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Saturday, 16 August 2014

Announcement

When I started this blog, a whole three years ago (a lifetime in computer terms), it was purely as a place to dump my Goodreads book reviews. Goodreads is a wonderful place and I love it dearly, but it isn't the easiest place to navigate (she said with commendable understatement). It takes forever to find my own reviews, and the search engine is inscrutable. But here, the cloud of author names makes it a breeze to find old reviews, so I can check what I said about parts 1, 2 and 3 while reviewing part 4 of a series.

In those three years, I became a contributor to another blog focused on speculative fiction, and I also became a writer, after years of dabbling and tinkering, and started a blog about my writing adventures. And, to be honest, three blogs is at least one too many. So I'm going to rationalise. This blog will now fossilise, keeping what's here as an archive, but without adding new material. All my future book reviews and book-related ramblings will now be posted at my writing blog, along with my occasional progress reports on my own writing and rants about the more arcane aspects of self-publishing. My fantasy and sci-fi book reviews will continue to be posted at Fantasy Review Barn, along with fellow contributors Nathan and Anachronist.

So hop over to one or other (or both) of those sites to keep up with my future book reviews:

My writing blog, with reviews of fantasy, sci-fi, mystery, romance and the occasional literary fiction affair that my book group insists on.

Fantasy Review Barn, for fantasy and sci-fi reviews from three very different bloggers.

Or you can catch all my accumulated book reviews at Goodreads.

Thursday, 14 August 2014

Fantasy Review: 'The Widow's House' by Daniel Abraham

The Widow's House (The Dagger and the Coin, #4)

Warning: this is the fourth book in a five-book series, and for anyone who hasn't read all the previous books, there will be spoilers ahead, so read at your own risk.

When I first saw the title of this book, I deduced that the widow was Clara, whose husband Dawson was executed as a traitor in a previous book. Clara had a walk-on part in the first book, and her own chapters thereafter, but now she finally takes centre-stage, not necessarily as a player in her own right (although to some extent she is), but more specifically as the mother of sons involved in different ways in the ongoing war. So, the widow's house: not a physical house, but house as in family.

Clara is one of four point of view characters, to cover the full scale of the war that's been gradually building since book one. The four are: Geder, the Regent and spider-priest-motivated driving force behind it; Cithrin, the banker opposed to him for personal as well as ideological reasons; Marcus the soldier with a long, battle-scarred history; and Clara herself. The book follows the Game of Thrones principle, where chapters from different characters rotate, although here the rotation is quite regular. This has the usual disadvantage: a cliff-hanger at the end of a chapter can't be resolved until that character's turn comes round again, usually four chapters later. Authors, please don't do this, it's very annoying. At its best, the plot flows seamlessly from one character's point of view to the next, but mostly there's that little hiccup of adjustment when you flip to a new chapter, that where-were-we? moment.

When Abraham pitched this series, he offered either a three book version or this, the five book version. This is the first point at which I'm tempted to say: three might have been better. The actual events of this book could be written on half an A4 sheet of paper, and not using an abnormally small font, either. The story doesn't sprawl in the way that some other, very expansive, series do (George R R Martin, I'm looking at you...), but it isn't tightly written, either. Now, in the hands of a master wordsmith like Abraham, this isn't a problem. A chapter curls around you like smoke, warm and comforting (like Clara’s pipe, if you want the full analogy), and it's only afterwards that you think: nothing very much happened there. This is particularly obvious with Clara's thread, since she's thrown into the role of an observer of the war and not much else. I like Clara, but her plotline was stretched very thin here.

The author's great strength (OK, one of his many great strengths - can you tell I'm a fan?) is the depth of characterisation and so it is here. All the characters feel fully rounded and as real as anyone you could meet in real life. Even Geder, or perhaps especially Geder. In many ways he’s a villain of the first order, but also a deeply insecure and uncertain man. And some of his moments with Prince Aster, the heir to the throne, show him as a caring, even compassionate man, with a certain wisdom. His care for the pregnant wife of his best friend (and possibly only friend) is both moving and slightly creepy in its intensity. The previous books were littered with horrifying 'Geder moments' like the burning of Vanai, or the summary execution of his closest advisers, with the result that you tiptoe through Geder’s chapters wondering when he’s going to explode. He still has no sense of perspective, and puts far too much trust in the spider priests who have an agenda of their own. The most worrying aspect of Geder, for me, is that I actually like him, or, I suppose, pity and sympathise with him. He's done some terrible things, but he's also an enormously tragic character, and part of me desperately wants him to find a happy ending, to settle down somewhere to a quiet, obscure life with his books.

Cithrin, on the other hand, irritates me. She always has, although her juvenile behaviour in the early books was at least understandable by virtue of her age and social inexperience. Her sole function seems to be to do incredibly stupid things for most of the book, or to lounge around in a drunken depression, getting into trouble and being rescued by everyone else, and then pull a rabbit out of a hat at the last minute and have everyone proclaim her a genius. Two cities have fallen solely because of her stupidity, and she's not done yet. Pah. Marcus I like a lot, although he's typical of the stoical, worldly-wise, slightly cynical warrior type, whose experience keeps him out of a lot of trouble. And keeps others out of trouble too. But then I have a soft spot for stoical, slightly cynical warrior types. And I do like sidekick Yardem. Especially his ears. It was nice to find out a little more of their dramatic history, and highly entertaining when the pair of them turned up at Carse to have everyone say: ‘Yeah, yeah, sure you’re Marcus Wester and Yardem Hale… Whoa!’

While we're on the subject of characters, I’m a big fan of Vincen Coe, Clara’s servant-turned-lover, but please, Mr Abraham, will you stop beating him up? However, my absolute favourite in this book has to be Inys (and if you don't know who Inys is, go back and reread book three, last chapter). Everything he says and does is entirely believable, given his history and his nature. Plus he has some of the best moments in the book. Him and the pirates. I mean, pirates and a dragon - what are you waiting for, folks? Go out and buy this book immediately.

There are a few minor grumbles. The cunning men (sorcerers, basically) become even more useful in this book, but there’s no explanation of what they do or how it works. Much of their capability is dismissed as mere trickery, put on to impress people, yet their talent for healing seems to be quite real and rather useful. A little more detail about them would be nice. And a surprising grumble: my Kindle version had an astonishing number of typos in it, far more than I would expect in a major release like this (and this wasn’t an ARC copy, it was the actual day-of-release version).

This book feels far more like a transition than the previous ones in the series. Everything is being put in place for the final confrontation, but there were no huge out-of-nowhere moments, just some nice little twists that made me smile. And somehow it felt repetitious, both in phraseology (fingers were repeatedly laced together, cotton was fresh from the boll), but also in plot terms - the Cithrin plan, the dramatic escapes, the out-of-nowhere attacks, yet I never felt that the main characters were seriously at risk. Even Geder was milder this time round, still creepy as hell, especially over Cithrin, but perhaps less likely to explode at any moment, channelling his energies into his best friend’s wife and baby, and a clever little piece of engineering research. However, the important factor in this book was the shift in attitude. From being an unstoppable force, Geder and the spider priests now have vulnerabilities, and the opposition have plans and weapons. And a dragon. Inys wasn't the get-out-of-jail-free card that might have been expected, but he's still a wild card. I have no idea how this is going to end, but I can't wait to find out. Four stars.

