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.

Saturday, 30 November 2013

YA Fantasy Review: 'Hunting' by Andrea K Höst

Now here’s a thing: a book by Andrea K Höst that doesn’t set me on fire. It’s a perfectly fine, entertaining read, you understand, a solid YA fantasy with a little romance, but it just doesn’t quite have that extra something that normally lifts the author’s writing out of the ‘good’ column and into the ‘awesome’. That makes me sad.

It starts badly. The first few chapters are a blizzard of names and titles and nicknames and throwaway references to customs and ideas that the average reader can’t possibly understand. And is that an orphaned heroine of mysterious background I see before me? (Well, not quite but close enough.) And - surely not? - that can’t be a girl masquerading as a boy? But it is. Can we say ‘overused tropes’ here? Naturally the author is far too creative not to put her own twist on all this, but it’s still a slightly underwhelming start.

The magic of this world is quite intriguing. The rulers are chosen by the gods, rather than simply inheriting their power, and the gods give them a direct connection with their land. Their job is to maintain the balance of the land, so that it’s not overused or neglected, and they have powers to enable them to do that. The gods also intervene at death, choosing whether a soul is worthy to go to the sun god (a heaven equivalent), or goes to a different god to be cleaned up first. A very few are rejected outright, if they’ve been very evil, or are reborn, if they have some task to finish.

The plot involves someone going round bumping off herbalists. The heroine, Ash, the one pretending to be a boy, is a friend of one of those murdered, and is taken up by outsider Thornaster to help him investigate the murders, since she has some knowledge of herbs. So there’s a lot of sneaking around, and improbable mingling with the nobility, and dramatic rescues of various characters from attempted murders and the like. And it’s all great fun and a nice, easy read, so long as you switch off all logical thought.

The whole girl pretending to be a boy thing is the biggest obstacle for me. Is it really possible to do this convincingly? The author has considered some of the difficulties, like breasts and periods and ways of walking, but I always wonder quite how you’d get away with not being able to pee standing up. And here Ash is mingling with an entirely masculine crowd, yet nobody wonders why she always sneaks away to pee?

But if you can get past that, the story rolls along very nicely, in the usual crisis-resolution, crisis-resolution way, and I suppose the final explanations and tidying up of loose ends made some sense. It just all seemed a bit less surprising and a bit more ordinary than I’d anticipated. The romance, such as it was, started too easily and resolved itself without very many difficulties. There were some nice moments along the way, though, and I rattled through this at a fair pace, without ever losing interest. This is, by any standards, an enjoyable read. It’s only by comparison with some of the author’s other work that it falls a little short. Three stars.

Monday, 25 November 2013

Fiction Review: 'Old Filth' by Jane Gardam

I think I must be losing my tolerance for books written to a theme, rather than the author’s burning desire to tell a story. This one is about Raj orphans, those children of parents busily engaged on the work of the British Empire in India or various parts of the Far East. While their parents swanned around the British Clubs and drank their gins and tonics and suffered from repeated bouts of malaria, the children were brought up by local ayahs or nannies, shipped home to relatives or foster parents at school age and shunted through boarding schools and Oxbridge until they, too, were old enough to be useful to the establishment.

And I’m sure it’s all deeply worthy and symbolic and all the rest of it. Parts of it are unexpectedly glorious, like little stars of perceptiveness in a velvet-black sky of nothingness. Trouble is, the whole wobbly edifice rests on the characters, and, frankly, I never cared about any of them. I like my fiction to tell a story, not be a collection of vignettes of eccentricity. Then there are outbreaks of unforgiveably pretentious writing: "...the train swayed insolently through Clapham Junction." I mean, good grief. I got through fifty percent before giving up. But it’s sold by the shed-load, and the most popular shelf on Goodreads is ‘book club’ so clearly it works for a lot of people. Just not for me. One star for a DNF.

Monday, 18 November 2013

Fantasy Review: 'Keepers of Arden: The Brothers, Volume 1' by L K Evans

This is one of those books with loads of interesting ideas where the execution falls a little flat. The concept of the human mother being forced to bear the child of a demon is not at all an original one (Rosemary's Baby, for instance), but there's always room for a novel twist on the idea. In this case, the demon is prevented from taking the child, and the child himself is prevented from total evil, by the unconditional love of his older brother. The mother, on the other hand, sees the child as nothing but a monstrosity and treats him very badly. We're so used to the idea of mothers loving their children no matter what that this is quite a difficult idea to read about, and made me wonder: just how would a mother react to such a child? I'm not convinced that Ashra would be quite so proud of her eldest son and loving towards him, while hating her youngest quite so strongly. And why doesn't Wilhelm, the eldest, notice the difference and lose respect for his mother?

