Monday, 29 April 2013

Steampunk Review: 'The Deadly Games' by Lindsay Buroker

This is the third of the ‘Emperor’s Edge’ series, featuring former enforcer (cop) Amaranthe and her motley band of outlaws cum undercover agents - Sicarius the assassin, Maldynado the ladies’ man, Books the scholar, Akstyr the learner mage and Basilard the former slave wrestler. The steampunk setting is, as always, a nicely drawn backdrop and convenient plot device, so that one of the events in the games of the title is the clank race, where contestants compete on a mechanical (and rather unpleasant) obstacle course. As usual, there’s a mysterious series of events for the team to investigate in the hope of ingratiating themselves with the young emperor, and restoring themselves to respectability. There are also some ongoing backstories, and the author is brilliant at reminding the reader of past details at just the right moment, and without it ever feeling contrived. If only all authors were so skilled.

This is a million miles from the gritty realism end of fantasy. The characters are just the right side of caricature, and the plot - well, it really doesn’t matter. It rolls along nicely, a jolly adventure that is always one wobbly step away from disaster but never quite teeters over the brink. It’s predictable in the sense that the eventual outcome is never in any real doubt, but there’s a huge tangle of twists and turns along the way, most emanating from the fertile (if not always sensible) imagination of Amaranthe. You’ve got to love a character who never fails to have a hairbrained idea, however dire the circumstances. There are moments when it’s tempting to pause and think - how on earth did they get into this situation? And how can they possibly get out of it? There are times, too, when it all got a little bit over the top. The amount of punishment the characters manage to take, the number of armed and/or magic-wielding opponents they tackle simultaneously, and the sheer number of problems they encounter, all of it becomes just a little too cartoonish sometimes. And then there’s another brilliant bit of humour, and I just don’t care. In the end, it’s the characters who matter, and the funny, tetchy and even (occasionally) affectionate moments between them that make these books so wonderful. Even Sicarius the ice-cold assassin gets some bonding with Basilard, and... and... no, it can’t be... is that a romantic interlude with Amaranthe? Well, sort of, maybe.

For anyone looking for a light read, with plenty of action and huge dollops of witty banter between the characters, this fits the bill beautifully. These books are just so entertaining, it’s all too easy to think - just another chapter, and then another, and perhaps just one more... The book equivalent of a box of chocolates. Lovely stuff. Four stars.

Tuesday, 23 April 2013

Fiction Review: 'Just Henry' by Michelle Magorian

This ought to be a nice little story, an award-winning YA coming-of-age tale of fourteen year old Henry, set in a not-quite-settled post-war England, learning that his assumptions about people are not always accurate. Yet none of it worked for me. So what went wrong? Firstly, the characters are so simplistic it’s hard to take them seriously. There’s a harassed mum, a bratty sister, a truly nasty and parasitic gran, a working class stepdad studying to better himself. There’s the angelic Mrs Beaumont, who waves her magic wand and makes good things happen. There’s the inspirational teacher, Mr Finch. Henry himself is ridiculously dorkish to start with, before being shown the error of his ways.

And secondly, none of this is subtle. All those Henry despises - the illegitimate schoolfriend, the deserter’s son, the stepdad who has stolen away his mother and inflicted the bratty daughter on the house - turn out to be perfectly nice, sensible people. Those he likes - his dead dad, his granny - turn out to be less than nice. Maybe it’s meant to be allegorical or some kind of fairy tale reworking, or maybe it’s aimed at quite a young demographic, but I found it dull and predictable. I gave up on it, so possibly there are some dramatic twists further down the road, but I had no interest in finding out. One star for a DNF.

Fiction Review: 'Pure' by Andrew Miller

I don't really get this kind of fiction, something which purports to tell a story but trowels on so many layers of meaning and metaphor and symbolism that the characters never have the chance to breathe. Take the title, for instance. Deeply ironic, given that the plot revolves around the destruction of a Parisian graveyard in 1785, so contaminated that it affects even the food that those living around it consume. There is the purity of the sexton's young daughter, contrasted with the local prostitute, who yet displays a certain purity in her nature. Then there's the elephant in the room (or in Versailles, in this case), the impurity of the royal regime which the reader knows will be swept away in a purifying, if horrifying, cleansing in a few years' time, an event which is unknown to the characters and unacknowledged by the author, beyond a few mentions of riots, graffiti and the elephant. And a certain M. Guillotine.

Beneath all these suffocating layers of meaning is a lightweight little story that never really bears much scrutiny. None of the characters really come to life, and I certainly didn't care about any of them. Motives are never clear. Things happen, but it's not obvious why. The main character, the engineer Baratte, ambles through the pages without ever coming alive. I never understood him. After being bopped on the head by the irate daughter of the house he lodges in, he starts to make changes in his life without any apparent thought for the consequences. His relationship with Heloise, for instance, is bizarre for the sort of career-minded, serious person he’s been until that point. I get that he had been faced with his own mortality and decided to do what he wanted with his life, but still - it’s an odd choice. I’d have loved to take him on one side and ask him - just where do you see this going, Jean-Baptiste? Then there was Jeanne, who suffered appallingly but, you know, it’s fine because she’ll get over it. So that’s all right then. Not sure whether this was meant to be some kind of social commentary on the prevailing attitudes in the eighteenth century, but it typified the book - a dramatic event passed over with little depth, perhaps with little interest from the author, who moves past Jeanne to focus once again on Baratte. Who isn’t even interesting.

