The second part of a series is always a difficult trick to pull off: have all the clever ideas been used up in the first part? Is tFantasy Review Barn
The second part of a series is always a difficult trick to pull off: have all the clever ideas been used up in the first part? Is the plot reduced to dull filler to bridge the gap before the finale? Do the nuances get lost in the rush to ramp up the action a notch? Well, all the answers here are a resounding no: this book is just as absorbing as the first.
In the first book, the villain, Nihil, was defeated, but the results of his experiments are still roaming the kingdom of Halthas. A number of Wielders (magic users) have been altered, rendering them very powerful but also unstable. Some of them have surrendered to the lure of that power, and have become wildly destructive. Others seem to be under better control. The focus of the story is how to manage the altered Wielders: should they be killed? Kept under lock and key for safety? Or helped to manage their powers?
Daro, one of the two main characters, is struggling to come to terms with his own altered powers, and not succeeding very well. But Daro is half Imaran, and the Imarans take him back to Imara to see if they can help him. Meanwhile, his wife Cecily is sympathetic to the plight of other altered Wielders, amongst them Pathius, the missing son of the previous king.
I loved Daro’s excursion to Imara. The first book stayed very much within the confines of Halthas, and much of the story took place in and around the city of Halthas itself, which wasn’t uninteresting but felt like a fairly standard fantasy city and kingdom. But Imara and its inhabitants are indubitably different, with a nicely conveyed sense of ‘otherness’ that I thoroughly enjoyed. There was no real tension to this part of the story, despite some initial hostility towards Daro and some interesting excursions, because I always felt that Daro would survive, but it was fascinating anyway. The Imaran’s home and way of life and the strange, but dangerous, forest they live in, were all equally delightful, but I especially loved their magic, the way they connect with the energy of the world around them.
Poor Cecily has a less interesting time. As in the first book, she seems to spend a disproportionate amount of time sitting chatting over cups of tea, explaining and planning and being terribly ladylike. Cecily is a very powerful Wielder, with some unusual abilities, and I love seeing her using them, but she rarely got the chance to shine. What she did do was to make some dubious decisions, trusting people more on ideological grounds rather than from any logical process. In fact, numerous other characters try to dissuade her, but she manages to convince them all. I’ll be honest, this makes her look soft and not as politically astute as I’d expect for someone of her rank.
Of all the characters, Pathius is the one who resonates the most with me. Cecily and Daro are almost too ‘good’, with few inner conflicts. But Pathius is a man who is truly conflicted, and that makes him interesting. As the heir of the previous king, deposed (in fact, murdered!) by Cecily, Daro and friends, he has the option to pursue the throne. Honestly, I wish he would. It seems to me he has every reason to follow that course. Or he could take the opportunity to reshape his life in a different way.
At the end of the first book, it was revealed that events during their captivity had left Daro and Pathius with a unique connection. Because of Daro’s Imaran bond with Cecily, Pathius is drawn to her, too. I found this a fascinating concept, with many possible plot ramifications. In the end, it didn’t have quite the dramatic effect I’d hoped for, but it still complicated the relationship between Cecily and Pathius, who spend much of the story travelling together, and it may be there are still aspects of this connection yet to be worked out.
The build-up and conclusion were appropriately nail-biting, although I got a bit cross with Daro for constantly trying to protect Cecily from harm and rushing off to tackle this or that problem single-handed. She’s perfectly capable, you know, and the two of you work better as a team. But I have to agree that Daro is quite awesome in full-on combat mode, and his final meeting with Pathius is spectacular, both the visual imagery and the ideas. Very enjoyable.
I do have a few logic issues with the story. For one thing, the altered Wielders now on the loose in Halthas. Some of them have gone to the bad, and have to be destroyed. Some (like Daro) are clearly unstable, but efforts are made to find a way to deal with that. And some are like Pathius and his pals, who appear to be perfectly rational and functional, but common sense suggests that things could change at any moment. Given all this, I found it hard to believe that Cecily would be allowed to wander round the countryside with them, and that no one stepped in to prevent it. It stretched credulity to the limits.
My other big issue concerns history. Much was made in this story of Pathius’ claim to the throne, and whether the nobles would rise up to support him. But this is treason, various characters declared in ringing tones. Well, yes, plotting to depose the current king is indeed treason. Yet this is exactly what Cecily, Daro and pals did a few years back, desposing Pathius’ father, and putting Rogan on the throne instead. It makes me uneasy that I’m rooting for the guys who are traitors themselves (and I am rooting for them, make no mistake). I know the victors write the history books, but still, I hope this issue is dealt with more fully in the next book. In fact, I can’t help secretly wishing that Rogan would fall under a metaphorical bus, and Pathius would end up taking back the throne. Not very likely, I know, but there would be a certain symmetry to it.
And this is the proof of a good story: that I end up wondering where the author will take it next, and what will become of these characters I’ve grown so attached to (yes, even Isley!). And as with book 1, there’s a perfect lead-in to the next part of the story. I can’t wait! A well-written book with a great magic system and some tense combat scenes. The minor issues knock a little off the rating, for me, but it’s still a very good four stars. I highly recommend the series.
This was a serendipitous find, since science fiction isn't my usual fare. But having tripped over it, I started reading and was insFantasy Review Barn
This was a serendipitous find, since science fiction isn't my usual fare. But having tripped over it, I started reading and was instantly hooked. The book starts with a bang - literally, since almost the first thing that happens is a massive explosion which seriously injures the Nations of Earth President, during a meeting with our hero, Cory Wilson, the ambassador of the title. Cory is about to take up a position as Earth's ambassador to the united non-Earth nations (gamra) who control interstellar travel. Now, everything is in disarray, his gamra partner has been arrested, and Cory himself is under suspicion. And from here on, the pace is relentless, without a moment for Cory (or the reader!) to catch his breath.
This is as much political thriller as scifi, with various factions chasing after Cory or offering him aid, with the usual problem of who to trust. Cory's own allegiance is in doubt, as well: is he loyal to Earth, or is he more aligned now with his gamra colleagues? And what did happen to his predecessor, the previous ambassador? Cory's a likeable character, though, always willing to do what it takes, and never browbeaten into submission. He takes a lot of punishment during the course of the book, but it never seems to stop him going out and doing whatever he feels needs to be done. There were times when I just wanted him to slow down for a moment and recover from one set of injuries before exposing himself to another dangerous situation, but no, that’s not his way at all. So be prepared for near-constant action.
