Thursday, 26 September 2013

Urban Fantasy Review: 'Torrent' by Lindsay Buroker

The author’s steampunk series, ‘The Emperor’s Edge’, has built up quite a following, but this is something very different, the start of an urban fantasy [*] series, set the southwestern US. The setting may be different, but the principle is the same: a collection of interesting characters, a pacy action-packed adventure with loads of unexpected twists and some great humour.

Here’s the starting point: archaeology drop-out Delia and geek Simon are trying to get a business off the ground discovering buried artifacts and flogging them to collectors. Temi is a old friend of Delia’s, a former tennis pro on hard times. There’s also another old friend who handily analyses DNA samples when necessary, and a couple of weird guys on Harleys. Oh, and a monster. A going-round-randomly-killing-people-in-the-dead-of-night type monster. When Our Heroes stumble across a body in a cave, they find themselves sucked into a bizarre monster-hunting expedition. And when I say ‘sucked into’, I mean, of course, that they rush around following mysterious footprints or bloodtrails or exploring underground caverns with wilful disregard for their own safety.

For the first half of this book, I felt like I was reading the script for one of those cheap summer horror movies. Monster. Check. Bunch of nice, harmless kids. Check. Lots of stalking, screaming and desperate attempts to escape. Check. Yes, it’s all a bit cheesy but then there are some wait-what? moments. The two Harley riders who speak no known language (‘It’s not Klingon’, says the linguistics professor, deadpan). The non-human blood. The magic glowing sword (I kid you not). And the monster’s made of what? And the humour made me laugh out loud, which is always a plus, in my book.

The characters don’t sparkle yet, but this is the first in the series, and it’s hard to squeeze in all the character-building background when Our Heroes are frantically trying to escape the monster’s claws. Simon is a stock geek, more interested in apps and gadgets and blog posts than common sense, and a bit awkward with the ladies. Delia - well, I don’t get much of an impression of Delia. Both of them are far too ready to go careering after monsters or mysteriously hostile men, but then there wouldn’t be much of a story if they weren’t. Temi is more interesting, with her falling out with her family, her tennis and the sudden loss of that, and another mysterious quality which I won’t reveal but it’s intriguing. She was a little uneven, on the one hand perfectly ready to dive into whatever adventure the other two were haring off on, but also the voice of reality: “Guys, is this a sensible thing to do?” But if the main trio fell slightly flat, the two men on Harleys more than made up for it. I do like ultra-mysterious but very cool blokes. And there is one other character now on the loose that I am very much looking forward to seeing again.

This is a slightly lumpy start to the series, but that’s a very common problem. Once the characters settle down and start to gel I’m sure a lot of the rough edges will be smoothed away. For now, this is a straightforward, lightweight adventure caper, easy to read and a lot of fun, especially once the main chase begins, around the halfway point. There are a number of implausibilities, but, for me anyway, the humour more than makes up for it. The modern setting allows for a lot of quick-fire jokes, which you don’t actually need to be a Trekkie to appreciate (although maybe it helps). I wavered between three and four stars, but I’ll be generous on the grounds that a new series always needs time to iron out the kinks. Four stars.

[*] Look, the author self-defines it as urban fantasy, OK? So I'll go with that. But honestly, I don’t know what the hell it is - sci-fi or fantasy or paranormal or some wild mash-up of all of them. And honestly, it doesn’t really matter what you call it.

Friday, 20 September 2013

Steampunk Review: 'Blood and Betrayal' by Lindsay Buroker

This is book 5 is the Emperor's Edge series, and this review is going to be full of spoilers for the first four books of the series. If you don't want to know secrets, or the outcome of the cliffhanger ending of book 4, look away now.

The end of book 4 left our heroes in a bit of a pickle. Their dirigible was shot down by their enemies, leaving Amaranthe to be captured by the evil Major Pike, while the survival of the rest of the group was in doubt. Surprise! They made it more or less unscathed, and since Sicarius sets off after Amaranthe, that leaves Maldynado to take charge of the group, following the plan of rescued boy emperor Sespian. Meanwhile, back in the capital, Sespian has been declared dead and evil conspiracists Forge are making their move for world domination.