On the plus side, the book is beautifully and evocatively written, recreating certain aspects of Parisian life to perfection. A little more attention to the characters and a little less to smothering the entire plot in metaphor, and this would have been a wonderful read. As it is, it’s utterly meh. Three grudging stars.

Monday, 22 April 2013

Sci-Fi Review: 'Caszandra' by Andrea K Höst

This is the third part of the Touchstone trilogy, and anyone who, like me, loved the first two, won’t have any problem enjoying this too. I’ve classified these as sci-fi (other planets, high-tech everywhere) but I’m getting less sure, since the technology is delightfully arm-wavy. All communication is via the ‘interface’, a brain-embedded universal internet which is incredibly useful at crucial moments. It can send/receive messages, provide all sorts of background information (aka instant info-dump) at the drop of a hat, and helpfully records everything so that the detail can be picked up later. There are ‘drones’ (robot things) which are deployed in a variety of plot-facilitating ways. Then there’s the literal world-building - when a new building is required, a bucket of special goop is ‘programmed’ with an architectural plan and away it goes. It beats scaffolding and uncouth building workers, anyway. Even the ‘ships’ used for inter-planetary travel are largely undescribed and unexplained. Then there are ‘psychics’ with all sorts of powers - elemental, levitation and teleportation, as well as actual psychic (mind-reading, sort of) abilities - all of which seems suspiciously fantasy. No quest, no secret heir to the kingdom, and definitely no magic swords, but there is a heroine with mysterious unexplained powers. There are monsters and at least one traditional fantasy beast, too.

Whatever you call it, the setup is much the same. Cass is still the stranger from Earth with the weird unexplained abilities which are so useful in unlocking the abandoned planet Muina, if they don’t get her killed her first. The inter-planetary politics and resettlement are taking centre stage now, but the psychic military, the Setari, are still back and forth on missions to fight monsters. And we finally have a Big Bad - the particularly creepy humanoid monsters who are both intelligent and organised. And hell-bent on destruction and mayhem, not to mention capturing Cass. So the race is on to find out what is going on, and a way to fight back.

The tension ramps up nicely to the grand confrontation, and much of the book has rather a heavy background tone. Cass and friends are doing various fluffy things (going shopping, eating out, socialising) while waiting for the Big Bad (the Cruzatch) to turn up again and kidnap Cass for various evil purposes, destroy the known world, kill all the nice friends and generally carry out their villainous plans. The good guys, meanwhile, are more or less floundering round trying to guess what awful thing might be coming up next, with no greater ambition than just - well, surviving. Their only plan seems to be - let’s blow stuff up and see if that helps. Or throw Cass at something to see what happens (which has been going on throughout, really).

This part of the book stretches the diary format to its absolute limits. It worked well earlier on, I think, to get the reader right under Cass’s skin, and was a very effective way of getting across her sense of isolation and differentness. It really doesn’t work so well for big battle scenes, because the reader knows immediately that Cass survived, or she wouldn’t be writing her diary afterwards. So the big confrontation is effectively told in abbreviated summary form (‘and then I... and then we...’), which loses a lot of the tension. There is also the problem that the romance has been settled, and while it's a lot of fun going through the are-they-no-surely-not phase with friends, it was actually more fun when they were kept apart and Cass secretly had the hots for him. Or at least, it was more tense. A large part of the atmosphere in the first two books revolved around the very strict military protocols wrapped around everything Cass did and the stiffly correct attitude of the Setari, which kept her so heart-rendingly alone. Now that she's sleeping with one of the Setari and is (largely) friends with the rest, things get a little warm and fuzzy and group-hug-y.

One aspect is unchanged, however; everything still hinges on Cass and her strange set of abilities as 'touchstone', the key to revealing the past, what went wrong to cause the planet Muina to be abandoned, and (indirectly) the present and future too. It's surprising how often these talents drive the plot by revealing key information or making some unfeasibly difficult task possible, but while this is very convenient, it never feels like deus ex machina, since Cass has had these abilities from the start and has simply learned to use them (or to use them better, perhaps). Plus they frequently go wrong or out of control or twist off in unexpected ways. The author is very good at following the appropriate logic for these developments, so that when Cass has one of her frequent brushes with death, she is 'grounded' for a while afterwards, even when it might have been more dramatic to have her present at some incident or other, instead of hearing about it second hand. Nice, too, to see Cass herself using her talents directly to fight her own battles (sometimes literally), instead of being a passive tool to be manipulated. The moment when, in the midst of mayhem, she decides to visualise into reality a battle-winning device of awesome proportions is simply epic.

This is the final part of the trilogy, and I hugely enjoyed the first two parts, so it’s not exactly a big surprise that I loved this one too. Of course, it’s not perfect (what is?). The problem with keeping track of the vast array of characters is even greater this time round, and apart from the Big Bad they all seem to be rather nice, pleasant people. Even the few set up as hostile turn out to be gruff and suspicious rather than outright nasty, in the end. And who'd have thought so many of them would be breath-takingly beautiful, intelligent people? From being entirely alone on a strange planet, Cass ends up friends with pretty much everyone, which is slightly implausible. The complexities of a society of umpteen million people are fairly comprehensively airbrushed away into one homogenous mass (although I guess the ubiquitous interface would eliminate a lot of differences). The rather different society on Nuri was interesting, and I would have liked to know more about it. I also found it strange that so much of life on Tare and Muina was similar to Earth; there was really no effort to make these worlds truly alien, apart from a few minor details tossed in here and there. And anyone looking for explanations for every little mystery will be disappointed, since much remained unanswered or vague.