The most interesting aspect, for me, was the distinctive non-Earth races. The Coldi, in particular, were fascinating, with not just different physiology, but very different customs and beliefs. Cory’s relationships with the two Coldi assigned as his partners (zhayma) - Nicha, who is imprisoned early on, and Thayu, his replacement - are wonderfully complex, but also totally believable. The Coldi have the interesting concept of doing everything in pairs, so everyone has a zhayma (a relationship described as like marriage only without the sex). But the mental connection the two share makes it much closer than that. I loved the language differences, too - the Coldi have a multitude of different pronouns for all occasions, and beware the foreigner who gets one wrong! Cory is forever mentally chiding himself for using a slightly offensive one, or, occasionally, deliberately choosing an aggressive one. This is such great detail, which added a whole layer of complexity to Cory’s interactions with the Coldi.
Apart from the Coldi, there are the mysterious Aghyrians, who I first encountered in ‘Watcher’s Web’, and here they are again, with a little bit of history revealed and potential conflict exposed. But the nuances of these non-Earth races are beautifully drawn. The author doesn’t stop to explain anything, you just have to work everything out as you read, but I prefer that kind of immersion. There were times when I didn’t get a reference, but it rarely mattered.
This is an excellent, fast-paced read, with the sci-fi elements perfectly blended with a political thriller and just a touch of romance to produce a terrific page-turner. Great entertainment. A good four stars....more
The Daughter of the Wildings series is possibly my favourite reading at the moment. This is book 3, and the author's getting into hFantasy Review Barn
The Daughter of the Wildings series is possibly my favourite reading at the moment. This is book 3, and the author's getting into her stride now. The characters are charming and heroic, the villains are exceedingly villainous (or just plain stupid), the setting is wonderfully detailed with a bit more revealed with every book, and the stories are just out and out good, rollicking fun.
The two main characters, Silas and Lainie, are (unusually for fantasy, but not for this author) a married couple. Theirs isn't a straightforward relationship, which allows for a bit of angsting along the way, but they still get along fine. I'm usually critical of books where the characters fall headlong into stereotypical gender roles, but here it works really well. Silas has a gentlemanly desire to protect Lainie from... well, everything, basically. She still blushes at any mention of sex.
Yet they still have total respect for each other's capabilities. So when they come to do business with a rich rancher, Lainie stands back and lets the more experienced Silas deal with it. And when they encounter the strange blue-skinned A'ayimat, he leaves it to Lainie, who has an affinity with their kind of magic. This kind of character detail is lovely.
The plot this time centres on the disappearance of the daughter of a the aforementioned rich rancher, kidnapped by the A'ayimat. Even though Silas and Lainie are manipulated into taking on the search, and even though they're quite sure that the rancher isn't telling them some important details, they need the money too much to refuse. And off we go into another fast-paced adventure, and it's not much of a spoiler to say that the rancher was hiding a lot. But then, he's not the only one. Knowing who to trust and who's telling the truth is a big part of the plot.
I've been looking forward to meeting the A'ayimat up close, and here we get right into the midst of them and their magic, which isn't quite like either Silas's or Lainie's. The subtle variation in magics is a big attraction for me in this world. Once again matters are resolved with both guns and magic, with heroism and luck, and a big dose of love to keep the evil at bay. And if perhaps our heroes manage to survive an improbable amount of beating up, gunshot wounds and arrows (sometimes all at once!), it would be churlish to complain (this is fantasy, after all).
Another charming and entertaining adventure in this series of good old-fashioned western fantasy tales. It's so much fun I can't give it less than five stars....more
This is one of those deeply worthy books where you can see exactly what the author was hoping to achieve, and it almost works, but in the end there’sThis is one of those deeply worthy books where you can see exactly what the author was hoping to achieve, and it almost works, but in the end there’s just too much unlikely contrivance and too little characterisation to be effective.
Lilly is an Irish girl betrothed to Tadg when the troubles intervene. Both are put under a death sentence, and escape to America to try to make a new life away from the troubles. Of course, things don’t work out smoothly and Lilly’s life becomes a catalogue of difficulties punctuated or inflicted by major events of the twentieth century: the issue of colour, Vietnam, Martin Luther King, the Gulf War and so on. And very depressing it all is. A lot of people die or disappear.
The story is told by Lilly herself, in a long-winded rambling style that is wonderfully evocative and poetic, but becomes wearing when stretched over an entire book. And Lilly is not an active character, taking charge of her life and making decisions about her own future. She is, ultimately, extraordinarily passive, drifting where the wind blows her, running away, being rescued by saintly strangers, running away again, asking no questions and, in many ways, simply surviving. She is so passive, in fact, that her personality fades to transparency.
Nor are the other people around her much better, being mostly ciphers for a social class or group, rather than characters in their own right. Only her own family back in Ireland have hints of full personalities.
In the end, this is a book that is more about the events and social changes that shook America. Any small part of it could have made a deep and profoundly moving story. Stretched over a whole lifetime, many nuances are lost in the race to skate over the decades, and it becomes a shallow, and (to my mind) somewhat pointless exercise. Not without its moments, and beautifully written, but ultimately unsatisfying. Three stars....more
This is the second book in the ‘Daughter of the Wildings’ series, and I loved the first, ‘Beneath The Canyons’, when I read it lastFantasy Review Barn
This is the second book in the ‘Daughter of the Wildings’ series, and I loved the first, ‘Beneath The Canyons’, when I read it last year. What do you know, this one is even better. Part of the fun is the genre mash-up - if you’ve ever wondered what a western would look like if you threw wizards and magic into the mix, wonder no longer. This has all the traditional elements of a western - desert badlands, saloons with swinging doors, gun-slinging bad guys, dust storms, horses and big hats. But it also has two or three different kinds of magic, some strange blue-skinned creatures who are probably not human and a whole heap of conflict between the different magic users.
The world-building is a strength of the series, and although each story seems to be no more than a simple adventure, each book pulls back the curtain a little to reveal more of the politics going on behind the scenes. There are enough factions and hidden agendas to fuel a far more epic work, but the author weaves the detail seamlessly into these rattling good yarns so it never feels heavy.
The two main characters, Silas and Lainie, have a wonderful old-fashioned charm about them. Silas is a gentleman who worries about Lainie and wants to protect her, while also respecting her. I loved that he was constantly thinking about her welfare, and worrying whether he was doing the right thing. Lainie is a perfectly capable woman with her own magic, but the author resists the temptation to turn her into a kick-ass warrior-babe. Instead, she only intervenes when absolutely necessary. And both of them take their turns at being rescued from disaster, or, sometimes, rescuing themselves.
