This is a nice mixture of science fiction short stories, varied in both length and subject matter. I have to confess, I’m more of a...moreFantasy Review Barn
This is a nice mixture of science fiction short stories, varied in both length and subject matter. I have to confess, I’m more of a fantasy reader, so I got a bit bogged down in some of the sciencey bits. However, the author’s trademark smooth writing carried me along.
The first two stories, Digital Soul and Pillar, were both awesome - beautifully crafted, immersive and with that deft little twist at the end which makes a short story so satisfying. The third story, The Last Gasp of the Dragon, was short and sweet - maybe too short to make an impact (or maybe I just didn’t get it - always possible).
The fourth story, Orphaned World, was long and filled with blow-by-blow detail which lost me somewhere along the way. The tension built and built, yet the resolution felt insufficient for all that build-up. I had the feeling there was some profound idea being conveyed which my befuddled brain wasn’t grasping properly. Over my head, I suspect.
But the final story, Too Dumb To Die/The Sea Beyond the Stars, hit the spot beautifully, with a wonderful tale that asked all the difficult questions about what it actually means to be human. Or perhaps, more subtly, about the nature of humanity. Epic stuff.
For me, this collection didn’t quite reach the glorious heights of The Wandering Tale, but for those who like their speculative fiction both thought-provoking and elegantly written, this is highly recommended. Four stars.(less)
Warning: this is the fourth book in a five-book series, and for anyone who hasn't read all the previous books, there will be spoile...moreFantasy Review Barn
Warning: this is the fourth book in a five-book series, and for anyone who hasn't read all the previous books, there will be spoilers ahead, so read at your own risk.
When I first saw the title of this book, I deduced that the widow was Clara, whose husband Dawson was executed as a traitor in a previous book. Clara had a walk-on part in the first book, and her own chapters thereafter, but now she finally takes centre-stage, not necessarily as a player in her own right (although to some extent she is), but more specifically as the mother of sons involved in different ways in the ongoing war. So, the widow's house: not a physical house, but house as in family.
Clara is one of four point of view characters, to cover the full scale of the war that's been gradually building since book one. The four are: Geder, the Regent and spider-priest-motivated driving force behind it; Cithrin, the banker opposed to him for personal as well as ideological reasons; Marcus the soldier with a long, battle-scarred history; and Clara herself. The book follows the Game of Thrones principle, where chapters from different characters rotate, although here the rotation is quite regular. This has the usual disadvantage: a cliff-hanger at the end of a chapter can't be resolved until that character's turn comes round again, usually four chapters later. Authors, please don't do this, it's very annoying. At its best, the plot flows seamlessly from one character's point of view to the next, but mostly there's that little hiccup of adjustment when you flip to a new chapter, that where-were-we? moment.
When Abraham pitched this series, he offered either a three book version or this, the five book version. This is the first point at which I'm tempted to say: three might have been better. The actual events of this book could be written on half an A4 sheet of paper, and not using an abnormally small font, either. The story doesn't sprawl in the way that some other, very expansive, series do (George R R Martin, I'm looking at you...), but it isn't tightly written, either. Now, in the hands of a master wordsmith like Abraham, this isn't a problem. A chapter curls around you like smoke, warm and comforting (like Clara’s pipe, if you want the full analogy), and it's only afterwards that you think: nothing very much happened there. This is particularly obvious with Clara's thread, since she's thrown into the role of an observer of the war and not much else. I like Clara, but her plotline was stretched very thin here.
The author's great strength (OK, one of his many great strengths - can you tell I'm a fan?) is the depth of characterisation and so it is here. All the characters feel fully rounded and as real as anyone you could meet in real life. Even Geder, or perhaps especially Geder. In many ways he’s a villain of the first order, but also a deeply insecure and uncertain man. And some of his moments with Prince Aster, the heir to the throne, show him as a caring, even compassionate man, with a certain wisdom. His care for the pregnant wife of his best friend (and possibly only friend) is both moving and slightly creepy in its intensity. The previous books were littered with horrifying 'Geder moments' like the burning of Vanai, or the summary execution of his closest advisers, with the result that you tiptoe through Geder’s chapters wondering when he’s going to explode. He still has no sense of perspective, and puts far too much trust in the spider priests who have an agenda of their own. The most worrying aspect of Geder, for me, is that I actually like him, or, I suppose, pity and sympathise with him. He's done some terrible things, but he's also an enormously tragic character, and part of me desperately wants him to find a happy ending, to settle down somewhere to a quiet, obscure life with his books.
Cithrin, on the other hand, irritates me. She always has, although her juvenile behaviour in the early books was at least understandable by virtue of her age and social inexperience. Her sole function seems to be to do incredibly stupid things for most of the book, or to lounge around in a drunken depression, getting into trouble and being rescued by everyone else, and then pull a rabbit out of a hat at the last minute and have everyone proclaim her a genius. Two cities have fallen solely because of her stupidity, and she's not done yet. Pah. Marcus I like a lot, although he's typical of the stoical, worldly-wise, slightly cynical warrior type, whose experience keeps him out of a lot of trouble. And keeps others out of trouble too. But then I have a soft spot for stoical, slightly cynical warrior types. And I do like sidekick Yardem. Especially his ears. It was nice to find out a little more of their dramatic history, and highly entertaining when the pair of them turned up at Carse to have everyone say: ‘Yeah, yeah, sure you’re Marcus Wester and Yardem Hale… Whoa!’
While we're on the subject of characters, I’m a big fan of Vincen Coe, Clara’s servant-turned-lover, but please, Mr Abraham, will you stop beating him up? However, my absolute favourite in this book has to be Inys (and if you don't know who Inys is, go back and reread book three, last chapter). Everything he says and does is entirely believable, given his history and his nature. Plus he has some of the best moments in the book. Him and the pirates. I mean, pirates and a dragon - what are you waiting for, folks? Go out and buy this book immediately.
There are a few minor grumbles. The cunning men (sorcerers, basically) become even more useful in this book, but there’s no explanation of what they do or how it works. Much of their capability is dismissed as mere trickery, put on to impress people, yet their talent for healing seems to be quite real and rather useful. A little more detail about them would be nice. And a surprising grumble: my Kindle version had an astonishing number of typos in it, far more than I would expect in a major release like this (and this wasn’t an ARC copy, it was the actual day-of-release version).
This book feels far more like a transition than the previous ones in the series. Everything is being put in place for the final confrontation, but there were no huge out-of-nowhere moments, just some nice little twists that made me smile. And somehow it felt repetitious, both in phraseology (fingers were repeatedly laced together, cotton was fresh from the boll), but also in plot terms - the Cithrin plan, the dramatic escapes, the out-of-nowhere attacks, yet I never felt that the main characters were seriously at risk. Even Geder was milder this time round, still creepy as hell, especially over Cithrin, but perhaps less likely to explode at any moment, channelling his energies into his best friend’s wife and baby, and a clever little piece of engineering research. However, the important factor in this book was the shift in attitude. From being an unstoppable force, Geder and the spider priests now have vulnerabilities, and the opposition have plans and weapons. And a dragon. Inys wasn't the get-out-of-jail-free card that might have been expected, but he's still a wild card. I have no idea how this is going to end, but I can't wait to find out. Four stars.(less)
Way back in the seventies, there was a UK TV program called ‘The Survivors’. The premise was that almost everyone on earth had been...moreFantasy Review Barn
Way back in the seventies, there was a UK TV program called ‘The Survivors’. The premise was that almost everyone on earth had been wiped out by some kind of virus or illness, and dealt with how the minute number of people left alive coped. They passed through several stages: immediate survival, meeting up with other survivors, scavenging, forming larger groups, beginning to build sustainable communities and so on. Along the way, they dealt with deeper issues, like avoiding hostile communities and exploitation, and law and order: how do you deal with crime when you can’t spare the manpower for prisons, and the criminal may be an essential worker? It’s a dramatic theme, and must have been tackled a thousand times, in different ways, but there’s always room for one more take on it. This book starts in the same place, with some kind of unexplained flu-like illness that is invariably fatal. Fortunately a few people are immune, like Dani, the main character here. The plot covers her family’s attempts to flee to safety, then the struggle for basic survival, meeting up with a small number of other survivors, and the very first stages of long-term planning. It doesn’t quite reach to settled communities or the more difficult issues, but this is the first book in a series, so undoubtedly that will come later. You would think with such a well-trodden plot, this would be a predictable story, and in some ways it is, but that certainly doesn’t make it dull or dry. The early chapters, the cross-country escape bid, beautifully captures the tension and fear of Dani and her parents and sister as they try to get home. Then there’s the pathos of coping in isolation, without most of the trappings of the modern world, and having to do the sort of dreadful jobs that someone else always took care of - like burying bodies. Dani is a smart and resourceful young lady, and although sometimes her decisions felt just a little too clever, and she seldom made mistakes, that’s far better than being stupid. The other characters were well-drawn, too, but they fell rather too neatly into the good guy or villain dichotomy; I like a little more grey in my characters for preference. The ending fell slightly flat for me. It was hugely dramatic and a real page-turner, but it seemed to me that the villains behaved pretty stupidly, in a number of ways. Sometimes you just have to cut your losses, and accept that you’ve been outsmarted. Plus, waving guns around really isn’t terribly sensible when everyone else has guns too and there’s no hospital to patch up any accidents. Survival is the name of the game. But it all made for a breathlessly exciting climax. My only other slight grumble is that, since this is YA, the characters we spent most time with were all teenagers, which made me feel about a hundred and three. I am so far outside the target demographic it’s silly, and for that reason (and probably that reason alone) I felt little emotional engagement with the characters, even in their darkest moments. On the other hand, I read this from cover to cover in no time flat. It’s an engaging, well-written story with a clever array of breathless car-chases and dramatic escapes, intermingled with more introspective passages, very appropriate for the end-of-the-world scenario. Dani may be a bright girl, but she’s still, in many ways, just a kid, and the author doesn’t shy away from the desperation Dani feels from time to time. An enjoyable and thankfully zombie-free post-apocalypse story. Four stars.(less)
So here we are at the end of the trilogy. The first book, 'The Tattered Banner', I found a refreshing change from the typical sword...moreFantasy Review Barn
So here we are at the end of the trilogy. The first book, 'The Tattered Banner', I found a refreshing change from the typical swords-based fantasy, focused as it was around the rapier as the weapon of choice. It was in many ways a conventional coming of age story, a young man discovering unusual abilities in himself and learning to manage his talent, but lifted above the average by excellent writing and some awesome confrontations. The second book, 'The Huntsman's Amulet', was more of a boys’ own adventure, quite episodic and uneven, although hero Soren visited some intriguing locations and there were the usual array of terrific sword fights. And pirates!
This book feels a little slow to start. After some initial action, which convinces Soren that he and his lady love, Alessandra, will never be safe from the assassins sent by his former mentor and now arch-enemy Amero, he spends some time arranging matters so that he can return to Ostenheim with the sole objective of killing Amero. I was a little disappointed that Alessandra, a smart lady perfectly capable of wielding a sword when necessary and protecting herself, was parked in a place of safety so that Soren could go about his murderous business without having to worry about her. However, I could see the logic in it.
Then almost half the book passes with very little happening, as a number of additional characters are introduced, their motivations explained and their activities described in some detail. These are not uninteresting, but some of this felt a bit like filler. The eastern mage, for example, was an interesting character and I would very much like to have known more about his organisation the Twelve, their practices and rules, but in the end he was reduced to just another obstacle for Soren to overcome.
None of the characters really stand out, apart from Soren himself (and maybe the banker). I would have liked a little more description of how he calls upon his 'gift', and more detail of the fights from within his enhanced perspective, which, for me, have always been the most awesome part of the story. Sadly, there is nothing here quite comparable with the fight with the belek in 'The Tattered Banner', but nevertheless all the fights are well-written, even if mostly the outcome is never in doubt. In fact, seeing Soren back amongst the regular street thugs and sell-swords of Ostenheim only serves to underscore just how easy he finds it all. Fortunately for the excitement quota, there are still ways in which he's vulnerable and his careful plans can go off the rails, and the encounter with the eastern mage was dramatically unpredictable.
