I love a good country house murder mystery, something that Agatha Christie specialised in but which is hard to find nowadays. This is a very good subsI love a good country house murder mystery, something that Agatha Christie specialised in but which is hard to find nowadays. This is a very good substitute, which captures the social nuances and language perfectly, and if the identity of the murderer isn't the hardest thing in the world to work out, well, at least I can bask in my own cleverness. I'm usually a sucker for the red herrings, so it's nice to guess right for once.
The story starts with Charles Knox returning from several years in South Africa, where he's conveniently made his fortune by gold mining. He's met by his old friend Bobs and Bobs’s sister Sylvia, now all grown up and a possible love interest. But Charles was once engaged to Rosamund, now married to Sir Neville Strickland, and when he's invited to their country house and there's a murder, things get a bit murky.
As with all whodunits, there is an array of likely suspects who had motive, and the story unfolds by revealing more and more backstory. The focus of the unfolding is Angela Marchmont, a cousin of Rosamund's and a lady with an eye for anything just a little out of place. It's an unusual strategy for a book labelled as 'An Angela Marchmont Mystery' that the title character is almost a side-issue, since all the focus is on the main point-of-view character, Charles Knox. There are good reasons for that in this particular story, but it still feels a little awkward.
The ending is not terribly convincing, but nevertheless I enjoyed this immensely. For those who like their murder mysteries quaint and undemanding, with beautifully authentic dialogue and some nicely Christie-esque characters, this is a good series to try. I wouldn’t normally rate this kind of formula book as more than three stars, but one has to give full credit to an author who knows how to use ‘one’ correctly. Four stars....more
McKenna's literary love story, 'See You', is one of the finest books I've read in recent years, so I wasn't going to miss the opportunity to enjoy herMcKenna's literary love story, 'See You', is one of the finest books I've read in recent years, so I wasn't going to miss the opportunity to enjoy her inimitable writing style applied to a series of cop thrillers set in the Florida panhandle. The first of the series, 'Low Tide', was a good starter, tidying up the immediate problems, while opening up enough intriguing backstory to fill the rest of the series.
Maggie Redmond is a cop getting by as a single parent after divorcing her childhood sweetheart, David, when he got involved in drugs. Now she's tiptoeing around a new relationship with fellow cop, Wyatt, while also finding herself inexplicably drawn into the orbit of the town's resident bad guy, Bennett Boudreaux. And all the while, she's trying to forget traumatic events in her past. But when a severed leg turns up in a shrimp net, Maggie has to try to work out what happened. And then things get really bad. The past, it seems, just won't stay buried.
This seems like a light, quick read, but be warned: the author doesn't shy away from heart-wrenching moments, so have a hanky to hand if you're prone to tears. In between times, enjoy the sweat-drenched atmosphere of the panhandle, and McKenna's glorious way with understated, humorous dialogue. The relationship between Maggie and Wyatt, in particular, is brilliantly drawn. I highly recommend the whole series. Start with 'Low Tide' for maximum enjoyment. A very good four stars....more
This is a novella which marries a murder mystery with fantasy, a happy combination. Tyrnill is a song-healer, journeying about fromFantasy Review Barn
This is a novella which marries a murder mystery with fantasy, a happy combination. Tyrnill is a song-healer, journeying about from place to place putting her skills to good use, and learning her craft. When she finds herself in the small village of Kineford, she meets Brim, an agent of the King known as a King’s Shield, who calls upon her services to help him investigate a spate of recent deaths.
The writing style is pleasantly lyrical, a welcome change from the gritty tone of much recent fantasy, and the society and manners are delightfully old-fashioned (to 21st century ears). Tyrnill leaves her horse tied up outside the inn, still loaded with all her luggage, while she eats and chats and relaxes, and lo, horse and luggage are still there later. No opportunistic thieves here. On the other hand, Tyrnill’s liking for high-heeled shoes and revealing gowns feels terribly modern. Not quite anachronistic, but it adds some interesting complexity to an otherwise standard faux-medieval setting.
It’s difficult to write a story this short that still feels fully rounded, with believable characters, an interesting setting and enough plot to satisfy. This novella ticks all the boxes, resolving the murder mystery with style, and throwing in a charming little romance for good measure. The magic in this world is intriguing enough to leave me wanting to know more. A good four stars....more
This is the second book in the Narrowdale YA series. I'm not sure exactly which genre it falls under; I'd put it somewhere between suspense and horrorThis is the second book in the Narrowdale YA series. I'm not sure exactly which genre it falls under; I'd put it somewhere between suspense and horror, with paranormal elements. And as YA goes, it's at the younger end, and wouldn't be unsuitable for middle-graders, since the horror is muted, and the humour is cranked all the way up to eleven.
In fact, the opening few chapters are as funny as anything I've ever read anywhere, and yes, that covers Terry Pratchett, Douglas Adams and Bill Bryson. Main character Amy is an absolute delight, completely swept up in her own affairs, and since the book is written in the first person, we get to share all her dippy thoughts. The collision of Amy with algebra had me crying from laughing so hard. I know humour is a personal thing, but I defy anyone not to laugh out loud reading this. The first book in the series, 'Sleepless', described how fourteen-year-old Amy moved to Narrowdale with her parents, made a couple of friends, and got involved in some scary stuff. That book had a few wobbly aspects, but this one works far, far better. The characters are shown in sharper focus, the plot feels more real and the writing is beautifully smooth. And I may have mentioned the humour...
Apart from Amy, the backup team comprises Shane, the pal with the camera, Carole, the obsessive academic, and Nicole, the friend from back home who bounces in and out to jog things along. There's also Peter, the security guy that Amy rather fancies. And now there's Chris, Amy's potential boyfriend (I rather like Chris, so I hope he sticks around). Even the minor characters are quite memorable, especially Carole's mum, with her insistence on family meals together, no matter what. We all know someone like that.