In the end, though, none of that mattered. I loved Cass's shift over the course of the trilogy from schoolgirl thinking only about romance and exams, to the saviour of worlds and the focus of inter-planetary law-making. And she makes the transition without fuss - the occasional totally justified hissy-fit excepted - and without losing her essential nature or her sense of humour. Much of what she goes through is pretty horrible but she bears it with quiet fortitude and oodles of common sense. One of my favourite fictional characters. Five stars.

Thursday, 18 April 2013

My Other Blog: Weekly Update

Here are the reviews added to Fantasy Review Barn, my shared blog, by my very prolific fellow bloggers Nathan and Anachronist for the past week or so 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 exclusively here. All my fantasy and sci-fi reviews will also be posted on Fantasy Review Barn.

Wednesday, 17 April 2013

Sci-Fi Review: 'Lab Rat One' by Andrea K Höst

I loved ‘Stray’, the first part of the Touchstone trilogy, so I moved straight onto part two. And wouldn’t you just know it, the one time I don’t need a ‘Previously on...’ type recap because it’s all fresh in my mind, there one is at the front of the book. And again there’s a glossary and list of characters at the back. If only all authors were so considerate. The previous book had no cliffhanger ending, but there wasn’t much resolution, either - just an acceptance by main character Cass that, having stepped accidentally through some kind of wormhole-type ‘gate’ from Earth and finding herself on a different planet altogether, there’s not going to be a happy ever after any time soon, and doing her bit to help out the locals with their problems in the meantime is not such a bad thing. So at first, the story continues in much the same way, with Cass being carted about on missions, tested and trained, and treated very much like the lab rat she designated herself early on. So for anyone who disliked that aspect of the first book, this is more of the same.

Fortunately, we haven’t yet seen the full extent of Cass’s unique set of abilities, so even a routine test can suddenly turn into a frantic scramble for survival or an ooh-aah moment. The opening up of the abandoned planet of Muina through Cass’s talents is fascinating. We also see more in this book of the other societies descended from the abandoned planet of Muina (where Cass first arrived), so there is a certain amount of inter-planetary posturing going on, which is quite fun. And Cass becomes a media star! But much of the action centres around the Setari (psychic ninja space soldiers, basically), who are defending Tare, their home planet, from the creepy and highly variable Ionoth which leak through from - well, wherever they come from (I’m hazy about the ‘spaces’ and ‘pillars’ and whatever it was that happened). In book one, the Setari mostly treated Cass as a piece of military equipment, useful but not particularly interesting, and she had to fight to get them to see her as anything other than an object. This time round, they are much more aware of her as a person, and she is beginning to build relationships with some of them, and assert herself as a person.

Partly this is because she can speak the language better, so she is able to express herself with more subtlety, and display her wonderful sense of humour. I very much like the way the author has handled the language differences, so that Cass gradually becomes more fluent over the course of the books, although lapsing sometimes when under stress. I have no idea whether the early efforts are an accurate simulation of how a native English speaker would adapt to a new language, but it seemed pretty convincing to me. I found it totally believable that the Tarens would not appreciate how intelligent she is, when her only communications are halting baby sentences with bad grammar.

I like Cass very much. She’s exactly the sort of person I would love to have for a friend - smart, self-deprecating, sensible and very, very funny (in a totally non-vicious way). Her observations of Taren life and the people around her are wonderful. And I have to confess to having the hots for Ruuel (the love interest), which is so not me. My taste in men was formed by Woody Allen (cute and funny) or Robert Redford (roguish in a dishevelled but handsome way), and perfectly honed, impossibly fit and laconic-bordering-on-terse types don’t do much for me. But Ruuel? Mmmm, yes. There’s a certain amount of angsting going on Cass’s head about him, but it’s very funny. She rates men on the Orlando Bloom-meter, and when one of the Setari registers a 7, she points out that Orlando Bloom himself registers a 7 on the Ruuel-meter. Did I mention how much I love Cass’s sense of humour? And for anyone concerned about the romance level, it's certainly higher than in the first book, but there’s still a lot more plot than angst.

This book is pure undiluted pleasure. I was slightly drunk on the enjoyment of it, and hey - no calories, no falling over and no hangover afterwards. Just a great big smile. Why isn’t every book like this? Twelve stars. At least. And now straight on to the third book...

Monday, 15 April 2013

Sci-Fi YA Review: 'Stray' by Andrea K Höst

I loved this book, loved, loved, loved it. It’s the first book in ages to keep me up until the wee small hours because I absolutely positively had to know what was coming next. Here’s the premise: almost-eighteen year old Cass is walking home from her suburban school one day after her last exam before graduation when - pop! - she finds herself in the middle of a not-Earth forest, with no way back. For a while, she is on her own, walking through this world with its odd mixture of Earth-like creatures (deer and otters) and other more alien types, surviving as best she can. She’s a pretty resourceful type, but even so it’s a marginal business. But luckily some super-ninja soldier types from a technologically advanced society turn up and rescue her, and after that things get seriously weird.

Cass is an unusual sort of heroine. She’s clearly intelligent, but she’s not the kick-ass type of female so beloved of the current sci-fi and fantasy scene. She seems quite passive, going along with everything that’s asked of her, even though she’s basically being used as a military tool, but then her new ‘friends’ don’t abuse or hurt her (at least, not intentionally!) and, frankly, I’m not at all sure what other options are open to her. Being useful and helpful (at least until you know your way round and have got a better grasp of the language) is just plain common sense. I loved the way that Cass gradually brought her hosts to see her as a person, with needs and feelings of her own, and not just a passive piece of kit (‘Military equipment doesn't salute’ she comments drily at one point).

