Sunday, 30 June 2013

Fantasy Review: 'Sunbolt' by Intisar Khanani

I discovered the author’s debut novel, ‘Thorn’, quite accidentally, one of those magical reads where you start on the sample and find yourself so swept up in the story you just can’t put it down. It was one of my best reads of last year, so I approached the author’s latest offering with trepidation. Can the next book possibly be as good? Quick answer - yes, it can. This is a novella, the first in a projected series of perhaps six altogether, a beautifully written piece which displays all the author’s trademark originality, terrific characters and an intriguing world.

Hitomi is an orphan, struggling to survive on her wits - no, it’s not the most original scenario, but this is possibly the only aspect of the book which has that problem. This has to be one of the most unpredictable stories I've ever read, a new twist at every turn, and as the book is incredibly fast-paced, that means a breathtaking ride. There are one or two jarring moments, though. Just as the reader gets accustomed to one setting and its cast of characters, there’s an abrupt shift to a new location, a new villain, new challenges for Hitomi. But it’s all perfectly logical, and just served to keep me on my toes.

Hitomi is a lovely heroine - spirited, enterprising and imaginative, and never, ever prepared to be pushed aside. I loved the way in the early chapters she always did exactly what she wanted to do, regardless of whatever instructions she was given. Later, she shows her indomitable spirit, and never gives up, even when things look black. Some of the other characters were fascinating too - Val, in particular, but all of them had depth. I hope we find out more about the character left behind in the cells, too. I loved the way the author managed to fudge the question of who were the good guys and who were the villains. Things just aren’t that simple here.

One doesn’t expect much in the way of world-building from a novella, but there’s surely enough background here to fuel a full-sized trilogy at least. There are kingdoms and religions and races and magical capabilities and cultures, all beautifully defined and nuanced. The speed of the book was a real hindrance here, since every few pages I found myself saying: wait a moment, that’s interesting, I’d like to know more about that. Hitomi’s family history, her magic, Ghost and the secret society, Blackflame, the breathers, the mages... But no, the plot swept on relentlessly. Hopefully, with another five or so books to come, the author will be able to develop these aspects in more detail.

This is a wonderful book, with memorable characters, some great world-building, an action-packed plot that never lets up for a moment and a surprising twist every few pages. All this in a beautifully written novella format. Highly recommended. Five stars.

Thursday, 27 June 2013

Fantasy Review: 'In Wilder Lands' by Jim Galford

And now for something completely different... or at least, new to me. Estin, the hero of this book, is a wildling, a kind of humanoid animal, one of whole variety of such animals superficially resembling actual animals (fox, bear, ferret, etc) but able to speak and act in many ways like humans. They live in packs in the woods, but their lifestyle is not unlike a kind of technology-free human existence. It's an uneasy juxtaposition. Estin has an enhanced sense of smell, he has fur, he climbs well with clawed paws, yet he walks on two legs most of the time, he talks and thinks and in many ways behaves in very unanimal-like ways. The wildlings are not anthropomorphised animals, they're a hard-to-define mixture of human and animal. I'm not sure whether I like it.

The story opens in a very traditional way. Estin was orphaned at a young age, his family slaughtered before his eyes, and since then he's scratched a precarious living stealing and scavenging on the city streets, and avoiding being captured by slavers. He's asked to undertake a difficult mission to settle some debts. So far, so very dull. But his accomplice is a gypsy girl with an agenda of her own and during the mission Estin encounters Feanne, another wilding, and the first he's seen in the city who isn't a slave. They escape together and Feanne takes Estin back to meet her rather bizarre pack.

None of this is original in plot terms. The orphan finding out about himself and his heritage is a trope almost as old as the genre. There's always room for a new spin on things, though, and the author's inventiveness is exemplary. The wildlings themselves are original enough to leave plenty of scope for revealing new and intriguing twists. The wildlings based on predators don't get along terribly well with the wildlings based on prey animals, for instance.