The plot... well, if you've read the first book, you'll know what to expect. There's a weird murder, and a guy who's disappeared, and Amy, as usual, is right in the thick of things, walking into murder scenes and wandering about in all sorts of odd places, finding... well, all sorts of odd things. And, as usual, the adults pat her on the head and tell her not to interfere, to leave it all to them. And does Amy listen? Of course not! That would be no fun at all.
There are a couple of very minor things to mention on the negative side. One is the use of present tense. Now this is a very personal thing, it’s very common in YA and most people probably won't even notice, but I found myself constantly jolted by it. So that spoiled my enjoyment very slightly. The other is that this does feel very young, to me. Again, it's a purely personal thing, and I know I'm not in the target audience for a book like this. I don't read a lot of YA, and when I do, it tends not to be the modern-day, high school kid type of YA. I find it much easier to read when it's (say) epic fantasy. For me, reading about Amy's fourteen-year-old thoughts felt uncomfortably voyeuristic. Which means, of course, that the author got it exactly right, so it will be perfect for the appropriate audience. And it’s a testament to the author that he kept me hooked, even when the kids-running-rings-round-the-police element reminded me of my misbegotten childhood reading Enid Blyton’s Famous Five.
There's one more thing that the author got exactly right, and this was a huge plus for me: he's beginning to reveal a little more background on Narrowdale itself, and the reasons behind all the weird stuff. Now, I'm a sucker for this kind of thing. I hate it when things happen just because, and I love that frisson of excitement you get when you discover something huge about the world the story is set in. It's why I read epic fantasy, after all, and to find it here is awesome. That alone would keep me reading, but adding in the humour, Amy's charm and the beginning-to-be-interesting friends makes this series unmissable. Very enjoyable, with a great ending and just a couple of personal niggles keeping it to four stars. ...more
This is the second part of the urban fantasy series The Proving, and boy, is it a cracker. I loved the first part, Twiceborn, werewFantasy Review Barn
This is the second part of the urban fantasy series The Proving, and boy, is it a cracker. I loved the first part, Twiceborn, werewolves and all, but this one is, if anything, even better. It’s a rare accomplishment in a trilogy to maintain the momentum of the first book into the second, but here the author carries it off with style.
SPOILER WARNING: the end of the first book had a number of spectacular reveals, and I really can’t talk about events in this book without referencing them, so it will be impossible to avoid spoilers for Twiceborn. Don’t read any further if you haven’t yet read it. There are no spoilers for this book, however.
In Twiceborn, Kate O’Connor thought things couldn’t get worse after the death of her son, Lachie. Well, she was totally wrong about that. She found herself drawn into the war of succession between the daughters of Sydney’s dragon queen. The winner will be the last one left standing. Kate doesn’t want any part of it, but one of the dragon daughters has made a dying transition into Kate’s body. Now the two, dragon and human, are one.
So Kate has no choice but to fight. But now she has something worth fighting for, because her supposedly dead son has reappeared and she also has a brand-new boyfriend. She’d love to settle down and play happy families, just the three of them, but first she has to settle the Proving, and become the new queen.
Kate is an awesome heroine. Not because she’s a kickass fighter in the feisty female protagonist tradition of urban fantasy (although in dragon mode she’s pretty damn hot). No, it’s because she never loses sight of her human side. She’s been given some really short straws in life, but she doesn’t agonise over her situation, she just gets on and does whatever needs to be done to protect her son. It doesn’t always work as she hopes, and perhaps when your mother is half-dragon a child has to be aware of all the unpleasantness that goes along with that, but Lachie is always her first thought in a crisis, and she tries her damnedest to keep things normal for him. There’s this glorious conversation:
“Lachie sniffed appreciatively. “Something smells good!” “That’s your lunch, mate,” said Dave. “Can I have something to eat now? I’m starving.” “You’ll have to ask your mum about that.” He gave me his best imploring look. “Have a piece of fruit. You don’t want to spoil your appetite.” I looked around at the others as I spoke. Did anyone else find this surreal? This kind of conversation was probably going on in hundreds of other households around Sydney right now. But none of them were waiting on the results of [spoiler: let’s just say ‘unpleasant dragon stuff’]”
Kate is such a wonderful contrast between loving, worrying mother and couldn’t-care-less dragon. I’m quite sure that by the time the trilogy ends, she will have found a resolution to this dichotomy, but in this book it’s pulling her in two different directions. She has to determine when to bring her human side forward, and when it’s necessary to unleash her inner dragon.
But the author doesn’t ever allow the story to bog down in angsty whining. The conflict is there, and Kate’s aware of it, but she never dwells on it. Not that she has much time to dwell on anything, because the action kicks off almost from the start and never lets up for a moment. Everyone, it seems, is out to get Kate, and it’s hard to know who she can trust.
She has a core group of loyal supporters, amongst them boyfriend Ben, and Garth the werewolf. I got a bit cross with Ben, who whines a lot and turns out to be one of those irritating people whose idea of helping is to do something really reckless and worry-inducing. And Garth’s idea of helping is to quibble about every decision Kate makes. There are some new characters in this book, and one in particular lit up every scene. Shifters are always fascinating, but this was an unusual one (to me, anyway).
The author ended the first book in awe-inspiring style, and I was sure she couldn’t repeat the feat. She could and did, in spades. The last few chapters swept me into a maelstrom of emotions, and some utterly shocking developments. And all completely logical. I’d even foreseen some of them, but they still took me completely by surprise when they happened.
This was another unputdownable outing from the author, a well-written urban fantasy with loads of action, some memorable characters and that trademark Australian wit. Now I can’t wait for the final installment. Five stars.