The book is written in the first person in the form of a diary, which works very well to tell us what’s going on in Cass’s head. It also brilliantly conveys the sense of disorientation she frequently feels, and the ‘otherness’ of an Australian girl parachuted into a culture which has many similarities with Earth but is also scarily alien. Fortunately Cass has a great sense of humour, and sees the funny side of many of the peculiar situations she finds herself in. This is one of the great perks of portal-type stories, that the transported character can toss around all sorts of slang and in-jokes and cultural references: (‘I tried very unsuccessfully to explain Clint Eastwood, and then moved on to Johnny Depp, and now all of First Squad except Maze have sworn to find a path to Earth so they can watch Pirates of the Caribbean’).

As a piece of science fiction, this is fairly light on the sciencey bits. There’s nanotechnology, and a universal interface system (brain-embedded internet, basically), but the Ena (‘A dimension connected to the thoughts, memories, dreams and imagination of living beings’, it says in the glossary) which surrounds Cass’s new home, the monsters (Ionoths) living there and the psychic abilities of the Setari (the ninja soldiers) seem closer to fantasy to me. As with all the author’s work, there are plenty of deeper themes for those who like to look beneath the surface: about being an outsider, being treated with respect, duty versus freedom, the greater good versus the individual. Not to mention the pleasures and perils of a permanently wired-in internet.

This is another terrific piece of writing by one of my favourite authors. I was a little concerned about it being a YA book, but no need - there’s no love triangle, and the very small amount of angsting over boys is actually very funny. The only (minor) grumble I had was the sheer number of characters involved, a situation not helped by Cass’s early problems with the language, so that she spells names wrongly in the early parts of the book. But there’s a full list of characters at the back, plus a very useful glossary, which rather wonderfully explains all Cass’s Australia-speak and geekisms alongside the in-book terminology. This is very much the first book of the trilogy, so although there’s a mini-resolution, this doesn’t have the feel of a stand-alone book. Be prepared to invest in the whole trilogy (available as an omnibus), not to mention the fourth part, entitled ‘Gratuitous Epilogue’. Five stars.

Friday, 12 April 2013

Fantasy Review: 'The Tattered Banner' by Duncan M Hamilton

Soren is eighteen, trying to survive on the streets, when a theft gone wrong results in a street fight and a passing swordsman recognises some talent in him. He is taken to the Academy to learn to wield a rapier and be a gentleman. The early chapters are the usual street-boy-goes-to-posh-school affair, but fortunately Soren has the intelligence to keep his nose clean, so he’s not constantly getting into trouble. He also turns out to be something of a fighting phenomenon, not an unusual theme in fantasy, but nicely intriguing here. Is his ability a natural talent, or some kind of magic?

Fortunately, the author avoids getting too entrenched in schoolroom dramas and Soren is soon out and about wielding his rapier and discovering the extent of his extraordinary gift. These early battles are beautifully described, the highpoint of the book for me, and I loved every moment of each one (especially the belek). The romantic entanglement is slightly more clunky, but that fits with Soren’s rather self-effacing nature. The background scenery is lightly sketched, with more emphasis on architecture than geography, but it works fine, and the deep history - of empires and mage wars and other intriguing events - is no more than hints. I found it interesting that Ostia (Soren’s country) has outlawed magic, but still makes use of mage lights, while the barbarians still practice magic.

Soren is a likeable protagonist, making (mostly) sensible decisions. I liked his response to a trick played on him by a fellow student. His friends tell him his honour has been impugned and he must challenge the trickster to a duel, but Soren is reluctant; he is far more concerned with trying not to break the rules of the Academy and thereby get himself thrown out. Unlike his rich, titled friends, he is more focused on making a career for himself than on abstract concepts like honour, and he never forgets his origins. He seems to adapt surprisingly well to a life of protocol and diplomacy, but he’s clearly a smart cookie, so I can go along with that (and frankly, a socially inept character would be pretty tedious - I wanted Soren to succeed, not trip over his own feet). It has to be said, though, that he’s very gullible - although to be fair, it fits with his personality and previous life, since he’s too grateful for his reprieve from the streets to question things, and he has no understanding of political nuances.

The writing style is enjoyably literate, if rather wordy, but it works very well for a story like this, built around formality and protocol. The author has a habit of dumping information occasionally, but it’s small scale stuff and not obtrusive. There is some untidiness, repetition and excessive exposition, and the author might care to look up the difference between ‘discrete’ and ‘discreet’. The latter part of the book becomes a little episodic and the fights rather perfunctory, but Soren’s investigations into his abilities were still intriguing. The big reveal at the end is hardly a surprise, and the ending somewhat glib, but these are minor issues.

I really enjoyed this book and found it seductively easy to keep turning the pages - that just-one-more-chapter syndrome. It’s the first time I’ve read a story focused on the rapier as the weapon of choice, and I found it a refreshing change from the more usual broadswords and bows. I would have liked to know more about Soren’s abilities and the mage wars, but perhaps that will come in a later book. This is a somewhat flawed effort in many ways - the choppy ending, the not-quite-convincing romance and the sometimes too wordy style - but I found it a great read. A good four stars. And the belek was awesome.

