When I found out there was an e-novella appearing in the King Rolen's Kin universe I cheered. I fell in love with the world earlier this year and theWhen I found out there was an e-novella appearing in the King Rolen's Kin universe I cheered. I fell in love with the world earlier this year and the wait for the final book until late 2013 is a long one, so to get an unexpected return there – even if only a short one – was delightful. When I opened The King's Man in iBooks and it turned out to be about Garzik I squee-ed. I was sad when Orrade's scrubby little brother was seemingly killed, so to find out he'd be back was a lovely surprise.
Garzik was one of my favourite secondary characters in The King's Bastard. He carries off the lead part in this narrative quite well, though he had the annoying habit of constantly comparing himself to his older brother and the King's sons and idolising them out of all proportion. This point felt a little belaboured at times, but given that learning to trust himself and accepting that he didn't fail Byren, but that the fates conspired against him succeeding, was a large part of the lessons Garzik needed to learn in this story, I do see why. In addition, he still a teen and as with most teens he thinks that the world revolves about him; not in the sense that he is selfish, but that he thinks his actions or inactions have a far larger impact than they do: I failed to light the fire, so the kingdom fell. As part of growing up he has to learn that he is just a cog in the machine: important but not essential.
We get a closer look at the Merofynians, both as villains and as friends, and at the Utlanders and their homeland. I very much enjoyed the closer look at the Utlander culture; the Utlanders won me over and I kept hoping Garzik would find a way to stay with them and be a King's Man as well. In fact I still hope that we'll see him do this in Kingbreaker, the fourth King Rolen's Kin book. I found the structure of Utlander society fascinating, with its three pillars of the women, the beardless and the raiding warriors. Hopefully we'll see more of this society as well.
Don't read The King's Man if you haven't read the first three King Rolen's Kin books, but if like me, you loved those books and are waiting for the last one, do pick this up. It's not just a return to a wonderful story; it also gives a deeper understanding of the world. We get to go places we haven't been before and learn things we've had no way of knowing until now. Unfortunately, late 2013 now seems farther away than ever, as I can't wait to read Kingbreaker!
Heart-Shaped Bruise by Tanya Byrne was one of the books all over my Twitter feed in the past year. It received a lot of buzz and enthusiastic reactionHeart-Shaped Bruise by Tanya Byrne was one of the books all over my Twitter feed in the past year. It received a lot of buzz and enthusiastic reactions, so I was pleased to get a copy for Christmas. As soon as it landed on my huge TBR-pile, Wiebe made off with it – to my complete and utter amazement, as I'd never expected him to start reading contemporary YA, but that's a different story – and after finishing the book in three hours flat he came back and said: "You have to read this NOW, this is something special." For a book to draw such a reaction from my quite critical husband it has to be extraordinary, so I read it I did, and he was right; it is something special indeed. Heart-Shaped Bruise is a stunning book, which just left me speechless when I finished it. I even had to take a few days to gather my thoughts so I could write a somewhat coherent review for it.
From the first pages I was gripped; as a reader, one of the things I look for in a book is a strong authorial voice and Byrne has that in spades. It didn't take long to see that this was quite a unique voice, one that I really connected with whole-heartedly. What was surprising was how much the book made me laugh. Emily is genuinely funny and wields a kind of gallows humour that tickled my funny bone. In Emily, Byrne has created a character that will be hard to forget for anyone who meets her. She's funny, hard, angry, vulnerable, insecure, broken, and ultimately very, very human. As narrators go, she's also rather unreliable as she deliberately leaves things out and tells us so. In addition, we never learn what she's incarcerated for exactly. We learn what happens, but we don't learn the charges. In the first chapter of the book, Emily says she did what she did, because Juliet had broken her, while through the narrative the Emily we get to know seems to have at least been structurally weakened even before finding out about her dad. Byrne succeeds in making the reader care for this damaged, creepy girl, despite all she does, which reminded me of this guest blog by Foz Meadows over on The Book Smugglers. Emily is like the new bad boys Foz describes, she displays all the symptoms of being seriously disturbed and dangerous. Where she differs though, is that she knows very well that what she did was wrong and even if she'll never admit it, you get the sense that she's sorry.
The other characterisations in the book are very strong as well—my favourites being Juliet, Sid, and Dr Gilyard. What I loved about the character of Juliet is how completely skewed the reader's emotions become towards her. Here is a girl, who was attacked and had her father brutally murdered, to all intents and purposes scrabbling back up and going on with her life and despite all life has thrown at her she seems to have kept her innate kindness and decency intact. And through Emily's narration she takes on a slightly petulant and spoiled cast, which seems both natural – nobody is that perfect – and slightly wrong. I also liked the juxtaposition of the two girls; Dr Gilyard draws Emily's attention to the many similarities in their background, raised by single dads, who were very successful at their chosen professions and both smart and well-educated. If only their dads hadn't been on opposing teams, so to speak, what would have happened had they met then? Sid is one of my favourite love interests I've ever encountered in my YA reading; he's slightly dark and bad boyish on first acquaintance, but turns out to be a really decent guy with a complicated past and a heart filled with good intentions. Again, it's unclear whether this shift is due to Emily's perceptions of him being affected by her feelings for him or whether it is just a case of first impressions being shallow, but I rather like that uncertainty. Dr Gilyard's tenacity and the sessions with her Emily describes were fabulous, not only did they bring out Emily's inner snark, I also loved how cool, calm, and collected Dr Gilyard remained when Emily tried to get under her skin. She really seems to care for these girls without turning into a bleeding heart. I do have to add that I think Byrne writes genius characters, even those we only encounter the once in Emily's narration. One of those was her college councillor Ms Grace Humm. Now there's a lady who jumped off the page and who I kept hoping we'd see more off as she was just so amazingly cool.
The settings are rather limited. Obviously, the parts pertaining to Emily's time on ward would be rather limited, as it's a small world they get to occupy, but even so, those few rooms we're shown are clear and I found the glimpses we got of life there interesting and Emily's fellow long-staying inmates were interesting and well-developed. The 'outside' setting in comparison felt rather flat. That part of the story is set in London and while clearly London, it didn't ooze the city as much as some of the other books I've read this year. However, I think that in the parts set in the past the emphasis is very heavily on character interaction and the relationships between various characters, so the 'stage' rather fades into the background. The plot is rather brilliant, as we're kept in suspense almost until the last page, even if from page one we know she did it. The suspense here is concerned with what and how, not with whether she did it or not. And even while I knew that there wasn't going to be a happy ending for Emily, as we know she's in prison when we meet her, I kept hoping that she would get one, that she wouldn't do whatever horrible thing she was going to do and just sail off into the sunset to a happily ever after. That is how powerful Byrne's writing is.
To convey how much I loved Heart-Shaped Bruise is hard without turning into a gabbling fan girl. It had me chuckling and laughing out loud at some of Emily's snarky remarks and had me reading with bated breath and hoping against hope that everything would be okay. Its story and characters are still stuck in my mind and they made me ponder their intent and have a long discussion with Wiebe on what had happened and why, and what did this mean etc. If you only get to pick one more book to read this year, let it be Heart-Shaped Bruise. Even if you don't read YA or non-genre books, read this one. It's an amazing story and to think this is only Ms Byrne's debut—imagine what her next book must be like. I know I'll be reading it soon as I can....more
A military fantasy adventure in the tradition of The Black Company, albeit far less dark and gritty, Rogues of the Black Fury was a very entertaininA military fantasy adventure in the tradition of The Black Company, albeit far less dark and gritty, Rogues of the Black Fury was a very entertaining read. The story is set in a secondary world where two large and powerful nations face each other in a conflict born of a religious dispute, which enables many parallels to be drawn to the struggles between Christianity and Islam. It's a book with familiar elements, but done in such a way that it didn't feel stale and was never boring.
The characters found in Rogues of the Black Fury were all somewhat archetypical. We have the reluctant hero, who sacrifices his position to save his sister, the gruff, hard-bitten mercenary that turns out to be a good man at heart, the noble half-blood, the Mary, the Eve with a good heart, the over-ambitious snake who masquerades as a hound, just to name a few. Nevertheless, these characters are enjoyable and well-written. I really liked Javin, Rusk, Tonin, Sasha and Bella particularly. Javin showed some true growth through the novel, even if at times it seemed incremental. Rusk and Tonin were just very likeable and I took to them immediately. I liked that Sasha and Bella despite being archetypical were strong in their own right. Bella's virginal maiden character was somewhat softened by her stubborn fight for dignity and survival. Even if for most of the narrative she isn't in a position to act she remains strong and once the moment comes she tries to take her fate into her own hands. Likewise, Sasha is far more than just the Eve-like character she's introduced as. I love that she is as competent a fighter as any of the men and they see her as a complete equal. But she manages to be so and still be completely feminine.
Similar to the characters, the plot contains a number of tropes as well, though I liked the twist in the whodunit. However, familiar doesn't have to mean boring. One thing I would definitely have liked to have seen more of was Javin, Tonin and Maggot's training; how especially Tonin and Javin grow to trust each other. There are also some plotlines that didn't work so well, such as Taril's behaviour. I didn't know whether that was meant to be a red herring or meant to be a set up for a sequel. I do know that every time I got jarred out of the narrative as I started trying to puzzle it out. Another element that didn't work for me was the tension between Javin and Maggot. While it was a clear cut and effective way of creating tension, the way it was resolved left me rather deflated, as it felt like it just fizzled out.
My biggest gripe with the narrative was the fact that the social commentary sometimes seemed laid on rather thickly. Or at least it read to me that way. For example, in one scene Javin faces a small Farthi girl and she's all agog at seeing a foreigner for the first time and he thinks to himself that this is the first time for him too. Furthermore, there are internal dialogues that run along the lines of hey these people are just people and not demons sent from hell to kill us all. Perhaps it says more about my world view than the author's, but it could still have been put more subtly, even if I agree with the message Heermann seems to want to convey.
Despite the familiarity of the story and the heaviness of the social commentary, Rogues of the Black Fury was still very entertaining and I'd love to see more of Rusk and Javin and the rest. The book was previously released as a podcast and I definitely plan on giving that a listen as well, once I've caught up on my podcasts. For fans of Glen Cook or Jeff Salyards Rogues of the Black Fury could be a great read for a dark winter afternoon.
The Merchant of Dreams is the second book of The Night's Masque. Lyle's debut The Alchemist of Souls is one of my top ten debuts of 2012, so I was vThe Merchant of Dreams is the second book of The Night's Masque. Lyle's debut The Alchemist of Souls is one of my top ten debuts of 2012, so I was very excited to be able to crack open or rather tap open my eARC of The Merchant of Dreams to return to her alternate Tudor England and see how the story would continue. In The Merchant of Dreams Lyle deepens her world, allows us to travel to foreign parts, and develops her characters further in unexpected but wonderful ways.
We rejoin Mal and Coby as they travel by ship to Corsica to find a ship-wrecked skrayling vessel that has been haunting Mal's dreams and to rescue its crew. From this point in the Mediterranean we travel back to London, to Skrayling-held Sark, and to Venice and follow on several sea voyages. So Lyle very much broadens the stage on which her story unfolds. The one thing that confused me was the deeding of Sark to the Skraylings as that was something that must have happened between the first book and this one, but to me it came rather out of the blue. However, it is a rather clever substitution of the historical Seigneur who was given the island in fief at much the same conditions as the Skraylings were, that also gave them somewhat of a power base in the regions, which could have interesting consequences in the rest of the series.
This novel's greatest draw for me location-wise was Venice. I always love novels set there, or in cities inspired by Venice, and Lyle does the city justice. She evokes a glittering city, which on closer inspection turns out to be rather tawdry and worn. She also manages to make it feel rather claustrophobic, emphasising its disorientating street plan, its covered alleyways, the waterways, and the cramped conditions on the street in most places other than the large waterways and the piazza's. It felt like Lyle did lots of research and just made tiny little tweaks to what she found to make the city fit in her alternate universe. So much so, that if and when I do visit Venice, I might be surprised that I won't find certain places she described.
The Merchant of Dreams also reunites us with most of the cast of The Alchemist of Souls. Not only do Mal and Coby return, but Ned, Gabriel, Mal's twin Sandy, and the Skrayling ambassador Kiiren all play parts in the novel. We really get to know Sandy and Gabriel in this book, which was both interesting and entertaining. We also meet the twins' elder brother Charles, who was a surprise and not at all how I expected him to be. My favourite part of this book was Coby's development. In The Alchemist of Souls, she was very much all about surviving and hiding her true gender. In this book however, Lyle plays around with the need for Coby to drop her boy's guise and resume feminine dress, not because she needs to conform, but because it's necessary to accomplish her and Mal's assignment from Walsingham. This changing back to a girl entails far more than just dropping her disguise and it isn't an easy decision for Coby to make. Lyle explores the pursuant emotions and trepidations with a deft and gentle hand and creates a story line for Coby that I found riveting and compelling. I adored that Coby didn't make this shift to please Mal or make it possible for her to be his openly, but only out of necessity and because she wants to make that decision. She has developed in a strong, well-rounded female lead character, and even though I really enjoy Mal and the others as well, Coby is hands down my favourite character in The Night's Masque series.
