This is one of those deeply worthy books where you can see exactly what the author was hoping to achieve, and it almost works, but in the end there’sThis is one of those deeply worthy books where you can see exactly what the author was hoping to achieve, and it almost works, but in the end there’s just too much unlikely contrivance and too little characterisation to be effective.
Lilly is an Irish girl betrothed to Tadg when the troubles intervene. Both are put under a death sentence, and escape to America to try to make a new life away from the troubles. Of course, things don’t work out smoothly and Lilly’s life becomes a catalogue of difficulties punctuated or inflicted by major events of the twentieth century: the issue of colour, Vietnam, Martin Luther King, the Gulf War and so on. And very depressing it all is. A lot of people die or disappear.
The story is told by Lilly herself, in a long-winded rambling style that is wonderfully evocative and poetic, but becomes wearing when stretched over an entire book. And Lilly is not an active character, taking charge of her life and making decisions about her own future. She is, ultimately, extraordinarily passive, drifting where the wind blows her, running away, being rescued by saintly strangers, running away again, asking no questions and, in many ways, simply surviving. She is so passive, in fact, that her personality fades to transparency.
Nor are the other people around her much better, being mostly ciphers for a social class or group, rather than characters in their own right. Only her own family back in Ireland have hints of full personalities.
In the end, this is a book that is more about the events and social changes that shook America. Any small part of it could have made a deep and profoundly moving story. Stretched over a whole lifetime, many nuances are lost in the race to skate over the decades, and it becomes a shallow, and (to my mind) somewhat pointless exercise. Not without its moments, and beautifully written, but ultimately unsatisfying. Three stars....more
This is a book from another era, in every sense. Written in 1946, it shines a light on a different age, a brief moment of history, and quite a narrowThis is a book from another era, in every sense. Written in 1946, it shines a light on a different age, a brief moment of history, and quite a narrow aspect of history, at that. In the aftermath of the war, an upper-class couple in southeastern England adjusts to the reality of life without servants and wealth.
The main character, Laura, is the slightly dippy wife whose day we follow as she goes about her chores. No longer able to sit idly at home, or gad about the countryside visiting or walking, she shares the household chores with her sole remaining ‘help’, queues for food at the shops with other matrons, tries to arrange for a gardener and cycles off to retrieve a missing dog. Meanwhile, husband Stephen and daughter Victoria are going about their equally mundane lives. And if this sounds dull, indeed it is, as a story.
The point of the book, though, is not so much in what happens, but the constant running commentaries from inside the various characters’ heads. The author doesn’t hesitate to jump from head to head, as needed, in order to give the various viewpoints. And what they expound on is how dreadful life is since the war, with everything changing for the worse and life so terribly difficult. Really, this is nothing more than a glorified essay on the post-war realities of British life, mostly from the upper-class perspective, but sometimes pointing out that the working class and ambitious middle class have done very nicely, thank you. Social commentary, thinly disguised as fiction.
The greatest pleasure of the book is in the author’s descriptive powers, capturing the essence of the English countryside of the era and the attitudes of the people living there. For many people, the language alone would make this a captivating read. For me this wasn’t enough. I loved the glimpse into the past, but the characters were too stereotypical to be compelling, and the lack of plot or clear resolution too great a hurdle to overcome. Three stars. ...more
This book is way outside my usual sphere - YA, not-quite-human creatures, some romantic difficulties - but the opening is charming,Fantasy Review Barn
This book is way outside my usual sphere - YA, not-quite-human creatures, some romantic difficulties - but the opening is charming, and I ended up enjoying it a lot.
Here’s the premise: Brenna is a high school student with a best friend, an almost-boyfriend, a fisherman father and a mother who likes to stand looking wistfully out to sea for hours on end. When Brenna discovers something unusual in the attic… at this point, I knew exactly what was going to happen. And when it does, and Brenna decides to head for the high seas alone in a small boat, frankly I wanted to sit her down and tell her just what a stupid thing she’s doing. But - teenager. There’s no reasoning with them, so I can accept this as part of her character.
Out on the oceans, Brenna runs into the inevitable difficulties, plus a rather nice young man called Dylan, and the two team up on Brenna’s big adventure. Their journey is quite episodic, with every stage fraught with some kind of peril from marauding sea creatures or the ocean itself. Each time, there seems to be a convenient island for them to recover on, before setting off for the next encounter.
On the whole, this works fine. But there’s a section of the book which completely lost me. After deciding they can’t get where they want to go by sea (too dangerous), our plucky heroes set out to make the journey across land. Along the way, they travel through three different countries, with two non-English languages, two non-dollar currencies and a whole continent of cultural differences. Oh, yes, and they start this mammoth journey having lost all their worldly goods. Like passports. This would be enough to tax the skills of even an experienced adult traveller, but a couple of teenagers? Plus the route they take is bizarre, to put it mildly. So I was flummoxed by this part of the book.
Where the book really scores is in the underwater sequences, which are superb, beautifully described and so evocative I could feel the ocean currents against my skin. Dylan’s increasing discomfort as they journey by land, away from his beloved ocean, is also well described, and (for me, at least) was far more effective than the occasional scary monster popping out from behind a rock.
The final encounter is unexpected in several ways, and rather mature for a book otherwise aimed squarely at a young teenage market. In fact, the actions of one character, quite frankly, gave me the chills. I absolutely did not see that coming. And the ending, too, is very grown-up. Kudos to the author for avoiding the obvious ways of wrapping things up. The final moments not only bring this book to an elegant close, but also neatly lay the groundwork for the continuation. Very well done. The unbelievable (to me) land journey keeps this to three stars, but for anyone who’s less pernickety than me (which is almost everyone), this is a readable, entertaining book with some great descriptions of the ocean and a thought-provoking ending. ...more
This is one of those British-based police procedural books where the author did pretty much everything right - interesting characters, a nice (but notThis is one of those British-based police procedural books where the author did pretty much everything right - interesting characters, a nice (but not gory) murder mystery/kidnapping, some intriguing reveals along the way - all in a pleasant, undemanding style. I enjoyed the read but it never quite caught fire for me, somehow.
The central character is Kate Redman, a detective with a history, starting a new job with a case involving a disappearing baby and a murdered nanny. The parents are a workaholic self-made businessman and his Z-list celebrity wife. Kate has to unravel the mystery while staying on the right side of her new colleagues and keeping her past firmly out of sight.
None of this is particularly radical, but the methodical police work rustles up enough clues to keep the pages turning. The writing style is sometimes pedestrian: whenever our trusty detectives meet with potential suspects, greetings are exchanged, cups of tea are offered, chitchat is documented in exhaustive (and sometimes exhausting) detail.
However, it never gets too slow, and the characters are drawn with a light hand, with just enough detail to bring them to life. The settings are described in a more minimalist way. For instance, the police station is said to be “a charmless, redbrick sixties building”, which Brits can visualise instantly, but non-Brits might have more trouble with. There’s some low-key British humour, as well, which is easy to miss.
The conclusion was fine, with a nice build-up to the reveal of the culprit and a not too over-the-top dramatic climax, nicely resolved. After which the cops all sat round in the pub explaining everything to each other. Guys, we got it, OK? There were only one or two missing pieces that needed an explanation at that point.
And then - one of my pet hates - the story ended at the 86% mark, and the rest was filled in with a chapter of a different book altogether. Sigh. This always makes me feel short-changed. I might well buy the next book in the series, but it will be because I enjoyed this one, not because the author has sneaked a chapter into this book.
This is one of those books that I started with every expectation of hating it. It would be too pretentious, too clever for its ownFantasy Review Barn
This is one of those books that I started with every expectation of hating it. It would be too pretentious, too clever for its own good, and too full of itself, I was sure of it. And the central conceit, of living the same life over and over, has been done a few times before. But then, quite unexpectedly, the quirky charm of the characters drew me in, and the excellent writing raised my hopes. I ended up enjoying it far more than anticipated, with a couple of reservations.
The story follows Ursula, the third child of Silvie and Hugh, who is born in the middle of a snowstorm in 1910. And promptly dies, the cord being tangled round her throat. And is born again. This time, she’s saved and lives a little longer. There are a great many deaths, in a great many different ways (and sometimes the same way, repeatedly), and some are pretty depressing, but knowing that Ursula will be reborn every time makes this less fraught than it might be.
As these various lives come and go and come again, Ursula starts to have some memory of her previous incarnations. These are not clear memories, but vague feelings of dread when in a place where something bad happened in a previous life, or a strong feeling that she should (or shouldn’t) do certain things. Her subconscious attempts to mitigate the effects or avoid a situation altogether are fascinating, and she gradually begins to adapt her life towards certain specific ends. It’s almost inevitable, given the timeframe here, that the whole killing-Hitler-to-prevent-the-war scenario should raise its head, but I won’t spoil the surprise by revealing what actually happens (well, it was a surprise to me, anyway).
The first reservation I had was that the heavy focus on the second world war, and the graphic descriptions of the lives that Ursula lived, made the mid-section of the book appallingly miserable. Nothing good seemed to happen to her at all. In all her many lives, there was no life where she simply met a nice man, married, settled down into baby-infested domesticity and had a pleasant, if dull, life. No, time after time, she lived miserably and died horribly, and I really resented that. Although possibly that was the entire point of her existence, I don’t know. Or some deep philosophical point: life’s a bitch and then you die and then (lucky you) you get to go through the whole awfulness of it all again.
But then the ending rolled around and this is where things went slightly off the rails, because (and I’m going to be honest here) I didn’t understand it at all. There were hints that some of the other characters also had some vague memories, but it wasn’t at all clear (to me). And the last chapter – what was that all about? It’s been driving me nuts. The blurb on the cover seems to suggest that, in true ‘Groundhog Day’ style, there will come a point when Ursula does everything right and the endless cycling will stop. Yet the book itself appears to contradict that. Or does it? Dunno. And what does it all mean? Dunno again. But the writing is very effective, the characters have a quirky, and very English, charm, and on balance I found it an enjoyable read. The deeply depressing wartime scenes and cryptic ending keep it to three stars....more
I bought this for all the wrong reasons. It’s not my usual genre (paranormal urban fantasy) in any way, but... it’s set in LiverpooFantasy Review Barn
I bought this for all the wrong reasons. It’s not my usual genre (paranormal urban fantasy) in any way, but... it’s set in Liverpool, and that was a huge attraction. There’s a special buzz in reading a book where the action takes place in Lime Street station, the Mersey ferry, Edge Hill, Sefton Park and even Bidston Hill, all places I know well. So I was prepared to take a punt on this, and step outside my comfort zone for a while. And it almost worked.
Lily McCain is a young woman with a secret: when she touches anyone, skin on skin, she gets a vision of their future. And however horrible it is, she can’t do anything to prevent it. No wonder she avoids contact with anyone, not easy given her chosen profession of music reporter for the local paper, which requires her to spend her time in packed clubs. But then one day a mysterious stranger turns up, tells her that she’s really, really special, so special she’s destined to save the world (or at least be his mate and have his babies), whereupon various other mysterious strangers start trying to kill her. And there’s a bunch about the Otherworld and the High King, and Ireland comes into it somewhere, and... OK, I got all fuzzy about the plot at this point. And really, it doesn’t much matter. There are good guys and bad guys, all right? And all Lily has to do is work out which is which.
There’s a lot to enjoy about this (besides Sefton Park having some kind of magic portal in it, which amused me no end). It’s an easy read, with some great humour, and Lily and her amusing sidekick Carmel are true feisty Scouse birds (when not curled up in wardrobes crying, that is). There are a few quibbles, though.
Quibble number one: vampires, because... no, actually, I don’t need a ‘because’. Just vampires. Ok, they’re background characters, and they have a goth band, naturally, which mitigates the effect, but really – vampires. It’s a testament to the strength of the writing that I didn’t toss the book (I’m SO allergic to the blood-sucking undead).
Quibble number two: scorching hot blokes (and some of the women too). Apart from Lily and Carmel, everyone seems to be impossibly hot and fit and awesomely honed. Which is kind of tedious. I like a bit more realism than that.