Thursday, 11 April 2013

Fantasy Review: 'Thief of Hope' by Cindy Young-Turner

Sydney is a nineteen year old orphan of unknown parentage, but she was brought up by Edgar who had the misfortune to be hanged four years before for working against the all-powerful Guild. She makes a living by picking pockets in the town of Last Hope. As always in these cases, I wonder why Edgar, who seemed like a nice enough chap, made no better provision for her, and how it is that there are no respectable jobs she could be doing, and how come she appears to have no other friends apart from a prostitute and a boyfriend who’d like to pimp her out. Luckily, just as she’s about to be hanged herself, she’s mysteriously taken off to the Wizard Tree and rescued by - surprise! - a wizard. And from there on, the story becomes a race to vanquish the evil Guild and their even more evil overlord Schrammig in order to put the king’s bastard son on the throne.

This is the fantasy equivalent of easy-listening music - charming, comfortable and conventional. Wizards are nice people (apart from the evil wizard, of course) who can do pretty much anything the plot requires without apparent effort, while not being able to do anything which would make life too easy. The bad guy is an appropriately nasty character (we know this because he has a scar; oh yes, and he drags people off to be hanged, as well). There's the Guild which has monopolised all business and is, it seems, very unpleasant. There’s a nice friendly ex-knight and a grumpy monk and a surprisingly ladylike wizardess, who is determined to go off to war, but cries as soon as anyone gets hurt. There's a hereditary monarchy with male primogeniture. There's an organised religion which has a single capitalised god, churches, abbeys and monks who wear brown robes. There are towns which appear to be almost entirely populated by thieves and prostitutes, and are filled with markets and taverns. Vast amounts of stew are consumed. So far, so traditional.

Our heroine, Sydney, is an odd mixture of feistiness and timidity, who seems to go along with the vanquishing scheme because that way at least she gets fed regularly. Well, I can see how that might be an attraction if you’ve lived on the streets. Her only problem is that she's easily distracted. No sooner is she given a task to do by her new friends than she finds some other urgent errand to do first, and then another, and then... A bit of a loose cannon, really. Willem, the king's bastard son, is exactly the sort of strong, upright character you'd expect. He strides around making promises of treating everyone fairly when he’s king, and says 'I give you my word' or 'Trust me' and people believe him. There are a lot of things taken on trust here. The most interesting character to me was Vadnae, the rather prissy wizardess, constantly dismayed by mud and rain. I was also interested in the mysterious Tuatha (elves, basically), who were a small but important part of the story.

As the plot gets going, Sydney and pals are chased hither and thither, escaping by the skin of their teeth from the bad guys always half a step behind (I wasn’t quite sure how they managed to do that, but never mind). Each time they escape, they stop and talk things through. Whenever they meet potential allies, they stop and talk things through again, explaining just how nasty the bad guy is, and how awful life is under the Guild, without ever filling in the details of what, exactly, they do that's so bad (apart from randomly hanging people, that is). But it must be pretty bad, because people are starving as a result and living in vermin-infested hovels and so on.

I had some logic issues. Why exactly is Willem trying to kickstart his revolution by rousing the downtrodden hovel residents of Last Hope anyway? Wouldn't it be simpler and easier just to drum up an army from his supporters? This is, after all, the traditional way to get yourself onto a disputed throne. And if you manage to drum up a bigger army than your rival, yay, you win! Plus, aspiring kings don't go off alone with pick-pockets, they tend to have hefty bodyguards around them at all times, as a precaution against assassins. So I had trouble with the whole idea of Willem crawling through the tunnels below Last Hope in the first place. All it needed was one startled local to put a dagger through him and - game over. And why exactly was Anaria making stew in the middle of the night? And why the agonising over the risks of trekking through the Wastes, when Rolf had obviously just made that journey safely? Confusing.

The writing style is clean to the point of terseness. I would have preferred just a little more description here and there, to flesh out the scenery a little more. One thing that I found irritating: the author rarely uses 'he said', 'she said'. Instead, characters do something - tap a finger, toss their hair, quirk an eyebrow - and then speak. I understand the logic of not overusing 'said', but I find it less intrusive than all this restless action. These comments are not criticisms, rather personal preferences that occasionally intruded on my enjoyment of the story.

Eventually we meet the mysterious Tuatha and from then onwards the book becomes a bit of a page-turner. Whenever magic is involved - the strange marble, the very spooky shadow creatures, Sydney’s dreams - I found myself totally engrossed. I never quite understood why Sydney was so important to everyone, but I guess it doesn’t really matter. The magic was very convenient at times, so that whenever Sydney got into trouble (which she did quite often, usually after saying airily ‘Don’t worry, I can deal with X’), a helpful wizard or magic marble or some such would miraculously rescue her. Sometimes she got other people into trouble, too (usually after saying airily ‘Don’t worry, I’ll keep you safe’). But despite all that it was good, exciting stuff.

I find this a very difficult review to write. On the one hand, I understand what the author was trying to achieve, and the book is technically impeccable. It pushes all the right buttons. But somehow I never quite felt the sort of emotional engagement that I’m sure was intended. Willem strides about making promises but we never see him in truly king-like mode, apart from a brief swordfight. Sydney herself too often makes bad decisions and ends up needing to be rescued. The question of who to trust was a major theme, yet everyone trusts Willem unreservedly, and Sydney too, for that matter. The children seemed to be there purely to create artificial tension and tug at the heartstrings. There were some great moments, and the ending was note-perfect, but all too often characters spoke in platitudes: ‘We can’t allow this to happen, we owe it to X to do this, I promise you he’ll pay for his crimes.’ Or this:“Willem gives me confidence, Erik. We should believe in him. And ourselves. It’s the only way we’re going to win.” Honestly, if I were a Last Hope resident, I’d need more than that to persuade me to take up my pitchfork against armed and trained soldiers.