Lyle also shows us more of the Skrayling culture and magic. We find out about guisers, Skrayling reborn as humans, often by accident, like Erishen, but at times by design, such as Jathekkil in the last book. We learn that this is anathema to the Skrayling and that they'd rather die a true death than be reborn human and that this is also why they wear their spirit-guards. When Mal meets and befriends an accidental guiser in Venice, we are given a character that rather reminded me of Melisande Shahrizai, from the Kushiel books by Jacqueline Carey. She possesses the same attraction and the same danger and unpredictability as Melisande has and I'm looking forward to what will happen with her in the next book. In any case, she teaches Mal how to control the Skrayling magic he possesses, which rather surprised me, as I hadn't expected Mal to want to learn as he seemed to rather ignore that part of himself as much as he could. Still, through these lessons we learn more of the Skrayling magic and I found it really interesting.
With the plot of The Merchant of Dreams setting up rather interesting possible avenues Lyle might pursue, while still wrapping up most of the Venetian plotlines, the wait for The Prince of Lies is going to be rather hard. I really want to know what happens now! The Merchant of Dreams is a fantastic sequel to The Alchemist of Souls, though it is less self-contained, leaving more open endings than its predecessor. Lyle is a master of blending historical fact and fantastic fiction and she's only gotten better with her second book. Go read The Merchant of Dreams if you've read the first book, if not, go read The Alchemist of Souls and then read The Merchant of Dreams. You'll be glad you did.
When I read the synopsis for Pantomime I was intrigued and when I saw the cover I was sold. And then I read the book and I fell in love. What an absolWhen I read the synopsis for Pantomime I was intrigued and when I saw the cover I was sold. And then I read the book and I fell in love. What an absolutely gorgeous book. It's tough to talk about Pantomime without giving spoilers. Pantomime has a secret and it's a big one and once it's revealed the scope of the entire narrative changes. It's a powerful narrative, filled with fabulous characters and a great plot.
The characters inhabiting Pantomime are amazing. Both its protagonists, Gene and Micah, are trying to figure out who they are and what they want out of life. Lam explores their desires, uncertainties and secrets in depth and with a deftness that exposes both their fragility and their strength in equal measure. I loved the characters Micah encounters at the circus, from his aerialist teacher Aenea to the kind clown Drystan – and yes, thank god not all clowns in this book were scary, otherwise I couldn't have gone on. The first few minutes of It scarred me for life at age nine – sad Frit and the interesting collection of freaks who turn out to be more human in most cases than normal humans. The interactions between the various circus people are funny and lovely and sad. The way they treated Micah when he arrived, the tricks and the hazing, was perhaps rather cruel and cold, but it also seemed a form of self-protection; if Micah could be scared off by their hazing, then he'd not hurt them by leaving once they'd come to care for him and made them part of their 'family'. In this manner there are layers upon layers in everyone's actions and behaviour, which get more exposed at each twist in the narrative.
If I can't really talk about the characters in detail without giving the game away, then let me talk about the setting, because it was luscious. Set in a Victorian-ish society, but one where at times it seemed that at one point there was some advanced technologies – bits of which still remain – at times I wondered whether this was a very far-future post-apocalyptic Earth or a secondary world. The world was lush and detailed, overlaid with a sepia-tinge. Ellada and its neighbours are riven with Vestige, both in the form of Penglass and in the form of artefacts, such as the weather machine used at the circus and the clockwork woman's head Micah and Aenea see at the Museum of Mechanical Antiquities in Imachara. The translucent blue Penglass and the mystery of the globes' contents and the mysterious Vestige artefacts that seem, but aren't quite like familiar technology.
The structure of the narrative was very well-crafted. The story is braided together from two story lines, the one set in the spring, the other in the summer, until they both flow into autumn and beyond. These seasons echo the feel of the novel, bright and hopeful in spring, the glory days of summer, and the abrupt turning of the weather in autumn. The first person viewpoints both limit what the reader knows and give us access to our protagonists deepest emotions and thoughts, though this doesn't prevent Lam from letting them keep secrets from us. The prose and dialogue are well-paced, snappy and sometimes almost poetic. I enjoyed the writing style; it reads easily and is an interesting blend between modernity and an old-fashioned gloss.
Pantomime is a stunning debut and would have easily made my top ten for 2012 if it hadn't been a 2013 title. As it is, it is the first 2013 book I've read and those coming behind have a tough act to follow. Laura Lam deals with some highly sensitive issues in a respectful and deft manner. Pantomime is a story of self-discovery and acceptance and shows the journey two very different and extraordinary individuals have to take to achieve it. There is no way for me to explain how wonderful this book is without ruining the reading experience for you. So just trust me, even if you normally don't read YA, read Pantomime once it comes out in February; you won't regret it. My only regret is that I'll have to wait till then to openly discuss its awesome plot twists. And wait even longer to find out what's next.
There will be mentions of elements of the story that might be considered spoilers for those unfamiliar with the Koschei mythos, so if you do not want to be spoiled please either skip ahead to the last paragraph of this review or click away!
The story is a wonderful retelling of The Death of Koschei the Deathless set in Russia in the first half of the twentieth century. It is a gorgeous mix of myth and history, mixing in several other Russian folk tales and all the political upheaval and cultural change Russia was embroiled in during the first fifty years of the twentieth century. I loved the metaphor of the colours of the birds and the uniforms they change into when they come for Marya's sisters, each mirroring the next step in Russia's revolution, it is an elegant way of alluding to the rapid political changes without giving a history lecture, but for those familiar with it, it's perfectly clear what is happening. Valente retains many traditional fairytale elements – the repetition of certain phrases and actions, things coming in threes, and the quest as a proof of worthiness – but at the same time subverts them by having Marya being the one with agency; she is making the choices, she chooses to go with Ivan, she chooses to go with Koschei, she chooses to accept Baba Yaga's challenges. She chooses to overpower Koschei in the same way he dominated her and reclaim her will. She goes from being a girl waiting for the magic to come for her to a woman creating her own magic.
The characters are wonderful, both those located in Buyan and later in Leningrad. Valente fills her world with many creatures springing from Russian folklore: leshy, vintovniks, domovoi, vila, russalki, magical horses, Baba Yaga and numerous other types of unnamed chyerti. There is a clear break in characters though, there are those of Marya's innocence if you will, Zemlehyed, Naganya, and Lebedeva, who are her friends and who help her prove herself worthy of Koschei, and there are those who come after, Kseniya, Sofiya, and Zvonek. I especially loved Kseniya and Sofiya, as I recognised them from a short story Valente originally published in Clarkesworld, and which I heard on PodCastle, called Urchins, while Swimming. And before and after there are Koschei and Ivan, dark and light, Marya's day husband and her night husband. They're as different as can be, but at the same time frighteningly similar. Marya loves both of them for different reasons and they are both crucial to her development. And always, always there's Marya. She's the heart of the tale and the star. I absolutely loved her. Her development is fantastic and while she isn't always very likeable, she's never boring.
As I've come to expect from Valente, Deathless is written in gorgeous prose. From the fairytale repetitions, to the stately cadence of the sentences, to the wistfulness of its ending, the writing is pitch-perfect. There is so much layering to the narrative, that you could reread this book several times and find new meaning in it every time. There are themes of love, of power, of politics, all boiling down to who rules? Who rules in life, in death, in love, and in power. In Deathless Marya explores both sides of the equation and discovers those you rule, rule you in turn. The only problem for me was the ending, which escaped me. Even after reading it several times, I'm still not sure whether my interpretation of its meaning is the one Valente meant me to make. Then again, that might have been just her intention.
Deathless is a book made for reading aloud, for reading to someone. It is a book made for rereading and finding more to love each time. Valente is a fantastic storyteller who never fails to captivate the imagination and to capture the heart. Deathless has cemented her as a must-read author for me and the book is a shoe-in for my top favourite reads this year. If you've never read any work by Catherynne M. Valente, do yourself a favour and run and get this book. If you have read Valente's work you'll hardly need convincing by me to go and read this gorgeous story.
It is important to note, however, that unlike their previous anthologies Lost Souls isn't a speculative fiction anthology. Or rather it doesn't exclusively contain speculative stories. In addition to ghost stories, a fairy tale and a myth-inspired story, there are stories without a hint of the fantastic, though they might still be horrific, especially those stories set in the First World War. The anthology is divided into five sections, each depicting a different form of lost souls. In Lost we meet the ones who lost their way in life, the homeless, the unfulfilled, and the obsolete. Power shows us how power and influence can lead one astray and to lose faith in our fellow man. Stories allows us to figuratively and literally get lost in fiction, while War details the loss of life, of innocence, and an entire generation of young men in the Great War and a wholly different fight inside a prison's walls. But what was once lost can also be found and in the section of the same title we are shown stories of redemption, justice and love in the strangest of places.
Lost Souls contains too many stories to touch on all of them, so I'll pick my favourite from each section and point out the ones that didn't work for me. John Galsworthy's Quality (Lost) is a haunting story of a cobbler specialising in boots, whose vocation is becoming slowly obsolete and who withers away piece by piece until one day he's just gone. I loved how Galsworthy slowly severed all of the old man's moorings until he just couldn't hang on any more. From the second section, Power, my favourite was the first one included, Mary Coleridge's The King is Dead, Long Live the King. This is a somewhat more traditional ghost story where the King in the title has entered into a deal with Death and learns about the true shape of his life. Coleridge, great-grandniece of the famous poet, writes of heart-breaking discoveries in a lyrical tone and while I wished the King to live to right the wrongs he's left behind, I found the ending both fitting and bitter. George Gissing's Christopherson, which can be found in the Stories section, is a story that any bibliophile can relate to, even if we might never put our books before our loved ones. I certainly can understand the reluctance to give away your books. But at the same time, I loved the narrator, his impatience and exasperation with Christopherson and his determination to help Mrs Christopherson escape her unhealthy situation. Marooned, Robert W. Chambers' World War I story, was a straight-up horror story, from the claustrophobia, to the sense of isolation, to the final disastrous release of our protagonists' desperation. And while showing many, if not most, of the emotions of those soldiers sentenced to the trenches, Chambers succeeds in showing us not just what forced inaction does to an honourable man's psyche, but also gives us an entirely different setting in the Great War. My favourite from the final section, Found, was Amelia B. Edwards' The Four-Fifteen Express, which is both a ghost story and a mystery. I loved the way Edwards set the mystery up and how in the end everyone gets what they deserve.
Two stories that didn't really work for me were Calista Halsey Patchin's The Professor and John Reynolds' The Prisoners. Patchin's story just didn't grab me and the final twist just broke any suspense of disbelief for me, as I thought it would be unlikely for the widow to show up like that. Reynolds' The Prisoners wasn't uninteresting, but the fact that Osgood Vance had to edit it to make it readable was clear, as it still felt repetitious at times and for me the story just lost its impact after the third or fourth inmate.
With the exception of the introduction written by Shurin and Perry and the two stories adapted and written by Osgood Vance and David Bryher respectively, none of these stories was written before 1919, with the oldest of them, Benjamin Disraeli's Ixion in Heaven first published 1853. In spite of their age, most of these stories remain eminently readable, even if at times their prose is a little dated. Taken together, this resurrection of these out-of-print stories makes for a rich reading experience as well as a reminder that love, loss, sorrow and all the other human emotions displayed herein are timeless. With Lost Souls Shurin and Perry have not only delivered another wonderful anthology, but have shown themselves to have a great eye for what makes a good story, be it speculative or not.
One of my favourite urban fantasy series is Kevin Hearne's the Iron Druid Chronicles. I've reviewed Hounded, Hexed, and Hammered on the blog andOne of my favourite urban fantasy series is Kevin Hearne's the Iron Druid Chronicles. I've reviewed Hounded, Hexed, and Hammered on the blog and Tricked is on my TBR-pile. When I saw Two Ravens and One Crow on Netgalley I thought it might be fun to have a quick look-in on Atticus, Oberon and Granuaille. The book is set between Tricked and Trapped, but as I haven't read Tricked I don't know whether there are any spoilers in the story for it, there are spoilers for the first three books though, so I'd definitely recommend reading those before reading this novella.
Two Ravens and One Crow takes place about six years after the ending of Hammered. It's a great little story in which some things from Hammered are wrapped up and perhaps plot points for Trapped and Hunted are set up. It gives us a look at some of the problems Atticus runs into training Granuaille, mostly to do with the physical side of said training, which has them spend lots of time in close contact and gives Atticus some difficulty focusing. Luckily Oberon is there to help him stay on track, which leads to some lovely banter between the two.
The true star of this story, however, is the Morrigan, who shows up to collect Atticus for a little errand. I loved how Hearne manages to deepen her character and manages to humanise her without making her lose her rather scary personality. The Morrigan also shows she is not just The Chooser of the Slain; she is also the Goddess of Battle and can kick some ass accordingly. The knock-down, drag-out fight scene between the Morrigan and an unknown assailant was my favourite part of this novella hands down; not even Oberon could beat it!
Two Ravens and One Crow is the perfect way to warm up for the release of Trapped next month and also a great way to learn a bit more about everyone's favourite Dark Goddess. If anything, this story has made me dig out my copy of Tricked to read in the near future, because I want to spend more time with Atticus, Oberon, Granuaille and company sooner rather than later. Just a word to the wise, the book is only available in a digital or audio format; don't look for it in your local brick-and-mortar store.