Quibble number three: logic failures. Now, I read a lot of fantasy, so I’m perfectly capable of believing six impossible things before breakfast, but the internal logic has to be consistent. And I just can’t accept that Gabriel (the aforementioned High King and Lily’s designated mate) would dump her at age six with one of the least sensible carers in the known universe. That makes no sense. And then only turn up again when there's a crisis looming only days away. She's in her twenties, for goodness sake, surely you could have dropped in a little sooner with the 'By the way, there's something you ought to know...' speech? And then there’s Lily herself. I lost count of the number of times someone said to her: whatever you do, don’t do X. And what’s the first thing she does? Of course it is. It’s a wonder she survived past chapter three.
Now, to be fair, these are all personal gripes of mine, and I’m sure the vast majority of the intended audience doesn’t care about a bit of wobbly logic. The writing is a little uneven – the scene where Lily returns to her nan’s house and emotes all over it goes on way too long, for instance. Plus there are numerous moments where the story felt contrived in order to squeeze in another famous Liverpool location (did we really need the entire history of the Cavern?). Those few quibbles aside, though, the story’s an entertaining read, with some great humour (only occasionally veering off into silliness), with an ending which avoided the easy options. An enjoyable three stars. Recommended for fans of vampires, hot blokes and Liverpool....more
What to say about a book that's been the focus of so much adulation, but also mystified a sizeable proportion of its readership? So many people say: IWhat to say about a book that's been the focus of so much adulation, but also mystified a sizeable proportion of its readership? So many people say: I just don't get it, don't like it, can't read it. The problem is that the two main characters, Nick and Amy, are seriously unlikeable. Not just not-my-type unlikeable, either. This is one totally messed-up weird twisted wreckage of a couple. Well, unlikeable's never bothered me. Some of the most interesting characters are villains. Heroes and heroines tend to be bland and dull and boringly good; give me a good villain any day.
The other big problem to overcome is the writing style, which can best be described as over-the-top aren't-I-clever? Both main characters are written in first person, so there's ample opportunity for snide abuse by the bucketload. Maybe ten per cent of it is incisively funny, the rest varies from meh to eye-rollingly bad to downright offensive. I dislike that kind of look-at-me cleverness, but enough of it was funny to get by, and all of it was in character, so it's hard to object to, I suppose.
The plot is that Nick and Amy have been forced by the recession to move from their sleek Manhattan lifestyle to a more modest life in Nick's hometown in Missouri. They both find the change difficult, the marriage begins to fall apart and then, on their fifth wedding anniversary, Amy disappears, leaving a stagily disorganised house, cleaned-up bloodstains and a great deal of other incriminating evidence pointing straight to Nick as a likely murder suspect. Since we are inside Nick's head a lot of the time, we know there's more to it than it appears.
I don't want to say too much about how the plot develops, because there are more twists than a bag of pretzels, and I don't want to spoil the surprises. However, the main twist at the halfway point was one I saw coming almost from the start, which added some interest to the early part of the book. It's always fun to appreciate both the obvious surface viewpoint, and the inside perspective that illuminates the behind-the-scenes manipulation. After that reveal, the pace ramps up and this part was, for me, unputdownable.
And then the ending. Again, it's one I saw coming. It seemed almost inevitable, although I hoped right to the last minute that there would be some big twist to force things off in a more interesting direction. There was a small twist, I suppose, so the way in which the ending was achieved was unexpected, but the actual situation was as I'd foreseen. Sorry to be so cryptic, but I really don't want to spoil this for anyone.
For anyone looking for deeper meaning in a psychological thriller, there's interest in the way the whole story was handled in the public eye, on TV, on the internet, through talk shows and to-camera interviews. The police investigation was gradually overshadowed by the global media take-up of Nick and Amy's story, and the way they were manipulated by the various factions involved. This isn't a particularly original line to take, but it was handled well here.
Ultimately, even though I didn’t expect to, I'd have to admit I enjoyed this. The plotting was clever, the way the book was structured, with alternating Nick and Amy chapters, was clever, the writing was clever and sometimes downright witty. Even knowing where things were going much of the time, I was still on the edge of my seat at the way the plot screeched round corners and made abrupt u-turns. I'd have put this at four stars but the ending was disappointing in its lack of proper resolution. Leaving things in unstable and potentially explosive equilibrium isn't very satisfying, although perhaps it's appropriate. So three stars....more
Glenda Larke is one of a very small number of authors whose works are on my must-buy list, and a new book, and the first of a serieFantasy Review Barn
Glenda Larke is one of a very small number of authors whose works are on my must-buy list, and a new book, and the first of a series to boot, is always cause for celebration. Larke writes a traditional kind of fantasy, not the elves and dwarves sort, but the type that relies on a refreshingly original created world, engaging characters and a story that compels right from the first line. And it doesn't hurt that she has a wonderfully vivid writing style.
So why does this one not quite set me on fire? I think it’s because there are so many elements that feel very unoriginal, not to say tired. Parts of the world feel like just another pseudo-medieval setting, the parts that involve the patrilineal kingdom with the cold-hearted king, the playboy prince and the resentful but plucky princess, doomed to marry some hideous older man for political reasons. Yawn. And I’m always deeply suspicious of kings who have precisely two children, one of each gender. In a hereditary monarchy, there should be hordes of hopeful heirs, legitimate and otherwise, in every generation, or else an extremely good reason why not.
Other parts of the story are well up to Larke’s creative standards. The unusual physical world, with the continents clustering inconveniently around the polar ice-cap. The importance of the spice trade. The uneasily united branches of the prevailing religion. And the dagger of the title, a creepily semi-alive weapon. I’m a sucker for sentient ironmongery.
The main character of the story is Saker, low-born but now a pretend priest and spy, working undercover for his religious mentor while supposedly tutoring the royal children. And here’s another problem. Saker is a likeable enough character, but he’s made out to be some ultra-smart, ultra-devious guy, when the entire book is no more than a catalogue of his mistakes, where he’s taken in by one smarter, more devious character after another. Gullible is his middle name, and while I excuse his entrapment by the lady (he’d have to be super-human to resist, frankly), the rest of it just makes him look stupid. And I have to wonder why his mentor sends him off to tutor the prince and princess in the first place, a position he seems spectacularly unsuited for.
Of the other characters, Ryke the prince is the standard template for princes in fantasy, only interested in hunting, whoring and himself. Mathilda the princess has an even more limited range of interests – herself and... erm, that’s it. And yes, of course, it’s a horrible situation, young woman forced to marry evil older man for the good of the kingdom (and a lucrative trade agreement), but we have heard it once or twice before. Sorrel, the widow coerced into virtual slavery by Mathilda, would be more interesting if she stopped whining for five minutes. Yes, life’s really tough living in the royal palace with all your comforts provided, isn’t it?
Ardhi, on the other hand, the original owner of the eponymous dagger, is a truly fascinating character. More of him, please. Saker’s religious mentor, the Pontifect, is also interesting, and I also enjoyed the few moments onscreen of light-hearted nobleman Juster (although he reminded me somewhat of Maldynado from the Emperor’s Edge series; actually quite a few of these characters reminded me of some other book).
The plot is a little slow to get going, although that’s typical of most fantasy and isn’t a problem. It takes time to paint in the backdrop before the action starts. Once it does, though, things take off spectacularly, and the second half of the book is a fast-paced romp as Saker and pals stagger from one disaster to the next. Beneath the veneer of entertainment, though, there are some thought-provoking themes – of slavery, for one thing. Several of the characters are, in various ways, compelled to do things they desperately don’t want to do. This ought to make me more sympathetic towards them, but somehow it feels more like a plot device and therefore loses its emotional impact.
This fell a little short of my expectations. It felt uneven, the characters failed to engage me, the plot, while executed with all the author’s flair, seemed a little contrived. Political machinations are less interesting to me than well-rounded characters. However, the writing is, as always, excellent, and the foundations are laid for the next two books in the series to venture out of the familiar world of kingdoms and organised religions into more exotic settings. I’ll certainly be reading on. Three stars....more
The author describes this as a rom-com, and that's as good a description as any. It's superficially an action mystery, but the romance is the core ofThe author describes this as a rom-com, and that's as good a description as any. It's superficially an action mystery, but the romance is the core of it and also the part that works most effectively. If I tell you that the mystery part involves ruthless and evil - erm, mushroom researchers who’ll stop at nothing to get their hands on a particularly rare specimen which will cure antibiotic resistent TB, you'll probably get the point.
The plot (such as it is) involves heroine Tara making a temporary stay at an eco-village to produce blog material for a local newspaper. She arrives in the middle of a dispute with a neighbour involving escaped pigs and decapitated chickens. The neighbour, naturally, is a hunky heap of muscular maleness, called Malcolm (after the Scottish king; hurray for Scottish kings!). Tara manages to exploit her blogging and website building skills to impress said hunky heap, but thereby finds herself sucked into the ongoing adventures, which involves much racing around hillsides in the dark, climbing out of bathroom windows and the like, while the hunky heap manages to get his shirt off at frequent intervals.
All this is fun if not terribly surprising. Nor is Tara herself a particularly plausible character. Although she's smart enough to set up websites in the blink of an eye, she's apparently not smart enough to bring along anything useful on a police-evading night-time chase, even when she stops at her own house along the way. Plus she trips over every tree-root in the state, seemingly, and ends up face down in the mud. I have to confess, I like just a tad more competence in a main character.
As for the hunky heap, he's got demons from his past to deal with, and, wouldn't you just know it, the climax of the book involves him having to face up to those demons. I realise there's a school of thought that requires characters to move forwards during the course of the story, making visible progress in the demons department, but frankly this was all just too contrived for my liking. A little more subtlety would have helped.
On the other side of the coin, the romance works really well. The banter between the two main characters is brilliant, and there are some very funny moments along the way. It amuses me to consider the research the author must have carried out for this book, covering (amongs other things) hallucinogenic mushrooms, pipe bombs and the feasability of operating a mobile phone using only your nose (and I'd have paid good money to watch the experimentation on that one). Apart from Tara's tree-root incompetence, the two main characters are well drawn. The gradual inching from deep suspicion through grudging tolerance to tentative trust and the inevitable romantic entanglement is perfectly judged, and completely credible. For anyone who likes their romance sweet rather than hot, with plenty of light-hearted action and a great big dollop of humour, this is ideal. Three stars....more
It’s such a lovely idea: you fall asleep and your dreams are actually about another world. And just a few special people are GiftedFantasy Review Barn
It’s such a lovely idea: you fall asleep and your dreams are actually about another world. And just a few special people are Gifted: able to move between the two worlds physically. So this is a portal story, one of those tales with a dull, modern-day section which then shifts in an instant into a far more interesting fantasy world with swords and whatnot. The twist here is that every time the main character falls asleep in the interesting fantasy world – bam, he’s back in the dull modern world.
The fantasy world is not the most complicated ever. The map gives it away. There are a few rivers and hills, a sprinkling of cities, a castle and – erm, that’s about it. And no, dropping in phrases like ‘a white fillet of summerton and a peeled sopple floating in its bowl of sweet craniss wine’ doesn’t give it a more authentic depth. However, it does have a slightly steampunk air, with pistols and a steam-powered cable-car for long distance travel, which is quite cool. But (phew!) there are still swords and horse-riding soldiers who gallop into battle. So that’s all right then. Sadly, the modern world is every bit as dull as it usually is.
So here’s the plot. Every once in a while, a Gifted turns up who can cross freely between the two worlds. The last one was a total disaster, so when Chris finds himself the latest Gifted, he’s not exactly welcomed with open arms. The king just wants him to keep out of the way of the coming war. The religious fanatics want to use him as an excuse for trouble. The Searcher, the king’s daughter Alarra, has unresolved issues because of her failure to manage the previous Gifted. And as soon as he arrives in parallel world Lael, Chris is manipulated into bringing war-mongering Mactalde across from the modern world, thereby creating a tear in the space-time continuum. Or something. Something bad, anyway, since it makes the weather deteriorate.
The characters are the usual thing. Feisty independent princess. Check. Brave but sensitive manly type. Check. Stalwart, fiercely loyal old retainer. Check. Heroic but tormented warrior-type. Check. Evil villain. Oh yes. Amusing and/or irritating sidekicks. Check. Check. Check. There’s also a talking winged beast of some sort, who is supposed to keep the important characters informed but actually withholds vital information for his own (presumably plot-related) reasons. Which is terribly convenient.