The descriptions of Ostenheim, in fact the whole of this world the author has created, are excellent, just enough to bring the streets and buildings into sharp focus without distracting from the action. It all feels wonderfully real, brought alive by scores of understated little details. I was rather pleased that the duelling arena where the story first started featured for a significant exchange in this book.
There were a couple of moments that felt suspiciously like logic issues. One is that Amero is in dire straits financially, on the brink of ruination, yet he still managed to find the funds to send assassins repeatedly after Soren. That's one obsessive grudge he's holding. The other is a magical healing that happens late in the book, despite the recipient being resistant to magic and the character who organises it having spent much of the book destroying magic-users. I can see that it was necessary to the plot, and maybe I missed some crucial explanation that made it obvious, but it felt to me like a bit of a fudge.
However, towards the end, all the disparate threads come together into the inevitable final confrontation, the lesser issues cleared away and the focus finally on Soren and his nemesis Amero, and no, it doesn't go at all as planned. This was a wonderful and very fitting climax to the story. Being the end of the trilogy, I honestly had no idea how it would turn out, and the author had several nice surprises up his sleeve, not least the explanation for the title of this book. A terrific ending to a fine series. Four stars. (less)
If I had to describe the characteristics I most look for in a book, I’d probably answer: memorable characters, an interesting setti...moreFantasy Review Barn
If I had to describe the characteristics I most look for in a book, I’d probably answer: memorable characters, an interesting setting, a plot that constantly surprises me and plenty of humour. This book ticks all the boxes. It isn’t at all the sort of fantasy I’d normally read (whimsy? a boy and his dog go on a journey? a wishing tree? erm...) yet it sucked me in and left me with a huge smile on my face.
When Billy’s scientist mother disappears on a trip to find food, Billy sets off with his dog Max to find her. An encounter with a wishing tree has some unexpected side effects, leaving Billy and Max able to communicate telepathically. And then things get really weird. The story tears from place to place as Billy and Max are swept along in their adventure, meeting some entertainingly oddball characters, avoiding the villains, solving the world’s problems in beautifully inventive ways and never, ever falling into dull predictability. Rather wonderfully, this is not just an episodic road trip. Everything that happens, however unexpected, is completely logical in a slightly off-the-wall way. And it’s laugh-out-loud funny.
This is one of the most original and delightful books I’ve ever come across. The language is simple enough to be read by children, but adults would enjoy its offbeat humour and imaginative twists just as much. It’s difficult to think of anything comparable, but the humour and rather surreal train of events remind me of ‘Alice in Wonderland’. The most amusing and charming book I’ve read all year. Four stars.(less)
Wouldn’t it be lovely if you could compose a song which would guarantee good weather or bountiful harvests or a cure for illness? T...moreFantasy Review Barn
Wouldn’t it be lovely if you could compose a song which would guarantee good weather or bountiful harvests or a cure for illness? That’s the premise here, and what an enchanting one it is. The creator god made the world and left a series of specific tunes (‘tropes’) which allow the humans to control their environment and live in peace and plenty. The god has moved on to other worlds but the tropes should carry on working indefinitely – except that something is going wrong. Harvests fail, epidemics break out, the weather has turned nasty and no one knows why.
Sarya is a part of this magical-music world, having both a True Voice (one which can affect things by singing) and being also a trained Arranger, someone who takes the required tropes and combines them into an effective choral arrangement. Inevitably (this is fantasy, after all), she’s an orphan with a rough past, whereas most of the people at the Skola (musical academy) are upper class and wealthy, so she has had trouble being accepted into the community. But when one of her arrangements goes disastrously wrong, Sarya is determined to find out why and begins researching the strange tropes which accompany the disasters.
From here on, the plot accelerates at a dizzying speed, and this part of the book is perfectly judged, with each success followed by a greater failure, and Sarya forced into more and more difficult decisions. There are some darker passages towards the end, but I didn’t find them too unsettling, and I liked the mature way the author handled the consequences of traumatic experiences. There were a few credibility issues, where I expected greater opposition to Sarya’s proposals, but in the end people just said, ‘Oh, all right then.’ And Sarya’s conviction that love interest Adan couldn’t possibly love her despite all the evidence to the contrary was not terribly believable. I mean, that passionate kiss should have been a bit of a clue, right? But the action rolled on unstoppably, and every crisis was page-turningly dramatic. This was a book that was hard to put down, and although there was nothing wildly original in the way events played out, it was still an exciting read.
Fantasy romance (or romance in a fantasy setting) is a difficult genre to pull off. It’s hard to get the perfect balance without one aspect swamping the other, but the author has done a terrific job here. The world-building is not extensive, since almost all the action takes place within the city of Sucevita, indeed within the Skola, but other areas are mentioned sufficiently to give the setting a feeling of real depth, both of geography and history. The religion, based around the magical tropes, is also well-conceived. The romance happily avoids the insta-lust and triangle clichés, and is enjoyably satisfying without ever overwhelming the action.
If there is a weakness to the book, it lies with the characters. Sarya is too impossibly altruistic and self-effacing and robustly determined to do the right thing no matter the personal cost, and the angst factor is quite high in consequence. Adan is too impossibly noble and generous and self-sacrificing and understanding. He’s also impossibly handsome and well-honed and a perfect specimen of manhood, but that’s par for the course for this kind of story, and I’m certainly not going to complain about it. Both main characters have their frailties, of course, but these pale beside their vast array of virtues. The other characters fall neatly into the good guys/bad guys duality, without too many distinguishing characteristics.
These are very minor quibbles however. On the plus side, the villain was chillingly evil, and one of the highlights of the book for me. His meetings with Sarya were wonderfully mysterious, and I enjoyed the way his true intentions were concealed until the last possible moment. Sarya’s past also gives her some depth, and the moment when she overcomes her history and gives herself unreservedly to Adan is a lovely piece of writing.
This was a very enjoyable read, a perfect blend of well-thought-out fantasy with a satisfying romance. I loved the ingenious and cleverly implemented concept of music as a form of magic. Highly recommended. A good four stars.(less)
I don’t read much Regency romance these days, although at one point in my life I worked my way through the entire Georgette Heyer catalogue, multiple...moreI don’t read much Regency romance these days, although at one point in my life I worked my way through the entire Georgette Heyer catalogue, multiple times. And Jane Austin remains a favourite. I still have a soft spot for the genre, but recent forays have been less than satisfactory – either too silly for words, or too cavalier with historical accuracy. I see no reason why a romance set in historical times shouldn’t provide something more substantial than meringue to chew on, and also be true to the nature of those times, without being too pedantic about it.
This book manages to please in both areas. The plot is the usual romance formula: boy meets girl, there’s an instant attraction but insuperable problems, they gradually work their way towards a happy ending. However, the author sidesteps the now customary pitfalls: there’s no insta-lurve to stretch credibility, just the attraction between the only two people of a certain age on board ship for a long journey, kept in check by common sense. I liked the way this was handled very much. And the problems are real ones, arising from family history, social status and the personalities of the couple themselves.
The main characters, Hyacinth, raised in Gibraltar, and Thomas, who’s spent most of his adult life in India, are both outsiders, which gives them a natural affinity. Hyacinth has inherited a small estate from a disreputable relative, and Thomas is now the heir to both wealth and a title, but neither want to conform to society’s expectations of them. They’re both smart, too, making sensible decisions. I liked both of them.
The historical setting is sketched in quite lightly (although everyone’s seen Pride and Prejudice and knows what this era looked like), but there’s enough detail to bring the period to life. The descriptions of life aboard ship were particularly effective, London a little less so (Thomas’s family’s house seemed vastly too big even for a family of such high social standing). However, the author has a very fluid way of handling titles and forms of address. For example, the hero, Thomas Smithson Pently, is routinely addressed as ‘Sir Pently’, which had my inner pedant screaming ‘What kind of title is that when it’s at home?’ I’ve given up reading some books for oddities like this, but here the charm of the main characters kept me going.
The plot burbles along very nicely, although I rolled my eyes a little when the heroine’s inherited estate turned out to be right next door to the hero’s family acres. Hmm... But it all wraps up beautifully, the obligatory sex scene is nicely judged and the ending is neither too glib nor too sickly-sweet sentimental. I enjoyed it very much. Well-drawn characters, elegantly written and with more to chew on than usual in a romance – highly recommended. Four stars.(less)
Some authors spend their whole careers writing the same book over and over. The names and plot twists and setting may vary, but readers know exactly w...moreSome authors spend their whole careers writing the same book over and over. The names and plot twists and setting may vary, but readers know exactly what to expect. Lexi Revellian is not that kind of author. A new book is always a magical mystery tour. Will it be fantasy? Or maybe sci-fi? Will there be a murder or a kidnapping? But some things stay the same. There’s always a romance simmering. There’s always action and excitement and a heroine who falls into the normal range of humanity instead of being some super-badass weapon-wielding superwoman. And invariably they keep me totally hooked and put a great big smile on my face. Is it any wonder that a new Revellian book goes straight to the top of my to-read pile?
This one features wealthy Russian emigrants with secrets (the word ‘oligarch’ crops up a lot) and political tension and even spies and secret dossiers. Our heroine, Tyger, is the daughter of wandering hippies (which you could probably guess from the name) who missed out on a formal education, but is now determined to get a degree and a respectable job. So she cleans houses by day, pulls pints in a bar by night and studies for the Open University in what little spare time she has. Her latest cleaning job sees her working for Russian oligarch Grisha Markovic, but one day she arrives at work only to be held at gunpoint by a hooded man who forces her to unlock the doors and show him to Grisha’s room. And things go steadily downhill from there.
I liked Tyger very much. She’s practical and intelligent, she doesn’t take stupidly implausible risks, and she reacts to the increasingly worrying events around her in sensible and believable ways. Her not-really-a-boyfriend Kes is not quite so well-drawn, but then he doesn’t get so much screen time. The minor characters all seem very real, with distinctive personalities: Izzie the flirty barmaid, Chrissie the pernickety flatmate, Rose the hoarder, even Cherie the trapeze artist, a trivial walk-on part. It takes real writing talent to create characters that live and breathe and are still memorable when the book is finished. I did wonder how accurate the Russians’ distinctive accent was, but it sounded quite believable to me.
There was quite a lot of political backstory to squeeze in, and the author has clearly done her research; occasionally I felt I could have done with fewer details about Anglo-Russian relations or circuses or motorhome interiors, but that’s a very minor quibble. The London setting was brought vividly to life; and who would have thought there was a bathing pool for ladies only?
The plot raced along, and kept me turning the pages. However, despite the gun-in-hand cover picture, and the spies and bad-boy Russians theme, this never turned into one of those action-at-all-costs thrillers. This is a gentler, less violent (and much more realistic) version. There were plenty of dramatic moments, but in between life went on more-or-less as normal in a thoroughly British way. Some characters that I was sure were villains turned out not to be. Characters I thought might get bumped off survived. And always there was a patina of subtle humour which kept me chuckling.
Another great read from one of my favourite authors. Highly recommended for anyone looking for an entertaining mystery with a strong dollop of romance. I loved it, and yes, the ending put a great big smile on my face. A good four stars.(less)
The novella prequel to this book, 'The Girl With No Name', was hugely entertaining, a charming fairytale which was anything but tra...moreFantasy Review Barn
The novella prequel to this book, 'The Girl With No Name', was hugely entertaining, a charming fairytale which was anything but traditional, with a nice line in humour and, for its short length, a surprising number of delightfully unexpected twists along the way. This is a full length (albeit still fairly short) novel in similar style, which somehow fell a bit flat for me. Maybe the charm of the novella just doesn't scale up, or maybe my grumpy pre-Christmas mood is at fault, but somehow the whimsy failed to enchant, the writing seemed less light and the humour was sprinkled too thinly, like a pizza with too little cheese.