The plot - well, there’s not much to it. Silas is summoned to help out a fellow mage, only to find him dead, along with a third mage. Then the hunt is on to find the killer and deal with him before Silas ends up as the next one to die. Along the way, Silas and Lainie work out a few wrinkles in their still-new marriage. But really, the pleasure of this series is the wonderful western-with-magic setting. My only complaint - it’s very short, only 120-odd pages, and the last 10% of the book is a teaser chapter of book 3 and other advertising.
For anyone starting with this book, there’s enough backstory dribbled out along the way to explain everything, but I recommend you start from the beginning for maximum enjoyment. This is one of the most entertaining fantasy series around, and I loved every moment of it. I wouldn’t normally hand out five stars for something this light and easy-to-read, but dammit, it was just so much fun! Five dusty, bullet-riddled stars....more
What this book needs is more orcs. Or any orcs at all, really, but preferably a great horde of slavering, rampaging, hell-bent-on-destruction orcs. FaWhat this book needs is more orcs. Or any orcs at all, really, but preferably a great horde of slavering, rampaging, hell-bent-on-destruction orcs. Failing that, zombies would do the trick. Or perhaps we could push swords into the characters’ hands and toss them into the gladiator arena. Frankly, they need something of the sort. A post-apocalypse world to shake them out of their fairyland and give them something serious to worry about. Because I’ve never come across such a snivelling bunch of whiny, self-absorbed morons who so badly need to just get over themselves.
Here’s the plot, such as it is. Matriarch Lydia has just died, and son Edmund returns to the family home wherein reside his brother Otto and his wife Isabel, along with Otto’s apprentice and his sister, and the resident nanny-turned-housekeeper, the eponymous Italian girl. The story then unfolds with one melodramatic revelation after another, accompanied by much shouting, gesturing, grand speech-making, falling down, weeping and wailing, and running about in the rain. There isn’t one of them who seems to have an ounce of common sense, or any idea of just how lucky they are not to be working in a factory or down the mines.
OK, OK, so I don’t get it. I probably lack the right receptors in my brain to get the point of a book like this. No doubt there are complex nuances of language or literature or philosophy or metaphor that simply whizzed over my head. I’m missing the point, I accept that. But it was short, and I finished it, so I gave it two stars. In future I shall leave Iris Murdoch to those better suited to appreciate the qualities of her writing. ...more
This book is way outside my usual sphere - YA, not-quite-human creatures, some romantic difficulties - but the opening is charming,Fantasy Review Barn
This book is way outside my usual sphere - YA, not-quite-human creatures, some romantic difficulties - but the opening is charming, and I ended up enjoying it a lot.
Here’s the premise: Brenna is a high school student with a best friend, an almost-boyfriend, a fisherman father and a mother who likes to stand looking wistfully out to sea for hours on end. When Brenna discovers something unusual in the attic… at this point, I knew exactly what was going to happen. And when it does, and Brenna decides to head for the high seas alone in a small boat, frankly I wanted to sit her down and tell her just what a stupid thing she’s doing. But - teenager. There’s no reasoning with them, so I can accept this as part of her character.
Out on the oceans, Brenna runs into the inevitable difficulties, plus a rather nice young man called Dylan, and the two team up on Brenna’s big adventure. Their journey is quite episodic, with every stage fraught with some kind of peril from marauding sea creatures or the ocean itself. Each time, there seems to be a convenient island for them to recover on, before setting off for the next encounter.
On the whole, this works fine. But there’s a section of the book which completely lost me. After deciding they can’t get where they want to go by sea (too dangerous), our plucky heroes set out to make the journey across land. Along the way, they travel through three different countries, with two non-English languages, two non-dollar currencies and a whole continent of cultural differences. Oh, yes, and they start this mammoth journey having lost all their worldly goods. Like passports. This would be enough to tax the skills of even an experienced adult traveller, but a couple of teenagers? Plus the route they take is bizarre, to put it mildly. So I was flummoxed by this part of the book.
Where the book really scores is in the underwater sequences, which are superb, beautifully described and so evocative I could feel the ocean currents against my skin. Dylan’s increasing discomfort as they journey by land, away from his beloved ocean, is also well described, and (for me, at least) was far more effective than the occasional scary monster popping out from behind a rock.
The final encounter is unexpected in several ways, and rather mature for a book otherwise aimed squarely at a young teenage market. In fact, the actions of one character, quite frankly, gave me the chills. I absolutely did not see that coming. And the ending, too, is very grown-up. Kudos to the author for avoiding the obvious ways of wrapping things up. The final moments not only bring this book to an elegant close, but also neatly lay the groundwork for the continuation. Very well done. The unbelievable (to me) land journey keeps this to three stars, but for anyone who’s less pernickety than me (which is almost everyone), this is a readable, entertaining book with some great descriptions of the ocean and a thought-provoking ending. ...more
Some stories keep you on the edge of your seat with non-stop drama, and some are gentler tales, of people learning about themselvesFantasy Review Barn
Some stories keep you on the edge of your seat with non-stop drama, and some are gentler tales, of people learning about themselves and each other, quietly resolving their problems with thoughtful research or experimentation or negotiation, instead of reaching for the swords every time. This book is in the latter category, which makes it very much my kind of story.
The opening of the book is a nice introduction to the background, one of a basically illiterate population, where both magic and writing are frowned upon. Ailith can read and write, but she has to keep that secret. However, a meeting with a mysterious older man, Malachi, reveals that she has another secret - she is a mage.
Ailith is one of twins, with several other sisters and (maybe?) a brother, too. Her twin is about to be married to a man three times her age, a match arranged by the family and the twin seems to be quite content with that. Ailith, too, has had possible marriages arranged for her, but scared off the suitors by her forthright style, and is resigned to spinsterhood. This is an aspect of the society that absolutely fascinated me. It’s rare these days to find a setting where arranged marriages are calmly accepted as a normal facet of life, yet are not a big plot point. I felt like saying: wait a minute, tell me more about this. How does it actually work? But the story veered off in a different direction, and I never did find out about it. Maybe later in the series.
The magic in this world verges on science. There’s a great deal of herbalism and mixing of minerals to make an amalgam, and the mage then adds just a smidgen of ‘intention’ to turn it into something magical. It’s clear that the author has done her research on herbs and other materials, and if I could have done with less detail, that’s a personal preference, and didn’t impact the story.
Ailith is an interesting character - smart and brave and (frankly) completely reckless sometimes in her willingness to experiment, whether it’s on herself or some other hapless character. I liked that she came from a happy family background, with all the petty little squabbles and differences of any family, but clearly wrapped in affection.