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Fantasy Review: 'The Heart of the Mirage' by Glenda Larke

Heart of the Mirage (Mirage Makers, #1)

So here we are in the Roman Empire - sorry, no, not the Roman Empire, definitely not, this is fantasy after all. This is Tyrans, nothing to do with Rome. But - centurians and latin-esque names and so forth. Well. For some people, it doesn’t much matter, but for me I prefer the ‘vaguely inspired by’ type of world-building, rather than ‘pretty damn close’, with a few novelties thrown in. So that’s the first hurdle, a not terribly imaginative backdrop to the action.

The second problem is the main character, Ligea, a woman from recently subdued Kardiastan, taken as a child and brought up as the adopted daughter of a famous general. When you realise how much her compatriots are despised, the arrogance of the Tyranians and also that slavery is legal, this strikes me as an extraordinary thing to do, to take a foreign child into your house and raise her as your own. Even when the reasons for it become clear, it's pretty silly. It makes her a peculiar mixture: she has the arrogance of her adoptive land, as well as education, and an unquestioning acceptance of the ways of the victors, believing that slavery, for instance, is perfectly sensible and proper, yet she’s still seen as a foreigner.

Now there’s nothing wrong with the setup, it’s an interesting scenario, but it makes Ligea a horribly unlikeable character. It also makes it blindingly obvious when, in chapter 1, she is told she is to go to Kardiastan, that she’s going to have a revelation and realise the error of her ways, rediscover her roots and all that. That’s fine, so long as the way she gets there is convoluted and filled with unexpected twists. And there are some twists, it has to be said, but all the interest (for me) lies in the relationships between Ligea and her slaves and the people she meets in Kardiastan. The plot, such as it is, never really rises above the ho-hum, although there are one or two nice reveals along the way.

The other characters are quite interesting, more interesting than Ligea herself, in fact, and at least some of them behave logically and sensibly, unlike her. She seems to follow her emotions when it suits the plot and logic at other times. I liked her best when she was reading the books helpfully provided by the Mirage and working things out for herself, using the incisive brain we were told about many times, but rarely saw.

The magic - sigh. Yes, let's talk about the magic. This is one of those worlds where those select few who have magical capability can do pretty much anything they want with it, except things that would make the plot too simple. They have to learn how to use it, and there is a price to be paid for it, but sometimes it seemed as if, whenever there was a crisis, someone would say - but didn't you know, you can just do X? And Ligea does X, and lo, she is saved. Well, that's not really very interesting.

Once we get away from Rome - sorry, Tyrans, and into Kardiastan, the world-building perks up a bit. The Shiver Sands and the Mirage are fantastic creations, and the author is always wonderfully inventive with animal life. I loved the gorclaks and shleths, and the descriptions brought everything - the buildings, the people, their clothes, even the earth - to glorious life. And if the plot went on pretty much as predicted, still it was fun and a dramatic ride.

But the ending - that was a real bummer. I expected, or at least hoped, that there would be some *emotional* resolution, some conclusion at least to the relationships tangle even if the plot rumbles on into book 2. But no, Ligea reverts to her illogical, and (frankly) downright stupid self, and there's an all-too-convenient bit of arm-waving regarding one of her slaves, presumably for plot-related reasons. Sorry, but you can’t just say ‘X had changed’ so everything’s suddenly all right. It was very disappointing. I've already bought the rest of the series, so I'll undoubtedly read it at some time, but I'm not in a rush. Three stars.

Saturday, 2 August 2014

Mystery Review: 'The Janus Stone' by Elly Griffiths

The Janus Stone (Ruth Galloway #2)
I loved ‘The Crossing Places’, the first in the series about forensic archaeologist Ruth Galloway, set in England’s atmospheric East Anglia. This one works almost as well - great characters, an intriguing plot and plenty of laugh-out-loud humour of the dry, British variety.
The formula here isn’t an unusual one: bones are discovered buried under a doorway, Ruth is called in to help in her professional capacity, there’s a police investigation going on led by Harry Nelson, clues and suspects are gradually uncovered as Ruth increasingly becomes the target for the murderer, culminating in a dramatic and, it has to be said, highly implausible finale. I understand why authors like to make the lead character the focus for the villain’s malevolence, but there has to be a bit more effort than this to make it plausible.

Where this book shines is in the characters. Ruth is a wonderful heroine, a perfectly sensible woman no longer in the first flush of youth, down-to-earth, unconcerned with her appearance, not dependent on a man - only her cat. In this book, the romantic entanglements take centre stage. After Ruth’s one night stand with Harry in book 1 results in Consequences, in this book she also strikes up a mini-romance with a fellow archaeologist. I began to wonder whether this series is going to end up being more about the soapy relationship dramas, with the murder being pushed into the background, but so far the balance seems to be pretty good.

Apart from Ruth, Harry begins to shine in this book, and we see more of his home life, which is rather interesting, in view of the Consequences mentioned above. Cathbad the druid with his purple cloak is a fun character, too, and I rather liked the Catholic priest that everyone is terribly suspicious of, because he just seems to be too good. Everyone assumes he must be hiding something. How cynical, and yet how true to life. The setting is less interesting this time. In the first book, the atmospheric Norfolk coast was a major element of the story, but here most of the events are set on the derelict site of a Victorian mansion, with Roman history woven into the background. A little duller, to my mind.

Biggest irritant in the book is the use of first person present tense, which had me grinding my teeth with annoyance, sometimes. For anyone who’s allergic, this would be a deal-breaker. The redeeming feature to me, which more than offsets the tense issue, is the humour, which is vintage eccentric British. The scenes in the hospital were spectacularly funny, with all three of Ruth’s male friends turning up at her bedside at once, and some perceptive observations that most of us can identify with (“…a teenage boy masquerading as a doctor…”). Although it did seem to be a particularly relaxed corner of the National Health Service, not quite as time-stretched as most of it is these days.

All in all, a pleasant read, and I’ll definitely read more of the series, but the tense annoyance, the implausible plot contrivances and the less interesting setting keep this to three stars.

Saturday, 19 July 2014

Romance Review: 'His Grace Regrets' by Kate Harper

His Grace Regrets

This is a Regency romance with an interesting premise: three years earlier, the heroine, Cressida, was about to marry Morgan, Duke Hot-but-Mysterious, except that he failed to turn up for the wedding. Then he vanished, and no explanation was forthcoming. Now, she’s engaged to Mr Robert Nice-but-Dull. And guess what? Oh - so you knew Duke Sexy-Pants was going to turn up again? Well, so did I, of course, but this could still be an intriguing story, if only…

But wait a minute. This is a Duke here, one of only a handful of the top people in the country. A man with vast estates to run, and hordes of minions to do his bidding, and known to absolutely everyone in society, and he just disappeared? How is that even possible? There are only a handful of Dukes, and they’re not just rich and (apparently) devilishly handsome, but they also help to run the country. If one vanishes, half the army would have been sent to find him.

And even if (let’s suppose) something terribly urgent and important came up, delaying the wedding, later, when he returns from the terribly urgent and important thing, why doesn’t he simply look up the bride and say: so sorry, old thing, but something terribly urgent and important came up, but I’m free now, so let’s get married? Or he could have, you know, written a nice, long letter, explaining precisely what was keeping him.

But no. So this fails one of my acid tests, where the whole plot would unravel if they just talked to each other right away. And yes, there is an explanation for why he doesn’t explain everything, and no, I didn’t find it terribly convincing.