Partly this is because of the rather old-fashioned writing style. Contractions (like 'can't' and 'don't') are avoided, every action is described in detail even when a character isn't doing anything interesting at all, and although there are various point of view characters, the author merrily tells us what everyone is thinking or feeling. There's nothing at all wrong with this, and I daresay for a fairy tale it's appropriate, but I much prefer a tighter writing style.
So here's the premise. There's a princess and a couple of princes and a magician's apprentice, there's an evil villain, there's a land where nobody has magic and a land where almost everybody has it. And there are winged unicorns, which (rather cutely) aren't necessarily able to fly properly, sometimes they just bounce a little as they run, like a plane on a particularly bumpy runway. There's a royal wedding and a kidnapping and an array of monsters to be faced. All good fun, although sometimes things got a little predictable. I liked that the princess was a smart cookie and able to get herself out of awkward scrapes. I disliked that too often things happened purely by chance, and she was saved by some lucky event.
The best character by far is the magician's apprentice, Phillip. Phillip? In a fairy tale? Erm, yes. The names in this story aren't really the best. Some characters have sensible fantasy-sounding names (Neithan, Kaleb, Sargon) and some have weird names (Seventh Night) and some have terrible names (the poor girl with no name from the prequel, who finally acquires a name half way through this book, and it's surely the worst name ever; and no, you'll have to read the book to find out what it is).
But then, just when I was preparing my oh-dear summary in my head, things took off, became charmingly unpredictable and ended with one of those wonderful moments that brighter people than I probably saw coming a mile away, but for me it came out of nowhere and just blew me away. So three stars for the slightly pedestrian air of the first three quarters, five stars for the brilliant ending, so an average of four stars.(less)
This is the second book the Alchemancer series, following on from ‘The Five Elements’. Like that one, this starts with a bang, lite...moreFantasy Review Barn
This is the second book the Alchemancer series, following on from ‘The Five Elements’. Like that one, this starts with a bang, literally, a mysterious underground explosion in the city of Brighton, just as our heroes from the first book, Aaron, Serena and Ensel Rhe, arrive there, followed almost immediately by demon houndmaster Krosus and his evil pack. In dealing with the hounds, Aaron and Serena manage to get themselves arrested and tossed into the dungeon. It has to be said, the author knows how to drop straight into the action.
After this, the pace lets up just a little, and branches out into multiple point of view threads to ensure that the plot is nicely stirred. There’s the airship which featured in the first book, newly arrived for repairs; there’s a King’s Patroller, whose function I’m not sure about, but he seems to be a good guy; there’s a disgruntled pyromancer; there’s a dwarf underworld boss with a beautiful daughter; there’s an old enemy of Ensel Rhe’s; and there’s a nest of rats-on-steroids under the city, who wear clothes and wield swords and are definitely bad guys. Well, they eat people. Oh, and there’s a machine, the Nullification Engine of the title, which is seriously cool and I can’t wait for the movie to be made to see exactly what it looks like.
Of the characters, Ensel Rhe is the most interesting, with his mysterious past and his super-ninja skills. In the first book, he was rather lightly sketched in, more plot device than rounded character, but here he gets a lot more screen-time and a chance to shine. Every scene he was in sizzled with tension. We learn quite a bit more about him here, which only serves to make him more intriguing. Aaron, the prodigy applying logic and science to largely magical artifacts, is also fun, and I loved the way he cracked the code. Serena worked less well for me. Her conventional upper-class family setting did nothing to make her interesting (to me), and there were times when she simply acted in ways that had me rolling my eyes. Speaking up at the funeral, for instance, and only realising afterwards that it might be a Bad Idea. And when her former mentor tells her to stay away from a device, what is the very first thing she does? Doh.
Of the other characters, they’re nicely drawn and work very well. I particularly liked the newly introduced Jakinda, a nice fiery character. I’m very much looking forward to seeing her in action in the next book. The dwarves were huge fun, too, although why is it dwarves are always the comic relief? I blame Peter Jackson. But the star character for me (if I can describe it this way) was the Nullification Engine itself, which stole the show in every scene it was in, and was a wonderfully unpredictable and fascinating device.
As with the first book, the plot rattles along at a breath-taking pace, with an unpredictable twist in almost every chapter. If I had a beer for every time I muttered ‘Didn’t see THAT coming’ I’d be blind drunk under the table by now. My only complaint is that I had trouble remembering everything that had happened in the first book, so I was flummoxed for a while when certain characters turned up again. A summary would have helped, although to be perfectly fair, I’m very bad at remembering plots in general, so I have the same trouble with every series. In other words, my fault, not the author’s. There’s a list of characters at the front and some good maps, too, as well as a sprinkle of reminders throughout the story, so I got past the confusion stage in the end. There was one plot-thread that I didn’t fully understand, involving Krosus the demon houndmaster and Ursool the witch; I’m still not sure just how things ended up there, but again, I suspect it’s just me not paying attention, since everything else was tied up beautifully, with neat little bows on top.
Another fun read, very entertaining, with a great ending setting everything up nicely for the next book. Highly recommended. Four stars. (less)
That difficult middle book of the trilogy? Nope, no problem. Just send the hero off in a different direction altogether, with a bit...moreFantasy Review Barn
That difficult middle book of the trilogy? Nope, no problem. Just send the hero off in a different direction altogether, with a bit of seafaring and... pirates! What could be better than chasing around the oceans, with a sea battle and a storm and... and... You can probably fill in some of the blanks here. Very little of this took me by surprise, but that doesn’t make it any less of an enjoyable romp.
The plot is, in many ways, a choppier affair than in ‘The Tattered Banner’. Main character Soren starts off looking for missing girlfriend Alessandra, then gets distracted by a search to find out more about his Gift (the mysterious power that overtakes him during a fight and makes him super-fast). That thread ends abruptly, and then a storm at sea leaves his ship vulnerable to pirate slave-traders, when that is resolved he falls in with an old acquaintance and sets off after the pirate... and so on. This kind of episodic story has some advantages, and there’s never a dull moment, but it does feel sometimes as if Soren is passively being pushed around by events. He ends up bouncing around all over the place, like a glorified travelogue of his world, and while the places he visits are interesting in themselves, the speed with which he hops from one to another, and the ease with which problems are solved, dulls the impact.
The most interesting place, to my mind, was the mysterious island in the centre of the ocean where there are the remains of a great city. The place is tainted with magic, so it’s dangerous to visit, and the peculiar and foreboding atmosphere of it is conveyed very well. But then, it becomes unexpectedly easy and frankly an excuse for a big info-dump, so in the end it’s a bit of a let-down.
The rest of the book is a giant boys-own adventure, with regular outings for Soren’s talent with a sword. In the first book, the fights, and the outbreaks of magic that accompanied them, were a highlight. Here much of the awesomeness is lost and the fights become rather mundane, as Soren tries to gain full control of his power so that it doesn’t overwhelm him. And it has to be said that the sheer number of times the swords come out makes this aspect of the book repetitious.
If this makes it sounds as if I was disappointed, well, perhaps I was, just a little. I would have liked more of the magic, more of the mind-blowing Gift-infused moments like the Belek battle in the first book (which remains an unforgettable image, still vivid in my mind), more times when things went wrong and I was taken by surprise. Everything was just a tad too easy and predictable. On the other hand, this was a cracking action-adventure, elegantly written and enjoyable from first to last, with no problems picking up the threads of the story from book 1, and no sign of middle-book doldrums. Four stars. (less)
The first book in this series, ‘The Duchess of the Shallows’, was a breath of fresh air, a fantasy work set in a single city, with...moreFantasy Review Barn
The first book in this series, ‘The Duchess of the Shallows’, was a breath of fresh air, a fantasy work set in a single city, with compelling characters and a beautifully woven plot, filled with double-dealing and double meanings, where nothing and nobody can be taken quite at face value. I could say that this is more of the same, which is true as far as it goes, but it doesn’t do the book justice. This time we begin to see far more of the underpinnings of the city, both literally (the maze of tunnels and caves dating back much further than the present regime) and in political terms, as Duchess is drawn into the orbit of the upper echelons of society. The three main religions also feature heavily, and we learn a lot more of the history of the city and of Duchess herself. If this sounds like a lot of ground to cover, it is, but the authors skillfully weave the many different strands together to create a brilliantly nuanced picture of Rodaas and its people, which comes alive in a way that the first book didn’t quite manage, for me.
Unlike the first book, which had a single audacious theft as its heart, this one has multiple plot threads. For one, Duchess decides to set up business with a talented young weaver who is unable to get guild membership because she’s not Rodaasi. I found the motivation for this move a bit unclear; it seemed rather an odd thing for Duchess to want to do. However, Jana, the weaver, is a lovely addition to the character list, and her Domae culture adds depth to the story. Then there's a ring stolen by dodgy gaming practices to retrieve, and a scheme to provide Duchess with a skilled swordsman as a bodyguard. Again, the bodyguard scheme seemed an odd thing for Duchess to want to do. While it led to some exciting moments, and the bodyguard came in very handy for a couple of incidents (a warrior-type is a great addition to the book, in my opinion), but then at a crucial moment he leaves Duchess on her own. It struck me as being a bit implausible (methinks I smell a plot device). However, all of these are dealt with in Duchess's usual audacious style (read: almost impossible to pull off), so there’s plenty of action along the way.
These various schemes, however credible or otherwise they may be, give Duchess the excuse to move around the city, and it is her adventures in the various districts and below the surface that bring the book to vivid and dramatic life. Some of her encounters are unforgettable: the strange candlelit ceremony at one temple, the meeting with the facet (priestess) in another and the events underground, for instance. The facets are a truly spine-chilling invention, a sort of hive-mind of masked women, all identical, and there’s a moment near the end, when the hive-mind slips slightly, which is awesome.
The characters are as believable as always. Lysander is (as before) my favourite, but I liked Jana and Castor (the bodyguard), too. Duchess makes a very sympathetic lead, although she’s a little reckless for my taste. Is that a hint of a romantic interest for Duchess in Dorian? Even the minor characters have a complexity which is refreshing, and add depth to the story.
What didn’t work so well for me? As with the first book, I found the convoluted plot threads a tad too tricky to follow all the time, so there were references along the way that I just didn’t get. Sometimes there would be a line revealing some possibly crucial information (‘Ah, so that’s what so-and-so meant...’), which just whizzed over my head altogether. There is also the constant problem that everyone Duchess encounters may possibly be double-crossing her, so I tend to regard every new character as potentially hostile. I found myself always waiting for the double-cross from them. In fact, mostly they were surprisingly helpful and even charming, perfectly willing to further Duchess’s ends, while (obviously) working for their own ends as well. In some ways, everything was a little too easy for Duchess, as things fell into place rather readily. The retrieval of the ring, for instance, was a real let-down.
One issue that bothered me was the bodyguard, whose name started as Pollux and then changed to Castor, with an overt reference to the mythological twins. Does this mean, then, that we are in our own world at some future point? Or perhaps this is an alternate world, that happens to have some common history. Either way, it jolted me out of the story altogether for a while.
A highlight for me was the uncovering of some of Duchess's family history. For the first time, there is some detail about what actually happened when her father died and she was torn away from the safety of her family. More significantly, we learn what should have happened that night, and some of what went wrong. The suggestion that perhaps her brother and sister may have survived too opens up all sorts of intriguing possibilities.
As with the first book, the authors have pulled off an impeccable blend of mystery, action and world-building, combined with compelling characters about whom it's all too easy to care deeply. Who could be unmoved by Lysander and his friends, dealing with tragedy in the only way they can; or by Duchess, accepting the truth about Lysander for the first time, or realising the sort of life she might have had if events had gone otherwise, and coming to terms with her life as it now is? And then there was her final meeting with one of the facets, which was truly heartbreaking. This is a polished and cleverly thought out book which would repay a second read to understand all the nuances and subtexts. Highly recommended for those who like depth to their fantasy. A very good four stars.(less)
The author’s steampunk series, ‘The Emperor’s Edge’, has built up quite a following, but this is something very different, the star...moreFantasy Review Barn
The author’s steampunk series, ‘The Emperor’s Edge’, has built up quite a following, but this is something very different, the start of an urban fantasy [*] series, set the southwestern US. The setting may be different, but the principle is the same: a collection of interesting characters, a pacy action-packed adventure with loads of unexpected twists and some great humour.
