Friday, 25 October 2013

Mystery Review: 'Hit And Run' by Doug Johnstone

You’d think it would be hard to mess up a book like this. Three kids are driving home from a night out, off their heads on booze and pills, when their car hits a pedestrian on a quiet road. They drag the body into the undergrowth and drive home. Great premise, right? Will they get caught? The twist is that the car driver is the cub reporter for the local paper, assigned to report on the death of what turns out to be a notorious local gang leader. Exciting stuff. Or maybe it would be if said cub reporter wasn’t the stupidest person on the planet, stuffing himself with every drug known to man (or his doctor brother, in this case), behaving in insane ways and taking ludicrous amounts of physical damage yet still going out and single-handedly... No, I can’t even write it. And of course the widow gets the hots for him, and don’t even mention the ending.

This is one of those oddities that had me rolling my eyes so fast I couldn’t see straight. I simply can’t summon the enthusiasm to write a proper review. I suppose it appeals to a certain type of reader. However, for me, a book needs to have characters who a) actually share some passing resemblance to, you know, actual people, not just wish-fulfilment; and b) behave in realistic, or at least believable, ways. And no, saying the guy’s had a bump on the head isn’t sufficient explanation for the dumbass things he does. If you like pseudo-noir set in Edinburgh and you can overlook the beyond-incredible plot, you might like this. I finished it, skimming the last quarter, so two stars for that. And the dog was sorta cute (in a pointless way).

Thursday, 24 October 2013

Fantasy Review: 'The Fall of Ventaris' by Neil McGarry and Daniel Ravipinto

The first book in this series, ‘The Duchess of the Shallows’, was a breath of fresh air, a fantasy work set in a single city, with compelling characters and a beautifully woven plot, filled with double-dealing and double meanings, where nothing and nobody can be taken quite at face value. I could say that this is more of the same, which is true as far as it goes, but it doesn’t do the book justice. This time we begin to see far more of the underpinnings of the city, both literally (the maze of tunnels and caves dating back much further than the present regime) and in political terms, as Duchess is drawn into the orbit of the upper echelons of society. The three main religions also feature heavily, and we learn a lot more of the history of the city and of Duchess herself. If this sounds like a lot of ground to cover, it is, but the authors skillfully weave the many different strands together to create a brilliantly nuanced picture of Rodaas and its people, which comes alive in a way that the first book didn’t quite manage, for me.

Unlike the first book, which had a single audacious theft as its heart, this one has multiple plot threads. For one, Duchess decides to set up business with a talented young weaver who is unable to get guild membership because she’s not Rodaasi. I found the motivation for this move a bit unclear; it seemed rather an odd thing for Duchess to want to do. However, Jana, the weaver, is a lovely addition to the character list, and her Domae culture adds depth to the story. Then there's a ring stolen by dodgy gaming practices to retrieve, and a scheme to provide Duchess with a skilled swordsman as a bodyguard. Again, the bodyguard scheme seemed an odd thing for Duchess to want to do. While it led to some exciting moments, and the bodyguard came in very handy for a couple of incidents (a warrior-type is a great addition to the book, in my opinion), but then at a crucial moment he leaves Duchess on her own. It struck me as being a bit implausible (methinks I smell a plot device). However, all of these are dealt with in Duchess's usual audacious style (read: almost impossible to pull off), so there’s plenty of action along the way.

These various schemes, however credible or otherwise they may be, give Duchess the excuse to move around the city, and it is her adventures in the various districts and below the surface that bring the book to vivid and dramatic life. Some of her encounters are unforgettable: the strange candlelit ceremony at one temple, the meeting with the facet (priestess) in another and the events underground, for instance. The facets are a truly spine-chilling invention, a sort of hive-mind of masked women, all identical, and there’s a moment near the end, when the hive-mind slips slightly, which is awesome.

The characters are as believable as always. Lysander is (as before) my favourite, but I liked Jana and Castor (the bodyguard), too. Duchess makes a very sympathetic lead, although she’s a little reckless for my taste. Is that a hint of a romantic interest for Duchess in Dorian? Even the minor characters have a complexity which is refreshing, and add depth to the story.

What didn’t work so well for me? As with the first book, I found the convoluted plot threads a tad too tricky to follow all the time, so there were references along the way that I just didn’t get. Sometimes there would be a line revealing some possibly crucial information (‘Ah, so that’s what so-and-so meant...’), which just whizzed over my head altogether. There is also the constant problem that everyone Duchess encounters may possibly be double-crossing her, so I tend to regard every new character as potentially hostile. I found myself always waiting for the double-cross from them. In fact, mostly they were surprisingly helpful and even charming, perfectly willing to further Duchess’s ends, while (obviously) working for their own ends as well. In some ways, everything was a little too easy for Duchess, as things fell into place rather readily. The retrieval of the ring, for instance, was a real let-down.

One issue that bothered me was the bodyguard, whose name started as Pollux and then changed to Castor, with an overt reference to the mythological twins. Does this mean, then, that we are in our own world at some future point? Or perhaps this is an alternate world, that happens to have some common history. Either way, it jolted me out of the story altogether for a while.

