises from countless centuries of life, the detachment from the concerns of the humans who come and go, the ‘seen it all before’ cynicism. The ‘demon’ is truly alien, and I honestly never had any idea how she would behave under any given set of circumstances. In fact, the whole book was a long series of surprises, every turn of events bringing a new and revelatory twist. The other characters are less well-defined, but that’s entirely appropriate, since they are seen through non-human eyes.

The ending is page-turningly dramatic, and everything comes together very well. My only minor grumble is that parts of it seem a little too ‘magical’, as the ‘demon’ very quickly discovers and masters a whole range of new capabilities at crucial moments. It’s not quite deus ex machina, since the essence was flagged up right from the start, but there is an element of with-one-bound-they-were-free. One more edit would have added a final polish, too.

This is a haunting and evocative story, with a fascinating lead character and a terrific setting. The city above the clouds, beset by storms, is one I would like to know more about, indeed the whole of this created world. The alchemy is not merely a sideshow, but the idea which underpins the whole book. I’ve never read anything like this before, but I loved every moment of it. I agonised over the rating for this one, because of the slightly over the top ending, but I enjoyed it so much I'm going for the full monty. Five stars. Highly recommended for anyone looking for fantasy that breaks away from the more conventional tropes.

Monday, 7 January 2013

My Other Blog: Weekly Roundup

Fantasy Review Barn is growing! Nathan and I have been joined by Anachronist, to help us review even more fantasy and sci-fi books. Here are their reviews for the past week which might interest you:

The Pratchett review is part of Nathan's project to reread the entire Discworld canon in sequence.

You can find the blog here. Naturally, all my reviews will continue to be posted here and on Goodreads, and my other ramblings will be posted here. All my fantasy and sci-fi reviews will also be posted on Fantasy Review Barn.

Fantasy Review: 'Dark Currents' by Lindsay Buroker

This is the second in the ‘Emperor’s Edge’ series of steam-punk fantasy adventures with Amaranthe the female cop and her unlikely bunch of sidekicks. They're more at the entertaining romp end of the fantasy spectrum, and it probably doesn't pay to look too closely at the precise details of the plot, a fairly ramshackle affair which would fail any logic test, so anyone looking for great insight into the human condition or gritty realism should probably move swiftly on. But light-hearted fun is fine by me, and this delivers by the (steam powered) truck load.

Amaranthe and her pals are still avoiding the long arm of the law after the misunderstandings of the first book, but trying meanwhile to curry favour with the emperor by carrying out helpful clean-up operations on the less reputable elements of the city. So even though they spend their time breaking and entering, snooping around and trying (not always successfully) not to kill anybody, they are really on the side of the law. Sort of.

The characters are rather a fun, if motley, collection. Amaranthe herself, once a rare female enforcer (cop) before she became a wanted woman, is a fine feisty heroine, not afraid to lead from the front, constantly getting into scrapes as a result but usually managing to get herself out of them again, by ingenuity rather than brute force. Rather charmingly, she believes that almost any situation, no matter how dire, can be resolved by talking things through. And she doesn't scream. I like her. Sicarius the ice-cold trained-from-birth assassin is an unlikely comrade-in-arms, and he is too often used as a get-out-of-jail-free card, turning up in the nick of time to effect a rescue for one character or another. I don't really see why bouncy, friendly Amaranthe has the hots for him, rippling muscles or no, but there you go. The rest of the bunch - the narcissistic Maldynado, the studious Books, the aspiring mage Akstyr and the outsider Basilard - are there to fill in the gaps and provide comic relief. Fans of Books will be pleased by his rather sweet little romance.

There’s a certain amount of world-building in this book, and we see more of the technological capabilities of the empire. There are a few snippets of information about the world’s history, too. There is also more magic, and I have to be honest here and say that this is not a fully-developed Sanderson-esque magic system. It’s more a matter of whatever would lead to a particularly dramatic moment turns out to be something the shaman/villain can do. But there's no real attempt to create a believable in-depth secondary world here, and everything is sacrificed to a witty bit of banter between the sidekicks. Anyone who would be disgruntled to find a character saying "Yo, boss!" should probably not be reading this book.

The action increases, with our heroes getting into more and more difficulties, and the obstacles are almost insuperable, until... well, you can probably guess how it turns out. This is not the realistic gritty style of fantasy, but then it doesn’t pretend to be. It sets out to entertain and amuse, with a sprinkling of oh-my-goodness-how-will-they-escape dramatics, and it does it extremely well. An enjoyable, fun read. Four stars.

Wednesday, 2 January 2013

Fantasy Review: 'Stained Glass Monsters' by Andrea K Höst

This one starts with a bang, as a mysterious woman in white appears out of nowhere, seemingly, into the middle of a peaceful village. She stays exactly where she is for the rest of the book, but the story races about all over the Kingdom of Tyrland as the former Queen, now exiled into Eferum, the ‘other’ world, tries to make good her return.

