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Friday, 31 May 2013

Fantasy Review: 'Orlind' by Charlotte E English

This is the third and final part of the Draykon trilogy. I very much enjoyed the first two parts, ‘Draykon’ and ‘Lokant’, and this continues in the same vein, a wonderfully eccentric mixture of unique world-building, believable characters and an action-packed story. In the first book, I was very nervous that Llandry, one of the main characters, a diminutive person with wings, might actually be a fairy. In fact, I can safely say she is nothing at all like a fairy, and not in the least twee. During the course of the three books, Llandry transforms herself from a shy child-like girl who suffers from panic attacks into a self-reliant and formidable person. And by person, I mean draykon (more or less a dragon), of course.

The setting for the story is one of the most inventive I’ve ever encountered. I’m not going to attempt to describe it, but it’s a truly magical array of places, populated with some bizarre creatures and plants. Some of the animal life is, not unexpectedly, tending to the fearsome and toothy kind of monster, but there are also some charming little beasties. I love the way the upper and lower realms change dramatically in moments, so that the landscape is constantly roiling and flowing unpredictably. This book explains a great deal of why this happens. I love, too, that some parts are in constant daylight and some in constant night light, kept that way magically. That’s a really ingenious and (possibly) unique approach to world-building.

The plot continues without a pause from where book 2 left off. The draykoni are attacking Llandry's home in Glinnery, and villain Krays is cooking up some vague but evil scheme. There is high drama and action right from the start as everyone scrambles to find some way to protect themselves. The humans are trying mechanical weaponry. Llandry and her fellow friendly draykoni are exploring their new powers in the hope of finding alternative defences. And Eva and Tren are - well, this was the point for me where the plot lurched into implausibility. Eva dreams up a scheme so downright dangerous and with so little likelihood of success that, honestly, I don't know what she was thinking. It's not unusual in fantasy for characters to be set some impossible task, in order to accomplish some worthy outcome, but it's never very convincing, frankly, and in this case, it's not imposed on them, they decide to attempt it themselves. So I just had to switch off the logical part of my brain and go with the flow. This isn't so difficult, fortunately, since the story rattles along at unstoppable and unputdownable pace.

The second clunky moment is the transition from chasing around after villain Krays to haring off to investigate the mysterious seventh realm, Orlind. Since this is the title of the book, it’s not unexpected that this turns out to be the key to everything, but the way the characters are led there by the nose feels a bit contrived. But it really doesn’t matter. This is the book where everything boils to its dramatic conclusion, and there’s not a dull moment in it. The true nature of the Lokants is revealed in all its duplicitous glory, and the final confrontation is a wondrous explosion of creative magic and whimsy (believe it or not). I’ve never read a book before which so successfully blends together powerful magic, dragons, steampunk, sentient furry insects and multi-coloured mushrooms. It all makes sense, too. And there’s humour, even at the tensest moments. A thoroughly enjoyable, fast-paced read, with some memorable characters, absolutely fizzing with brilliant ideas. Only the slightly not-quite-believable plot contrivances let it down. A good four stars.

Monday, 27 May 2013

Mystery Review: 'The Blackhouse' by Peter May

This is a book which purports to be a murder mystery set in the Isle of Lewis, in Scotland's Outer Hebrides, but don't be fooled. The murder is, for most of the book, almost entirely peripheral to the story, no more than an excuse for the protagonist, an island native returning to his homeland, for a long series of flashbacks to his childhood and an unearthing of past secrets. Well, 'secrets' is probably too strong a word for the revelations here, none of which are terribly surprising. Or interesting, come to that. It’s only at the end that the murder again becomes the focus of events and the author ties things together quite tightly.

Fortunately, there's still plenty to enjoy here. The prose is nicely evocative, although occasionally a metaphor gets a bit above itself and falls flat on its face. The characters are well-drawn, although those who stayed on the island seem to have weathered the years less successfully than the returning one, which smacks a little of wish-fulfilment. Still, the author has a neat way of sketching characters with just a few brief phrases. I liked the descriptions of the island itself, although there was way too much locational information for casual readers (we really don’t need every last street or building name).

