Sunday, 30 March 2014

Fantasy Review (DNF): Children of Sun and Moon by Matt Larkin

When I have a problem reading a book, it’s rarely the obvious things that bother me. Well, bad grammar and spelling, of course, but that’s usually glaringly obvious within a couple of pages, so it’s easy to avoid. Cardboard characters, trite plots, over-reliance on action, poor dialogue, info-dumps – I might criticise a book for these flaws but they rarely cause me to give up on it. No, what does it for me is implausibility. It’s ironic, in a genre like fantasy that is absolutely dependent on arcane powers, creatures and entire worlds that don’t (and can’t) exist. I’m quite happy to read about wizards and elves and dragons and all sorts of whatchamacallits, but show me an inconsistency and I’m likely to toss the book against the wall. And so it is with this one.

First, the good stuff. The world-building here is awesome, without qualification. The setting is eastern, with sarongs and teahouses and satay and forms of martial arts, and that’s all very cool. It never feels derivative, though, because there’s a very ingenious magic system based around the moon and sun. One society in this world (known as Skyfall) worships and derives power from the moon, the other from the sun. Rather neatly, those powers are very fitting: the moon powers, if overused, cause the user to go mad (lunatic, get it?); sun power users can move instantaneously, like a sunbeam. It’s all very well thought out. There are some good action scenes, which are very well described, and the Lunar and Solar powers give these an unusual twist. There are some interesting characters, particularly Marin the... well, not sure what he was. Were-tiger?

Now for some so-so stuff. The settings are never very well described. The Solar people live in an amazing crystal underwater city, and I really wanted to spend some time just walking around such an unusual place to get a feel for it. Sadly the plot races on, so there’s never a chance to linger. Then there are the characters. Chandi, the female main character, starts the book by helping to kill her betrothed. Yet she moves on from that with scarcely a thought about him, and he’s quickly forgotten altogether. Ratna is another important female character, the daughter of the Lunar leader, married off to the Solar Emperor to cement a tenuous peace. I really wanted to know how she felt about that, how she got on with her husband, whether she felt used or betrayed. Yet she seemed very unemotional and accepting about it. I’d have liked to get to know the Emperor, too.

And then the problems. A number of things happen without sensible reasons. By sensible, I mean things that make sense within the world. Obviously authors can make up whatever rules they want for their worlds, but internal consistency is paramount. Here are some examples that failed for me. In the very first chapter, a Lunar character has over-used his powers and gone mad (lunatic). Chandi reports him and is sent off to kill him. But she is weaker in combat than he is, and only outside help manages to do the job. Since lunacy is a well-recognised problem, with a standard penalty (execution) it makes no sense to use one-on-one combat to carry it out. The state would surely have devised a more appropriate legal arrangement (with a trial, possibly? Just a suggestion). The fight makes for a great scene, but it’s quite illogical.

Another example. When Chandi and Ratna arrive at the Solar capital, they are greeted by Naresh (the male main character), riding some kind of sea monster. But he isn’t a member of the elite guard who usually do this, and someone else has to control the monster for him. Why then was he sent? The only reason is that the author needed to introduce him into the story.

Yet another example. Ratna, now the Emperor’s wife, wants to take her child to watch some celebration. The pair set off through the crowded city escorted only by Naresh and Chandi (who spend the whole time studiously pretending they’re not going to end up together by the end of the book). And the city isn’t friendly, since there was a previous assassination attempt. No, I don’t think so. Two of the most important people in the city, just wandering round in the crowd? Two people who, if killed, would precipitate a war?

This was the point where I gave up. For those who aren’t bothered by this and don’t mind the rather episodic and jerky telling of the story, this is an interesting attempt at something out of the ordinary. I got 20% of the way through, and it may be that some of the issues mentioned are addressed later in the book. It just didn’t work for me, however. One star for a DNF.

Saturday, 29 March 2014

Steampunk Review: 'Beneath The Surface' by Lindsay Buroker

Beneath the Surface (The Emperor's Edge, #5.5)

This is part of the Emperor’s Edge series, a novella that fits squarely between part 5, ‘Blood and Betrayal’, and the two-part finale, ‘Forged in Blood’. Those who’ve read any of the series will know exactly what to expect: seemingly small events rapidly escalate into madcap chaos, increasingly impossible-to-get-out-of situations and an implausible number of fights, explosions, wrecked vehicles and other general mayhem. Given the inventive steampunk setting, mixed with some more advanced technology (post-apocalypse? or alien? not sure, but it doesn’t really matter), the series is an entertaining riot, where the reader simply can’t imagine what might be round the next corner.