The use of magic is a bit random. It seems that they can do whatever the plot needs them to do. If there was any logical system to it, I never found it. The healing power is particularly convenient. An injured good guy can be healed almost without constraint (there are a few limitations, but not many). Even when dead, they can be coaxed back to life by healing their injuries and then cajoling the detached spirit back into the body (which doesn't always work, since the spirit has a mind of its own). Eventually the healer will get tired, but a lot of healing can be done before the batteries are flat (so to speak).

One aspect the author did rather well was the way different characters spoke in different ways. The gypsy girl had a very strong accent, and Soren the ferret-like character has a kind of speech which bounces uncontrollably just like he does. Then there is Finth the dwarf, who (again traditionally) fulfils the role of plucky comic relief. Humour is always welcome in a long, battle-heavy work of fantasy, but some of Finth's joke were a little too modern for my taste - I have difficulty suspending disbelief when a dwarf talks about rugrats, for instance.

The characters are quite nicely drawn. Even if they never quite came alive for me (the human/animal thing mentioned above) there was a lot of depth to many of the characters which I appreciated. There was also some interesting philosophy in there, between battles or skin-of-the-teeth escapes, especially between the various races (or species, I suppose). Estin himself isn't quite as riveting as he might be - again, he falls square into the traditional line of little person who becomes central to the plot. He isn't quite the long lost heir to the kingdom, but he does acquire a lot of abilities - warrior skills and magic - in a very short time. He's also way too restrained and honourable for my taste. I like a hero who has a few human (or wilding) weaknesses. Feanne, the complex and driven fox-type character, is, to my mind, far more interesting. Although she’s unstable and overly aggressive, with a tendency to fight to the death first and then (possibly, if she feels like it) ask questions later, this makes a refreshing change from subservient or the typical sort of warrior babe. I was disappointed when such a strong character fell apart emotionally half way through the book.

One grumble. Estin knows nothing of his heritage because he was orphaned (obviously). This means that he transgresses in some way or other every few pages, just from not knowing the rules. Yet no one ever seems to make allowance for him, or to explain properly what he's done wrong. It's all "Oh no, you shouldn't have done that!" and then maybe some pretty nasty repercussions. His training in the wildling group is all pretty cryptic too, so that when someone turns on him, he's not sure whether it's a genuine problem or a test of some sort. He is very patient about all this, but I would be seriously ticked off about these repeated tests and the lack of clear-cut explanations.

A minor grumble. There are quite a lot of little typos and such-like - 'taught' instead of 'taut', for example - and odd words missing or misplaced, which mar an otherwise professional piece of work. However, I've had the book sitting on my Kindle for over a year, however, so it's possible these have now been tidied up. There is a certain sloppiness in the writing, however, which only a ruthless rewrite would eliminate.

After the midpoint, the book becomes quite episodic, jumping from one situation to another unpredictably and abruptly. While I like to be surprised, this was a little too choppy for my taste. It also ran into the typical problem of the nobody-to-hero trajectory: Estin becomes very powerful, especially in his magic, and that becomes a bit of a get-out-of-jail-free card in numerous situations. I also disliked what I can only describe as a lot of soppiness over the children, and a great deal of artificially generated tension between Estin and Feanne. In fact, much of the later part of the book felt rather contrived, as if, having got the characters to a certain logical point within this book, the author needed to rearrange everything ready for the next volume. Either that or the author had a quota for fight scenes. Some of this is inevitable, but it felt to me very drawn out and stretched beyond sensible limits. A little tightening up here, eliminating the in-camp arguments altogether (oh no, not another leadership challenge...), and perhaps reducing the number of hooray-we’ve-escaped-oh-no-we-haven’t moments, would have been a great improvement.

