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

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.