Or perhaps I should say: what’s round the next bend in the river, because for this outing the team is aboard a paddle steamer, leading inevitably to equipment and people splashing overboard, diving into cabins to avoid being seen, climbing between decks by hopping over railings and hiding away in funnels. Oh, you didn’t think hiding in funnels was inevitable in fantasy? Well, in a Buroker novel, expect the unexpected (and you’d be surprised what characters can get up to while suspended inside a funnel – well, I was surprised).

The characters are, as always, the high spot of the book. However serious and potentially fatal the situation, former Enforcer Amaranthe’s unlikely bunch of heroes can be depended upon to carry on sniping playfully at each other and tossing out witty asides as they go. No matter how ludicrous the plot (and, let’s be honest, you just have to switch off the logical part of your brain altogether for this sort of caper), the jokes made me laugh out loud more times than I can remember. The author gets the tone just right, too. In the previous book, the way Amaranthe and iceman assassin Sicarius inched towards an understanding was note perfect. In this book, it’s Maldynardo who has his delicate little romance reach fruition and given Maldynardo’s constant flirting and outright skirt-chasing, the temptation to ham it up must have been almost irresistable. But no, every moment between Maldynardo and his lady was perfection. Beautifully judged.

For anyone who’s read the first five books in the series, this is the perfect palate-cleanser before the final course. If you liked the others, you’ll enjoy this one too. I liked that recaps of the previous books are dropped in effortlessly, so that I never had to struggle to remember what happened. And the background plot is warming up nicely. For me, the relentlessly ramped-up action gets a bit wearing after a while (I like my fantasy just a tad more realistic than that), but I have to admire the author’s ability to develop her characters and their relationships just enough to maintain interest while never losing sight of their basic personalities. A good three stars.

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Wednesday, 26 March 2014

Mystery Review: 'Gone Girl' by Gillian Flynn

What to say about a book that's been the focus of so much adulation, but also mystified a sizeable proportion of its readership? So many people say: I just don't get it, don't like it, can't read it. The problem is that the two main characters, Nick and Amy, are seriously unlikeable. Not just not-my-type unlikeable, either. This is one totally messed-up weird twisted wreckage of a couple. Well, unlikeable's never bothered me. Some of the most interesting characters are villains. Heroes and heroines tend to be bland and dull and boringly good; give me a good villain any day.

The other big problem to overcome is the writing style, which can best be described as over-the-top aren't-I-clever? Both main characters are written in first person, so there's ample opportunity for snide abuse by the bucketload. Maybe ten per cent of it is incisively funny, the rest varies from meh to eye-rollingly bad to downright offensive. I dislike that kind of look-at-me cleverness, but enough of it was funny to get by, and all of it was in character, so it's hard to object to, I suppose.

The plot is that Nick and Amy have been forced by the recession to move from their sleek Manhattan lifestyle to a more modest life in Nick's hometown in Missouri. They both find the change difficult, the marriage begins to fall apart and then, on their fifth wedding anniversary, Amy disappears, leaving a stagily disorganised house, cleaned-up bloodstains and a great deal of other incriminating evidence pointing straight to Nick as a likely murder suspect. Since we are inside Nick's head a lot of the time, we know there's more to it than it appears.

I don't want to say too much about how the plot develops, because there are more twists than a bag of pretzels, and I don't want to spoil the surprises. However, the main twist at the halfway point was one I saw coming almost from the start, which added some interest to the early part of the book. It's always fun to appreciate both the obvious surface viewpoint, and the inside perspective that illuminates the behind-the-scenes manipulation. After that reveal, the pace ramps up and this part was, for me, unputdownable.

And then the ending. Again, it's one I saw coming. It seemed almost inevitable, although I hoped right to the last minute that there would be some big twist to force things off in a more interesting direction. There was a small twist, I suppose, so the way in which the ending was achieved was unexpected, but the actual situation was as I'd foreseen. Sorry to be so cryptic, but I really don't want to spoil this for anyone.

For anyone looking for deeper meaning in a psychological thriller, there's interest in the way the whole story was handled in the public eye, on TV, on the internet, through talk shows and to-camera interviews. The police investigation was gradually overshadowed by the global media take-up of Nick and Amy's story, and the way they were manipulated by the various factions involved. This isn't a particularly original line to take, but it was handled well here.

Ultimately, even though I didn’t expect to, I'd have to admit I enjoyed this. The plotting was clever, the way the book was structured, with alternating Nick and Amy chapters, was clever, the writing was clever and sometimes downright witty. Even knowing where things were going much of the time, I was still on the edge of my seat at the way the plot screeched round corners and made abrupt u-turns. I'd have put this at four stars but the ending was disappointing in its lack of proper resolution. Leaving things in unstable and potentially explosive equilibrium isn't very satisfying, although perhaps it's appropriate. So three stars.