There is one affectation in the writing which I found rather jarring. The present day events are written in the third person, while the flashbacks to the events of the protagonist's childhood are written in the first person. This felt very odd to me, since first person writing gives the story an immediacy and urgency which is out of kilter with the distance of years. I suppose the author was trying to create a stronger differentiation between now and then, or perhaps to suggest the self-absorption and selectivity of the childish viewpoint, but to my mind it would have made far more sense to put the childhood and adolescent sections in third person, as events viewed from a distance and with some adult perspective. Looking back on one's childhood is like viewing any past event. It's a part of history, and the people involved are only loosely connected to their present day selves. The revelations at the end do make this narrative choice more understandable, but it still grated on me.

The ending is always the deciding factor for me, and this one failed on a number of levels. It's outrageously melodramatic, for one thing, while still being sadly predictable and resorting to a variety of cheap tricks to increase the tension or to hide revelations until the designated moment. I'm not a big fan of the hero-must-spring-to-the-rescue school of storytelling, which seems to be obligatory these days in this kind of novel. And the big reveal of the murderer's identity and motivation - meh. Not terribly believable.

This is in many ways a reasonable read. I liked the setting, the local colour and the snippets of island life, although a bit more Gaelic and a little less criticism of the religion would have been an improvement. The author clearly has talent, and the story is well thought out, even if elements of it failed to appeal to me. In particular, the whole local-returns-to-home-territory trope is well worn, and this version of it, although nicely done, adds nothing new. As a police procedural, it is fairly ho-hum (although with a surprisingly graphic post-mortem), but it's still a nicely evocative tale of the Outer Hebrides, and recommended for that alone. Three stars.

Thursday, 23 May 2013

Fantasy Review: 'The Tyrant's Law' by Daniel Abraham

This is the third volume of the Dagger and Coin Quintet, the difficult middle book - the one that drags the weight of two books’ worth of previous history, that also has to begin arranging all the pieces for the endgame and still has to make sense by itself. It should be an impossible task, an experience as dense and heavy and glutinous as treacle. Yet it flows like cream, tastes like chocolate and slips down just as easily. Abraham’s prose is a joy to read, elegant and spare, every word in its proper place.

As before, the cast of point of view characters is limited - Clara is finding her feet amongst the nobodies of Camnipol after her noble husband was executed for treason; Cithrin is in another new city learning more about banking; Geder the unstable Regent of Antea is making war again, aided by his spider-goddess priest; and Marcus the former soldier is hiking through the southern jungles with escaped spider-goddess man Kit looking for a magic sword. And as before, the story jumps about from one to another, but the individual plotlines are not independent, so one chapter will show the events of that character is close-up, while also revealing something of events elsewhere, glimpsed from afar in rumour and hearsay. This is done very cleverly, so the overall plot flows beautifully from chapter to chapter.

This is industrial-strength fantasy, so Geder's war is spilling across the whole northern continent, and is seemingly unstoppable. This is the third campaign to feature in the story. The first book centred on the fall of the city of Vanai. In the second, Antea conquered neighbouring Asterilhold. This time, Geder (or rather, his spider-priest adviser) has his sights set on Sarakal. There is inevitably some sense of repetition in all this, but Abraham gives the events a new perspective to keep things fresh. This time, Geder's capabilities are well understood, and there are no illusions about the consequences.

The series is called The Dagger and the Coin, and is presumably intended to contrast the two powerful forces of conquest, by armed force, or by economics. Geder's military ambitions continue to roll onwards, but for the first time there are signs that the financial clout of the bank can have an impact. There are hints about the difficulties of maintaining long supply lines, and getting the staple crops planted and harvested when so many men are tied up in the war. There are hints, too, that the bank can help indirectly with the refugee and resettlement problem, and more directly, in supporting covert acts of rebellion. However, it’s still not obvious how economics will bring a real direct challenge to bear against military might. Perhaps this isn’t Abraham’s intention, but if not, the whole banking plot becomes marginalised.