Broken is a modern retelling of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Not having read the original and only being superficially aware of the storyline, I wentBroken is a modern retelling of Mary Shelley's Frankenstein. Not having read the original and only being superficially aware of the storyline, I went into Broken relatively unknowing of what to expect and what notes A.E. Rought needed to hit to remain somewhat faithful to the original, beyond a mad scientist, electricity, sown-together parts, and "It's ALIVE!". All of those elements were there in the book in one form or another, but what is central to the book is the relationship between Emma and Alex. It is also an exploration of grief and how hard it can be to let go.
The first time Emma lays eyes on Alex a jolt of electricity runs through and she's immediately deeply drawn to him. Now, normally the insta-love trope is my least favourite trope in YA fiction. However, in Broken there is actually a reasonable explanation for it and it really worked. Rought explores one of the big mysteries people used to wonder about with organ transplants. Does implanting someone with another person's heart or kidney transfer some part of the other's soul or personality to the receiver? And if so, if we meet the person who's received parts of our beloved, will they recognise us? I liked this treatment of the insta-love trope and it's one of the rare cases in which it worked without feeling forced.
The star of this book is undoubtedly Emma. Hurting, grieving, and lost, she is the first person narrator we follow through the tale and whose confused and intense feelings we get to experience with her. Emma's grief for Daniel felt real and mostly healthy; hanging out at the cemetery might seem a little extreme, but it takes time to get over a loss like this and if that is how you deal with it, that is how you deal with it. Less healthy is the way she's isolated herself. Emma keeps everything inside and feels that she can't talk about what happened with Daniel, especially as the months have passed. Rought shows some of Emma's mourning process and how she moves through it. There is one scene where Emma breaks down and finally lets her mum in and just sobs and sobs—that scene was powerful, enough so that I was crying with her. Another very powerful scene was the scene where she consciously says goodbye to Daniel and has to let go of the emptiness inside, so she can go on living. I found that one very moving as well.
If Emma is the star then Alex is the main lead. I found him interesting, but while I really liked him and sympathised with his trauma and problems, he never took on the same depth as Emma. His and Emma's struggle to come to grips with the situation they're in and whether they love each other for who they are instead of who they were, however, was very interesting and I found it convincing that Rought included these doubts, instead of just going with it must have been fate. Emma's best friend Bree is fabulous. Wholesome, geeky, and completely in Emma's corner, she's the best friend any girl would love to have. Emma's parents are lovely as well; I loved how her mum is struggling with seeing her little girl grow up and getting hurt and not trying to put her in bubble wrap as much as she can. What's even lovelier is that Emma sees and understands this even as she rebels against it. Emma's dad is the voice of reason between the two and I loved his warm and humorous demeanour. When we come to the villains, I'm less enthusiastic. I didn't find them compelling and I felt they lacked depth. Josh is an ass, but I never really got his motivation. I mean I understand him wanting Emma, but the things he does to achieve this are rather far-fetched and I didn't really understand how he got there. Similarly for Alex's father, Dr Franks; I suppose it's to do with his grief at losing Alex's mother and not wanting to lose his son as well, but we never really get any handle on the man.
Broken was an entertaining read and I read it over the course of a day, which shows how easily it keeps the reader turning pages. The fact that Rought makes the insta-love trope work as she does is an achievement in itself. The story-telling in the novel is very well done, but the development of the characters felt rather uneven, with the villains feeling far less well-rounded than the other main characters. Still, it's a promising debut and I'm looking forward to see how Rought develops her writing. Broken is an at times heart-breaking read, but Emma's snarky inner monologue keeps it from being morose and super dark. In all, Broken is a solid winter evening read, which will leave you warm and fuzzy when you close its pages.
Rowena Cory Daniells was one of my favourite author discoveries this year. I've read both ofhercurrentlyinprinttrilogies and her recently releaseRowena Cory Daniells was one of my favourite author discoveries this year. I've read both ofhercurrentlyinprinttrilogies and her recently released e-book novella and loved each and every one of them, though to be honest, some more than others. However, she doesn't just write epic fantasy, this year she also published a paranormal crime novel under the pen name RC Daniells. I was fortunate to receive a review copy and I was curious to see how The Price of Fame would differ from Daniells' other work in the writing style. The book was very different, but at the same time just as good and I had a fantastic time with it.
The book contains two stories, that of Antonia Carlyle and her attempt to not just get her documentary series funded, but also to solve the mystery of Genevieve's murder and that of Pete O'Toole, as told to his neighbour, and friend, Joe Walenski, about the last week of Genevieve's life. It's a structure that works really well and I liked the way the stories where interwoven, with Antonia reading it one chapter at a time, along with the reader. It creates a narrative tension as the reader gets to discover the same clues Antonia does, without immediately getting her interpretation of the facts and thus is left free to come to her own conclusions. This structure also allows for the reader to be just as surprised at the resolution of the tale as Antonia is. One shares her impatience to get the next part of O'Toole's story and creates a strong connection between the reader and both Antonia and Genevieve.
Both stories are strong and surprisingly, even if I knew it was impossible, I kept hoping for a happy ending for O'Toole and Genevieve. This is largely due to the strength of the characters. Daniells manages to make all of her important characters – both in the past and in the present day – well-rounded and some of them are quite compelling. All of them have issues: Antonia has an abusive past and abandonment issues and as such has built barriers a meter thick around herself; Genevieve is on the run from a broken family, ripped apart by tragedy; Monty hides his feelings behind a deep, dark, and mysterious persona; O'Toole has seen his entire live turned upside down by the breakdown of his marriage and his need to start over. But despite this, they are all decent people at bottom. The band members and Joe are the only ones to feature extensively in both stories and it was interesting to see how they were developed. Their past personas are echoed in the future and the reader's knowledge of their future selves influences perceptions of their past selves. Somehow Daniells manages to make all of them suspicious, whether they are portrayed as sympathetic or not, without turning it into a paranoia-fest.
The supernatural element in the novel was both interesting and a little convoluted. At first it seems the paranormal activity is limited to Antonia's sensitivity and her being haunted by Veevie, which I loved, but it turns out there's more to it and while I get why, I would have liked it to just have been Veevie and the rest to have been just human nature. However, I do have to say that it was built up to quite well and the character of Mad Moll in the storyline set in the past was very cool. Her fetishes and charms sounded both lovely and creepy and one wonders whether they would have worked.
The writing in The Price of Fame was very different from Daniells' other work, though it also had some shared traits in the form of strong characters and the same ease in writing tension-filled relationships. The tension between Antonia and Monty was amazing and at times very funny to read. The way he helps her heal from her past, just as the project and Veevie help her to move on, was very touching and I was very much rooting for them throughout the whole book. But this book isn't about Antonia being saved by a guy, it really isn't. It's about Antonia saving herself, allowing herself to move on and consciously deciding to allow herself to let things go. One of the most powerful scenes in the book for me was one in which she consciously forgives her mother. The sense of freedom she described and the relief was very touching.
I had a fantastic time with The Price of Fame and the characters stuck in my head whenever I had to put the book away. If you enjoy Daniells' epic fantasy tales, this is another book you'll want to check out. If you're unfamiliar with her work, because you don't enjoy epic fantasy, then this book is a perfect way to be introduced to her writing. The Price of Fame is an exciting paranormal crime story, though the emphasis is more heavily on the paranormal than the crime. Personally, I'm looking forward to reading the next book Daniells will have on offer for us, whatever sub-genre it is, but I hope she'll write more paranormal crime/urban fantasy books in the future.
Earlier this year I read Nina Post's debut novel The Last Condo Board of the Apocalypse. It was a fun, diverting read, with some issues. So I was exEarlier this year I read Nina Post's debut novel The Last Condo Board of the Apocalypse. It was a fun, diverting read, with some issues. So I was excited to see how Post had progressed as a writer with her second novel One Ghost Per Serving. The short verdict? A lot. The issues I had with her debut were gone from her sophomore effort. What remains is a highly entertaining story of a man, a ghost and a hunt for justice. In contrast to The Last Condo Board..., One Ghost Per Serving definitely does have some deeper themes underlying the fun of the story, creating a richer narrative and a satisfying reading experience.
Eric Snackerge is an everyman character: having been slapped down by life, he's stuck working dead-end jobs which barely allow him to make ends meet and is slowly losing his family. However, life's beat-down of Eric came with a twist of the paranormal though, as he was possessed by a ghost, Rex, at the end of his college days, which signalled the beginning of the end for Eric's promising future, at least to Eric's mind. I liked Eric and could sympathise with him, though he trod the line of being sympathetic to being weak quite closely. His development throughout the novel was very well-handled and I really like his gradual realisation that he may have been dealt a crap hand, but he's the one that ran with it instead of folding and starting over. His interactions with Rex are both hilarious and touching, with Rex genuinely caring for Eric and trying to help him solve his problems. Rex has his own issues and while he's flighty at times, he seems to have his – incorporeal – heart in the right place. I loved their support group composed of other spirits and their human sponsors. Who ever thought a jar of pickles could be housing a spirit and be sympathetic too? I really enjoyed the fact that the other spirits weren't just comic relief, but had a true function in the plot as well. Eric's wife Willa is an interesting character as well, with her cool competence and focus, but the one who really stole my heart was Taffy. I loved her quirkiness, her precociousness, her obsession with food safety, and her complete disregard to the normal conventions of social interaction. She's very much over-the-top and I might question some of the parenting choices made for her, but I thought she was fabulous.
Eric's story is interspersed with that of Nathan and DZ, his opponents in the plot, and a few chapters from both Willa and Taffy's points of view. This keeps it interesting and I loved the absurdity of DZ's way of running his business. One Ghost Per Serving is set in what seems to be a contemporary setting somewhere in Iowa. As in Post's previous novel, there is minimal world building, just that which is necessary to the story, but never so little that it because a problem. I enjoy Post's humorous writing style, though weirdly enough it leads to not taking elements of the plot as seriously. I kept thinking some of the happenings in the book are rather absurd and implausible, where perhaps in an urban fantasy novel that takes itself more seriously, I wouldn't blink twice at some of them. This isn't necessarily a problem; it's just something I'm not really familiar with when reading.
Underneath One Ghost Per Serving's humour and shenanigans, there are some serious themes. The main one seems to be the message that we need to have self-confidence; that a lack of it leaves us vulnerable to our own inner demons and the more predatory ones in the real world. For example, some of the reasons Rex gives for being able to possess Eric so completely could be applied to domestic abuse situations as well. Another theme is the need for pro-activeness in striving to achieve our goals, whether they're happiness, financial security or the respect of others. Eric might be the one being taught this lesson, but it's modelled by several other characters, such as Willa's single-minded pursuit of her passion for HVAC, Rex's attending a support group for spirits who want to stop possessing people, and Taffy, who basically strives to achieve financial independence through her secret candy-making gig.
One Ghost Per Serving both made me laugh and made me think. Post's development as a writer is clear and I can't wait to discover what she comes up with next. If you'd like to try a more humorous kind of fantasy tale, One Ghost Per Serving is just the ticket; very entertaining and this time with a bit more substance.
When I read the synopsis for At Drake's Command it immediately appealed to me for one major reason: this is the sort of book my dad used to read to meWhen I read the synopsis for At Drake's Command it immediately appealed to me for one major reason: this is the sort of book my dad used to read to me when I was little; a rousing naval adventure, preferably set in the past, with scurvy sea dogs, ship wrecks, pirates and the exotic vista's of lands as yet undiscovered. I've often professed my love for De Scheepsjongens van Bontekoe (Bontekoe's Ship's Boys) by Johan Fabricius, which is set in the time of the Dutch East India Company, but he also read me books by K. Norel, which were set not just in the Dutch Golden Age, but in the Second World War as well. And he read me books by Johan H. Been, who wrote two adventures about Michiel de Ruyter's ship's boy. So how on earth could I say no to reviewing At Drake's Command?
The book turned out to be a wholly different beast than those named above. First of all, it is definitely an adult book and secondly, has a far more period feel about it. The latter is mostly due to the writing style. The book is written as a memoir by its protagonist Peregrine James, much in the style of Robinson Crusoe, though far less moralising than Defoe's seminal work. But it also utilises the same literary conventions of the early novels, such as giving spoilers in the chapter titles, describing things in what we would consider unnecessary details nowadays, calling characters by their full name continuously, and the same way of tacking on elucidations to statements, terms, or names, for example: “And you are familiar with cooking as it is done on the continent, which is to say, in the manner of the Italians and French?” (p. 17) It was so well done, that at one point I was really annoyed with the writing, until I realised this was exactly what I had struggled with in my eighteenth century Lit class, when I just couldn't get through Laurence Sterne or Henry Fielding. Over a decade later I'm more tolerant and better-versed in the early English Novel to not mind as much and I can appreciate the skill it takes to emulate it well. In fact, change the title to The Peregrinations of Mr. Peregrine James, followed by a suitably rambling sub-title and it would fit right in with its eighteenth-century brethren.
Peregrine, our protagonist and narrator is a likeable enough fellow and I liked his outsider's view of shipboard life. At the same time, the reader can see him growing fond of his shipmates and his new occupation and displaying agility and cleverness in dealing with whatever is thrown at him. At the same time, at some points his story pushes the boundaries of the believable, but then again Perry has become a sailor and as he acknowledges himself, nobody likes or tells a tall tale as a sailor does. Perry is surrounded by a crew of characters ranging from the honourable, Parson Fletcher, to the morally dubious, Francis Drake, and everything in between. However, most of the crew remains rather flat and no more than a name, only those that Perry has lots of dealings with or those he thinks it's important to tell us about in detail become more than a passing name on a page. The amount of 'names on a page' could at times lead to a bit of confusion as a name would ring a bell and I had to check back who they were again.
