Tuesday, 26 February 2013

Mystery Review: 'The Woman Before Me' by Ruth Dugdall

A simple premise: after her own baby dies, Rose Wilks becomes friendly with Emma, a fellow new mum whose own baby, Luke, was born at the same time. When a cigarette starts a fire which kills Luke, Rose is convicted of manslaughter. The story picks up several years later, when Rose is due for a parole hearing, and has to convince probation officer Cate that she should be released.

That bald summary doesn't begin to do justice to the story, of course. Most of it is written in the first person by Rose herself, in the form of a sort of lengthy letter/journal addressed to her boyfriend Jason, and this part of the book is utterly compelling. Rose's history, how she came to the point of being accused of killing Luke, and her personality are fascinating. The big question is whether she is telling the truth when she claims to be innocent. It's clear that she's a disturbed and manipulative person, intelligent and not uneducated, but with some seriously odd ways. She does very well in prison, for instance, keeping on the right side of the prison officers and yet easily dominating or intimidating other inmates.

The other part of the book, about Cate the probation officer, is much less interesting. It's a necessary counterpoint to Rose, I suppose, to show someone apparently successful and powerful, who is actually very fragile - something of a mess, basically. It was also useful for plot purposes, since she has to ask questions of all the main characters. I didn't find Cate very believable or well-rounded, and it was always a disappointment to turn the page to find it was a Cate chapter. This may have been partly because Cate's sections were written in the third person, with the inevitable distancing effect (at least compared to the intimacy of Rose's sections).

The ending, and the reveal of exactly what happened when Luke died, is not actually a surprise (or at least, I guessed it ages before), but nevertheless there are enough twists along the way to keep things bubbling along. I found this an absorbing read, and a real page-turner. It's only the dull Cate chapters that keep it to four stars.

Monday, 25 February 2013

Fantasy Review: 'The Prophecy' by Jeffrey M Poole

This is Book 1 of the Bakkian Chronicles, which is, naturally, a trilogy. The premise is a simple one: Steve Miller learns that he has inherited a mansion from his little-known grandparents. When he and his wife Sarah go to investigate, they find themselves stepping through a portal into a strange new world, one where griffins, dragons and magic exist.

Now, I like the idea of a portal. It's a simple and effective trick to set straightforward modern-day people in a fantasy world. The reader finds it easy to identify with Steve and Sarah, with no need to understand complicated backstories for them, the fantasy world can be explained step-by-step by the clueless newbies asking questions or simply walking into trouble, and there's an immediate set of problems to be solved - survival, first and foremost, and ultimately a return to the home world. Plus, portals are compelling by their very nature. Who could not read Narnia, and then look at their own wardrobe and think... if only?

The trouble with portals, however, is that they've been done to death, and it's increasingly hard to put an original spin on it. The hapless arrivals blunder around getting into and out of trouble, and eventually get drawn into whatever big event is going on in the fantasy world. What's new to say? The twist here is that the protagonists are a happily married couple, and hurray for that, something which is all too rare in fantasy. Problem is, Steve and Sarah are just too nice. They rarely so much as disagree, and when they do, it's over in a flash and they're high-fiving or hugging. There's altogether too much enthusiasm for their newfound world, in fact. They are lovely people, in the real world sense, and I would be delighted to have them as neighbours or workmates or friends, but for my taste fictional characters need a bit more bite to make them interesting.

Another problem I had is with grandma and grandpa. You would think, wouldn't you, that if you planned to leave your house to your unknown grandson, knowing that sooner or later he would blunder unwittingly through the magic portal and all too probably be eaten by a griffon, that a hint or two on health and safety issues, and how to get back might be in order? Unless the family feud is so serious that the griffon-eating is actually the intention... BAD grandma and grandpa.

Up to the halfway point, I struggled to find the spark in this book. But with the appearance of Kahvel the dragon, things begin to pick up and the book finds its proper tone - lighthearted and humorous, with Steve's infectious enthusiasm finally winning me over. The macho contest between dragon and man was a highlight, and the expedition with the dragon and five soldiers turned into a very entertaining romp. The battle with the guur was very satisfactory (I hate bugs too). Although I have to say, the idea of a dragon of Kahvel's size sneaking up on anyone without being noticed stretches credibility somewhat.

