Sunday, 26 January 2014

Fantasy Review: 'The Nullification Engine' by Scott Marlowe

This is the second book the Alchemancer series, following on from ‘The Five Elements’. Like that one, this starts with a bang, literally, a mysterious underground explosion in the city of Brighton, just as our heroes from the first book, Aaron, Serena and Ensel Rhe, arrive there, followed almost immediately by demon houndmaster Krosus and his evil pack. In dealing with the hounds, Aaron and Serena manage to get themselves arrested and tossed into the dungeon. It has to be said, the author knows how to drop straight into the action.

After this, the pace lets up just a little, and branches out into multiple point of view threads to ensure that the plot is nicely stirred. There’s the airship which featured in the first book, newly arrived for repairs; there’s a King’s Patroller, whose function I’m not sure about, but he seems to be a good guy; there’s a disgruntled pyromancer; there’s a dwarf underworld boss with a beautiful daughter; there’s an old enemy of Ensel Rhe’s; and there’s a nest of rats-on-steroids under the city, who wear clothes and wield swords and are definitely bad guys. Well, they eat people. Oh, and there’s a machine, the Nullification Engine of the title, which is seriously cool and I can’t wait for the movie to be made to see exactly what it looks like.

Of the characters, Ensel Rhe is the most interesting, with his mysterious past and his super-ninja skills. In the first book, he was rather lightly sketched in, more plot device than rounded character, but here he gets a lot more screen-time and a chance to shine. Every scene he was in sizzled with tension. We learn quite a bit more about him here, which only serves to make him more intriguing. Aaron, the prodigy applying logic and science to largely magical artifacts, is also fun, and I loved the way he cracked the code. Serena worked less well for me. Her conventional upper-class family setting did nothing to make her interesting (to me), and there were times when she simply acted in ways that had me rolling my eyes. Speaking up at the funeral, for instance, and only realising afterwards that it might be a Bad Idea. And when her former mentor tells her to stay away from a device, what is the very first thing she does? Doh.

Of the other characters, they’re nicely drawn and work very well. I particularly liked the newly introduced Jakinda, a nice fiery character. I’m very much looking forward to seeing her in action in the next book. The dwarves were huge fun, too, although why is it dwarves are always the comic relief? I blame Peter Jackson. But the star character for me (if I can describe it this way) was the Nullification Engine itself, which stole the show in every scene it was in, and was a wonderfully unpredictable and fascinating device.

As with the first book, the plot rattles along at a breath-taking pace, with an unpredictable twist in almost every chapter. If I had a beer for every time I muttered ‘Didn’t see THAT coming’ I’d be blind drunk under the table by now. My only complaint is that I had trouble remembering everything that had happened in the first book, so I was flummoxed for a while when certain characters turned up again. A summary would have helped, although to be perfectly fair, I’m very bad at remembering plots in general, so I have the same trouble with every series. In other words, my fault, not the author’s. There’s a list of characters at the front and some good maps, too, as well as a sprinkle of reminders throughout the story, so I got past the confusion stage in the end. There was one plot-thread that I didn’t fully understand, involving Krosus the demon houndmaster and Ursool the witch; I’m still not sure just how things ended up there, but again, I suspect it’s just me not paying attention, since everything else was tied up beautifully, with neat little bows on top.

Another fun read, very entertaining, with a great ending setting everything up nicely for the next book. Highly recommended. Four stars.

Friday, 17 January 2014

Fiction Review: 'Look At Me' by Jennifer Egan

In honour of my new resolution to toss anything that doesnt grab me in the first 10% or so, heres another DNF. Now Im sure this is a deeply worthy affair, covering the themes of identity, how others see us and how we see ourselves. Its well-written and all that. But it lacked something. Plot, mainly. Interesting characters, definitely. Any kind of impetus to keep turning the pages, or to find out what happens to these people. I just didnt care.

It started so well, too. This is the opening:

After the accident, I became less visible. I dont mean in the obvious sense that I went to fewer parties and retreated from general view. Or not just that. I mean that after the accident, I became more difficult to see.