Here’s the starting point: archaeology drop-out Delia and geek Simon are trying to get a business off the ground discovering buried artifacts and flogging them to collectors. Temi is a old friend of Delia’s, a former tennis pro on hard times. There’s also another old friend who handily analyses DNA samples when necessary, and a couple of weird guys on Harleys. Oh, and a monster. A going-round-randomly-killing-people-in-the-dead-of-night type monster. When Our Heroes stumble across a body in a cave, they find themselves sucked into a bizarre monster-hunting expedition. And when I say ‘sucked into’, I mean, of course, that they rush around following mysterious footprints or bloodtrails or exploring underground caverns with wilful disregard for their own safety.
For the first half of this book, I felt like I was reading the script for one of those cheap summer horror movies. Monster. Check. Bunch of nice, harmless kids. Check. Lots of stalking, screaming and desperate attempts to escape. Check. Yes, it’s all a bit cheesy but then there are some wait-what? moments. The two Harley riders who speak no known language (‘It’s not Klingon’, says the linguistics professor, deadpan). The non-human blood. The magic glowing sword (I kid you not). And the monster’s made of what? And the humour made me laugh out loud, which is always a plus, in my book.
The characters don’t sparkle yet, but this is the first in the series, and it’s hard to squeeze in all the character-building background when Our Heroes are frantically trying to escape the monster’s claws. Simon is a stock geek, more interested in apps and gadgets and blog posts than common sense, and a bit awkward with the ladies. Delia - well, I don’t get much of an impression of Delia. Both of them are far too ready to go careering after monsters or mysteriously hostile men, but then there wouldn’t be much of a story if they weren’t. Temi is more interesting, with her falling out with her family, her tennis and the sudden loss of that, and another mysterious quality which I won’t reveal but it’s intriguing. She was a little uneven, on the one hand perfectly ready to dive into whatever adventure the other two were haring off on, but also the voice of reality: “Guys, is this a sensible thing to do?” But if the main trio fell slightly flat, the two men on Harleys more than made up for it. I do like ultra-mysterious but very cool blokes. And there is one other character now on the loose that I am very much looking forward to seeing again.
This is a slightly lumpy start to the series, but that’s a very common problem. Once the characters settle down and start to gel I’m sure a lot of the rough edges will be smoothed away. For now, this is a straightforward, lightweight adventure caper, easy to read and a lot of fun, especially once the main chase begins, around the halfway point. There are a number of implausibilities, but, for me anyway, the humour more than makes up for it. The modern setting allows for a lot of quick-fire jokes, which you don’t actually need to be a Trekkie to appreciate (although maybe it helps). I wavered between three and four stars, but I’ll be generous on the grounds that a new series always needs time to iron out the kinks. Four stars.
[*] Look, the author self-defines it as urban fantasy, OK? So I'll go with that. But honestly, I don’t know what the hell it is - sci-fi or fantasy or paranormal or some wild mash-up of all of them. And honestly, it doesn’t really matter what you call it.(less)
There's always a worry with an author's follow-up to a spectacular debut. Whether you loved or hated the Broken Empire trilogy (Pri...moreFantasy Review Barn
There's always a worry with an author's follow-up to a spectacular debut. Whether you loved or hated the Broken Empire trilogy (Prince/King/Emperor of Thorns), it was hard to ignore and for a while it seemed as if the entire book reading world was in a frenzy about gloriously bad boy, Jorg. So how do you follow something like that? Not with a sequel, that's for sure, because Emperor of Thorns rounded off the story with an unequivocal 'The End'.
So here we are with - not quite a prequel, either. A sort of concurrentquel, if you like. Set in the same world as Broken Empire, but a different part of it with different characters and an independent story, but interweaving to some extent with events of that story. And even the title follows the same pattern; after 'Prince of Fools', will there be a 'King of Fools' and an 'Emperor of Fools' as well? This isn't a good sign, and indeed the book is littered with encounters with the Broken Empire characters. Frankly, I wasn’t so enamoured of most of them that I’m going to be squeeing with delight at meeting them again (although the encounter with Brother Emmer was very funny). Then there are the knowing references to the previous trilogy, like this: Dropping into a thorn bush can lead to no end of grief. Oh, how terribly droll.
So, how does this work out? First big problem is that we already know a great deal about the world and its history. The background that was so deliciously revealed, drop by drop, over the previous three volumes is now out in the open, so the thrill of discovery is lost. It's not that there's nothing new to find out, but (to my mind) once a setting is revealed as just our own world, tenuously placed a thousand years after a major catastrophe, it loses some of its charm. The more real world the setting, the less interesting it is. And some of the customs and quirks which which have (apparently) survived intact after a millennium of anarchy are surprising. The Catholic Church, for instance. And Vikings? Really? Complete with horned helmets? Fantasy requires more suspension of disbelief than most genres, but that stretches my credulity beyond its snapping point.
But never mind the setting, what about the characters? Jorg was such a towering personality it would be impossible to repeat, and the two main characters here are very different. Sadly, they're far from unique. Jalan is fantasy archetype number 27, the dissolute playboy prince, without a serious thought in his head. He's also archetype number 43, the accidental hero, who distinguishes himself in a crisis by running away/falling over and thereby quite inadvertantly managing to kill or capture the bad guy, or otherwise save the day. And the second main character, Snorri the Viking, is archetype number 7, the big, muscular, warrior type, who lays about with an axe and destroys armies single handed.
Now, don't get me wrong, I like archetypes as much as the next reader, and Snorri in particular is quite awesome (Snorri and the bear... oh boy, a highlight of the year; I do so love it when a book surprises me). Jalan, however, isn't quite as successful, mainly because although his charm was much talked about (by him, naturally), it didn't come across too well on the page. Mostly I just found him tedious and whiny, although he does have a way with witty one-liners.
Another issue is the female characters. Tolkien defines three of the four principle archetypes in fantasy; the unattainable princess (Arwen), the warrior babe (Eowyn) and the scary witchy lady (Galadriel). Recent custom has added the whore to the collection. Lawrence has two scary witchy ladies, the Red Queen, who's admittedly more scary and cryptic (in an overpowering, hectoring, schoolmistressy way) than witchy, and the Silent Sister, who's pure undiluted scary witchy, the stuff of nightmares. Necromancer Chella merits a mention, too, and she’s also pretty scary. Then there are a few women who bounce in and out of Jalan's life, without ever being more than sex objects (which is in character for him, so let that pass). However, the elephant rider deserves an honourable mention for being more than an archetype.
And then there are zombies. Now, if you’re the sort of reader who wakes up at this point, thinking: ‘Wait, there are zombies in this? Great, I’m in!’, then you’re probably not going to agree with me here, but honestly, folks, zombies are just so dull and uninteresting and unoriginal and plain naff. Their only purpose is to provide a horde of mindless things who are trying to kill Our Heroes, and who are virtually impossible to kill themselves. It ramps up the tension artificially, but naturally, we all know that Our Heroes will prevail in the end. I can see the point in a video game, but in a novel? Puh-lease.
Shall I mention the plot? Better had. This is a quest/road trip/male bonding/coming of age adventure. Only with lots and lots of ice-bound wilderness and snow. And zombies. That’s probably all anyone needs to know about the plot. You’ll pick it up as you go along.
This seems like a lot of negatives, doesn't it? What saves it is that Lawrence can write. Every sentence is a carefully crafted work of art, and there are occasional phrases and even single perfectly-judged words, which light up the page like shafts of sunshine peeking from between the clouds. And it's funny, too, the same laugh-out-loud humour which shone through even Jorg's most despicable acts. Despite the world being known and the archetypes and the unoriginal plot and the wretched zombies and the endless snow, the thing is always compellingly readable.
The ending is good fun in an over the top, just one more even badder thing to defeat, sort of way, heaping one impossible-to-survive disaster on another. It was kind of exciting, but I was never convinced that Jalan and pals were totally screwed (it's a trilogy, hint, hint), and some of the twists were blindingly obvious (although fortunately not all, or it would have been very dull). I confess I got a little tired of the we're-safe-oh-no-we're-not repetition, combined with the sheer volume of blood and guts and dismemberment and the whole undead unpleasantness. This is definitely more on the horror end of the spectrum.
Is it as good as the Broken Empire books? For my money, no, it doesn’t quite have that breath-taking brilliance that blew me away. But in many ways it’s a more conventional book, and for a lot of readers who struggled with Jorg, that will make it a more enjoyable exercise. For me, for whom Jorg was a revelation, this was a very slightly disappointing come down. Three stars. Although... Snorri and the bear merit another half a star, at least, so let’s round up to four stars.(less)
I’m a huge fan of the author, having given five stars to both ‘Thorn’ and ‘Sunbolt’, so this was a must-have for me. It’s a charmin...moreFantasy Review Barn
I’m a huge fan of the author, having given five stars to both ‘Thorn’ and ‘Sunbolt’, so this was a must-have for me. It’s a charming little short story, a prequel to a future novel, with all the author’s trademarks: great characters, a well-defined setting and an intriguing plot, beautifully written, creating an altogether beguiling experience.
Rae is the eldest of three sisters, who live with their parents. No, the main character isn’t an orphan, isn’t mistreated and actually has a great relationship with her siblings and parents, a refreshing change from so much fantasy. But Niya, the middle sister, has a secret: a talent for magic, which she uses in delightfully domestic ways, enhancing the bread or the stitches in the curtains. But in this world, magic-users are obliged to be trained as mages and serve the king, so Niya has to keep her ability hidden. Into this placid setting comes potential trouble, a man wanting to buy horses. He just happens to be a faerie...
It’s difficult in a short story to create characters who have any real depth, but the author carries this off with aplomb. Rae, the girl with a clubfoot, sneered at and ignored by the villagers, is also intelligent and resourceful. The rest of the family have their own distinctive personalities. But the star of the show is the faerie, a creature both frightening and eerily compelling at the same time, and very much ‘other’, something not human. He steals every scene he’s in, frankly, and I hope we see more of him in the full-length novel.
My only quibble with the story is that the villagers seem to be rather different from Rae and her family. In short, they are somewhat lacking in common sense, and I’m not sure why they are so overtly hostile towards the faerie, when Rae’s father is quite happy to do business with him. It may be that there’s some reason behind that, which isn’t being made clear, but it struck me as odd. It’s a very small point, however.
I really enjoyed this, but be warned: it is very short, and stopped at 47% on my Kindle, the rest being taken up with samples of the author’s other works. A good four stars.(less)
This is a set of three novellas which combine to form one longer story. The first part, 'The Prisoner', is beautifully done, with a...moreFantasy Review Barn
This is a set of three novellas which combine to form one longer story. The first part, 'The Prisoner', is beautifully done, with a wonderfully mysterious and quite spine-chilling atmosphere. The second part, 'The Knight', is still very readable but loses a little of the atmosphere. The third part, 'The King', gets a bit bogged down in politics and loses traction a little, but ends on a fine note.
The three stories together form a complete whole, or perhaps I should say a potentially complete whole. The story arc is resolved with a satisfactory flourish (although with plenty of room for possible future development), but many elements seem quite skeletal. The characters, in particular, are not quite fully fleshed out. The world-building is very solid and well thought out, but the little glimpses we catch here and there of how things work are tantalising; more detail would have been welcome. I would have liked to know more about the religious system, for instance, and how the power of the light works in this world. I'm a big fan of not info-dumping the background, but this was a little too minimalist for my taste.
