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Saturday, 16 August 2014

Announcement

When I started this blog, a whole three years ago (a lifetime in computer terms), it was purely as a place to dump my Goodreads book reviews. Goodreads is a wonderful place and I love it dearly, but it isn't the easiest place to navigate (she said with commendable understatement). It takes forever to find my own reviews, and the search engine is inscrutable. But here, the cloud of author names makes it a breeze to find old reviews, so I can check what I said about parts 1, 2 and 3 while reviewing part 4 of a series.

In those three years, I became a contributor to another blog focused on speculative fiction, and I also became a writer, after years of dabbling and tinkering, and started a blog about my writing adventures. And, to be honest, three blogs is at least one too many. So I'm going to rationalise. This blog will now fossilise, keeping what's here as an archive, but without adding new material. All my future book reviews and book-related ramblings will now be posted at my writing blog, along with my occasional progress reports on my own writing and rants about the more arcane aspects of self-publishing. My fantasy and sci-fi book reviews will continue to be posted at Fantasy Review Barn, along with fellow contributors Nathan and Anachronist.

So hop over to one or other (or both) of those sites to keep up with my future book reviews:

My writing blog, with reviews of fantasy, sci-fi, mystery, romance and the occasional literary fiction affair that my book group insists on.

Fantasy Review Barn, for fantasy and sci-fi reviews from three very different bloggers.

Or you can catch all my accumulated book reviews at Goodreads.

Thursday, 14 August 2014

Fantasy Review: 'The Widow's House' by Daniel Abraham

The Widow's House (The Dagger and the Coin, #4)

Warning: this is the fourth book in a five-book series, and for anyone who hasn't read all the previous books, there will be spoilers ahead, so read at your own risk.

When I first saw the title of this book, I deduced that the widow was Clara, whose husband Dawson was executed as a traitor in a previous book. Clara had a walk-on part in the first book, and her own chapters thereafter, but now she finally takes centre-stage, not necessarily as a player in her own right (although to some extent she is), but more specifically as the mother of sons involved in different ways in the ongoing war. So, the widow's house: not a physical house, but house as in family.

Clara is one of four point of view characters, to cover the full scale of the war that's been gradually building since book one. The four are: Geder, the Regent and spider-priest-motivated driving force behind it; Cithrin, the banker opposed to him for personal as well as ideological reasons; Marcus the soldier with a long, battle-scarred history; and Clara herself. The book follows the Game of Thrones principle, where chapters from different characters rotate, although here the rotation is quite regular. This has the usual disadvantage: a cliff-hanger at the end of a chapter can't be resolved until that character's turn comes round again, usually four chapters later. Authors, please don't do this, it's very annoying. At its best, the plot flows seamlessly from one character's point of view to the next, but mostly there's that little hiccup of adjustment when you flip to a new chapter, that where-were-we? moment.

When Abraham pitched this series, he offered either a three book version or this, the five book version. This is the first point at which I'm tempted to say: three might have been better. The actual events of this book could be written on half an A4 sheet of paper, and not using an abnormally small font, either. The story doesn't sprawl in the way that some other, very expansive, series do (George R R Martin, I'm looking at you...), but it isn't tightly written, either. Now, in the hands of a master wordsmith like Abraham, this isn't a problem. A chapter curls around you like smoke, warm and comforting (like Clara’s pipe, if you want the full analogy), and it's only afterwards that you think: nothing very much happened there. This is particularly obvious with Clara's thread, since she's thrown into the role of an observer of the war and not much else. I like Clara, but her plotline was stretched very thin here.

The author's great strength (OK, one of his many great strengths - can you tell I'm a fan?) is the depth of characterisation and so it is here. All the characters feel fully rounded and as real as anyone you could meet in real life. Even Geder, or perhaps especially Geder. In many ways he’s a villain of the first order, but also a deeply insecure and uncertain man. And some of his moments with Prince Aster, the heir to the throne, show him as a caring, even compassionate man, with a certain wisdom. His care for the pregnant wife of his best friend (and possibly only friend) is both moving and slightly creepy in its intensity. The previous books were littered with horrifying 'Geder moments' like the burning of Vanai, or the summary execution of his closest advisers, with the result that you tiptoe through Geder’s chapters wondering when he’s going to explode. He still has no sense of perspective, and puts far too much trust in the spider priests who have an agenda of their own. The most worrying aspect of Geder, for me, is that I actually like him, or, I suppose, pity and sympathise with him. He's done some terrible things, but he's also an enormously tragic character, and part of me desperately wants him to find a happy ending, to settle down somewhere to a quiet, obscure life with his books.