Now, thats intriguing. How did she become more difficult to see? Or rather, why? I felt a frisson of interest. Was there, perhaps, some paranormal stuff going on? Fairly stupid response, right? In my defence, I have a lot of stuff lurking on my Kindle from way back, not sorted by genre, and I dont check the blurb or reviews first, I just start reading. This had unintended consequences in this particular case. Since its written in the first person, I had no idea whether the main character was a man or a woman. I ran with the default male. It was many, many pages before there was mention of a prom dress. Oops. Time for a quick adjustment of mental image. It was many more pages before there was a name, Charlotte. Dull name.

Anyway, its not paranormal, its just angsty chick-lit. After this interesting opening, we go back to the main characters childhood, would you believe, and slog through the details of her best friend and her first boyfriends and discovering sex and all that stuff. It takes forever to come back to the present day. By then Id lost interest. There was absolutely nothing about the main character to hold my attention or make me want to read on. For anyone whos more tolerant of this kind of introspective story, I can tell you that its very well written and its had good reviews. It just wasnt for me. One star for a DNF.

Monday, 13 January 2014

Sci-Fi Review: 'The Annihilation of Foreverland' by Tony Bertauski

This is something Ive had sitting on my Kindle for almost two years, it was dirt cheap and I had no expectations going in. I just decided to clear out some of the old stuff. And blow me down, it turned out to be the most entertaining read since... well, the last entertaining read. Which was quite a while back.

So heres the premise. Thirteen year old kid wakes up with a head full of jumbled memories, possibly none of them his own. Hes on a tropical island with a bunch of other teenage boys, supervised by a bunch of rickety old men. The boys get to play games all day, if they want to, theyre well fed and looked after, the only snag (there has to be one, right?) is that every once in a while they go into a building where they are expected to insert a needle into their foreheads and enter an artificial reality where, once they get the hang of it, they can do anything fly, shape-shift, create stuff, whatever their imaginations can invent.

It doesnt take a genius to work out that some very sinister things are happening in the background, and it takes most of the book for the various layers of mystery to be peeled away one by one. Some of them were obvious virtually from the start, some were complete surprises and a few things I was totally wrong about, which is always good. I hate it when I can guess all the twists ahead of time.

In a lot of ways this book isnt anything special. But thats exactly the point: this is what a genre book should be like. It has believable characters, a plot that makes sense, and its well written without any pretensions to literary greatness. OK, you could, if you wanted, derive some themes about consciousness and the nature of reality and so on, but its not compulsory. And its an absolute page turner. I couldnt put it down, I had to know what was going on and why. Yes, there were places where things fell out rather too conveniently for our hero and his pals, and one or two moments I didnt really understand at all. There were loose ends (like all the girls, for instance; where did they come from?), but there are more books in the series so maybe they get answered later. But for anyone who wants a fun read with plenty of what-the-hells-going-on-ness, I can highly recommend this. Four stars.

Friday, 10 January 2014


Im interrupting your scheduled programming to make a small personal announcement. As well as reading and reviewing fantasy books, I also have a foot on the other side of the divide, as a writer of epic fantasy. Ive been dabbling for a while now, but sooner or later my characters have to pick up their swords and step outside to face the real world. Are they ready for the challenge? Im hoping some of you will tell me.

Im going to release my first completed novel, The Plains of Kallanash, chapter by chapter on my writing blog. Comments on it are not just welcomed, but positively encouraged. Heres the blurb:

Two husbands, two wives, one marriage. Mia is content to be a junior wife, taking care of the day-to-day chores of ruling a Karninghold and dreaming of one day catching the eye of the lead husband. Hurst is the junior husband, a talented skirmisher frustrated by his lack of power, and dreaming that one day he and Mia will be a real part of this marriage. But when Mias co-wife mysteriously dies, her orderly life begins to unravel and she finds herself in conflict with the powerful servants of the gods, a conflict she cant possibly win. Hurst will do anything to help her, but first he must leave behind the make-believe of formal skirmishes, and become a real war-leader for the highest stakes of all.

You can read the first chapter on my writing blog. Theres also background information on the book and world elsewhere on the site.

Dont worry, I wont be cluttering up the blog with any more notices of this type. If youd like to keep reading, remember to bookmark the blog, add it to your news feed, follow me on Twitter or sign up for email notifications.

And now we return to your scheduled programming...

Urban Fantasy Review: 'The Rook' by Daniel O'Malley

I started 2014 with a determination to reduce my backlog of books to be read, books I've already bought and paid for that are just sitting waiting on my Kindle. Here's one way of doing it: read a third of a book, say 'Nah, not doing it for me' and toss it.