The main character, the elf, is quite compelling, although we weren't given much detail about him but the gradual reveal of who he is and his powers was masterfully done. However, although some development is expected, even in a piece as short as this, and it was always clear why he changed, I still didn't find his transformation entirely credible. Again, a little more time spent on fleshing out the character would have been good. Of the other characters, the good ones seem a little too good, sometimes, especially Lenora and Fredric. The king's mixed motives seemed believably human, although he was rather too stupid at the end. The prison warden, Captain Torren, I liked very much. This was an excellent portrayal of an honourable man caught in an extremely difficult situation, and trying to do the best he could.
It may be that the author intends to pad this out to novel length at some point, in which case undoubtedly the rather unfinished nature of this material will be irrelevant. Even if not, a final editing polish wouldn't go amiss; I didn't spot any errors, but there were a few slightly clunky lines which a little rewording would deal with. I cringed, for instance, when the elf said he would 'holler'. This may seem like a long list of criticisms, but it’s more a matter of frustration that the book was so short - I would have liked much more. Despite my grumbles, none of them affected my enjoyment of the book, which I found very readable. Four stars.(less)
Well, well, well. J K Rowling has balls after all, publishing under a pseudonym and gathering some good reviews and typical mid-list debut author sale...moreWell, well, well. J K Rowling has balls after all, publishing under a pseudonym and gathering some good reviews and typical mid-list debut author sales rankings along the way, until she was accidentally outed. Maybe next time she'll self-publish and keep her identity a secret until she's ready to reveal it.
I was never much attracted to ‘The Casual Vacancy’ but murder mysteries are right up my alley. This one, set in London, features a superstar model who apparently jumps off a balcony to her death, but her brother is convinced she was murdered. Enter Cormoran Strike, an ex-soldier with a surprisingly classy and rich ex-girlfriend, and a not very successful private eye business. Robin Ellacott is his new temp, starry-eyed about her recent engagement.
A straightforward genre book of this type, presumably the first of a series, succeeds or fails largely on the strength of the main character, and to be honest I can’t work out whether Cormoran Strike works or not. On the one hand, he has all the typical hallmarks of his type - ex-military police, invalided out of the army, now down on his luck, girlfriend’s thrown him out, hounded for debts and sleeping in the office. So far, so standard. Yet beneath the bluff exterior, he’s a painstaking and intelligent detective, methodically tracking down potential witnesses, interviewing them with tedious thoroughness and carefully writing up his notes every night. Despite sleeping in the office and living on pot noodles and Chinese takeaways, he manages to shower every day and do his laundry, even the ironing. It’s as if the author couldn’t quite bring herself to make him a complete slob.
The big question for me, is why exactly was he down on his luck and in debt in the first place? He’s had a good (ie well-paid) job in the army, and presumably now has a reasonable pension from being blown up on active duty. He’s clearly very good at what he does, he has friends, plus an endless supply of useful contacts for information or computer hacking skills, he doesn’t routinely drink to excess or gamble or indulge in other expensive habits. He’s had a very posh (ie rich) girlfriend with whom he lived for a number of years, so he’s not even had to put a roof over his head. So why is he in debt? Maybe this will be revealed later, but for now it makes little sense.
His sidekick, Robin, is less of a mystery. She’s moved to London to be closer to her fiance, so while she’s clearly overqualified and far too inventive to be a low-rent temp, she was supposed to be only passing through on the way to better things. She is conveniently good at computer searches and play-acting, though. There’s probably much more backstory to be revealed about her, but for now the little we know is enough. And, like Strike, she’s a likeable character. The other characters are a mixed collection of the rich and famous, or the tail-end of society, all of them nicely delineated and very believable.
The plot follows the usual pattern: as Strike interviews one person after another, little clues are revealed about the victim, her lifestyle, her friends and relationships, and ultimately the truth about the night she died. This is handled in a fairly predictable, not to say pedestrian, way. The interviews are long in themselves, and when interspersed with chatter about what people are eating and drinking (‘Another one?’; ‘Yeah, I’ll have a lager, thanks.’; Strike went to the bar and ordered... zzz) they seem interminable and banal. But the murder mystery itself I found intriguing. It sucked me in exactly the way it was supposed to: so who did she phone up? and why did the woman downstairs hear talking? and who were those guys running away? I liked it.
I do have some grumbles though. Someone should point out to the author that jumping from one point of view character to another without warning is seriously disruptive. There are only two main characters with points of view, Strike and Robin, but the view hops from one to the other without any indication. Every time I came across this I stopped, said ‘what just happened?’ and had to go back and reread. It’s an annoyance. The other big annoyance are those long, convoluted sentences with several sub-clauses in them. Here’s a random example:
“He behaved, in Lucy’s terms, well throughout the rest of the party, devoting himself in the main to defusing brewing arguments between various overexcited children, then barricading himself behind a trestle table covered in jelly and ice cream, thus avoiding the intrusive interest of the prowling mothers.”
Many, many times I ground to a halt, losing the thread, and had to reread. Yet another annoyance: the intrusive name-dropping. Do we really need to know that Strike drinks Doom Bar beer, that the victim’s laptop was a Dell, the exact brand of cigarette smoked? Then there’s the mention of ‘the election’ and references to Gordon Brown. None of this seems to have any relevance to the plot [* but see below], and only serves to ensure that the story will very quickly seem dated. None of these are mistakes, exactly, but they do disturb the flow when reading. But there are moments in the second half when the writing is right on the nose. Here’s the description of the victim’s mother:
“The dying woman wore a thick ivory-coloured bed jacket and reclined, dwarfed by her carved wooden bed, on many white pillows. No trace of Lady Bristow’s youthful prettiness remained. The raw bones of the skeleton were clearly delineated now, beneath fine skin that was shiny and flaking. Her eyes were sunken, filmy and dim, and her wispy hair, fine as a baby’s, was grey against large expanses of pink scalp. Her emaciated arms lay limp on top of the covers, a catheter protruded. Her death was an almost palpable presence in the room, as though it stood waiting patiently, politely, behind the curtains.”
On the whole, though, everything about the book works well enough without ever being mind-blowing. The murder grabbed me right from the start and each little reveal kept me turning the pages for the next. The ending is carefully thought out, with every loose end neatly tied up and everything logical (although stretching credibility, but that’s par for the course in the genre). Did I guess the identity of the murderer? No, I had no clue at all, even though the motive was fairly obvious. So full marks for the sleight of hand. The methodical detective and his implausibly creative secretary are a nicely likeable pair, and I’ll certainly look out for the next in the series. Four stars.
[*] It’s interesting, in view of the revelation that nominal author Robert Galbraith is actually J K Rowling, to consider the role of the press in the story, specifically the paparazzi who are described as buzzing like flies in the book’s opening, and are ever-present in the lives of the rich, famous and beautiful people who make up most of the principal characters. In particular, the phone hacking of the victim herself affects her actions and, in retrospect, makes it very difficult for the police to work out what she did on the last day of her life and, ultimately, why she was killed. The reference to ‘the election’ dates the story to 2010, a point when the initial scandal about the hacking of royalty and celebrities (including Rowling) had died down without action taken. It was only in mid-2011, when it was revealed that the mobile phone of a child murder victim had been hacked, that public opinion was sufficiently incensed to trigger the usual round of inquiries and commissions and more serious police investigations, leading eventually to arrests. Rowling herself was one of those who gave evidence to the Leveson Inquiry. So it may be that ‘The Cuckoo’s Calling’ is just one long diatribe about press intrusion. Still a nice piece of work, though.(less)
This short book is a delight from start to finish. It’s written in traditional fairytale style, beginning with ‘Once upon a time......moreFantasy Review Barn
This short book is a delight from start to finish. It’s written in traditional fairytale style, beginning with ‘Once upon a time...’, with a charming simplicity which hides a great deal under the surface. The heroine of the story, who never has a name throughout the book, is a shapeshifter and magic-user, in a land which doesn’t understand or respect magic. Orphaned and raised by a kindly old man, she is forced to leave her home village when he dies, and sets off to find her place in the world. Her travels, the people she meets and the answers she finds to her questions about her missing father and her own magic, form the body of the story.
This is not your conventional fairytale. At every turn, the author neatly sidesteps the traps and tropes of the genre, so there are plenty of wonderful surprises in store, and a nice line in humour too. Every town or village or country the girl visits is a little different from the others, with its own customs and peculiarities, and exploring these differences is one of the highlights of the book, for me. There’s a prince, of course, and a witch, but they’re not at all as you’d expect. The prince is possibly my favourite character in the book, but even though it seems things are set fair for a little romance, things take a different turn. It’s so much fun when a book refuses to toe the boringly predictable line this way. I do like to have my expectations subverted.
If there's a grumble at all, it's that the girl seems a little mature for her age, given her rather sheltered upbringing. She accepts whatever comes her way with equanimity, judges people quite well and isn't really bothered at having to travel around on her own. But then I suppose that being able to turn into a bear or a bird or something small enough to hide behind a bush is rather a good self-defence mechanism, plenty good enough to deal with most of the little difficulties that a not entirely law-abiding country can throw at her. I liked the way she grows over the course of the book, finding out what works and what doesn't and using her talents not for power or glory, but as a low-key way to survive so that she can do what she really wants to do (mostly haunt the libraries and bookshops, which I can relate to).
This is the first of four novellas relating the beginnings of four characters to feature in a full-length fantasy novel later.  The book is intended for any age reader from 9 upwards, and it would work brilliantly with an adult reading it to a child, whether to draw out the subtleties and provoke discussion, or just to enjoy the subtext. It would be a great communal read for schools as well. Whether it works so well as an adult-only read is less certain. I thoroughly enjoyed it, as a refreshing change of pace from grittier adult fantasy, but despite the subtleties it felt very child-oriented at times. Not childish, but perhaps lacking some of the multi-layering of the best adult fantasy. This is not a criticism, just a comment and a matter of personal preference. An entertaining read, with deceptive simplicity and an unexpected degree of humour. Four stars.
 At the time of writing (June 2013) this is the only one of the four published, and the second novella, ‘Horse Feathers’, is currently being posted a chapter at a time on the website, which is at Amoeba Ink.
This is the second in the 'Theft and Sorcery' series. I really enjoyed the first book, 'The Ritual', and this one is even better. I...moreFantasy Review Barn
This is the second in the 'Theft and Sorcery' series. I really enjoyed the first book, 'The Ritual', and this one is even better. It's not serious or grimdark or heavy or profound, but it is a whole lot of fun. It wouldn't be everyone's cup of tea, let's get that straight right from the start; there's a fair amount of graphic sex, although nothing kinky or disturbing to my eyes, and there's swearing of a similarly earthy nature, so anyone who's bothered by that should steer clear.
Although this book is essentially a stand-alone, it is directly connected to the first book, but set some sixty years later. The two main characters in 'The Ritual', Rin and Zash, turn up again here in a minor role. Being half-elves themselves, a sixty year gap makes them still young and active, not pensioners. The main leads, Sita, the first person point of view, and Kai, both half-elves, are new characters here. Last time, Rin was the thief and Zash a sorcerer, but this time both Kai and Sita are thieves, and Kai is also a sorcerer, a nice twist. The two meet while both are trying to burgle the royal palace, the joke being that Sita actually lives there, but she is being trained on the queen's instructions in various nefarious pursuits, as well as forms of combat.
This is a romance, first and foremost, but that doesn't mean that the fantasy element is perfunctory. The world-building has ramped up somewhat from the first book, where it felt decidedly sketchy. This time, the author fleshes out the political element, and a conspiracy by the various high magistrates (kind of like dukes, ruling a domain of their own) to assassinate the queen. Sita is part of a group sent off with the heir to the throne, Tio; his role is to make a royal tour of the kingdom and cosy up to the magistrates, and hers is to uncover evidence of the conspiracy. As they travel through the countryside, there is some interesting detail of the economic strengths of each one. It isn't very complicated - the coast has fish, the mountains have mines, the warm south has vineyards - but it serves to make the world feel more fleshed out and realistic.
