Sunday, 22 December 2013

Fantasy Review: 'Destiny' by S J Faerlind

This is the third in the ‘Lirieia’s Children’ trilogy, following on from ‘Prophecy’ and ‘Affirmation’. The first was a slightly wobbly beginning, but the second was much more readable, for me, with tighter writing, plenty of action, and well-drawn characters. It ended with our heroes on the brink of battle.

It’s a year since I read ‘Affirmation’, and many other books have passed through my Kindle since. While I remember the main characters and the general drift of the story, the details are gone, and life’s too short to reread everything before the next volume. Unfortunately, the author makes no concession to readers like me at all. There’s no synopsis, virtually no in-text reminders. Here’s the opening paragraph:

“Their excitement was beginning to diminish, rapidly becoming replaced by exhaustion. Surveying the battlefield from the air, they cautiously allowed the bubble of Translocation energy they held to dissipate. The enemy archers were either dead or had fled and the last of the enemy forces were rapidly retreating through the Lord Defender’s Translocation portal, harried by Jurel’s Gryffin Guard.”

Any clues as to who ‘they’ might be? Believe it or not, it’s several pages before the identity of the opening characters becomes clear, and I struggled to keep up during the early chapters. Some of it came back to me as I read, but there are still mysteries; there’s a man called Ben, described regularly as a ‘jolly smith’, who was picked up by some of the characters in a previous book. Have I any idea how they met, or why he tagged along? Not in the slightest. Does it matter? Probably not, but it still sets me on edge.

Fortunately, I was able to pick up enough as I went along, either from clues in the text, or dredged from memory, to follow along, although I daresay I lost some of the subtleties. The main characters are Anarion, the half human, half Orryn, mage, and Teryl, his telepathically linked Gryffin pal. The various races are one of the great joys of this series. They each have their own unique characteristics, and the author is brilliant at applying them, through behaviour and dialogue. It’s possible to read a piece of dialogue out of context and know exactly what race was speaking, and that sureness never faltered. The different magic systems between the Orryn (who have innate magical capability) and humans (who power their magic through stones) is fascinating, and one of the key themes of the story. I was disappointed, however, that the tiny Grovale (the Gryffins’ servants) made no appearance in this book. I would have liked to know more about them.

The minor characters are more problematic. This is the downside of including several races, in that there are vast numbers of named characters, few of whom actually stand out. There were some I knew nothing about, not even what race they were. There were some who were more than just walk-on parts. Shayla was a great character, and her dealings with the Lord Defender (the villain of the piece) were brilliantly written, entirely in keeping with the personalities of both and very moving. Kaidal was another with a stand-out part to play.

And here we come to the main problem with this volume of the trilogy. The plot comes down to the question of how to defeat the Lord Defender. Since the major battle of the series was in book 2, and Anarion and his pals have run off to hide out in the desert away from his reach, the entire book revolves around planning to tackle the Lord Defender head on, and the best means to do that. Chapter after chapter involved large groups of people simply sitting around discussing the various options, and arguing about them. There was virtually no action, apart from the odd diversion for Anarion and Teryl to frolic with their lady friends, or a couple of experimental forays.

Eventually, however, we get to the final confrontation and suddenly things become interesting again. The resolution is both entirely appropriate for the races involved and yet quite unexpected, and I applaud the author for not taking the easy way out, but following the story to its logical conclusion. There is a teeny bit of arm-waving out-of-nowhere-ness, but even that made sense in the context of the story. And there are some really deep themes buried beneath all the magical portals and illusions and 'knowings', about what it really means to be human.

I find this a very frustrating review to write. This is a book which is brimming with creativity. It's taken some very original ideas and developed them in a logical and thought-provoking way. It could have been a great book, something I could happily give 5* to. It's a diamond of a story, but unfortunately it's an unpolished diamond. All the elements are there: great characters, great world-building, a great plot and magnificent attention to detail. The downside of attention to detail, though, is a tendency to throw in every little conversation and tie-up every conceivable plot thread, all at excessive length. With some editorial buffing, and excision of some of that wordiness, it could have been a true gem.