This book will never win any prizes for originality or depth, and it has no literary pretensions. The writing style is basic, characterisation is flat and the point of view head-hops with dizzying speed. It fails to provide any unexpected plot twists, and there's not as much humour as I might have expected, in the early parts at least. And having criticised it to death, I have to say that, actually, I rather enjoyed it. If there were few stand-out pluses, there was nothing that really grated, either. It's incredibly readable, with a certain charm and plenty of lively action in the second half, and that was more than enough to keep me turning the pages. For those who enjoy a straightforward traditional easy to read fantasy, this would certainly fit the bill. It doesn't quite make it to four stars, but it's a good three stars.

Saturday, 23 February 2013

Mystery Review: 'Gently In The Sun' by Alan Hunter

This is the sixth in a very long series of murder mysteries featuring the middle aged Inspector George Gently, all written in the fifties and sixties. This one is back by the seaside, in a small and not very interesting village baking in a heatwave (cue lots of comments along the lines of 'what a scorcher' and frying eggs on the pavement). A beautiful young woman visitor is found murdered on the beach beside the fishing boats. The locals can make nothing of it, and Gently is summoned from Scotland Yard to solve the case.

Books of this type depend on one of three factors to give them legs. Either the mystery itself is ingenious, or the setting is evocative, or the detective is interesting enough to carry the story. The mystery here is neither clever nor (frankly) very interesting. The best murder mysteries give the reader enough information to work out the solution for themselves, but here there are three obvious suspects with motives yet the identity of the perpetrator and the actual motive are such that they can't really be deduced. There were one or two aspects that might be guessed at, but that's it.

Nor is the setting interesting. The author has already dealt with a seaside holiday setting in an earlier book ('Gently By The Shore') and this adds nothing new. The author describes the heatwave and the inevitable thunderstorm which follows in unconvincing purple prose. And the detective has become almost invisible, doing very little here except stand around while clues and information materialise in front of him. He does very little actual investigation, interviewing the obvious suspects while relying on 'intuition' to divine the truth of the matter. But at least he has stopped chewing peppermint creams, his only quirk now being to play with a pipe from time to time.

This series has never been very compelling. The plots are weak, the characterisation unconvincing and the writing might best be described as workmanlike. For me the charm has always been in the period details of post-war British life - the food, the clothing, the social distinctions and attitudes and so on. Sadly there is very little here of interest - some snippets of clothing, a reference to florins and a small coastal village which still has an active fishing trade. The only meal mentioned is salad and trifle, although a great deal of ice cream is consumed. Without the historical veneer, the story is exposed as a flimsy and insubstantial affair, with Gently inexplicably fascinated by one character while ignoring other possible leads, doing very little detective work until the solution is simply presented to him. I assume this is meant to be his unique characteristic as a detective, to simply stand and watch while the mystery unfolds itself before his eyes, but it really isn't a convincing technique. Two stars.

Friday, 22 February 2013

Fantasy Review: 'Lokant' by Charlotte E English

Warning: contains major spoilers for book 1 of the series, 'Draykon'.

I really enjoyed the first book of the Draykon series. It had interesting characters, an unusual world and magic system, and that just-one-more-chapter style that makes even such a long book flow past very easily. This one, the second in the series, picks up not long after its predecessor ended, and is largely concerned with the fall-out from events in that book. Eva and Tren are trying to work out just what is going on, Llandry's father is trying to find her, and Llandry herself - well, more on Llandry in a moment.

I was a bit hazy on the details of the story so far, but there's enough information given to get even the most casual reader up to speed without infodumping. The setting is quite complicated - a series of seven realms, some of which are in permanent daylight, some in permanent night, and one is half and half, comprise a 'middle' world, and there are upper and lower worlds as well, which in some way occupy the same space as the middle world, but are very different. We don't see quite as much of the enchanting light-filled upper and threatening lower worlds in this book, which is a shame. Their constantly changing aspects and bizarre life forms fascinate me.

As always, it's the characters who make or break a book for me, and there's a particularly fine collection of them here. Llandry and her parents were a highlight of the first book, but the stars here are Eva and Tren, who provide both romantic interest and comic relief, as well as much of the action. Eva was difficult to like in the first book, being a little too composed, too competent, too contained for sympathy, and Tren seemed like a minor character, but both of them blossom here, and are a delightful pair. An honourable mention, too, for Rheas, Llandry's grandfather, who combines stubborn eccentricity with family affection in a delightfully unusual way. There are several new characters, too, amongst the Lokants of the title, about which I will say no more, to avoid spoilers. As before, the odd creatures from the upper and lower worlds prove to have their own quirky charms, although we see less of them in this book.