I loved the author’s debut work, ‘See You’, regarding it as one of the finest books I’ve read in recent years. So this opener for a new series was a mI loved the author’s debut work, ‘See You’, regarding it as one of the finest books I’ve read in recent years. So this opener for a new series was a must for me. The author very kindly sent me a copy in advance of release day, so I could be one of the first to read it - thank you very much!
This is a very different book, a thriller built around thirty-something police lieutenant Maggie Redmond, divorced with two children. Maggie’s a very likable, very normal person, doing her job, raising her kids, not exactly struggling to get by but (like most of us) stuck in a bit of a rut. But Maggie has a secret in her past, and when ne’er-do-well Gregory Boudreaux turns up dead in an apparent suicide, her life threatens to unravel. She’s thrown into the path of Gregory’s uncle, the town’s rather charming chief crook. And then there’s the teenage girl ensnared by a local drug dealer, trying to look after his kids and her own baby, whom Maggie takes under her wing.
None of this is particularly unusual, but the background takes it out of the ordinary. Set on the Florida panhandle coast, every page oozes local colour and (even to a Brit like me) southern charm. There were quite a few references I didn’t get, but who could resist a town with a single traffic light, and a grocery story called a Piggly-Wiggly? I could almost small the salty tang of the air, hear the slap of waves against the side of the boat, and feel the sweat trickling between my shoulder blades. Although… oysters? Nah, you can keep the oysters.
The plot develops at a stately, Southern pace most of the time, with much of the tension arising from fabulous, subtext-laden conversations where nothing is said explicitly, but boy, are there undercurrents swirling beneath the surface. But, being a thriller, the pace ramps up dramatically at the end, with far less contrivance than is often found in books of this type. And I liked that no one takes such dramatic events lightly.
If I have a complaint, it’s that many of the characters seemed to be a little too nice to be inhabiting a thriller. Not just Maggie herself, but her normal, well-adjusted kids, her loving parents, and her almost-love-interest, fellow cop Wyatt (especially Wyatt, who can woo me any time). Even her ex-husband, divorced for very sound reasons, comes across in his few appearances as a pleasant, sensible and reliable man. In addition, the two plots are not well connected, so sometimes things seemed a little disjointed.
But overall an absorbing, enjoyable read. This is a great start to the series, with the author’s trademark wonderfully drawn characters, southern charm and plenty of humour. But there’s a darker tone in there as well. This is not the weepy-fest that ‘See You’ was, but I shed a few tears all the same. Looking forward to the rest of the series. A good four stars....more
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
I positively inhaled this book – I just couldn't read it fast enough. This is the third book in the Theft and Sorcery series. I reaFantasy Review Barn
I positively inhaled this book – I just couldn't read it fast enough. This is the third book in the Theft and Sorcery series. I really enjoyed the first two, but this one is the best of the lot, for me. Although each book can be read independently of the others, there are some characters from the earlier books that turn up here. Big, big warning for those who might find it problematic: there's a heap of graphic sex in the book, bordering on erotica, and there's also some robust language.
One of the enjoyable aspects of this series is that there's a time-skip from one book to the next. This opens up the possibilities for interesting social changes. In the first book, half-elves were slaves, the lowest rung on the social ladder (after full-blooded elves, the aristocracy, and humans, effectively the middle classes). In the second book, the enlightened new queen had freed all the slaves, and half-elves were coming to terms with full citizenship. Another generation on, and there seems to be no social distinction at all. It's rather nice to see this progression. However, not everything is rosy: there are still those who would divide society down the middle.
The main character this time is Miko, also known as Badger, a half-elf in training at an academy for sorcerers. He's an unusually powerful sorcerer, and creative with his magic, so not only can he do more than most, but he invents new and ingenious spells too. Oh, and he can do all this by the power of his mind, without using the normal incantation and gesture to trigger the magic. I liked Miko very much, despite his grumpiness (I found it quite endearing) and his unusual background is very intriguing.
The love interest is Aya, also a sorcerer, although less powerful than Miko. This seems like a straightforward boy-meets-girl and away-we-go romance, but the obstacles to happiness are quite major ones, and it’s very understandable that things don’t run smoothly. Miko is naturally pretty upset about… well, many things (not wanting to give anything away). But even though it seems the romance is faltering, the two are still thrown together and the attraction is undeniable. In previous books in the series, the sex has possibly been a more significant element than the plot, but here the pacing works perfectly: the sexual tension builds beautifully and resolves itself at just the right moment. Perfectly judged.
The plot (the coup of the title) is gradually revealed, and then comes the attempt to thwart it without disrupting the delicate balance of court politics. Again, this is all perfectly believable, and I loved the way Miko’s innovation comes to the fore, creating new magical functions as needed. Everything builds to a dramatic climax, but (of course) things don’t go quite according to plan, and this part of the book was even more of a page-turner than the rest. Great stuff.
This was a terrific read, and a great finale to the series, with walk-on roles for all the favourite characters from the previous two books. Five stars for the sheer enjoyment of the read, and the inventive ways Miko finds to exploit his powers. ...more
This is the second in the Dragon and the Scholar quartet, and follows on with the story of Ewan (the dragon) and Shannon (the schol Fantasy Review Barn
This is the second in the Dragon and the Scholar quartet, and follows on with the story of Ewan (the dragon) and Shannon (the scholar). The first book ended with the two of them flying off into the sunset, but it was a long way from being a happy ending, what with him being a dragon and all.