Then there’s Mr Nice-and-Deeply-Worthy, who is obviously going to get ditched at the end because - well, true love, and irresistible lust and all that, but it would have been nice if the author had at least attempted to make him a player who acts in his own interests instead of nothing but a passive obstacle for true love to overcome, someone to be swept out of sight as soon as the two main characters have stopped huffing around long enough to listen to each other.

In other grumbles, I do wish that authors of Regency romances would at least attempt to bone up on correct forms of address. The daughter of an Earl is always, always Lady Rosalie, and never, ever Lady Wortham. Then there are the incorrect uses of words like ‘doff’ and ‘distaff’ and ‘spencer’ (a rather fetching short-waisted coat, here described as a warm undergarment). So a little research wouldn’t go amiss.

One final grumble: there are typos and even grammatical errors on almost every page. This is such a shame, because the writing style is rather well suited to the period, without being difficult to read (apart from some over-long sentences). I don’t normally comment on these kinds of mistakes, because every book has its share, but sometimes I wondered whether this book had had any proofreading at all.

And despite all of that, I rather enjoyed the book. The settings and events felt realistic, and if the weather was somewhat convenient to the plot, it didn’t bother me. The main characters were quite believable and behaved (mostly) sensibly, if not always quite in keeping with the morality of the Regency period (but that’s not a problem). The minor characters (with the exception of Mr Nice-Doormat) were also realistically helpful and supportive and generally behaved like nice, normal people. The heroine’s family were particularly nice, and I loved the youngest daughter, Daisy. This is my favourite scene, where she’s playing some mysterious game:

‘What are you doing?’
‘Pirates.’ That one word seemed to say it all as far as the youngest Miss Grenville was concerned.
‘You are being rescued by them?’
‘I am the Pirate Queen,’ Daisy returned, apparently offended by the very idea that she would require rescuing. ‘People need rescuing from me.’


Lovely (and I’d totally read a whole book about Daisy). There are quite a few moments like this, where something wonderful shines through. For those who can overlook the implausibilities, this is a fun read. However, I have to be honest and say that what dragged this book down for me was the sheer volume of typos which spoiled an otherwise very readable story. The other problems were relatively minor and easy to overlook, but the poor editing keeps it to two stars.

Fantasy Review: 'The Curse of Chalion' by Lois McMaster Bujold

The Curse of Chalion (Chalion, #1)I  don’t know what anyone else looks for in their fantasy, but for me the number one requirement is characters I care about. This is hard to define, of course; I can’t describe what it is that creates emotional engagement in that way (if I could, I’d bottle it and sell it), but I know it when I see it.

And Cazaril is it, indubitably and without question. From the moment he walks onstage in his rags on page 1, he is a man I care deeply about, someone I’m rooting for all the way. He’s not great hero material (almost everything he’s been involved in seems to have gone wrong), he’s rarely called upon to wield a sword and he’s ill for most of the book, but he is a towering character of a kind that’s regrettably rare in all fiction, not just fantasy.

The other characters are fully rounded personalities, too. The princess who doesn’t like being manipulated and decides to take control of her fate. The handmaiden who doesn’t angst when rejected, but quietly waits for her moment. The mad woman who turns out to be far more interesting than that description would suggest. And the villains who are just as much tragic victims of their fate as anyone else. And hallelujah for that.

It’s curious that in many ways the characters fall into traditional fantasy stereotypes: the battle-weary warrior; the feisty princess about to be forced into an unwelcome marriage; the playboy prince; the evil advisor to the king. And so on. And yet they never felt in the least bit stereotypical, to me. Nor were their actions ever predictable.

The plot centres on returning warrior Cazaril, still recovering after being betrayed into slavery, and looking for work where he was previously employed as a page. To his surprise, he’s given the job of tutor/secretary to lively princess Iselle and her companion Betriz, and then accompanies them to the royal court with all its intrigues. From there, things roll along nicely, and only one stupendous coincidence near the end rocked the credibility somewhat. This is not a high-action tale, and most of the tension comes from the history (read: enmity) between Cazaril and the man who betrayed him. I liked very much that Cazaril isn’t hell-bent on revenge, though, and just wants to keep his head down and survive as best he can.
The magic is low-key, and revolves around the five gods, the Father, Mother, Son, Daughter and Bastard, and the way they interact with their human followers. I’m not normally a big fan of god intervention, but maybe that’s because few authors execute the idea as well as it’s done here.

What didn’t I like? The names, for one thing. If you’re going to have a traditional monarchy, it’s just as easy to call the participants king, queen, prince, princess, etc. Inventing all-too-similar terms like roya, royina, royse and royesse is just downright confusing. And if the titles are bad, the character names are worse: how are you supposed to pronounce Teidez and Betriz, anyway? I kept wanting to call them Tiddles and Beetroot. Then there’s the romance, which all felt ever so slightly perfunctory.

But truly my quibbles were few and minor. This is a beautifully written book, with a memorable and wonderful main character, a plot that doesn’t depend on villains who are evil just because, and a resonant ending which brought me to tears. It’s not a sword-waving type of book, depending more on dialogue and reason to drive things forward. And I absolutely loved the saints who fell on each other with glee (there’s someone else like me! How is it for you?) and the long, detailed and gloriously funny theological debates (which is not something I ever thought to write). Highly recommended. Five stars.

Wednesday, 16 July 2014

Mystery Review: 'Below Zero' by C J Box

Below Zero
This was a book I picked up two years ago (must read faster...) as an Amazon daily deal, even though it was number 9 in the series. What was I thinking? Obviously, there's a whole heap of history to the characters, and much of it's relevant to this story, so it all has to be squeezed in. Fortunately, the author manages this very deftly, so for me, meeting these characters for the first time, the paragraphs of 'Six years earlier, Joe...' or whatever flowed along very nicely. I presume that long-term readers of the series would enjoy being reminded of events, too.

The plot involves a Chicago gangster, his environmentalist son and a girl who may or may not be the foster daughter of the main character, Joe Pickett. The catch is that the girl was believed to have died some years earlier. There are also numerous other threads running alongside, such as the Mad Archer (a man who injures wild animals for fun - such a nice guy), the falconer friend who's on the run, the Feds who have their own objectives and Joe's family - wife Marybeth and daughters Sheridan and Lucy. There are more twists and turns than a giant-sized pretzel, and all of it very cleverly worked out. There were moments when things fell out just a little too neatly, but by around the two thirds point, where the story really picked up speed and took off like a tornado, I was turning the pages too fast to care.

The parts that worked best for me were those involving Joe and his family. They all felt like very real people, behaving perfectly believably - like the older daughter shrieking with glee during a fast car chase instead of being frightened, the younger daughter petulant at being left behind, and the parents worried in case the daughters overheard them having sex. Nice, well-observed details of humanity.
The descriptions of the scenery were very well drawn, too, and even though I'm not familiar with this part of the world, I could visualise it (and even smell it) very clearly. It's obvious that the author has great affection for the area, and all the little oddities of the locals, because he describes them so vividly.

The villains of the piece, the gangster and his son, were less convincing to me. In particular, the son's transformation from totally controlled 'brains' to - well, something else (not wanting to give too much away, here) felt off, to me, and the fellow gangsters were a little too cliched to be plausible. The author shows us everything that happens, from all sides of the picture, so we do get to know these characters quite well, and the gangster, in particular, gains some sympathy over the course of the book, but the motive for what they did was a bit suspect. Environmentalists aren't quite that crazy! I have to give the author credit for putting forward a balanced view of the climate change issue (although his research on Bali is a bit suspect).