The series has always taken a lighthearted tone, with every madcap adventure ending with a lot of wrecked machinery, a heap of accidentally dead enemies, a few scratches on the gang and a metric tonne of entertaining banter along the way. Book 4 became slightly more serious, as Sicarius went on a cold assassin killing spree, but nothing much was made of it apart from a bit of internal angst by Amaranthe. Book 5 shifts into a different gear altogether, as Amaranthe is subjected to sustained torture at the hands of Major Pike.

I found this section uncomfortable to read, and not because of the torture itself (I've read much worse). I have no problem with a story that delves into difficult territory, but I found the treatment of it here skirted round the issues raised. Amaranthe is treated with appalling brutality (which I won't describe here), yet she never cracks under the pressure, and is still able to joke. Some magical salve is conveniently used to heal her injuries between sessions. She is never raped, even though Major Pike, we're told, is famous for it. When she eventually escapes, she manages to evade capture despite her physical condition (she herself doubts she could have survived much longer), and is soon sufficiently recovered to be quite happy to enter a building alone to meet with an unknown male. The only long-term effect of her experience is to make her more likely to jump with surprise when Sicarius sneaks up on her. Oh, and she doesn't want to talk about it. Obviously not every book needs to be grimdark, and I can see how it might have been necessary, plotwise, to underline Sicarius's childhood experiences, but to my mind torture is automatically a grimdark subject and shouldn't be treated as just another violent experience, like being bopped on the head or taking a few cuts and bruises. The author does make some attempt to describe Amaranthe’s suffering, but there’s a fine line to walk: too serious a tone clashes with the light-hearted nature of the books, but too flippant would be wrong too. To my mind, it would have been better to leave the torture out altogether.

The second major problem is Maldynado. Now, don't get me wrong, I love Maldynado. He's probably my favourite character (after Sicarius; what is it with ice-cold assassins anyway that makes them so appealing?), and I'd vote for his statue in a heartbeat. But he's essentially a shallow character, the comic relief who can always be relied upon for an entirely inappropriate comment of sexual innuendo or boasting about his triumphs in the bedroom, usually while beating up random villains with practised ease. Here he's the other point of view character (apart from Amaranthe), and since she's tied up - hmm, unfortunate phrasing there - being tortured, which we see only briefly at intervals, it means that dear old no-brain Mal is carrying the first half of the book virtually single-handed. Frankly, he's not a strong enough character for that. There's a certain amount of backstory to be revealed, but it's not wildly interesting and most of what we get is Mal whining internally about being misunderstood. Honestly, much as I like him, there's only so much of that I can take.

If this all sounds negative - actually, it is negative. I just didn't enjoy the book as much as previous ones in the series. There's an increasing reliance on sophisticated technology for the hero-chomping machinery, too, which is too close to deus-ex-machina for my taste. Not enough to have our heroes trapped underground beneath a lake surrounded by armed villains? Let's have a few mysterious black boxes lying around which can remain inert to start with but will come to life and start shooting at everything at the most difficult moment. Blech. However, there is one element which is worth the price of admission all by itself. Sicarius chooses to leaves Sespian to the rest of the gang in order to rescue Amaranthe, and regular readers know exactly what a difficult decision that was for him. When they do eventually meet up again, there are some truly wonderful moments. Sicarius is never going to fall on Amaranthe's neck weeping, but the tiny (and not so tiny) ways in which he opens himself up to her and makes himself totally vulnerable are brilliantly written. Easily the best thing in the series so far.

The ending is the usual machinery-and-scenery-demolishing mayhem, where hordes of bad guys may (or may not) die but our heroes improbably emerge injured but still intact. There's a really cheesy moment right at the end, one of those dramatic reveals that's abruptly cut off before anything crucial actually is revealed, and some truly clunky exposition to explain the villains' motives, but generally speaking things come to the usual end, with everything more or less as before (a few plot developments but no actual character progression, as such, beyond that infinitesmal lightening of attitude by Sicarius). I already have the rest of the series, so I'm committed for the long haul, but I have to be honest and say that this book was a disappointment. Three stars.