Tuesday, 18 March 2014

Mystery Review: 'Death in Spigg's Wood' by Linda Gruchy

This is an unusual little book, something of a courtroom drama crossed with a police procedural, with a slathering of thriller on top. The style is different, too. The main character, Meg, keeps a diary for some of the events, so there are sections written in first person. The bulk of the book, however, is in a very wide-angle third person point of view, leaping merrily from one character to another, sometimes only for a sentence or two. This does mean that absolutely no detail is left out of the story. The downside is that, although the changes are never confusing in themselves, it did leave open to question the matter of which characters were the most important. There were so many named police with active roles that I never did work out if any of them were meant to be main characters. It's so common these days to focus closely on just one, or perhaps two, main police characters that I found this broad-brush approach disconcerting.

The opening of the story is far more traditional, bordering on cliche. Middle-aged housewife Meg is caught by the police, gun in hand and with another in her pocket, with three seriously injured men. Despite her protestations that she came across two of the men beating up the third and was forced to defend herself, she is arrested. The story then follows all the twists and turns of the police investigation in great detail, the trail of evidence, the interviews, the reveals about Meg, the slow evolution of the theories and, in time, the court appearances.

In all of this, Meg is the most strongly drawn character by far. Partly this is because of those first person diary entries which help the reader identify with her, but the author also succeeds in capturing the wild mood swings Meg experiences. She veers from tearful self-pity, to violent anger, to depression and apathy in moments. I suppose only someone who's truly experienced something similar can say for sure, but I found this very believable.

The police, sadly, never quite come across as real individuals. This is probably because there were so many of them that I found it impossible to keep track of them all. They all blurred together in my mind. Towards the end, I did begin to disentangle one or two of them, but it was a little late by then. While I enjoyed the realism of the police investigation, it might have been better to sacrifice a little of that by merging some of the multitude of characters.

I don't usually comment on typos and the like, because I find that virtually all books have a sprinkling of them. Generally, it's only continuity errors and plot holes that really bother me, and that wasn't an issue here. However, there were innumerable small but annoying typos, like words missing or misplaced, that became quite irritating. However, I've had the book on my Kindle for a while, so it's possible it's been tidied up by now.

Where the book truly scores is in the tension. Even though the writing style is more dry reporting than melodrama, even though every little detail was included, I found the story totally compelling, and just couldn't put it down. It surprises me to write this, but the courtroom scenes were so tense I found it hard to remember to breathe, sometimes.

The ending was slightly jarring, and there were too many pages of explanation for my taste. However, there were some very interesting philosophical points raised. To the reader, rooting for the innocent Meg caught up quite by chance in extreme events, the black and white aspects of the case are completely clear. For the police, viewing the evidence dispassionately, and for the lawyers, judges and juries involved in the formalities of the law and seeing only a small part of that evidence, there are many shades of grey. An unusual tale, whose quirks never spoiled my enjoyment. If I had half stars available, this would be three and a half stars, but since I don’t let’s put it down as a very good three stars.

Friday, 14 March 2014

Fantasy Review: 'Blood Of The Land' by Martin Davey

This is a real curate's egg of a book. Some parts are awe-inspiringly well written, while other parts are frustratingly bad. It's clear that the author can write, in the sense of being able to craft a well-honed sentence. His ability to create compelling characters or describe his world thoroughly or simply tell a story that absorbs and mesmerises - these are in greater doubt.

The book opens well, with a vividly drawn event which surprises on many levels without being confusing. So far so good. In fact, for several chapters things go very smoothly, and I began to harbour high hopes that this would turn out to be one of those unsung gems, a little treasure unknown and unappreciated by the world at large. But then things began to go awry. The author has a penchant for spookiness that verges on horror, and this works pretty well in small doses, generating a nicely creepy atmosphere. However, it soon becomes clear that much of this spookiness is simply a means of concealing useful information. All too often, a conversation with a character who knows what's going on is so cryptic that nothing is revealed. Characters are told lies or nothing at all, are told to obey without question, are given arm-waving vagueness - it had me screaming with frustration. I get that authors love to withhold details for that big last-minute reveal, but readers do need some information dribbled out to them to keep them interested.