For those who aren’t bothered by the often dry wordiness, I can highly recommend the whole series. I enjoyed it and was captivated by the Orryn, the Gryffin and their very well drawn racial differences, and the ending was excellent. However, the flaws in this book in particular kept it to three stars for me.

Tuesday, 17 December 2013

Mystery Review: 'Wolf by the Ears' by Lexi Revellian

Some authors spend their whole careers writing the same book over and over. The names and plot twists and setting may vary, but readers know exactly what to expect. Lexi Revellian is not that kind of author. A new book is always a magical mystery tour. Will it be fantasy? Or maybe sci-fi? Will there be a murder or a kidnapping? But some things stay the same. There’s always a romance simmering. There’s always action and excitement and a heroine who falls into the normal range of humanity instead of being some super-badass weapon-wielding superwoman. And invariably they keep me totally hooked and put a great big smile on my face. Is it any wonder that a new Revellian book goes straight to the top of my to-read pile?

This one features wealthy Russian emigrants with secrets (the word ‘oligarch’ crops up a lot) and political tension and even spies and secret dossiers. Our heroine, Tyger, is the daughter of wandering hippies (which you could probably guess from the name) who missed out on a formal education, but is now determined to get a degree and a respectable job. So she cleans houses by day, pulls pints in a bar by night and studies for the Open University in what little spare time she has. Her latest cleaning job sees her working for Russian oligarch Grisha Markovic, but one day she arrives at work only to be held at gunpoint by a hooded man who forces her to unlock the doors and show him to Grisha’s room. And things go steadily downhill from there.

I liked Tyger very much. She’s practical and intelligent, she doesn’t take stupidly implausible risks, and she reacts to the increasingly worrying events around her in sensible and believable ways. Her not-really-a-boyfriend Kes is not quite so well-drawn, but then he doesn’t get so much screen time. The minor characters all seem very real, with distinctive personalities: Izzie the flirty barmaid, Chrissie the pernickety flatmate, Rose the hoarder, even Cherie the trapeze artist, a trivial walk-on part. It takes real writing talent to create characters that live and breathe and are still memorable when the book is finished. I did wonder how accurate the Russians’ distinctive accent was, but it sounded quite believable to me.

There was quite a lot of political backstory to squeeze in, and the author has clearly done her research; occasionally I felt I could have done with fewer details about Anglo-Russian relations or circuses or motorhome interiors, but that’s a very minor quibble. The London setting was brought vividly to life; and who would have thought there was a bathing pool for ladies only?

The plot raced along, and kept me turning the pages. However, despite the gun-in-hand cover picture, and the spies and bad-boy Russians theme, this never turned into one of those action-at-all-costs thrillers. This is a gentler, less violent (and much more realistic) version. There were plenty of dramatic moments, but in between life went on more-or-less as normal in a thoroughly British way. Some characters that I was sure were villains turned out not to be. Characters I thought might get bumped off survived. And always there was a patina of subtle humour which kept me chuckling.

Another great read from one of my favourite authors. Highly recommended for anyone looking for an entertaining mystery with a strong dollop of romance. I loved it, and yes, the ending put a great big smile on my face. A good four stars.

Friday, 13 December 2013

Fantasy Review: 'Seventh Night' by Iscah

The novella prequel to this book, 'The Girl With No Name', was hugely entertaining, a charming fairytale which was anything but traditional, with a nice line in humour and, for its short length, a surprising number of delightfully unexpected twists along the way. This is a full length (albeit still fairly short) novel in similar style, which somehow fell a bit flat for me. Maybe the charm of the novella just doesn't scale up, or maybe my grumpy pre-Christmas mood is at fault, but somehow the whimsy failed to enchant, the writing seemed less light and the humour was sprinkled too thinly, like a pizza with too little cheese.