Ultimately, these were very small points. Despite some slow moments in the middle, and a bit too much of the villains for my taste, the great characterisation of Joe's family and a terrific climax made this a great read. Four stars.

Wednesday, 9 July 2014

Fantasy DNF: 'Spirit Gate' by Kate Elliott

Spirit Gate (Crossroads, #1)

I love this book. Or perhaps I should say - I did love this book, for a whole two chapters. It featured a wonderful, independent, self-assured female protagonist, who was completely comfortable in her own skin. Hurrah! A character I could really root for!

And then she’s never seen again. She existed for a whole two chapters purely to motivate a male character, who then mopes and whines and drinks and whinges (while also enjoying himself with other women) for (get this) nineteen years. I was so mad I almost gave up on the book altogether at that point. But OK, there are some points of interest in miserable Joss. His job, for instance, which requires him to ride a giant eagle (cool or what?). His friends are intriguing, too. And the world-building is detailed and interesting, although the author insists on hitting us over the head with endless minutiae. So, fine, I’m grumpy about losing my female protagonist, but I’m along for the ride.

And then we switch yet again to some other part of the world, which isn’t even on the map (aaargh!), and we have a whole other culture to learn about, and a new set of characters - quiet Mai, who’s deeper than she looks, her mysterious new husband Anji, and Mai’s uncle Shai, who’s - well, stupid is the first word that comes to mind. And they’re trekking endlessly and for no obvious reason through trackless desert, while periodically being attacked by bandits, sandstorms and demons. Why? What are they even doing there? Why are there no sensible roads between one populated part of the world and another?

It’s an odd thing, but in fantasy a group of travellers can never cross a desert without being hit by a sandstorm. You can bet they will run out of water as well, and only find an oasis in the nick of time. If they pass through hill country, they’ll be attacked by bandits. And any journey undertaken in winter will encounter a terrific snowstorm. If the author had cut out all this extraneous travelling and contrived drama, and just skipped to the real action, the book would be a quarter of its length, but it would rattle along nicely.

So here we are at 30% of the way through, and we’re still travelling endlessly with Captain Anji and Mai and Shai, no sign of the interesting eagle riders, and all that’s happened is that Mai has been inexplicably smitten with love for her dull husband, Shai is learning to use a spear and…zzzzzzz. What? Sorry, hard to stay awake. Oh yes, and nice Captain Anji has been keeping Very Big Secrets from his wife.
You know what? I don’t care. I just can’t get invested in any of these characters. I know something’s going to happen eventually, and I totally approve of epic fantasy that sprawls itself over whole continents at a glacial pace if it has depth (which this has), but it also has to have characters that carry the story. For me, these just don’t cut it, not when the most promising one was written out after two chapters. Lots of people love this series, and I’ve been told that this book gets better at the halfway point, but I just don’t have the will to keep going. One star for a DNF.

Friday, 4 July 2014

Fantasy Review: 'Fallen Down World' by K E Douglas

Fallen Down World
Way back in the seventies, there was a UK TV program called ‘The Survivors’. The premise was that almost everyone on earth had been wiped out by some kind of virus or illness, and dealt with how the minute number of people left alive coped. They passed through several stages: immediate survival, meeting up with other survivors, scavenging, forming larger groups, beginning to build sustainable communities and so on. Along the way, they dealt with deeper issues, like avoiding hostile communities and exploitation, and law and order: how do you deal with crime when you can’t spare the manpower for prisons, and the criminal may be an essential worker?
It’s a dramatic theme, and must have been tackled a thousand times, in different ways, but there’s always room for one more take on it. This book starts in the same place, with some kind of unexplained flu-like illness that is invariably fatal. Fortunately a few people are immune, like Dani, the main character here. The plot covers her family’s attempts to flee to safety, then the struggle for basic survival, meeting up with a small number of other survivors, and the very first stages of long-term planning. It doesn’t quite reach to settled communities or the more difficult issues, but this is the first book in a series, so undoubtedly that will come later.
You would think with such a well-trodden plot, this would be a predictable story, and in some ways it is, but that certainly doesn’t make it dull or dry. The early chapters, the cross-country escape bid, beautifully captures the tension and fear of Dani and her parents and sister as they try to get home. Then there’s the pathos of coping in isolation, without most of the trappings of the modern world, and having to do the sort of dreadful jobs that someone else always took care of - like burying bodies.
Dani is a smart and resourceful young lady, and although sometimes her decisions felt just a little too clever, and she seldom made mistakes, that’s far better than being stupid. The other characters were well-drawn, too, but they fell rather too neatly into the good guy or villain dichotomy; I like a little more grey in my characters for preference.
The ending fell slightly flat for me. It was hugely dramatic and a real page-turner, but it seemed to me that the villains behaved pretty stupidly, in a number of ways. Sometimes you just have to cut your losses, and accept that you’ve been outsmarted. Plus, waving guns around really isn’t terribly sensible when everyone else has guns too and there’s no hospital to patch up any accidents. Survival is the name of the game. But it all made for a breathlessly exciting climax.
My only other slight grumble is that, since this is YA, the characters we spent most time with were all teenagers, which made me feel about a hundred and three. I am so far outside the target demographic it’s silly, and for that reason (and probably that reason alone) I felt little emotional engagement with the characters, even in their darkest moments.
On the other hand, I read this from cover to cover in no time flat. It’s an engaging, well-written story with a clever array of breathless car-chases and dramatic escapes, intermingled with more introspective passages, very appropriate for the end-of-the-world scenario. Dani may be a bright girl, but she’s still, in many ways, just a kid, and the author doesn’t shy away from the desperation Dani feels from time to time. An enjoyable and thankfully zombie-free post-apocalypse story. Four stars.

Monday, 30 June 2014

Fantasy Review: 'Spirit Thief: The Legend of Eli Monpress, Book 1' by Rachel Aaron

The Legend of Eli Monpress (The Legend of Eli Monpress #1-3)Whew. {Pauses to catch breath} Well, that was a roller-coaster ride and no mistake. Action heaped on action, the same frenetic scene fragmented into half a dozen different points of view, a bunch of wildly original characters, all with their own very different agendas, and a hapless king kidnapped by a wily thief while a usurper seizes his opportunity. Can the villain(s) be defeated and the rightful king restored to his throne? Oh dear, let me think about that for a moment... But just because a book is predictable in certain ways doesn't make it dull, and this one is anything but dull.

The world is, in many ways, much the usual pseudo-medieval affair, a place of small kingdoms ruled by the power of the sword. It's the magic that lifts this out of the ordinary. Everything, it seems, has a spirit, or soul, even rocks and trees and moss and small rodents. Some humans have the power to hear the spirits of other beings, and how they deal with that is the foundation of the story. Some have the power to enslave spirits and force them to bend to the enslaver's will, which generally drives them to madness. Some choose to enter into a cooperative and mutually beneficial arrangement: the spirit becomes a kind of servant to the human, whose own spirit nourishes them. And then there's Eli, who has a different way. Then there are seed-demons, which are very scary and bordering on uncontrollable. And then there are awakened swords. I don't know what it is about sentient weaponry, but I get shivers down my spine whenever an author is imaginative enough to throw some into the mix. Here there are two such swords, and very awesome they are too.