The other aspect that I found interesting is the three races - elf, human and half-elf. In the previous book, elves ran everything, humans filled the equivalent of the middle classes and half-elves were mostly slaves. The end of the story saw a change, with the incoming queen giving all the half-elves citizenship. In this book, we find (unsurprisingly) that not everyone is happy with that situation (hence the assassination plot), and that things are a lot more complicated than they seem. Since elves have low fertility, humans breed like the proverbial rabbits (contraception seems to be unheard of) and half-elves are infertile, there's a lot of potential for sexual exploitation. Male elves in this world are horny devils, and have a thing for human women, hence the numbers of half-elves. This book explores some of the uneasy relationships between the races.
The plot rattles along beautifully. There's plenty of action, some truly dramatic moments and a scary twist at the end - one of those phew-we're-all-safe-oh-no! moments. And yes, of course there's a happy ever after at the end (this is a romance, after all), but there were quite a few heart-stopping, page-turning, gotta-keep-reading incidents along the way. The magic is nothing unusual - muttered incantations, hand-waviness, almost anything goes, although the user gets tired so there is a price to pay. I liked some of Kai's illusions, though; the coloured light thingies sounded lovely. So as a fantasy, this holds up very well.
What about the romance side of things? Short answer - terrific. The relationship between Sita and Kai is perfectly believable, the obstacles (an essential component of any romance) were realistic, even the instant attraction is nicely done. I have to say that Kai is one of the most charming heroes I've ever encountered, with none of the smug arrogance that so often characterises the male lead these days. There were moments when Sita was pushing him away and I was muttering: look, if you don't want him, dear, send him my way. You just don't find blokes as nice as that too often. I had slight issues with him turning out so well after the sort of experiences he'd had, but let's not quibble over that. The sex was well written without being over the top, and there were some moments of pure romance that were perfectly lovely (sigh...). One other aspect that struck me - even though our athletic heroes spent a lot of time screwing each other silly, and the early encounters were given in great detail, the author was restrained enough to skip much of the graphic description for the later episodes, so it never became overly repetitive.
I do have some issues with the morality question. In the first book, the main characters were thieves almost by necessity, since the alternative was slavery. Here, Kai is a thief from choice, and although he attempts to justify that (he only steals one or two items from those rich enough to afford it), it's still fairly questionable. More seriously, there is a point when our heroes decide to kill a number of guards in order to free a lot of slaves. The author doesn't avoid the issue, showing the characters' unease with the decision, but it still made me uncomfortable. The guards were, after all, just paid employees following their boss's orders, not the enemy in a war, and it seemed extreme to kill them. I would have liked it better if a more subtle way could have been found to free them. But it's a minor point.
This was a hugely enjoyable read that had me grinning from ear to ear at times, and was also an exciting page turner. It's not deep, and the characters fall neatly into the good or evil columns (no shades of grey here, moral ambiguities aside), but it's a lot of fun, and both the romance and fantasy elements work very well. Recommended for anyone who enjoys their fantasy entertaining and fast-paced, with a hefty dollop of sex thrown in. A good four stars.
I recently read ‘The Burning Sky’, the author’s debut book, and while I loved the original setting and found the story a fast-paced...moreFantasy Review Barn
I recently read ‘The Burning Sky’, the author’s debut book, and while I loved the original setting and found the story a fast-paced steampunk adventure, the characters never quite came alive for me. The author had a truly wonderful response to that; he made the whole Halcyon series (of which ‘The Burning Sky’ is the first part) very cheap, and encouraged readers to decide whether they agreed or not. And he added: ‘I want you to go read my latest steampunk thriller, ‘The Kaiser Affair’, and let me know if I have improved my characters in the time between the two publications’. I dutifully went off to check it out, started reading the sample and (you can probably guess the rest) yes, I got so engrossed I ended up buying the book and neglecting a long-awaited new arrival to finish it. So indeed I would agree that Mr Lewis’s writing (and not just the characters) has improved hugely.
Like the previous work, this is steampunk but this time with strong fantasy overtones. The story is part of a collaborative effort between a number of authors, who pooled their talents to create the background world, and then each set a stand-alone story in that world, under the collective title ‘The Drifting Isle Chronicles’. The Kaiser of the title is Ranulf Kaiser, imprisoned for complex and ingenious financial crimes, who has managed to escape from prison only a short time before his release date. Our heroes, Bettina Rothschild and her husband Arjuna Rana, are given the task of tracking down the missing Kaiser and putting a stop to whatever nefarious schemes he has in mind. And so begins an entertaining chase all round the city of Eisenstadt, and above it, too.
The two main characters are a delightful pair, with a charmingly bantering relationship and a liking for steamy sex in unlikely locations. While Bettina is clearly the senior (in professional terms), and is the one giving orders, she generally sits out the fights, while improbably athletic husband Arjuna does battle with the baddies. This makes her seem oddly passive. I appreciate that the author has put female characters in strong plot-driving roles, and obviously they don’t all have to be the kick-ass type, but the contrast between these two is extreme. However, when Bettina does get drawn into a fight, she’s quite capable of laying into her opponent without a problem, and I totally loved the imaginative ways she used her cane. Another nice contrast between the two - Bettina is smart and thinks things through carefully, while Arjuna is clever in a different way, knowledgeable and with what appears to be a photographic memory.
The other characters are relatively minor, but are neatly drawn, if a little one-dimensional at times (but then minor characters are allowed to be). The plot is hare-brained, of course, but it hardly matters and it all resolves itself very effectively and logically. And (the part I really liked) there are some wonderfully fantastical elements - the drifting isle itself, slowly circling above the city, mysterious and enticing; the talking birds; and the shadow people. I really love this kind of world - original, intriguing and wildly unpredictable.
I’ve found it fascinating to read these two samples of the author’s work back to back. The style is the same, of course, and both could do with a bit more polish on the editing front, but where one had a mish-mash of main characters and a complicated inter-weaving of plot threads, this one focuses tightly on just two characters and follows them throughout the book. There’s still a lot of chasing about and fighting and guns and improvised weapons and even a bow but the actual injuries are few, and they are more realistic, no more than a few scrapes here and there or the occasional arrow to the shoulder, so the whole story is more plausible and less cartoonish (although - an autogyro chase? Well, that's different!). There isn’t much introspection or philosophising going on, and I wouldn’t say the characters are exactly deep, although there are one or two moments when they do reach for something more meaningful (especially the discussion about Arjuna’s home), but they’re always likeable and behave believably. In addition, there’s loads of humour and a light touch that is (to me, anyway) way more enjoyable than ‘The Burning Sky’. Highly recommended for a light, entertaining read. Four stars.(less)
This is the second part of the ‘Deed of Paksenarrion’ trilogy. The first part told how Paks left her home to avoid a forced marriag...moreFantasy Review Barn
This is the second part of the ‘Deed of Paksenarrion’ trilogy. The first part told how Paks left her home to avoid a forced marriage, joining the local Duke’s private army and discovering they were mercenaries. There was a lot of detail about army life, with numerous skirmishes and battles, and Paks made many friends and attracted the attention even of the Duke himself with her fearless fighting and loyalty. I enjoyed it very much and looked forward to more of the same. And within a chapter, this book has veered sharply off in a different direction altogether.
Not liking the Duke’s support for the violent methods of a pirate-turned-nobleman, Paks leaves the army and sets off over the mountains for home, accompanied only by what must be the world’s most devious elf. No longer are we following the realistic lifestyle of the mercenary troop, we’re into full-on fantasy quest mode, with a succession of threats to be defeated and magic everywhere. Magic beasts, magic rings, spells conveniently summoned to get out of trouble. Here’s a mysterious underground place, obviously full of evil, but Paks has a ‘feeling’ that someone is calling for help. Which way to go? Another strange feeling tells them. How shall we get rid of the evil spirit? I know, let’s use this magic scroll - no idea at all what it does but - oh look, it worked. Now, I have no problem with the principle of magic (I read fantasy, after all, it comes with the territory), but it shouldn’t be a universal get-out-of-jail-free card for all occasions.
Fortunately, the whole book isn’t like this, and soon Paks is back on more prosaic turf. The real difference between this and the first book is that she is essentially alone, cut off from the familiarity and support of the company. Paks is in many ways the perfect soldier - tough and hard working, willing to follow orders but without losing her innate sense of right and wrong. Her weakness comes from inexperience with the world, which leads her to accept people at face value and follow along without questioning, or even thinking much about the consequences. This is fine within the structure of a military outfit, but isn’t so good when she is travelling about on her own.
This book made me uneasy. I like Paks as a character very much. She’s the complete antithesis of the typical fantasy hero - well, maybe being handy with a sword is quite typical, but still... She’s self-effacing, honest and straightforward, yet she constantly seems to bump up against people who are more complicated, people who lie to her, or trick her, or withhold information, or push her into things that perhaps she’s not suited to. She’s very easily persuaded, especially when there’s an attractive adventure in the offing. Sometimes Paks seems quite stupid in her simple-mindedness, but that’s as much her lack of education as anything else, plus the innocence of youth, perhaps. But still, I ached for her to cut through the web of other people’s schemes and see her way to something more than being pushed around.
This book feels much choppier than the first. Even though they both have episodes of action interspersed with slower passages, the first book had the uniformity of always being set within Duke Phelan’s company of mercenaries. This book hops about - the company, the journey with the elf, the village of Brewersbridge, dealing with the robbers, training with the Girdsmen, the journey west and so on, and none of them very well connected. They seemed like a more or less random collection of events. Each time, there are new characters to get to know, new circumstances to understand, new mistakes for Paks to make. And each time there are histories to recount and long philosophical discussions to be got through regarding the essence of good and evil. Paks floundered a bit with these, and I confess that I didn’t understand a lot of the points either. It might be thought-provoking, if it wasn't analysed in exhaustive details by a whole succession of characters. It begins to get repetitive after a while.
The action parts are terrific, though, even if they seem a bit dated now - all those underground passages, evil beasties and magical this-that-and-the-others. And it does seem a little too easy, sometimes, that Paks manages to survive all these trials. Somehow there's always a magical gizmo or a character with convenient powers to rescue her. And then the ending. Few books have moved me quite as much as this one. Poor, poor Paks! Her tragedy is heartwrenching, and it’s hard to see that she herself did anything wrong to invoke such a terrible fate. This is a very uneven book, but, as with the first one, the final chapters more than overcome the earlier flaws. Four stars.(less)
This is a break away from fantasy for the author, but not very far. It’s technically science fiction - a guy builds a time machine...moreFantasy Review Barn
This is a break away from fantasy for the author, but not very far. It’s technically science fiction - a guy builds a time machine in his Detroit garage, and after a diagnosis of terminal cancer he decides he has nothing to lose by trying it out. He sets things up for a jump two hundred years into the future, where, if he’s really lucky and survives the jump at all, there may be a cure. But - oops, slight miscalculation, and here we are two thousand years on. There’s a certain amount of arm-waving about quantum this and that, but the sciencey bits are not what this is all about. To be honest, it felt a lot like a portal story, where an ordinary joe from the present day finds himself in - well, alternate universe, past, future, whatever. So I’d say it’s as much fantasy as science fiction.
The future the author draws for the reader is an interesting one. Humans have abandoned the surface of the planet altogether after a series of ecological disasters destabilised everything, and now live in the Hollow World of the title, giant caverns using advanced technology to recreate a pseudo-earth environment. Given the ability to create pretty much everything they need, people fill their days with art, or entertainment, travelling through portals or - well, whatever they want to do. They are also immortal, and virtually everyone is build to a universal genderless pattern, the only way to distinguish one individual from another being a chip embedded in one shoulder. Again, there’s a certain amount of arm-waving over the science, but it worked perfectly well for me.
If the science isn’t a big part of the story, the author brings his traditional strengths to bear - compelling characters and an action-packed roller-coaster of a ride that leaves you on the edge of your seat. There are murders and mysterious people who are trying to kill our hero, a renegade setting himself up as a cult leader, a conspiracy and finally a big world-ending threat that has to be tackled head on because the clock is ticking... There were moments when I had to put the book down momentarily to remind myself to breathe.