At Drake's Command left me with somewhat mixed feelings; as at university, I struggled with this style of writing, however, the plot was entertaining and filled with adventure and the book was without a doubt well researched. It is not an easy text, for the reasons described above and due to the numerous different languages found on its pages, which weren't always translated completely into English. I admire Hill's skill in emulating the early English novel – down to the cliff hanger ending of this first volume in the series – and once I had settled into the style, I found the narrative quite enjoyable, but this style probably won't work for everyone. If you enjoy historical naval fiction or the early English novel, however, At Drake's Command is well worth a read.
This book was provided for review by the author....more
Hellbender came as a complete surprise. I'd expected an urban fantasy with some supernatural elements and all that entails; instead I got a beautifulHellbender came as a complete surprise. I'd expected an urban fantasy with some supernatural elements and all that entails; instead I got a beautiful gothic story which mixed lyrical descriptions with some downright bloody dialogue and action. It was a pleasant surprise from an author I hadn't heard of before. While it was a great story, I did have some issues with the book.
The setting is key in Hellbender, I don't think the story would have worked even half so well if set in any other place. It is set in the Appalachian Mountains – a region I don't know much about except that it's a mountain range in the Eastern part of the US – but in Hellbender the Appalachians are so much more than just a mountain setting. They create their own seemingly rather isolated communities, which often have a history going back for over a hundred years, and which grown a people unique to their ranges. However large the places named in the book maybe, they always felt like they were small, and everyone knows everyone, their grandfather and their aged horse. It's that kind of small, rural village feeling, though there seems to be more logging and mining going on than farming. Miller creates an incredibly atmospheric setting – that at times seems almost otherworldly – that leaves the reader enchanted and creeped out at the same time.
Dropped into this environment is a cast of great characters, though I did have one or two complaints in this department. Actually all complaints boil down to same source: motivation. There were several characters whose motivations weren't really clear to me. Mostly this applied to the bad guys in the story, the Lewises, and their cronies, but there were a few good guys as well. To start with the bad guys, I didn't get why they were still keeping on with the feud. I understood the basis of the dispute, but why did it go on after all this time? And why were some 'outsiders', such as Lucinda Tesso, so invested in the fight? Similarly, on the Collins' side, there are Greg and Preston. While I could kind of understand Preston's motivation, his fiancée is a Collins, I didn't see why Greg would get himself mixed up in it. However, I didn't get hung up on these questions, mostly because Miller swiftly moves on with the action and I kept telling myself that blood feuds aren't logical and reasonable anyway.
What I did like was that the protagonists were both awesome and flawed. And Miller has no problem letting his female protagonists take care of themselves and has them taking physical damage just as much as his male protagonists. Henry, the main character and the narrator of the story, is very much a sceptic when it comes to the Appalachian magic and I appreciated his struggles to accept the reality of his situation. I also like his reluctance to get drawn into the feud after his sister is killed to the point of taking off and not getting in touch with his family for over six months. However, when he does decide to do something about the Lewises, he fully commits and there is no going back. As for his love interest, Alex, I loved her spirit. When she initially re-enters his life, I was all set to go, oh no, not another damsel-in-distress, but she turned out to be far more interesting, even if there were some oblique Romeo-and-Juliet vibes going round. I liked that she decides to act for herself and not rest in the bosom of the Collins family and wait till the menfolk finish the feud. She's not the only one, Rachael and Katy are similarly strong females and I really enjoyed Miller's characterisation of these women.
Overall the plot worked well, though in conjunction with my questions about the motivations for some of the characters, there were also some things in the plot that had my raising my eyebrows in wonder. For example, how on earth can there be so many bodies and no one gets arrested? I know the Lewis family have bought off the local sheriff, but I'd expect with those numbers, outside law enforcement would come into it at some point? What about the families of the Lewis workers that get killed? Also, the way the object that started all the problems gets passed down didn't make sense to me. How come Alex gets to have it? Why doesn't it pass to Ben, the eldest son's eldest son, or to Katy, the daughter's eldest daughter? But as with the motivational questions, these thoughts quickly got lost as I was swept on by the action. Hellbender is a very fast-moving book. There are moments where Miller allows his characters and his readers to breathe, but these never last long and are always followed by more and even more serious action.
Despite my reservations, I really enjoyed my time spent in the Appalachian Mountains, courtesy of Hellbender. Miller succeeds in drawing the reader into his setting through loving description and the atmosphere wafts off the page. Hellbender is a great example of a modern gothic horror story and makes for a wonderful read.
The blurb for Perchance to Dream intrigued me very much. Police officers invading dreams to solve crimes? What's not to love? Well, there was a lot toThe blurb for Perchance to Dream intrigued me very much. Police officers invading dreams to solve crimes? What's not to love? Well, there was a lot to love about this slim novel, but I also have my gripes with it. At 165 pages, it was a very quick read and I read it in the course of a single morning. However, this short length is also its downfall, as there were lots of cool concepts in the novel, but some of them were given short shrift so we could move on to the next one.
To start with we've barely seen Manuel in action as a member of the Sub-Net unit, before things go haywire. As such it was hard to get a feel for how his dream-travelling usually works and how it is used to solve crimes. I would have liked to see him do a normal shift to get more of a grounding in what exactly Sub-Net is. Similarly, there is hardly any, if any at all, discussion about the ethics of this dream-invading by the police. If they can do this to anyone they want to, what is to keep them from abusing their 'powers'? Of course it turns out the answer is nothing, otherwise the criminals wouldn't have access, but it isn't even discussed.
We jump around a lot following Manuel to the different subs he visits, but once we are made aware that these subs are inhabited by real entities, we aren't really shown more of who they are; I would have liked to have learned more about the matriarchal society Manuel and his mentor are captured by and I'd definitely appreciated more insight into the Purveyors, are mysterious group of entities that suddenly pops up in the middle of the book and which thoroughly confused me at first.
Despite the problems with its brevity and pacing, there is a lot to love about Perchance to Dream, specifically its cast of characters. Lukes manages to create a cast of strong individuals whom it's easy to love or hate – whichever is called for in each case – especially Manuel, his colleague Margarite and his mentor Lieutenant Jackson. I was surprised at how attached I became to the three of them in such a short space of time. I really liked the fact that Margarite isn't afraid to take risks to do what she thinks is right; she's definitely not a fading hothouse flower. But again, the book's brevity counted against it as I would have liked to have learned a little more back story for all of them and for one of our main villains, Azrael.
Perchance to Dream left me a little disappointed. There was so much potential to its ideas and its characterisations were really good, but I just wanted more from it, more time to develop these ideas and the setting, more time to breathe. While the ending was satisfying and left a good set up for a sequel, I wish we hadn't rushed to that ending as fast. That being said, I did really enjoy the time I spent with Manuel and the pages of Perchance to Dream, as the story is interesting and Peter Lukes' writing style is very smooth and a pleasure to read.
When I was approached about reviewing Light Touch Paper, Stand Clear, I'd just reviewed (and loved) Joanne Anderton's firsttwo novels, so her name waWhen I was approached about reviewing Light Touch Paper, Stand Clear, I'd just reviewed (and loved) Joanne Anderton's firsttwo novels, so her name was the one that convinced me to accept the review request, together with that of Brenda Cooper, whose writing I've encountered previously in several Valdemar anthologies and which I've always enjoyed. It turns out however, that this anthology holds far more attractions than just those two stories. As the anthology isn't based around a hard and fast concept – from the introduction it becomes clear that the editors strived to evoke the same sense of surprise and wonder you get from watching fireworks – I thought I'd try something different this time and look at each story individually.
Joanne Anderton - The Bone Chime Song As I had expected after reading her novels, I loved this story, as I really enjoy Anderton's writing. Dealing with a murder mystery, this story explores the cost of war to those who have to perform unspeakable acts in its fighting, the way it leaves them damaged and hurting. It's also a story of quiet love, constant in the face of societal disapproval. I really enjoyed the narrator's voice for this story, he's interesting and seems a man given to deep emotion and devotion, both to his craft and to those he loves.
Sue Bursztynski - Five Ways to Start a War This was another hit. I loved this alternate look at the start of the Trojan War, which takes Helen firmly out of the role of faithless seductress and makes both her and Paris pawns on several playing boards. The structure with the different narrators and points of view was well-done and quite interesting. It's also very funny and irreverent, a playful look at one of the world's original epics.
Dave Luckett - History: Theory and Practice The Truman Show: fantasy edition. That's actually a rather flippant and not quite accurate description, as this story goes a little beyond that and it rather straddles the line between fantasy and SF. I loved the fact that it starts out reading as straight up fantasy, with some hints as to something not exactly adding up, but the eventual twist and reveal is awesome. I really liked this one.
Adam Browne - The D____d Dante's Seven Circles of Hell are being colonised by the British Empire in this steampunk-flavoured story. In addition to its steampunk vibe there are some definite overtones of horror to the tale. I like the conceit of the tale that everything in Hell is formed out of bodily components, such as rivers of blood, mucus rain drops, and trees made of fleshy limbs. It also makes the story rather icky, though, and if you have a vivid imagination, you might want to steer clear.
Katherine Cummings - The Travelling Salesman and the Farmer’s Daughter A full on SF story with a delicious twist at the end, what more can you ask for? After being out of contact for two centuries due to civil war Earth is trying to re-corral all their colony planets. In the story we follow one of their forward scouts cum ambassadors on his mission on a rather curiously run planet. I really loved the twist ending, even if I'd partially seen it coming. Still, it made me rethink the entire story and made me doubt everything about the setting.
Thoraiya Dyer - Faet’s Fire Faet's Fire is a lovely little story about regret, wishes and the desire to turn back time to take a different path. I liked this one, especially its rather melancholy and sad ending, because for all its sadness, the reader is left with hope for Faet's future.
Anna Tambour - Murder at the Tip The story starts with a fun excerpt from a journal article, which also touches on the story's main theme, which asks the question where and when we draw the line at giving artificial beings rights. The protagonist's frustration with his hardware will be quite recognisable for anyone who's ever fought with their computers. Still, while well-written, the story didn't completely click for me and was one of my least favourites.
Rob Porteous - The Subjunctive Case Brilliant! The Subjunctive Case was easily my favourite of the bunch. The story is a noirish paranormal detective in which our protagonist can split himself in two and have different aspects of himself conduct investigations simultaneously. I really liked the voice of this story; it's strong and confident. The actual case is interesting too, as it combines good, old-fashioned sleuthing and legwork with paranormal aspects in an environment – the story is set in Melbourne – not usually the backdrop for urban fantasy. I also liked the eventual resolution of the story, as it might not be what you'd expect. I really enjoyed this story and I hope to see more from Rob Porteous in this setting in the future.
Ripley Patton - Mary Had a Unicorn Another very cool premise in this story about a drug-abusing teen who is given a drug-sniffing and destroying unicorn as a companion to get her back on the straight and narrow. I really liked the development of Mary, the protagonist, from someone who isn't very sympathetic at all, to someone from whom all hope hasn't been lost that she might turn into a decent human being after all. It's a story of change and redemption. I really enjoyed the story and the writing.
Brenda Cooper - Between Lines Cooper's story is excellent. I really liked the story within a story and the way the build up to the apocalypse was done. I loved the conspiracy theories galore and the mind trick played on the protagonist.
Ian McHugh - The Godbreaker and Unggubudh the Mountain A lovely secondary world story about loyalty, belief, religious diversity, and love. I really enjoyed it, though it took me a while to get into the writing style and the world.
Sean McMullen - Hard Cases A political SF story set in an undated future, Hard Cases didn't really work for me, as the politics seemed muddled and there wasn't really a clear resolution.
Kathleen Jennings - Kindling While the protagonist's power is interesting and her desire to play a larger role in the world universal, I just couldn't achieve a click with her and couldn't get into the story as a result. In addition, Jennings uses an intertwining narrative structure, mixing a narrator telling Minke's story with scenes of Minke's day-to-day life, which worked rather confusing for me, as I couldn't relate the overarching narration with the scenes at the bar. While the story premise was interesting, its execution just didn't work for me.
With Light Touch Paper, Stand Clear, Harvey and Petrie achieve what they set out to do: compile an anthology that would make the reader sit up and pay attention, to delight and surprise them as much as a fireworks show might. This collection of stories is a delightful surprise, and even if there were two or three stories that didn't work as well for me, I had a really good time reading these stories and have discovered some new names to look out for in my reading.
History is one of my favourite subjects and archaeology has always intrigued me. Especially the idea that we are fodder for the future, that a few cenHistory is one of my favourite subjects and archaeology has always intrigued me. Especially the idea that we are fodder for the future, that a few centuries from now there will be people digging up artefacts we've left behind and wondering about how we lived. Archaeology is the art of interpretation, just as history is an interpretation of the facts as we have them; in some ways literary analysis is also a form of archaeology—you dig from any references and allusions the author has left in the text and interpret their meaning. Thus the blurb for In Situ intrigued me. I loved Carrie Cuinn's concept for the book as it focused not just on what will xeno-archaeology look like, but how will we affect and respect the conservation of alien history. Those are interesting questions to pose and the authors gave Cuinn very interesting responses.