The author has created a wonderfully detailed world as background for this story of two very different brothers. There is a mythology involving a god-love-triangle, and there are throwaway lines about drunken gods and the like which I found very intriguing. Then the Big Bad is referred to as ‘God’ by his head minion, which is interesting too. However, despite some nice little snippets of history, I never quite got a clear picture of how these gods fitted into the current picture, whether they were real or even whether they were good or evil. The rest of the world is obviously just as carefully thought out, but without a map or a little more detail it was hard to see quite what was what. Sometimes as our heroes travelled around the scenery, a character would say: ‘Well, I’ll just pop back to Falar for...’, which always took me by surprise. It’s that close and I never knew? The various towns are nicely differentiated from one another, it’s just me that needs some kind of a visual aid to help me understand the setting. Like a map. [Edit: there's actually rather a nice map provided, which I stupidly missed. Doh!]

There’s magic in this world, but it’s fairly limited in scope. There are just fourteen spells available to mages, they’re difficult to learn and to perform and they bite back if you get them wrong, killing the mage. Even if you get them right, you have to rest for a long time before you can perform them again. The mages actually forget each spell after it’s been used, and have to have a spell-book to remind themselves, which is a cool idea. As if that wasn’t tricky enough, mages are bound by restrictive laws and almost universally despised, so they can be attacked and even killed for no reason other than being mages.

The story follows the lives of two brothers, Wilhelm and Salvarias, the sons of a female mage struggling to make a living. Wilhelm’s father is a mystery, having disappeared shortly after getting Ashra pregnant. Nice guy (not), but he’s supposedly doing something important in the world, and I have no doubt he’ll turn up in a future book. I'm actually quite interested to meet dad, because Wilhelm has inherited some interesting genes. Enormous height and strength, for instance, as well as charm and (it seems) supernatural skills with the ladies (well, I've never heard of a fifteen year old who can perform such prodigious feats).

Salvarias is the demon-child, who inherits his mother’s mage abilities at an unusually early age. This book takes the story from Salvarias’s conception through to his late teens, and there are necessarily big gaps where several years pass between action episodes. The plot is very uneven, depending to a large extent on coincidence and, frankly, deus ex machina at times. The brothers find themselves out on the streets trying to survive, and almost the first person they meet is a friend not seen for many years who turns up out of the blue and looks after them. Other characters who might be expected to help are unaccountably missing when needed. A mage turns up in the nick of time to heal Salvarias, and then vanishes. All of this is very convenient. If there are plot-related reasons for these fortuitous events, they aren’t made clear.

The other characters, who pop up as needed and vanish the rest of the time, are not terribly realistic. They all tend to the handsome/beautiful end of the spectrum, and fall neatly into good or evil categories, without much blurring of the lines. Despite a running theme of who could be trusted, which had me on the watch for a traitor in their midst, there were no dramatic reveals (at least not in this book). The female characters (with the notable exception of Ashra, the mother) are frequently madonna types, sweet and maternal and in need of protection, with the occasional warrior-babe or raunchy type for variety. There's a very odd attitude to the romance element of the book. Wilhelm is much in demand with the ladies (with unlimited stamina, it appears), but as soon as love looms on the horizon, somehow sex is off the agenda. The old madonna/whore dichotomy.

The writing style is oddly awkward at times, with a few characteristic quirks. For instance, characters routinely 'accept' food or hugs, which sounds odd to my ears. Then there's the cloying closeness of the two brothers, where sometimes it seems as if every scene ends with them saying how much they love each other and hugging. There was way too much repetition of phrases, like Wilhelm's tree-like stature. There are numerous small typos scattered throughout, but nothing so egregious as to interfere with readability for me.

I've listed a lot of grumbles with this book, yet I was never tempted to give up on it, and the reason for that was very simple: the deeply compelling character of Salvarias. It's not easy to draw a character which is inherently evil, yet who struggles to overcome that evil every day. His dreams, his internal conversations with his (almost paternal-sounding!) father, his unique approach to life, and even his magic (anthropomorphised here, so that he has long conversations with it), make for a fascinating portrayal. I liked the way that different characters saw him in different ways, so as we moved from one point of view to another, we saw him as essentially evil or deeply charismatic. I was intrigued, too, with the mother, who could be so normally maternal with one son, while hating the other relentlessly. This is an uneven book, which would have benefited from tighter editing and (perhaps) losing some of its bulk. I found it frustratingly flawed, yet still a rewarding read. Three stars.