So naturally, after a pleasant interlude together, things start to go downhill. There's trouble afoot in the Kingdom of Westshire, which borders our heroes' own kingdom of Regone. Strange beasties have been snatching young girls from their homes, and Ryan, the heir to the Westshire throne, is set on putting an end to it. Into the midst of this comes Ewan's brother Edmond, now King of Regone, bent on wooing Ryan's sister Brighid. Her father, King Riley, isn't at all happy about it. When things come to a duel, Ewan and Shannon are summoned to help sort things out.
You'll have guessed from this that the setting is very much the standard pseudo-medieval affair, where men run kingdoms, save maidens from monsters and wave swords around, while women wear pretty frocks and strive to be beautiful. Shannon, fortunately, is the exception to the rule, a trouser-wearing, intelligent, oh-I'll-do-it-myself competent female, and hooray for that. It's a pity that Brighid is much more the conventional princess-figure, behaving emotionally and being kidnapped so that the men (and Shannon) can rescue her.
So this is no trope-busting feminist treatise, but it's a very enjoyable, light read for those moments when you just can't face another heavyweight grimdark monster of a book. The plot isn't complex but there's enough action to keep things bubbling along nicely. And the ending sees a rather neat solution to the political problem by Edmond, which I liked very much.
There's also a darker, more tragic tone beneath the froth. Ewan and Shannon love each other, but they have the slight problem that Ewan is a dragon. A human under a dragon enchantment, sure, but still a dragon. Ewan's dilemma is that he wants Shannon to stay with him, but he feels it's morally wrong to ask, since he can't offer her any of the sort of things a woman might expect from a lover. He won't even tell her how he feels, because it might sway her. This is a very real tragedy for both of them, and Ewan's handling of the situation is truly heroic. A large part of the attraction in this series, for me, is finding out how this situation gets resolved. If indeed it does. My money at the moment is on a happy ending, but it would be brave indeed to take a different route.
An entertaining, light read. Recommended for those in the mood for a traditional-style fantasy, with plenty of humour. Bonus points for the strong ending, and not shying away from the dragon/human problem. 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 books that I would never, ever have read if I hadn’t bumped into the author online in an author’s forum and got to know him. YA?This is one of those books that I would never, ever have read if I hadn’t bumped into the author online in an author’s forum and got to know him. YA? Horror? Eek! No way… and blow me down, if it wasn’t a whole heap of fun. Who’d a thunk it?
Here’s the premise: Amy is fourteen when her parents uproot her from LA and move to dull, small-town Narrowdale. She thinks her worst problem is going to be boredom. Ha! Not a chance. Because first there are the strange dreams, where she’s being followed and there’s this odd whistling. And then… well, let’s just say that it gets a whole lot weirder after that.
Amy herself is a big part of the fun, because she’s your actual spunky heroine. Strange noises at night? Should I sneak out of the house and wander around deserted streets on my own to see what’s going on? Hell, yes! And she has an easy-come easy-go attitude to school - like, it’s boring, so why don’t I bunk off and go talk to the weird homeless guy who knows stuff? So this is bound to appeal to a certain age group who finds school somewhat less than riveting. Does anyone find school riveting? This book is probably not for you.
Better than all of this, though, is that this book made me laugh out loud more times than I could count. It’s just plain funny, and I love a book that can give me the shivers one moment and crack me up the next. A great combination. Just one warning: the punctuation is somewhat haphazard. Now my own punctuation is pretty wayward, so I’m tolerant of that and the book was enjoyable enough that it never became a hindrance. The author is getting some more editing done to improve things, so if this is a deal-breaker, hold off until things are tidied up.
A light, fun read that would work fine for middle-grade and upwards. I’m not sure where on the horror-spooky-supernatural spectrum it falls, but I didn’t find it too scary or gory. Four stars for sheer entertainment value....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
If you’ve ever wondered what the Sphinx thought about her perpetual task of riddle-making, and whether she’d like… well, a bit of aFantasy Review Barn
If you’ve ever wondered what the Sphinx thought about her perpetual task of riddle-making, and whether she’d like… well, a bit of a change occasionally, this is the story for you. It’s not even very long (4,000 words), so you can’t argue that you’ve got no time. It’s original, clever and very, very funny - what’s not to like?
I don’t normally read short stories, but the author went straight onto my must-read list after I loved her urban fantasy set in Sydney, Twiceborn (with werewolves and dragons, what could be better?). I had to try this too, and I’m so glad I did. Five stars....more
I'm a sucker for a dragon story, and this one is a little different from the usual. It starts as a charming little fairy-tale, wherFantasy Review Barn
I'm a sucker for a dragon story, and this one is a little different from the usual. It starts as a charming little fairy-tale, where the girl in the dragon's lair is a spirited and smart young scholar rather than a helpless princess, and the dragon isn't quite what he seems, either. The two strike up an unusual friendship. This part of the book was lovely, and I enjoyed every moment of it. The second half is far more predictable, and rather more uneven.
Here's the premise: Shannon is a talented young scholar, determined to take a job as healer in the small kingdom of Regone for the perfectly logical reason that she's the best person to heal the king from injuries sustained while fighting dragons. While there, she is pursued by the amorous knight Sir Roderick, who offers to slay a newly-arrived dragon to win her hand. To avoid this dreadful fate, she sets off to find the dragon herself, and discovers a character surprisingly interested in her books and palace gossip.
The sparky conversations between dragon and scholar are a highlight of the book, but by the midpoint, things become more conventional, and there's a great deal of dashing about avoiding the machinations of the villain, and in general trying to stay alive. The characters devolve into stereotypical good guys and bad guys at this point. It was depressing that the spirited and smart (female) scholar took so little part in this, and it was left to men with swords, spears and crossbows to sort things out. Most of this followed conventional lines, apart from one little twist near the end, where the villain takes an unexpected action.