A highlight for me was the uncovering of some of Duchess's family history. For the first time, there is some detail about what actually happened when her father died and she was torn away from the safety of her family. More significantly, we learn what should have happened that night, and some of what went wrong. The suggestion that perhaps her brother and sister may have survived too opens up all sorts of intriguing possibilities.

As with the first book, the authors have pulled off an impeccable blend of mystery, action and world-building, combined with compelling characters about whom it's all too easy to care deeply. Who could be unmoved by Lysander and his friends, dealing with tragedy in the only way they can; or by Duchess, accepting the truth about Lysander for the first time, or realising the sort of life she might have had if events had gone otherwise, and coming to terms with her life as it now is? And then there was her final meeting with one of the facets, which was truly heartbreaking. This is a polished and cleverly thought out book which would repay a second read to understand all the nuances and subtexts. Highly recommended for those who like depth to their fantasy. A very good four stars.

Friday, 18 October 2013

Mystery Review: 'Entangled' by Cat Clarke

Recently I went to my local independent bookstore to buy a book to send to a just-twelve-year-old. What would you recommend, I asked the lady in charge. How about ‘The Hunger Games’, she said. Erm, children fighting each other to the death? I don’t think so. But this was on the same shelf, it has a great cover and it sounded vaguely romancey. When I got it home, I found I already had it on my Kindle (don’t remember buying it, let alone why). So I started reading. Well. Suicide, self-harm, teenage pregnancy, promiscuity and lots and lots of alcohol. What are they selling to children these days?

It starts well. Seventeen-year-old Grace wakes up in a completely white room, held captive by a strange man, Ethan. There are pens and paper in the room, so she starts writing, both about her captivity and the last few months before it. The story alternates between present and past, and there’s an embedded mystery in each: why Grace is a prisoner, and what happened to her best friend Sal the previous Easter.

The greatest strength of the book is the way the author conveys Grace’s personality. There were just one or two moments when an edge of adult wisdom showed through, but generally the story was Grace, totally and utterly. She’s a total mess, drinking too much, sleeping around, not getting on with her mum, cutting herself when it all gets too much. And there we have the greatest weakness of the book in a nutshell. The reader naturally has a lot of sympathy for Grace, who has had a difficult life and isn’t coping well, but she’s not a likeable character to read a whole book about. There’s a certain horrified fascination in watching her falling apart, like watching a train-wreck in excruciatingly slow motion or that accident on the other side of the motorway that you just can’t tear your eyes from, but it’s not something that makes for an enjoyable book.

As the two parallel stories unfolded, I began to find Grace more and more tedious. The chirpy, totally Grace-centric twittering, oblivious to the world around her, is no doubt authentically teenage, but it gets old really quickly. By the half-way point, I’d had enough and was reading faster and faster just to get to the end and find out the solution to the twin mysteries. That’s where we come to the other big weakness of the book: the plot is just so predictable. The kidnapping part of the story distills very quickly into a couple of obvious and unoriginal possibilities, and the real-life mystery is so blindingly obvious that it’s impossible to believe that Grace herself doesn’t work it out straight away. OK, there is a little bit of a swerve at one point, but it’s not enough to save things.

And then, just when all hope seems to be lost, the author pulls out an ending which, despite the predictability, is beautifully written and very moving. This is one of those books where I can admire the cleverness of the writing without reservation. The author gets convincingly into Grace’s head, and the voice is very consistent. It’s not enough, however, to mask the weak plotting, and somehow I never felt the empathy with Grace that one looks for with a main character. A disappointing three stars.

Sunday, 13 October 2013

Fantasy Review: 'The Rose and the Thorn' by Michael J Sullivan

The second part of the Riyria prequels. The first part, ‘The Crown Tower’, was such riotously good entertainment that I gave it five stars. This one... well, it starts badly. It’s nice finding out about Hilfrid, a minor character with an important role in the main Riyria series, but really, our introduction to him is a total cliché-a-thon. Hilfrid gets bullied by the local youths. Hilfrid can’t defend himself. Hilfrid is low-born. Hilfrid’s dad’s a drunk. Hilfrid is a bastard (oh, pur-lease, as if anyone cared about that in the middle ages; and for anyone who argues this is an alternative version of the middle ages, why impose certain modern values on it?). Then there’s our lovely princess, the thirteen year old Arista, already the wilfully spirited and rebellious young lady we’ll come to know and love later (or not, in my case). And, a credibility crisis; Arista is riding around the countryside in a purple silk gown, the silk imported all the way from exotic Calis and given to her as a birthday present. Really? Seriously?

But the second chapter is the short story (‘The Viscount and the Witch’) which the author made available some time back, here slotted into its rightful sequence in events, wherein Royce and Hadrian, everybody's favourite thieves, make their appearance, and from then on things look up. I'm still not much enamoured of the Hilfrid story, or the dull infighting between the nobles, but the rest of it is fun, although with a darker edge at times. Anyone who’s familiar with the author’s work knows what to expect - action all the way as our heroes face up to crisis after crisis. Mr Sullivan is a master of intricate plotting, and even though this is a relatively quick, easy read, there’s enough going on to keep the reader enthralled and the pages turning.