For all that certain aspects didn’t quite work for me, this is an entertaining and fast-paced read, which I enjoyed a great deal, especially the Tuatha and the strange shadow beings. Recommended for those who like very traditional and uncomplicated fantasy. Three stars.

Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Fiction Review: 'And The Land Lay Still' by James Robertson

This is a meandering tale that weaves together numerous strands of personal stories with the last fifty years of Scottish history, both political and social. The first character we meet, Mike, is a photographer and the son of a famous (and rather better) photographer, and his story I found interesting. He’s a fairly passive person, almost seeming to be an outsider in his own life sometimes, and surprisingly mature in his early years. When he discovers that he is gay, there is none of the angst or shock or even horror that might be expected in the early seventies. He simply accepts it, and expects everyone else to accept it too. The minor characters pop up at significant moments is his life, or to underscore the political events of the day, and therefore feel fairly contrived. Jean, in particular, seems almost unreal, a semi-mystical figure acting as a catalyst both for Mike’s personal life (such as introducing him to a boyfriend) and also in the political spectrum, the focus for debate. Everyone seemed to gather around Jean, and her legendary, almost mythical, stories.

The second character, Don, is a Mr Everyman, a survivor of the war living a quiet life with his wife, whose sole purpose seems to be to illuminate aspects of the life of Jack, an odd character who survived the Japanese prisoner of war camps physically intact but mentally scarred.

Then we get to Peter (also Jimmy) Bond, Jack's nephew, recruited into the intelligence service to (essentially) spy on the nationalists. Peter is more interesting, perhaps, because we see him at a point in his life where neglectful alcoholism is catching up with him, and he's only barely connected with reality. But there's a macabre humour to it - when he starts having hallucinations, he's relieved to realise that one of them must be a ghost, and therefore there's no need to politely offer a drink.

Then it’s on to Ellen, growing up in a mining village in the fifties. Every time we switch character, I lose heart. This book is long, it’s largely about politics which to be fair has some interest, but not at this length, and frankly it’s unfocused and rambling. Any one part of the book, telling the story of one character in depth, would have made a good book and illuminated a shadowy part of recent history, but trying to do too much makes it feel as though it ought to be a textbook, not a work of fiction. I struggled on, as the story threads became more and more intertwined, or perhaps tangled is a better word for it. All these many characters are somehow mixed up together, in a way that only grandiose fiction can get away with.

This is not a bad book. Rather, it’s over-ambitious, and it commits the cardinal sin of an author who’s done a great deal of meticulous research - he wants to get every last bit of it into the book, every major political event, every well-loved TV program or film, every disaster, every social change. It almost felt as if he had a checklist and was ticking off events. There are at least half a dozen terrific stories in here if the author could have brought his eyes down from the stars and focused instead on just a few of these characters at a time. That way, they would have become memorable, fully-rounded people instead of mere ciphers, stand-ins for this or that aspect of the changing face of Scotland. This is non-fiction with a thin veneer of rambling storytelling. And yes, I get the point about the story never ending, trust the story and all that. Still it would have been nice to feel there actually was a proper, novel-sized story in here, something with a beginning, a middle and an end, rather than a series of vignettes. On the plus side, it’s well written and there’s some interesting detail about the Scottish political scene which I enjoyed learning about. So three stars for effort.

Monday, 8 April 2013

My Other Blog: Weekly Roundup

Here are the reviews added to Fantasy Review Barn, my shared blog, by my very prolific fellow bloggers Nathan and Anachronist for the past week (and a bit!) 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 exclusively here. All my fantasy and sci-fi reviews will also be posted on Fantasy Review Barn.

Sunday, 7 April 2013

Fantasy Romance Review: 'The Ritual' by Erica Dakin

Two twin half-elf sisters, one a thief, one a sorceress, meet two twin half-elf brothers, one a thief, one a sorcerer... what are the odds? And there’s this instant attraction... Well, we can see where this is going, can’t we? Still, there are enough original twists here to give this a fresh spin. Elves are the rulers in this world, with humans as the underdogs, but the bottom of the heap are the half-elves, where those with magical ability are scooped up and trained and the rest are slaves or (at best) low ranking servants. They can’t set up in business or own property... which makes it tricky to live independent lives, except by thievery.

This was my first foray into fantasy romance, which in this case is romance with pointy ears. There is a plot, of sorts, involving stealing four items, one for each of the four elements - earth, air, fire and water - for someone or other, but really it doesn’t matter. It’s all just an excuse for smouldering glances over the campfire, sizzling accidental touches while hiding from dragons in caves, and a lot of heavy breathing. The first kiss is a quarter of the way into the book, and before the halfway point we’re into improbably athletic sex of the panting, thrusting, never-been-so-amazing variety. Elvish porn, if you like. And you know what? It’s a helluva lot of fun.

This isn’t a masterpiece of epoch-making literature, but then it has no pretensions to be anything other than entertainment. As fantasy, the world-building is sketchy, the plot isn’t terribly original and the magic is fairly conventional. There’s a lack of realistic detail in the background - the world has a few scattered towns and a lot of emptiness, and the characters simply amble through the scenery, always managing to find enough food and shelter. There appear to be no great threats out in the wilderness, apart from the beasties they themselves seek out as part of their quest. There always seems to be time for a quick roll in the hay. Or a slow one, for that matter. Followed by much, much more of the same. The setting isn’t the important factor, though. The characters have a lot of charm and the ‘romance’ is more plausibly done than some I’ve read, seeming quite natural for the circumstances. Even the obstacles keeping them apart seem reasonably believable. The author has a nicely unobtrusive writing style, and I didn’t spot any typos at all. I did wonder a bit about the morality of all that light-hearted stealing, but it didn’t seem like they had many other options so I’ll go along with it.