Abraham has a nice way of subverting the tropes of the genre. Most fantasy is (in the broadest sense) about swords and sorcery, so that all problems are eventually disposed of by one or other of these elements (or occasionally both). The evil villain is bent on global domination for vague reasons, and the hero (or occasionally a heroine) tools up with a magic sword or else learns to use the magic powers they’ve mysteriously been endowed with. Here, the evil villain is sort of bent on global domination, but it’s a role he more or less reversed into accidentally, and all with the very best of intentions. What could be so malign about spreading the spider-goddess’s message of truth across the world? Meanwhile, Marcus and Kit go on a traditional fantasy quest to track down the magic sword which will kill the goddess, but (without giving too much away) that doesn’t go quite as they expected. As for magic, there’s very little around at all. Proponents are called ‘cunning men’ and have minor roles as showmen and healers.

One nice aspect is that we have two interesting female characters taking strong leadership roles in the fight against Geder the war-making Regent. Clara is now released from the stifling conformity of court rules and taking advantage of her freedom to plot and scheme in Camnipol, as well as enjoying a degree of personal freedom. I very much like Clara, her subtlety, her cleverness and her determination. It makes a nice counterpoint to her husband’s more ham-fisted efforts in the previous books. Even though things don’t always go quite as anticipated (what ever does in an Abraham book?), she always makes well-considered decisions.

In contrast, Cithrin... Look, I’m going to have a bit of a rant about Cithrin, so feel free to skip ahead to the next paragraph if you want. Cithrin, you stupid, stupid woman. When will you ever learn? Your entire character arc has been defined by short-sightedness and downright bad decision-making. You find yourself stuck in the wrong city with the bank’s wealth? Why not forge a few papers to set yourself up as a pretend bank? After all, it would be too simple just to write to the bank’s head and await instructions, wouldn’t it? And if you find yourself trapped during an uprising with a powerful but totally unstable character who wants sex? Well, why not? This book is quite a good explanation of why not, actually. And then, given a one-time opportunity to get close to the Regent, to influence the events of history and do some good, could you actually, just once in your life, do something sensible? Course not. Gah. Stupid woman. I mean, what exactly does she think Geder is going to do now? Smile sweetly and forget all about her? He already burned one city because he felt slighted.

Geder himself is a fascinating character. Of course he makes dumb decisions as well, but in his case his motives are entirely understandable and believable, and it’s possible to feel very sympathetic towards him, and appalled at the same time. Being the focus of everyone’s amusement is dispiriting and annoying, and being the patsy for other people’s political games would get anyone riled. His response to the Vanai problem, although it was more a fit of petulance than a rational decision, was not an unusual way to deal with a recalcitrant conquest. Even when he’s behaving very badly, it’s easy to see exactly how and why it happened. He’s a social incompetent, who would be very much at home in the modern world, head buried in his iPad or harmlessly slaughtering orcs in World of Warcraft. It’s only in his fantasy setting that he is the tyrant of the title.

Marcus - meh. I like the banter, and the low-key cynicism which sometimes borders on suicidal fatalism, but it’s not an original character trait, and the whole tragic wife and child history is a bit over-used. I like Yardem a lot better, in fact, because although he has baggage (why did he leave the priesthood, exactly?) he doesn’t let it define him. Although that may simply be an artefact of not being a point of view character; because we never get inside Yardem’s head, we never see how tortured his soul is. Or it may just be the ears. Gotta love a character with such speaking ears.

This is not a high-action book. Even though there’s a war going on, and a new religion spreading like a stain from Camnipol, and the whole continent is in turmoil, it still feels like an intimate, close-up portrait of the characters before all else. A whole chapter may feature nothing but Clara walking about Camnipol, Clara taking tea with a friend, Clara going home again, but this gives the characters the space to breathe, to live, to think, to feel. Between paces, Clara can contemplate a great many subjects without it becoming heavy philosophising. Abraham doesn’t ever tell his readers what to think about anything (religion, war, slavery, inherited monarchies), and those who want can simply enjoy the story and the author’s exquisite prose, but the deeper themes are there to be explored by those who wish, usually by the contrast of one approach with another. For example, Kit and Basrahip are both spider-infested; one is using that to control people so that he can take over the world in the spider-goddess’s name, while the other goes to great lengths not to control people at all, and is trying to find a way to end the spider regime altogether. Is it evil to remove lies from the world and impose honesty? Good question.

