Sunday, 27 April 2014

Fantasy Review (DNF): 'Oblivion's Forge' by Simon Williams

Oblivion's Forge

The word that springs to mind while reading this is portentous. The opening chapters are stuffed with mysterious happenings, deeply meaningful but unexplained dreams and visions, characters who are compelled to do certain things and who are assisted at life-threatening moments by shadowy mystics. Something Very Bad is about to happen, and it’s so bad that it can only be spoken of in cryptic utterances that the reader will come to understand by the end of the book (or possibly the end of the trilogy, who knows). And all this in a deeply hostile wintry landscape.

So clearly this is dark fantasy, which means the characters will suffer many unpleasant experiences on their journey through the plot. And I’ll be honest, I just wasn’t in the mood for it. Sometimes I just want entertainment rather than gruesomeness. Sometimes I just want to know what the hell’s going on. Sometimes I get tired of these fantasy worlds where everything is gloom and misery, and there isn’t even a decent tavern brawl. So mea culpa, this is just a mismatch between the book and me.

And I’m a bit cross, because beneath the mysticism, this is a wonderfully literate and thoughtful piece of work, which normally I would be lapping up. The author has an almost lyrical style which is a pleasure to read, although he’s a bit inclined to toss in a lot of backstory (all of it portentous, naturally, and not at all explanatory). The world itself is very well thought out and there’s plenty of magic of various sorts going on.

For anyone who likes their fantasy dark, cryptic and thoroughly mystical, this is an excellent, well-written example. Sadly, it wasn’t for me. I got 15% of the way in before giving up. One star for a DNF.

Mystery Review (DNF): 'Long Spoon Lane' by Anne Perry

Long Spoon Lane

If I’d known going in that this was the twenty-fourth book in this particular series, perhaps I might have expected some problems. But it was a book group read, recommended by one of the members, and it seemed to be right up my alley – a murder mystery set in Victorian times. Well, that sounds like fun, doesn’t it? Something light and entertaining, but with a more interesting background than the usual inner-city fare or the Marple-esque twee rural village beloved of the writers of cosy mysteries.

But all that backstory inevitably cast a pall over proceedings. This is not the sort of series where everything resets at the end of each book. It’s clear that there have been years (perhaps decades) of interaction between most of the principle characters. To say they have history doesn’t begin to cover it. To be fair, the author fills in the details pretty well, and it wasn’t too confusing. The problem was that the earlier events sounded so much more interesting than this book. The lead character’s wife, Charlotte, for instance, and her sister Emily, who are nothing more than domestic goddesses in this book, appear in some earlier existence to have done a great deal of sleuthing on their own account. Now that’s a book I would willingly read.

Then there was the subject matter of this particular story, which revolves around anarchists, corruption in the police force and a plan to introduce laws to allow the police to be armed and to have greater powers in their investigations. Since it’s well known that the British police are not routinely armed to this day, there’s no dramatic tension in that particular plot line. It seems to be merely a platform for the author to express her own views through the characters, who hold endless worried conversations about how dreadful such a step would be, and blah blah blah. Yes, yes, but it gets old very quickly.

None of this would have mattered if the plot had ripped along or the dialogue sparkled or the characters were lively, but sadly, it was not so. After the initial excitement of bombings and shootings (where our hero Pitt repeatedly displays his over-sensitive horror at such dreadful goings on in England), the plot settles into a rather dull political affair. The writing style is loosely in the manner of Victorian novelists, although with intrusive diversions to explain subtleties of social propriety which the reader is (presumably) too stupid to understand otherwise. None of the characters really came alive for me, but perhaps they were constrained by the formality of the era. There were moments where the author captured the atmosphere of London in a truly evocative way – the scenes beside the river, for instance – but mostly the writing was workmanlike rather than compelling.

I suspect that the earlier books in the series were much more readable. This felt like a tired effort, where the author had run out of ideas and possibly even interest in the series, but was soldiering on in the interests of fan satisfaction. No doubt those who’ve read the preceding 23 books will love this one, but it wasn’t for me. I got to 30% before I gave up on it. One star for a DNF.

Sunday, 20 April 2014

Fantasy Romance Review: 'Sarya's Song' by Kyra Halland

Sarya's Song

Wouldn’t it be lovely if you could compose a song which would guarantee good weather or bountiful harvests or a cure for illness? That’s the premise here, and what an enchanting one it is. The creator god made the world and left a series of specific tunes (‘tropes’) which allow the humans to control their environment and live in peace and plenty. The god has moved on to other worlds but the tropes should carry on working indefinitely – except that something is going wrong. Harvests fail, epidemics break out, the weather has turned nasty and no one knows why.

Sarya is a part of this magical-music world, having both a True Voice (one which can affect things by singing) and being also a trained Arranger, someone who takes the required tropes and combines them into an effective choral arrangement. Inevitably (this is fantasy, after all), she’s an orphan with a rough past, whereas most of the people at the Skola (musical academy) are upper class and wealthy, so she has had trouble being accepted into the community. But when one of her arrangements goes disastrously wrong, Sarya is determined to find out why and begins researching the strange tropes which accompany the disasters.

From here on, the plot accelerates at a dizzying speed, and this part of the book is perfectly judged, with each success followed by a greater failure, and Sarya forced into more and more difficult decisions. There are some darker passages towards the end, but I didn’t find them too unsettling, and I liked the mature way the author handled the consequences of traumatic experiences. There were a few credibility issues, where I expected greater opposition to Sarya’s proposals, but in the end people just said, ‘Oh, all right then.’ And Sarya’s conviction that love interest Adan couldn’t possibly love her despite all the evidence to the contrary was not terribly believable. I mean, that passionate kiss should have been a bit of a clue, right? But the action rolled on unstoppably, and every crisis was page-turningly dramatic. This was a book that was hard to put down, and although there was nothing wildly original in the way events played out, it was still an exciting read.