There are two main characters, of whom Rennyn is the more interesting by far. Intelligent, competent and entirely self-sufficient, yet she never becomes a Mary Sue, and it’s always clear that she has hidden depths, as well as (perhaps) an agenda of her own. She’s accused of being arrogant, but perhaps it’s more a question of self-awareness. It’s not arrogance to know what has to be done and to go about doing it with minimal fuss. Kendall is the bratty not-quite-child, whose major role seems to be to ask the tricky questions so that essential elements of the magic system or necessary plot points can be explained to the reader, or to act as a window to events not seen by Rennyn. Despite her heroics at the big confrontation, she always felt a bit extraneous. I rather liked Rennyn’s younger brother, Seb, however, who has a very focused view of magic and simply refuses to acknowledge the validity of any viewpoint other than his own. He will ring a bell with anyone with knowledge of a certain geeky type of teenage boy.

The Kellian are the most intriguing aspect of the book. The stained glass monsters of the title, because of their ability to reflect or absorb (not quite clear which) the colours around them, they are magically created beings (golems, originally) who have subsequently interbred with humans, with interesting and very creepy results. Given that they give the book its title, it was always obvious that their role would be pivotal to events. Even so, I wasn’t expecting the way things turned out; as always, the author has the power to astonish and disturb in equal measure.

I’m a big fan of the author, who creates believable worlds where women are just - well, people, everything from Queens to mages to soldiers to farmers and everything in between. In addition, her worlds are always very different from the standard fantasy tropes and themes, so that just when you think you’ve got a handle on things the plot shoots off at a completely unexpected tangent. I love to be taken by surprise, especially when (as here) the surprise is totally logical and in line with everything that’s gone before. And as always, this is not just a retelling of the traditional good versus evil story. It’s not at all clear where, if anywhere, the distinction lies, and there are more shades of grey than black and white. There is also a more philosophical depth, for those who enjoy such things, about the rightness, or otherwise, of making decisions for other people, of controlling people with magic, of using people against their will.

If I have a complaint, it’s that the first half of the book is overfilled with exposition - details about the magic system, for instance, which is moderately complicated, or about the underlying politics, or about the plot itself. The Grand Summoning is a complicated process, and I got lost in the details sometimes. There were also too many characters for me to keep straight, and I wasn’t even clear, sometimes, which of them were human and which weren’t. Most of this, however, either resolved itself before the final confrontation or ceased to matter, and there was compensation in the array of very different locations where breaches from the Eferum occurred, necessitating some innovative solutions, both practical and magical.

The finale was appropriately epic, with innumerable twists and turns, the main plotline tied up with a very satisfactory little bow on top, yet with enough dangling threads to carry forward into book 2 of the series. This is a relatively short book with an interesting magic system, the fascinating non-human Kellians and some thought-provoking ideas. Apart from Rennyn and Seb, the humans are mostly walk-on parts, but they still feel like properly three-dimensional people. Another enjoyable read from Ms Höst. Four stars.

TV Review: In Praise of 'The Almighty Johnsons'

Right, so there are all these Norse gods, and they all emigrated to New Zealand on the same boat. Their descendants each get reincarnated as one or other of the gods when they reach the age of twenty one. Only their powers tend to diminish over time, so they are only a shadow of what they once were. But if a reincarnated Odin meets the reincarnation of his eternal love, Frigg, then all the gods will be restored to their former glory and Asgard will return to Earth once more. Or something.

Are you keeping up so far? Good. Because in the first episode of 'The Almighty Johnsons', Axl, the youngest of the four Johnson brothers, celebrates his twenty first birthday, and discovers he is - Odin. The search is on to find Frigg, because if Axl/Odin fails and dies without a godly union with Frigg, all four brothers will die.

And for anyone out there saying but... but... WHY, you're completely missing the point. Maybe you missed the part about emigrating to New Zealand, because this is Kiwis we're talking about and if there's one thing weirder than the weirdest thing you can possibly imagine it's the Kiwi sense of humour. 'The Almighty Johnsons' is the funniest and absolutely the best show on TV, but you probably need the right receptors in your brain to enjoy it properly.

For one thing, New Zealanders talk New Zealandish, which is not the easiest language in the world for English speakers to grasp. For the first few episodes, I swear I missed one word in three, and I spent almost an entire show mystified by a strange sport I'd never heard of before. This neatball was obviously popular with Kiwis, but what could it possibly be? Only when I saw the players filing onto the court did it dawn on me - oh, it's NETBALL. Doh.

Then there’s the sex. Now in most TV shows, sex is either soft-focus romantic stuff or else it’s outright porn. This is - not either of those. This is naked bodies with strategically placed cushions or milk cartons or just hands, and there’s a lot of nakedness that’s nothing to do with sex at all, it’s just people with no clothes on. It’s good old-fashoned farce, basically.

The plot - well, let’s not worry overmuch about the plot. It really isn’t important. The second series was even better than the first, if a little darker, and every episode completely unpredictable and off-the-wall and laugh-out-loud funny. We got Maori gods in the mix as well, which complicated everything hugely and produced a great big cliff-hanger ending. And then the show was cancelled. OH NO! But - phew! - the fans got up a petition and sent bits of twig to the producers (don’t ask) and - YAY! - a third series is in the pipeline. Thank the (Norse) gods.

Footnote: 'The Almighty Johnsons' has, to date, only been shown in New Zealand, Australia, Canada, UK and Brazil. If you live outside those areas - try to get hold of the DVDs.