Thursday, 12 September 2013

Steampunk Review: 'Conspiracy' by Lindsay Buroker

This is the fourth in the Emperor’s Edge steampunk series, and everyone should know the drill by now: former enforcer Amaranthe Lokdon leads her team in a madcap escapade that results in an unfeasibly large number of explosions, shooting incidents, highspeed chases and crazy machinery encounters, but miraculously all ends well. Or does it? Be warned, this ends with a serious cliffhanger.

The setting is heavy-duty steampunk, with trains and airships and an array of bizarre machinery. I have to be honest, there were times when the machines seemed to be designed for no other purpose than to generate a dramatic how-will-they-survive moment. There’s an early scene where Amaranthe and cold assassin Sicarius are trapped in a cellar being chased by robotic devices capable of blowing chunks out of the walls and demolishing all the equipment down there. Since that includes large amounts of gunpowder - well, why would you do that? I had a bit of a Galaxy Quest moment, reading that chapter; it reminded me of the chompers:
“What is this thing? I mean, it serves no useful purpose for there to be a bunch of chompy, crushy things in the middle of a hallway. No, I mean we shouldn't have to do this, it makes no logical sense, why is it here?”
This is the sort of book that requires the logical part of the reader’s brain to be switched off for the duration. No, some of it makes no logical sense, but it’s fun and exciting so who the hell cares?

The nice thing about this series is that is blends steampunk with magic (which rather nicely is known as the Science here). The combination is quite awesome, and leads to some interesting approaches to dealing with the vast number of obstacles the team have to contend with. There are also hints of something (still undefined) in the distant past, some kind of even more advanced technology than steam, which is totally cool. I love these sudden swerves in the world-building; just when you think you've got it straight in your head, along comes a whole new line of development, which was even foreshadowed from the start (for those who paid attention, which I obviously didn't).

The plot is to kidnap the emperor from a moving train filled with soldiers, which if you thought about it for even a second would strike anyone as probably not the sanest thing to do. But - logical brain switched off, right? Besides, the plot is just an excuse for some dramatic highjinks on the train, involving guns and crossbows and smokebombs and who knows what else, not to mention clambering from carriage to carriage, along the roof and even under the train. Plausible? Not really, but that's not the point.

The real joy of these books lies with the characters. Besides Amaranthe and Sicarius, slowly inching towards a romantic relationship (actually not even inching, this is sixteenth of an inch stuff), there’s Maldynado the delightfully self-obsessed nobleman, Basilard the mute former pit fighter, Books the academic, and Akstyr the magic-worker. This time we also get Yara, the gruffly upright enforcer, and Sespian the young emperor too, which livens up the mix. All of them have their own distinct personalities and industrial-strength back-stories as well, so they're all believably well-rounded characters. The charm is in the banter between them and the peculiarly daft way they go about things. There's enough laugh-out-loud humour here to lighten even the tensest moments.

The ending, sadly, is a great big cliff-hanger of a moment. Some of the threads specific to this book are resolved but our heroes are plunged into a major crisis. I'm not a big fan of this trick, but sometimes an author has to follow where the plot leads, and this is, after all, the fourth in the series, so anyone still reading is probably in it for the long haul. Luckily for me, the next book is already out (actually the series has now wrapped up, so I'm way behind), so - onward and upward. Four stars.

Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Musings: A To Z Bookish Survey

This has been going the rounds (you can play at home, too).

Author you’ve read the most books from:
If I include all time records from my pre-Goodreads days, probably Agatha Christie or Georgette Heyer, the only authors where I've attempted to work through their entire bibliography. In recent times? Michael J Sullivan is the most I’ve read under one name, but Daniel Abraham takes the prize by writing under three pseudonyms in three genres.

Best Sequel Ever:
Hmm, how are we defining a sequel? I can’t think of any true sequel that I’ve read (as opposed to something that was just part of a series), so I’ll nominate a prequel instead: Michael J Sullivan’s The Crown Tower.

Currently Reading:
Blood and Betrayal by Lindsay Buroker (see J below). Also working slowly through the Unfettered anthology.

Drink of Choice While Reading:
Mostly it's orange and mango juice diluted with sparkling mineral water, a habit acquired on holiday in New Zealand, where they sell pre-mixed bottles of the stuff. If I get the chance to read in the evening, mine's a single malt whisky with a little water on the side, thanks. Bowmore or Lagavulin, for preference.

