Thursday, 25 July 2013

Fantasy Novellas Review: 'The Dark Elf of Syron' by Laura Lond

This is a set of three novellas which combine to form one longer story. The first part, 'The Prisoner', is beautifully done, with a wonderfully mysterious and quite spine-chilling atmosphere. The second part, 'The Knight', is still very readable but loses a little of the atmosphere. The third part, 'The King', gets a bit bogged down in politics and loses traction a little, but ends on a fine note.

The three stories together form a complete whole, or perhaps I should say a potentially complete whole. The story arc is resolved with a satisfactory flourish (although with plenty of room for possible future development), but many elements seem quite skeletal. The characters, in particular, are not quite fully fleshed out. The world-building is very solid and well thought out, but the little glimpses we catch here and there of how things work are tantalising; more detail would have been welcome. I would have liked to know more about the religious system, for instance, and how the power of the light works in this world. I'm a big fan of not info-dumping the background, but this was a little too minimalist for my taste.

The main character, the elf, is quite compelling, although we weren't given much detail about him but the gradual reveal of who he is and his powers was masterfully done. However, although some development is expected, even in a piece as short as this, and it was always clear why he changed, I still didn't find his transformation entirely credible. Again, a little more time spent on fleshing out the character would have been good. Of the other characters, the good ones seem a little too good, sometimes, especially Lenora and Fredric. The king's mixed motives seemed believably human, although he was rather too stupid at the end. The prison warden, Captain Torren, I liked very much. This was an excellent portrayal of an honourable man caught in an extremely difficult situation, and trying to do the best he could.

It may be that the author intends to pad this out to novel length at some point, in which case undoubtedly the rather unfinished nature of this material will be irrelevant. Even if not, a final editing polish wouldn't go amiss; I didn't spot any errors, but there were a few slightly clunky lines which a little rewording would deal with. I cringed, for instance, when the elf said he would 'holler'. This may seem like a long list of criticisms, but it’s more a matter of frustration that the book was so short - I would have liked much more. Despite my grumbles, none of them affected my enjoyment of the book, which I found very readable. Four stars.

Saturday, 20 July 2013

Fantasy Review: 'The Scars of Ambition' by Jason Letts

I really have no idea what to make of this. I don’t even know what genre it is. It comes complete with maps of an imaginary world, with two continents with places like the Cetaline Mountains, the Seasand Desert and the Boiling Sea. There’s magic and sword-waving tribes and dragons, of a sort. So it must be epic fantasy, right? But then it has electricity, planes and trains and mobile phones (cellphones), and some kind of internet. The early chapters are focused on a boardroom squabble between two energy companies, one based on gas power, the other on solar. So it’s a corporate thriller? Energy-punk? Cyber-punk? Search me.

The story focuses around the Bracken family - Lowell, the head of the gas energy company, his ex-wife Tris, and his three children, Sierra, being groomed to take over the company, Randall, a politician, and Taylor, just off to university. They are wealthy and respected, so life seems set fair, but of course there are storms brewing. No surprise there. I found it rather pleasant to see a family as the hub of a fantasy novel. Usually the protagonist is an orphan, or at the very least scarred by his or her dark past. But these seem like normal folks with normal problems - Sierra struggling to make her mark at work and dealing with an obnoxious co-worker, and Taylor showing off to his college pals and trying to get laid.

I confess to having some difficulty with the juxtaposition of seemingly modern people and situations, yet with traditional fantasy elements in the mix as well. Much of the story concerns office politics (and some actual politics, as well), which feels just like a contemporary work, but sometimes the transition to an outbreak of magic or some difference between the created world and the real world was too jarring for my taste. It’s very difficult to invent a world which has many aspects of modern life yet still feels believably ‘other’, and for me it didn’t quite work.

A couple of problems. One is credibility. The CEO of one power company makes an arrangement to visit the CEO of his opposite number, something that’s never happened before. That would be a huge deal, with all the senior executives present, and a metric ton of minders on all the doors, just in case of trouble. But no, he walks into the boardroom unannounced and overhears a secret conversation. No, I don’t think so. Let’s not even mention the daughter who decides on a whim to take a bag lady home to live with her, just because said bag lady has a cute little dragon. Or the son who finds himself in the midst of a cult that wants to drink his blood: 'Oh, all right then...'. Who signs a blood pact without even asking any questions, like - will I survive? And will there be hideous long-term consequences?