Now the characters cover the spectrum of possibilities raised by the magic, but at times they feel a bit like ciphers rather than characters. It's tempting to say: 'The seed-demon did such-and-such...', which tells me that they never quite worked as characters. Eli is the stand-out exception to this: he's a fascinating person, with his mischievous personality and good-humoured approach to life. I liked him very much. Miranda, on the other hand, feels like a token: a seemingly powerful and feisty female character, who is easily defeated at every turn by others more powerful, who is dragged along on the final rescue mission for no obvious reason other than to be fortuitously on hand to perform one significant plot task at the very end, using an object which she logically shouldn't have had with her in the first place. When a character says: right, I absolutely have to leave all these behind - but I'll just keep this itsy-bitsy tiny one, just because, my plot contrivance alarm cranks into action. Well, it's obvious that it's going to be important, isn't it?

The final dramatic confrontation, or rather, a whole series of confrontations, is gloriously over the top in an almost cartoonish way. In real life, real humans simply wouldn't survive this kind of punishment, but somehow you just know that most of these will, albeit with the odd scrape or sword wound in need of a little light stitching. But that's OK, this is fantasy, after all. Oh, and the first part of a trilogy, so yes, they’re going to survive. For me this was almost a wonderful read, light-hearted, mostly logical, with an interesting magic system, some unusual characters and did I mention how much I like sentient swords? And laugh out loud funny. But the lack of real depth or development in the characters and the relentless pace of the action were big negatives for me, and I probably won’t finish the series. Three stars.

Friday, 27 June 2014

Fantasy Review: 'The Telastrian Song' by Duncan Hamilton

The Telastrian Song
So here we are at the end of the trilogy. The first book, 'The Tattered Banner', I found a refreshing change from the typical swords-based fantasy, focused as it was around the rapier as the weapon of choice. It was in many ways a conventional coming of age story, a young man discovering unusual abilities in himself and learning to manage his talent, but lifted above the average by excellent writing and some awesome confrontations. The second book, 'The Huntsman's Amulet', was more of a boys’ own adventure, quite episodic and uneven, although hero Soren visited some intriguing locations and there were the usual array of terrific sword fights. And pirates!

This book feels a little slow to start. After some initial action, which convinces Soren that he and his lady love, Alessandra, will never be safe from the assassins sent by his former mentor and now arch-enemy Amero, he spends some time arranging matters so that he can return to Ostenheim with the sole objective of killing Amero. I was a little disappointed that Alessandra, a smart lady perfectly capable of wielding a sword when necessary and protecting herself, was parked in a place of safety so that Soren could go about his murderous business without having to worry about her. However, I could see the logic in it.

Then almost half the book passes with very little happening, as a number of additional characters are introduced, their motivations explained and their activities described in some detail. These are not uninteresting, but some of this felt a bit like filler. The eastern mage, for example, was an interesting character and I would very much like to have known more about his organisation the Twelve, their practices and rules, but in the end he was reduced to just another obstacle for Soren to overcome.

None of the characters really stand out, apart from Soren himself (and maybe the banker). I would have liked a little more description of how he calls upon his 'gift', and more detail of the fights from within his enhanced perspective, which, for me, have always been the most awesome part of the story. Sadly, there is nothing here quite comparable with the fight with the belek in 'The Tattered Banner', but nevertheless all the fights are well-written, even if mostly the outcome is never in doubt. In fact, seeing Soren back amongst the regular street thugs and sell-swords of Ostenheim only serves to underscore just how easy he finds it all. Fortunately for the excitement quota, there are still ways in which he's vulnerable and his careful plans can go off the rails, and the encounter with the eastern mage was dramatically unpredictable.

The descriptions of Ostenheim, in fact the whole of this world the author has created, are excellent, just enough to bring the streets and buildings into sharp focus without distracting from the action. It all feels wonderfully real, brought alive by scores of understated little details. I was rather pleased that the duelling arena where the story first started featured for a significant exchange in this book.

There were a couple of moments that felt suspiciously like logic issues. One is that Amero is in dire straits financially, on the brink of ruination, yet he still managed to find the funds to send assassins repeatedly after Soren. That's one obsessive grudge he's holding. The other is a magical healing that happens late in the book, despite the recipient being resistant to magic and the character who organises it having spent much of the book destroying magic-users. I can see that it was necessary to the plot, and maybe I missed some crucial explanation that made it obvious, but it felt to me like a bit of a fudge.

However, towards the end, all the disparate threads come together into the inevitable final confrontation, the lesser issues cleared away and the focus finally on Soren and his nemesis Amero, and no, it doesn't go at all as planned. This was a wonderful and very fitting climax to the story. Being the end of the trilogy, I honestly had no idea how it would turn out, and the author had several nice surprises up his sleeve, not least the explanation for the title of this book. A terrific ending to a fine series. Four stars.

Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Fantasy Review: 'Prince of Fools' by Mark Lawrence

Prince of Fools (Red Queen's War, #1)
There's always a worry with an author's follow-up to a spectacular debut. Whether you loved or hated the Broken Empire trilogy (Prince/King/Emperor of Thorns), it was hard to ignore and for a while it seemed as if the entire book reading world was in a frenzy about gloriously bad boy, Jorg. So how do you follow something like that? Not with a sequel, that's for sure, because Emperor of Thorns rounded off the story with an unequivocal 'The End'.

So here we are with - not quite a prequel, either. A sort of concurrentquel, if you like. Set in the same world as Broken Empire, but a different part of it with different characters and an independent story, but interweaving to some extent with events of that story. And even the title follows the same pattern; after 'Prince of Fools', will there be a 'King of Fools' and an 'Emperor of Fools' as well? This isn't a good sign, and indeed the book is littered with encounters with the Broken Empire characters. Frankly, I wasn’t so enamoured of most of them that I’m going to be squeeing with delight at meeting them again (although the encounter with Brother Emmer was very funny). Then there are the knowing references to the previous trilogy, like this: Dropping into a thorn bush can lead to no end of grief. Oh, how terribly droll.

So, how does this work out? First big problem is that we already know a great deal about the world and its history. The background that was so deliciously revealed, drop by drop, over the previous three volumes is now out in the open, so the thrill of discovery is lost. It's not that there's nothing new to find out, but (to my mind) once a setting is revealed as just our own world, tenuously placed a thousand years after a major catastrophe, it loses some of its charm. The more real world the setting, the less interesting it is. And some of the customs and quirks which which have (apparently) survived intact after a millennium of anarchy are surprising. The Catholic Church, for instance. And Vikings? Really? Complete with horned helmets? Fantasy requires more suspension of disbelief than most genres, but that stretches my credulity beyond its snapping point.

But never mind the setting, what about the characters? Jorg was such a towering personality it would be impossible to repeat, and the two main characters here are very different. Sadly, they're far from unique. Jalan is fantasy archetype number 27, the dissolute playboy prince, without a serious thought in his head. He's also archetype number 43, the accidental hero, who distinguishes himself in a crisis by running away/falling over and thereby quite inadvertantly managing to kill or capture the bad guy, or otherwise save the day. And the second main character, Snorri the Viking, is archetype number 7, the big, muscular, warrior type, who lays about with an axe and destroys armies single handed.

Now, don't get me wrong, I like archetypes as much as the next reader, and Snorri in particular is quite awesome (Snorri and the bear... oh boy, a highlight of the year; I do so love it when a book surprises me). Jalan, however, isn't quite as successful, mainly because although his charm was much talked about (by him, naturally), it didn't come across too well on the page. Mostly I just found him tedious and whiny, although he does have a way with witty one-liners.