E-reader or physical book?
What's a physical book??? Seriously, I don't read dead tree books any more. I read on my Kindle Paperwhite or else on computer, tablet or phone.

Fictional Character You Probably Would Have Actually Dated In High School:
You're joking. No one writes books about the sort of bloke I'd have actually dated. Book characters have to have personalities, for a start. Now if you'd asked who I'd like to have dated - easy peasy, Ruuel from Andrea K Höst's Touchstone trilogy was the last fictional character I had the hots for.

Glad You Gave this Book a Chance:
The Demon of Cliffside by Nathan Fierro, one of those ‘my mate wrote a book’ recommendations on Reddit, which turned out to be one of the most original books I’d ever read.

Hidden Gem Book:
The Light of Kerrindryr by H Anthe Davis. The author approached me to ask about a review or I’d never have heard of it, and I was just blown away by it.

Important Moment in Your Reading Life:
First one: reading Lord of the Rings for the first time, in hardback with those cute little fold-out maps stuck inside the back cover. Second one: reading Andrea K Höst’s Medair duology and realising that yes, fantasy can have female characters every bit as active, sensible and intelligent as men (that is, normal) and societies where women are treated the same way as men. Everything I’ve read since has been judged through that lens.

Just Finished:
Conspiracy by Lindsay Buroker. On no, a cliffhanger ending...! See C above.

Kind of Books You Won’t Read:
Zombies and other mindless unkillable things. Because what’s the point of mindless things?

Longest Book I’ve Read:
Dunno. Probably Lord of the Rings. A Dance With Dragons is pretty huge too.

Major Book Hangover Because Of:
Mark Lawrence’s Broken Empire trilogy. Had to read two books in different genres before I could even contemplate reading fantasy again. Still awed by it.

Number of Bookcases You Own:
Five with my books in them, plus a loft full of boxes of books.

One Book You Have Read Multiple Times:
The Lord of the Rings. At one time I reread it every year, then lapsed, then restarted before the films came out.

Preferred Place to Read:
Sitting in bed, but I don’t get the chance very often. Otherwise, at my desk, on the floor in front of the fire, on buses/trains/planes, anywhere I can convince myself there’s nothing else I ought to be doing.

Quote That Inspires/Gives the Feels:
Inspires? This one from F W Wallace in Stormfront:
“The monsters are gone."
"Really?" Doubtful.
"I killed the monsters. That's what fathers do.”

But for fun, I like this one, by Michael J Sullivan in The Crown Conspiracy (the guy just has the best sense of humour):
“I just want to say, for the record, as far as Royal protectors go, you're not very good."
"It's my first day," Royce replied dryly.
"And already I am trapped in a timeless prison. I shudder to think what might have happened if you had a whole week.”

Reading Regret:
Not liking Daughter of the Empire by Raymond Feist and Janny Wurtz. I’ve seen Janny on Goodreads, and she’s such a lovely lady, I so badly wanted to like the book, but I just hated the main character.

Series You Started and Need to Finish:
Loads. I have a whole shelf on Goodreads for continuations of series I’ve started, books I own but just haven’t got round to. Patrick Rothfuss. Ben Aaronovitch. Martha Wells’ Raksura series. Robin Hobbs’ Farseer trilogy (these are so big, my heart sinks just thinking about them).

Three of Your All Time Favorite Books:
Can I have complete series? The Long Price Quartet by Daniel Abraham. The Broken Empire trilogy by Mark Lawrence. The Touchstone trilogy by Andrea K Höst. Or maybe her Medair duology. No, no, The Champion of the Rose. Dammit, do I have to pick just three?

Unapologetic Fan Girl For:
Daniel Abraham, in all his disguises. And Andrea K Höst.

Very Excited For This Release:
The next book in Daniel Abraham’s Dagger and Coin series.

Worst Bookish Habit:
In my dead tree book days, I was a spine-breaker, which my daughter tells me is the most heinous of crimes. Now the worst thing I can do is drop my Kindle (whereupon I switch to backup Kindle).

X Marks the Spot: Start At Top Left and Pick the 27th Book on Your Shelf:
Calibre is my virtual bookcase now, so I alphabetised my collection (which I used to do with my real books) by author name, and the 27th book is Murder on the Mind by L L Bartlett, a 4* mystery which was free! Yay for free books!