I would have liked a bit more detail about the setting, which was very much a generic fantasy kingdom, with the usual array of inns, forests, craggy mountains for dragons, farms and so on, not to mention possibly the worst-guarded palace ever. I'm astonished the king wasn't assassinated in an early chapter, the way characters walked insouciantly in and out, without seeing so much as a laundrymaid, never mind a guard. I also wondered why, when dire consequences would occur if a certain character dies within a matter of hours, the other characters didn't just go and hide until the deadline had passed.
This is a light, quick read which is entertaining for those not looking for great depth. It’s billed as YA, but it would work perfectly well for MG too. The perfunctory nature of the world-building and the rather simplistic characters would normally make it a three star affair, but the pleasure of the first half, the charm of the two main characters and the avoidance of a too-simple happy ending bump it up to four stars for me. ...more
I almost missed out on this one. I started reading, loved the opening, really got into it, things were just rolling along merrily wFantasy Review Barn
I almost missed out on this one. I started reading, loved the opening, really got into it, things were just rolling along merrily when... werewolf. Now, werewolves are part of the unholy trinity, along with vampires and zombies, that I never read if I can possibly avoid it. So... oh dear. But then I discovered that the book has dragons in it... DRAGONS! Yes! Dragons make everything better. So I started again, and boy, am I glad I did. Because this book was just so much fun (yes, even the werewolves).
Here's the premise: Kate is a twenty-something Sydneysider, recovering (not very well) from a messy divorce and the death of her young son. To keep herself busy, she undertakes occasional courier jobs for friend Ben, and if the jobs are a little suspect, and involve disguises and evading strange people tailing her, she's too sunk in gloom to worry about it. Until one day she finds that the package to be delivered is addressed to her, she has bizarre lapses in memory, flashbacks that involve a lot of blood and she's swallowed an odd sort of stone. Oh, and she can see coloured auras around some people. And then... werewolf.
At which point, things get to be seriously strange. The flashbacks or dreams or hallucinations become longer and more intriguing, but they do make it relatively easy to work out much of what's going on. Combined with odd changes in behaviour, like the sudden sexual attractions and urges to kill things, I had a working theory for all the mysteries quite early on. The extensive use of flashbacks can be jarring sometimes, or feel contrived, as a way to keep crucial information from the reader, but here I felt it worked very well.
Kate seemed like a very believable heroine to me, an ordinary woman thrust into a completely extraordinary situation, and coping with it realistically - veering from capable common-sense to go-with-the-flow acceptance, all tempered with a touch of wry humour, which had me laughing out loud many times. I do love a book which makes me laugh. Ben, the love interest, is unusual in that he seems to be quite the most normal character in the book (after Kate herself). I found the romance very believable, although I think Ben may have some competition in the future - love triangle ahoy!
I really liked the Sydney setting. So much urban fantasy is set in London or a major US city, that Australia was a very refreshing change. It would be quite awesome if future books were set in Perth or Melbourne or Adelaide, to keep things fresh. And yes, the dragons were very cool. The drama ramps up nicely at the end to a thrilling climax and a terrific (if implausible) punch-the-air moment.
In many ways this is standard urban fantasy, but it captured my attention beautifully once I'd got past the werewolf moment. It's a fast, lightweight read, but the humour, the dragons and that awesome moment with the Sydney Harbour Bridge kept me turning the pages with a silly grin on my face. Absolutely fabulous, werewolves and all. For sheer entertainment value, it gets five stars from me.
Sometimes it seems as if every possible approach to fantasy has already been done a thousand times. So it’s lovely to find a new auFantasy Review Barn
Sometimes it seems as if every possible approach to fantasy has already been done a thousand times. So it’s lovely to find a new author capable of putting an original slant on the genre, whilst also having a lot of fun. In some ways this is a conventional story - young man with powers and a special sword, a monarchy under threat, active gods and goddesses - but it constantly took me by surprise, and combined some glorious punch-the-air moments with laugh-out-loud humour. Even the opening, which seems to be heading in one direction, veers straight off in a different one almost immediately. I love a book which surprises me, so this was a very good start.
Here’s the premise: a young man wanders into town carrying a particularly striking sword, a religious artifact. He immediately becomes the focus for various factions who want to protect him or relieve him of the sword or execute him or embroil him in their own plots. The story follows his attempts to pursue his own agenda (finding someone to tell him about the sword he carries), while avoiding the manipulations of his enemies and his apparent friends.
And this is one of the striking features of the story: it’s truly hard to work out who is on which side, or even how many different sides there are. And, rather amusingly, the characters have the same problem. So they inch tentatively around each other, set tests and traps for each other, and occasionally end up fighting each other.
The three main characters are very nicely drawn. Taelien is the sword-carrying visitor who would give a life-assurance salesman palpitations. Whenever a particularly difficult challenge is presented, with almost zero chance of surviving, never mind winning, Taelien goes into “Hell, yes! Bring it on!” mode. Being the world’s most risk-averse person imaginable myself, this gave me palpitations at first, but by the end of the book, I was going “Hell, yes!” too. Taelien is a great character, especially in combat.
Lydia is the “Let’s think this through” person, a high-ranking sorceress at court, who endlessly rationalises everything. When presented with a new kind of magic that she doesn’t fully understand, she devises ways to find out more about it and adapt it into her own magic. Smart lady.
Jonan falls neatly into the plucky sidekick role, and is also the useful guy whose magical bag of tricks gets the others out of a lot of messes. Although, to be fair, he also gets them into some of those messes. One problem I had with the three of them was their youth. They all seem to be abnormally experienced and mature for their supposed ages, and Lydia in particular was problematic. I found it hard to believe that someone of barely twenty could hold such an important and trusted position at court, especially as she was an outsider.