Cithrin, on the other hand, irritates me. She always has, although her juvenile behaviour in the early books was at least understandable by virtue of her age and social inexperience. Her sole function seems to be to do incredibly stupid things for most of the book, or to lounge around in a drunken depression, getting into trouble and being rescued by everyone else, and then pull a rabbit out of a hat at the last minute and have everyone proclaim her a genius. Two cities have fallen solely because of her stupidity, and she's not done yet. Pah. Marcus I like a lot, although he's typical of the stoical, worldly-wise, slightly cynical warrior type, whose experience keeps him out of a lot of trouble. And keeps others out of trouble too. But then I have a soft spot for stoical, slightly cynical warrior types. And I do like sidekick Yardem. Especially his ears. It was nice to find out a little more of their dramatic history, and highly entertaining when the pair of them turned up at Carse to have everyone say: ‘Yeah, yeah, sure you’re Marcus Wester and Yardem Hale… Whoa!’

While we're on the subject of characters, I’m a big fan of Vincen Coe, Clara’s servant-turned-lover, but please, Mr Abraham, will you stop beating him up? However, my absolute favourite in this book has to be Inys (and if you don't know who Inys is, go back and reread book three, last chapter). Everything he says and does is entirely believable, given his history and his nature. Plus he has some of the best moments in the book. Him and the pirates. I mean, pirates and a dragon - what are you waiting for, folks? Go out and buy this book immediately.

There are a few minor grumbles. The cunning men (sorcerers, basically) become even more useful in this book, but there’s no explanation of what they do or how it works. Much of their capability is dismissed as mere trickery, put on to impress people, yet their talent for healing seems to be quite real and rather useful. A little more detail about them would be nice. And a surprising grumble: my Kindle version had an astonishing number of typos in it, far more than I would expect in a major release like this (and this wasn’t an ARC copy, it was the actual day-of-release version).

This book feels far more like a transition than the previous ones in the series. Everything is being put in place for the final confrontation, but there were no huge out-of-nowhere moments, just some nice little twists that made me smile. And somehow it felt repetitious, both in phraseology (fingers were repeatedly laced together, cotton was fresh from the boll), but also in plot terms - the Cithrin plan, the dramatic escapes, the out-of-nowhere attacks, yet I never felt that the main characters were seriously at risk. Even Geder was milder this time round, still creepy as hell, especially over Cithrin, but perhaps less likely to explode at any moment, channelling his energies into his best friend’s wife and baby, and a clever little piece of engineering research. However, the important factor in this book was the shift in attitude. From being an unstoppable force, Geder and the spider priests now have vulnerabilities, and the opposition have plans and weapons. And a dragon. Inys wasn't the get-out-of-jail-free card that might have been expected, but he's still a wild card. I have no idea how this is going to end, but I can't wait to find out. Four stars.

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

Fantasy Review: 'The Heart of the Mirage' by Glenda Larke

Heart of the Mirage (Mirage Makers, #1)

So here we are in the Roman Empire - sorry, no, not the Roman Empire, definitely not, this is fantasy after all. This is Tyrans, nothing to do with Rome. But - centurians and latin-esque names and so forth. Well. For some people, it doesn’t much matter, but for me I prefer the ‘vaguely inspired by’ type of world-building, rather than ‘pretty damn close’, with a few novelties thrown in. So that’s the first hurdle, a not terribly imaginative backdrop to the action.

The second problem is the main character, Ligea, a woman from recently subdued Kardiastan, taken as a child and brought up as the adopted daughter of a famous general. When you realise how much her compatriots are despised, the arrogance of the Tyranians and also that slavery is legal, this strikes me as an extraordinary thing to do, to take a foreign child into your house and raise her as your own. Even when the reasons for it become clear, it's pretty silly. It makes her a peculiar mixture: she has the arrogance of her adoptive land, as well as education, and an unquestioning acceptance of the ways of the victors, believing that slavery, for instance, is perfectly sensible and proper, yet she’s still seen as a foreigner.

Now there’s nothing wrong with the setup, it’s an interesting scenario, but it makes Ligea a horribly unlikeable character. It also makes it blindingly obvious when, in chapter 1, she is told she is to go to Kardiastan, that she’s going to have a revelation and realise the error of her ways, rediscover her roots and all that. That’s fine, so long as the way she gets there is convoluted and filled with unexpected twists. And there are some twists, it has to be said, but all the interest (for me) lies in the relationships between Ligea and her slaves and the people she meets in Kardiastan. The plot, such as it is, never really rises above the ho-hum, although there are one or two nice reveals along the way.