Now, the author has done a good job of giving all the characters strong background stories, but this does rather substitute for actual characterisation. Stripping away the layers of guilt and fear and anger and betrayal around them leaves not much more than the bald stereotypes mentioned above. And then they will angst about it endlessly. I’m not a big fan of angsty characters, and, to be honest, I got a bit cross with them here. Chris, for instance, is weighed down with guilt because he brought Mactalde back, but since no one told him the truth, how was he supposed to know? And Allara is weighed down with guilt because she failed with the previous Gifted. Ye gods, she was nine years old at the time, being advised by a winged beastie who makes the Sphinx look like a model of clarity. Guys, it wasn’t your fault, OK?
I confess to having problems with the logic behind the basic premise. Yes, I know, magic... duh. But still, it should make some sort of sense. So we have these dual worlds, each one the dream world of the other. And the same people exist in both worlds. They do different jobs, but they’re the same people. You can die in one but your doppelganger lives on. So that boggled my mind right away. Then there’s the whole dreams business. You fall asleep in one and you wake up in the other? But... but... most people don’t sleep more than eight or so hours a day, so you get eight hours’ sleep in one world, eight hours in the other and... what happens to the other eight? OK, so I may be overthinking this, and to be fair Chris does seem to sleep a lot, in one world or the other, so I guess it works out.
A more serious problem is that the characters do really stupid things. I’ve already mentioned that Chris was manipulated into bringing Mactalde back, and I don’t totally blame him for that, but when some people are saying, ‘Yes, yes, do it, it’ll totally fix everything” and others are saying, “This is a really, really bad idea”, it might be smart to ask a few more questions, don’t you think? And thereafter the guy is constantly leaping into his horse or one of the cool skycar thingies to rush into battle or rescue people who’ve been given up for dead. In fact, the whole bang lot of them are prone to the horse-leaping and rushing and rescuing thing, including the king’s entire family. Well, it shifts the plot along, I suppose. But then the guy who betrayed them sends a message that he has some useful information, but Chris has meet him alone... I mean really, who is stupid enough to do that? Well, Chris, apparently. Doh.
Now if all this sounds as if I didn’t like the book, actually, I did, on the whole. It was entertaining and readable in a lightweight way, and for a bit of easily-digested fluff it’s very effective. As long as you don’t think too hard about it, it all works very well. By the middle of the book, it had settled down into a nicely paced, if over dramatic, tale. Latterly it degenerated into one of those we’re-all-doomed-we’re-saved!-oh-no-we’re-all-doomed see-saws, with our heroes implausibly surviving every tricky moment while the baddies are constantly two steps ahead. Which was, in places, eye-rollingly silly. But then came the ending, one of those unexpected moments when the author takes the mature, difficult, but obviously logical road. I love it when that happens. So kudos to the author, and extra brownie points. Recommended for anyone who likes relentless action and is able to switch off the but-but-why? side of their brain. Three stars....more
This is one of those odd books that I found enjoyable to read at the time, but when I put it down, I lapsed into so-what? apathy. The premise is a faiThis is one of those odd books that I found enjoyable to read at the time, but when I put it down, I lapsed into so-what? apathy. The premise is a fairly trite one. A mid-twenties man returns to his childhood home for a funeral, and spends the time reminiscing about growing up, being astonished at the changes that have taken place and equally astonished at the things that remain unchanged, and resolving a few loose ends from his departure five years before. So far, so ho-hum. The twist here is that the setting is a small town set in the northeast of Scotland, ruled in relative calm by two gangster families, and our hero was run out of town after almost marrying the daughter of one family.
The setting was one of the attractions for me. I live less than two hours' drive from the supposed location of the town of Stonemouth, and many of the descriptions of the beaches, forests and streets rang very true. Banks' descriptive prose is wonderfully lyrical, and captured the atmosphere beautifully. It was a little disconcerting that a major road bridge played a prominent role in the story; there are so few of those up here, that I kept visualising it as one of the known bridges - the Kessock bridge was my personal mental image - which pulled the book's geography out of alignment, as if the map was stretched out of true.
The childhood reminiscences worked less well. Some were funny and some were tragic but none of them really tore at my heart as perhaps they should have done. Some of main character Stewart's friends were, frankly, too stupid for words. The book interleaves the present-day events with vignettes from the past in order to keep hidden a couple of mysteries: what Stewart did to get him run out of town, and what really happened to the brother of his almost-wife? These were enough to keep me turning the pages, so they worked as intended, but frankly the revelations weren't particularly mind-blowing.
Stewart himself is rather a nothing character. He seems fairly blank, rarely expressing any emotion other than fear, although his continuing affection for almost-wife Ellie is rather touching. Of the others, Ferg the sardonic bisexual is far and away the most interesting. I'd have been happy reading an entire book about him, actually. The rest were either caricatures (Ellie's thuggish brothers, the stupid friends) or nonentities (like Ellie herself, drifting aimlessly through life), although Ellie's younger sister Grier probably rates a mention as having slightly more personality.
The final chapters are melodramatic, which seems to be obligatory these days, and the story then tailspins off into an implausible resolution for the main characters. The plot also fails one of my favourite tests: could most of the plot be resolved if the principals simply sat down and talked everything through? In this case, it was a puzzle to me why Ellie, in particular, didn't say to her family: I'll decide my own future, thank you very much. As she does, in fact, later on. The plot hinges on her being the sort of person who allows herself to be pushed around, but only until the plot requires her to push back. So that was a big fail, as far as I'm concerned. Three stars....more
This is one of those pleasantly sweet little books that could have been something really good, profound even, but instead is as delicately insubstantiThis is one of those pleasantly sweet little books that could have been something really good, profound even, but instead is as delicately insubstantial as a soap bubble. Major Pettigrew is a widower living in a small English village of the type familiar to readers of Agatha Christie’s ‘Miss Marple’, and just as unrealistic. There’s the usual array of gossiping, interfering women, led (almost inevitably) by the vicar’s wife, the men huddled in the bar of the golf club, trying to avoid the women, and the implausibly nice local bigwig, Lord Dagenham. All of this could have been written any time from the fifties onwards. The one modern note is the village shop, run by a Pakistani lady.
And thereby hangs the tale, because (after a series of fortuitous meetings) Major Pettigrew discovers Mrs Ali to be an educated and articulate lady, sharing with him a love of classic literature. Since she is a widow... well, you can see where this is going, can’t you? It isn’t an insult to call this book predictable, because I imagine the market it’s aimed at wouldn’t want it any other way. So it follows the expected path to the expected ending, via a series of increasingly farcical and downright melodramatic set pieces, and diverting for a quite charming interlude in Wales, which for me was a high point.
The problem for me lay in the writing. The first half was filled with cardboard characters behaving implausibly, and a vague air of having been written by someone not familiar with the setting. There are odd outbreaks of Americanisms, and the vicar is referred to as ‘Father Christopher’, for instance. The old-fashioned air of the characters, particularly Major Pettigrew himself, seems to have seeped out of a novel from decades ago. This makes sense, however, when you discover that, although the author was born and raised in Sussex, she has lived in America for the last twenty years. I suppose she’s viewing her English home with a fond, if not quite accurate, memory.
The second half perks up a bit, so that some of the minor characters gain a bit of realism, and thankfully the vicar is more properly referred to as ‘Vicar’. The book is also lavished endowed with true British humour (that is, very dry and subtle), which I loved. There were many places where I laughed out loud. However, the melodrama of the dance and the episode on the cliffs was quite ridiculous, and I lost patience with it rather. The biggest failure, though, was in addressing the issues raised. The book is absolutely founded on the question of colour, religion and cultural differences, yet it never properly gets to grips with them, merely skating round the edges and using them for dramatic impetus without ever shining a light on them. The character of Ahmed Wahid was a missed opportunity to say something meaningful, but unfortunately the author chose to keep things light and fluffy. An enjoyable read, if you don’t expect too much depth. Three stars....more
I don't read a lot of urban fantasy, but this one has a great premise: Cleo has an unusual talent. She can see when people lie, byFantasy Review Barn
I don't read a lot of urban fantasy, but this one has a great premise: Cleo has an unusual talent. She can see when people lie, by way of a shadow mask that covers their face to a greater or lesser extent, depending how big the lie is. Sometimes the mask comments, too, betraying the person's real feelings. This is such a cool idea, but there's a dark side too. What must it be like to know, beyond any possibility of doubt, when someone lies to you? Your best friend? No, of course your bum doesn't look big in that. No, of course I’m not trying to steal your bloke. Yes, I'd love to see you tonight but I've really got to work. Your boyfriend? I love you. You're the only one. You're the best ever in bed. Eek.
So when Cleo is recruited by other 'supras' (people with similar talents), part of her is thrilled to be amongst people who understand, with whom she doesn't have to pretend. Sadly, Cleo is immediately sent undercover to winkle out a traitor amongst the supras, which involves a lot of hanging around people to watch for lies, and asking leading questions, so she's still on her own.
Cleo isn't the usual self-confident assertive female lead character so common in urban fantasy. Instead she's a much more realistic person, damaged to some extent by the lies she's been exposed to by everyone around her. However, her slightly chirpy voice and her constant mistakes get very wearing after a while. Another big problem: way too many characters to keep up with. I could possibly remember names, but trying to keep track of everyone's supra abilities (which they often hid, even from other supras) was impossible. And the plot fell over because it depended on Cleo being kept in the dark about crucial information. As she herself pointed out, if she'd been told everything right from the start, the problem could have been solved in five minutes.
Somewhere in the middle of the book things begin to pick up, and there's a secret about one character that I just didn't see coming. And at about the three quarters point, there's possibly the best sex-with-subtext scene I've ever read. Quite brilliant. But after that, things crater spectacularly. Firstly, after all the undercover work, the bad guys reveal themselves to Cleo after she makes an unbelievably stupid decision and puts herself into their power. Then things degenerate into a long-drawn-out and totally farcical melee of a finale. Authors really have to decide whether they're going for the serious, oh-no-everyone-might-die line, or whether it's going to be lighthearted fluff. Once characters start dying (well, one character, anyway), you're fairly well committed to serious, and fluff seems distasteful (to me, anyway).
There are a few loose endings left dangling, like the oft-mentioned but never seen step-father, and why did Beau conceal his true nature? But I guess there's a series in the pipeline, so there has to be fodder for future books. There were too many flaws and saggy moments for me to enjoy this completely, but even for a non-fan of urban fantasy like me, there were still plenty of fun moments, a few nice characterisations and that amazing sex scene. Recommended for fans of the genre, and it is a brilliant premise. Three stars....more
This is one of those books with loads of interesting ideas where the execution falls a little flat. The concept of the human motherFantasy Review Barn
This is one of those books with loads of interesting ideas where the execution falls a little flat. The concept of the human mother being forced to bear the child of a demon is not at all an original one (Rosemary's Baby, for instance), but there's always room for a novel twist on the idea. In this case, the demon is prevented from taking the child, and the child himself is prevented from total evil, by the unconditional love of his older brother. The mother, on the other hand, sees the child as nothing but a monstrosity and treats him very badly. We're so used to the idea of mothers loving their children no matter what that this is quite a difficult idea to read about, and made me wonder: just how would a mother react to such a child? I'm not convinced that Ashra would be quite so proud of her eldest son and loving towards him, while hating her youngest quite so strongly. And why doesn't Wilhelm, the eldest, notice the difference and lose respect for his mother?
The author has created a wonderfully detailed world as background for this story of two very different brothers. There is a mythology involving a god-love-triangle, and there are throwaway lines about drunken gods and the like which I found very intriguing. Then the Big Bad is referred to as ‘God’ by his head minion, which is interesting too. However, despite some nice little snippets of history, I never quite got a clear picture of how these gods fitted into the current picture, whether they were real or even whether they were good or evil. The rest of the world is obviously just as carefully thought out, but without a map or a little more detail it was hard to see quite what was what. Sometimes as our heroes travelled around the scenery, a character would say: ‘Well, I’ll just pop back to Falar for...’, which always took me by surprise. It’s that close and I never knew? The various towns are nicely differentiated from one another, it’s just me that needs some kind of a visual aid to help me understand the setting. Like a map. [Edit: there's actually rather a nice map provided, which I stupidly missed. Doh!]