Saturday, 16 November 2013

Fiction Review: 'The Child Inside' by Suzanne Bugler

I'm not sure what to make of this book. It's not the sort of thing I normally read - it's contemporary, and might perhaps fit the literary genre. I'm not even sure why I bought it now. The premise is a straightforward one: Rachel, a married woman with a son, gives birth to a stillborn baby daughter, and this event colours her family's life for years afterwards. She retreats into herself, her husband does the same, and the surviving child becomes the focus of all their attentions. There's also an event in Rachel's past, a childhood friend from a higher level of society, who died of a brain tumour, and that too becomes something which defines Rachel.

The problems with this book are the typical ones for the genre. Because the setting is very ordinary, there's an element of over-writing the descriptive passages to make them more evocative. Sometimes this works quite well, as the author is quite perceptive, but sometimes it just feels like... well, over-writing. Then there's the plot. Given the premise above, what would be the tritest, least original plot-line you could think up? Yep, that's exactly how it goes. I won't reveal it, in case there are two people left on the planet who might be surprised by any of it, but it's a total cliche-a-thon.

The biggest problem, for me, is that the story fails one of my standard tests for plots: if the entire plot would collapse if the characters simply talk to each other, then that's an epic fail. Romances typically depend on the author finding ingenious ways for the main characters to misunderstand each other, and fantasy depends on wizards or dwarves who talk in cryptic riddles, but in modern settings it all has to be done by character. Is Rachel believable as the sort of person who simply doesn't talk to her husband? Is the husband believable as a man who quietly accepts his miserable life for nine years? Is it really credible that Rachel's sister is such a cow, or that the man she confides in is a total jerk? Some people would probably let such issues slide by, but for me it just didn't work.

Ultimately, this is the sort of story a reader might well enjoy by simply accepting the characters as they are, and empathising with their tragedy. I was never tempted to abandon it, even when it descended from contrived plot devices into a farcical level of melodrama at the end. Up to a point, I even enjoyed it, but other people's miserable lives aren't that interesting to me, and there were just too many obstacles to full enjoyment so that for me it never rose above three stars.

Urban Fantasy Review: 'The Whole Truth' by Jody Wallace

I don't read a lot of urban fantasy, but this one has a great premise: Cleo has an unusual talent. She can see when people lie, by way of a shadow mask that covers their face to a greater or lesser extent, depending how big the lie is. Sometimes the mask comments, too, betraying the person's real feelings. This is such a cool idea, but there's a dark side too. What must it be like to know, beyond any possibility of doubt, when someone lies to you? Your best friend? No, of course your bum doesn't look big in that. No, of course I’m not trying to steal your bloke. Yes, I'd love to see you tonight but I've really got to work. Your boyfriend? I love you. You're the only one. You're the best ever in bed. Eek.

So when Cleo is recruited by other 'supras' (people with similar talents), part of her is thrilled to be amongst people who understand, with whom she doesn't have to pretend. Sadly, Cleo is immediately sent undercover to winkle out a traitor amongst the supras, which involves a lot of hanging around people to watch for lies, and asking leading questions, so she's still on her own.

Cleo isn't the usual self-confident assertive female lead character so common in urban fantasy. Instead she's a much more realistic person, damaged to some extent by the lies she's been exposed to by everyone around her. However, her slightly chirpy voice and her constant mistakes get very wearing after a while. Another big problem: way too many characters to keep up with. I could possibly remember names, but trying to keep track of everyone's supra abilities (which they often hid, even from other supras) was impossible. And the plot fell over because it depended on Cleo being kept in the dark about crucial information. As she herself pointed out, if she'd been told everything right from the start, the problem could have been solved in five minutes.

Somewhere in the middle of the book things begin to pick up, and there's a secret about one character that I just didn't see coming. And at about the three quarters point, there's possibly the best sex-with-subtext scene I've ever read. Quite brilliant. But after that, things crater spectacularly. Firstly, after all the undercover work, the bad guys reveal themselves to Cleo after she makes an unbelievably stupid decision and puts herself into their power. Then things degenerate into a long-drawn-out and totally farcical melee of a finale. Authors really have to decide whether they're going for the serious, oh-no-everyone-might-die line, or whether it's going to be lighthearted fluff. Once characters start dying (well, one character, anyway), you're fairly well committed to serious, and fluff seems distasteful (to me, anyway).

There are a few loose endings left dangling, like the oft-mentioned but never seen step-father, and why did Beau conceal his true nature? But I guess there's a series in the pipeline, so there has to be fodder for future books. There were too many flaws and saggy moments for me to enjoy this completely, but even for a non-fan of urban fantasy like me, there were still plenty of fun moments, a few nice characterisations and that amazing sex scene. Recommended for fans of the genre, and it is a brilliant premise. Three stars.

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.

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.