I have to mention the magic system. I’m sure people will compare it with Brandon Sanderson, and to say it’s detailed and clever and well thought-out really doesn’t do it justice. I didn’t get many of the nuances, because I’m too lazy to make the effort to understand these things, but even so, it always made sense to me. There were a few moments where a particularly tricky situation was resolved with an unexpected magical twist, which nevertheless made logical sense: very, very satisfying.
The other highlight in the excellent world-building was the role of gods and goddesses, who appear to take an active part in the lives of mortals. Or do they? This is another area where it’s impossible to tell exactly what’s going on, and what is real and what isn’t. Then there’s the interesting question of what precisely a god is: if a being has godlike powers, does that make him a god? This question isn’t fully resolved, but I like this much better than having everything spelled out.
The writing style is very wordy, and there were places where I would have liked a little less introspection and analysis from the characters, and a little more trusting the reader to get it. In the early chapters, in particular, where the three main characters are tiptoeing round each other, I could have done with a lot less “If this… but then if that…” from them. However, it’s an easy read, with more than enough action to keep me turning the pages.
The climax is nicely dramatic and very enjoyable, with enough twists and turns and revelations to satisfy the most demanding palate. The wind-down at the end, however, felt a bit rushed, and there were one or two things airbrushed over without much explanation (Vorain’s escape, for instance). However, these things might be explained in the next book. An original and entertaining book. Four stars.
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
I hardly know what to say about this book. I cried almost all the way through, yet I couldn’t put it down. Actually, I laughed almost as much as I criI hardly know what to say about this book. I cried almost all the way through, yet I couldn’t put it down. Actually, I laughed almost as much as I cried. So be warned - unless you’re made of much sterner stuff than I am, you’ll need a good supply of hankies nearby while you read.
This is an extraordinary book. It’s a love story, and no, that’s not a euphemism for romance, this really is a story about love. And not your conventional couple, either. Jack was raised by his best friend’s mother, Miss Margret, and returned every year to visit her and her granddaughter, Emma Lee. When Miss Margret died, the visits stopped but now Jack’s back, and finds Emma Lee still living in the same house, and raising her own daughter. Jack has some secrets to share, but Emma has a secret of her own - she’s been in love with him since she was a child.
Now if you thought a love story between a fifty-something man and a thirty-something women might feel a little odd, don’t worry, it all feels totally natural and beautifully real. Jack and Emma are not extraordinary people, they don’t have unusual talents or great wealth or outstanding beauty. They’re just ordinary folks who live ordinary lives in an ordinary town, yet their story is anything but ordinary.
This is the author’s debut publication, but it’s as fine a piece of writing as I’ve seen anywhere. This is the south, and the dialogue and the tiny nuances of southern life are a pleasure to read, so evocative you could almost be there. Even for me, a Brit, that slow way of life wrapped itself around like a warm blanket. Here’s Jack telling the preacher there’s going to be a wedding:
Jack found Brother Fillmore out back, shooing two half-grown hogs back into their pen. He was the only man Jack had ever seen who could work outside all day and have his overalls as pressed and clean as when he’d put them on.
He was a slim man, just a bit shorter than Jack, but his dignity and bearing always made him seem larger to Jack. He had to be over eighty, though he looked much younger, and he’d lived alone since his wife had passed, back in the nineties.
He didn’t seem all that surprised at Jack’s news, but Jack didn’t recall ever seeing him surprised.
“Well, Emma’s needed a good man to give her some direction for some time,” Brother Fillmore said. “She’s not meant to go it alone.”
“Yes sir,” Jack said.
“How long have you been home, son?”
“Just a little while,” Jack said.
“You’ve not been living in sin ‘til this time, have you?”
“No sir,” Jack said. “No sinning at all.”
“Well, I’ll be pleased to join you in celebrating,” Brother Fillmore said. “I’ll need to come up with an appropriate gift.”
“No gift necessary, sir,” Jack said. “Just bring yourself; bring a dish if you like.”
Brother Fillmore pointed his cane at the smaller of the hogs he’d just penned. “That one just tore up all my Black Krim tomatoes,” he said. “I’ll bring him.”
How can you resist? Highly recommended. Five stars....more
This is an unusual book in a couple of ways. For one thing, the main protagonists are a happily married couple. When Daro is kidnapFantasy Review Barn
This is an unusual book in a couple of ways. For one thing, the main protagonists are a happily married couple. When Daro is kidnapped, Cecily sets out to find and rescue him. No, no, that’s not the other unusual thing. Surely it’s not unusual for a woman to rescue a man?
The second unusual thing is that this story is set some years after a major upheaval in the kingdom. The old king was overthrown and his son and heir killed in a bloody war which Daro, Cecily and their friends helped to orchestrate. The first section of the book, where we meet the companions in ones and twos, and they mull over the previous events and remind each other of this or that close shave or dramatic moment, made me wonder if I’d strayed into the second part of a trilogy. Actually, no, this is the first part. But dammit, that sounds like an interesting adventure they had. I’d really like to read about that. It’s not until this story starts to take off that I stopped yearning to hear about the war.
The plot, as already mentioned, revolves around the kidnapping of Daro by people who appear to have almost impossibly powerful abilities. It took a while to get to this point, but the getting there was not uninteresting. The contrast between Daro and Cecily’s present rustic retreat and the grand city of Halthus, where Cecily is part of the nobility, makes for an interesting introduction, and there are plenty of neat little details along the way that made me smile with pleasure. This is an author who knows how to get the world-building right and drip-feed snippets of information at just the right moment.
But then Daro is whisked away, and the section of the book that deals with what happens to him was, for me, a highlight. His interactions while in captivity came to life and crackled with tension in a way that the more routine city-based scenes never quite did. Partly this is (perhaps) because civilised cities, even magical ones, don’t quite have that fantastical allure for me. And partly this is because Cecily spends a great deal of time sitting around unable to act because - well, reasons. It makes her seem quite passive at times, although when she does get a chance to act, and she and the gang sally forth for an encounter, she more than makes up for all the waiting.