There’s magic in this world, but it’s fairly limited in scope. There are just fourteen spells available to mages, they’re difficult to learn and to perform and they bite back if you get them wrong, killing the mage. Even if you get them right, you have to rest for a long time before you can perform them again. The mages actually forget each spell after it’s been used, and have to have a spell-book to remind themselves, which is a cool idea. As if that wasn’t tricky enough, mages are bound by restrictive laws and almost universally despised, so they can be attacked and even killed for no reason other than being mages.
The story follows the lives of two brothers, Wilhelm and Salvarias, the sons of a female mage struggling to make a living. Wilhelm’s father is a mystery, having disappeared shortly after getting Ashra pregnant. Nice guy (not), but he’s supposedly doing something important in the world, and I have no doubt he’ll turn up in a future book. I'm actually quite interested to meet dad, because Wilhelm has inherited some interesting genes. Enormous height and strength, for instance, as well as charm and (it seems) supernatural skills with the ladies (well, I've never heard of a fifteen year old who can perform such prodigious feats).
Salvarias is the demon-child, who inherits his mother’s mage abilities at an unusually early age. This book takes the story from Salvarias’s conception through to his late teens, and there are necessarily big gaps where several years pass between action episodes. The plot is very uneven, depending to a large extent on coincidence and, frankly, deus ex machina at times. The brothers find themselves out on the streets trying to survive, and almost the first person they meet is a friend not seen for many years who turns up out of the blue and looks after them. Other characters who might be expected to help are unaccountably missing when needed. A mage turns up in the nick of time to heal Salvarias, and then vanishes. All of this is very convenient. If there are plot-related reasons for these fortuitous events, they aren’t made clear.
The other characters, who pop up as needed and vanish the rest of the time, are not terribly realistic. They all tend to the handsome/beautiful end of the spectrum, and fall neatly into good or evil categories, without much blurring of the lines. Despite a running theme of who could be trusted, which had me on the watch for a traitor in their midst, there were no dramatic reveals (at least not in this book). The female characters (with the notable exception of Ashra, the mother) are frequently madonna types, sweet and maternal and in need of protection, with the occasional warrior-babe or raunchy type for variety. There's a very odd attitude to the romance element of the book. Wilhelm is much in demand with the ladies (with unlimited stamina, it appears), but as soon as love looms on the horizon, somehow sex is off the agenda. The old madonna/whore dichotomy.
The writing style is oddly awkward at times, with a few characteristic quirks. For instance, characters routinely 'accept' food or hugs, which sounds odd to my ears. Then there's the cloying closeness of the two brothers, where sometimes it seems as if every scene ends with them saying how much they love each other and hugging. There was way too much repetition of phrases, like Wilhelm's tree-like stature. There are numerous small typos scattered throughout, but nothing so egregious as to interfere with readability for me.
I've listed a lot of grumbles with this book, yet I was never tempted to give up on it, and the reason for that was very simple: the deeply compelling character of Salvarias. It's not easy to draw a character which is inherently evil, yet who struggles to overcome that evil every day. His dreams, his internal conversations with his (almost paternal-sounding!) father, his unique approach to life, and even his magic (anthropomorphised here, so that he has long conversations with it), make for a fascinating portrayal. I liked the way that different characters saw him in different ways, so as we moved from one point of view to another, we saw him as essentially evil or deeply charismatic. I was intrigued, too, with the mother, who could be so normally maternal with one son, while hating the other relentlessly. This is an uneven book, which would have benefited from tighter editing and (perhaps) losing some of its bulk. I found it frustratingly flawed, yet still a rewarding read. Three stars....more
This is the third in the ‘Lirieia’s Children’ trilogy, following on from ‘Prophecy’ and ‘Affirmation’. The first was a slightly wobFantasy Review Barn
This is the third in the ‘Lirieia’s Children’ trilogy, following on from ‘Prophecy’ and ‘Affirmation’. The first was a slightly wobbly beginning, but the second was much more readable, for me, with tighter writing, plenty of action, and well-drawn characters. It ended with our heroes on the brink of battle.
It’s a year since I read ‘Affirmation’, and many other books have passed through my Kindle since. While I remember the main characters and the general drift of the story, the details are gone, and life’s too short to reread everything before the next volume. Unfortunately, the author makes no concession to readers like me at all. There’s no synopsis, virtually no in-text reminders. Here’s the opening paragraph:
“Their excitement was beginning to diminish, rapidly becoming replaced by exhaustion. Surveying the battlefield from the air, they cautiously allowed the bubble of Translocation energy they held to dissipate. The enemy archers were either dead or had fled and the last of the enemy forces were rapidly retreating through the Lord Defender’s Translocation portal, harried by Jurel’s Gryffin Guard.”
Any clues as to who ‘they’ might be? Believe it or not, it’s several pages before the identity of the opening characters becomes clear, and I struggled to keep up during the early chapters. Some of it came back to me as I read, but there are still mysteries; there’s a man called Ben, described regularly as a ‘jolly smith’, who was picked up by some of the characters in a previous book. Have I any idea how they met, or why he tagged along? Not in the slightest. Does it matter? Probably not, but it still sets me on edge.
Fortunately, I was able to pick up enough as I went along, either from clues in the text, or dredged from memory, to follow along, although I daresay I lost some of the subtleties. The main characters are Anarion, the half human, half Orryn, mage, and Teryl, his telepathically linked Gryffin pal. The various races are one of the great joys of this series. They each have their own unique characteristics, and the author is brilliant at applying them, through behaviour and dialogue. It’s possible to read a piece of dialogue out of context and know exactly what race was speaking, and that sureness never faltered. The different magic systems between the Orryn (who have innate magical capability) and humans (who power their magic through stones) is fascinating, and one of the key themes of the story. I was disappointed, however, that the tiny Grovale (the Gryffins’ servants) made no appearance in this book. I would have liked to know more about them.
The minor characters are more problematic. This is the downside of including several races, in that there are vast numbers of named characters, few of whom actually stand out. There were some I knew nothing about, not even what race they were. There were some who were more than just walk-on parts. Shayla was a great character, and her dealings with the Lord Defender (the villain of the piece) were brilliantly written, entirely in keeping with the personalities of both and very moving. Kaidal was another with a stand-out part to play.
And here we come to the main problem with this volume of the trilogy. The plot comes down to the question of how to defeat the Lord Defender. Since the major battle of the series was in book 2, and Anarion and his pals have run off to hide out in the desert away from his reach, the entire book revolves around planning to tackle the Lord Defender head on, and the best means to do that. Chapter after chapter involved large groups of people simply sitting around discussing the various options, and arguing about them. There was virtually no action, apart from the odd diversion for Anarion and Teryl to frolic with their lady friends, or a couple of experimental forays.
Eventually, however, we get to the final confrontation and suddenly things become interesting again. The resolution is both entirely appropriate for the races involved and yet quite unexpected, and I applaud the author for not taking the easy way out, but following the story to its logical conclusion. There is a teeny bit of arm-waving out-of-nowhere-ness, but even that made sense in the context of the story. And there are some really deep themes buried beneath all the magical portals and illusions and 'knowings', about what it really means to be human.
I find this a very frustrating review to write. This is a book which is brimming with creativity. It's taken some very original ideas and developed them in a logical and thought-provoking way. It could have been a great book, something I could happily give 5* to. It's a diamond of a story, but unfortunately it's an unpolished diamond. All the elements are there: great characters, great world-building, a great plot and magnificent attention to detail. The downside of attention to detail, though, is a tendency to throw in every little conversation and tie-up every conceivable plot thread, all at excessive length. With some editorial buffing, and excision of some of that wordiness, it could have been a true gem.
For those who aren’t bothered by the often dry wordiness, I can highly recommend the whole series. I enjoyed it and was captivated by the Orryn, the Gryffin and their very well drawn racial differences, and the ending was excellent. However, the flaws in this book in particular kept it to three stars for me....more
This is rather a short book, closer to a novella than a full-length novel, but it packs a hefty punch for its size. Eurik is a humaFantasy Review Barn
This is rather a short book, closer to a novella than a full-length novel, but it packs a hefty punch for its size. Eurik is a human who was found as a baby in a boat with his dead parents, and raised by a non-human island-based society called the San. Ah, the orphan of unknown heritage story, that's always a good one, if a little over-used. The opening chapters, where we see Eurik living amongst the very alien San, are terrific. I'm a big fan of non-human societies, and this one has been very well thought out. But then, sadly, Eurik is given the living sword of the title, the only possession found on the boat, and told he has to leave the island to find out what happened to his parents, and where they came from. This means living amongst humans for the first time, a race (or species, maybe?) he's previously only read about in books.
The humans, frankly, are less interesting, because their way of life is very similar to that of millions of other fantasy human societies. It’s the differences, the idiosyncrasies of this world that make it interesting. Fortunately, the author doesn't belabour the idea that the human world is very new to Eurik. He's well read, so he manages to recognise many ordinary items (bread, for instance) from book descriptions. It would be tedious if every common item he saw was described through his eyes as something novel and strange. Still, he does seem to accept things very quickly, without too many ‘whoa! whatever’s that’ outbreaks.
There’s some nice world-building going on here, with various different races and languages and customs which have clearly been well developed. The author doesn’t infodump all this background, it’s simply there, and the reader just has to keep up with the various references to the unknown. Sometimes, there’s an explanation later or the meaning becomes clear, but there were a few times when just a little extra detail would have made it easier to follow and increased the richness of the world. For instance, there are throwaway lines about the San being ‘tree-people’ and ‘genderless’. Hold it right there, that sounds interesting, tell me more. But no, the story moves swiftly on.
I very much liked the two forms of magic being used, or rather one form of magic and one which is merely a different philosophy (I liked Eurik’s insistance that the amazing things he can do, purely through his mind, is not magic). The San method of steering a boat is particularly clever, and it’s amazing just how much can be achieved by shifting earth about. It’s clear the author has worked things out very carefully, and there are rules and limits and costs involved. And for those who like wizardy-type battles, there are some absolute crackers in here.
The characters fell a little flat, for me. Eurik, in particular, is a very unemotional bloke, and considering all that happens to him and the fact that he’s tossed out of the world he’s known from babyhood and into a very different world, he seems almost implausibly stoical. Some of his actions, too, are just too relaxed, such as when he decides to talk to the fighting San by signing up for the contest and walking out into the arena. I can’t believe this was the only way he could get to see the San. Admittedly, it led to a great scene, but it seemed to me that Eurik was far too calm about it. I would have liked to see a little more reaction from him at times. He gets involved in some truly terrifying incidents along the way, so a little bit of fear at the time and angst afterwards would make him more human. Or maybe that’s the point, that he’s been so well taught by the San that he has lost some of his humanity. In which case, that was a bit too subtly done, since it’s only just occurred to me. Doh.
Of the other characters, the only one that most stands out in my mind is Broken-Fang. Gotta love a captured female who doesn’t wait around to be rescued. There are some interesting side characters along the way too, and I have to give an honourable mention to one of the most important characters, the living sword himself. He (can a sword have a gender? I certainly thought of it as male) has a very distinct and entertaining personality all his own, although his inexplicable lack of knowledge until the plot requires it veers dangerously close to deus ex machina. There are some villains, but they simply appear out of nowhere and their motives seem a bit suspect.
The plot is rather episodic, with spells of furious magic-fuelled battles interspersed with ambling through the scenery or finding inns and such like. The book has a somewhat unfinished air, and seems quite disjointed. For instance, a section starts off: “They entered Campan together, passing the watchtower they'd seen from afar.” There’s virtually no description of Campan itself (it’s a town, as we find out a few lines later, but when I first saw the name, it could be almost anything - a country, a swamp, a fort, a castle...), and no warning beforehand that they were heading that way. This is very jarring (I actually searched to find out if I’d missed an earlier reference). A line or two linking the previous section to the arrival at Campan would help the book flow better. There are a number of places where a few extra lines of description would help to bridge these gaps. The writing is fairly untidy, with numerous punctuation errors, misplaced words and a couple of wrongly used words (shoulders instead of soldiers, feint instead of faint). This didn’t bother me unduly (I’m more of a grammar pedant), but some might find it distracting.