This is an unusual and readable story, well written bar a few quirks. For those who enjoy action, there’s plenty here, with an array of traditional fantasy races (even halflings! don’t see many of those nowadays), as well as the wildlings, a whole zombie army, fae, dragons, elemental spirits of some sort and a really creepy mist thing. The magic is a pretty mixed bag, too. The ending lost the plot a little, with one melodramatic moment after another, without a respite or much detectable logic. There’s some depth to both world and characters, and the themes of family, race and slavery were well made, if a little heavy-handed. I found the mixing of animal and human characteristics problematic, it just didn't work for me. I'm equally happy with human or non-human characters in a book, but I found this to be an uneasy blend of the two. That's a personal preference, no more than that, and in other respects the book is excellent, but I can't give it more than three stars.

Wednesday, 19 June 2013

Paranormal Romance Review: 'The Binding Stone' by Lisa Gail Green

“My eyes snap open the moment I feel it. The magic is palpable. It tingles as it travels up and down my arms. I am not happy. Whoever dares disturb my century-long slumber will suffer my wrath.” So begins 'The Binding Stone', one of the most intriguing openings I've ever come across.

Leela is a Djinn (genie) awakened from sleep by an unwitting new Master, Jered. This is not the three wishes kind of genie, but a powerful enslaved Djinn, compelled to do whatever her Master of the day tells her to. Mostly what Masters want is sex, riches, sex, power, sex, revenge and sex. With a little light torture thrown in for light relief. Are humans really so horrible? But no, Jered isn't like that at all, and wants nothing except world peace. And sex, of course (well, duh; this is a romance, after all).

But Leela has a long history with fellow slave Djinns and some evil Masters who are bent on - well, see above. So the story becomes a merry-go-round of battling Masters and Djinns. It's all good exciting stuff. I really like the premise here - the story of the entrapped genie, but told from the genie's point of view. The backstory, the interactions of a thousand years earlier which resulted in the enslavement of the Djinni, is interwoven with the present day, so that the significance of certain events and characters gradually becomes clearer. This was quite neatly done, although I sometimes found the transitions between then and now rather jarring.

The plot is wonderfully convoluted, and I defy anyone to foresee all the twists and turns. There's a vast amount of people being captured and others rushing off to the rescue, in various combinations of characters, and to be honest I lost track sometimes of who was where, who was captured and who was rescuing them, who was definitely evil and who might be and who wasn't and who would be if they were free and who was but only because they'd been commanded to be, but I just let it wash over me, and kept turning the pages. It’s that kind of book. I didn’t always know what was going on, but I was confident the author had got it all worked out.

The characters worked well enough without being terribly real to me. Leela was the best portrayed, but then she is the sole point of view and the book is written in the first person, so that's not surprising. There were moments when her tragedy was very affecting. The other characters? Jered is a little too implausibly nice. Gabe makes a great sidekick. The bad guys are evil personified, and therefore entirely uninteresting (to me; I’m sure some people like that sort of thing). The child is a little too grown up for her age, but never mind. I rather liked Taj though, the ever so slightly camp Djinn. Maybe that's just because he had some of the best lines (I do like a bit of humour in my fantasy). The romance was a bit insta-lurve, but that's par for the course.

A couple of grumbles. First, Djinn magic is almost infinitely powerful. You want to fly, or tunnel through solid metal, or be transported instantly, or be invisible? No problem (except when it might divert the plot, of course; then it's impossible). There seems to be very little cost to any of this (again, except when the plot requires it).

Secondly, I often found it difficult to work out exactly what was going on. Several scenes I had to reread to understand, and there were many, many times when a character would apparently switch sides in a heartbeat. Taj is here to kill you. No he isn't. Oh, it's Mira who's going to kill you. Apparently not. All these rapidfire oscillations were tricky to follow, I didn't always get the reason and it got tedious after a while. Probably if I'd slowed down a bit, I could have worked it out, I suppose.

A third grumble: Leela herself repeatedly came up with a cunning plan only for it to fall apart instantly. Oh dear, I should have thought of that, she wails. Many, many times. So ten out of ten for good intentions, none out of ten for forward planning.