OK, here comes the big spoiler from book 1: at the end of it, Llandry was transformed into a draykon (a dragon, basically), and her delight in her new form, the contrast with her timid and all too human self, and her relationship with Pensould, the draykon revived at the end of book 1, are wonderful to read. Both of them have adjustments to make which are clearly not easy for them. She shows at one point that she's capable of very draykon anger, while he becomes noticeably more human as the book progresses. I am very much looking forward to finding out the conclusion of their story in book 3, to see where on the draykon/human spectrum they end up, and whether they end up together or not.

The story opens out a great deal in this book, and many things which mystified me in book 1 are explained, such as the full importance of the strange 'istore' material which Llandry found, and something of Llandry's own nature and the significance of it. We learned a lot about Eva, too. I found the Lokants and their abilities a little too convenient, but the explanation for it, and the way it relates to the known forms of magic (the split into sorcery and summoning abilities, for instance) is very clever, and elegantly done.

The pace seemed to be quite slow for much of the time - there was a great deal of Eva and Tren researching, for instance, and a certain amount of sitting around while one of the Lokants explains the backstory - but things hot up dramatically at the end and suddenly there's the threat of full-scale war looming. And then, rather abruptly, it ends. I suppose that's the sign of an enjoyable book, when you're so absorbed that the end comes as a surprise. I liked the way that, despite the action (and actually, there's plenty), the book is largely about people and their relationships. Llandry and Pensould, Llandry and her parents, her parents and her grandfather, Eva and Tren - all of these relationships are believable, and most of the characters are likeable, in their various ways, even the grumpy Rheas and the unevolved Pensould. I loved that Tren and Eva have only the slightest qualm about their age difference (she's thirteen years older than him); the difficulty is far more subtle and more unusual than that.

If I have a grumble, it's that the names are difficult to remember - people have first names, surnames and diminutives; there are multiple names for places, too. And none of the names are meaningful (to me, that is), which makes them hard to remember. But I'm at last beginning to get the hang of the seven realms (the wonderful map helped here), the daylands and darklands, and the upper and lower worlds, which I found confusing initially. As the second book in the series, it naturally loses a little freshness and originality, but it gains in the greater depth in the characters and in revealing more of the overall story. I enjoyed this perhaps more than the first, and I'm very much looking forward to reading the conclusion. A good four stars.

Sunday, 17 February 2013

Fantasy Review: 'Mark of the Dragon Queen' by Katie W Stewart

I rather enjoyed 'Treespeaker' by the same author, so I was more than willing to try this. It turns out to be very different. The setting is a fairly generic one - a small town ruled by a lord, with doctors and horse-drawn buggies and a stratified society, but also with wizardry and dragons. Magic is tightly controlled in this particular realm. The main character, Kira, is living a quiet life with her widowed father, a teacher, when he uses magic to save a child's life, breaking an oath and condemning himself to death. The story follows Kira's attempts to rescue him from his fate.

There is an interesting story in here, and the background was very intriguing. The use of magic, how and when it can be used, the crystals which somehow enable its use to be monitored, the way it operates elsewhere, the agreement with the dragons - all of this was rather nice, and I would have liked to know more. But for me things fell apart with the characters, particularly Kira.

Now, there's no immutable law that says that every female main character in fantasy has to be feisty, resourceful, independent-minded and spirited. It's perfectly possible for a heroine (or hero, for that matter) to be timid, nervous, awkward, reclusive or shy, and still bravely do whatever the plot calls upon them to do. But what really doesn't work is stupidity, and Kira, it has to be said, is stupid. I thought at first she was just very young - everyone calls her 'child', and she acts like one, too. People treat her as if she's some delicate flower who has to be protected from the wind at all costs. Initially I guessed she was about six or so, but no - turns out she is actually fifteen. Even having lived a very sheltered life, she should be more sensible than she appears here.

First she is startled and falls over while escaping with her father, getting herself injured and causing him nobly to sacrifice himself so that she can be treated. Then she droops around doing nothing very much for several months, being looked after by helpful friends. Then when she thinks a former student of her father's, Arun, is going to rescue him, she decides to tag along. Why? What can she possibly hope to achieve? She has no skills, no magic, no artefacts which could conceivably make any difference, and she's so helpless, she's only likely to get in the way. As she does, in fact. When he (very sensibly) tells her to go home, she follows him anyway and manages to fall in the river. And so on. She isn't the only one making irrational decisions in this book (Arun is not without blame here, and Kira's father isn't always sensible either) but Kira is the worst. Being determined is an admirable quality, but not without a modicum of common sense.