This is a difficult book to review. On the one hand, I enjoyed it a great deal, especially everything to do with the San and their ‘philosophical’ form of magic. The world-building was good, and the plot was full of drama. On the other hand, the choppiness of the writing, the sloppy editing and the lack of background information in places, often jarred me out of immersion. Still, I was never tempted to stop reading and the action moments were very good, even if sometimes events seemed a bit contrived. Three stars....more
I love the premise here: every twelve years twelve people are chosen for a ritual; they wake one morning to find a coloured stone bFantasy Review Barn
I love the premise here: every twelve years twelve people are chosen for a ritual; they wake one morning to find a coloured stone beside them, or under their pillow. They then have to travel to the capital, throw their stones into a waterfall and one will then be magically selected as a sacrificial victim, to appease something (or someone?) known as the Gloom. This is such an intriguing idea, especially given the variety of people chosen by the stones: a simpleton, a rapist and murderer, an elderly swordsman, a slave woman, a young girl, the king's only son... This is fascinating, not only for the question of how all this works, but also why? Why are things done this way? And what exactly will happen if the ritual fails? There are hints, but no clear answers. Of course, there's a lot more going on below the surface, with conspiracies and deception, and a plot to defeat the Gloom once and for all.
The first point of view character is Marybeth, one of the Order, a group which oversees the process of the ritual, magically empowered to ensure the compliance of the selected twelve. Then there's Rhact, an ordinary man in the village Marybeth is watching, whose daughter Janna is one of the chosen ones, and who isn't about to accept that without a fight. These two points of view give a very nice dual perspective on Marybeth: we see her first as a member of a group working to ensure that the country can continue peaceably by the sacrifice of a single person, a necessary evil that works for the good of all, while also hoping to put an end to the ritual altogether; but we also see her through Rhact's eyes as an evil witch, a terrifying person inflicting untold harm on families and communities. This is nicely done.
There’s also the king, Jacquard, who tries to rule generously and not be a ruthless tyrant, but finds himself at risk of rebellion by his warlords for weakness. His son Althalos is nicely drawn, too. The other characters are less than convincing. Some are complete caricatures, like the rapist or the slave woman's evil master or the simpleton. Some just lack depth. Everyone is either good or bad, with no in between at all. Not that bad means unspeakably evil, necessarily, sometimes it just means silly and feckless, but still, there are few shades of grey. Even when characters change over the course of the book, the switch is absolute: a totally evil person is redeemed to become a hero, while a good person is so overwhelmed by revenge that all normal human feeling is lost, and they become evil. This is less than subtle.
To my mind, the female characters seemed to have less active roles than the men. To start with, the women are largely wenches or nervous mothers or cowed daughters or silly bits of girls who squeal. Or else they are witches, or otherwise evil. There's Marybeth, for a start, ostensibly a very active character, and we see her doing some very courageous things. Why does she do them? Initially because of her father, and latterly because some random dude, more powerful than her, told her to. Doesn't she have a mind of her own? Fortunately, there are also quite a few moments where women stand up and take charge, sometimes to shocking effect, when the men can’t or won’t. For instance, Janna, Rhact's daughter, has a brave moment, doing what needs to be done when the travelling party is attacked by bandits. And I did like the female assassin. I’d happily read a whole book about her.
The world-building is rather good, and clearly a lot of thought has gone into the details. I like the three moons of different colours, which clearly have a big influence on everything, as well as inspiring the various religions. We’re in the standard pre-industrial pseudo-medieval world, with the usual patriarchal overtones, but there are some nice details too. For instance, a woman’s period is known as being visited by the red moon. The magic is largely unexplained, but there are some nice non-human things around, and the Gloom, when we finally get a good look at it, is suitably scary.
The writing style is serviceable rather than ornate, but it lacks polish. In some places clauses are written as if they were sentences, elsewhere sentences are shunted together. There are some anachronistic expressions used, such as the king spending 'quality time' with his son, and Rhact's son having 'teenage' moodiness (the concept of teenagers is very recent; in a pre-industrial age, thirteen-year-olds would be doing the work of an adult, with neither time nor energy for moods). I find these modern colloquialisms jarring, but that’s just me. There there was the horse who was 'saddled' in order to pull a wagon (harnessed would be a better word). Much of the backstory and descriptions of feelings, particularly surrounding the king, are told narratively, which keeps the tone flat. However, there are moments of eloquent description as well. A warning for those sensitive to such things: there’s some earthy language, and some fairly graphic acts of violence and other unpleasantness.
None of it matters too much, however, because the plot is an absolute cracker and gallops along in a breath-taking page-turning manner. The moment of the actual ritual, when the various conspiracies and secrets and deceits all clash together at once, is terrific. I had absolutely no idea what was going to happen, my eyes glued to the pages. After that it’s a mad dash to restore the realm to some kind of stability before everything falls apart, but there are plenty of unexpected and dramatic twists before the final confrontation, which also sets things up nicely for the next book. There were some confusing moments, not helped by the need to give names and backstories to all twelve of the stone-holders, as well as all the king’s knights. So many characters are easy to forget, and I would have liked a little reminder when each one reappeared. This was particularly troublesome at the ritual, when characters were described only as ‘the boy’ or ‘two men’ or ‘the elderly woman’. I’m still not quite sure who was on whose side. And who exactly was that random dude who sent Marybeth off on her little quest?
This is a fun and imaginative story, not subtle but well thought out, with plenty of action and some nicely moving moments too, written in an easy style, marred only by some flatness in the writing and some over-the-top cartoonish characterisations amongst the walk-on parts. For those who aren’t concerned about that, I recommend this book, but for me it was enough to keep it to three stars....more
These are fun, light-hearted reads which follow a similar formula: Amaranthe is going about her business when she stumbles across aFantasy Review Barn
These are fun, light-hearted reads which follow a similar formula: Amaranthe is going about her business when she stumbles across a dead body or an exploded machine, leading her to investigate, whereupon things get much, much worse. Two stories feature Sicarius, and one has Books in it (but sadly there’s no sign of Maldynado). ...more
This is part of the Emperor’s Edge series, a novella that fits squarely between part 5, ‘Blood and Betrayal’, and the two-part finaFantasy Review Barn
This is part of the Emperor’s Edge series, a novella that fits squarely between part 5, ‘Blood and Betrayal’, and the two-part finale, ‘Forged in Blood’. Those who’ve read any of the series will know exactly what to expect: seemingly small events rapidly escalate into madcap chaos, increasingly impossible-to-get-out-of situations and an implausible number of fights, explosions, wrecked vehicles and other general mayhem. Given the inventive steampunk setting, mixed with some more advanced technology (post-apocalypse? or alien? not sure, but it doesn’t really matter), the series is an entertaining riot, where the reader simply can’t imagine what might be round the next corner.
Or perhaps I should say: what’s round the next bend in the river, because for this outing the team is aboard a paddle steamer, leading inevitably to equipment and people splashing overboard, diving into cabins to avoid being seen, climbing between decks by hopping over railings and hiding away in funnels. Oh, you didn’t think hiding in funnels was inevitable in fantasy? Well, in a Buroker novel, expect the unexpected (and you’d be surprised what characters can get up to while suspended inside a funnel – well, I was surprised).
The characters are, as always, the high spot of the book. However serious and potentially fatal the situation, former Enforcer Amaranthe’s unlikely bunch of heroes can be depended upon to carry on sniping playfully at each other and tossing out witty asides as they go. No matter how ludicrous the plot (and, let’s be honest, you just have to switch off the logical part of your brain altogether for this sort of caper), the jokes made me laugh out loud more times than I can remember. The author gets the tone just right, too. In the previous book, the way Amaranthe and iceman assassin Sicarius inched towards an understanding was note perfect. In this book, it’s Maldynardo who has his delicate little romance reach fruition and given Maldynardo’s constant flirting and outright skirt-chasing, the temptation to ham it up must have been almost irresistable. But no, every moment between Maldynardo and his lady was perfection. Beautifully judged.
For anyone who’s read the first five books in the series, this is the perfect palate-cleanser before the final course. If you liked the others, you’ll enjoy this one too. I liked that recaps of the previous books are dropped in effortlessly, so that I never had to struggle to remember what happened. And the background plot is warming up nicely. For me, the relentlessly ramped-up action gets a bit wearing after a while (I like my fantasy just a tad more realistic than that), but I have to admire the author’s ability to develop her characters and their relationships just enough to maintain interest while never losing sight of their basic personalities. A good three stars....more
Such a tricky one to categorise: a real genre-bender. There are shades of sci-fi, but it’s a flimsy connection - no squids in spaceFantasy Review Barn
Such a tricky one to categorise: a real genre-bender. There are shades of sci-fi, but it’s a flimsy connection - no squids in space and it’s (more or less) present day. It might be called fantasy, but there are no truly fantastical elements like magic or dragons or demons. It’s sorta, kinda paranormal - yes, let’s go with that. A paranormal police procedural action thriller...
This is a fascinating premise: certain people have the ability to revive the recently dead and talk to them. The effects only last a short time, but it's enough to allow loved ones the opportunity to say goodbye, or to allow a murder victim to name their killer. The hero here, Jonah, is one such reviver, working with the police to catch villains or, in some cases, to exonerate the most likely suspect. It sounds all good, right? But of course, there's a catch. The act of revival takes a toll, mentally and physically, on those performing it, and sometimes strange things happen. Cue dramatic music...
This is a real curate's egg of a book. Some parts, especially the actual revivals, are absolutely terrific - emotionally engaging, dramatic and oh so spooky, and quite unpredictable (to me, anyway). Other parts I found a total drag. After a great opening chapter, the author feels the need to dump the entire backstory of revivals, and various characters, on our heads. This means, sometimes, entire chapters of dry exposition. Sorry, but I just don't need to know that much, and definitely not all in one go. If parts of the backstory are relevant to the here and now, then dribble it out in small quantities at an appropriate time.
The characters - well, the author has tried his damnedest to give everyone a suitably affecting background so as to make them sympathetic, and to some extent that works because it's relevant to the story. Jonah's history, for instance, led directly to his becoming a reviver, and moreover a certain type of reviver which becomes crucial later in the story (not wanting to give too much away here), so I can accept that. But somehow it never quite worked for me. I never really cared much about any of them. The main problem, though, is way too many characters. There must be dozens of named characters here, and I just can't keep that many straight in my head. Towards the end, several dramatic reappearances were spoiled for me because I was saying: who?
Towards the end, the plot devolves into standard formulaic thriller territory. You know the sort of thing: people suddenly turn up waving weapons of one sort or another, or behaving in increasingly extreme ways, culminating in the giant oh-my-god-we're-all-going-to-die palaver that goes on and on, getting increasingly over the top. And of course, people inevitably stop to explain things to each other, or rush back into the burning building/line of fire/whatever to rescue people they don't even like very much. Unbelievably silly, in fact. I know it's pretty much what everyone expects from this kind of story, but personally I'd much rather the characters behaved sensibly and stayed within their realm of expertise.
Overall, an intriguing premise ripe with possibilities which the author explores quite thoroughly, let down by too much exposition and a way too melodramatic and long-drawn-out finale for my taste. Recommended for fans of all-action high-adrenalin summer-blockbuster-style drama, with a little horror thrown in. Four stars for the spine-chilling revivals, two stars for the info-dumps and three stars for the ending, averaging out at three stars....more
The blurb says that “Enoch’s Device is a fast-paced medieval adventure steeped in history, mythology, and mysteries from a dark andFantasy Review Barn
The blurb says that “Enoch’s Device is a fast-paced medieval adventure steeped in history, mythology, and mysteries from a dark and magical past” and the only part I’d argue with is ‘fast-paced’. I found it rather a slow book overall, and although it’s not without plenty of action, there’s also a heavy dollop of the above-mentioned history and mythology. Long and detailed explanations, it has to be said, don’t exactly help the plot to skim along. The setting is Ireland, France and Moorish Spain in the year 997, with the threat of the coming apocalypse when the millennium ends, and a race to prevent disaster for Irish monks Ciarán and Dónall and French aristocrat Alais.