Then there’s one power company boss’s brilliant idea to send someone overseas to buy up essential components needed by the other power company. It has to be someone who can’t possibly be traced back to the company. I know, let’s send the boss’s ex-wife, Tris. You know, the one who's never been abroad and who's only skill is in growing and arranging flowers. Just the ticket for a critical and highly secret corporate mission, and no one will ever connect her to the company... so that's really going to work well. Not.

The other problem is the, at times, heavy-handed writing style.

‘But Lux produced a much more intriguing weapon from the back of his pants: a gun with the hammer positioned to come down on a pale green stone, which was lodged against a small three-pronged rack feeding little metal pebbles into the back of the tube.
“Oh my, that’s Florjium. You can only find it in Didjubus and it’s acidic,” [Tris] said. The man glanced at her, not comprehending. “When you hit that stone to shoot the metal bullets, the toxins from the stone also hurt you!” '

Florjium - oh my! From Didjubus, even. A couple of questions arise from that: how would Tris know so much about it? A flower or a strange plant she might recognise, but a rare mineral? And, even if she’s somehow an expert, all that explanation would be much better as exposition rather than clunky dialogue. Throughout the book, the writing style seems rather flat, and loses much of the tension from the action sequences.

None of this would matter if the plot worked, but for me it just didn't hang together. A lot of things happen to the various characters, but it all seems fairly random and none of it makes much sense. Everything that happens to Tris, for instance - why? Why do the people she interacts with treat her that way? Why is Taylor (the teenage son) of any interest to the blood-drinking cult? It makes no sense. I need to understand people’s motivations to really get swept up in the story, but here I was constantly saying: huh? Why would he/she do that?

The main characters all seem rather passive, too, simply going along with whatever is happening around them, and surrendering far too easily in the early parts of the book. Some of it was just plain dull to me - the corporate skullduggery, the teenage boy at college, the political machinations... I don't read fantasy for that stuff. Now, there are moments where things get interesting, with hints of magic or the little dragon, the hooded man and the weird cult, and a cool sword fight in the boardroom (yay for swordfights! if there has to be a boardroom then let’s have swordfights in there) - intriguing things that kept me reading to find out more about them. Frankly, I could have done with a lot more of that. And there was plenty of action going on, with suitably villainous villains doing villainous things to our heroes. If the villainous villains seemed a bit on the moustache-twirling end of the spectrum for my taste, there are plenty of readers who like their fantasy black and white, with no messy grey ambiguity to muddy the waters.

As the story plays out, several of the characters change from passivity to taking charge of their lives, and this is absolutely fine. It’s just a pity that in most cases the means for them to do this is simply dropped into their laps. Taylor and Tris simply reversed into their situations, without a single coherent thought, it seems to me, and even Sierra’s moment of decision happens by chance. Only Lowell decides to take measures to make his own good fortune.

On the plus side, this is a highly original blend of traditional fantasy with modern technology, and I applaud the author for the attempt. I like the idea of basing a story around a family, and the fundamental message is a good one, if portrayed a little heavy-handedly. There are some imaginative touches which work well, and if it wasn't really my cup of tea, there are many readers who enjoy this kind of straightforward tale of basically good people trying to make the world a better place (and get rich or laid at the same time). Two stars, and a small cheer for the swordfights; all corporate mergers and takeovers should be decided by the CEOs personally using swords, in my opinion.

Friday, 19 July 2013

Fantasy Short Story Review: 'The Bone Knife' by Intisar Khanani

I’m a huge fan of the author, having given five stars to both ‘Thorn’ and ‘Sunbolt’, so this was a must-have for me. It’s a charming little short story, a prequel to a future novel, with all the author’s trademarks: great characters, a well-defined setting and an intriguing plot, beautifully written, creating an altogether beguiling experience.

Rae is the eldest of three sisters, who live with their parents. No, the main character isn’t an orphan, isn’t mistreated and actually has a great relationship with her siblings and parents, a refreshing change from so much fantasy. But Niya, the middle sister, has a secret: a talent for magic, which she uses in delightfully domestic ways, enhancing the bread or the stitches in the curtains. But in this world, magic-users are obliged to be trained as mages and serve the king, so Niya has to keep her ability hidden. Into this placid setting comes potential trouble, a man wanting to buy horses. He just happens to be a faerie...