As for the characters, there’s only one who matters - Pax, the genderless future-person, one of millions of identical people, who nevertheless turns out to be very much an individual. You wouldn’t think it possible for a clone (and that’s essentially what he is) to be differentiated from his/her/its compatriots, but Pax is one of those characters who just leaps off the page, larger than life and quite unforgettable. Because he’s neither male nor female, almost everything he does, or rather the way he does it, calls into question our own attitudes to the two genders. Just writing this paragraph underlines the difficulty - I’ve resorted to called Pax ‘he’ by default, and he Pax isn’t either he or she. It’s a testament to Mr Sullivan’s writing skill that he (definitely a he! even without the famous moustache, now sadly consigned to history) side-steps the issue so deftly. I don’t think he ever uses a gendered pronoun for any of the Hollow World residents. I’ll admit to not being too sure about Pax to start with (we do like to put everyone in boxes, and you just can’t with Pax), but by the mid-point Pax was definitely my favourite character.
The rest of the characters, even our time travelling hero himself, Ellis, seem a bit grey and dull by comparison. His pal Warren is something of a caricature, his wife Peggy never gets a chance to shine, and few of the Hollow World residents stand out (Sol, maybe, and the AI vox Alva, with an honourable mention for the Geomancers - I loved their yay! a crisis! attitude). It’s not at all that they’re poorly drawn (they’re mostly great characters and in other circumstances I’d be raving about them), they only seem slightly flat by comparison with Pax, who is the true hero star of the show.
The real joy of ‘Hollow World’ is the many themes that weave through every page of it. Themes like gender, the purpose of religion, what God is, traditionalism versus modernism, immortality, individualism, the nature of insanity, the meaning of love and a thousand more. It may sound churlish to complain, because too much SFF writing these days is lightweight, but in some ways there are almost too many layers of meaning here, too many themes crammed in. Then there were points where a character would declaim at some length about a certain philosophy, which is perhaps an unsubtle approach. But the author never beats us over the head with his own take on it. He simply allows his characters to express their own point of view and leaves it up to the reader to make up his/her (aargh!) mind.
This is a clever and thought-provoking story, with loads of interesting ideas, some adrenalin-pumping action and plenty of humour. It took a little while to get going (the real world is always duller than an imaginary one), and some of Warren’s diatribes sagged a bit, but overall an entertaining read with Pax being one of my favourite characters of the year. A good four stars.(less)
Soren is eighteen, trying to survive on the streets, when a theft gone wrong results in a street fight and a passing swordsman reco...moreFantasy Review Barn
Soren is eighteen, trying to survive on the streets, when a theft gone wrong results in a street fight and a passing swordsman recognises some talent in him. He is taken to the Academy to learn to wield a rapier and be a gentleman. The early chapters are the usual street-boy-goes-to-posh-school affair, but fortunately Soren has the intelligence to keep his nose clean, so he’s not constantly getting into trouble. He also turns out to be something of a fighting phenomenon, not an unusual theme in fantasy, but nicely intriguing here. Is his ability a natural talent, or some kind of magic?
Fortunately, the author avoids getting too entrenched in schoolroom dramas and Soren is soon out and about wielding his rapier and discovering the extent of his extraordinary gift. These early battles are beautifully described, the highpoint of the book for me, and I loved every moment of each one (especially the belek). The romantic entanglement is slightly more clunky, but that fits with Soren’s rather self-effacing nature. The background scenery is lightly sketched, with more emphasis on architecture than geography, but it works fine, and the deep history - of empires and mage wars and other intriguing events - is no more than hints. I found it interesting that Ostia (Soren’s country) has outlawed magic, but still makes use of mage lights, while the barbarians still practice magic.
Soren is a likeable protagonist, making (mostly) sensible decisions. I liked his response to a trick played on him by a fellow student. His friends tell him his honour has been impugned and he must challenge the trickster to a duel, but Soren is reluctant; he is far more concerned with trying not to break the rules of the Academy and thereby get himself thrown out. Unlike his rich, titled friends, he is more focused on making a career for himself than on abstract concepts like honour, and he never forgets his origins. He seems to adapt surprisingly well to a life of protocol and diplomacy, but he’s clearly a smart cookie, so I can go along with that (and frankly, a socially inept character would be pretty tedious - I wanted Soren to succeed, not trip over his own feet). It has to be said, though, that he’s very gullible - although to be fair, it fits with his personality and previous life, since he’s too grateful for his reprieve from the streets to question things, and he has no understanding of political nuances.
The writing style is enjoyably literate, if rather wordy, but it works very well for a story like this, built around formality and protocol. The author has a habit of dumping information occasionally, but it’s small scale stuff and not obtrusive. There is some untidiness, repetition and excessive exposition, and the author might care to look up the difference between ‘discrete’ and ‘discreet’. The latter part of the book becomes a little episodic and the fights rather perfunctory, but Soren’s investigations into his abilities were still intriguing. The big reveal at the end is hardly a surprise, and the ending somewhat glib, but these are minor issues.
I really enjoyed this book and found it seductively easy to keep turning the pages - that just-one-more-chapter syndrome. It’s the first time I’ve read a story focused on the rapier as the weapon of choice, and I found it a refreshing change from the more usual broadswords and bows. I would have liked to know more about Soren’s abilities and the mage wars, but perhaps that will come in a later book. This is a somewhat flawed effort in many ways - the choppy ending, the not-quite-convincing romance and the sometimes too wordy style - but I found it a great read. A good four stars. And the belek was awesome.(less)
Two twin half-elf sisters, one a thief, one a sorceress, meet two twin half-elf brothers, one a thief, one a sorcerer... what are t...moreFantasy Review Barn
Two twin half-elf sisters, one a thief, one a sorceress, meet two twin half-elf brothers, one a thief, one a sorcerer... what are the odds? And there’s this instant attraction... Well, we can see where this is going, can’t we? Still, there are enough original twists here to give this a fresh spin. Elves are the rulers in this world, with humans as the underdogs, but the bottom of the heap are the half-elves, where those with magical ability are scooped up and trained and the rest are slaves or (at best) low ranking servants. They can’t set up in business or own property... which makes it tricky to live independent lives, except by thievery.
This was my first foray into fantasy romance, which in this case is romance with pointy ears. There is a plot, of sorts, involving stealing four items, one for each of the four elements - earth, air, fire and water - for someone or other, but really it doesn’t matter. It’s all just an excuse for smouldering glances over the campfire, sizzling accidental touches while hiding from dragons in caves, and a lot of heavy breathing. The first kiss is a quarter of the way into the book, and before the halfway point we’re into improbably athletic sex of the panting, thrusting, never-been-so-amazing variety. Elvish porn, if you like. And you know what? It’s a helluva lot of fun.
This isn’t a masterpiece of epoch-making literature, but then it has no pretensions to be anything other than entertainment. As fantasy, the world-building is sketchy, the plot isn’t terribly original and the magic is fairly conventional. There’s a lack of realistic detail in the background - the world has a few scattered towns and a lot of emptiness, and the characters simply amble through the scenery, always managing to find enough food and shelter. There appear to be no great threats out in the wilderness, apart from the beasties they themselves seek out as part of their quest. There always seems to be time for a quick roll in the hay. Or a slow one, for that matter. Followed by much, much more of the same. The setting isn’t the important factor, though. The characters have a lot of charm and the ‘romance’ is more plausibly done than some I’ve read, seeming quite natural for the circumstances. Even the obstacles keeping them apart seem reasonably believable. The author has a nicely unobtrusive writing style, and I didn’t spot any typos at all. I did wonder a bit about the morality of all that light-hearted stealing, but it didn’t seem like they had many other options so I’ll go along with it.
A minor grumble. I like a map with my fantasy, and there’s a very nice one here. So what’s the grumble? The map is at the BACK of the book, with no indication it’s there. Probably OK with a printed version, but in an ebook - please put the map at the front! Or a table of contents.
This is a fun book. It follows the conventions of romance, so yes, there’s that instant attraction thing, and there’s a lot of barely suppressed passion right from the start. The fantasy elements play second fiddle here and anyone looking for standard save-the-world fantasy should move right along, although the characters at least have credible motivations. The ending is just a tad too slick for my taste, but there are some good action moments along the way. The events at the monastery were exciting enough to keep me flipping through the pages, breathless to find out how it turns out. And how do our heroes celebrate afterwards? The usual way, that’s how. I have to confess that the constant humping gets a little bit repetitive after a while, and frankly if the male interest had been a vampire I wouldn’t have got through ten pages. But if you have a thing for hot elves (or half-elves, in this case) with a smattering of dragons thrown in, this is an entertaining read. I rarely give romancey type stuff more than three stars, but you know, I really enjoyed this, it’s better written than average and I have a soft spot for dragons (and sexy half-elves, apparently), so four stars it is.(less)
The basic premise here is not an unfamiliar one - a teenage boy learning to use magical powers has to leave home to avoid persecuti...moreFantasy Review Barn
The basic premise here is not an unfamiliar one - a teenage boy learning to use magical powers has to leave home to avoid persecution. Fortunately, the author has neatly sidestepped the cliché-fest by setting the story outside the traditional medieval feudal system. Zerrick’s home is a colonial small town surrounded by jungle, far from the cooler home climate, and with a well-established system of slavery. The society is in many ways similar to early-post-settlement America, with a strong religion and an abhorrence of magic. Witches are often burned at the stake, and when the town’s herbalist, Alden, and Zerrick himself are both revealed as magic-users, they are condemned to die. Zerrick escapes into the jungle (well, it would be a very short story if he didn’t) and attempts to find a hidden tribe who will help him learn to use his powers. His encounters and experiences along the way form the body of the story.
Zerrick is a nicely realised character. He is that perfect blend of over-confidence and insecurity typical of his age - standing up to his charismatic and powerful father, and yet still yearning for acceptance. His desire to belong to a group and his final acceptance that his abilities will always make him different were very moving. He displays intelligence and initiative, and isn’t wildly reckless. Mira, the female lead, has a less plausible reason for taking off on a journey (she feels stifled by her over-protective family), but she too is resourceful and capable, when she’s allowed to be. Interestingly, she's been largely brought up by the household slaves (from an indigenous tribe), with the result that she speaks their language, knows all their customs and feels more affinity with them than with her own family and culture. Both Zerrick and Mira are well drawn characters. The delicate little romance that develops between them is rather sweet, although (as with almost all fictional romances) there are moments when I wanted to bang their heads together and yell at them to just talk to each other, dammit. And sometimes the circling round each other just felt too adolescent for words.
The magic system in this world is derived from living matter like plants, and those with magical ability can draw on that power and use it in various ways, but it’s difficult to control and can drive the user insane. This instability makes Zerrick’s desperate attempts to use magic very fraught, since it’s such an uncertain business. He never quite knows how it’s going to turn out (and neither does the reader, of course). All of this makes for a truly exciting journey for Zerrick and Mira. I honestly never knew what was going to happen next, and it was refreshing to read a fantasy story which was so unpredictable. It's hard to describe magic in understandable terms, but the author brilliantly conveys both the beauty of a world with magic almost everywhere, and the frightening power of it. And everything was completely consistent and followed naturally from the nature of magic (and the gods) and the characters themselves. The intricate intertwining of magic and the gods was very cleverly worked out, and made perfect sense.
Some grumbles: I would have liked a map. I always like my fantasy to come with a detailed map, and although I more or less kept track of where everything was, it would have been easier with a visual aid. And the book needed a final edit. There weren’t many typos, but there was a lot of untidiness, particularly towards the end, when even the gaps marking a new point of view disappeared, which was very confusing, especially as the story began to bounce between Zerrick and Mira more and more frequently. The ending was very slightly glib, the only part of the book that was at all predictable. But these are minor points.