This is historical fantasy at its best - so deeply rooted in its period that to my inexpert eyes it seemed entirely authentic. The weaving together of historical data with biblical references, religious and pseudo-religious details (druids and the zodiac), mythological elements like the Fae and outright fantasy (demons and just a hint of dragons!) is masterfully done, with a wealth of detail, and I had very little idea which aspects were solid fact, which were inference or speculation, and which were invented wholesale. Whether it’s an Irish monastery, the streets of Paris, the rich farmlands of rural France or the Moorish city of Córdoba, the author paints a nuanced and believable picture. Sometimes I felt there was a little too much detail for the needs of the story, as if the author had to squeeze in every colourful bit of his research, but that’s a matter of personal preference.
Where the story really sagged, for me, was the vast amount of backstory that had to be revealed. Sometimes it seemed as if most of the interesting action had happened years before, and was told in flashback. My heart sank every time I came across a paragraph beginning: ‘It seemed as if it were only yesterday when...’ or similar. Despite the drama of these events, it’s still the past and therefore less interesting than the actual story (the journey of Ciarán and Dónall), which seemed very slow by comparison. Worse still, much of the backstory was told in a very dry, text-book style which I struggled to get through. For example:
“She had been born a child of Aquitaine, the richest province in Gaul. Her grandfather was the third William, called Towhead for the pale flaxen color of his hair. He was both count of Poitiers and duke of Aquitaine, and her grandmother was the daughter of Rollo, then duke of Normandy. Her father, Odo, was cousin to the fourth William, called Iron Arm, who had ruled Aquitaine for nearly thirty years. William Iron Arm had strengthened his alliances by marrying his sister to Hugh Capet, the late king of France and father of the current king, Robert, and by arranging his own marriage to Emma, daughter of the count of Blois, who was lord of neighboring Touraine. Alais’ mother, Adelais, too, had been bound in a political marriage— a gift from her father, the count of Toulouse, who was currying favor with the house of Poitiers.”
I’m sure this sort of stuff is endlessly fascinating to some readers, but I was (mentally) tapping my feet and muttering, ‘Yes, yes, but are these people important? Does the colour of his hair matter? And if not, can we get on with the story, please?’.
The characters are well-delineated and mostly believable, the only exception being Alais, the token female, whose role is merely to be rescued periodically, to act as plot device and to inspire and motivate Ciarán as the object of his desire. I wonder how many captivatingly beautiful women have to be captured/almost raped/burnt at the stake before this particular seam of fantasy clichés is finally worked out. Alais spends the book gasping in horror, clinging to Ciarán's hand, or standing frozen with terror as various sharp implements are hurled at her, so that the nearest man has to leap in front of her or drag her out of danger. And finally, the one useful role she seems destined to play is snatched away from her at the last minute. Bleargh. I hate these useless hand-wringing females. There’s a slightly unpleasant tone to the writing sometimes: one character was described as being fond of his wife ‘despite the fact that she had borne him no children’. I get that this is an era when women were subservient by law and custom (the nuns are required to be silent in church, for instance), but there’s no need for that attitude to spill over into authorial voice. As for the bad guys, they are out and out evil, which is par for the course if not particularly interesting.
Fortunately, the plot is nicely convoluted, and once the bulk of the backstory is got out of the way things go along swimmingly. There are puzzles for our heroes to solve, clues to follow, crypic utterances to interpret and symbols to speculate about. There's also a prophecied apocalypse to avoid, and a mysterious device (the 'Enoch's device' of the title) to be discovered, understood and (perhaps) deployed. It’s all hugely detailed and impressively academic-sounding. For example:
“There is a text, the Sefer Yetzirah— the Book of Creation— that tells how Abraham received a divine testimony of mystic lore. He lived long before Moses received the Torah, so he must have received something different. Abraham was the father of Jewish mysticism, much of which focuses on the origins of the many names of God, and the various combinations of sacred letters that make up those names, all in the quest to realize the one great name of God. That is the knowledge that many believe Abraham received. If this knowledge was embodied in a physical object, one theory is that it was a gemstone.”
There’s a lot of this sort of stuff, and it may all be complete tosh, but if so, it’s impressive sounding tosh and I found it quite easy to let it all slide by, mostly way over my head. Sometimes, it has to be said, the interpretations of all these not very obvious puzzles seems a bit glib (if it were that easy, how come no one else has worked it out?) but it still made a nice story as piece after piece fell into place, and our heroes are driven from place to place in their quest. As with the backstory, the interludes when the characters sit around interpreting and speculating and saying ‘Gosh, it must be...!’ (paraphrasing ever so slightly here) slow the pace down to glacial levels, but as the action gets more frantic and intense towards the end, the pauses are a welcome respite from the drama.
There were moments when the theological debate got quite interesting. Our Irish friends were very confident of the truth of their interpretations, which the more conventional priests saw as simple heresy. There is a moment when one of the priests makes a pronouncement about the apocalypse, and Ciarán immediately says 'How do you know that?' It's a good question, but the priest deflects it with an outraged 'How dare you presume to question me!' The voice of absolute authority putting down the ordinary person who has the temerity to say 'Yes but...'. I'm not sure whether the author is making a general point about organised religion, or illustrating the religious dogma of the day, or simply painting the character as a bad guy, but it struck a chord with me. In this particular case, the Irish interpretation of events is presumed to be the correct one purely because they are the protagonists in this particular story, but more than once I was wondering how exactly they could know particular facts. Some chains of logic seemed rather tenuous to me.
This is a long, intricate book, literate and full of convincing historical detail, with demons, magic swords, a prophecy, mad monks and a whole host of great fantasy elements to spice up the well-realised setting. It's a pity there's so much sitting around analysing texts between the battles and so much dry exposition, and for my taste the battles got a bit over the top towards the end. But hey, this is the apocalypse, after all, so it's allowed to be epic in scale. For those who are riveted by the tiny details of medieval life or enjoy puzzling over the hidden meanings in religious texts and zodiacal symbols, I highly recommend this book. Anyone who is prepared to put up with the explanations to get to the juicy battles with demons, it's still a great read. For anyone who, like me, would willingly sacrifice historical accuracy for a more evenly paced story, it doesn’t work quite so well. The action scenes are terrific, the long sections of exposition less so, and I would have liked a less insipid female lead character. Three stars. ...more
“My eyes snap open the moment I feel it. The magic is palpable. It tingles as it travels up and down my arms. I am not happy. WhoevFantasy Review Barn
“My eyes snap open the moment I feel it. The magic is palpable. It tingles as it travels up and down my arms. I am not happy. Whoever dares disturb my century-long slumber will suffer my wrath.” So begins 'The Binding Stone', one of the most intriguing openings I've ever come across.
Leela is a Djinn (genie) awakened from sleep by an unwitting new Master, Jered. This is not the three wishes kind of genie, but a powerful enslaved Djinn, compelled to do whatever her Master of the day tells her to. Mostly what Masters want is sex, riches, sex, power, sex, revenge and sex. With a little light torture thrown in for light relief. Are humans really so horrible? But no, Jered isn't like that at all, and wants nothing except world peace. And sex, of course (well, duh; this is a romance, after all).
But Leela has a long history with fellow slave Djinns and some evil Masters who are bent on - well, see above. So the story becomes a merry-go-round of battling Masters and Djinns. It's all good exciting stuff. I really like the premise here - the story of the entrapped genie, but told from the genie's point of view. The backstory, the interactions of a thousand years earlier which resulted in the enslavement of the Djinni, is interwoven with the present day, so that the significance of certain events and characters gradually becomes clearer. This was quite neatly done, although I sometimes found the transitions between then and now rather jarring.
The plot is wonderfully convoluted, and I defy anyone to foresee all the twists and turns. There's a vast amount of people being captured and others rushing off to the rescue, in various combinations of characters, and to be honest I lost track sometimes of who was where, who was captured and who was rescuing them, who was definitely evil and who might be and who wasn't and who would be if they were free and who was but only because they'd been commanded to be, but I just let it wash over me, and kept turning the pages. It’s that kind of book. I didn’t always know what was going on, but I was confident the author had got it all worked out.
The characters worked well enough without being terribly real to me. Leela was the best portrayed, but then she is the sole point of view and the book is written in the first person, so that's not surprising. There were moments when her tragedy was very affecting. The other characters? Jered is a little too implausibly nice. Gabe makes a great sidekick. The bad guys are evil personified, and therefore entirely uninteresting (to me; I’m sure some people like that sort of thing). The child is a little too grown up for her age, but never mind. I rather liked Taj though, the ever so slightly camp Djinn. Maybe that's just because he had some of the best lines (I do like a bit of humour in my fantasy). The romance was a bit insta-lurve, but that's par for the course.
A couple of grumbles. First, Djinn magic is almost infinitely powerful. You want to fly, or tunnel through solid metal, or be transported instantly, or be invisible? No problem (except when it might divert the plot, of course; then it's impossible). There seems to be very little cost to any of this (again, except when the plot requires it).
Secondly, I often found it difficult to work out exactly what was going on. Several scenes I had to reread to understand, and there were many, many times when a character would apparently switch sides in a heartbeat. Taj is here to kill you. No he isn't. Oh, it's Mira who's going to kill you. Apparently not. All these rapidfire oscillations were tricky to follow, I didn't always get the reason and it got tedious after a while. Probably if I'd slowed down a bit, I could have worked it out, I suppose.
A third grumble: Leela herself repeatedly came up with a cunning plan only for it to fall apart instantly. Oh dear, I should have thought of that, she wails. Many, many times. So ten out of ten for good intentions, none out of ten for forward planning.
What I liked very much was that the slave Djinni were obliged to follow their Master's commands exactly, but a clever Djinn could obey the literal meaning of the order while subversively not following the intended meaning. This led to some interesting and creative twists to the plot. It's a very nice idea, having a slave who is forced to obey but is constantly working to undermine his/her Master at every step, but without attracting a spectacularly unpleasant punishment.
I found this one difficult to rate. On the one hand, it's a cracking read full of page-turning drama. It doesn’t pay to think too deeply about it, but the author has a light touch and a sure hand, so it all flows beautifully. There’s some nice emotional resonance in the Djinni’s situation, too. On the other hand, the constant oh no we're doomed/hurray we're saved/oops we're really doomed/nope saved again cycling got tired really quickly. That and the anything goes magic kept it to three stars for me. But for anyone less picky than I am (which is most of the planet) I can highly recommend it. ...more
This is one of those books that ticks all the right boxes for me. Spunky female lead – check. Detailed world building – check. InteFantasy Review Barn
This is one of those books that ticks all the right boxes for me. Spunky female lead – check. Detailed world building – check. Interesting magic system – check. Humour – check. A bit of a romance – check. Talking plant – check. Wait, what? A talking plant? OK, whatever. And yet, somehow... it doesn't quite work.
The premise is a good one. The kingdom's first female royal sorcerer (called a thaumaturge here) is given an unusual challenge by the king: ensure that his speech to the coming Accords (a sort of international summit meeting) is not shadowed by the massive bulk of the centuries-old tower looming nearby. It's a bit of a tricky one: can Meralda either move the tower (no) or move the sun (no again) or bend light to shift the shadow (possibly...). She sets to work with her calculations and research to come up with a way in the impossibly short time she has.
And here's the first problem. Why is there only one royal thaumaturge? Why can't the king call upon the combined skills of all his kingdom's thaumaturges? Because it wouldn't be nearly so interesting a story if he could, that's why. So already I'm seeing contrivance at work.
The world-building is hugely detailed. As Meralda walks through the capital in the opening chapter, every street and shop and type of transportation and occupation is name-checked in an endless stream of trivia that a) I'll never, ever remember, and b) probably won't even need. This smacks of an author trying too hard, or possibly just showing off. Look at me! I know all the shops at every intersection! It's all a little too over-the-top for my taste, but it would win every world-building contest hands down.
And another niggle. The out-of-the-blue foreigners who seem so mysterious and alien when they first arrive, turn out to be very familiar indeed. In fact, they place this otherwise interesting setting right here on mother earth, and frankly that's far less appealing to me than a fully realised secondary world. Bah humbug.