The other characters are either good, kind people, or thoroughly bad people, with no in between, and sometimes without an obvious reason for being bad. The woman who is nasty to Kira, for instance, because her father has been sent to Verebor prison - why? In a small town, where Kira has grown up, there would surely be a great deal of sympathy for her situation, and people would rally round to help. It's designed to make the reader sympathise with her, perhaps, but it just seemed unrealistic to me.

This may seem very critical, but it's purely a personal reaction. There's a good story in here, and plenty of action. For those who don't mind a heroine who starts off rather limply and (I assume) becomes more self-sufficient later, this would work very well, and there are some interesting details to the magic system and background to be uncovered. I enjoyed the author's 'Treespeaker', a more unusual story than this, so it's not the author's writing style that's the problem here, but purely the extreme wetness of the main character which grates on me. I got about a third of the way through before giving up. One star for a DNF.

Friday, 15 February 2013

Fantasy Review: 'And All The Stars' by Andrea K Höst

I don't read many young adult books, but I do read everything by Andrea K Höst, so this was a must for me. It's the author's first venture into post-apocalypse fantasy, and it begins, literally, after the apocalypse - the very instant after, as main character Madeleine finds herself amidst rubble from a disintegrated underground station. Rubble and dust, in fact, vast amounts of dust which coat everything, including Madeleine herself. And as she makes her escape through the ruined station, she encounters the base of the Spire, a black spike, which has instantaneously risen into the Sydney skyline, along with numerous others all around the world.

The early chapters of the book show a world divided in two - those who, like our heroine, have been exposed to the strange dust and begin to develop patches of colour on their bodies and unusual powers, and those who have not yet been contaminated. People know by instinct that the dust is something to avoid. One of the iconic moments of the book for me is the vivid image of Madeleine emerging from the train tunnel and climbing onto the platform of the next station down to escape, coated from head to foot in the mysterious dust, while passengers on a stopped train, staying safely enclosed beyond reach of the dust, peer through the windows at her in horrified pity.

As with all books of this type, survival is the first priority, and this part of the book is fairly conventional. Madeleine meets other survivors of the contamination, they begin to organise themselves, and use their ingenuity to avoid being hunted down. Naturally, there are constant threats and near-misses, but the gang is smart, and finds some pretty imaginative ways to hide and to provision themselves. Some of this is predictable and some is very ingenious, but although the plot burbles along quite nicely, it all felt slightly ho-hum. I think this is probably because it's YA, and quite an extreme YA book at that. All the main characters were teenagers, without a single older person (bar one in his twenties, later on), and the hide and survive plot made it seem almost like an Enid Blyton adventure - the Famous Five, only with romantic angst and a bit of sex thrown in. Although the characters were all interesting enough in their way, the uniformity of age made it a little flat for me.

But then, just past the two thirds point, there's a moment which changes everything, one of those magical OMG moments when your perception simply shifts sideways to open up the story in innumerable different ways. I love it when an author manages to do that to me. The ending is less magical and more prosaic, but still an enjoyable page-turner, and the epilogue - well, I'm never keen on epilogues, but that's just me. I can see the need for it here, however.

I was worried at one point that this was going to be a disappointment to me, but in the end the strong opening and that wonderful twist saved the day, and left me mulling over all the implications. I never fully engaged with the characters or the romantic entanglements early on, but eventually there was a great deal of depth to the story, and some of the issues raised buzzed round in my head for days. I liked, too, that the characters weren't the standard issue beautiful people who leaped into perfectly honed action when called upon. These were relatively ordinary people with odd combinations of talent and weakness. Problems were solved by intelligence, common sense and teamwork, rather than brute force. Nor was everyone uniformly heterosexual. An interesting and thought-provoking, if slightly uneven, effort. Four stars.

Wednesday, 6 February 2013

Fantasy Review: 'The Cloud Roads' by Martha Wells

Many works of fantasy tell epic tales without a single non-human character in them. Most have largely human casts with a sprinkling of non-humans thrown in for effect - a few elves or dwarves or demons. But here we have a world, it seems, with no humans in it at all. The main character, Moon, is a Raksura, a shapeshifter - a humanoid in one form, and a somewhat reptilian winged creature in the other. His family was killed long ago, leaving him to survive amongst the ‘groundlings’, a variety of humanoid species (or races, perhaps), by hiding what he is, and in fact not even knowing exactly what he is, until he finally meets up with other Raksura. How he adapts to his new way of life forms the body of the story.