It’s difficult in a short story to create characters who have any real depth, but the author carries this off with aplomb. Rae, the girl with a clubfoot, sneered at and ignored by the villagers, is also intelligent and resourceful. The rest of the family have their own distinctive personalities. But the star of the show is the faerie, a creature both frightening and eerily compelling at the same time, and very much ‘other’, something not human. He steals every scene he’s in, frankly, and I hope we see more of him in the full-length novel.

My only quibble with the story is that the villagers seem to be rather different from Rae and her family. In short, they are somewhat lacking in common sense, and I’m not sure why they are so overtly hostile towards the faerie, when Rae’s father is quite happy to do business with him. It may be that there’s some reason behind that, which isn’t being made clear, but it struck me as odd. It’s a very small point, however.

I really enjoyed this, but be warned: it is very short, and stopped at 47% on my Kindle, the rest being taken up with samples of the author’s other works. A good four stars.

Wednesday, 17 July 2013

Paranormal Thriller: 'Reviver' by Seth Patrick

Such a tricky one to categorise: a real genre-bender. There are shades of sci-fi, but it’s a flimsy connection - no squids in space and it’s (more or less) present day. It might be called fantasy, but there are no truly fantastical elements like magic or dragons or demons. It’s sorta, kinda paranormal - yes, let’s go with that. A paranormal police procedural action thriller...

This is a fascinating premise: certain people have the ability to revive the recently dead and talk to them. The effects only last a short time, but it's enough to allow loved ones the opportunity to say goodbye, or to allow a murder victim to name their killer. The hero here, Jonah, is one such reviver, working with the police to catch villains or, in some cases, to exonerate the most likely suspect. It sounds all good, right? But of course, there's a catch. The act of revival takes a toll, mentally and physically, on those performing it, and sometimes strange things happen. Cue dramatic music...

This is a real curate's egg of a book. Some parts, especially the actual revivals, are absolutely terrific - emotionally engaging, dramatic and oh so spooky, and quite unpredictable (to me, anyway). Other parts I found a total drag. After a great opening chapter, the author feels the need to dump the entire backstory of revivals, and various characters, on our heads. This means, sometimes, entire chapters of dry exposition. Sorry, but I just don't need to know that much, and definitely not all in one go. If parts of the backstory are relevant to the here and now, then dribble it out in small quantities at an appropriate time.

The characters - well, the author has tried his damnedest to give everyone a suitably affecting background so as to make them sympathetic, and to some extent that works because it's relevant to the story. Jonah's history, for instance, led directly to his becoming a reviver, and moreover a certain type of reviver which becomes crucial later in the story (not wanting to give too much away here), so I can accept that. But somehow it never quite worked for me. I never really cared much about any of them. The main problem, though, is way too many characters. There must be dozens of named characters here, and I just can't keep that many straight in my head. Towards the end, several dramatic reappearances were spoiled for me because I was saying: who?

Towards the end, the plot devolves into standard formulaic thriller territory. You know the sort of thing: people suddenly turn up waving weapons of one sort or another, or behaving in increasingly extreme ways, culminating in the giant oh-my-god-we're-all-going-to-die palaver that goes on and on, getting increasingly over the top. And of course, people inevitably stop to explain things to each other, or rush back into the burning building/line of fire/whatever to rescue people they don't even like very much. Unbelievably silly, in fact. I know it's pretty much what everyone expects from this kind of story, but personally I'd much rather the characters behaved sensibly and stayed within their realm of expertise.

Overall, an intriguing premise ripe with possibilities which the author explores quite thoroughly, let down by too much exposition and a way too melodramatic and long-drawn-out finale for my taste. Recommended for fans of all-action high-adrenalin summer-blockbuster-style drama, with a little horror thrown in. Four stars for the spine-chilling revivals, two stars for the info-dumps and three stars for the ending, averaging out at three stars.