The magic system is another aspect that ought to appeal to me, but in reality falls a bit flat. I loved the idea of working out the principles of a spell mathematically first, then setting it up in situ (a process known as 'latching') and only releasing it later, as needed. There's so much potential to that, and I really enjoyed how it was used. Unfortunately, when things get tricky towards the end, all pretence at a rational magic system is thrown away, and a variety of magical objects are dredged up out of nowhere to provide a solution. At times, it seemed that Meralda had only to walk down her laboratory to find another device which was just what was needed. Gah. Can we say deus ex machina?
So what did work well? The talking plant, believe it or not. Mug was both cute and smart at the same time, providing most of the humour and a lot of the common sense. For instance, the love interest is handsome and charming, and Meralda trusts him implicitly from the start. Mug's the one who voiced the note of caution that the oh-so-intelligent Meralda was too weak at the knees swooning over her new love to think of. And the tower was completely awesome, right from the start, when it's just a creepy tower, and later, as all its little secrets are gradually revealed. I do love a magical building.
This sounds like a fairly critical evaluation, but actually this is pretty good book. My issues are nitpicky, rather than substantive, and the plot rolls along merrily to its dramatic climax. It's not mind-blowingly awesome stuff, the author tries too hard and crams in too many melodramatic and humorous touches, and there are way too many moments that are perilously close to deus ex machina. But it's funny and readable and I can recommend it to anyone less picky than me (which is almost everyone). Three stars, and a merit award for the talking plant (I adore sentient greenery – there should be far more of it in fantasy)....more
This is the third in the ‘Deed of Paksenarrion’ trilogy. The first described how Paks left her home to become a mercenary in Duke PFantasy Review Barn
This is the third in the ‘Deed of Paksenarrion’ trilogy. The first described how Paks left her home to become a mercenary in Duke Phelan’s company, and was a very down-to-earth story of a soldier’s training and campaigns. The second book saw Paks take off on her own and be sucked into various disconnected enterprises. This book was very disjointed, and heavy on conventional fantasy elements, but the ending raised it above the ordinary. And then there’s this. How to describe something that feels like a different story altogether? I suppose it’s not too spoilerish to reveal that all Paks’s problems at the end of book 2 are airbrushed out of existence very early. There wouldn’t be much of a story if she couldn’t fight again. It’s all a matter of having the right kind of magical power to ‘heal’ her. So that’s all right then.
The rest of the book is Paks tearing about the countryside on a quest to find the lost heir to the kingdom, who can be identified by a magical sword, apparently. And there are elves and dukes and squires and royal courts and a great deal of high-flown semi-poetic Tolkienesque language, which the sheepfarmer’s daughter has an unexpected knack for, and everyone’s taking orders from her, it seems, as she transforms before our eyes into a Person of Great Importance. And there’s evil to be defeated, naturally, and the religious overtones are quite heavy and... I would say this is all very clichéd except that it was published in the eighties, so although it’s quite derivative, it was probably the norm for that era.
For me, it was a disappointment. I liked the first book very much, and the over-the-top elements of the second book were more than offset by a terrific ending. This has no such redeeming feature, because even a two-year-old could work out how things are going to end. I lost interest, frankly, and had to force myself to finish the last few chapters, not helped by some fairly graphic torture descriptions. I think for those who enjoy a certain type of fantasy, the traditional battle of good versus evil, the hero’s journey, the wordy slightly old-fashioned language of courtiers rather than the more down-to-earth speech of soldiers, this would be a terrific read. It’s difficult to do this well, and the author does a creditable job here. There are some quite lyrical passages, especially when the elves are around, and happily it never quite tips over into parody.
The story of how a humble sheepfarmer’s daughter went out into the world, plumbed the depths of despair and finally triumphed to become a paladin, a heroic champion, is well-written, well thought out and even profound, in parts. For those who wish to see such things, there's a fair amount of religious symbolism in Paks's suffering and its aftermath, and the whole business of believing in your god or gods and the power of that, but I found it all a bit heavy-handed. Ultimately it failed at the final hurdle for me, with a limp and contrived plot in the final book and a heroine who isn’t quite convincing in her paladin incarnation. A disappointing end to an otherwise very readable series. Three stars....more
So having read (and loved) the very weird 'Among Others', I went straight on to read another of Jo Walton's books, which is, if thaFantasy Review Barn
So having read (and loved) the very weird 'Among Others', I went straight on to read another of Jo Walton's books, which is, if that's possible, even weirder. Imagine a Victorian melodrama, complete with disgraced virgins, wives who die in childbirth, a rigidly structured class system with hints of radical reform, and a focus on proper behaviour and keeping up appearances. And now imagine it populated with dragons, and there you have 'Tooth and Claw'.
This is one of those off-the-wall ideas that must have looked brilliant in outline. Make some general points about civilisation and gender roles and class and race, while covering everything with a fantasy veneer. And to some extent it worked. I galloped through the book to find out how it all turned out, anyway.
But somehow it never quite felt right. No matter how many times the author wrote 'claw' for hands, and had the dragons sitting on their haunches, they never quite felt like dragons, to me. Nor did they feel like substitute people. To be honest, the characters never truly came to life for me, and I never became so immersed in the story that I could forget the uneasy juxtaposition of human traits with dragon ones. The author had thought everything through and the details were all there, but for me it was all just too weird for words. Three stars....more
Sydney is a nineteen year old orphan of unknown parentage, but she was brought up by Edgar who had the misfortune to be hanged fourFantasy Review Barn
Sydney is a nineteen year old orphan of unknown parentage, but she was brought up by Edgar who had the misfortune to be hanged four years before for working against the all-powerful Guild. She makes a living by picking pockets in the town of Last Hope. As always in these cases, I wonder why Edgar, who seemed like a nice enough chap, made no better provision for her, and how it is that there are no respectable jobs she could be doing, and how come she appears to have no other friends apart from a prostitute and a boyfriend who’d like to pimp her out. Luckily, just as she’s about to be hanged herself, she’s mysteriously taken off to the Wizard Tree and rescued by - surprise! - a wizard. And from there on, the story becomes a race to vanquish the evil Guild and their even more evil overlord Schrammig in order to put the king’s bastard son on the throne.
This is the fantasy equivalent of easy-listening music - charming, comfortable and conventional. Wizards are nice people (apart from the evil wizard, of course) who can do pretty much anything the plot requires without apparent effort, while not being able to do anything which would make life too easy. The bad guy is an appropriately nasty character (we know this because he has a scar; oh yes, and he drags people off to be hanged, as well). There's the Guild which has monopolised all business and is, it seems, very unpleasant. There’s a nice friendly ex-knight and a grumpy monk and a surprisingly ladylike wizardess, who is determined to go off to war, but cries as soon as anyone gets hurt. There's a hereditary monarchy with male primogeniture. There's an organised religion which has a single capitalised god, churches, abbeys and monks who wear brown robes. There are towns which appear to be almost entirely populated by thieves and prostitutes, and are filled with markets and taverns. Vast amounts of stew are consumed. So far, so traditional.
Our heroine, Sydney, is an odd mixture of feistiness and timidity, who seems to go along with the vanquishing scheme because that way at least she gets fed regularly. Well, I can see how that might be an attraction if you’ve lived on the streets. Her only problem is that she's easily distracted. No sooner is she given a task to do by her new friends than she finds some other urgent errand to do first, and then another, and then... A bit of a loose cannon, really. Willem, the king's bastard son, is exactly the sort of strong, upright character you'd expect. He strides around making promises of treating everyone fairly when he’s king, and says 'I give you my word' or 'Trust me' and people believe him. There are a lot of things taken on trust here. The most interesting character to me was Vadnae, the rather prissy wizardess, constantly dismayed by mud and rain. I was also interested in the mysterious Tuatha (elves, basically), who were a small but important part of the story.
As the plot gets going, Sydney and pals are chased hither and thither, escaping by the skin of their teeth from the bad guys always half a step behind (I wasn’t quite sure how they managed to do that, but never mind). Each time they escape, they stop and talk things through. Whenever they meet potential allies, they stop and talk things through again, explaining just how nasty the bad guy is, and how awful life is under the Guild, without ever filling in the details of what, exactly, they do that's so bad (apart from randomly hanging people, that is). But it must be pretty bad, because people are starving as a result and living in vermin-infested hovels and so on.
I had some logic issues. Why exactly is Willem trying to kickstart his revolution by rousing the downtrodden hovel residents of Last Hope anyway? Wouldn't it be simpler and easier just to drum up an army from his supporters? This is, after all, the traditional way to get yourself onto a disputed throne. And if you manage to drum up a bigger army than your rival, yay, you win! Plus, aspiring kings don't go off alone with pick-pockets, they tend to have hefty bodyguards around them at all times, as a precaution against assassins. So I had trouble with the whole idea of Willem crawling through the tunnels below Last Hope in the first place. All it needed was one startled local to put a dagger through him and - game over. And why exactly was Anaria making stew in the middle of the night? And why the agonising over the risks of trekking through the Wastes, when Rolf had obviously just made that journey safely? Confusing.
The writing style is clean to the point of terseness. I would have preferred just a little more description here and there, to flesh out the scenery a little more. One thing that I found irritating: the author rarely uses 'he said', 'she said'. Instead, characters do something - tap a finger, toss their hair, quirk an eyebrow - and then speak. I understand the logic of not overusing 'said', but I find it less intrusive than all this restless action. These comments are not criticisms, rather personal preferences that occasionally intruded on my enjoyment of the story.
Eventually we meet the mysterious Tuatha and from then onwards the book becomes a bit of a page-turner. Whenever magic is involved - the strange marble, the very spooky shadow creatures, Sydney’s dreams - I found myself totally engrossed. I never quite understood why Sydney was so important to everyone, but I guess it doesn’t really matter. The magic was very convenient at times, so that whenever Sydney got into trouble (which she did quite often, usually after saying airily ‘Don’t worry, I can deal with X’), a helpful wizard or magic marble or some such would miraculously rescue her. Sometimes she got other people into trouble, too (usually after saying airily ‘Don’t worry, I’ll keep you safe’). But despite all that it was good, exciting stuff.
I find this a very difficult review to write. On the one hand, I understand what the author was trying to achieve, and the book is technically impeccable. It pushes all the right buttons. But somehow I never quite felt the sort of emotional engagement that I’m sure was intended. Willem strides about making promises but we never see him in truly king-like mode, apart from a brief swordfight. Sydney herself too often makes bad decisions and ends up needing to be rescued. The question of who to trust was a major theme, yet everyone trusts Willem unreservedly, and Sydney too, for that matter. The children seemed to be there purely to create artificial tension and tug at the heartstrings. There were some great moments, and the ending was note-perfect, but all too often characters spoke in platitudes: ‘We can’t allow this to happen, we owe it to X to do this, I promise you he’ll pay for his crimes.’ Or this:“Willem gives me confidence, Erik. We should believe in him. And ourselves. It’s the only way we’re going to win.” Honestly, if I were a Last Hope resident, I’d need more than that to persuade me to take up my pitchfork against armed and trained soldiers.
For all that certain aspects didn’t quite work for me, this is an entertaining and fast-paced read, which I enjoyed a great deal, especially the Tuatha and the strange shadow beings. Recommended for those who like very traditional and uncomplicated fantasy. Three stars....more
The premise here is that Carleon, a former imperial soldier, has turned rebel for some reason (explained later in the book), and is training up a motlThe premise here is that Carleon, a former imperial soldier, has turned rebel for some reason (explained later in the book), and is training up a motley collection of disaffected soldiers, criminals and peasants to fight. Amongst the latter is Danario, whose village was razed to the ground by the imperial army for helping the rebels. I have problems with this right from the start. Firstly, the main character is not merely rebellious, but, given that his objective is to overthrow the rightful government, he's treasonous, too. Plus he uses torture to extract information. Normally this would make him a villain. His wife was killed by the imperialists, but that seems to be after his rebellion, so it's not really motivation. And frankly, he seems fairly stupid, constantly walking into difficult situations and then being surprised when people get killed, or the mission fails. Taking on a large, well-trained, well-funded army needs (surprise!) another army, at least as large. Danario, on the other hand, is more believable. He no longer has a home or family, so joining the rebel cause seems like a reasonable step. His meeting with the princess seems incredibly unlikely to me, but there you go, this is fantasy, incredible things happen.