A very small niggle: when Cecily and pals do get an idea of what to try next, it seems to come out of the blue. Sometimes it’s more a chance piece of information, or pure instinct, that drives things forwards. I would have liked a little more deduction, and less randomness, but it wasn’t a problem.
One aspect I really liked about this book is the beautifully worked out magic system. I can’t profess to understand all the nuances, but there’s a lot of subtlety to it. Magic users are called Wielders or Shapers, depending on whether they can manipulate energy or matter. There are various different types. Cecily is an unusually strong Wielder, trained at the powerful Lyceum to enhance her capabilities even more than normal. I loved the way she could Push or Pull - making someone fall over by Pushing their knees, for example - and she also has Awareness, so she can feel where rooms and people are in a building, for instance. Such a useful ability to have.
The other main characters have Wielder abilities too, and sometimes it felt as if they were only there to conveniently make guards run away (by filling their minds with fear, another cool ability) or pick a lock. The rest of the time the companions were mostly cannon fodder, or foils to sit round a table discussing The Situation with Cecily (there was a lot of discussing went on). I confess that I got them muddled up a great deal, but that’s just me.
Eventually the plot blossoms into the expected big confrontation. The battle scenes in the book are done superbly. I’m not a big fan of magical battles, as a rule, but here I always knew exactly what was going on, and who was doing what to whom.
The ending - I’m not going to say anything about the ending, except that the author has set up one of the cleverest lead-ins to the next book that I’ve ever come across. Can’t wait to find out how this one gets worked out. Recommended for fans of traditional epic fantasy who like an intriguing magic system. A good four stars.
Footnote: the author’s husband is a Lego enthusiast, so he made some models of locations in the book, which you can see here....more
This is an unusual book. Yes, yes, I know I specialise in unusual books; not for me the dull old treadmill of mainstream popular woFantasy Review Barn
This is an unusual book. Yes, yes, I know I specialise in unusual books; not for me the dull old treadmill of mainstream popular works. I read stuff you’ve never heard of. But this book is special: I came across it on a forum where the author lamented that she’d only sold… no, let’s not put a number on it. Let’s just say: not very many. So this is a book that nobody has ever heard of.
So what’s it about? Well, let me tell you first what it’s not about. It’s not about saving the world. It’s not about finding the lost heir to the kingdom. There’s no quest, no named sword, no moustache-twirling villain, no prophecy. There are no orcs, dwarves, elves or goblins. No dragons, either, sadly (every fantasy book should have dragons, in my opinion, but there you go). There are no witches, werewolves, vampires.
OK, I hear you saying, so what the **** IS in it, then? People, that’s what. No, not characters, these are real, flesh-and-blood people, who happen to live in the pages of a book. They have histories and personalities, they have weaknesses and strengths, they have beliefs, hopes and dreams, fears and uncertainties. You know, just like everyone.
Here’s the premise. Agna is a young healer from a rich family in Nessiny, trained to use magic to heal. Sent to a foreign land to repay her training in service to others, she joins a caravan of merchants and craftspeople travelling through the towns and villages. Keifon is an army-trained medic from Yanwei, deeply religious but with his own demons, assigned to be her partner. She thinks he’s surly and rude. He thinks she’s a spoiled rich brat.
And herein lies the whole story: two very different people, from vastly different backgrounds, who have to learn not only to work together, as healers with diametrically opposed methods, but also to live together under the basic conditions of the caravan. It’s not so much what happens that’s interesting, but how: the almost imperceptible inching towards an accommodation, the delicate dance around each other.
If you’re looking for a book filled with action, or any action at all, you won’t find it here. There is perhaps only one moment that qualifies in the whole book. But if you’re looking for something deeper, a painting in words, if you like, where every tiny moment, every glance or touch or word is a perfectly nuanced brush-stroke, this is the book for you. If ever you wanted to know what literary fantasy looks like, this is it. A wonderful book. Five stars....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
The first book in the Darest sequence, 'The Champion of the Rose', is one of my favourite fantasies of all time. Who, after all, coFantasy Review Barn
The first book in the Darest sequence, 'The Champion of the Rose', is one of my favourite fantasies of all time. Who, after all, could fail to love a book which stars a malign rose bush at its heart? With an intriguing setting, some great characters and a difficult but brilliantly realised romance, it ticked all the boxes for me. This one - not so much.
On the positive side, we have another array of awesome characters, albeit with a couple of disappointments. Aristide, a stunningly ambiguous fellow in book 1, is here a little more ordinary. No matter how many times we're told about his glittering coldness and incisive intellect, he's too straightforward a character here to raise the goosebumps. Gentian is too much a plot device to shine properly. The real star of the show this time is Aspen, a wonderfully over-the-top character, always focused on the next bed-partner. Since this world is one where both genders can (and do) take partners of either gender, this is vastly entertaining, as he trails round after one or other potential lover. Beyond these is an array of royal and/or magically talented individuals, each more gloriously larger than life than the next, with centuries of tension between their various countries.
The world-building is another plus. I absolutely adore a story which tosses aside conventional gender roles and substitutes something very different. Here we not only have any-gender coupling, but also any-gender marriages, so that a marriage might comprise two men and one woman or (as here) two women, whose children call them 'blood-mother' and 'heart-mother'; isn't that lovely? Combine this with an uneasy accord with the Fae, themes of identity with the land, and magical gardening, and there's real depth to the setting.