There is a nice structure to the collection with a clear break in settings. The first seven stories are all earthbound, while the other eight are either set off-world or are about off-world races visiting Earth. All the earth stories are solid, while the stories in the second set have a more hit or miss in flavour. My favourites were the Taylor, Liu, and the Shvartsman stories, but I was less impressed with the Dixon, Hendrix, and Burch stories. These three just didn't click with me and I had issues with the narrative style of the Hendrix. They were also placed in a block, which probably didn't help them either.
Paul A. Dixon's Requiem had a cool concept. He took the somewhat traditional idea of grave robbers and moved it into space. At the same time he explores the idea that societies might choose to revert themselves to insentience to save their planet, instead of fleeing to a different one to save their society. Unfortunately the ending left me rather unimpressed, as it just peters off with the main character shrugging his shoulders at the situation he's ended up in. Greg Burch's The Assemblage of the Aeolian was a funny story and well-written, but I didn't really get the connection between Parkinson discovering the link between humanity and aliens and how preventing this would save the future. This time travel as entertainment story rather went over my head. Sarah Hendrix's Rachel’s Journal suffered from the form chosen to tell the story, in my opinion. The narrative is told through two characters talking to each other about things they already know, reminiscing for the benefit of an audience they don't know is there, while walking through an exhibit they've put together. It felt forced and unnatural and left me altogether unmoved.
KV Taylor's Chennai 5 is the first story in the collection that is set off-world. I thought it was interesting to see another author have space colonisation happen along cultural lines, much like Jonathan L. Howard in Katya's World. I thought the concept of Space itch was very cool, though it made me wonder whether humanity would really have an in-built need to visit its cradle, even if it had lived away from it for generations. However, the idea of an Intergalactic Rosetta Stone and the way they discovered one in this story was awesome. Ken Liu is of course one of the most talented short fiction writers active at the moment. As expected, his You’ll Always Have the Burden With You was excellent. It is such a cool story and funny as well. Who knew you could write an interesting story on alien tax systems? There are several themes to the story Liu explores. For one, it starts with the question of why our protagonist has to put her career on hold to be with her partner and her actually ending up more successful which I enjoyed. But there is also a great exploration of the malleability of history and the dangers of over interpretation of the factual evidence. This is a theme that returns in Alex Shvartsman's The Field Trip. This was a 'slice of life'-story set in a xeno-archaeology class. I loved it and I loved the way archaeology was shown to be an art, needful not just of hard science but of thinking outside the box and interpreting the facts. Also the twist at the end was genius and made sure that you'll close out this collection of stories on a smile. Once grouped together, it isn't surprising that the three stories mentioned above were my favourites as they all deal with the delights and dangers of academic interpretation of evidence and facts, something which has always fascinated me.
In Situ is an interesting and thought-provoking anthology. It is a very enjoyable collection of stories and well put together with scientific illustrations by Cuinn and a very intriguing use of mathematical and scientific symbols in certain stories, which is explained in the back. In Situ is a good read, which given its slender page count is also a quick one. I very much recommend it, not just to well-read science fiction fans, but to relative newbies as well, as this collection shows not just the breadth of the field but is also easily accessible.
World's Collider is an interesting experiment in which eighteen short stories tell one continuous story. It's a largely successful experiment too. WhiWorld's Collider is an interesting experiment in which eighteen short stories tell one continuous story. It's a largely successful experiment too. While the narrative is formed from a host of disparate voices, it creates an intricate whole and Salter's made sure that the main characters' personalities don't shift too much between the stories and that there aren't too many inconsistencies. The premise of the story – what if we discover what in essence are wormholes using the Hadron Collider in Geneva – is interesting and the vision of the slow apocalypse that follows is quite frightening, showing both the best and worst mankind has to offer.
The stories are told in different formats, via blog posts and comments, in journal format, as flashes of vision, in first person and third. This creates a dynamic feeling and also allows for the different writing styles to blend, so the narrative doesn't feel too choppy. The characters are quite interesting too; the different authors capture the different ways humans cope with disaster quite well. There are several main returning characters, that of Scott Fletcher, Natalie Murphy and Joseph Tern. If Scott and Natalie are on the side of the angels – not literally, though some would have you believe differently – then Joseph Tern is the devil incarnate. He's a full-blown psychopath, who kills people for pleasure and forms a conduit for something that is even less pleasant. Their development across the stories is not as completely as one might like, but it went further than I had expected. I would have liked to have seen more of how the years after the Collision had affected Scott and where Natalie came from before she became the hardened soldier we meet in The Coming Scream. Scattered about the narrative are several returning characters with larger or smaller parts and it's fun to spot the connections.
Even if World's Collider is one narrative, as with any anthology there are bound to be stories that click better with each individual reader than others. In my case, my favourite stories were Keep Calm and Carry On Parts I-IV, The Rise and Fall of the House of Ricky, What Little Boys Are Made Of, and Caught. The Keep Calm and Carry On sequence was a great look at how social media, in this case blogs, might function in an apocalypse, but also how tenuous a link it is to the outside world—once WiFi and electricity goes, you're lost. I also liked how it gave us snap shots of the same people not at the heart of the narrative, at different points of the apocalypse. The Rise and Fall of the House of Ricky was just very fun, as I love Project Runway – yes, I watch horrible reality TV shows to turn my brain off – and I can so see this happening, a fashionista giving up their soul for fashion. It's a creepy story, but despite that fun! What Little Boys Are Made Of broke my heart. Not just the fact that these two small children were left alone, but the way the eldest tried her best to care for her little brother knowing full well that it was almost beyond hope. One might say it was an easy play on sentimentality, but I found it well-written and I loved the voice of this little, six-year-old boy. Caught was a mixture of dread and paranoia shaken with a good bit of suicide mission and served on ice-cold cubes of creepy. I'm quite afraid of spiders and the fact that the 'enemy' here had taken the form of a spider gave me chills, but despite this I liked the way the relationships and interactions between the characters were drawn.
The ending is of the narrative is nebulous. While it might be the happy ending humanity hoped for, it never explicitly says so and there are some loose ends which make me wonder about a possible sequel. Because if they are not there to serve as plot hooks for a further novel, they are just very glaring loose ends. Still, as it stands World's Collider is an engaging read, which is both scary and encouraging; humanity sinks deeply, but also shows its resilience and rises above itself. The book might not work for everyone, as it is not quite fish nor fowl due to its experimental nature, but I appreciated the concept and its execution, even if it wasn't completely flawless. If you're a fan of anthologies and would like to see what the form can stretch to, World's Collider is well worth a read.
As a hardcore fantasy reader magic is part and parcel of my reading and I consider a well-thought-out and realised magic system as a thing of beauty.As a hardcore fantasy reader magic is part and parcel of my reading and I consider a well-thought-out and realised magic system as a thing of beauty. So an anthology based around the concept of magic had to be something I enjoyed. So, you'll probably be unsurprised to discover that I did enjoy Magic: An Anthology Of The Esoteric And Arcane quite a lot. What surprised me was that, while magic is the common denominator in all of these stories, no two forms of magic are the same and in some of them it's more pervasive than in others. There is also a rather amazing diversity of settings and not all of these are fantasy, some are horror! Most, if not all, are set in the 'real' world, even if that world is pervaded by the magical or supernatural.
I first learned of this anthology when Solaris announced they had snagged Audrey Niffenegger to be one of its contributors. Her name drew my attention, not because I'd read any of her work before, but because she's one of those rare genre beasts, an author who is embraced by the mainstream. So much so, that I hadn't even realized that she was a genre writer. I do hope her inclusion here will prompt some non-genre readers to pick up this anthology and discover that speculative fiction isn't as scary a ghetto as they might think. Niffenegger's story The Wrong Fairy was inspired by Arthur Conan Doyle's father and, while enjoyable and well-written, it isn't my favourite out of the bunch. Another author with an outside-genre draw is Christopher Fowler. His story The Baby – about a teen girl that gets in over her head and her struggle with her unwanted pregnancy after being raped – was eerily timely given some of the utter bile that was spilled during the US Presidential campaign recently. Liz Williams' Cad Coddeu was a lovely fantasy, with mythical overtones, which I enjoyed very much. All three of these were solid, enjoyable stories, but they kind of stuck around in the middle for me.
Every anthology has hits and misses. Often these differ from reader to reader. The misses in this one for me were Will Hill's Shuffle, Thana Niveau's First and Last and Always, Gemma Files' Nanny Grey, and Robert Shearman's Dumb Lucy. Hill's Shuffle just confused me and while I liked the cards angle and the prose, I didn't get drawn in enough to try and make sense of the story. Robert Shearman's Dumb Lucy had a similar effect, though this time I liked the atmosphere and the characters, but was completely confused by the setting – was it Earth or second-world? Past or future? – and the ending. Thana Niveau's story had an interesting concept with its idea of love charms gone wrong, but it just didn't ring my bell; for some reason neither Tamsin nor Nicky made me care and thus the story's ending lacked impact for me. The one story that just didn't do it at all for me was Gemma Files' Nanny Grey. It just left me cold, the characters were unsympathetic and the twist in the story just turned into a knot for me.
Then there were several stories I connected to but where the ending just let them down, either because I wanted more from that final scene, I didn't want to leave the characters or the ending just confused me. Steve and Melanie Tem's Domestic Magic rather broke my heart and Felix got under my skin immediately, with his quite crackpot mum and his handful of a little sister, who he feels is very much his responsibility. I really loved this story and I just didn't want to leave Felix and Margaret. I wanted to follow along and find out that they were safe and they would have a happy ending. So Domestic Magic wasn't a bad story at all. On the contrary it did its job too well and didn't let me go. The ending to Alison Littlewood's Art of Escapology similarly left me wanting. I really enjoyed the premise and the haunting, but the final scene ended rather on a fizzle than a bang for me and I kind of felt deflated by it. Dan Abnett's Party Tricks played off its prestige too well. I thoroughly enjoyed the politicking and the rather old-fashioned feel of the writing, though that might be due more to the fact that our narrator is one of the upper class old-boys network and this is reflected in his manner of speech, than to the fact that Abnett meant it to feel old-fashioned. I was really drawn into the story and while I understood the twist end, it just left me going uh what? How did he do that? And this feeling of confusion stayed with me rather than the enjoyment I got from the rest of the story.
For me, the hits of Magic were the stories written by Sarah Lotz, Storm Constantine, Lou Morgan, Sophia McDougall and Gail Z. Martin. Lotz' South African crime scene cleaners were awesome and the story was many-layered, from the straight-up mystery itself, to the underlying themes of rejecting one's own heritage for another, to the wish to protect the innocent, in this case the cat. I think If I Die, Kill My Cat is a story that will lend itself to rereading beautifully, revealing more with repetition. Storm Constantine's Do as Thou Wilt is a gorgeous story of traditional witchery, a lover's revenge and a philanderer's just deserts. I really enjoyed Leah's cynical outlook on love and her way of making Carol's wish come true. From what I've read from Lou Morgan, I loved her novel Blood and Feathers, but her short story in Stories of the Apocalypse lost me with its ending, so I was curious to see how I would enjoy Bottom Line. This story of addiction, redemption and self-sacrifice was amazing and this time I followed Morgan all the way to a hallelujah. From the same Pandemonium anthology previously mentioned, came my only previous encountering of Sophia McDougall's writing. I fell in love with her story there and I loved her MailerDaemon here. McDougall reinforces her first impression of being a superb writer with a distinctive turn of phrase. Lastly I was taken by surprise by Gail Z. Martin's Buttons. What an absolutely charming story, that I couldn't help but love. I was pleased to read an interview with Martin on the Solaris' blog where she reveals having written numerous short stories in her Deadly Curiosities universe, which means there's more to discover with these characters and I can hold out hope for a Deadly Curiosities collection or even novel!
Overall the hits outnumbered the misses and I really enjoyed the time I spent with Magic: An Anthology Of The Esoteric And Arcane. Jonathan Oliver delivers a great collection of stories, that forms a great introduction to these writers and I know there are several whose other works I'll seek out given half a chance! For a diverse take on the idea of magic in all its incarnations, Magic: An Anthology Of The Esoteric And Arcane is as far as you need to look. It ranges far and wide on the thaumaturgical scale, but it has magic in spades.
Westerns and I have usually been rather reluctant companions; they're not really my cup of tea, but Wiebe loves them, so I'll have to sit through eithWesterns and I have usually been rather reluctant companions; they're not really my cup of tea, but Wiebe loves them, so I'll have to sit through either Once Upon a Time in the West or The Good, the Bad and the Ugly once a year. As a consequence I've always been rather hesitant to pick up weird westerns, thinking I wouldn't enjoy them. But in my bid to broaden my reading and as the blurb and synopsis of the book sounded rather interesting, I took a chance on The Dead of Winter. It turns out westerns and I do get along, as long as they're combined with a strong, female lead and some supernatural shenanigans, things which Lee Collins offers up by the bucket load in this, his debut novel.