What I liked very much was that the slave Djinni were obliged to follow their Master's commands exactly, but a clever Djinn could obey the literal meaning of the order while subversively not following the intended meaning. This led to some interesting and creative twists to the plot. It's a very nice idea, having a slave who is forced to obey but is constantly working to undermine his/her Master at every step, but without attracting a spectacularly unpleasant punishment.

I found this one difficult to rate. On the one hand, it's a cracking read full of page-turning drama. It doesn’t pay to think too deeply about it, but the author has a light touch and a sure hand, so it all flows beautifully. There’s some nice emotional resonance in the Djinni’s situation, too. On the other hand, the constant oh no we're doomed/hurray we're saved/oops we're really doomed/nope saved again cycling got tired really quickly. That and the anything goes magic kept it to three stars for me. But for anyone less picky than I am (which is most of the planet) I can highly recommend it.

Tuesday, 18 June 2013

DNF: 'Gently Go Man' by Alan Hunter

This is the eighth in the series of relaxed murder mysteries about genial detective George Gently, written in the later fifties and early sixties. I've enjoyed my previous forays into the series, as much for the authentic slices of post-war British life as for the murders themselves, which were always a bit ho-hum. But this is the first to lose me completely. Hunter has always fancied himself as a chronicler of regional accents and dialects, with (in my opinion) very limited success, and the last few books I read he happily stayed away from such dangerous distractions. But this time he plunges headfirst into a whole world of cultural slang, the bizarrely unreadable language of 'hip chicks', with their talk about squares and being cool. For example:

‘You wouldn’t dig it,’ said Maureen. ‘If you’re a square you’re a square. It’s nowhere jazz to a square. But Laurie was cool, he went after it. Shooting the ton, that sort of action. But like I say you wouldn’t dig it. So what’s the use me talking?’

Here’s another sample:

‘Throwing a curve,’ Deeming said. ‘That’s not lying, it’s trying it on, hoping it’s going to fit some place. You don’t like hipsters in Squaresville. You like to put the heat on them. So you make a deal out of Johnny and come pushing us around with it.’
‘And like we don’t stand for it,’ Bixley said, stepping up closer.
‘Cool it, Sid,’ Deeming said. ‘Pitching screws is for squares.’
‘He bugs me, this guy does,’ said Bixley. ‘Me, I could spread him on the wall.’
‘Dicky says cool it,’ Maureen said. ‘So cool it quick, you big ape.’

There are entire chapters of this sort of stuff and frankly, life's too short to wade through it. One star for a DNF.

Sunday, 16 June 2013

Historical Fantasy Review: 'Enoch's Device' by Joseph Finley

The blurb says that “Enoch’s Device is a fast-paced medieval adventure steeped in history, mythology, and mysteries from a dark and magical past” and the only part I’d argue with is ‘fast-paced’. I found it rather a slow book overall, and although it’s not without plenty of action, there’s also a heavy dollop of the above-mentioned history and mythology. Long and detailed explanations, it has to be said, don’t exactly help the plot to skim along. The setting is Ireland, France and Moorish Spain in the year 997, with the threat of the coming apocalypse when the millennium ends, and a race to prevent disaster for Irish monks Ciarán and Dónall and French aristocrat Alais.

This is historical fantasy at its best - so deeply rooted in its period that to my inexpert eyes it seemed entirely authentic. The weaving together of historical data with biblical references, religious and pseudo-religious details (druids and the zodiac), mythological elements like the Fae and outright fantasy (demons and just a hint of dragons!) is masterfully done, with a wealth of detail, and I had very little idea which aspects were solid fact, which were inference or speculation, and which were invented wholesale. Whether it’s an Irish monastery, the streets of Paris, the rich farmlands of rural France or the Moorish city of Córdoba, the author paints a nuanced and believable picture. Sometimes I felt there was a little too much detail for the needs of the story, as if the author had to squeeze in every colourful bit of his research, but that’s a matter of personal preference.