A minor grumble. I like a map with my fantasy, and there’s a very nice one here. So what’s the grumble? The map is at the BACK of the book, with no indication it’s there. Probably OK with a printed version, but in an ebook - please put the map at the front! Or a table of contents.

This is a fun book. It follows the conventions of romance, so yes, there’s that instant attraction thing, and there’s a lot of barely suppressed passion right from the start. The fantasy elements play second fiddle here and anyone looking for standard save-the-world fantasy should move right along, although the characters at least have credible motivations. The ending is just a tad too slick for my taste, but there are some good action moments along the way. The events at the monastery were exciting enough to keep me flipping through the pages, breathless to find out how it turns out. And how do our heroes celebrate afterwards? The usual way, that’s how. I have to confess that the constant humping gets a little bit repetitive after a while, and frankly if the male interest had been a vampire I wouldn’t have got through ten pages. But if you have a thing for hot elves (or half-elves, in this case) with a smattering of dragons thrown in, this is an entertaining read. I rarely give romancey type stuff more than three stars, but you know, I really enjoyed this, it’s better written than average and I have a soft spot for dragons (and sexy half-elves, apparently), so four stars it is.

Friday, 5 April 2013

Fantasy Review: 'Heart of the Witch' by Judy Goodwin

The basic premise here is not an unfamiliar one - a teenage boy learning to use magical powers has to leave home to avoid persecution. Fortunately, the author has neatly sidestepped the cliché-fest by setting the story outside the traditional medieval feudal system. Zerrick’s home is a colonial small town surrounded by jungle, far from the cooler home climate, and with a well-established system of slavery. The society is in many ways similar to early-post-settlement America, with a strong religion and an abhorrence of magic. Witches are often burned at the stake, and when the town’s herbalist, Alden, and Zerrick himself are both revealed as magic-users, they are condemned to die. Zerrick escapes into the jungle (well, it would be a very short story if he didn’t) and attempts to find a hidden tribe who will help him learn to use his powers. His encounters and experiences along the way form the body of the story.

Zerrick is a nicely realised character. He is that perfect blend of over-confidence and insecurity typical of his age - standing up to his charismatic and powerful father, and yet still yearning for acceptance. His desire to belong to a group and his final acceptance that his abilities will always make him different were very moving. He displays intelligence and initiative, and isn’t wildly reckless. Mira, the female lead, has a less plausible reason for taking off on a journey (she feels stifled by her over-protective family), but she too is resourceful and capable, when she’s allowed to be. Interestingly, she's been largely brought up by the household slaves (from an indigenous tribe), with the result that she speaks their language, knows all their customs and feels more affinity with them than with her own family and culture. Both Zerrick and Mira are well drawn characters. The delicate little romance that develops between them is rather sweet, although (as with almost all fictional romances) there are moments when I wanted to bang their heads together and yell at them to just talk to each other, dammit. And sometimes the circling round each other just felt too adolescent for words.

The magic system in this world is derived from living matter like plants, and those with magical ability can draw on that power and use it in various ways, but it’s difficult to control and can drive the user insane. This instability makes Zerrick’s desperate attempts to use magic very fraught, since it’s such an uncertain business. He never quite knows how it’s going to turn out (and neither does the reader, of course). All of this makes for a truly exciting journey for Zerrick and Mira. I honestly never knew what was going to happen next, and it was refreshing to read a fantasy story which was so unpredictable. It's hard to describe magic in understandable terms, but the author brilliantly conveys both the beauty of a world with magic almost everywhere, and the frightening power of it. And everything was completely consistent and followed naturally from the nature of magic (and the gods) and the characters themselves. The intricate intertwining of magic and the gods was very cleverly worked out, and made perfect sense.

Some grumbles: I would have liked a map. I always like my fantasy to come with a detailed map, and although I more or less kept track of where everything was, it would have been easier with a visual aid. And the book needed a final edit. There weren’t many typos, but there was a lot of untidiness, particularly towards the end, when even the gaps marking a new point of view disappeared, which was very confusing, especially as the story began to bounce between Zerrick and Mira more and more frequently. The ending was very slightly glib, the only part of the book that was at all predictable. But these are minor points.

This is a fabulous coming of age story, well-written in a nicely unobtrusive style, with realistic characters, a pacy and exciting plot, and a world filled with magical wonders. I don’t know whether it’s intended as a YA book, but there’s nothing here that would disturb a teenager. There are some deeper themes for those who want to look for them - on slavery, organised religion, intolerance of outsiders, faith and trust, illusion and reality, and more - but it’s an enjoyably entertaining page-turner too. Only the messy editing and that rather clunky romance keep it from the top rating. A good four stars.