Fantasy romance (or romance in a fantasy setting) is a difficult genre to pull off. It’s hard to get the perfect balance without one aspect swamping the other, but the author has done a terrific job here. The world-building is not extensive, since almost all the action takes place within the city of Sucevita, indeed within the Skola, but other areas are mentioned sufficiently to give the setting a feeling of real depth, both of geography and history. The religion, based around the magical tropes, is also well-conceived. The romance happily avoids the insta-lust and triangle clich├ęs, and is enjoyably satisfying without ever overwhelming the action.

If there is a weakness to the book, it lies with the characters. Sarya is too impossibly altruistic and self-effacing and robustly determined to do the right thing no matter the personal cost, and the angst factor is quite high in consequence. Adan is too impossibly noble and generous and self-sacrificing and understanding. He’s also impossibly handsome and well-honed and a perfect specimen of manhood, but that’s par for the course for this kind of story, and I’m certainly not going to complain about it. Both main characters have their frailties, of course, but these pale beside their vast array of virtues. The other characters fall neatly into the good guys/bad guys duality, without too many distinguishing characteristics.

These are very minor quibbles however. On the plus side, the villain was chillingly evil, and one of the highlights of the book for me. His meetings with Sarya were wonderfully mysterious, and I enjoyed the way his true intentions were concealed until the last possible moment. Sarya’s past also gives her some depth, and the moment when she overcomes her history and gives herself unreservedly to Adan is a lovely piece of writing.

This was a very enjoyable read, a perfect blend of well-thought-out fantasy with a satisfying romance. I loved the ingenious and cleverly implemented concept of music as a form of magic. Highly recommended. A good four stars.

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Saturday, 19 April 2014

Mystery Review: 'Charity Begins With Murder' by Annie McDowall

Charity Begins with Murder

This is a quirky little book, filled with eccentric characters who are nevertheless completely believable, reacting to an increasingly dramatic sequence of events exactly as you would expect normal people to react. The first response to new information or a threat is always ‘let’s tell the police’ instead of the all-too-common policy in amateur sleuth stories of attempting to deal with everything single-handedly.

The plot: Nikki is out of work and depressed after a traumatic event at a previous job, forced back into work by the government’s ruthless program to reduce the unemployment numbers. She reluctantly takes a job as receptionist for a charity in a seedy part of London, where her boss dies in the middle of a meeting on Nikki’s first day at work. And from there onwards, things get steadily worse.

Nikki is a fairly likeable character, and her friends are an entertaining bunch. I don’t know London very well (I live at the other end of the country) but I did wonder how realistic it was to find quite so many gay, black/coloured, disabled and otherwise minority groups in an area who were all such cheerfully nice people, while the middle-class white folks were – well, less nice, in many cases, and downright creepy and villainous in some. It seemed a little like inverse type-casting. In my experience you find good, bad and downright weird in all ethnicities, and always more good than bad. I was half hoping that one of the minority characters would turn out to be a villain or at least pilfering the coffee money, just to redress the balance a bit, but no.

The early chapters were a little slow, and it took forever to determine that the initial death was indeed murder and not merely a tragic accident, which was frustrating given the book’s title. After that, the story unfolds very nicely, and winds up to fever pitch at just the right moment, although the reveals weren’t terribly surprising. The book is easy to read, although the author likes to detail every little part of each conversation, however banal. I’d have preferred a little more snappiness, but that’s just me.

I found the romance element a little too dominant for this kind of plot where the murder should be the main feature – and no, that’s not just because it involved a lesbian love triangle. I thought the new romance was rather sweet and beautifully judged, but the old flame angle got a bit tedious after a while. Too much angsting for my taste. However, for anyone who dislikes gay characters, be warned: the main character and most of her friends are gay, the gay lifestyle dominates and there is some (tastefully done) sex.

An entertaining, if light-hearted, read, with some well-drawn characters and a good sprinkling of British humour. I would have liked a little more unpredictability and perhaps a tad less political soap-boxing. Three stars.

Thursday, 3 April 2014

Steampunk Review: 'Emperor's Edge' Short Stories by Lindsay Buroker

Ive been catching up with a few short reads these past few days, which does wonders for the tbr list. Theres not enough to say about these to justify a review each, so Ive gathered them into a compilation.

Shadows Over Innocence (Emperors Edge 0.5)

A nice little short story giving a glimpse into the background of Sicarius the emotionless assassin and Sespian the future Emperor as a child. One for the fans, and best read after some of the Emperor's Edge series to fully appreciate the nuances. Two stars.

Ice Cracker II and other stories (Emperors Edge 1.5)

The Frozen Water Trade, Through Fire Distilled, Ice Cracker II

These are fun, light-hearted reads which follow a similar formula: Amaranthe is going about her business when she stumbles across a dead body or an exploded machine, leading her to investigate, whereupon things get much, much worse. Two stories feature Sicarius, and one has Books in it (but sadly theres no sign of Maldynado). Three stars.

The Assassins Curse (Emperors Edge 2.5)

A nice spooky haunted island is the star attraction here. Amaranthe and Sicarius are training in the lake when they spot something odd going on. Can Amaranthe resist investigating? Of course not. This leads to an encounter with another of the authors ingenious steam-powered machines, and the usual implausible but entertaining fight scene. Three stars.

All of these are recommended for fans of the Emperors Edge series, although there isnt a whole lot of backstory revealed. Theyre also a pretty good introduction to the authors steampunk world and mayhem-and-explosion-rich style of adventure.