To my disquiet, it did take me awhile to get into book. I needed to get used to the rhythm of the prose and the stylistics of a western, and to connect to Cora. Luckily by the third chapter this was a fait accompli and I could settle into the narrative completely. Cora Ogelsby is a wonderful protagonist, with a fantastic voice and presence: very western, mixed with a bit of South. She's gruff, competent and all business, except when it comes to her husband Ben. Ben comes across as the weaker partner, or rather as the second fiddle to Cora's first. He's bookish and kind and doesn't seem cut out for the life he and Cora lead. While there are some great major secondary characters, these two lead the dance and the only one who is able to cut in is Fodor Glava, the main antagonist. His character is the only one who makes as big an impression as Cora and Ben do. However, I have to say that I loved Father Baez though!
Collins gives us an interesting world in The Dead of Winter. I'm not very familiar with the Wild West, for reasons stated above, so I'm not sure how historically accurate the book is, but it certainly rings true to the Hollywood depiction of it I've seen on TV—though I'll grant that might not be the best standard to judge by. It doesn't add in any strange non-contemporary technology or gizmos, however, it adds in the supernatural. I liked his choice of monsters; there are vampires in true Dracula style. Having read Dracula last year, I can see how Fodor harkens back to Stoker's depiction instead of the more contemporary representations of vampires. The distinction between vrykolakas and nosferatu was cool and scary, with an interesting hierarchy between the two. There is even a nod to Stoker as the British vampire expert claims to have been taught his lore by a certain Dutchman.
The Dead Winter's plot seems quite straightforward, with a fairly quick resolution to the initial monster problem and a continuance of the narrative via the bigger problem with the vampire nest. This isn’t to say that it’s boring, not at all; however, at about three quarters of the book, Collins pulls out the rug from under you and hands you a plot twist that left me going wait, WHAT? Even suspecting something was off, I couldn't quite see it coming. Once you cotton on, earlier clues become very apparent, even perhaps a bit clumsy, but in first instance I just read right over them. I thought the twist was set up very well and I loved the resolution of the mystery and the narrative.
That is not to say that this book didn't have its problems. As pointed out, took me awhile to get into it and Collins does make some clunky switches of point of view, transitions into flashbacks, and introductions of plot necessary characters, but those are all first novel stumbling blocks and can be forgiven on those grounds.
In all, The Dead of Winter introduced me to a new sub-genre of my beloved speculative fiction genre and did it in such a way that next time I won't be so hesitant to try a Weird Western. The Dead of Winter is an interesting first book from an author who shows lots of promise and is the first in a series that looks to be very entertaining. The Dead of Winter is out now from Angry Robot and will be followed in the spring by She Returns From War. I'm looking forward to it already.
On Monday, I posted my review for Daniel Polansky's The Straight Razor Cure, book one of the Low Town series. At the time I said I was already hockOn Monday, I posted my review for Daniel Polansky's The Straight Razor Cure, book one of the Low Town series. At the time I said I was already hock deep into book two, Tomorrow the Killing and today I get to bring you a review for it. The story is an awesome return to Warden's life. Set three years after The Straight Razor Cure, it's readable as a standalone story, but far richer if you've also read the former. We not only catch up with Warden and his friends, but also learn more about Warden's past and those passages form a continuing story with those of the prior book. They're not necessary to understand the plot of this one, but they do inform it.
In Tomorrow the Killing we get not one but two mysteries to solve, not just the identity of the people behind the murders of Roland and Rhaine, but also the motivation for them. In both cases they aren't killed by whom you'd suspect. In my opinion the puzzle of the whodunit was more intricate this time around; in The Straight Razor Cure I'd figured out who did it early on, even if I didn't know why until the end. In Tomorrow the Killing I was taken completely by surprise by the identity of the instigator of both murders—Polansky pulled a fast one on me. In hindsight, there were enough clues, I'd just completely missed them.
But far more than a murder mystery this is a further exploration of the character of the Warden. Polansky continues to show us Warden's history through flashbacks to relevant events in his life. We learn not just more about Warden, but about Adolphus and several smaller secondary characters as well. We also learn more of the history of the Rigan Empire, in particular about the war with the Dren, which is very reminiscent in setting to WWI. Polansky evokes the Great War's trench warfare and the trials and tribulations of the soldiers fighting it vividly. From the endless mud and rain, the futility of gaining – or losing as the case may be – a few foot of ground after each assault, and the devastating effect of shell shock on the troops, you can just feel the blunted despair of the soldiers. During the book we see Warden slip down a slippery slope, becoming more and more morose and bleak, and seeking his refuge in drugs even more, culminating in confrontation with Adeline, Adolphus' wife – who almost functions as a stand-in for the reader at that point, at least this reader, trying to talk some sense into this self-destructive man that Warden has become – and by the end there might be a suggestion that he'll turn his life around.
Even in the lowest point of his downward swing, Warden is humanised by his relationships with Adolphus, Adeline and Wren and his sense of obligation to General Montgomery and Rhaine. While he becomes distinctly unsympathetic at points and does some pretty atrocious things, which can't – and shouldn't – be excused because of his, mostly, good intentions, his care and sense of responsibility for his 'family' at the Earl show that at heart he isn't the blackguard he seems; he's flawed, certainly, and a thug and an addict, but he's not evil, such as The Old Man. He's broken, both by the losses he suffered from the plague as a child and his experiences during the war.
While we learn more about Warden's history with the Black House, we still haven't learned what happened to get him stripped of his position there. A third book is in the works though, so I'm hoping all will be revealed sooner rather than later. There is also a growing threat from The Old Man, the head of the Black House, its Special Operations unit, and Warden's erstwhile mentor. It seems he isn't quite done with Warden yet. So there are plenty of avenues left open for Polansky to explore and that's not even taking into account what new plot lines he might introduce. I can't wait to find out what they might be.
Tomorrow the Killing is a fantastic second novel for Polansky and it has only whetted my appetite for more: more of Low Town and more of Polansky's writing. If you haven't met the Warden yet, you're missing out. Tomorrow the Killing, like its predecessor The Straight Razor Cure, comes highly recommended and is a strong candidate for my top 10 Books of 2012.
Earlier this year I read Chris F. Holm's debut novel Dead Harvest and was totally blown away by it. I called the best debut I'd read so far this yeaEarlier this year I read Chris F. Holm's debut novel Dead Harvest and was totally blown away by it. I called the best debut I'd read so far this year and almost ten months later it still is one of my favourites. So my anticipation and expectations for The Wrong Goodbye were high to say the least. And while it had the same sense of humour and style I enjoyed about Dead Harvest, the feel of the book was very different, far more buddy road trip than the heroic whodunit mystery tale.
Returning to Sam's adventures was a pleasure. Holm gives us more information about his past as a Collector and about his universe. He shows us there are rules the Collectors have to follow – no fraternizing for one, a soul can only be delivered by the Collector tasked with its taking for another – and that there are consequences when they aren't followed, not just for the Collectors, but for their handlers as well. The thought of Shelving – putting a Collector into a body he can't get out off until the body expires of natural causes or gain a more active consciousness, such as someone in a coma or a newborn – is horrifying and I can imagine Sam wanting to avoid that fate. Holm stresses in both his books that hell is intensely personal; no two doomed persons' hells will be the same. This is reflected by the Deliverants, the spirits that collect the souls from the Collectors. They are different for each person as well: Sam's are insects and Danny's are crows, for example. With the introduction of the Deliverants and their boss, who is never truly named, as he's more of a concept than a person, Holm moves his universe into a larger scope and creates a larger playing field for Sam and his friends. It promises and interesting conflict in the next Collector book.
Most of the humour in the book comes in the form of Holm's characters and their dialogue. He creates great personalities, from bit players such as the poor undertaker to larger secondary characters such as Gio and Theresa. While the parts of Sam's past that are revealed are less tragic than last time, they do explain his wariness of caring for people, and coupled with his losses in Dead Harvest, I found his reluctance to admit that he cared for Gio and Theresa compelling. Ana and Danny, the spectres from his past that return to haunt him, are very cool and sinister, they kept putting me on the wrong foot and Holm had them pulling a bait and switch I hadn't seen coming until it arrived. In addition, the villains are delicious as well. We meet up with Dumas, Sam's demonic maker if you will, who is slick, urbane, witty and oh so very crooked. We also meet some other demons, the ones that function more as monsters than as people, and they rock. I loved the idea of Abyzou – Abby for short – who is big and scary, with a distinct octopus-flavour, and who hunts by enthralling her victims. Similarly, you have Psoglav, a freaky dog demon, who is plain frightening in his casual use and abuse of human souls.
My one peeve with The Wrong Goodbye is that we don't find out what happens to some of the characters. I really would have liked to know how they ended up, whether they got a happy ending or not, especially for Gio and Theresa. Then again, as happy endings aren't really in Sam's business, perhaps it's best that the reader is left with hope for them. As it is, I do hope one day we'll find out what happened to them.
In short, Holm did it again. The Wrong Goodbye is an amazing follow up to Dead Harvest, but stands surprisingly well on its own. One could pick this up without reading the first one and still enjoy the heck out of it, though you'd miss some of the depth of the character development. The story is a hard-boiled supernatural detective, which sees Sam teamed up with a buddy sidekick and kick-ass lady friend and which has a great plot, whose twists and turns are hard to discuss without giving away spoilers. In my opinion Holm has become a must-read author, as I love how his crime is salted with the supernatural.
Earlier this year Angry Robot published the first tale of Easie Damasco's adventures, Giant Thief. It was a story that I unabashedly enjoyed, as itEarlier this year Angry Robot published the first tale of Easie Damasco's adventures, Giant Thief. It was a story that I unabashedly enjoyed, as it was a fun romp with some excellent protagonists. At the time I was pleased to discover that the second book in the series was due to be released later in the year. Cue October and the second book Crown Thief has now been released and I'm pleased to report it is as much fun as the first book and answers some of the questions and complaints I had with the first book.
One of the things I remarked upon in my review of Giant Thief was that the book was in effect one long chase scene, resulting in the reader seeing a lot of real estate in Easie's world, but little depth to that which we encountered. And while Crown Thief has retained much of that travelogue-vibe, Easie and Alvantes barely stay anywhere for longer than a week, the places they visit and in some cases revisit gain some depth as Tallerman gives us more context for them and reveals some of the history of this world. I do hope though that in the next book the story sticks in place a bit more and it won't be another long journey, because while I really loved the way this book's trip gave Easie opportunity to grow, I think I've seen enough of the Castoval's roads for a bit, a sentiment I think Easie would be quick to echo!
But despite that one sticking point, I had another blast with Easie and his companions. We are not just reunited with Tallerman's wayward thief, but with Saltlick, Estrada and Alvantes as well. Where in Giant Thief Saltlick and Estrada were Easie's main sidekicks, in Crown Thief Easie is soon left on his own with Alvantes and this turns out to be a great combination. Alvantes' determination not to like or even respect Easie, because of his nefarious past, only seems to motivate Easie to prove him wrong and to do the right thing. Easie is forced to grow and change and he does so, even if not very gracefully, rather he stumbles into it and is at times flabbergasted at the changes in himself and what these make him do. I especially loved his indignation when he parts with his hard-earned *cough* coin to help other people with no gain to himself other than the satisfaction of doing the right thing. But it is not just Easie who learns new ways; both Alvantes and Saltlick have to adjust their habits. I particularly liked how Tallerman developed Saltlick's character, but then I have a large giant-shaped soft spot for him. To me Saltlick stole every scene in which he featured.
Crown Thief's plot is pretty straightforward. Once Easie and his crew arrive back in Altapasaeda after defeating Moaradrid in the mountains, the point where we left them in the first book, and find all is not well in the Castoval, even if the invader was defeated. There are a few twists and some expertly hidden clues and a Chekhov’s Gun, that left me both amazed at the fact that I'd forgotten it and at how cleverly Tallerman placed it. But mostly it's Tallerman throwing Easie into the most difficult situations he can think off and Easie either talking or sneaking his way out of them. And for all its straightforwardness, it is a heap of fun.
Easie's second adventure is another winner for David Tallerman. It's a high-octane romp, with perhaps just a tad less urgency than Giant Thief, but that's made up for by the deepening of his characters and a slightly bigger reveal of his world's inner workings. Who could resist the promise of a reformed rogue, a gruff guard captain, and even more giants than last time? I know I couldn't. Crown Thief is a great follow up to Giant Thief and promises that Prince Thief, due next year, will be an explosive conclusion. I'll be there to see how everything turns out and how Easie will get out of whatever Tallerman throws at him next time.
As I mentioned in my review of David Wesley Hill's At Drake's Command, I have a soft spot for nautical adventure tales as they form some of my earliesAs I mentioned in my review of David Wesley Hill's At Drake's Command, I have a soft spot for nautical adventure tales as they form some of my earliest childhood memories with my dad. Julian Stockwin's Betrayal is another one such, a rousing tale of the high seas and the battle for Buenos Aires in 1806; it fits right in with the tales my dad read to me. Betrayal is the thirteenth tale in Stockwin's series about Thomas Kydd, intrepid sailor and courageous and well-loved leader of his men. Despite of this, it was easily accessible to a reader newly come to this series and Stockwin manages to refer to earlier entries in the series without making the reader feel as if they've missed out on critical information for this story.