Sunday, 14 July 2013

Fantasy Romance Review: 'The Conspiracy' by Erica Dakin

This is the second in the 'Theft and Sorcery' series. I really enjoyed the first book, 'The Ritual', and this one is even better. It's not serious or grimdark or heavy or profound, but it is a whole lot of fun. It wouldn't be everyone's cup of tea, let's get that straight right from the start; there's a fair amount of graphic sex, although nothing kinky or disturbing to my eyes, and there's swearing of a similarly earthy nature, so anyone who's bothered by that should steer clear.

Although this book is essentially a stand-alone, it is directly connected to the first book, but set some sixty years later. The two main characters in 'The Ritual', Rin and Zash, turn up again here in a minor role. Being half-elves themselves, a sixty year gap makes them still young and active, not pensioners. The main leads, Sita, the first person point of view, and Kai, both half-elves, are new characters here. Last time, Rin was the thief and Zash a sorcerer, but this time both Kai and Sita are thieves, and Kai is also a sorcerer, a nice twist. The two meet while both are trying to burgle the royal palace, the joke being that Sita actually lives there, but she is being trained on the queen's instructions in various nefarious pursuits, as well as forms of combat.

This is a romance, first and foremost, but that doesn't mean that the fantasy element is perfunctory. The world-building has ramped up somewhat from the first book, where it felt decidedly sketchy. This time, the author fleshes out the political element, and a conspiracy by the various high magistrates (kind of like dukes, ruling a domain of their own) to assassinate the queen. Sita is part of a group sent off with the heir to the throne, Tio; his role is to make a royal tour of the kingdom and cosy up to the magistrates, and hers is to uncover evidence of the conspiracy. As they travel through the countryside, there is some interesting detail of the economic strengths of each one. It isn't very complicated - the coast has fish, the mountains have mines, the warm south has vineyards - but it serves to make the world feel more fleshed out and realistic.

The other aspect that I found interesting is the three races - elf, human and half-elf. In the previous book, elves ran everything, humans filled the equivalent of the middle classes and half-elves were mostly slaves. The end of the story saw a change, with the incoming queen giving all the half-elves citizenship. In this book, we find (unsurprisingly) that not everyone is happy with that situation (hence the assassination plot), and that things are a lot more complicated than they seem. Since elves have low fertility, humans breed like the proverbial rabbits (contraception seems to be unheard of) and half-elves are infertile, there's a lot of potential for sexual exploitation. Male elves in this world are horny devils, and have a thing for human women, hence the numbers of half-elves. This book explores some of the uneasy relationships between the races.

The plot rattles along beautifully. There's plenty of action, some truly dramatic moments and a scary twist at the end - one of those phew-we're-all-safe-oh-no! moments. And yes, of course there's a happy ever after at the end (this is a romance, after all), but there were quite a few heart-stopping, page-turning, gotta-keep-reading incidents along the way. The magic is nothing unusual - muttered incantations, hand-waviness, almost anything goes, although the user gets tired so there is a price to pay. I liked some of Kai's illusions, though; the coloured light thingies sounded lovely. So as a fantasy, this holds up very well.

What about the romance side of things? Short answer - terrific. The relationship between Sita and Kai is perfectly believable, the obstacles (an essential component of any romance) were realistic, even the instant attraction is nicely done. I have to say that Kai is one of the most charming heroes I've ever encountered, with none of the smug arrogance that so often characterises the male lead these days. There were moments when Sita was pushing him away and I was muttering: look, if you don't want him, dear, send him my way. You just don't find blokes as nice as that too often. I had slight issues with him turning out so well after the sort of experiences he'd had, but let's not quibble over that. The sex was well written without being over the top, and there were some moments of pure romance that were perfectly lovely (sigh...). One other aspect that struck me - even though our athletic heroes spent a lot of time screwing each other silly, and the early encounters were given in great detail, the author was restrained enough to skip much of the graphic description for the later episodes, so it never became overly repetitive.

I do have some issues with the morality question. In the first book, the main characters were thieves almost by necessity, since the alternative was slavery. Here, Kai is a thief from choice, and although he attempts to justify that (he only steals one or two items from those rich enough to afford it), it's still fairly questionable. More seriously, there is a point when our heroes decide to kill a number of guards in order to free a lot of slaves. The author doesn't avoid the issue, showing the characters' unease with the decision, but it still made me uncomfortable. The guards were, after all, just paid employees following their boss's orders, not the enemy in a war, and it seemed extreme to kill them. I would have liked it better if a more subtle way could have been found to free them. But it's a minor point.