Where the story really sagged, for me, was the vast amount of backstory that had to be revealed. Sometimes it seemed as if most of the interesting action had happened years before, and was told in flashback. My heart sank every time I came across a paragraph beginning: ‘It seemed as if it were only yesterday when...’ or similar. Despite the drama of these events, it’s still the past and therefore less interesting than the actual story (the journey of Ciarán and Dónall), which seemed very slow by comparison. Worse still, much of the backstory was told in a very dry, text-book style which I struggled to get through. For example:

“She had been born a child of Aquitaine, the richest province in Gaul. Her grandfather was the third William, called Towhead for the pale flaxen color of his hair. He was both count of Poitiers and duke of Aquitaine, and her grandmother was the daughter of Rollo, then duke of Normandy. Her father, Odo, was cousin to the fourth William, called Iron Arm, who had ruled Aquitaine for nearly thirty years. William Iron Arm had strengthened his alliances by marrying his sister to Hugh Capet, the late king of France and father of the current king, Robert, and by arranging his own marriage to Emma, daughter of the count of Blois, who was lord of neighboring Touraine. Alais’ mother, Adelais, too, had been bound in a political marriage— a gift from her father, the count of Toulouse, who was currying favor with the house of Poitiers.”

I’m sure this sort of stuff is endlessly fascinating to some readers, but I was (mentally) tapping my feet and muttering, ‘Yes, yes, but are these people important? Does the colour of his hair matter? And if not, can we get on with the story, please?’.

The characters are well-delineated and mostly believable, the only exception being Alais, the token female, whose role is merely to be rescued periodically, to act as plot device and to inspire and motivate Ciarán as the object of his desire. I wonder how many captivatingly beautiful women have to be captured/almost raped/burnt at the stake before this particular seam of fantasy clichés is finally worked out. Alais spends the book gasping in horror, clinging to Ciarán's hand, or standing frozen with terror as various sharp implements are hurled at her, so that the nearest man has to leap in front of her or drag her out of danger. And finally, the one useful role she seems destined to play is snatched away from her at the last minute. Bleargh. I hate these useless hand-wringing females. There’s a slightly unpleasant tone to the writing sometimes: one character was described as being fond of his wife ‘despite the fact that she had borne him no children’. I get that this is an era when women were subservient by law and custom (the nuns are required to be silent in church, for instance), but there’s no need for that attitude to spill over into authorial voice. As for the bad guys, they are out and out evil, which is par for the course if not particularly interesting.

Fortunately, the plot is nicely convoluted, and once the bulk of the backstory is got out of the way things go along swimmingly. There are puzzles for our heroes to solve, clues to follow, crypic utterances to interpret and symbols to speculate about. There's also a prophecied apocalypse to avoid, and a mysterious device (the 'Enoch's device' of the title) to be discovered, understood and (perhaps) deployed. It’s all hugely detailed and impressively academic-sounding. For example:

“There is a text, the Sefer Yetzirah— the Book of Creation— that tells how Abraham received a divine testimony of mystic lore. He lived long before Moses received the Torah, so he must have received something different. Abraham was the father of Jewish mysticism, much of which focuses on the origins of the many names of God, and the various combinations of sacred letters that make up those names, all in the quest to realize the one great name of God. That is the knowledge that many believe Abraham received. If this knowledge was embodied in a physical object, one theory is that it was a gemstone.”

There’s a lot of this sort of stuff, and it may all be complete tosh, but if so, it’s impressive sounding tosh and I found it quite easy to let it all slide by, mostly way over my head. Sometimes, it has to be said, the interpretations of all these not very obvious puzzles seems a bit glib (if it were that easy, how come no one else has worked it out?) but it still made a nice story as piece after piece fell into place, and our heroes are driven from place to place in their quest. As with the backstory, the interludes when the characters sit around interpreting and speculating and saying ‘Gosh, it must be...!’ (paraphrasing ever so slightly here) slow the pace down to glacial levels, but as the action gets more frantic and intense towards the end, the pauses are a welcome respite from the drama.