Partly this is because of the rather old-fashioned writing style. Contractions (like 'can't' and 'don't') are avoided, every action is described in detail even when a character isn't doing anything interesting at all, and although there are various point of view characters, the author merrily tells us what everyone is thinking or feeling. There's nothing at all wrong with this, and I daresay for a fairy tale it's appropriate, but I much prefer a tighter writing style.

So here's the premise. There's a princess and a couple of princes and a magician's apprentice, there's an evil villain, there's a land where nobody has magic and a land where almost everybody has it. And there are winged unicorns, which (rather cutely) aren't necessarily able to fly properly, sometimes they just bounce a little as they run, like a plane on a particularly bumpy runway. There's a royal wedding and a kidnapping and an array of monsters to be faced. All good fun, although sometimes things got a little predictable. I liked that the princess was a smart cookie and able to get herself out of awkward scrapes. I disliked that too often things happened purely by chance, and she was saved by some lucky event.

The best character by far is the magician's apprentice, Phillip. Phillip? In a fairy tale? Erm, yes. The names in this story aren't really the best. Some characters have sensible fantasy-sounding names (Neithan, Kaleb, Sargon) and some have weird names (Seventh Night) and some have terrible names (the poor girl with no name from the prequel, who finally acquires a name half way through this book, and it's surely the worst name ever; and no, you'll have to read the book to find out what it is).

But then, just when I was preparing my oh-dear summary in my head, things took off, became charmingly unpredictable and ended with one of those wonderful moments that brighter people than I probably saw coming a mile away, but for me it came out of nowhere and just blew me away. So three stars for the slightly pedestrian air of the first three quarters, five stars for the brilliant ending, so an average of four stars.

Monday, 9 December 2013

Fiction Review: 'Major Pettigrew's Last Stand' by Helen Simonson

This is one of those pleasantly sweet little books that could have been something really good, profound even, but instead is as delicately insubstantial as a soap bubble. Major Pettigrew is a widower living in a small English village of the type familiar to readers of Agatha Christies Miss Marple, and just as unrealistic. Theres the usual array of gossiping, interfering women, led (almost inevitably) by the vicars wife, the men huddled in the bar of the golf club, trying to avoid the women, and the implausibly nice local bigwig, Lord Dagenham. All of this could have been written any time from the fifties onwards. The one modern note is the village shop, run by a Pakistani lady.

And thereby hangs the tale, because (after a series of fortuitous meetings) Major Pettigrew discovers Mrs Ali to be an educated and articulate lady, sharing with him a love of classic literature. Since she is a widow... well, you can see where this is going, cant you? It isnt an insult to call this book predictable, because I imagine the market its aimed at wouldnt want it any other way. So it follows the expected path to the expected ending, via a series of increasingly farcical and downright melodramatic set pieces, and diverting for a quite charming interlude in Wales, which for me was a high point.

The problem for me lay in the writing. The first half was filled with cardboard characters behaving implausibly, and a vague air of having been written by someone not familiar with the setting. There are odd outbreaks of Americanisms, and the vicar is referred to as Father Christopher, for instance. The old-fashioned air of the characters, particularly Major Pettigrew himself,  seems to have seeped out of a novel from decades ago. This makes sense, however, when you discover that, although the author was born and raised in Sussex, she has lived in America for the last twenty years. I suppose shes viewing her English home with a fond, if not quite accurate, memory.

The second half perks up a bit, so that some of the minor characters gain a bit of realism, and thankfully the vicar is more properly referred to as Vicar. The book is also lavished endowed with true British humour (that is, very dry and subtle), which I loved. There were many places where I laughed out loud. However, the melodrama of the dance and the episode on the cliffs was quite ridiculous, and I lost patience with it rather. The biggest failure, though, was in addressing the issues raised. The book is absolutely founded on the question of colour, religion and cultural differences, yet it never properly gets to grips with them, merely skating round the edges and using them for dramatic impetus without ever shining a light on them. The character of Ahmed Wahid was a missed opportunity to say something meaningful, but unfortunately the author chose to keep things light and fluffy. An enjoyable read, if you dont expect too much depth. Three stars.