Then there are the characters. The story is told through three main point of view characters. Landros is an indifferent guard watching nothing very much (it seems) in a small town in a remote location. Ysola is an abused wife (yes, that old cliche) now returning to her home village which is mysteriously different from her memories. Marin is an aging warrior but despite that hackneyed description, he's still the most interesting of the three, for reasons I'll get to. To start with the three seem to be completely separate, and this gives the early parts of the story a disjointed air.

The world-building is intriguing. Several thousand years earlier, during a time of kings described as 'lustful', the nine gods decided to get rid of them and there was a war during which the kings were defeated, four of the gods were killed (curious but unexplained) and a Nameless One was also defeated. Since then, the remaining five gods have controlled a docile human population by 'calling' individuals to do certain things. An individual dreams of meeting one of the gods, who instructs them to take up a particular profession or (in Landros's case) to be promoted to Captain. This immediately raises the question: what happens if the individual refuses? It is Marin who answers it: he has been tortured by the vengeful god every night as he sleeps because he refused. What nasty gods.

But somehow, this interesting background never blossoms into a compelling story. The real problem, for me, was that the main characters are all completely passive. Things happen to them and around them and (sometimes) because of them, but they drift through all this like lifeless dolls, making no decisions, taking no action on their own account, simply being manipulated by events and by other people, without any overt sign of rational thought. When things happen, they fail to react in realistic ways. Sometimes they don’t respond at all. It’s as if they are merely observers at a play, walking around on the stage but simply glorified members of the audience. I’m not a big fan of the get-up-and-go all-action style of protagonist, but I do like a main character to be awake while the plot is unrolling on all sides.

Once I got past the halfway point, it became clear that, while the author may know perfectly well where the plot is going and why, I still didn’t have a clue. I struggled to the 60% point before giving up. I didn’t care about any of the characters, and the only remotely interesting one, Marin, had his most intriguing aspect entirely negated by something that happens to him (which I won’t give away, because it’s a bit of a shocker). The book lacked focus, and in places rambled and repeated itself. It could also have done with a thorough final edit to weed out innumerable small but irritating errors in punctuation and a few spelling and grammar typos.

This was a disappointing read. The underlying ideas are excellent, and the author displays a fine writing style much of the time. For those who like their fantasy deeply mysterious, and infused with a thick layer of horror, I can recommend this. Sadly, it just didn’t work for me. One star for a DNF.

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Romantic Mystery Review: 'Wounded' by Lindsay Buroker

The author describes this as a rom-com, and that's as good a description as any. It's superficially an action mystery, but the romance is the core of it and also the part that works most effectively. If I tell you that the mystery part involves ruthless and evil - erm, mushroom researchers who’ll stop at nothing to get their hands on a particularly rare specimen which will cure antibiotic resistent TB, you'll probably get the point.

The plot (such as it is) involves heroine Tara making a temporary stay at an eco-village to produce blog material for a local newspaper. She arrives in the middle of a dispute with a neighbour involving escaped pigs and decapitated chickens. The neighbour, naturally, is a hunky heap of muscular maleness, called Malcolm (after the Scottish king; hurray for Scottish kings!). Tara manages to exploit her blogging and website building skills to impress said hunky heap, but thereby finds herself sucked into the ongoing adventures, which involves much racing around hillsides in the dark, climbing out of bathroom windows and the like, while the hunky heap manages to get his shirt off at frequent intervals.

All this is fun if not terribly surprising. Nor is Tara herself a particularly plausible character. Although she's smart enough to set up websites in the blink of an eye, she's apparently not smart enough to bring along anything useful on a police-evading night-time chase, even when she stops at her own house along the way. Plus she trips over every tree-root in the state, seemingly, and ends up face down in the mud. I have to confess, I like just a tad more competence in a main character.

As for the hunky heap, he's got demons from his past to deal with, and, wouldn't you just know it, the climax of the book involves him having to face up to those demons. I realise there's a school of thought that requires characters to move forwards during the course of the story, making visible progress in the demons department, but frankly this was all just too contrived for my liking. A little more subtlety would have helped.

On the other side of the coin, the romance works really well. The banter between the two main characters is brilliant, and there are some very funny moments along the way. It amuses me to consider the research the author must have carried out for this book, covering (among other things) hallucinogenic mushrooms, pipe bombs and the feasibility of operating a mobile phone using only your nose (and I'd have paid good money to watch the experimentation on that one). Apart from Tara's tree-root incompetence, the two main characters are well drawn. The gradual inching from deep suspicion through grudging tolerance to tentative trust and the inevitable romantic entanglement is perfectly judged, and completely credible. For anyone who likes their romance sweet rather than hot, with plenty of light-hearted action and a great big dollop of humour, this is ideal. Three stars.