Now, there's nothing much wrong with this book. It's nicely written, it's won the Aurealis Award for goodness' sake, so lots of people think it's a cracker. And it has a terrific premise, which is what drew me to it in the first place: a woman wakes up seemingly in another body, with no memory of who or what she is, surrounded by dead people wearing rubber gloves. And inside the pocket of her jacket, a letter from her (former) self, telling her that she's some kind of supernatural spy secretly working for the British Government, but – oh no! – there’s a traitor in the camp. Sounds great, doesn't it? A tad clich├ęd, but fun, perhaps.

So what went wrong for me? First off, the main character tells herself in the letter that her name is Myfanwy, but not pronounced the Welsh way, but to rhyme with 'Tiffany'. Erm... what? Well, OK, let's roll with that. Then there are the two aristocrats, Lady Linda Farrier and Sir Henry Wattleman. The lady is mostly called Lady Farrier, which is probably correct, and once is Lady Linda, which probably isn’t, but the gentleman is variously called Sir Henry (fine) or Sir Wattleman (which is so not fine that I found myself tensing up at every scene he was in, or likely to be in, just in case). This is not the kind of tension an author wishes to inspire in a reader.

So, fine, Mr O'Malley is Australian with some American, and I don't expect colonials to get the nuances of the British aristocracy, which take at least five hundred years to master. But then Myfanwy calls a cab in London, and the driver has to look the address up, and I’m immediately distracted.  London is possibly the only city in the world where cabbies spend years doing 'The Knowledge', learning their way to every little back jigger, every obscure hotel, every dodgy nightclub in the capital. Now, it could have been a mini-cab that she called, whose drivers don’t do ‘The Knowledge’, but a British author would have made that clear. Small point? Very, but it brought me to a crashing halt for a while.

Then Myfanwy is invited out for lunch (or dinner, not sure which) by Lady Farrers. They go to a very famous restaurant, and there they sit, surrounded by hordes of hovering waiters, talking about their organisation. The one which is so secret that absolutely no one outside a select few heads of government and the armed forces is supposed to know about it. So the author lost me right there. And let's not mention the school for supernatural spooks which is on Kirrin Island (if you don’t get the reference, look up the Famous Five).

If I'd been enjoying the story, this stuff wouldn't have bothered me nearly so much. Maybe not at all. These are teeny tiny details, flea bites of irritation. Trouble is, the story just didn’t grab me, the characters, despite their supernatural quirks, were flat, and the humour likewise. And the worst of it was that despite a nice premise, the style of the story requires that mind-wiped Myfanwy learns everything she needs to know from letters presciently written by her former self. So there's a page or two of Myfanwy winging it through this or that meeting, followed by umpteen pages of what's essentially info-dump. That gets tedious very fast.

The whole secret supernatural spy thing felt like a poor imitation of Ben Aaronovitch's secret supernatural policeman series, and that at least has the advantage of a real feel for London, plus his wonderful dry British humour. It didn't work for me, but lots of people seem to like it, so there you go. Not a great start to 2014. One star for a DNF.

Tuesday, 7 January 2014

Essay: Review of 2013

This was a funny old year, in many ways. In personal terms, I had the perfect holiday of a lifetime in February (a month in Middle Earth New Zealand), followed almost immediately by a major outbreak of doctors and hospitals (now resolved, but scary at the time). In reading terms, I came across some awesome work that proved that traditional, hybrid and self-publishing can all produce the goods, yet I also came to the conclusion that editing standards are slipping across the board.

I bought 118 books this year (down from 149 last year). Only 9 were free, either permafree, special deals, birthday gifts (thanks, relatives!), or came as part of a Kickstarter package. Last year I picked up 40 free books, so either Im getting more wary of free stuff, or less of it caught my eye. A few books were non-fiction, which I dont show on Goodreads, and 10 were Audible audio-books, which at £7.99 a pop (about $12) were cheap for audio-books, but more expensive than Im used to paying for fiction. I dont think Ill be buying any more of them. I didnt buy, or read, a single dead-tree book this year, everything was digital. The audio-books and fewer freebies meant that the average price of my purchases over the year was £3.20, up from £2.15 last year (approx. $5 and $3.50). The most expensive books this year were The Cuckoos Calling and Dragon Queen (both £8.49, about $13), and Emperor of Thorns (worth every last penny of £8.11, about $12).