Central to the story is Captain Thomas Kydd, captain of the frigate L'Aurore. At the beginning of the book we find him stationed at the Cape of Good Hope, newly conquered by the British and life is settling down to a rather sedate routine. He's introduced as an honourable man, but an ambitious one and languishing in port without the chance to gain distinction for himself and thus advance his career is making him restless. So when his commander, Commodore Popham, comes to him with a bold and not quite legal plan to win themselves glory and treasure and a way out of being stationed at the Cape, it's easy to see why he agrees to take part. While Kydd tries to belay his conscience and ignore any implications that Popham's motives might be anything but honourable, Stockwin slowly has him realise that perhaps Popham isn't everything Kydd believes him to be. This is partly due to Popham's own behaviour and the warnings given by Kydd's best friend and secretary Renzi, but also due to Kydd's disillusion when the invasion goes sour and he loses more and more good men needlessly.
Kydd's relationship with Renzi and the rest of his men was wonderfully portrayed and in fact, the entire portrayal of the sailors was amazingly well done, which shouldn't be surprising given Stockwin's own distinguished career in the Navy. I loved the sailor's salty language and the dialogues peppered with nautical terms, some of which were explained in a glossary, while others had to be understood from their context. It was an honest portrayal of the British Jack Tars, not bowdlerised, but also refraining from the crudeness often associated with sailors of any age. My favourite sailors were Lieutenant Clinton and Stirk, the gunner's mate. They were the two that stood out from the crew and I especially appreciated Clinton's development while they were in action on Buenos Aires.
The one thing that bothered me was the character of Renzi. While he does have some decisive actions in the plot and I liked him as a character, there is an entire story arc about him writing a novel, which while entertaining, didn't really seem to serve any purpose in the story other than to keep him conveniently out from underfoot for large stretches of the narrative. Perhaps the novel will be an element in a future instalment; I hope it will be, because even if the philosophising on the craft of writing was interesting, otherwise it was a giant filler plotline. Other than the aforementioned novel plotline, the story is tightly plotted and moves at a fair clip.
Betrayal was an entertaining read, which also showed me something of history I didn't know. Making Thomas Kydd's acquaintance was a pleasure and one I hope to renew in the future. I'll definitely be getting my dad a copy of the first novel in this series, as he loves a rousing nautical tale. If you like those as well, then Betrayal is definitely a book you'll enjoy.
Tom Pollock's The City's Son was a much buzzed about debut earlier this year and one I was completely looking forward to as well. A novel in the tradiTom Pollock's The City's Son was a much buzzed about debut earlier this year and one I was completely looking forward to as well. A novel in the tradition of Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere and China Miéville's Un Lun Dun, novels which I both loved, and similarly set in London, The City's Son has a magic all its own. Pollock's created a fantastic read, which I'm actually finding rather hard to review, as I can't think of a bad thing to say; I just want to rave about how wonderful I found it and how much I loved it. It's hard to pinpoint why I loved it, I just want to say everything. Still, I'm going to try and be a little more coherent about it, but you have been warned!
The environment Pollock creates – the unseen London, if you will – is fantastic. It is a rich creation, which takes places known and loved and distils their essence and lets said essence inform the creatures that inhabit them. I loved his creatures and their personalities. Both the creatures of Mater Viae and those of Reach have a feeling of wildness, capriciousness, and danger to them: the Sodiumites and Blankleits, who both burn and light your way; the Pylon Spiders, feeding of human voices; the Railwraiths; the Scaffwolves, the Wire Mistress, the Pavement priests. They are all part of the fabric of the city, perhaps that part that makes London magical. One of my favourite terms in the book is urbosynthesis. It's the way Filius feeds; he nourishes and replenishes himself with the energy of the city, like a plant on sunlight. And I recognised it, as it's the same feeling I have when I visit London: that jolt of energy that comes just from being there and walking its streets.
To inhabit his version of London, Pollock has created some really wonderful characters. The first and most important of which is Beth. She's my new favourite YA heroine; she's brave, smart, and loyal, but oh so flawed—and knows it. I loved how her jaded outlook on life overlaid an idealist who stands by both her friends and what she believes is right, even if it's to her own detriment. Her most important connections in the book are those to Pen and Filius. While the romance between Beth and Filius is a little obvious, I liked that it was hesitant and tentative, so it worked for me. Even if there is a strong attraction for Beth to Filius' wildness, her connection to Pen is far stronger and I loved the depth of their friendship. Beth and Pen have the sort of friendship that can withstand anything, even each other, and I loved how Pollock used it to anchor Beth to the mundane world. Filius is a fascinating character, but also a tragic one. We get to know him quite well, as those parts of the narrative told from his perspective are in first person. We really get to look inside his head and see how conflicted he is about being the Urchin Prince, destined to save the City from Reach. Even so, he never became as alive for me as Beth or even Pen. Because, while Pen may not be able to act for much of the book, when she does and when we get to see her view of things, she shone. And I was really excited to see on the Jo Fletcher website that she'll have a large role in the next book The Glass Republic. One character that completely broke my heart was Beth's dad. While I wanted to shake him for the way he's neglected Beth after his wife's death, at the same time I felt such pity for his collapse. And the way he 'wakes up' out of his depression and realises what he's done and how he tries to make up for it, was rather touching.
The City's Son's plot was very well done too. The structure is interesting, reaching several crescendo's in the form of battles, confrontations and other shenanigans and keeps developing right up until the end. There were several twists I hadn't seen coming, which all served to deepen the plot and the characters. In addition to the structure of the plot I also found the narrative structure, which uses first person narration for Filius and third person for everyone else, very appealing. Though it seems to become more prevalent, as I've read several such books this year, it's still a fairly original approach and one I really enjoy.
The City's Son is a stunning debut from Tom Pollock; his is a unique voice and vision of London. His love for the city bleeds off the page and makes me long to be able to visit the city once more. The book is an absolute contender for favourite read of the year and I can't wait for the sequel, The Glass Republic, due out in August 2013.
Last year I decided I needed to man up (woman up?) and get over my wussiness regarding horror. One of the books I read in that pursuit was John AjvideLast year I decided I needed to man up (woman up?) and get over my wussiness regarding horror. One of the books I read in that pursuit was John Ajvide Lindqvist's novel Harbor. To my utter surprise I loved it. Yes, it was scary, yes it was utterly, dreadfully creepy, but I loved it to pieces. At the time, Little Star had already been released in the UK – I had read the US edition – and from some of the reviews I'd already read and some conversations on Twitter, I knew that at some point I really wanted to read this book. Imagine my excitement when I received an ARC for the American edition in the mail earlier this year! Since I always try to put up reviews close to their publication dates – and the past months have been busy for various reasons – I put off reading the book until last week, when I finally dove in to the strange and twisted tale Lindqvist has spun in Little Star. It was everything it was promised to be and more.
Lindqvist doesn't rely on gore to make his tale horrific; he gets there by masterfully displaying the deepest and darkest foibles of human nature. In the case of Little Star, there is nothing quite as scary as the mind of a teenage girl – oh lord, grant me strength me in ten years time! – and Lindqvist plumbs the depths of said teenage psyche to great effect, playing off a completely strange and unrelatable teen girl against one that is eerily familiar if taken to the extreme limits of plausibility. This contrast between the two storylines in roughly the first half of the book is created with consummate skill and one has to look closely to see the seeds that the author plants in them; seeds that he'll later use to entwine two to a whole that only amplifies the horror of the situation and left me feeling powerless because the reader can't intervene in Teresa's descent into madness, even if she might recognise the signs of what is going on with her.
The titular Little Star is Theres. She's a fascinating and contradictory character; how can you not sympathise with an abandoned baby – an innocent, discarded – found and raised in captivity and isolation in a situation reminiscent, but quite different, of that of Natascha Kampusch and Elizabeth Fritzl? At the same time there is something off about Theres, or Little One as she's called for much of her early life, from the beginning, and it's hard to put a finger on what that is and on whether it's inherent to her genetic makeup or created by the way she is brought up and the lies she's been told by Lennart to keep her in line. I loved the way she transforms herself into something resembling a guru to this tribe of teenage girls, by empowering them in the most frightening of ways, by indoctrinating them to the way of thinking she's been thought by Lennart and the experiences of her early life.
If Theres is alien to the human experience, Teresa is all too familiar with it. As such, Teresa's journey in the book is the scarier of the two. She starts out a seemingly normal child. One that asks somewhat strange questions, but children are wont to ask the weirdest and sometimes deepest questions out of the blue. Still, she seems normal, if shy, until puberty and then her slow descent begins. It starts with her best friend moving away, just as she reaches the cusp of puberty and her body starts changing. These changes are unkind to her to say the least – Teresa turns into a bit of an ugly duckling it seems – and combined with the loss of her best friend and the move to secondary school, it serves to isolate her and make her the prime target for the class bullies. What makes Teresa's story scary is that it's so believable, it's easy to see how a young girl could get so isolated and depressed at that age—we hear or read about teenagers like that all the time. It's also easy to imagine the kind of idolising devotion Theres inspires in Teresa; one has only to think of the screaming girls at any given Bieber concert to prove the point. I connected more to Teresa than I did to Theres, as Theres was too other to comfortably form an attachment too, and I kept hoping against hope that she'd come to her senses and see what was happening to her.
Throughout the novel Theres personifies control. Despite everything, she is in control of first Laila and Lennart, the people who keep her, by dint of their fascination with her vocal gift and later of Jerry, her 'adoptive' brother, who feels a kinship and love for her he hasn't felt for anyone else. Ultimately she controls Teresa and their pack of girls by giving them a sense of control over their emotions and their lives, a sense which is ultimately an illusion. Lindqvist plays with Theres' apparent and real positions of power; for most of the novel she seems submissive and powerless, even if she is subconsciously pulling everyone's strings. She exudes a weird sense of fascination, enthralling everyone who comes into her sphere.
At the close of Little Star two questions remained for me: what happens to Jerry and why was Theres dumped as an infant? Was she inherently flawed, even evil, and did her upbringing just (re)enforce this or was she made into what she was by the way she was treated from infancy? It's the age-old discussion on nature versus nurture and once again, inevitably, we are left without the answer. In the end, I think I prefer not knowing Jerry's fate and the truth behind the mystery of Theres' nature; it leaves us the space to hope–hope for a happy ending for Jerry and hope that Theres wasn't just a product of her upbringing, that there has to be a crack for abuse to shatter someone's humanity so completely. Little Star leaves us with plenty of gristle to chew over and Lindqvist's tale will haunt me for a while longer. I think I can now also safely say that Lindqvist has single-handedly cured me of my horror of Horror. Little Star is another stunning novel and Lindqvist is truly a name to be reckoned with in his field and beyond.
From its cover copy The Book of Madness and Cures sounded like something I'd definitely enjoy and while I did enjoy the time I spent within its pages,From its cover copy The Book of Madness and Cures sounded like something I'd definitely enjoy and while I did enjoy the time I spent within its pages, I had issues with the narrative and one major gripe with one of the sections. The journey Gabriella takes following her father through his letters is the physical reflection of a far more important spiritual journey she has to make. One in which she has to let go of her father and of the past and has to find herself and her own path in life.
The characters of Gabriella, her father, mother, Olmina, and Lorenzo where well established. Especially the way O'Melveny constructs Dr. Mondini through Gabriella's memories, his letters and what Gabriella learns about him from the people she encounters on her journey is skilful and unexpectedly layered. However, other characters where far less detailed and started to run together a bit, which was a shame, as it left Gabriella floating through the narrative only brushing up against these people, instead of actually connecting with them and grounding the narrative.
Gabriella covers a lot of ground in what is essentially a slim volume. As with the majority of the secondary characters, the backdrop feels a little flat; it is exactly that, a backdrop against which Gabriella is able to discover clues about her father and ponder her future and her identity. It feels like there are more pages spent in the first two destinations, than in what are conceivably the more important destinations of Edinburgh and Taradante, with the stop-over at Montpellier. It's an odd imbalance and I thought more time could have been spent developing the connection between Hamish and Gabriella. Similarly, there was a bit of a disconnect between the time spent on showing the relationship developing between Wilhelm and Gabriella and the fact that Wilhelm decided to follow her to Leiden.
It is also the stay at Leiden that constitutes the biggest problem of the book for me. Gabriella, Olmina, and Lorenzo arrive in Leiden in the year 1590 and go to stay with Professor Otterspeer at the Hortus Botanicus. Only in 1590 there was no Hortus in Leiden, while the city council granted permission for the University to create a botanical garden in 1590, it didn't actually open to the public until 1594. In addition the first director was Carolus Clusius, who was appointed to the post in 1592. Before this time there was a medical garden in the private home of Professor Lipsius, which was close by the location of the Hortus. Why did this inaccuracy bother me so much? It's historical fiction after all, not historical fact. Partly it is because Leiden is my home town; I work right across the canal from the Hortus and am familiar with its history, so it was easy to spot the time-frame slip-up. And partly it's because this discrepancy is so unnecessary. From the narrative, there doesn't seem to be any pressing reason for the book to be set in the years 1590-91; set it half a decade later and it would all have been possible. Substituting Professor Otterspeer in Clusius' place could even be considered a playful acknowledgement of Prof. Dr. Willem Otterspeer, the current Professor of Leiden University History. And had O'Melveny said as much in an author's note and had even said she knew that the Hortus was only planted a year or two after her story takes place, but that she took a bit of poetic license with the dates, I wouldn't have minded as much. But without this information, I started doubting all the other things in the book as well, which was rather distracting from the story.