The ending? Awesome. A great big bowl of awesomeness, with lashings of awesome sauce on top. The first two books I had some settling down reservations about, but this one, none at all. It’s a quieter book than the previous ones, but in my view it’s all the better for that. Perhaps the series is just getting into its stride, or the characters have grown into their roles (even Cithrin, maybe, possibly), or perhaps it’s just that, after a lot of circling round, we’re getting to know something about the dragons at last. Dragons make everything better. So unquestionably five stars. And now the long wait until the next book...

Thursday, 16 May 2013

Steampunk Review: 'The Kaiser Affair' by Joseph Robert Lewis

I recently read ‘The Burning Sky’, the author’s debut book, and while I loved the original setting and found the story a fast-paced steampunk adventure, the characters never quite came alive for me. The author had a truly wonderful response to that; he made the whole Halcyon series (of which ‘The Burning Sky’ is the first part) very cheap, and encouraged readers to decide whether they agreed or not. And he added: ‘I want you to go read my latest steampunk thriller, ‘The Kaiser Affair’, and let me know if I have improved my characters in the time between the two publications’. I dutifully went off to check it out, started reading the sample and (you can probably guess the rest) yes, I got so engrossed I ended up buying the book and neglecting a long-awaited new arrival to finish it. So indeed I would agree that Mr Lewis’s writing (and not just the characters) has improved hugely.

Like the previous work, this is steampunk but this time with strong fantasy overtones. The story is part of a collaborative effort between a number of authors, who pooled their talents to create the background world, and then each set a stand-alone story in that world, under the collective title ‘The Drifting Isle Chronicles’. The Kaiser of the title is Ranulf Kaiser, imprisoned for complex and ingenious financial crimes, who has managed to escape from prison only a short time before his release date. Our heroes, Bettina Rothschild and her husband Arjuna Rana, are given the task of tracking down the missing Kaiser and putting a stop to whatever nefarious schemes he has in mind. And so begins an entertaining chase all round the city of Eisenstadt, and above it, too.

The two main characters are a delightful pair, with a charmingly bantering relationship and a liking for steamy sex in unlikely locations. While Bettina is clearly the senior (in professional terms), and is the one giving orders, she generally sits out the fights, while improbably athletic husband Arjuna does battle with the baddies. This makes her seem oddly passive. I appreciate that the author has put female characters in strong plot-driving roles, and obviously they don’t all have to be the kick-ass type, but the contrast between these two is extreme. However, when Bettina does get drawn into a fight, she’s quite capable of laying into her opponent without a problem, and I totally loved the imaginative ways she used her cane. Another nice contrast between the two - Bettina is smart and thinks things through carefully, while Arjuna is clever in a different way, knowledgeable and with what appears to be a photographic memory.

The other characters are relatively minor, but are neatly drawn, if a little one-dimensional at times (but then minor characters are allowed to be). The plot is hare-brained, of course, but it hardly matters and it all resolves itself very effectively and logically. And (the part I really liked) there are some wonderfully fantastical elements - the drifting isle itself, slowly circling above the city, mysterious and enticing; the talking birds; and the shadow people. I really love this kind of world - original, intriguing and wildly unpredictable.

I’ve found it fascinating to read these two samples of the author’s work back to back. The style is the same, of course, and both could do with a bit more polish on the editing front, but where one had a mish-mash of main characters and a complicated inter-weaving of plot threads, this one focuses tightly on just two characters and follows them throughout the book. There’s still a lot of chasing about and fighting and guns and improvised weapons and even a bow but the actual injuries are few, and they are more realistic, no more than a few scrapes here and there or the occasional arrow to the shoulder, so the whole story is more plausible and less cartoonish (although - an autogyro chase? Well, that's different!). There isn’t much introspection or philosophising going on, and I wouldn’t say the characters are exactly deep, although there are one or two moments when they do reach for something more meaningful (especially the discussion about Arjuna’s home), but they’re always likeable and behave believably. In addition, there’s loads of humour and a light touch that is (to me, anyway) way more enjoyable than ‘The Burning Sky’. Highly recommended for a light, entertaining read. Four stars.