Another issue is the female characters. Tolkien defines three of the four principle archetypes in fantasy; the unattainable princess (Arwen), the warrior babe (Eowyn) and the scary witchy lady (Galadriel). Recent custom has added the whore to the collection. Lawrence has two scary witchy ladies, the Red Queen, who's admittedly more scary and cryptic (in an overpowering, hectoring, schoolmistressy way) than witchy, and the Silent Sister, who's pure undiluted scary witchy, the stuff of nightmares. Necromancer Chella merits a mention, too, and she’s also pretty scary. Then there are a few women who bounce in and out of Jalan's life, without ever being more than sex objects (which is in character for him, so let that pass). However, the elephant rider deserves an honourable mention for being more than an archetype.

And then there are zombies. Now, if you’re the sort of reader who wakes up at this point, thinking: ‘Wait, there are zombies in this? Great, I’m in!’, then you’re probably not going to agree with me here, but honestly, folks, zombies are just so dull and uninteresting and unoriginal and plain naff. Their only purpose is to provide a horde of mindless things who are trying to kill Our Heroes, and who are virtually impossible to kill themselves. It ramps up the tension artificially, but naturally, we all know that Our Heroes will prevail in the end. I can see the point in a video game, but in a novel? Puh-lease.

Shall I mention the plot? Better had. This is a quest/road trip/male bonding/coming of age adventure. Only with lots and lots of ice-bound wilderness and snow. And zombies. That’s probably all anyone needs to know about the plot. You’ll pick it up as you go along.

This seems like a lot of negatives, doesn't it? What saves it is that Lawrence can write. Every sentence is a carefully crafted work of art, and there are occasional phrases and even single perfectly-judged words, which light up the page like shafts of sunshine peeking from between the clouds. And it's funny, too, the same laugh-out-loud humour which shone through even Jorg's most despicable acts. Despite the world being known and the archetypes and the unoriginal plot and the wretched zombies and the endless snow, the thing is always compellingly readable.

The ending is good fun in an over the top, just one more even badder thing to defeat, sort of way, heaping one impossible-to-survive disaster on another. It was kind of exciting, but I was never convinced that Jalan and pals were totally screwed (it's a trilogy, hint, hint), and some of the twists were blindingly obvious (although fortunately not all, or it would have been very dull). I confess I got a little tired of the we're-safe-oh-no-we're-not repetition, combined with the sheer volume of blood and guts and dismemberment and the whole undead unpleasantness. This is definitely more on the horror end of the spectrum.

Is it as good as the Broken Empire books? For my money, no, it doesn’t quite have that breath-taking brilliance that blew me away. But in many ways it’s a more conventional book, and for a lot of readers who struggled with Jorg, that will make it a more enjoyable exercise. For me, for whom Jorg was a revelation, this was a very slightly disappointing come down. Three stars. Although... Snorri and the bear merit another half a star, at least, so let’s round up to four stars.

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Monday, 16 June 2014

Fantasy Review: 'Lunaria' by M A Clarke

Lunaria
If I had to describe the characteristics I most look for in a book, I’d probably answer: memorable characters, an interesting setting, a plot that constantly surprises me and plenty of humour. This book ticks all the boxes. It isn’t at all the sort of fantasy I’d normally read (whimsy? a boy and his dog go on a journey? a wishing tree? erm...) yet it sucked me in and left me with a huge smile on my face.

When Billy’s scientist mother disappears on a trip to find food, Billy sets off with his dog Max to find her. An encounter with a wishing tree has some unexpected side effects, leaving Billy and Max able to communicate telepathically. And then things get really weird. The story tears from place to place as Billy and Max are swept along in their adventure, meeting some entertainingly oddball characters, avoiding the villains, solving the world’s problems in beautifully inventive ways and never, ever falling into dull predictability. Rather wonderfully, this is not just an episodic road trip. Everything that happens, however unexpected, is completely logical in a slightly off-the-wall way. And it’s laugh-out-loud funny.

This is one of the most original and delightful books I’ve ever come across. The language is simple enough to be read by children, but adults would enjoy its offbeat humour and imaginative twists just as much. It’s difficult to think of anything comparable, but the humour and rather surreal train of events remind me of ‘Alice in Wonderland’. The most amusing and charming book I’ve read all year. Four stars.

Friday, 13 June 2014

Mystery Review: 'Stealing Venus' by Richard John Mitchell

Its an odd thing, reading. There you are, chugging along quite happily through a story, feeling perhaps that its not the most thrilling read ever but theres something appealing about it, and then something trips you up and you just cant stand it a moment longer. Here, it was the meal at Le Gavroche that brought me to a standstill. Now, the author has a wordy style, I understand that. Every setting is described in great detail, every character given a name, an appearance, a backstory, the food and drink lovingly listed. Thats OK, I dont mind wordy.

But then we came to the female leads heavy date, and things went seriously overboard. It takes an entire chapter to describe how she showers and dresses for the evening (painting her toenails after putting on dress and shoes, apparently), her journey to the restaurant, what her date is wearing, a great deal about the restaurant, what they drank, what the waiters looked like, what the menu was like... The chapter ended with them only at the first course. And this is what the writings like:

The Maitre D arrived at their table and introduced himself.  He was silver haired and spoke with a slight French accent.  He was perfectly charming to them but Lucy imagined he would be formidable with tardy waiters.  He chatted for a minute or two and remembered Rupert from his last visit, which she could see made Rupert rather pleased.  They were asked if they would like to see the menus, but they chose to wait until they went downstairs.  The Maitre D moved on to the next table, and the barman appeared with a bottle of Taittinger to see if they would like a refill.  Lucy declined gracefully, remembering that she had drunk too much last time she had been with Rupert in Lindys gallery. They finished their glasses and were conducted downstairs to the dining room by a waiter in black jacket, waistcoat and bow tie.  The dining room was long and narrow like that of a ship.  It had seating for sixty and was about two-thirds full.   The style was similar to the bar above, except that here the walls were green and framed in gold and wood.

Now, Im sure there are multitudes of readers who love this sort of minute detail, and many more who arent bothered one way or the other, but for me, it was just a deal-breaker. Im very pleased for the author that hes quite obviously visited Le Gavroche, but personally, Im more interested in other things. Like the characters. And the plot.

On the plus side, theres a really interesting story buried under this snowstorm of words, involving art forgeries, ex cons, devious gallery owners, stately homes and some fascinating background on the art world. Here the author is quite awesome, and although I know nothing at all about art, it had a totally authentic ring to it, to my ears. The detail about forgery techniques and the lengths painters will go to achieve a convincing effect is amazing, plus the astonishing level of observation needed to catch them out (watch for the wormholes, apparently). The author tosses out the names of artists and works and styles with an understated command of his subject which I could only admire.

The characters are mildly interesting without being particularly unusual (apart from the young Goth, perhaps). Given the moneyed setting of fine art, inevitably most characters are wealthy middle class or upper class, very English, and the settings were appropriate to that: London, Cambridge and the south coast. I rather enjoyed the descriptions of these places, and its obvious the author has done his homework.

For anyone with an interest in art whos less picky about writing style than me, or perhaps is riveted by the history, layout and menus  of Le Gavroche, I can recommend this, but I gave up at the 30% mark. One star for a DNF.