This was a hugely enjoyable read that had me grinning from ear to ear at times, and was also an exciting page turner. It's not deep, and the characters fall neatly into the good or evil columns (no shades of grey here, moral ambiguities aside), but it's a lot of fun, and both the romance and fantasy elements work very well. Recommended for anyone who enjoys their fantasy entertaining and fast-paced, with a hefty dollop of sex thrown in. A good four stars.

[Edited to remove spoiler - oops!]

Tuesday, 9 July 2013

Fantasy Review: 'The Light of Kerrindryr' by H Anthe Davis

This could be the world's shortest review. I could just say: this book is piking awesome. Read it. The end.

Or I could tell you exactly why it’s so awesome (a much, much longer review). So let’s do that. Settle down, I’m going to ramble a bit so this may take some time.

I read a lot of debut fantasy, and there's no way to predict exactly what you might get. Even the sample isn't a good guide, because a promising opening can sometimes tail off disappointingly. Mostly, I find them to be varying shades of mediocre; imaginative but ploddingly written, or nicely executed but trite. Very occasionally, something truly exceptional turns up. I've been lucky enough to find a few such gems in the last year or two, and this one is right up there with the best of them. It has great characters, awesome world-building, an incisive writing style and a rapid-fire plot with a surprising twist on almost every page. There’s a slightly slow start with a deluge of hard-to-grasp detail, but once I got past that, the story sucked me in and never let go.

I have to mention the world-building first. There are two kinds of fantasy authors: one kind draws a squiggly-edged continent, adds several kingdoms, three rivers and a mountain range, decides how many gods are in the prevailing religion and - we’re done! On with the story! And then there are those who actually invent worlds. Some are so complex and layed and nuanced that they make our own world look simple. Tolkien invented entire languages for his. Others create architectural styles, clothing, flora and fauna, cultural variations, weaponry, even cutlery. I haven’t found invented cutlery in this book, but pretty much every other detail you could wish for has been thought about. You want to know where the highest rainfall is? [1] Which are the best grain-producing regions? Where the stables are in the army camp? How the ogres count? (Seriously; in base six, if you want to know, which gives the mathematical module in my brain a frisson of pure delight.) And yes, there are languages and fantasy’s second-best invented swearword. [2] The author has it all worked out, starting right at the beginning, with the creation. And the best part of it is that all this world-building isn’t slapped on like theatrical make-up. Instead, there are little snippets here and there, where the story needs it (or lightly brushed on, to continue the make-up analogy). The result feels extraordinarily real. I love it.

Cob, the main character, a slave in the Empire’s army, is frustrating in a lot of ways. He’s seventeen, possibly not the sharpest knife in the drawer, has been messed about with mentally for years (as all potentially rebellious slaves are), and his stubbornness level is set to eleven, at least. He believes absolutely everything he’s been told by his parents and, more recently, by his Empire masters, has a touching faith in their dogmatic religion, and did I mention how stubborn he is? So every time someone tries to help him or rescue him or intervene in any way, he reacts with a certain amount of negativity, shall we say. For much of the book he’s merely a pawn in other people’s machinations, reacting to events (mostly by saying no) and constantly trying to be normal, even when it’s obvious that he really isn’t. Even his escape from slavery is very much against his will (and isn’t that a wonderful break from tradition, a slave who doesn’t want to escape?). He absolutely wants to conform, to be a good Imperial citizen. You’d have to have a heart of stone not to ache for poor Cob, caught up in events way out of his league and finding out some truly heart-breaking things about his past. And the present, come to that. Or finding himself temporarily in the midst of a real family and being astonished that the children play around.

There are a number of other characters who also have point of view episodes, sometimes quite briefly as the plot requires, and this could have been a mess, hopping from one character to another. It works very well on the whole, although there were a few times when the rapid jumps from place to place felt a bit choppy. Fortunately, all the characters have depth, even the walk-on parts. Darilan and Sarovy, who both end up chasing after Cob, are wonderfully deep and nuanced characters, and just as tragic, in their different ways. Only Lark fell a bit flat for me; although she had her moments in the early parts of the story, she became not much more than baggage for a while, and I didn’t feel I got to know her well enough to get under her skin, so to speak. But I loved her pet goblin, Rian, who stole every scene he was in (even while fast asleep), while never saying much more than ‘Meep’ and ‘Ys’ (yes). And there are some peripheral characters that I would love to see more of, like the Archmagus and the Crimson General (although from a safe distance, perhaps).