Monday, 13 May 2013

Steampunk Review: 'The Burning Sky' by Joseph Robert Lewis

So there I was, struggling to get invested in a book with a fairly lack-lustre main character, a difficult alternate history setting and an opening stuffed with explosions and other dramas that I really don’t care about. And then along comes Qhora the Incan princess, with her pet sabre-toothed cat, and suddenly things are interesting. A sabre-toothed pet? Yes, count me in.

This has one of the most unusual settings I’ve encountered - a world where the ice age never ended, Europe is still in the grip of snow and glaciers and civilisation is clustered around a narrow strip of usable land. There are some locations with recognisable names - Marrakesh, Hellas, Italia, Persia, the Atlanteen Ocean - there’s an Incan empire across the sea, and there are some interesting beasties (the afore-mentioned sabre-toothed cat, plus a large bird used for riding). There’s a motley array of countries, all of them with their own belief systems, technologies and customs, trying to get along (or not). And there’s a nice steampunk feel - steam powered trains and airships, plus guns and electricity. It’s all very carefully thought out, and thank goodness, there are maps at the front and a vast, detailed glossary at the back.

There are half a dozen point of view characters, some with only an occasional chapter or two, which reveal all the various aspects of the complicated plot. Yes, this is one of those tales with a huge amount going on in several different places, and there’s a multitude of conspiracies and machinations to try to untangle. The problem is that most of these characters are not terribly interesting. Taziri, the airship engineer with the husband and baby at home, veers from feisty initiative to near-apathy. Syfax the soldier is a standard-issue macho type, solving all problems by bluster and fists. Qhora, the Incan with her Spanish lover and pet beasties, is more interesting, but even so she doesn’t exactly set the pages alight. There are hordes of sidekicks, as well, equally unenthralling. Frankly there are too few lulls between the action for any of these people to come alive, since they spend most of their time reacting to the mayhem all around them. There are some moments of introspection, which nicely illuminate the author’s strange and fascinating world despite feeling a little contrived (do people actually stop and discuss their beliefs while waiting for the bad guys to show up?), but otherwise it’s all explosions and fights and chases and narrow escapes.

I don’t read a lot of steampunk, so I’m not an expert, but I rather liked the imaginative way the technology is integrated into the plot. It’s not merely a backdrop for the action, and it’s more than a quick fix when our heroes (and heroines) get into trouble. I also liked that, without fuss or fanfare, Marrakesh society is matriarchal, although it’s disappointing that so many of the female characters are either villains or else very passive, being pushed around by others. Taziri, in particular, who ought to be an assertive female lead, spends way too much time drooping around and whining about her husband and baby. Still, it’s nice to find a fantasy society that’s a little outside the usual pseudo-medieval or Victorian box. The politics are a bit simplistic, but that’s a very common (and minor) flaw.

This is an intriguing piece of work, with an original and well-thought-out setting, but the constantly churning high-action plot doesn’t make up for the lack of deep characterisation. I confess that I got bored with the repetitive chasing about the countryside interspersed with yet more gun/knife fights, and skimmed a bit towards the end. I would have liked a little more sabre-toothed cat and giant bird, and a lot less fighting. Recommended for fans of high-octane steampunk, but for me it fell a little flat. I’m in a generous mood, so let’s say three stars.