This distraction is a shame, as the plot of the story is an interesting one, as it interweaves the mystery of Gabrielle's father's fate and her gradual awakening to her own identity and independence. This is all written in often beautifully descriptive prose, which captures the surroundings beautifully. The Book of Madness and Cures has a great concept and contains great imagery, but let itself down in the execution. The ending is also just a little disappointing in the end, but that is perhaps due to my own high expectations. If you're a fan of lovely language though, The Book of Madness and Cures is one you'll want to read.
Normally, I start series at the start, unless it's a long running series where you're supposed to be able to step into it later, such as a lot of crimNormally, I start series at the start, unless it's a long running series where you're supposed to be able to step into it later, such as a lot of crime series and some historical fiction series. However, when I was sent Will Elliott's Shadow for review, I thought I'd just try it to see how well it stood on its own, both because the book sounded interesting and I tend to feel bad if I let review copies languish. I got lucky with Shadow; while there were some things I couldn't completely figure out without having read the first book, they weren't insurmountable. On the whole though, the book was very readable on its own, though the ending left a lot of unresolved matters hang and as such it's clearly part of a larger whole. But despite that Shadow was a fun read.
I've never really read much of this sort of book where real world characters are transported to a secondary fantasy world. I have read some of Joel Rosenberg's Guardians of the Flame books and the first of Terry Brooks' Landover novels. I enjoyed those, so I was interested to see what Elliott would do with the idea. I really liked the premise that the Entry Point is opened once per age – no specific number of years is given – and only then will new technology enter the world of Levaal though the arrival of Pilgrims, humans from our world. What's interesting about it, that it's all happenstance as to what they'll learn each time the portal opens, as it would make a great difference whether a professor of English came through or a physicist for example, those are widely varying fields and would bring very different sorts of knowledge. In this case they got Eric and Case and the imported technology most focused on and most important to this story is the fact that Eric carries a gun. While they aren't able to exactly replicate the gun itself, they do manage to engineer something resembling a gun, with similar effects and this directly impacts the way the story develops.
The magic system in place was quite interesting, though I never completely figured out how it worked. However, the differences in application were rather cool. I loved the idea of the happenstance mage who could scry back along the timeline, but whose gift is more or less reliable according to where they were in their personal cycle. Or the Engineer, who used magic to create automatons and other machines. Then there are also the high magic entities, such as dragons, Spirits, and the gods, who are far more powerful and dangerous.
The characters were well-written though this was definitely one of the areas were having read the first book would have made a huge difference as there are relationships and animosities that are clearly formed by events in the first book and knowledge of those would have elucidated them quite a bit. However, one character stood out; he was chilling and scary and rather pitiable at the same time: the entity called Shadow. He's a killer and tears men apart without blinking, but it does so in a sort of innocent drive to know what makes the world tick, much like a toddler will take apart a toy and then throw a tantrum because it's broken. I liked discovering his motives and the way he grows from an inquisitive toddler into a sulky teen during the novel, but all the while is super-destructive and kills people left and right. Also, I loved Case the Drake. His ability to give comment on situations without being able to speak was quite funny.
The plot was interesting, with the fate of not one, but three worlds resting on the outcome. The idea of the land of Levaal being neutral territory on which the Pendulum rests and which needs to keep it balanced so it won't tip de scales one way or the other was rather clever and I really liked how this was handled and how the characters slowly all realise the importance of this and what sort of consequences their actions may have had. Unfortunately, we'll have to wait until the final book to find out whether they'll succeed in stopping the Pendulum's swing.
Shadow was a fun read and can be read without reading the first book, Pilgrims, but I wouldn't advise it if you have a choice. In fact, this is another series in which I want to go back and read the previous book before I reread this one and then read the final book, World's End, which was released earlier this month. However, based on this reading, Will Elliott has created an interesting world populated with interesting characters and Shadow has definitely made me curious to read the rest of the series.
This might be a somewhat unexpected title to appear as one of my reviews, as its connection to the speculative is tenuous at best – it's set in a postThis might be a somewhat unexpected title to appear as one of my reviews, as its connection to the speculative is tenuous at best – it's set in a post-apocalyptic America – and it's not historical or crime fiction either. In fact, I think this falls firmly in the mainstream fiction category. Nevertheless, when a review copy for this title came in the post I was intrigued and added it to my TBR-pile meaning to get to it sooner rather than later. Of course, it did become later rather than sooner, but I'm glad I got to it before the end of the year, as it was an interesting read. I have my share of issues with the story and the writing, but in the end I had to keep reading, just to discover how it ended.
What troubled me the most about this book and what will probably be the biggest issue for most readers is the structure and the writing. Told in a first person narrative voice, this is a voice I've never encountered before. Though it not a stream-of-consciousness form, it isn't far off and at times Hig goes off on tangents and reminiscences that make for confusing sequences. In addition, Heller has Hig add random but's and and's into his narration, which for me where highly annoying most of the time. On top of the strange narrative structure, the book is also typographically different; it uses no quotation marks to indicate speech and when in dialogue it sometimes places alternating lines in one paragraph, so that it's hard to distinguish between the speakers. There is also a distinct scarcity of comma's and lots of short paragraphs with blank lines in between. While all of this makes for a unique reading experience, it doesn't necessarily make it a smooth one.
What bothered me story wise is the fact that some elements of the story seemed illogical. I couldn't fathom why in the nine years since the Flu there haven't appeared any non-combative groups of survivors, other than the arguably not-so-non-combative Bangley. Similarly, would you really wait nine years to go and explore on the other side of the mountain and look for other survivors? Heller doesn't really answer these questions, in fact he never really posits them, which I found rather strange.
Where The Dog Stars definitely succeeds however is in emotionally engaging the reader. It's impossible not to come to care for Hig and even his grouchy companion Bangley. Their interactions and grudging friendship are beautifully addressed with surprising flashes of humour. Hig's deep and abiding love for his dog Jasper felt genuine and at one point in the novel had me sniffling aloud. When Hig finally goes out to look for the voice behind the crackly transmission he heard and he encounters Pops and Cima we get treated to a soulful exploration of what it means to have to move on after the loss of a spouse, how terrifying and enchanting that sensation of falling in love can be and how hard it is to move beyond the memories.
The Dog Stars has left me with very mixed feelings. I was very much taken with the story and the ultimate message of hope Heller presents the reader with, but with all my issues with the structure and the writing I can't recommend it whole-heartedly. In the end, I think, how you'll like this book is very much dependent on the emotional connection you make with both Hig and the narrative. For me that connection wasn't sufficient to overlook my objections, but if the premise of the story appeals, I'd recommend you give it a try as the story might work far better for you than it did for me.
Daniel Polansky's The Straight Razor Curewas one of themost buzzed aboutdebuts of 2011, so when I received a review copy for its successor, TomorrowDaniel Polansky's The Straight Razor Cure was one of the most buzzed aboutdebuts of 2011, so when I received a review copy for its successor, Tomorrow the Killing, I was stoked and asked around whether I could read it standalone and someone offered to send me their copy of The Straight Razor Cure so I wouldn't have to, I jumped at the chance. (Thanks again, Stefan!) The Straight Razor Cure definitely lived up to the buzz. It's a strong debut on all fronts, characterisation, plot and prose.
The star of the show is Warden. He is a troubled soul, someone who has oscillated between the street and the law – and its supporters – for most of his life. He is not a nice guy, but he isn't evil. He's an unrepentant drug peddler, a thug and an addict. However, Polansky managed to get me invested in him after the first quarter of the book. He got me rooting for a drug dealer, something I never thought possible. I really enjoyed the flashes to pertinent parts of his past, which serve not just as a way to flesh out Warden's character, but also are germane to the plot. Warden is joined by a host of interesting, if not always likeable, supporting characters, such as Adolphus, Adeline, The Crane, Celia, the Blade and Chi Ling. But my absolute favourite had to be Wren. He's this sullen teen, distrustful of everyone as he's made his own way as a street kid long enough to know what's what, who slowly burrows into Warden's affections. He looks up to Warden as a role model, something that is as endearing as it is worrying. Wren is both an insider – he's Low Town born and bred and very much of the street – and an ingénue who serves as a sounding board for Warden and a way to express Warden's cynical world view to the reader.
The Straight Razor Cure's plot is interesting. At heart this is a murder mystery and Polansky writes a mean one. My one complaint with the plot was that there was a twist at the end I'd seen coming from quite early on, even if I hadn't been able to figure out how it fit into the story. What I did appreciate was the amount of conflict in the narrative, not just between Warden and his past – his youth, his time in the army and his time as an investigator for the Black House – but also in the fact that he gets roped back in by his former employers, against both their will and his own.
Polansky's world building was strong. I adored Low Town and the diversity found therein. The different cultures were very interesting though the difference between some of the nationalities mentioned is not very clear. I did love the way different cultures were also differentiated in their language. This is especially clear in his interactions with the Kiren and Ling Chi. The very formal and rather circumspect way of speaking to one another says something about the Kiren as a whole—they're seemingly a very hierarchical and patriarchal society. The structure and hierarchy of the police force was interesting as well, what with the clear distinction between the guards and the investigative branch. The way to two interacted sort of reminded me of how the relationship between the police and the FBI is often portrayed on TV shows—even if they're on the same side, they can be quite adversarial and territorial. The idea of the scryers as a sort of magical forensic pathologist was very cool and I would have liked to have seen more of them, especially Marieke.
I really enjoyed Polansky's prose as well. The book contained well-written dialogues which didn't just reflect cultural influences, but class differences as well. When Warden speaks to the Blade, who's a nobleman, he uses a different vocabulary and diction than when he talks to his fellow Low Towners. The narrative is also very descriptive, though never quite crossing the line of telling rather than showing. Through Polansky's prose we get a good feel not just for the physical attributes of Low Town, the sights and smells, but also the atmosphere of the place. I've remarked before on how much of a sucker I am for the appearance of Dutch in my reading and there were some definite Dutch influences here, in names, such as Potgieter and Marieke, and in language, as apparently the Dren speak Dutch!
The Straight Razor Cure is as good as all the rave reviews made it sound. I really enjoyed this hard-hitting, dark crime story. And I'm really glad I get to start the second book Tomorrow the Killing immediately—in fact I'm well into it. If you haven't yet taken a look at Daniel Polansky's wonderful debut, I suggest you pick it and it successor up as soon as possible, as it’s a fantastic read....more
When Royal Street was first published in the US, I read some reviews for it and thought it sounded as very interesting book, so when I was offered a rWhen Royal Street was first published in the US, I read some reviews for it and thought it sounded as very interesting book, so when I was offered a review copy by the book's UK publisher I didn't hesitate in saying yes, hoping to find out whether my impressions from the blurb and the reviews were correct. What spoke to me most in those reviews was the praise Johnson garnered for her portrayal of New Orleans immediately after Hurricane Katrina. Having watched the horrible after-effects of Katrina on TV and living in a country where about a quarter of its territories are below sea level and thus vulnerable to flooding, this was an element that resonated with me. It turns out that the reviews didn't lie; the portrayal of New Orleans and its survivors was strong and heartfelt.
In addition to the interesting setting, Johnson creates an intriguing magical setting, with a magical community divided into human wizards, who live in our world and the rest of the magical beings who mainly live in the Beyond, but try to crossover to our plane every chance they get. In addition to all the regular supernatural creatures, or preternaturals as they are called in Royal Street, Johnson has added the historical undead, spirits that are being kept alive – or rather undead and kicking – by people's vivid memories and veneration of them. These historical undead make for an interesting ingredient in the world and allow Johnson to include legendary New Orleanians such as Jean Lafitte and Louis Armstrong without having to fabricate a history where they were turned into vampires. The structure of wizarding society into classes divided by skills ruled by the Elders was well thought through and it'll be interesting to see how these Congresses are developed in following instalments of the Sentinels of New Orleans series.
While Royal Street has a very cool protagonist in the person of DJ and some very likeable characters – even one of the villains is likeable– its characters are also where for me the first cracks started to show. As stated, she's a cool character. She's not a big fireworks throwing wizard, she's a Green Congress wizard whose powers manifest through potion and ritual. She's also an empath and Johnson uses this to great effect to show how hard life after Katrina is, when she has DJ move through the city half-shielded. But DJ also has some less enjoyable traits. The one that drove me to distraction most was her constantly harping on about the physical attractiveness of the male characters. After hearing about Alex's imposing physique or Jake's cute dimples two or three times I got the picture, but DJ keeps repeating it. Even to the point that she refers to her opponent's impressive musculature in the middle of a serious fight. This bugged me and I thought it lessened DJ's character.
In addition, there are some predictable plot elements that were somewhat disappointing. First of all, the love triangle – why must there always be a love triangle? – between DJ, Alex, and Jake. I usually dislike love triangles, but in this case it had the added annoyance that there isn't a clear cut preference. It seems as if even the author doesn't know who she wants DJ to end up with, which in my case led me to just being annoyed with DJ for leading both these equally nice guys on. Similarly with a revelation on DJ's bloodlines about three quarters on in the book, which had been telegraphed so clearly that to me at least it wasn't such a big surprise.
Despite these issues, however, I did really enjoy the time I spent in Johnson's New Orleans. Royal Street was a fun and pacey read, that left me looking forward to finding out what happens next. And yes darnit, I do want to know who DJ ends up choosing. If you like your urban fantasy atmospheric and with more than a touch of romance, Royal Street will be right up your alley.