Your Latest Book Purchase:
Darkness Rising, Book 4: Loss by Ross M Kitson, one of my favourite indie authors.

Zzz-snatcher Book:
Daniel Abraham’s Long Price Quartet. The final part kept me up till 3am, then I got up again at 7am, grainy-eyed, to carry on. Got nothing else done that day.

Here are some others:
On starships and dragonwings

Monday, 9 September 2013

Fantasy Review: 'The Living Sword' by Pemry Janes

This is rather a short book, closer to a novella than a full-length novel, but it packs a hefty punch for its size. Eurik is a human who was found as a baby in a boat with his dead parents, and raised by a non-human island-based society called the San. Ah, the orphan of unknown heritage story, that's always a good one, if a little over-used. The opening chapters, where we see Eurik living amongst the very alien San, are terrific. I'm a big fan of non-human societies, and this one has been very well thought out. But then, sadly, Eurik is given the living sword of the title, the only possession found on the boat, and told he has to leave the island to find out what happened to his parents, and where they came from. This means living amongst humans for the first time, a race (or species, maybe?) he's previously only read about in books.

The humans, frankly, are less interesting, because their way of life is very similar to that of millions of other fantasy human societies. It’s the differences, the idiosyncrasies of this world that make it interesting. Fortunately, the author doesn't belabour the idea that the human world is very new to Eurik. He's well read, so he manages to recognise many ordinary items (bread, for instance) from book descriptions. It would be tedious if every common item he saw was described through his eyes as something novel and strange. Still, he does seem to accept things very quickly, without too many ‘whoa! whatever’s that’ outbreaks.

There’s some nice world-building going on here, with various different races and languages and customs which have clearly been well developed. The author doesn’t infodump all this background, it’s simply there, and the reader just has to keep up with the various references to the unknown. Sometimes, there’s an explanation later or the meaning becomes clear, but there were a few times when just a little extra detail would have made it easier to follow and increased the richness of the world. For instance, there are throwaway lines about the San being ‘tree-people’ and ‘genderless’. Hold it right there, that sounds interesting, tell me more. But no, the story moves swiftly on.

I very much liked the two forms of magic being used, or rather one form of magic and one which is merely a different philosophy (I liked Eurik’s insistance that the amazing things he can do, purely through his mind, is not magic). The San method of steering a boat is particularly clever, and it’s amazing just how much can be achieved by shifting earth about. It’s clear the author has worked things out very carefully, and there are rules and limits and costs involved. And for those who like wizardy-type battles, there are some absolute crackers in here.

The characters fell a little flat, for me. Eurik, in particular, is a very unemotional bloke, and considering all that happens to him and the fact that he’s tossed out of the world he’s known from babyhood and into a very different world, he seems almost implausibly stoical. Some of his actions, too, are just too relaxed, such as when he decides to talk to the fighting San by signing up for the contest and walking out into the arena. I can’t believe this was the only way he could get to see the San. Admittedly, it led to a great scene, but it seemed to me that Eurik was far too calm about it. I would have liked to see a little more reaction from him at times. He gets involved in some truly terrifying incidents along the way, so a little bit of fear at the time and angst afterwards would make him more human. Or maybe that’s the point, that he’s been so well taught by the San that he has lost some of his humanity. In which case, that was a bit too subtly done, since it’s only just occurred to me. Doh.

Of the other characters, the only one that most stands out in my mind is Broken-Fang. Gotta love a captured female who doesn’t wait around to be rescued. There are some interesting side characters along the way too, and I have to give an honourable mention to one of the most important characters, the living sword himself. He (can a sword have a gender? I certainly thought of it as male) has a very distinct and entertaining personality all his own, although his inexplicable lack of knowledge until the plot requires it veers dangerously close to deus ex machina. There are some villains, but they simply appear out of nowhere and their motives seem a bit suspect.