Saturday, 11 May 2013

Mystery Review: 'Gently To The Summit' by Alan Hunter

This is the ninth in the series about the genial but sharp-eyed detective, George Gently, and just in case anyone out there is paying attention, yes, I did miss out number eight. OK, so I got confused, alright? There are forty-something in the series, so this is a problem that's only likely to get worse. One thing that's interesting about reading the whole sequence in order (well, more or less) is the subtle but noticeable change in approach. In the early books, Gently sucked peppermint creams constantly, ate vast meals (described in some detail) and merely ambled through the landscape, populated with a variety of dialect-speaking hicks, as clues and suspects fell at his feet. Book by book, however, the eccentricities have fallen away and what remains is much more of a conventional police procedural, albeit still fossilised in post-war Britain.

A large part of the enjoyment of these stories is the period setting, and although there are fewer details than previously, this is still a world of diggings and cheery landladies, three course lunches and a well-delineated class system. I find it curious that anyone with pretensions to grandeur feels quite at liberty to be obstructive and downright rude to the police. There is still the uneasy air of rebuilding after the war, not simply of bombed out houses, but of people too. The loss of many records in council offices, churches and the like means that anyone who wants to can simply vanish and reinvent themselves, with no one able to check their history, and this makes an interesting plot point here.

This is perhaps the best of the series so far. The premise is that an unsuccessful pre-war attempt to climb Mount Everest, which resulted in the death of one climber, comes back to haunt the participants when the supposedly dead man turns up again, plaintively searching for his wife. There's an immediate outbreak of disbelief, a very public spat with another expedition member, followed by lawsuits, whereupon the other climber falls to his death (a slightly less dramatic death, on Snowdon). Gently potters about London and Wales, in his relaxed way, uncovering the details, and if the suspects line up rather too easily and the big reveal is blindingly obvious, the tale is none the worse for that. A mildly entertaining, if not particularly challenging, little mystery. Three stars.

Wednesday, 8 May 2013

Fantasy Review: 'Oath of Gold' by Elizabeth Moon

This is the third in the ‘Deed of Paksenarrion’ trilogy. The first described how Paks left her home to become a mercenary in Duke Phelan’s company, and was a very down-to-earth story of a soldier’s training and campaigns. The second book saw Paks take off on her own and be sucked into various disconnected enterprises. This book was very disjointed, and heavy on conventional fantasy elements, but the ending raised it above the ordinary. And then there’s this. How to describe something that feels like a different story altogether? I suppose it’s not too spoilerish to reveal that all Paks’s problems at the end of book 2 are airbrushed out of existence very early. There wouldn’t be much of a story if she couldn’t fight again. It’s all a matter of having the right kind of magical power to ‘heal’ her. So that’s all right then.

The rest of the book is Paks tearing about the countryside on a quest to find the lost heir to the kingdom, who can be identified by a magical sword, apparently. And there are elves and dukes and squires and royal courts and a great deal of high-flown semi-poetic Tolkienesque language, which the sheepfarmer’s daughter has an unexpected knack for, and everyone’s taking orders from her, it seems, as she transforms before our eyes into a Person of Great Importance. And there’s evil to be defeated, naturally, and the religious overtones are quite heavy and... I would say this is all very clich├ęd except that it was published in the eighties, so although it’s quite derivative, it was probably the norm for that era.

For me, it was a disappointment. I liked the first book very much, and the over-the-top elements of the second book were more than offset by a terrific ending. This has no such redeeming feature, because even a two-year-old could work out how things are going to end. I lost interest, frankly, and had to force myself to finish the last few chapters, not helped by some fairly graphic torture descriptions. I think for those who enjoy a certain type of fantasy, the traditional battle of good versus evil, the hero’s journey, the wordy slightly old-fashioned language of courtiers rather than the more down-to-earth speech of soldiers, this would be a terrific read. It’s difficult to do this well, and the author does a creditable job here. There are some quite lyrical passages, especially when the elves are around, and happily it never quite tips over into parody.

The story of how a humble sheepfarmer’s daughter went out into the world, plumbed the depths of despair and finally triumphed to become a paladin, a heroic champion, is well-written, well thought out and even profound, in parts. For those who wish to see such things, there's a fair amount of religious symbolism in Paks's suffering and its aftermath, and the whole business of believing in your god or gods and the power of that, but I found it all a bit heavy-handed. Ultimately it failed at the final hurdle for me, with a limp and contrived plot in the final book and a heroine who isn’t quite convincing in her paladin incarnation. A disappointing end to an otherwise very readable series. Three stars.