The writing is quirky. Hair colour is ‘argent’ or ‘sterling’, port is ‘velvet-colored’, a pine marten is ‘cinnamon-furred’, eyes are 'amaranthine'. Each time I encounter something like this, I have to stop and work out what it means. And velvet coloured port? Velvet might be port coloured, but the opposite makes little sense. Every chapter is a separate episode, disconnected from the ones before and after. Even when a chapter ends on a dramatic cliff-hanger, turning the page means a big jump and the outcome explained in flashback. This makes the book feel very disjointed. Invented words are used without explanation (or else I missed it). I never quite got the meaning of 'namhai', for instance, and 'akhai' seemed to have two different meanings, which was confusing. And what exactly is a ‘derthai’? A really solid edit would help to smooth away the oddities.
Having said all that, it's still a very readable book, if short, and I kept turning the pages to find out what happens. And then I came to the ending. Oh. My. God. Courageous is the word that springs to mind. And also realistic, because this really is what happens to rebellions. Kudos to the author for having the guts to follow through with his ideas to the bitter end and not fudge the bleakness of it. But still - I’d advise having a supply of strong liquor to hand when reading it. There’s a good story in here, but the short format and writing quirks tend to obscure it until the last few chapters. At that point, though, it becomes a thought-provoking if depressing read. Recommended for anyone who thought George R R Martin’s writing was way too upbeat and cheerful. Three stars. ...more
This is a curious and unusual book. There has been some sort of apocalypse, not explained, but a kind of civilisation has been maintained or restored.This is a curious and unusual book. There has been some sort of apocalypse, not explained, but a kind of civilisation has been maintained or restored. There is education, trade, the arts, money, technology. Some type of cloud or fog covers much of the sky, creating a grey world where not much grows, but there are rumours of better places further south with more sunshine. Marquos, the main character, lives on a small barge, travelling restlessly around the canals and rivers of Estalia. At some point in the recent past, he was working in the mines to the south, but seems to have absconded, taking with him Red, a six-year-old child, in order to return her to her parents in the north.
The first part of the book is a fairly slow and gentle amble, stopping at Marquos’s home town to meet his family briefly, then on northwards, with various encounters along the way. Marquos is a strange character, hostile to a passing group of Estalian military pursuing some rebel Kands (foreigners), but surprisingly tolerant when he later meets up with a couple of the Kandish rebels. Helping the Kands is likely to be a seriously bad move, but Marquos does it anyway. The only argument the Kands use is that their cause is just, something that should carry no weight with Marquos, who is not Kandish and has no reason to be sympathetic. Yet he takes them in anyway - why?
Inevitably, things go pear-shaped, and Marquos loses Red, the one person he truly seems to care about and want to help. And instead of setting off to rescue her (again), he trusts the Kands to do it, and accepts a mission to go north and find a missing scientist. I have to say, Marquos is not a typical fantasy main character, the sort with a Destiny and a Purpose and eyes glinting with determination. He’s more of a shrug and drift along with life sort of man. Not that I have any objection in this case, since Red was fairly wet, as motivational characters go, and finding her and restoring her to her family sounds a lot less interesting at this point than heading for the mysterious north.
Once Marquos is committed to the Kands (and when I say committed, I mean that he shrugs and goes along with whatever they suggest, while feebly protesting), the pace begins to hot up and there are numerous fights and narrow escapes and chases. And explosions. And fires. And a whole heap of death and destruction and devastation along the way. In between times, there are pages and pages of earnest conversations about what the Kands are fighting for and their history and the various injustices of this world and general philosophical discourse. Which is lovely, if you like that sort of thing, but I would have traded much of it for some depth to the characters (any of the characters, actually, not just Marquos) and some more realistic human interaction.
Some grumbles. I would have liked more information about this world, and how things now operate. If it’s so difficult to grow things, how come there is enough food to go round? And there seem to be no population pressures, since everyone’s expected to marry and have children. I would have liked to know what, exactly, the staple foods were. And a map - I desperately wanted a map. Being post-apocalypse, I presume that Estalia is based on the real world (Britain?), and it would have been nice to tie some of the places mentioned to real world places. And all those canals - old ones restored, or new ones? We’re never told. The political situation, especially the numerous factions of tribes of Kands, seemed very complicated to me, and I was never quite sure I’d got it straight in my head.
The writing style is rather odd, slightly clunky as if it’s a translation, or English was not the author’s first language. For instance, Marquos doesn’t shave, he ‘chiselled the stubble from around his jaw with a knife’. Sounds painful. There are numerous small, insignificant typos which nevertheless grate when you notice them. In a few places, a word choice was so unusual I wasn’t sure if it was a typo or a deliberately obscure metaphor. A thorough edit would have cleaned up a lot of the oddities.
The biggest problem I had with the book was the lack of emotional engagement. I didn’t care much about any of the characters. I didn’t care about their objectives. I certainly didn’t care about the Kands and their rebellion, and I couldn’t see that they were any better or more justified in their actions than the Border Guards they were fighting. Partly, I suppose, this is because of Marquos himself, who is essentially disconnected from any personal engagement. If the main character doesn’t care about the events of his own world, why should the reader? The writing style is a contributary factor here, simply describing the events in a fairly flat tone and rarely delving into what the characters are actually feeling, except for occasional outbreaks of despair or borderline insanity.
What kept me reading, though, was curiosity about the world. I really wanted to know more about it, and how things work. There are some wonderfully atmospheric passages as the barge chugs along the waterways through grey, lifeless countryside. The north was eerily empty and cold, and the moment when the stars appear is beautifully and vividly described. The technology is fascinating too (gyrocopters, airships, floating castles and a vast array of improvised weaponry). And the ending is suitably epic and uplifting. For those who enjoy a lot of philosophising about war and injustice and the meaning of life in a bleak steampunkish setting with plenty of high-casualty battles and explosions, this is the book for you, and there are some thought-provoking ideas here for those who can tease them out of the general ramble of dialogue. I found it too depressing a read overall to be quite comfortable, and I like my characters a little more realistic and less arbitrary than this, but it was certainly an interesting tale, unusual and completely unpredictable (there was only one moment where I actually guessed what was about to happen). Three stars....more
I read ‘Dreams of Darkness Rising’ more than a year ago, and much admired the strong characterisation, detailed world-building andFantasy Review Barn
I read ‘Dreams of Darkness Rising’ more than a year ago, and much admired the strong characterisation, detailed world-building and truly epic plot. Since then the book has been picked up by a publisher, the title has been shortened to ‘Darkness Rising’ and the projected trilogy has been chopped up into six smaller volumes. The book I read has now been republished as Book 1: Chained and Book2: Quest. This new book is Book 3: Secrets. The disadvantage of this is that with a book of this type, with many characters following several different plotlines over a complex world, the challenge of reminding the reader of the key points of the previous books becomes an increasingly onerous task for books 3, 4, 5 and 6. The author manages it rather elegantly in this book, but even so there are a lot of threads to pick up and many references in the early chapters whizzed straight over my head.
The world-building is industrial-strength here. There are entire continents filled with races and cultures and belief systems and architectural quirks and geography, and all of them distinct and memorable. It all feels completely real, and the throwaway references to wars and battles and so forth add depth. I like the way, too, that the author tosses out cultural references: "Cliffstead. Tough place - you'll like it. More fights than a Thetorian wedding." I love this sort of colour in a book. As before, there’s a medley of interesting races - goblins, ogres, giants, lizardmen, griffin, mini-dragon flying reptile thingies used as beasts of burden... and (yay!) one dragon.
The greatest strength here is in the characters. Most fantasy works struggle to muster two or three fully rounded characters, but here there are enough to satisfy even the most demanding reader. Who could not feel for Emelia, with her alter-ego Emebaka, inextricably bound to the evil Vildor? Or enjoy the extrovert Hunor and the deep Jem? Even Orla, the Eerian knight, who was a bit of an idiot at times in the last book, gets some serious backstory here which makes her much more human. And Marthir the shape-shifting druid is fascinating. There are several points where various characters have key points filled in with flashbacks, and although this is a slightly clunky device, the storytelling is good enough to carry it off.
The plot is, perhaps, somewhat less successful. Various groups of characters are off on their own missions - alright, let’s call them quests. The crystals that enhance magic I could see the point of, but it wasn’t always clear to me quite what the other groups were up to. Aldred, in particular, kept getting distracted by side issues. And what is the point of Torm? He appears only briefly in this book, although presumably he will be more significant later. Then there are some political machinations. A princess from somewhere who’s marrying someone from - well, somewhere else. The lizardmen doing a deal with - um, someone or other. This is always the problem with full-blown epic fantasy - the epicness involves a lot of complication that’s hard to keep track of without taking notes. Or maybe that's just me. Fortunately there was plenty of action to keep things bubbling along, and enough time for some romantic interludes as well, albeit slightly contrived. And even - uh-oh, love triangle ahoy!
This would be fine - multiple quests work well in a series as complex as this - but this book felt as if it lacked some overall objective. Obviously there is the ultimate aim of getting all the crystals and defeating the Big Bad and saving the world, and so on, but I would have liked to see some clearly-defined and compelling story that gives structure to this book, rather than struggling to survive a series of hostile encounters and simply moving a few paces forward along the path to the final confrontation. A lot happens and there’s forward progress, but it feels like a small part of the big story rather than a story in its own right. Of course, this is the same middle book problem that all series suffer from. The numerous points of view and the frequent change of location makes things a bit choppy, but again that’s an effect of the epic platform. The writing style is elegant, and my only grumble is with the author’s habit of not using names much of the time. Almost every time I came across ‘the Thetorian’ or ‘the wild-mage’ or 'the tracker' or whatever, I had to stop and work out who was being referred to. It's a shame that the story has been split into so many parts. It seems to me that this sort of expansive tale, which meanders across continents, needs the space found in larger books to really shine. There's a reason why 800 page books are common in epic fantasy.
Despite these minor grumbles, when it comes to the crunch everything gels beautifully and the ending is totally satisfying in a no-holds-barred, mages-hurling-thunderbolts sort of way. I’m not generally a huge fan of this sort of full-on magic battle, where hordes of nameless minions are splattered about in a multitude of gory ways, while our heroes (and heroines, of course) survive the mayhem with barely a scratch, and everyone is improbably muscular and awesomely talented with an array of weaponry, but I have to admit it’s great fun, if a bit cartoonish. And Aldred’s little escapade, in particular, was hugely entertaining - a bit of humour goes a long way to lighten the tone. This book had smatterings of humour right the way through, arising naturally from the personalities of the characters, but there were also more serious moments, and the swamps of Ssinthor gave the whole story a whole extra layer of atmosphere.
This is a wonderfully inventive story, with great characters, brilliant world-building and non-stop action. Yes, it’s confusing sometimes, but that’s a reflection of the complexity within and my own inability to keep up, and not at all a criticism. There’s plenty of detail on the website, for those who want to get into the nuts and bolts of the author’s world, and there are good maps and a dramatis personae at the front of the book. I would have preferred a shorter list of just the significant characters, but that's just me. This is an enjoyable continuation to the series, and highly recommended for fans of ambitious multi-threaded fantasy.
So why have I only given it three stars? I found that I just wasn’t that invested in either the characters or their objectives. The attempt to rebuild a prism of power by tracking down its component crystals is, frankly, a fairly ho-hum sort of exercise. It gives an artificial structure to the books (this one was the yellow crystal), but chasing round after a magical gizmo isn’t the most original premise ever. And while I liked the characters, and they’re nicely drawn with their quirks and mannerisms, they rarely had the space to breathe between the constant outbreaks of mayhem. When there was a pause, it turned into a slightly clunky romantic interlude. There were only a few events that truly moved me - Marthir becoming a druid, Orla befriending the slave and the death of Hunor’s friend. These incidents brought real emotional depth to the characters, and I hope future books in the series will have a slightly less frenetic pace and more of these unforgettable moments. ...more