Sunday, 25 May 2014

Fantasy Review: 'Scriber' by Ben S Dobson

Scriber
This is a book that surely strikes a chord with every avid reader: the society it describes is one recovering from the worst of all traumas, where all the books were burned. Not just a few heretical ones, but almost all of them. Just a few precious scraps of information remain from the collected history and scientific knowledge of the time before the burning. Dennon Lark, the scriber of the title, is an academic, dedicated to recovering as much of the lost knowledge of the pre-book-burning age as possible, wherever it may be found. But after an excavation of a possible book hoard site went horribly wrong, killing several people and destroying priceless religious artifacts, he ran away to a peaceful life in obscurity.

There wouldn’t be much of a story if he stayed there, though, would there? There are strange goings on in the land, Dennon hears voices in his head and a chance meeting with soldier Bryndine, the King’s niece, sees Dennon caught up in the defence of the kingdom. It’s the characters that shine here. Dennon himself is nothing at all like a typical hero – an almost pathologically reclusive academic, with no courage to speak of except in pursuit of his precious books. Bryndine fills the heroic role here, a woman of honour and unswerving devotion to her oaths and her people. She has gathered together a motley band of female warriors, of mixed backgrounds and personalities but all implausibly skilled at arms and of infinite courage and powers of endurance. And if that sounds eye-rollingly bad, they never came across as being the least bit cliched, so for me, at least, they worked.

The plot was a tad less successful. To say it was predictable doesn’t really do it justice. If our merry band rides into a rocky mountain pass on the cusp of winter, it doesn’t take a crystal ball to guess that there will be a) a snowstorm; b) an avalanche; or c) an attack of fearsome beasties. Or all three. Sigh. And I lost count of the times the search for some gizmo or other (in this book, it was a letter or journal or stash of books) ends in apparent failure, only for a chance remark to have Dennon suddenly say: ‘Oh, wait a minute, that gives me an idea...’.

The world-building, by contrast is rather good, even if everything interconnects rather too neatly. The writing is excellent (I didn’t notice a single typo, which must be some kind of record). However, I very much disliked the author’s habit of ending a chapter on a dramatic note, a fade-to-black or some other cliff-hanger, and opening the next chapter with: ‘I woke up to find...’. Bleh.

The ending is the expected grand battle which, to be honest, was so emotionally overwrought that I skipped most of it, as well as the endless pages of angsting that preceded it. Not my thing, I’m afraid. Nothing terribly unexpected happened, so for anyone looking for an original twist, this is not the book for you. Nor will you find any deep introspection or a profound philosophical treatise.

What you will find is a terrific adventure story with ever-escalating action, some unusual but convincing characters and a well thought out background. It’s dragged down a little by the slightly implausible ending, and the repeated attempts to evoke an emotional response and ramp up the stakes by killing and maiming characters (leave my favourite sidekicks alone, dammit!). On the whole, though, this is an excellent piece of fantasy. Four stars.

Saturday, 17 May 2014

Paranormal Urban Fantasy Review: 'Dark Visions' by Debbie Johnson

Dark Vision

I bought this for all the wrong reasons. It’s not my usual genre (paranormal urban fantasy) in any way, but... it’s set in Liverpool, and that was a huge attraction. There’s a special buzz in reading a book where the action takes place in Lime Street station, the Mersey ferry, Edge Hill, Sefton Park and even Bidston Hill, all places I know well. So I was prepared to take a punt on this, and step outside my comfort zone for a while. And it almost worked.

Lily McCain is a young woman with a secret: when she touches anyone, skin on skin, she gets a vision of their future. And however horrible it is, she can’t do anything to prevent it. No wonder she avoids contact with anyone, not easy given her chosen profession of music reporter for the local paper, which requires her to spend her time in packed clubs. But then one day a mysterious stranger turns up, tells her that she’s really, really special, so special she’s destined to save the world (or at least be his mate and have his babies), whereupon various other mysterious strangers start trying to kill her. And there’s a bunch about the Otherworld and the High King, and Ireland comes into it somewhere, and... OK, I got all fuzzy about the plot at this point. And really, it doesn’t much matter. There are good guys and bad guys, all right? And all Lily has to do is work out which is which.

There’s a lot to enjoy about this (besides Sefton Park having some kind of magic portal in it, which amused me no end). It’s an easy read, with some great humour, and Lily and her amusing sidekick Carmel are true feisty Scouse birds (when not curled up in wardrobes crying, that is). There are a few quibbles, though.

Quibble number one: vampires, because... no, actually, I don’t need a ‘because’. Just vampires. Ok, they’re background characters, and they have a goth band, naturally, which mitigates the effect, but really – vampires. It’s a testament to the strength of the writing that I didn’t toss the book (I’m SO allergic to the blood-sucking undead).

Quibble number two: scorching hot blokes (and some of the women too). Apart from Lily and Carmel, everyone seems to be impossibly hot and fit and awesomely honed. Which is kind of tedious. I like a bit more realism than that.

Quibble number three: logic failures. Now, I read a lot of fantasy, so I’m perfectly capable of believing six impossible things before breakfast, but the internal logic has to be consistent. And I just can’t accept that Gabriel (the aforementioned High King and Lily’s designated mate) would dump her at age six with one of the least sensible carers in the known universe. That makes no sense. And then only turn up again when there's a crisis looming only days away. She's in her twenties, for goodness sake, surely you could have dropped in a little sooner with the 'By the way, there's something you ought to know...' speech? And then there’s Lily herself. I lost count of the number of times someone said to her: whatever you do, don’t do X. And what’s the first thing she does? Of course it is. It’s a wonder she survived past chapter three.

Now, to be fair, these are all personal gripes of mine, and I’m sure the vast majority of the intended audience doesn’t care about a bit of wobbly logic. The writing is a little uneven – the scene where Lily returns to her nan’s house and emotes all over it goes on way too long, for instance. Plus there are numerous moments where the story felt contrived in order to squeeze in another famous Liverpool location (did we really need the entire history of the Cavern?). Those few quibbles aside, though, the story’s an entertaining read, with some great humour (only occasionally veering off into silliness), with an ending which avoided the easy options. An enjoyable three stars. Recommended for fans of vampires, hot blokes and Liverpool.

Paranormal Review: 'Life After Life' by Kate Atkinson

Life After Life

This is one of those books that I started with every expectation of hating it. It would be too pretentious, too clever for its own good, and too full of itself, I was sure of it. And the central conceit, of living the same life over and over, has been done a few times before. But then, quite unexpectedly, the quirky charm of the characters drew me in, and the excellent writing raised my hopes. I ended up enjoying it far more than anticipated, with a couple of reservations.

The story follows Ursula, the third child of Silvie and Hugh, who is born in the middle of a snowstorm in 1910. And promptly dies, the cord being tangled round her throat. And is born again. This time, she’s saved and lives a little longer. There are a great many deaths, in a great many different ways (and sometimes the same way, repeatedly), and some are pretty depressing, but knowing that Ursula will be reborn every time makes this less fraught than it might be.

As these various lives come and go and come again, Ursula starts to have some memory of her previous incarnations. These are not clear memories, but vague feelings of dread when in a place where something bad happened in a previous life, or a strong feeling that she should (or shouldn’t) do certain things. Her subconscious attempts to mitigate the effects or avoid a situation altogether are fascinating, and she gradually begins to adapt her life towards certain specific ends. It’s almost inevitable, given the timeframe here, that the whole killing-Hitler-to-prevent-the-war scenario should raise its head, but I won’t spoil the surprise by revealing what actually happens (well, it was a surprise to me, anyway).