Tuesday, 2 April 2013

Fantasy Review: 'Darkness Rising Book 3: Secrets' by Ross M Kitson

I read ‘Dreams of Darkness Rising’ more than a year ago, and much admired the strong characterisation, detailed world-building and truly epic plot. Since then the book has been picked up by a publisher, the title has been shortened to ‘Darkness Rising’ and the projected trilogy has been chopped up into six smaller volumes. The book I read has now been republished as Book 1: Chained and Book2: Quest. This new book is Book 3: Secrets. The disadvantage of this is that with a book of this type, with many characters following several different plotlines over a complex world, the challenge of reminding the reader of the key points of the previous books becomes an increasingly onerous task for books 3, 4, 5 and 6. The author manages it rather elegantly in this book, but even so there are a lot of threads to pick up and many references in the early chapters whizzed straight over my head.

The world-building is industrial-strength here. There are entire continents filled with races and cultures and belief systems and architectural quirks and geography, and all of them distinct and memorable. It all feels completely real, and the throwaway references to wars and battles and so forth add depth. I like the way, too, that the author tosses out cultural references: "Cliffstead. Tough place - you'll like it. More fights than a Thetorian wedding." I love this sort of colour in a book. As before, there’s a medley of interesting races - goblins, ogres, giants, lizardmen, griffin, mini-dragon flying reptile thingies used as beasts of burden... and (yay!) one dragon.

The greatest strength here is in the characters. Most fantasy works struggle to muster two or three fully rounded characters, but here there are enough to satisfy even the most demanding reader. Who could not feel for Emelia, with her alter-ego Emebaka, inextricably bound to the evil Vildor? Or enjoy the extrovert Hunor and the deep Jem? Even Orla, the Eerian knight, who was a bit of an idiot at times in the last book, gets some serious backstory here which makes her much more human. And Marthir the shape-shifting druid is fascinating. There are several points where various characters have key points filled in with flashbacks, and although this is a slightly clunky device, the storytelling is good enough to carry it off.

The plot is, perhaps, somewhat less successful. Various groups of characters are off on their own missions - alright, let’s call them quests. The crystals that enhance magic I could see the point of, but it wasn’t always clear to me quite what the other groups were up to. Aldred, in particular, kept getting distracted by side issues. And what is the point of Torm? He appears only briefly in this book, although presumably he will be more significant later. Then there are some political machinations. A princess from somewhere who’s marrying someone from - well, somewhere else. The lizardmen doing a deal with - um, someone or other. This is always the problem with full-blown epic fantasy - the epicness involves a lot of complication that’s hard to keep track of without taking notes. Or maybe that's just me. Fortunately there was plenty of action to keep things bubbling along, and enough time for some romantic interludes as well, albeit slightly contrived. And even - uh-oh, love triangle ahoy!

This would be fine - multiple quests work well in a series as complex as this - but this book felt as if it lacked some overall objective. Obviously there is the ultimate aim of getting all the crystals and defeating the Big Bad and saving the world, and so on, but I would have liked to see some clearly-defined and compelling story that gives structure to this book, rather than struggling to survive a series of hostile encounters and simply moving a few paces forward along the path to the final confrontation. A lot happens and there’s forward progress, but it feels like a small part of the big story rather than a story in its own right. Of course, this is the same middle book problem that all series suffer from. The numerous points of view and the frequent change of location makes things a bit choppy, but again that’s an effect of the epic platform. The writing style is elegant, and my only grumble is with the author’s habit of not using names much of the time. Almost every time I came across ‘the Thetorian’ or ‘the wild-mage’ or 'the tracker' or whatever, I had to stop and work out who was being referred to. It's a shame that the story has been split into so many parts. It seems to me that this sort of expansive tale, which meanders across continents, needs the space found in larger books to really shine. There's a reason why 800 page books are common in epic fantasy.

Despite these minor grumbles, when it comes to the crunch everything gels beautifully and the ending is totally satisfying in a no-holds-barred, mages-hurling-thunderbolts sort of way. I’m not generally a huge fan of this sort of full-on magic battle, where hordes of nameless minions are splattered about in a multitude of gory ways, while our heroes (and heroines, of course) survive the mayhem with barely a scratch, and everyone is improbably muscular and awesomely talented with an array of weaponry, but I have to admit it’s great fun, if a bit cartoonish. And Aldred’s little escapade, in particular, was hugely entertaining - a bit of humour goes a long way to lighten the tone. This book had smatterings of humour right the way through, arising naturally from the personalities of the characters, but there were also more serious moments, and the swamps of Ssinthor gave the whole story a whole extra layer of atmosphere.

This is a wonderfully inventive story, with great characters, brilliant world-building and non-stop action. Yes, it’s confusing sometimes, but that’s a reflection of the complexity within and my own inability to keep up, and not at all a criticism. There’s plenty of detail on the website, for those who want to get into the nuts and bolts of the author’s world, and there are good maps and a dramatis personae at the front of the book. I would have preferred a shorter list of just the significant characters, but that's just me. This is an enjoyable continuation to the series, and highly recommended for fans of ambitious multi-threaded fantasy.

So why have I only given it three stars? I found that I just wasn’t that invested in either the characters or their objectives. The attempt to rebuild a prism of power by tracking down its component crystals is, frankly, a fairly ho-hum sort of exercise. It gives an artificial structure to the books (this one was the yellow crystal), but chasing round after a magical gizmo isn’t the most original premise ever. And while I liked the characters, and they’re nicely drawn with their quirks and mannerisms, they rarely had the space to breathe between the constant outbreaks of mayhem. When there was a pause, it turned into a slightly clunky romantic interlude. There were only a few events that truly moved me - Marthir becoming a druid, Orla befriending the slave and the death of Hunor’s friend. These incidents brought real emotional depth to the characters, and I hope future books in the series will have a slightly less frenetic pace and more of these unforgettable moments.