The magic is fairly straightforward. There are mages who use sigils and runes and words and hand-waviness to create their spells, so there’s a fair amount of hurling of thunderbolts and the like going on. So far, so conventional. There are portals (yay for portals!), some permanent, some created on the fly. Some mages are also mentalists, able to probe into the minds of subjects, see their memories and moderate them. Mindwashing, it’s called, and the process and its after effects are truly unsettling. Almost everyone in the army, freesoldier or slave, is subjected to it at regular intervals, to keep them content by removing distressing experiences from their minds, with odd effects, but like any such capability it also becomes a means of keeping control.

The author’s world comes fully stocked with a range of interesting lifeforms, not just humans. There are ogres and skinchangers, goblins and some really creepy beings called eiyet. Creepy oozes out all over the place, actually, and there are moments of pure horror, in the Hitchcock sense of chills up the spine, rather than the more usual sense these days of grossness and spilled entrails. There are also magically enhanced - well, things, for want of a better word, about which I will say no more . There is a certain blurring of the distinction between alive and not-alive which gave me the heeby-jeebies, frankly.

The plot... look, if I say that the book’s about a slave who escapes and is chased across several countries by a bunch of people who mean him harm because of something powerful inside him, something he’s not even aware of, well, it sounds like a million other fantasy books, doesn’t it? So let’s not worry about the plot. In reality, it’s not at all trite, and everything fits together beautifully, the characters all behave perfectly believably and it’s anything but predictable. It’s absolutely the opposite of predictable, in fact. I just never knew what was coming next, not once.

Where the book excels for me is the way it deals with the spirit world, the shadow world, dreams and not-dreams, things which are beyond human understanding (to express it in a very pedestrian way). It’s very difficult to convey these sort of airy-fairy concepts effectively, but the author does it brilliantly here. I generally have real trouble visualising these non-world (and non-rational) experiences, but here I always knew what was happening, even if I didn’t always know why. The author’s writing style is a big help, with a precision of word-use that is a joy to read.

I've found it difficult to write this review. I enjoyed this book so much, and at a much deeper level than the usual run-of-the-mill fantasy, that it’s hard to express. It's not easy to write intelligibly about an experience which wound its tendrils around me and burrowed inside my mind. It’s still in my head, buzzing round and making me think about memory, and belief, and friendship, and good and evil and (worst of all) good intentions, and people who aren’t what you think they are, and who knows what else. There are parts that are unforgettable: Cob doing his thing in the tavern; Lark getting left behind by the shadowbloods; the wolf; Darilan's dagger and bracer; some of Cob's dreams (or not-dreams, maybe); Lerien; the crows; the thing that Weshker encountered; the teardrop pendants (and who would imagine that a modest piece of jewelry would be so scary?). The characters are unforgettable too, and I cared about all of them (well, OK, maybe not Annia!). The story is complex, subtle and many-layered, and yet I never felt out of my depth, never wondered what the hell people were doing, never had to go back and look up who a character was or what a reference meant. That’s an outstanding achievement in a genre that too often mistakes cryptic for clever. And - a bonus - there are outbreaks of humour at the most unexpected times.

You’re probably getting the picture by now. I liked it, quite a lot actually. Compelling characters, a fully-realised world, an action-packed plot that zooms along at a rate of knots and never feels in the least contrived, and a wonderful ending with plenty of emotional resonance. A beautifully conceived and written book with real depth. Highly recommended. Five stars.

[1] If you really want to know this sort of thing, I recommend the author’s website, which is amazing.

[2] The best is in Glenda Larke’s ‘Stormlords’ trilogy: ‘pedeshit’. But ‘pike/piking’ is close, very close. And then there’s ‘Morgwi’s balls’. Gotta love an author who can invent great swearwords. ETA: well, who'd a thunk it, apparently 'piking' isn't an invented swearword after all. It's been around since the 18th century, and is an integral part of the Planescape D&D setting. So now we know. Still think it's a cracking word, though.