Of the other characters, Leofwin is the most compelling, prowling round his castle at night, obsessively weeding and pruning and tinkering in his garden. I loved his habit of leaping up with a ‘Let’s try it!’ whenever Ailith suggests some particularly outlandish concoction.
I don’t want to give too much away, but I have to congratulate the author on changing the reader’s perceptions of two characters in particular, in very slow, subtle ways. This is difficult to do successfully, and although I think it works better with one character than the other, it’s still very well done.
One aspect that worked less well for me is that Ailith manages to solve all her problems rather too easily. It reduces the tension almost to nothing if, when a crisis arises, she simply decides what particular method is needed, and finds a way to do it. There are no hiccups and nothing goes wrong, everything is resolved quickly and easily. I would have liked a few magical disasters along the way to make me worry for her a bit more.
There is one event in the story which stands out for me. Again, I don’t want to give too much away, but Leofwin’s experience in the temple is a brilliant example of an author successfully subverting expectations, while at the same time creating a deeply thought-provoking scenario. I loved this section of the book.
The climax of the story is suitably dramatic, with some unexpected twists and turns. I would have liked a stronger resolution to Malachi’s story, however. He was a major character early on, but his tale trickled away to nothing. I’d have liked more made of Garrick’s father, too. What happened to him should (I thought) have been a momentous event, and given more prominence. And, as mentioned above, I wished I could hear more of Ailith’s twin, and find out whether her marriage was happy or not.
But these are minor points. This was a very enjoyable, well-written read, recommended for fans of quieter, more thoughtful and less action-filled fantasy. Four stars....more
This was recommended by a friend when I lamented the difficulty of finding decent Regency romances these days that have some modicum of connection toThis was recommended by a friend when I lamented the difficulty of finding decent Regency romances these days that have some modicum of connection to the actual era, and don't play fast and loose with historical details. And it's true enough that the historical details do feel very realistic. The author has obviously done her research.
Unfortunately, while the settings are very credible, the characters simply aren't. Now, this is partly my problem: I just find it very hard to read about Regency ladies clambering in and out of windows at night, and having almost-sexy-times with rakish blokes in masks and otherwise behaving recklessly, without comparing them with Jane Austen's much more sedate heroines. Or even Georgette Heyer's, whose characters were always spirited, but never, ever silly. So your mileage may vary, but for me I had trouble believing any of this.
The premise: in an era of Englishmen secretly spying and otherwise interfering with the plans of dastardly French leader Bonaparte, a young lady sets off for France determined to help out. And in the present day, a university researcher follows the story through the young lady’s journals. Now, I’ll be honest, the framing device of the present day researcher felt too contrived for words. It was also very jarring when the story was flowing along nicely, to be forced to stop and try to remember the modern-day characters and the paper-thin plot developments. So I could have done without that part altogether.
The Regency elements were much better, but again, credibility was stretched. Is it possible to get to know a man, and yet not recognise him when he turns up in an unexpected place - and wearing a mask! Surely when he talks, the voice would be recognisable? But no, apparently not, for heroine Amy is completely fooled. But then Amy must be one of the silliest heroines ever. I’m all in favour of spirited heroines who don’t meekly submit to the whims of fate, men and their mothers, but going out to meet a total stranger, alone, in the middle of the night, is just out and out stupid. Time after time she does things that, in real life, would have got her killed or raped or (at best) would destroy her reputation, but somehow, miraculously, she survives unscathed (a man rescues her from her own stupidity, usually).
Now, I kind of get the tone the author was going for - with humour to remove any element of real risk. And it’s true that there are some very funny, laugh out loud moments. Even so, as Amy’s capers became ever more ludicrous, my suspension of disbelief was tested to the limits. And that scene in the boat on the Seine? That was where it broke altogether.
If you can set aside all memory of more realistic Regency fiction, and just go with the flow, you might well enjoy this. I never found any of it believable, however, so for me it only rates as two stars.
This has an intriguing premise: imagine that half the people you see around you everyday are not, in fact, human. Imagine they lookFantasy Review Barn
This has an intriguing premise: imagine that half the people you see around you everyday are not, in fact, human. Imagine they look the same, but genetically they’re very different, so they avoid daylight, eat differently… No, no, come back! These are not vampires. I did get worried for a moment, I’ll confess - all that preferring the dark - but these are Mengliads, and they’re quite different from vampires. Instead of drinking blood, they eat — actually, I won’t spoil the surprise by revealing that, but it amused me hugely.
Jessica has a normal, if somewhat dull, life until something happens to revive her dormant Mengliad DNA and she becomes (more or less) a Mengliad herself. I liked that there’s no halfway, blended state, you can only be one or the other. And there are no superpowers in evidence, just a somewhat different physiology. And discovering how that differentness affects her is just part of Jessica’s problem.
Being only the tenth accidental conversion in Mengliad history, Jessica is a target for the scientists who want to research her situation. She’s also a target for the section of Mengliad society who want to keep themselves uncontaminated by mixed-blood individuals, and it’s not research they’re interested in. And both groups want to keep the whole thing under wraps so that regular humans never find out about Mengliads.
The end result is a fast and furious chase to keep Jessica safe and avoid the many bad guys. Now the plot is wafer-thin, there’s a huge amount of angsting and crying and clinging to the hot bloke for comfort, and every third word seems to be italicised for no obvious reason. And you know what? It didn’t matter. This is a lot of fun, there are plenty of twists, the sex is hot, the action is heart-pumping between bouts of angst, and I found myself reading faster and faster to find out how it ends. Be warned, though, the ending felt more like a respite before another outbreak of chasing around.
I’m torn between three and four stars, but the sheer entertainment value (and the hot sex) bumps it up to four. And the opening; isn’t this a great opening paragraph? How can you resist?
It’s survival of the species, and that’s all it knows. Needing a blood meal, the protein necessary to its offspring, it searches the streets of New York for a victim, unremorseful.
Spotting potential prey, it swoops in for the kill. Biting into warm flesh, it takes what it needs without regard to the owner, but danger presents itself, and it can’t obtain all it requires. Another source is vital.
From its vantage point, it doesn’t take long to find. Soft flesh, warm blood, it starts to feast, the task nearly complete.
“Stupid mosquito.” She slapped the insect hard, killing it, and then flicked it off her arm before continuing towards her destination. ...more
Kyra Halland is one of those rare authors capable of creating a deeply realistic fantasy world, with an equally realistic romance eFantasy Review Barn
Kyra Halland is one of those rare authors capable of creating a deeply realistic fantasy world, with an equally realistic romance embedded within it. Too many fantasy authors tack the romance on as an afterthought, or else the romance is all-important and the fantasy elements are hurled randomly into the mix, as if it doesn’t matter whether the obstacles keeping our pair of lovers apart are meaningful or not.