The first reservation I had was that the heavy focus on the second world war, and the graphic descriptions of the lives that Ursula lived, made the mid-section of the book appallingly miserable. Nothing good seemed to happen to her at all. In all her many lives, there was no life where she simply met a nice man, married, settled down into baby-infested domesticity and had a pleasant, if dull, life. No, time after time, she lived miserably and died horribly, and I really resented that. Although possibly that was the entire point of her existence, I don’t know. Or some deep philosophical point: life’s a bitch and then you die and then (lucky you) you get to go through the whole awfulness of it all again.

But then the ending rolled around and this is where things went slightly off the rails, because (and I’m going to be honest here) I didn’t understand it at all. There were hints that some of the other characters also had some vague memories, but it wasn’t at all clear (to me). And the last chapter – what was that all about? It’s been driving me nuts. The blurb on the cover seems to suggest that, in true ‘Groundhog Day’ style, there will come a point when Ursula does everything right and the endless cycling will stop. Yet the book itself appears to contradict that. Or does it? Dunno. And what does it all mean? Dunno again. But the writing is very effective, the characters have a quirky, and very English, charm, and on balance I found it an enjoyable read. The deeply depressing wartime scenes and cryptic ending keep it to three stars.

Wednesday, 14 May 2014

Romance Review: 'Scandal's Heiress' by Amelia Smith

Scandal's Heiress

I don’t read much Regency romance these days, although at one point in my life I worked my way through the entire Georgette Heyer catalogue, multiple times. And Jane Austin remains a favourite. I still have a soft spot for the genre, but recent forays have been less than satisfactory – either too silly for words, or too cavalier with historical accuracy. I see no reason why a romance set in historical times shouldn’t provide something more substantial than meringue to chew on, and also be true to the nature of those times, without being too pedantic about it.

This book manages to please in both areas. The plot is the usual romance formula: boy meets girl, there’s an instant attraction but insuperable problems, they gradually work their way towards a happy ending. However, the author sidesteps the now customary pitfalls: there’s no insta-lurve to stretch credibility, just the attraction between the only two people of a certain age on board ship for a long journey, kept in check by common sense. I liked the way this was handled very much. And the problems are real ones, arising from family history, social status and the personalities of the couple themselves.

The main characters, Hyacinth, raised in Gibraltar, and Thomas, who’s spent most of his adult life in India, are both outsiders, which gives them a natural affinity. Hyacinth has inherited a small estate from a disreputable relative, and Thomas is now the heir to both wealth and a title, but neither want to conform to society’s expectations of them. They’re both smart, too, making sensible decisions. I liked both of them.

The historical setting is sketched in quite lightly (although everyone’s seen Pride and Prejudice and knows what this era looked like), but there’s enough detail to bring the period to life. The descriptions of life aboard ship were particularly effective, London a little less so (Thomas’s family’s house seemed vastly too big even for a family of such high social standing). However, the author has a very fluid way of handling titles and forms of address. For example, the hero, Thomas Smithson Pently, is routinely addressed as ‘Sir Pently’, which had my inner pedant screaming ‘What kind of title is that when it’s at home?’ I’ve given up reading some books for oddities like this, but here the charm of the main characters kept me going.

The plot burbles along very nicely, although I rolled my eyes a little when the heroine’s inherited estate turned out to be right next door to the hero’s family acres. Hmm... But it all wraps up beautifully, the obligatory sex scene is nicely judged and the ending is neither too glib nor too sickly-sweet sentimental. I enjoyed it very much. Well-drawn characters, elegantly written and with more to chew on than usual in a romance – highly recommended. Four stars.

Tuesday, 6 May 2014

Fantasy Review: 'The Lascar's Dagger' by Glenda Larke

The Lascar's Dagger (The Forsaken Lands, #1)

Glenda Larke is one of a very small number of authors whose works are on my must-buy list, and a new book, and the first of a series to boot, is always cause for celebration. Larke writes a traditional kind of fantasy, not the elves and dwarves sort, but the type that relies on a refreshingly original created world, engaging characters and a story that compels right from the first line. And it doesn't hurt that she has a wonderfully vivid writing style.

So why does this one not quite set me on fire? I think it’s because there are so many elements that feel very unoriginal, not to say tired. Parts of the world feel like just another pseudo-medieval setting, the parts that involve the patrilineal kingdom with the cold-hearted king, the playboy prince and the resentful but plucky princess, doomed to marry some hideous older man for political reasons. Yawn. And I’m always deeply suspicious of kings who have precisely two children, one of each gender. In a hereditary monarchy, there should be hordes of hopeful heirs, legitimate and otherwise, in every generation, or else an extremely good reason why not.

Other parts of the story are well up to Larke’s creative standards. The unusual physical world, with the continents clustering inconveniently around the polar ice-cap. The importance of the spice trade. The uneasily united branches of the prevailing religion. And the dagger of the title, a creepily semi-alive weapon. I’m a sucker for sentient ironmongery.

The main character of the story is Saker, low-born but now a pretend priest and spy, working undercover for his religious mentor while supposedly tutoring the royal children. And here’s another problem. Saker is a likeable enough character, but he’s made out to be some ultra-smart, ultra-devious guy, when the entire book is no more than a catalogue of his mistakes, where he’s taken in by one smarter, more devious character after another. Gullible is his middle name, and while I excuse his entrapment by the lady (he’d have to be super-human to resist, frankly), the rest of it just makes him look stupid. And I have to wonder why his mentor sends him off to tutor the prince and princess in the first place, a position he seems spectacularly unsuited for.

Of the other characters, Ryke the prince is the standard template for princes in fantasy, only interested in hunting, whoring and himself. Mathilda the princess has an even more limited range of interests – herself and... erm, that’s it. And yes, of course, it’s a horrible situation, young woman forced to marry evil older man for the good of the kingdom (and a lucrative trade agreement), but we have heard it once or twice before. Sorrel, the widow coerced into virtual slavery by Mathilda, would be more interesting if she stopped whining for five minutes. Yes, life’s really tough living in the royal palace with all your comforts provided, isn’t it?

Ardhi, on the other hand, the original owner of the eponymous dagger, is a truly fascinating character. More of him, please. Saker’s religious mentor, the Pontifect, is also interesting, and I also enjoyed the few moments onscreen of light-hearted nobleman Juster (although he reminded me somewhat of Maldynado from the Emperor’s Edge series; actually quite a few of these characters reminded me of some other book).

The plot is a little slow to get going, although that’s typical of most fantasy and isn’t a problem. It takes time to paint in the backdrop before the action starts. Once it does, though, things take off spectacularly, and the second half of the book is a fast-paced romp as Saker and pals stagger from one disaster to the next. Beneath the veneer of entertainment, though, there are some thought-provoking themes – of slavery, for one thing. Several of the characters are, in various ways, compelled to do things they desperately don’t want to do. This ought to make me more sympathetic towards them, but somehow it feels more like a plot device and therefore loses its emotional impact.

This fell a little short of my expectations. It felt uneven, the characters failed to engage me, the plot, while executed with all the author’s flair, seemed a little contrived. Political machinations are less interesting to me than well-rounded characters. However, the writing is, as always, excellent, and the foundations are laid for the next two books in the series to venture out of the familiar world of kingdoms and organised religions into more exotic settings. I’ll certainly be reading on. Three stars.