This book doesn't work quite as well as 'The Crown Tower'. It's tedious when the main point of tension is that a character has been beaten up. Sure, these are violent times, but it would be nice to have a little variety (fortunately, the events surrounding Rose are much more creative). There's a problem here, too, for those who've read the original Riyria series: much of what happens and the reasons for it are already known. This removes a great deal of the what-will-happen tension. With Hilfrid, for example, as soon as it's obvious who he is, we know exactly what the main crisis of the plot will be and how it will turn out. The political subplot holds no surprises either, although there's some nicely drawn irony. And - the biggest problem - the focus is frequently off the two main characters. Royce and Hadrian are the stars of the Riyria show, and the banter between them lights up the whole book, so it's a disappointment to find so little of the two of them, and that somewhat darker than might be expected.

I enjoyed this, on the whole. For über-fans, there’s a lot of fun in seeing Arista, Alric, Mauvin and Fanen as children, in seeing the whole royal family as they once were, and in seeing the roots of the later machinations against the throne. For newcomers - the book undoubtedly works as a stand-alone, but there’s a whole lot of subtext that will just whizz by, which is a pity. My real concern is that there are some ten more years to fill in before the start of events in the main series, and undoubtedly there will be pressure from fans for Mr Sullivan to sit down and write all those books. It would be so easy; the characters already exist, much of the plot already exists, the setting is there, so all he has to do is weave his unique brand of magic and rustle up more entertaining Riyria tales, and away you go. Lots of happy fans, and an income for life.

I hope he doesn’t do that. Much as I enjoy reading about Royce and Hadrian, I also enjoyed the author’s foray into sci-fi, ‘Hollow World’, a much edgier and more interesting work, if a little uneven. So I know his imagination is capable of writing about far more than a pair of rogues. So maybe another Royce/Hadrian episode every few years, and in between - something more challenging, please, Mr Sullivan. Four stars.

Saturday, 5 October 2013

Fantasy Review: 'Darkness Rising 4: Loss' by Ross M Kitson

This is the fourth part of a six-book series, and if that sounds like a Wheel-of-Time-esque slog, it’s not as bad as it sounds. The series was planned as a trilogy, which is standard fantasy fare, and it was the publisher’s decision to split it into six smaller books. Whether that was a wise move or not is a moot point.

I read the first two books (‘Chained’ and ‘Quest’) as the originally intended single volume, and I loved the epic-standard world-building, the array of well-rounded characters and the literate writing style. The third book (‘Secrets’), worked less well for me as the complexity increased, and the action began to dominate. This book starts well. It’s always a problem with a series as complex as this to get the reader up to speed on the events of previous books. Some authors sprinkle little reminders here and there, and some don’t feel the need to bother (we’re presumed to have encyclopedic memories, presumably, or to reread everything before the new release - well, stuff that, life’s too short). But Kitson produces perhaps the most creative approach yet to the problem, having the characters fill the reader in, and all in their own inimitable style. Way to go.

Everything I liked about the previous books is all here. The world has awesome depth and breadth, the characters feel real, the writing is as good as ever if slightly overblown at times, and there’s a touch of humour here and there. The magic system is simple enough: elemental magic powered by crystals or gems, but with wild magic thrown into the mix as well. The things I liked less well are also here: the evil villains bent on global domination, the hordes of mindless minions, the over-the-top action scenes with mages hurling fireballs at each other (although the earth mages were quite fun).

The risk with creating a full-blown epic fantasy in the traditional style is that sooner or later the complexity grows to such a level that it’s liable to overwhelm the story. There’s a moment to pull back and start drawing the threads together again, but unfortunately Kitson hasn’t yet reached that point. The characters that I loved so well in the first book are here choked by the need to move the plot along and rarely have time to breathe between bouts of action. With characters this well-realised, there needs to be time for them to express some emotional depth, otherwise they become caricatures, wheeled onstage as plot devices and then smartly pushed off again to make way for the next battle. Sadly, I never felt engaged by the characters; the romantic entanglement seemed contrived, and the deaths were dealt with in an almost perfunctory fashion. Even the world-building feels stifling here. It pains me to say this when a world is so brilliantly conceived down to the last detail, but I could have done with a little less history and fewer info-dumps (although they were mercifully short).

Perhaps the worst problem for me is that the plot has become predictable. Time after time our heroes find themselves in an impossible situation, overwhelmed by the enemy, yet miraculously manage to pull through. Even grievous injuries barely seem to slow them down. There were one or two nice twists at the end but otherwise I could see everything that had to happen, and I’m not the most astute of readers.

This may sound very negative, but I want to make it quite clear that this is a purely personal perspective. I look for character-driven fantasy first and foremost, and here the characters have become subservient to the action. But everything that didn’t work for me is something that another reader would find awesome. For anyone who relishes a well-written traditional epic fantasy with multiple bands of characters roving across the landscape on intertwining quests, heroes facing impossible odds, humungous battles full of wizardry and an array of evil-to-the-core bad guys, this is definitely the series for you. Enjoy! But for me it was only two stars.