Here everything is carefully thought out. Rashali is a simple village woman, struggling to survive in an Urdaisunia now conquered by neighbouring Sazars. Eruz is a Sazar prince, treading a careful path between his father the king, his vicious, squabbling brothers and his own conscience. When chance throws Rashali into his path, he is forced to face up to the consequences of his father’s rule. And then, delightfully, the gods take an interest in matters and start poking around in the affairs of men for their own not particularly altruistic reasons.
I’m not usually a big fan of having gods as active participants in a story, but here it works really well. It took me a while to overcome my resistance to miraculous events that just happen to carry the plot in the right direction. Here, of course, that’s the whole point, the gods are interfering and causing all sorts of things, good and bad, to afflict our heroine. Once I stopped worrying about the realism (or otherwise) of it, however, the story swept me up and carried me along beautifully, and I really enjoyed that aspect of the story. The gods are not at all as you’d expect, and their little squabbles and rivalries are great fun.
There is a little (non-god-related) magic in this world, and one rather clever communication contrivance that weaves into the plot very well. The world itself is a simple one, with just a few neighbouring societies: apart from the Urdai and Sazar, there are the Sangh, the Kai-Kalle and the Xaxan. Urdaisunia, the focus of conflict between these various countries, has two major rivers but (because of a quarrel in the god-world) they are on the brink of drying up, leading to major tensions. The political differences, particularly between the Urdai and the Sazars, form the backdrop to the whole story.
If I have a grumble, it’s that the characters tend to fall neatly into the good or bad side of the equation. The king, Eruz’s father, in particular, was a little too stupid for my taste. Even when Eruz brought evidence of his brothers’ treachery, the king made no effort to investigate, simply believing the brothers. His dislike of Eruz, who was an excellent army commander, seemed somewhat irrational. Kings really have to be better judges of character than that, if they’re to survive long in power. They also have to be pragmatic, and not allow their personal feelings to interfere with political decisions, although I suppose having a son and heir who constantly says, “Yes, but…” might get rather trying.
My only other complaint is that I found the names difficult. Eruz and his brothers, for instance, are Eruzasharbat, Hazramatanarg and Teshtarganazad, and all the rest of the family, army commanders and the like, have similar jaw-breakers. Fortunately they were often shortened. But that’s a minor point.
This is a refreshingly different fantasy, with writing that brings the world vividly to life (I swear I could feel the sand between my toes as Rashali walked through the desert) and a clever balance between the earthly world and the realm of the gods. A very enjoyable four stars....more
This is exactly the sort of book I love: a well-conceived fantasy world with an intriguing magic system; some great characters whoFantasy Review Barn
This is exactly the sort of book I love: a well-conceived fantasy world with an intriguing magic system; some great characters who behave in a believable way; a plot that’s driven more by the background and characters than the need for relentless action; and a strong, satisfying romance. Why can’t all fantasy be like this?
Let’s start with the characters. Perarre (no, I don’t know how it’s pronounced) is a woman determined to make a success of her career in a male-dominated world. After a wild phase, she’s settled down to an academic life as a translator of old books, aided by her ability to magically ‘read’ the intent of the author (and haven’t we all read books where we could have used a talent like that?). Roric is the buttoned-up and demanding professor she ends up working for, a man hiding a surprising past. He’s given the task of finding out why the ‘magica’, the tricky to manage magic system, is no longer easy to balance. Something has gone wrong, but finding out what has happened and whether it can be fixed means taking big risks.
As the two investigate, they naturally start to see each other as more than working colleagues. This part of the book is exceptionally well-written, as they circle round each other and gradually set aside their prejudices and inch towards an understanding. The romance builds slowly, right up until the point where they hurtle headlong into a passionate affair. The change felt a little bit abrupt, but given their personalities (Perarre’s wild-child past and Roric’s obsessively constrained behaviour), it was believable and I can go along with it.
From this point onwards, the pace accelerates to become a breathless ride from one end of the country to the other, and back again, multiple times. I was quite relieved that later journeys were condensed to ‘After a month of travel…’. Nevertheless, the various locations where the pair end up, whether the sophisticated and political big city, the village or small farming community, the isolated woodsman’s hut or the very different society of the nomadic steppe clans, are beautifully described. I never had any trouble visualising the settings and understanding the prevailing customs.
Both Perarre and Roric have to leave their old ways behind and open their minds to other cultures (quite literally, in fact). I found it fascinating to watch Roric in particular shed the thick shell he’d built to protect himself from hurt, and face up to both his own heritage and a future very different from anything he’d ever envisaged. This is where the rock-solid love between the two is absolutely critical. And yet he never changes his inner self, and never loses his scientific spirit of seeking the truth, regardless of the cost.
There were moments in the second half of the book where I began to feel that the pace was sagging a little, and wondered whether I was being fed a certain amount of filler. But then things would veer sharply off in a completely unexpected direction. I do love it when a book surprises me, and this one has several such moments, much to my delight. The ending is less unexpected, and (to my mind) falls slightly flat, and I wasn’t totally convinced by the oh-so-convenient way the population of the capital city falls into line, but it isn’t a major stumbling block. A very enjoyable read. Highly recommended. Four stars. ...more
What a lovely book. Literate, elegant and charming, with a touch of whimsy, this is a story in the high fantasy style of Tolkien,Fantasy Review Barn
What a lovely book. Literate, elegant and charming, with a touch of whimsy, this is a story in the high fantasy style of Tolkien, although on a more domestic scale. It’s set in a world where tree spirits, Silvanii, reside in trees in the wildwood, living in harmony with men. Occasionally, a Silvana will choose to take a human husband, leaving her tree to take human form and live a different life.
The story focuses on Fabiom, son of the lord of Deepvale, following his life from age four through to maturity. Fabiom has always been drawn to the wildwood, and on the eve of his seventeenth birthday he determines to try to win a Silvana wife for himself. What happens that night and afterwards affects him and his family deeply, and changes his whole life, bringing conflict between his duties as lord and holder, and the needs of the Silvanii.
The backdrop to the story is a fascinating world, drawn with a deft but light hand. Fabiom’s society is Romanesque in many ways, with the house constructed around the central courtyard, and reclining on couches to eat formally. I liked the idea of the heart room, too, where everyone entering the house washes before entering the house proper. There are other cultures in existence, well-differentiated but very believable. I loved Fabiom’s shock at the idea of sitting on chairs to eat, grumbling that he found them very uncomfortable. Because of the influence of the woodland and the Silvanii, there is a great deal of detail about herbs and plantlife generally. The author has clearly done a great deal of research, but occasionally I could have done with less detailed herbology.