The other characters are quite interesting, more interesting than Ligea herself, in fact, and at least some of them behave logically and sensibly, unlike her. She seems to follow her emotions when it suits the plot and logic at other times. I liked her best when she was reading the books helpfully provided by the Mirage and working things out for herself, using the incisive brain we were told about many times, but rarely saw.

The magic - sigh. Yes, let's talk about the magic. This is one of those worlds where those select few who have magical capability can do pretty much anything they want with it, except things that would make the plot too simple. They have to learn how to use it, and there is a price to be paid for it, but sometimes it seemed as if, whenever there was a crisis, someone would say - but didn't you know, you can just do X? And Ligea does X, and lo, she is saved. Well, that's not really very interesting.

Once we get away from Rome - sorry, Tyrans, and into Kardiastan, the world-building perks up a bit. The Shiver Sands and the Mirage are fantastic creations, and the author is always wonderfully inventive with animal life. I loved the gorclaks and shleths, and the descriptions brought everything - the buildings, the people, their clothes, even the earth - to glorious life. And if the plot went on pretty much as predicted, still it was fun and a dramatic ride.

But the ending - that was a real bummer. I expected, or at least hoped, that there would be some *emotional* resolution, some conclusion at least to the relationships tangle even if the plot rumbles on into book 2. But no, Ligea reverts to her illogical, and (frankly) downright stupid self, and there's an all-too-convenient bit of arm-waving regarding one of her slaves, presumably for plot-related reasons. Sorry, but you can’t just say ‘X had changed’ so everything’s suddenly all right. It was very disappointing. I've already bought the rest of the series, so I'll undoubtedly read it at some time, but I'm not in a rush. Three stars.

Saturday, 2 August 2014

Mystery Review: 'The Janus Stone' by Elly Griffiths

The Janus Stone (Ruth Galloway #2)
I loved ‘The Crossing Places’, the first in the series about forensic archaeologist Ruth Galloway, set in England’s atmospheric East Anglia. This one works almost as well - great characters, an intriguing plot and plenty of laugh-out-loud humour of the dry, British variety.
The formula here isn’t an unusual one: bones are discovered buried under a doorway, Ruth is called in to help in her professional capacity, there’s a police investigation going on led by Harry Nelson, clues and suspects are gradually uncovered as Ruth increasingly becomes the target for the murderer, culminating in a dramatic and, it has to be said, highly implausible finale. I understand why authors like to make the lead character the focus for the villain’s malevolence, but there has to be a bit more effort than this to make it plausible.

Where this book shines is in the characters. Ruth is a wonderful heroine, a perfectly sensible woman no longer in the first flush of youth, down-to-earth, unconcerned with her appearance, not dependent on a man - only her cat. In this book, the romantic entanglements take centre stage. After Ruth’s one night stand with Harry in book 1 results in Consequences, in this book she also strikes up a mini-romance with a fellow archaeologist. I began to wonder whether this series is going to end up being more about the soapy relationship dramas, with the murder being pushed into the background, but so far the balance seems to be pretty good.

Apart from Ruth, Harry begins to shine in this book, and we see more of his home life, which is rather interesting, in view of the Consequences mentioned above. Cathbad the druid with his purple cloak is a fun character, too, and I rather liked the Catholic priest that everyone is terribly suspicious of, because he just seems to be too good. Everyone assumes he must be hiding something. How cynical, and yet how true to life. The setting is less interesting this time. In the first book, the atmospheric Norfolk coast was a major element of the story, but here most of the events are set on the derelict site of a Victorian mansion, with Roman history woven into the background. A little duller, to my mind.

Biggest irritant in the book is the use of first person present tense, which had me grinding my teeth with annoyance, sometimes. For anyone who’s allergic, this would be a deal-breaker. The redeeming feature to me, which more than offsets the tense issue, is the humour, which is vintage eccentric British. The scenes in the hospital were spectacularly funny, with all three of Ruth’s male friends turning up at her bedside at once, and some perceptive observations that most of us can identify with (“…a teenage boy masquerading as a doctor…”). Although it did seem to be a particularly relaxed corner of the National Health Service, not quite as time-stretched as most of it is these days.

All in all, a pleasant read, and I’ll definitely read more of the series, but the tense annoyance, the implausible plot contrivances and the less interesting setting keep this to three stars.