There were moments when the theological debate got quite interesting. Our Irish friends were very confident of the truth of their interpretations, which the more conventional priests saw as simple heresy. There is a moment when one of the priests makes a pronouncement about the apocalypse, and Ciarán immediately says 'How do you know that?' It's a good question, but the priest deflects it with an outraged 'How dare you presume to question me!' The voice of absolute authority putting down the ordinary person who has the temerity to say 'Yes but...'. I'm not sure whether the author is making a general point about organised religion, or illustrating the religious dogma of the day, or simply painting the character as a bad guy, but it struck a chord with me. In this particular case, the Irish interpretation of events is presumed to be the correct one purely because they are the protagonists in this particular story, but more than once I was wondering how exactly they could know particular facts. Some chains of logic seemed rather tenuous to me.

This is a long, intricate book, literate and full of convincing historical detail, with demons, magic swords, a prophecy, mad monks and a whole host of great fantasy elements to spice up the well-realised setting. It's a pity there's so much sitting around analysing texts between the battles and so much dry exposition, and for my taste the battles got a bit over the top towards the end. But hey, this is the apocalypse, after all, so it's allowed to be epic in scale. For those who are riveted by the tiny details of medieval life or enjoy puzzling over the hidden meanings in religious texts and zodiacal symbols, I highly recommend this book. Anyone who is prepared to put up with the explanations to get to the juicy battles with demons, it's still a great read. For anyone who, like me, would willingly sacrifice historical accuracy for a more evenly paced story, it doesn’t work quite so well. The action scenes are terrific, the long sections of exposition less so, and I would have liked a less insipid female lead character. Three stars.

Saturday, 15 June 2013

Paranormal Romance Review: 'Dreams and Constellations' by Judy Goodwin

I enjoyed the author's full-length fantasy 'Heart of the Witch', an unusual story with great characters and plenty of depth, so I thought this novella was worth a try. Main character Iona is a college student, studying social psychology. During the day, she attends lectures and tries to fend off the unwanted attentions of a persistent suitor. Each night, she is plagued by unusually vivid dreams of herself as a Mayan priestess. Not surprisingly, I found the Mayan dreams far more interesting than Iona's humdrum daily life, and this part of the story is beautifully realised. The interweaving of Iona's present-day and dream lives is very neat, too, if not overwhelmingly original. The romance element wasn't quite as romantic as I would have liked, and perhaps this part of the story could have been filled out a bit more.

I don't normally like short form fantasy, and this was a bit too short for my taste and the ending crept up on me rather suddenly. However, it makes a light, pleasantly enjoyable read, with a nicely ambiguous twist at the end. The Mayan element was intriguing enough that I'd be happy to read more about it. Three stars.

Thursday, 6 June 2013

Fantasy Review: 'The Girl With No Name' by Iscah

This short book is a delight from start to finish. It’s written in traditional fairytale style, beginning with ‘Once upon a time...’, with a charming simplicity which hides a great deal under the surface. The heroine of the story, who never has a name throughout the book, is a shapeshifter and magic-user, in a land which doesn’t understand or respect magic. Orphaned and raised by a kindly old man, she is forced to leave her home village when he dies, and sets off to find her place in the world. Her travels, the people she meets and the answers she finds to her questions about her missing father and her own magic, form the body of the story.

This is not your conventional fairytale. At every turn, the author neatly sidesteps the traps and tropes of the genre, so there are plenty of wonderful surprises in store, and a nice line in humour too. Every town or village or country the girl visits is a little different from the others, with its own customs and peculiarities, and exploring these differences is one of the highlights of the book, for me. There’s a prince, of course, and a witch, but they’re not at all as you’d expect. The prince is possibly my favourite character in the book, but even though it seems things are set fair for a little romance, things take a different turn. It’s so much fun when a book refuses to toe the boringly predictable line this way. I do like to have my expectations subverted.