The characters are not the conflicted souls so common in fantasy these days. They mostly fall clearly into one or other camp, either good or bad, with the good characters paragons of honour and integrity, and the bad thoroughly devious, greedy and unscrupulous. Fabiom himself was a bit over-endowed with all the virtues, unselfishly doing his best for all parties, liked by everyone and never putting a foot wrong. It made him a bit dull at times. The other characters are more interesting in being somewhat more human (Silvanii and their woodmaids excepted, naturally). The woodmaids were a delight, and added a sprinkle of humour to the otherwise serious tone of the book.
The book was divided into a multitude of parts, with sometimes a big time jump between them. This enabled the story to cover a lot of ground, but it did sometimes feel very episodic, like a series of novellas glued together. There were some parts, particularly the campaign in Gerik, which seemed to serve no purpose other than to pass the time. Then, after a rousing crescendo, the last paragraphs of the book are pure setup for the next book in the series, which felt somewhat off to me.
I had a few credibility issues. The Silvanii objected violently to the stealing of the secret of silkmaking, imposing a horrible punishment on Fabiom and Casandrina. Yet they knew perfectly well that the mulberry trees won’t grow without their help, so there was no long-term risk at all. I didn’t find it convincing that they couldn’t distinguish between the betrayal of one individual and a betrayal by all of mankind. They themselves take on human form and live as humans, so they really should have a better understanding of human ways.
I also had a problem with the secrecy surrounding Casandrina. I could understand the reasoning behind not wanting to broadcast the news, but enough people knew who she was. It would have been impossible to keep it a secret for long. Yet it was a major plot point late in the book that her nature was unsuspected. Another point was that more than once a boy’s seventeenth birthday passes unnoticed. Other important dates seem to be remembered well enough, and given the significance of this particular date, the only time when a young man may try to win a Silvana wife, you would think it would have a big red ring around the date in the calendar.
I also had one or two clarity issues. The author is very good about not beating the reader over the head with world-building minutiae, and that’s generally a good thing, but the question of the daughter was dealt with too subtly, in my view. I would have liked a much clearer explanation of the seventeen year rule right from the start. As it was, a lot of important information was handed out in casual conversational asides, without further explanation, or mentioned as an already understood thing, leaving me sometimes trawling through the book looking for obscure hints that I’d missed first time round. As a personal preference, I also would have liked a little more explanation about the Silvanii reproductive system. Now I understand why the author chose not to dwell on it, but it seemed to be rare for a Silvana to take a human husband, and each marriage only produced one daughter and one son. Is this the only way Silvanii have offspring? Or is there an asexual method as well, producing cloned daughters? Why are Silvanii all female anyway? And the whole daughter business boggled my mind. Well, OK, that one can stay mysterious. But lots of questions raised.
These are relatively minor grumbles. This is a beautifully written, lyrical book, with a wonderful love story and an enchanting setting. Not for the grimdark or sword-and-sorcery fan, but for those who enjoy a more traditional tale in the literary style of Tolkien’s era, this is a delightful read. A good four stars....more
It’s the curse of the book group, isn’t it? Someone suggests a book, and you think: yes, that will be a light, fluffy read, something to make us laughIt’s the curse of the book group, isn’t it? Someone suggests a book, and you think: yes, that will be a light, fluffy read, something to make us laugh, a bit light-hearted and not too heavy or intellectual. Well, it wasn’t intellectual, sure, but light? Fluffy? A book about incompetent National Service conscripts sent off to fight in the jungles of Malaya?
There were a few laugh out loud moments, it’s true. And the book had some potential to be the comic novel it was billed as. Perhaps when it was first published in 1966 it resonated more harmoniously with the experiences of others who had served their time in the immediate post-war years. There was a risque element, too: the inexperienced ‘virgin’ soldiers (in the literal and metaphorical sense) whiling away dull moments in their two years by dreaming endlessly of finally losing their virginity, and finding willing helpers amongst the local prostitutes. In the newly unlaced sixties, that must have shifted a few copies.
But with the benefit of almost half a century of hindsight, the writing style is flat and emotionless, the characters are eccentric but not really interesting and the story is episodic and jumpy, hopping from near-farce to heavy war-zone experiences without the slightest change in tone. For me, it didn’t work at all, and I gave up at the 27% mark, looking up the rest of the plot on Wikipedia. One star for a DNF. Oh, and the rest of the book group didn’t much enjoy it, either, with the exception of one lady who went on to read the sequels with gusto....more
This is a cracking story. Fantasy romance is a tricky format. It can veer from straight fantasy with a little romance on the side,Fantasy Review Barn
This is a cracking story. Fantasy romance is a tricky format. It can veer from straight fantasy with a little romance on the side, through to outright romance with a little arm-wavy magic or the occasional dragon thrown in for light relief. This book leans more to the relationship side of the equation, but there’s some solid world-building underpinning it.
Many elements of the story are quite conventional. Rowan is the teenage girl expected to do her duty and marry well, producing the babies in unexpectedly short supply in her country, Darmid. But she’s fascinated by magic, even though it’s illegal, and why does she have strange headaches? Aren is the royal from the neighbouring country, Tyrea, a powerful sorcerer whose even more powerful older brother now rules. When Aren is sent to capture a sorcerer from magic-less Darmid for experimentation, he meets Rowan and… Well, we can see where this is going, can’t we?
Despite the well-worn plotlines, the opening chapters draw the world and characters with deft brushwork, and if Rowan is a little too quick to help the injured Aren, and Aren is a little too easily drawn to Rowan, I can let that go for the depth of world-building below the surface. There are some nice details here: like the idea that eliminating magic in Darmid acts to weaken the magic in next door Tyrea, too. And women in Darmid are only fertile once a year. No wonder they have so much trouble producing babies. The author cleverly follows this through in logical ways: sex before marriage is positively encouraged, because it just might result in a successful pregnancy.
The middle part of the book sags somewhat, becoming a slightly dull travelogue, with various threats leaping out of the scenery to liven things up. In between dealing with these events, the two main characters angst about what they’re doing, and each other, and the future. The story is told from both Rowan’s and Aren’s point of view, in first person. Occasionally I found this confusing, but it did help to get under the skin of both characters. Both of them are smart and behaved sensibly, but Aren I found particularly fascinating. His background and history, his suppressed anger, his status as a loner and outsider despite his family connections - all made him far more interesting to me than Rowan, whose life was far more settled.
