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.