This is a fabulous coming of age story, well-written in a nicely unobtrusive style, with realistic characters, a pacy and exciting plot, and a world filled with magical wonders. I don’t know whether it’s intended as a YA book, but there’s nothing here that would disturb a teenager. There are some deeper themes for those who want to look for them - on slavery, organised religion, intolerance of outsiders, faith and trust, illusion and reality, and more - but it’s an enjoyably entertaining page-turner too. Only the messy editing and that rather clunky romance keep it from the top rating. A good four stars.(less)
This novella focuses on the apprentice smith seen briefly in the previous story, and tells a tale which doesn’t quite have the same...moreFantasy Review Barn
This novella focuses on the apprentice smith seen briefly in the previous story, and tells a tale which doesn’t quite have the same charm as the first, but has an atmosphere all its own. The characters here are equally well-drawn, and the story unfolds in easy stages until the smith is called upon to use some unusual skills. And then, suddenly, we’re in different territory altogether. I have to confess that when the smith created the three swords of the title, it made all the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. Truly a fascinating perspective on the use of magic, and the responsibilities inherent in that. Four stars.(less)
I’m beginning to get the hang of the author’s strategy now, so I spotted the connecting character in the previous novella in the se...moreFantasy Review Barn
I’m beginning to get the hang of the author’s strategy now, so I spotted the connecting character in the previous novella in the series - Hedmund, the very large young man setting off for his ‘big walk’, the period as a mercenary traditional amongst his mountain clansmen. This story is about Hedmund’s adventures on the road and his first battles. As always, the characters are wonderfully real, with dialogue which captures the essence of each one. There is some solid world-building going on in the background, too. Each story in the series can be read on its own, but anyone who reads them all will begin to understand a great deal about the history of this world. And possibly geography too, but for the directionally challenged among us, a map would have been useful. This seemed a little more lightweight than the previous two tales, and I never felt that Hedmund was in serious danger. An enjoyable read. Four stars.(less)
This is essentially a collection of short stories gathered into one book, telling the life of a single character, Vierra. The setting is the forests a...moreThis is essentially a collection of short stories gathered into one book, telling the life of a single character, Vierra. The setting is the forests and lakes of the far north of Scandinavia, where Vierra’s people live a placid life as hunter/gatherers, moving around their domain with the seasons and ruled by a female chieftain and a female witch, as is normal for their culture. But things are changing; to the south, there are experiments with settlement and agriculture, and from further afield come the Vikings in their longboats, stealing goods and capturing slaves.
Vierra’s people, the Kainu, have a complex spiritual life, built around their environment, and involving poems to invoke the spirits as well as actions. At Vierra’s puberty ritual, she is told of a destiny for her, although it’s clear as the book progresses that this is not cast in stone, and her own actions may affect things. The various stories tell episodes from Vierra’s life, and some of it is fairly bleak, it has to be said. Many bad things happen to Vierra, and she herself changes as a result, losing her faith in the spirits and perhaps losing some of her humanity along the way. She is a compelling character, though, and I raced through the book to find out what happened to her in the end. The other characters are somewhat less rounded, with the possible exception of Rika. Most fall neatly into the good or bad ends of the spectrum.
The book was translated from Finnish, and although the translator has done a good job (this is not a Babelfish travesty, by any means), there is some very stilted and clunky language in places, and one or two words are outright wrong. I had the feeling that the original language was rather elegant and poetic - not just the poems themselves, which crop up frequently, but many of the descriptive passages too, and along the way something got lost in translation. Nevertheless, it was always clear what was meant, and it never interfered with my enjoyment.
Anyone looking for a cheerful read may be disappointed. After all her struggles, a truly happy ending would have been too much to hope for, but it is at least uplifting. It’s clear that’s there’s more to tell about Vierra’s life, so I guess there will be more stories to come. This is a great read for anyone who enjoys stories with a mythological twist, it features a truly strong female character, and it’s set in a time and place rarely featured in fantasy. I really enjoyed it. Four stars.(less)
I’m reading this in the omnibus edition, entitled ‘The Deed of Paksenarrion’, but I’ll review each of the the three volumes separat...moreFantasy Review Barn
I’m reading this in the omnibus edition, entitled ‘The Deed of Paksenarrion’, but I’ll review each of the the three volumes separately, for convenience. The series tells the story of Paksenarrion Dorthansdottir, or Paks for short, who runs away from her humble home to join Duke Phelan's army as a way of avoiding a marriage being forced on her by her father. This first book is about her training, her first battles and her involvement in the Duke's various military enterprises, and although it starts slowly with a lot of detail about training regimes and the like, it builds in time to a much pacier level. From the middle onwards I found it completely absorbing.
The author doesn't shy away from the realities of military life. There are plenty of details about the privations of life on the march, the difficulties inherent in a mixed-sex army and the chaos of the battlefield. There are plenty of deaths, too. But on the whole, this isn't in the gritty realism school of fantasy; there is little gore or graphic descriptions of injuries, for example. I did wonder sometimes just how this particular army would work. It's a wonderful idea to have women fully integrated and treated identically, and although I squirmed every time Paks had to strip off alongside the men, I daresay that's just a cultural issue. But I did wonder how they coped with periods on those long, mud-filled marches.
It's traditional in this type of story for the main character to become a hero - acquiring unusual skills with weapons, for instance, or showing improbable levels of strategic thinking, and rapidly graduating to a leadership role. This book avoids that cliché. Paks is exactly what she seems - a sheepfarmer's daughter who simply wants to be a good soldier. She makes mistakes, she has weaknesses and prejudices, and in tricky situations she often depends on others more experienced than her, such as during the flight with Canna and Saben. She’s good at what she does, but it comes from determination and intense training rather than special abilities. She does heroic deeds, but again, it’s not because of some unusual quality or because she seeks out risky missions, but rather that she doesn’t shy away from such situations when they arise, seeing them as just a part of her job. I liked Paks very much. Her self-effacing quiet bravery and unwillingness to stand out from the rest of her cohort are not just admirable qualities in themselves, but rare in fantasy, where every main character these days seems brash and opinionated. And then there’s her unquestioning loyalty to the Duke, her employer, even when she discovers that his soldiers are not quite the heroic idealists she aspired to but something much more pragmatic, being simple mercenaries.
I very much liked the way the world is revealed slowly, in small increments, with names and places and even religions tossed into conversations without explanation. It’s hard to grasp what’s going on, sometimes, and even with the map I couldn’t always follow the journeys, but it gave the world an unusual depth. There’s not a great deal of magic in view, but it clearly permeates all the various societies, and where it does turn up, it’s used very effectively. I found the Marshall and the paladin, with their beliefs which so disturbed the Duke, absolutely compelling, and I would have liked to know more about them. Every scene with the Marshall was dynamite, in fact. This aspect is something Moon does brilliantly - weaving a complex mesh of religion and magic and a variety of belief systems into the story without ever resorting to dry infodumps.
Some grumbles. The names are difficult. I applaud the author’s efforts to demonstate the social and cultural diversity of the Duke’s soldiers and the various others they encounter by having a range of different types of names, but it made it very difficult to work out who was who. Neither rank nor gender was obvious from most names, and I constantly forgot whether a character was a captain or a private or from a different band altogether. More than once I was startled to find that a long-running character was not the gender I had assumed (shame on me, I suppose, for making assumptions at all, but I do like to know, as a minimum, whether a character is male or female). The sheer number of characters made this problem worse. And if character names were tricky, places and groups were even worse. Occasionally, when discussing who might turn up for the next battle, I’d see something like this: A and B have to stay home because they’re threatened by C, and D has to defend E, but F and G have said they’ll come, but then after what happened at H they may not, and you can never count on I and J... Without taking notes, it’s just impossible to follow this sort of thing. One other grumble: I liked that events were seen through Paks’ eyes, which meant gaps and missing information and changes without explanation, but there were times when a little more information would have been nice. We never did learn, for instance, what punishment, if any, was handed out to Stephi (or if it was mentioned, I missed it).
The ending is wonderful. Yes, there’s a dramatic series of battles, but ultimately it’s about Paks and her beliefs, and about right and wrong, and being true to your ideals, and I can’t fault it. This is a terrific story of one person, a humble and very likeable woman, just doing a job she enjoys, and finding herself by no choice of her own drawn into bigger and more important matters. I liked the details of her life as a soldier, which was never sugar-coated, but also never resorted to overly-graphic grimness. I liked that she didn’t want marriage or a lover, and that was accepted without question (too often authors think a female protagonist has to have a sex life). This was very close to five stars for me, but the confusing number of characters and names, which made some events hard to follow, and the slow start, keep it to a very good four stars.(less)
I’m not at all sure how to categorise this. There are elements of steampunk, there’s alchemy, there’s a fairly standard form of ele...moreFantasy Review Barn
I’m not at all sure how to categorise this. There are elements of steampunk, there’s alchemy, there’s a fairly standard form of elemental magic and there’s a fair dose of science in the mix as well. I don’t know whether it’s intended as YA, but the protagonists are fifteen and there’s nothing that would trouble a reader of that age, although some of the ‘experiments’ are a little gruesome. There’s an interesting premise - one of the main characters, Aaron, is a sorcerer’s apprentice, but unlike the usual such character, he’s a scientist, using logic and scientific knowledge to investigate effects related to his master’s work. Less radically, the second main character, Shanna, is apprenticed to a soap-maker, but on the side is also a thief and scavenger. Then there is the intriguing idea of the fifth element, in addition to the usual earth, air, fire and water.
The opening is a little wobbly. We see the two main characters in their environment, and they’re both very likeable, but some of the events seem a little forced. Would the ogre really toss the head sorcerer’s apprentice over the cliff-edge? Is there no justice system which would step in, this being (apparently) a well-ordered city? Would Shanna really be able to push the ogre over so easily? But even so, I liked the relationship between Shanna and Aaron.
Shortly after this, all hell breaks loose, and suddenly we’re hurled into a breathless rush of dramatic, page-turning action. Many books don’t reach this level of intensity before the finale, but here it works perfectly to rip the main characters out of their setting in the most natural way possible, while raising any number of questions about what is going on. Neatly sidestepping the conventional gang-on-a-quest setup, the two main characters are separated and have to make their own way through their post-apocalypse world, and end up on different sides, which is an interesting twist on things. And although there is a quest, Aaron and Shanna are simply sucked into someone else's plans. This part of the book, the events at Norwynne, is terrific.
From then onwards, the pace is rapid and there’s a dizzying array of twists and turns, to the point that I had absolutely no idea what was going to happen next, or who was a good guy and who was a villain, almost to the end. Virtually all the characters have depth and behave believably. Aaron in particular is a terrific character, both immature yet intelligent and enterprising, perfectly aligned with his age. I absolutely loved his ability to approach any problem in a logical, scientific way, and find a rational solution. This is so refreshing in fantasy, which all too often turns to magic at such moments. Shanna I found less interesting, a bit too sulky and short on initiative, and not always terribly bright. Amongst the other characters, the dwarf and the savant both stood out. The mysterious Ensel Rhe worked less well, I feel. His backstory seemed a little contrived to get the reader’s sympathy, and he had an all too convenient knack of turning up in the nick of time to effect a rescue (not always successfully, it has to be said). The magic system is fairly simplistic, but the rest of the world-building is fascinating, with an array of (I suppose) steampunk additives for flavour. I loved all the various machines, even if the descriptions sounded a bit hokum.
The book could do with a final polishing edit, with a few mistakes and clunky moments, but otherwise the writing is excellent, perfectly judged to carry the plot without being intrusive. I particularly liked the author’s economical descriptions, which convey a great deal of evocative information in the minimum number of words. There were a couple of places where a character jumped to the right answer rather easily, which felt a little convenient, but there was enough foreshadowing to get away with it. The ending is appropriately grandiose and with unexpectedly thoughtful undertones. The author is to be commended for not taking the easy way out at this point. Overall, I totally enjoyed this, and tore through it at high speed - that just-one-more-chapter syndrome. It’s an unusual, pacy story, with an unexpected plot-twist in almost every chapter, and great fun to read. Four stars.(less)