Aren’s history also made the romance difficulties work well. It’s a convention in a romance story that although the main characters are irresistibly drawn to each other, something prevents them from being together. And when one of them is a professional assassin and ruthless fixer-upper? Yes, I can see why Rowan might have second thoughts about a man like that.
The plot rolls along quite nicely, until… Look, I’m going to rant for a minute here, so you can skip ahead to the next paragraph if you want. So we have our plucky hero and heroine racing to escape a fate worse than death, chased by evil villains here, there and everywhere, things getting fraught, building nicely to a climax, and then what happens? There’s a ball, that’s what. Well, a party, anyway, with fancy frocks, and dancing, and general merriment. Guys, there are people out there wanting to kill you, probably painfully and very, very slowly - get a sense of urgency, for goodness sake. No, I get it, I really do, the two main characters have to have their Big Romantic Moment, but I do struggle with credibility here. As it happens, it was a particularly good BRM, so that’s fine, but please, authors, skip the frocks and dancing, OK?
The climax is a suitably dramatic confrontation with a fairly long-drawn-out post-dust-up scenario, which managed to bring some emotional resonance to bear without sacrificing common sense or betraying the characters of the principals involved. And needless to say, there are enough loose threads to continue the story into the next book. This is a particularly well written and well plotted fantasy romance, which finds a good balance between the two elements and has unusually strong characterisation. A good four stars. ...more
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 aFantasy 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....more
A lot of books are described as psychological thrillers, but very few genuinely merit the label. This one is everything a psychological thriller shoulA lot of books are described as psychological thrillers, but very few genuinely merit the label. This one is everything a psychological thriller should be. The characters - all the characters - are in some way damaged, and therefore nothing is certain or reliable, and all their actions are questionable.
Here’s the plot: Sam, the narrator, specialises in writing biographies of women who’ve suffered major traumatic events in their lives: kidnappings, murderous boyfriends and the like. Trouble is, his approach inevitably leads him to become involved with the victims he’s writing about. When he has to abandon his latest book after an affair with the subject leads to the breakup of his marriage (to his previous subject!), he finds himself scratching round for a new project. Fortuitously, he is approached by Lola, a woman whose parents were murdered when she was twelve by a man who then kidnapped her and carried on killing until she managed to break free. Or that’s the official story…
Sam has to try to work out exactly what happened, and whether Lola was truly an innocent child victim, or something more sinister. But Sam has his own history lurking beneath the surface. And when the murderer breaks out of jail and sets off after Lola and Sam, life gets very complicated.
This is a fantastic story where nothing can be taken for granted. Everyone Sam talks to gives a different impression of Lola, and Lola herself is a curious mixture of tearful victim, sexual predator and manipulative bitch. The author brilliantly captures the sheer creepiness of Lola’s behaviour, yet she’s always perfectly believable. Sam is also incredibly well-drawn, and as we’re inside his head the whole time, he’s both a very sympathetic character and also seriously stupid, in a young, socially-inept male way.
The climax is the usual dramatic and violent confrontation, somewhat less contrived than is customary in this sort of book, and kept me guessing right to the end about who was manipulating whom, and where the truth lay in the morass of self-created fantasies in the heads of all the main characters. An excellent, well-written story with a nice little time jump at the end which is absolutely fitting for the character concerned - one of those ‘oh, of course’ moments.
And if that had been all, it would have been enough. But this book has an unusual degree of depth to it, with some thought-provoking elements that lift it well above the norm. One aspect is that many (perhaps all) of the damaged characters have been affected by a heavily religious home life. The author doesn’t make a big deal of this, so it almost slips by unnoticed, but it’s interesting, nevertheless. For instance, Sam’s mother: “It upset Sam that even though she was free of her controlling husband, she still was spending her time praying to a magic fairy invisible person somewhere in the sky.”
Then there’s the sex. Yes, this book has some graphic sex scenes, but they’re all integral to the plot and true to the characters. These are people who use sex as a manipulative tool, and the author also doesn’t shy away from the association between sex and violence. This is uncompromising stuff, and for anyone who would find these elements problematic, this is not the book for you. For everyone else, this is a cracking read, with some deeply thought-provoking aspects. Highly recommended. Five stars....more
This is the third in the series of murder mysteries featuring forensic archaeologist Dr Ruth Galloway, a somewhat grumpy, overweight, wine-guzzling, cThis is the third in the series of murder mysteries featuring forensic archaeologist Dr Ruth Galloway, a somewhat grumpy, overweight, wine-guzzling, cat-loving lady, and one of my favourite characters. Once again, there’s a mysterious set of bones unearthed which our trusty heroine has to help to identify with her scientific skill.
This time the bones are war-time era, buried during the dark days when an invasion by Hitler was believed to be imminent. But the coast is being eroded by time and tide, and the bones are exposed to twenty first century science. Now, to be honest, the science part of the investigation is perfunctory, at best. There are some police investigations ongoing, but I never found that aspect of the story compelling, or even particularly interesting.
No, it’s the characters that make this book come alive. Ruth, the frumpy almost-middle-aged new mum. Nelson the grumpy cop. Michelle, his perfect wife. Cathbad the new age druid. And, of course, the Big Secret - that Nelson is the father of Ruth’s baby. When the story focused on the soapy aspects of the relationships (and this time some of the side characters got their own soapy subplots, too), I was engrossed and read on merrily. When things got back to the war-time bodies or, even more depressing, Ruth’s friend with a tragic history in Serbia, I found myself losing interest.
The endings of these books are terribly weak. There’s always some kind of grave peril for Ruth, involving someone trying to kill her and (usually) a lot of water. It really isn’t necessary to do this, especially when it requires an otherwise intelligent character to make stupid decisions to end up at that point. So my eyes were rolling wildly.
Still, the books are well written, with a wonderfully evocative setting on the Norfolk marshes and coast, there’s masses of laugh-out-loud British humour, and if you don’t mind a certain amount of angsting about the difficulties of single parenthood, the developing personal stories are fun to follow along. Especially as the author has set up a nice opening for the next book. This just about scrapes four stars. ...more
I love a good Regency romance, but all too often the ones I find are disappointing: too silly, too inaccurate historically, too inept with the languagI love a good Regency romance, but all too often the ones I find are disappointing: too silly, too inaccurate historically, too inept with the language of the era. So finding an example which ticks all the right boxes, and also manages to portray realistic and well-rounded characters is almost too good to be true. But so it is here.