The plot is rather episodic, with spells of furious magic-fuelled battles interspersed with ambling through the scenery or finding inns and such like. The book has a somewhat unfinished air, and seems quite disjointed. For instance, a section starts off: “They entered Campan together, passing the watchtower they'd seen from afar.” There’s virtually no description of Campan itself (it’s a town, as we find out a few lines later, but when I first saw the name, it could be almost anything - a country, a swamp, a fort, a castle...), and no warning beforehand that they were heading that way. This is very jarring (I actually searched to find out if I’d missed an earlier reference). A line or two linking the previous section to the arrival at Campan would help the book flow better. There are a number of places where a few extra lines of description would help to bridge these gaps. The writing is fairly untidy, with numerous punctuation errors, misplaced words and a couple of wrongly used words (shoulders instead of soldiers, feint instead of faint). This didn’t bother me unduly (I’m more of a grammar pedant), but some might find it distracting.

This is a difficult book to review. On the one hand, I enjoyed it a great deal, especially everything to do with the San and their ‘philosophical’ form of magic. The world-building was good, and the plot was full of drama. On the other hand, the choppiness of the writing, the sloppy editing and the lack of background information in places, often jarred me out of immersion. Still, I was never tempted to stop reading and the action moments were very good, even if sometimes events seemed a bit contrived. Three stars.

Thursday, 5 September 2013

Fantasy Review: 'The Crown Tower' by Michael J Sullivan

Prequels are difficult. Fans already know everything that happens down the line, so it’s hard to create enough tension and uncertainty (It’s a battle! Will they survive??? Um, sure they will. Oh.). The characters are established, but there has to be enough information for new readers to follow along without boring the fans witless. It’s a tricky balancing act, but Mr Sullivan pulls it off magnificently. I loved this book to pieces, almost more than the original books (The Riyria Revelations), if that isn’t too sacrilegious. It’s a fun, easy to read, exciting romp, with the bonus of characters that have already had the benefit of several books to become beautifully well-rounded.

The plot, in brief: our heroes, Royce the cold-blooded assassin/thief, and Hadrian the highly trained soldier weary of killing, are brought together by eccentric academic Arcadius for one seemingly impossible job. They have to steal a journal from the top of the Crown Tower, home of the main religious leader, and bring it to Arcadius to read. And the sticking point is that, even though Royce can do the job single-handed, they both have to go. The meat of the story lies in their mutual dislike and disrespect, and how they gradually learn to overcome both and reach a somewhat more amicable working relationship. This part of the book, as they undertake their impossible mission, sniping at each other every step of the way, is full of dramatic adventures, with an unexpected twist at every turn, but it is also sharply funny, and I loved every single minute of it. We get point of view chapters from both Hadrian and Royce, which adds to the tension, as we see clearly just how deeply they each dislike the other. It’s very cleverly done.

There is also a parallel story featuring Gwen, a downtrodden prostitute at the town of Medford. After one of the other girls is killed by a client who then simply pays off the brothel owner and the law, Gwen decides to set up her own brothel, with better working conditions. I’ve always liked Gwen, but she was a background character in the Revelations trilogy, albeit an important one, and I wished I knew more about her. Finding out something about her history and her ‘gift’ was interesting. However, at first I wondered just how exciting it was going to be reading about how she sets up her new business. Gwen goes shopping. Gwen deals with a smoking chimney. Gwen gets some carpentry done. Gwen applies for a permit. Hmm. But Gwen is a smart and resourceful lady, and I loved her clever ways of getting things done. I enjoyed finding out more about her gift, as well, and even though it sometimes felt a bit too convenient for the plot, there were some nicely chilling moments. In the end, the two parallel and seemingly disconnected stories (Royce/Hadrian and Gwen) collided in the most satisfying way imaginable, and even after that there’s a neat little twist at the end, which was fun.

I recently read the author’s venture into science fiction, ‘Hollow World’, which is a very different animal. There’s the same pacy action and array of fascinating characters, but there are also a thousand different ideas jumping up and down for attention, making it a deeply thought-provoking work. ‘The Crown Tower’ is pure entertainment and not ideas-driven, although there are some sharp asides tossed out along the way for those who notice them to savour, but what both share is the author’s trademark attention to detail in plot and character which make him such a joy to read. This is a perfectly judged story which works fine for newcomers, but also supplies some delightful moments for fans of the main series too. Mr Sullivan is a master story-teller writing at the top of his game. I enjoyed this so much I can’t possibly give it anything less than five stars.