For anyone who really wants to know this stuff, since I bought my first Kindle in October 2010 Ive bought 428 books for it (including the audio-books, which work on the Kindle keyboard model). Total cost was £1200 (about $1800), which works out at £2.80 per book (about $4.20). Fortunately, generous gifts meant that I didnt have to find all that money myself (Amazon gift cards are a wonderful invention). My gift to myself this year was a new Kindle, a Paperwhite, which allows me to read in pitch darkness or sunlight, and has a touchscreen to boot. This just may be the perfect e-reader.

2013 was a slower year for reading. I started well, with a number of quick reads and novellas, but then hit a streak of epic tomes, which slowed things down. My Goodreads challenge target was 100, but I only managed 83, down from 102 last year, and there were a further 9 books I started but abandoned. 16 books were rated 5* (17%), 30 were 4* (33%), 32 were 3* (35%), 4 were 2* (4%) and those 9 abandoned books were 1* (10%). For anyone whose maths is good enough to say: hey, theres one missing, well done. Youre right, one book was unrated. These proportions are not dissimilar from last year, except that there are more 5* books this year (17% against only 7% in 2012). Am I getting softer? No, I just read a lot of cracking books this year.

Of those 92 books that I read, or attempted to read, 52 (or 57%) were self-published, as far as I can tell. Two thirds were fantasy, with the rest a mixture of sci-fi, mystery and general fiction. I dont take much notice of the gender of authors when I buy a book. I choose based on whether the story sounds appealing to me, not on whether the author has boobs or not, since its the creative mind behind the book that interests me more. But for those who are interested in such matters, 50 of the books I read this year were by female authors as far as I can tell (thats 54%).

Ive already listed my best of the year over at Fantasy Review Barn in the Barney Awards and my list of self-published gems, so I wont rehash that. The highlight for me was Mark Lawrences Broken Empire trilogy, which I sailed through in a couple of weeks, completely awestruck, and then found it almost impossible to read anything else for an age afterwards. Proof that mainstream publishers, despite their many weaknesses, can sometimes get things totally right. Elsewhere in traditional publishing things were rockier. Brent Weeks The Black Prism was one I just couldnt get through, despite my best endeavours. Implausible characters and motivations, combined with a whizz-bang approach to plotting AND some ropey editing turned me off. And Bradley P Beaulieu got caught up in the Night Shade implosion just before the release of the third book in the trilogy (cue loud groans from fans), and enterprisingly turned to Kickstarter to fund its release. The upside was that I got the set for a knockdown price, lucky me.

Self-publishers proved, once again, that they can be just as professional as anyone else. Authors like H Anthe Davis, Intisar Khanani, Nathan Fierro, Duncan M Hamilton, Tristan Gregory, Neil McGarry and Daniel Ravipinto shone this year, and produced fantasy thats comparable in quality with anything out there. Self-pubbers have the freedom and creativity to follow their imaginations wherever they may lead, but there are signs that perhaps the pressure to churn out books on a regular basis may take a toll. One or two of my favourites put out new work that didnt quite set me on fire.

Part of the reason for the pressure may be that returns for self-publishers arent quite as good as they once were. There are reports that promotions and free days dont produce the same bump in sales, and its harder than ever to get noticed on Amazon. Its just an impression, but it seems to me that self-pubbers now need a much larger stable of works (10 or more) to hit the best revenue stream. Plus, traditional publishers are muscling in at the cheap end of the marketplace, putting an authors earlier work out for a short-term special price to help promote the latest one. I picked up The Lies of Locke Lamora for only £0.99 (about $1.50), and far more new books are at sensible prices nowadays (again, only an impression).

So it may be that the glory days for self-pubbers are over. A lot are still making a living, or topping up the income very nicely, but its harder to make sales. Not that lifes a bed of roses for traditionally published authors, either, and most of them have no choice but to have day jobs. Advances are down, contracts are more restrictive than ever and they have to do most of their own marketing into the bargain.