Saturday, 4 May 2013

Fantasy Review: 'Divided Allegiance' by Elizabeth Moon

This is the second part of the ‘Deed of Paksenarrion’ trilogy. The first part told how Paks left her home to avoid a forced marriage, joining the local Duke’s private army and discovering they were mercenaries. There was a lot of detail about army life, with numerous skirmishes and battles, and Paks made many friends and attracted the attention even of the Duke himself with her fearless fighting and loyalty. I enjoyed it very much and looked forward to more of the same. And within a chapter, this book has veered sharply off in a different direction altogether.

Not liking the Duke’s support for the violent methods of a pirate-turned-nobleman, Paks leaves the army and sets off over the mountains for home, accompanied only by what must be the world’s most devious elf. No longer are we following the realistic lifestyle of the mercenary troop, we’re into full-on fantasy quest mode, with a succession of threats to be defeated and magic everywhere. Magic beasts, magic rings, spells conveniently summoned to get out of trouble. Here’s a mysterious underground place, obviously full of evil, but Paks has a ‘feeling’ that someone is calling for help. Which way to go? Another strange feeling tells them. How shall we get rid of the evil spirit? I know, let’s use this magic scroll - no idea at all what it does but - oh look, it worked. Now, I have no problem with the principle of magic (I read fantasy, after all, it comes with the territory), but it shouldn’t be a universal get-out-of-jail-free card for all occasions.

Fortunately, the whole book isn’t like this, and soon Paks is back on more prosaic turf. The real difference between this and the first book is that she is essentially alone, cut off from the familiarity and support of the company. Paks is in many ways the perfect soldier - tough and hard working, willing to follow orders but without losing her innate sense of right and wrong. Her weakness comes from inexperience with the world, which leads her to accept people at face value and follow along without questioning, or even thinking much about the consequences. This is fine within the structure of a military outfit, but isn’t so good when she is travelling about on her own.

This book made me uneasy. I like Paks as a character very much. She’s the complete antithesis of the typical fantasy hero - well, maybe being handy with a sword is quite typical, but still... She’s self-effacing, honest and straightforward, yet she constantly seems to bump up against people who are more complicated, people who lie to her, or trick her, or withhold information, or push her into things that perhaps she’s not suited to. She’s very easily persuaded, especially when there’s an attractive adventure in the offing. Sometimes Paks seems quite stupid in her simple-mindedness, but that’s as much her lack of education as anything else, plus the innocence of youth, perhaps. But still, I ached for her to cut through the web of other people’s schemes and see her way to something more than being pushed around.

This book feels much choppier than the first. Even though they both have episodes of action interspersed with slower passages, the first book had the uniformity of always being set within Duke Phelan’s company of mercenaries. This book hops about - the company, the journey with the elf, the village of Brewersbridge, dealing with the robbers, training with the Girdsmen, the journey west and so on, and none of them very well connected. They seemed like a more or less random collection of events. Each time, there are new characters to get to know, new circumstances to understand, new mistakes for Paks to make. And each time there are histories to recount and long philosophical discussions to be got through regarding the essence of good and evil. Paks floundered a bit with these, and I confess that I didn’t understand a lot of the points either. It might be thought-provoking, if it wasn't analysed in exhaustive details by a whole succession of characters. It begins to get repetitive after a while.

The action parts are terrific, though, even if they seem a bit dated now - all those underground passages, evil beasties and magical this-that-and-the-others. And it does seem a little too easy, sometimes, that Paks manages to survive all these trials. Somehow there's always a magical gizmo or a character with convenient powers to rescue her. And then the ending. Few books have moved me quite as much as this one. Poor, poor Paks! Her tragedy is heartwrenching, and it’s hard to see that she herself did anything wrong to invoke such a terrible fate. This is a very uneven book, but, as with the first one, the final chapters more than overcome the earlier flaws. Four stars.