It's not easy to create a whole new species which feels believably 'other', and yet at the same time has enough recognisable human characteristics to be likeable, but the author does a brilliant job of it here. The Raksura are a social species, like ants or wasps, building colonies around a fertile queen, and with various different castes to fulfil the various roles. Queens, their consorts (fertile males) and warriors have wings, while the Arbora (drones or workers) are smaller and wingless. Yet in many ways a Raksura colony is very like hua man village. They bake bread and cook their vegetables, wear clothes and jewelry, fall in love and have sex at will, read and write, and so on. They also have mentors - historians and archivists who also have shamanistic powers.

The other species are just as well thought out, with an array of sentient beings of various shapes and sizes and temperaments, the Fell being the bad guys in the neighbourhood, being set, it appears at first sight, on destroying pretty much every settlement they can get their hands (or claws) on. They too are winged reptilian beasties and the Raksura can take them on, en masse, but the Fell currently have the upper hand. Wells doesn't go into much unnecessary detail with the world she has created, simply describing this valley or that range of hills or lake as needed, but there are numerous ruins scattered about which tell of civilisations long gone. I don't know whether these become important later in the series, but in this book they are simply there, structures and decorations crumbling into the forgotten black hole of unrecorded history. There are current civilisations, too, sometimes created in the ruins of the old, or in one case literally on top of it, where a species of sentient winged beetles has built a hive above a disintegrating city. I also loved the idea of floating islands, chunks of land which simply drift along on the air currents.

For all their non-humanness, the characters are incredibly real. Moon, in particular, is a wonderful mixture of shyness and suspicion and aggression, perfectly in line with his nature and upbringing, or lack of it. I was intrigued by the behaviours that came to him by instinct - his hostility when challenged, for instance, and the willingness to fight, which was common to all the Raksura, from the queens downwards. Despite the Raksura way of life, which necessitates a large number of characters, there were many whose individual personalities made them stand out - Chime, Stone, Flower, Pearl and Jade, for instance. The names sound odd, perhaps, but then it must be difficult to dream up names for all the children when they arrive in clutches of five at a time. It was hard to keep all the Raksura straight, though, especially the numerous warriors, hunters, teachers and so on, which made it more difficult to care when one was injured. And the Fell, despite the bestial nature of some of their castes, which seemed to do little beyond killing and eating pretty much anything, were given depth and reasons for some, at least, of their behaviour. It's always good to find villains whose objectives are purposeful and reasoned, rather than simply being evil for the sake of it.

This is not a book of epic scope, involving vast armies and the future of empires, but those who enjoy action will find plenty to satisfy here. The problems at Indigo Cloud Court, their pursuit by the Fell and their attempts to escape and form a new, safer colony provide numerous conflicts, both aerial and grounded. It's hard to describe aerial combat well and I occasionally got lost in the details, but it didn't matter. I liked that both the Raksura and the Fell turned to ingenious and creative methods to attack and defeat their enemies, rather than simple brute force or magic. There is magic in this world, but it's innate and low-key rather than dramatic, and it felt completely right to me. The ending leaves open enough loose threads for future books in the series, while tidying up this one nicely and bringing Moon's relationship with Jade to a very satisfactory point with a perfectly judged moment (which I won't spoil by describing).

I loved this book, absolutely loved it to pieces. It has all the characteristics I look for in my fantasy - characters I really care about who behave credibly, world-building that's original and well thought out, subtle magic and a plot which derives from these factors. There are themes of real depth for those of us who look for more than action in fantasy - about how you come to terms with who you are, for instance, and about fitting in, even when you're different. I found Moon's transition from outsider to someone who belongs, and his awkwardly prickly relationship with the Raksura, to be endlessly fascinating. The book was a real page turner right from the start, and as Moon and his fellow Raksura are hounded and attacked relentlessly and the pace picks up, I found it hard to put down. A great read. Five stars. And now I'm terrified to read the next book in the series; it can't possibly be as good, can it?

Sunday, 3 February 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.

Saturday, 2 February 2013


I shall be away travelling to New Zealand, taking in Australia and Thailand on the way, for the rest of February. All those long-haul flights should mean plenty of reading and reviews, but posting may be a little erratic, depending on technology and connectivity. However, my fellow bloggers Nathan and Anachronist will continue to post on a regular basis over at Fantasy Review Barn. Normal service will be resumed in March.