Daphne is the eldest daughter of the Bridgerton family, a lady of remarkable common sense, intelligence and humour. She wants to get married, but not merely because it's the thing to do, or to be something grand in society, but because, having grown up in a big, happy family herself, she can't conceive of any more fulfilling ambition than being a mother of many children. I liked Daphne very much; she's a down-to-earth person that I'd be very happy to have as a friend.
The male main character, Simon, has had a very different family life, having been rejected by his father at a very early age because he was slow to talk, and when he did, he had a very bad stutter. His father believed him to be stupid and an unworthy inheritor of the family title, but Simon has carved out his own path to a high-flying career at Eton and later at Oxford. When his father makes overtures towards him, however, he takes off for the continent, only returning home when his father is dead. This is the point at which the story proper opens, but Simon's history is told in what is effectively a long prologue. I'm not usually a fan of prologues, but in this case it was very necessary, so that the reader fully understands Simon's state of mind.
And so the two main characters bump into each other at a ball, both bent on escaping the matchmaking of various ambitious mothers, and she pursued by her one sole suitor, a spectacularly unpromising specimen. Over a long-drawn-out discussion (implausibly lacking any interruptions despite the number of people attending the ball) about what to do with said suitor, the two principals are, in the well-worn tradition of such romances, instantly drawn to each other, while neither knows who the other is. We know this because the author jumps merrily from one point of view to the other, another romance tradition which I don't much like even though I do see the necessity for it.
Thereafter, the plot continues through the typical array of misunderstandings and entanglements, with the usual resolution at the end. What lifts this above the usual level of such romances is the quality of the dialogue, which was always funny even in moments of high stress, and the depth of characterisation. Simon, in particular, is a hugely tragic yet sympathetic character. It's impossible not to feel for him, and his decisions are therefore totally understandable. But Daphne too is very much her own person, not constrained by the conventions of society but trying to do the best for everyone involved.
For those who are averse to such things, there are some fairly graphic (and long drawn out) sex scenes, but in this case it's not in the least gratuitous - the sex between the couple is a very significant part of the plot. There is one scene late on in the story which a number of readers objected to, on the grounds that Daphne behaves very badly. To be honest, it didn't bother me at all, since by that point both the main characters have behaved quite badly already, and have got themselves into a huge emotional mess. In addition, I felt that Daphne was acting very much in character. She was presented with an opportunity to (possibly) take what she wanted, and it wasn't a great surprise that she went for it. In fiction, I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect characters to make the right decision on every occasion. Misjudgements make them human. But understandably some readers feel that there is a line which a sympathetic heroine must not cross.
The scene that really bothered me was much earlier in the story. Now, I get that modern Regency romance heroines are not timid little misses, fluttering their eyelashes behind their fans. They tend to be far more forthright about - well, everything really. When introduced to sex, they're liable to get the idea pretty quickly. But at this point in the tale, Daphne is an innocent, in sexual terms (which becomes a significant plot point subsequently), and the idea that she would happily drag her reluctant suitor into the bushes at a ball and seduce him to the point where clothing is removed and breasts are bared, is, for me, just not credible. That he might do it, I could possibly buy into, or that they might take advantage of a private situation, but not that both would be so carried away by passion in such a public place. Yet the whole second half of the book hinged on that moment.
That aside, I enjoyed this book thoroughly. It's not the most complicated plot in the world, but the characters have real depth, there's humour and not much silliness, and there's also a fine ending with oodles of emotional resonance (translation: I cried). Recommended for fans of Regency romance who don't mind the main characters having a bedtime romp or three. Four stars. ...more
Way back in the seventies, there was a UK TV program called ‘The Survivors’. The premise was that almost everyone on earth had beenFantasy 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....more
So here we are at the end of the trilogy. The first book, 'The Tattered Banner', I found a refreshing change from the typical swordFantasy 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. ...more
If I had to describe the characteristics I most look for in a book, I’d probably answer: memorable characters, an interesting settiFantasy 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....more
This is one of those books that I started with every expectation of hating it. It would be too pretentious, too clever for its ownFantasy Review Barn
This is one of those books that I started with every expectation of hating it. It would be too pretentious, too clever for its own good, and too full of itself, I was sure of it. And the central conceit, of living the same life over and over, has been done a few times before. But then, quite unexpectedly, the quirky charm of the characters drew me in, and the excellent writing raised my hopes. I ended up enjoying it far more than anticipated, with a couple of reservations.
The story follows Ursula, the third child of Silvie and Hugh, who is born in the middle of a snowstorm in 1910. And promptly dies, the cord being tangled round her throat. And is born again. This time, she’s saved and lives a little longer. There are a great many deaths, in a great many different ways (and sometimes the same way, repeatedly), and some are pretty depressing, but knowing that Ursula will be reborn every time makes this less fraught than it might be.
As these various lives come and go and come again, Ursula starts to have some memory of her previous incarnations. These are not clear memories, but vague feelings of dread when in a place where something bad happened in a previous life, or a strong feeling that she should (or shouldn’t) do certain things. Her subconscious attempts to mitigate the effects or avoid a situation altogether are fascinating, and she gradually begins to adapt her life towards certain specific ends. It’s almost inevitable, given the timeframe here, that the whole killing-Hitler-to-prevent-the-war scenario should raise its head, but I won’t spoil the surprise by revealing what actually happens (well, it was a surprise to me, anyway).
The first reservation I had was that the heavy focus on the second world war, and the graphic descriptions of the lives that Ursula lived, made the mid-section of the book appallingly miserable. Nothing good seemed to happen to her at all. In all her many lives, there was no life where she simply met a nice man, married, settled down into baby-infested domesticity and had a pleasant, if dull, life. No, time after time, she lived miserably and died horribly, and I really resented that. Although possibly that was the entire point of her existence, I don’t know. Or some deep philosophical point: life’s a bitch and then you die and then (lucky you) you get to go through the whole awfulness of it all again.
But then the ending rolled around and this is where things went slightly off the rails, because (and I’m going to be honest here) I didn’t understand it at all. There were hints that some of the other characters also had some vague memories, but it wasn’t at all clear (to me). And the last chapter – what was that all about? It’s been driving me nuts. The blurb on the cover seems to suggest that, in true ‘Groundhog Day’ style, there will come a point when Ursula does everything right and the endless cycling will stop. Yet the book itself appears to contradict that. Or does it? Dunno. And what does it all mean? Dunno again. But the writing is very effective, the characters have a quirky, and very English, charm, and on balance I found it an enjoyable read. The deeply depressing wartime scenes and cryptic ending keep it to three stars....more
Wouldn’t it be lovely if you could compose a song which would guarantee good weather or bountiful harvests or a cure for illness? TFantasy 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....more