But savvy authors can get the best of both worlds. Hugh Howey self-pubbed his way to a print-only contract with a traditional publisher, putting the paperback into every bookstore in the world, but retaining the ebook rights. Michael J Sullivan has a traditional publishing deal for his adventure fantasy, used a Kickstarter campaign to fund his edgier sci-fi, and cannily sells the audio-book rights before shopping his new work around, thus keeping the big margins for himself. These hybrid authors straddle the worlds of traditional and self-publishing. Combined with lower trad prices and more professional presentation from many self-pubbers, the distinction is increasingly blurred. And readers just dont know or care who published what. They buy and read what appeals to them, which is why a sizeable proportion of ebook bestsellers are now self-published.

So what of 2014? Ill still be reading and reviewing books, of course, both at my own blog, and at Fantasy Review Barn, in combination with Nathan and Anachronist. As always, I buy everything I review, and I review everything I read. One objective this year is to reduce my backlog of books still to be read, now hovering around the 90 mark. These are all books Ive bought and paid for and want to read. So Ive long since stopped looking for new material, I avoid Goodreads and I no longer consider review requests from authors new to me, which is sad but necessary for my sanity. And this year I intend to be more ruthless about giving up on books: if it hasnt grabbed me by the 20% mark, its over.

I have one other project in the pipeline for this year. Like a lot of avid readers, I also have stories running round inside my head. Ive dabbled at fiction writing for years, but last year I actually got a fantasy novel finished. I set it aside to brew for a while, and wrote another one. No one could have been more astonished than I was. But were they any good? For the last three months, Ive been workshopping the first one at Scribophile, and now I plan to post it, chapter by chapter, at my writing blog, so that anyone who wants to can read it, comment on it, trash it, whatever. Maybe, if responses are positive, Ill consider self-publishing later this year. Which would make 2014 a funny old year, too.

Wishing both my readers a very good year, and plenty of excellent reading.

My writing blog: everything you never wanted to know about my fantasy world and the people in it
Fantasy Review Barn: where Nathan, Anachronist and I all post reviews

Sunday, 5 January 2014

Fantasy Review: 'The Huntsman's Amulet' by Duncan M Hamilton

That difficult middle book of the trilogy? Nope, no problem. Just send the hero off in a different direction altogether, with a bit of seafaring and... pirates! What could be better than chasing around the oceans, with a sea battle and a storm and... and... You can probably fill in some of the blanks here. Very little of this took me by surprise, but that doesn’t make it any less of an enjoyable romp.

The plot is, in many ways, a choppier affair than in ‘The Tattered Banner’. Main character Soren starts off looking for missing girlfriend Alessandra, then gets distracted by a search to find out more about his Gift (the mysterious power that overtakes him during a fight and makes him super-fast). That thread ends abruptly, and then a storm at sea leaves his ship vulnerable to pirate slave-traders, when that is resolved he falls in with an old acquaintance and sets off after the pirate... and so on. This kind of episodic story has some advantages, and there’s never a dull moment, but it does feel sometimes as if Soren is passively being pushed around by events. He ends up bouncing around all over the place, like a glorified travelogue of his world, and while the places he visits are interesting in themselves, the speed with which he hops from one to another, and the ease with which problems are solved, dulls the impact.

The most interesting place, to my mind, was the mysterious island in the centre of the ocean where there are the remains of a great city. The place is tainted with magic, so it’s dangerous to visit, and the peculiar and foreboding atmosphere of it is conveyed very well. But then, it becomes unexpectedly easy and frankly an excuse for a big info-dump, so in the end it’s a bit of a let-down.

The rest of the book is a giant boys-own adventure, with regular outings for Soren’s talent with a sword. In the first book, the fights, and the outbreaks of magic that accompanied them, were a highlight. Here much of the awesomeness is lost and the fights become rather mundane, as Soren tries to gain full control of his power so that it doesn’t overwhelm him. And it has to be said that the sheer number of times the swords come out makes this aspect of the book repetitious.

If this makes it sounds as if I was disappointed, well, perhaps I was, just a little. I would have liked more of the magic, more of the mind-blowing Gift-infused moments like the Belek battle in the first book (which remains an unforgettable image, still vivid in my mind), more times when things went wrong and I was taken by surprise. Everything was just a tad too easy and predictable. On the other hand, this was a cracking action-adventure, elegantly written and enjoyable from first to last, with no problems picking up the threads of the story from book 1, and no sign of middle-book doldrums. Four stars.