If there's a grumble at all, it's that the girl seems a little mature for her age, given her rather sheltered upbringing. She accepts whatever comes her way with equanimity, judges people quite well and isn't really bothered at having to travel around on her own. But then I suppose that being able to turn into a bear or a bird or something small enough to hide behind a bush is rather a good self-defence mechanism, plenty good enough to deal with most of the little difficulties that a not entirely law-abiding country can throw at her. I liked the way she grows over the course of the book, finding out what works and what doesn't and using her talents not for power or glory, but as a low-key way to survive so that she can do what she really wants to do (mostly haunt the libraries and bookshops, which I can relate to).

This is the first of four novellas relating the beginnings of four characters to feature in a full-length fantasy novel later. [1] The book is intended for any age reader from 9 upwards, and it would work brilliantly with an adult reading it to a child, whether to draw out the subtleties and provoke discussion, or just to enjoy the subtext. It would be a great communal read for schools as well. Whether it works so well as an adult-only read is less certain. I thoroughly enjoyed it, as a refreshing change of pace from grittier adult fantasy, but despite the subtleties it felt very child-oriented at times. Not childish, but perhaps lacking some of the multi-layering of the best adult fantasy. This is not a criticism, just a comment and a matter of personal preference. An entertaining read, with deceptive simplicity and an unexpected degree of humour. Four stars.

[1] At the time of writing (June 2013) this is the only one of the four published, and the second novella, ‘Horse Feathers’, is currently being posted a chapter at a time on the website, which is at Amoeba Ink.

Sunday, 2 June 2013

Fantasy DNF: 'The Universal Mirror' by Gwen Perkins

This book and I got off on the wrong foot right from the start. The first line is: “Asahel could feel the heat of the lantern perilously close to his face as he worked...” Two lines on, there’s a reference to ‘them’, although no one else has been mentioned. Another line, and suddenly we’re in Quentin’s point of view, with this gloriously muddled sentence: “The lantern rocked again as Quentin tried to match him, swaying on the branch on which they'd propped it as Quentin leaned into the dirt, his strength less than the other man's, borne as it was by a lean frame, tall though it was.”

So for me this was a difficult book to get into. Not because it was particularly complicated in terms of plot or ideas or characterisation, which I don’t mind at all. I do object, however, to having to reread sentences and sometimes whole paragraphs just to work out who is talking, which is the tall one or the stocky one and what either one of them is actually doing. And I couldn’t understand Quentin’s conversation with his wife at all. Undercurrents and mysteries are wonderful, but not when it leaves the reader in a total fog. Well, maybe it’s just me in a total fog, who knows.

What’s so distressing about all this is that there’s a great story buried under this tricky prose. Asahel and Quentin are two friends who are magicians in a land which constrains tightly what they can do with their powers. I wanted to know more about the magic, more about their history and why exactly they were trying to dig up a body. I was curious, too, about Quentin's wife, and what is going on with their relationship. There's an interesting setting behind the story, which seemed well thought out. I really wanted to like this book, it should have been just my cup of tea, and yet I was distracted on every page, in every paragraph by something jarring. The wrong word used. A badly constructed sentence. Over-dramatic description. The Punctuation Police had enough evidence to make an arrest within a few pages. And the tragedy is that this isn't a self-published work, it's been (presumably) vetted and edited and polished by the professionals at Hydra Publications. Frankly, they are doing their authors a grave disservice if they let through editing of this poor standard.

There are lots of positive reviews of this, so clearly most people really enjoyed it and I'll put my adverse reaction down to my overly nit-picky nature. I’m fairly tolerant of the odd typo here and there, but this wasn’t the usual run of misspellings. For me, there were just too many sentences where a character was clearly upset, but I couldn’t work out why. Or sometimes which character it was, even. Or who was doing what to whom. It may well be a failing in me, but I found it a constant struggle to read (and yes, entirely my fault for not checking that it suited me before I bought it - my bad). If this sort of thing doesn't bother you, you may well find the book an agreeable and entertaining read, as many others seem to. Sadly, I only got through 20% of it before I jumped ship. One star for a DNF.