On the negative side, the plot hinged on (amongst other things) the delicate political balance between Darest and its immediate neighbours, and to be honest, most of this whizzed over my head. There were just too many countries, royal houses, succession battles and (frankly) characters for my poor brain to keep up with. If you like your politics complex and devious, this won't bother you, however.
The magic was another aspect that I couldn't quite keep up with. The characters seemed to be able to do an inordinate amount of clever stuff (flying, even!), and even those times when they said: ooh, this is tricky, we haven't the power for this, somehow a way was (usually) found. But so much flexibility meant that I could never predict how a problem would be solved, so very often the solution seemed to come out of left field. Probably if I'd paid more attention, it would have been more understandable, but I'm a reader of very little brain, I like things kept relatively simple.
Then there's the romance. After the complicated and (frankly) traumatic romance of 'The Champion of the Rose', this is a much more muted and simple affair, which somehow didn't set me on fire. In some ways it felt bolted on as an afterthought, too perfunctory to be believable. Although the resolution was lovely.
Despite these minor grumbles, the plot raced along from one crisis to the next, and I loved the strange place our heroes found themselves trapped in, struggling to understand what was going on, and the consequences. I generally didn't have a clue what would happen next, but that kept me turning the pages compulsively. There were some lovely moments along the way, revealing unexpected aspects of the characters, and it was great fun watching the large number of royals coping with simple tasks like cooking and getting the toilets working again.
A slight let-down after the awesomeness of book 1, but still a very readable, enjoyable book. The battle with the water fae was a highlight. And Aspen, of course, the ever delightful Aspen. For me personally, the many little niggles keep it to three stars, but it's still a well-written book I can recommend....more
What could possibly improve a good old-fashioned western? Why, a little magic, that's what. Yes, folks, what we have here is a westFantasy Review Barn
What could possibly improve a good old-fashioned western? Why, a little magic, that's what. Yes, folks, what we have here is a western/fantasy mash-up, complete with horses tied up outside the saloon, gambling and whoring inside, and gunfights in the street, but some of the people wearing the big hats are mages, and the mining going on in the hills is digging up something a lot more powerful than gold. And is it fun? You betcha.
Silas is a mage visiting the Wildings from neighbouring Granadaia, a bounty hunter looking to round up a renegade mage for profit. Lainie is a rancher's daughter with her own untrained magical powers. Silas ought to hand her over for training, or else remove her powers altogether, leaving her a shell of her former self, but somehow he can't quite bring himself to do either. Meanwhile, the town is being torn apart by the mining for some valuable commodity which damages the ranchers' land and produces terrible nightmares. What is going on?
Now, the mystery isn't terribly complex and most of the characters fall into one of the standard categories: white hats, black hats or red shirts. No shades of grey here. But the two main characters are lovely, a solidly honourable and gentlemanly hero, and a spirited, independent but smart heroine. Lainie's determination not to be docile does get her into trouble sometimes, and yes, she does have to be rescued by our stalwart hero once or twice, but she also uses her initiative and is just as instrumental as he is in saving the day. And the romance between them is wonderful, sweet rather than hot (although magic does create certain... erm, interesting effects).
There's some fascinating world-building in the background, and I would have liked a little more detail about some of it, particularly the blueskins living in the hills, who have the power to understand any language spoken to them. There's the politics of Granadaia, with its Mage Council, too, and I loved the idea that a person's magic is rooted in the land they were born on. Fortunately, there's a whole series in the pipeline, so I'm hopeful that more of this will be revealed.
What didn't work so well for me? There were a huge number of miners who were almost uniformly stupid and selfish and greedy. And a lot of them got shot in the numerous gunfights. They were very expendible, and I wondered how many of them had wives and families back in town, and perhaps wouldn't have been quite so cavalier about their own safety in reality. But perhaps that's just me with my twenty-first century sensibilities. [ETA: Apparently they were all vagrants and drifters, a point that whizzed by me as I sped through.] Another minor grumble: I found the plot just a tad predictable at times. There were one or two twists, but not quite enough for my taste.
But these are trivial complaints. I really loved this book, and tore through it in no time. I loved the blend of magic with western conventions, I loved the politeness (Silas always addresses Lainie as 'Miss Lainie') and I loved the gentle romance. An entertaining read. A good four stars. ...more
I’m a sucker for a portal story, where the main character falls through some sort of access point into - well, whatever the authorFantasy Review Barn
I’m a sucker for a portal story, where the main character falls through some sort of access point into - well, whatever the author cares to imagine (past, future, parallel world, some other planet altogether). It’s always fun to watch the character work out what’s happened, and trying to deal with the new setting. It can be trite, but there’s always room for a fresh take on the idea.
Jessica has always been an outsider. She’s taller than average, for one thing, not very womanly in shape, has some odd birthmarks, and then there’s the whole web of light thing she does with her mind. Useful for dealing with truculent bulls, but it can kill, too, and she’s still not sure how to cope with it. And then one day, something odd happens and the small plane she’s in crashes somewhere weird. As in very weird.
Straight away I like that the inhabitants of this weird place don’t automatically speak English. And they have tails! Yay for humanoids with tails. Although some of their customs do seem to be very, very odd... But they're not the only people around. This is, in fact, a very complex place, with a number of different species (or sub-species or races, not sure exactly how it works), and some complicated political arrangements. And Jessica is thrust into the middle of it all, seen as a saviour by more than one faction, but not necessarily for good reasons.
I'll confess I didn't always know exactly what was going on. Some aspects were deliberately mysterious, like Jessica's strange mental connection to the man called Daya, and sometimes characters were keeping information from her or outright lying, which made it difficult to follow. Then there was Jessica's web-like power, which I never fully understood. But the story swept me along and I never worried too much about the details.
Jessica herself is a gloriously independent-minded, spiky individual, the ideal focus for a story like this because she constantly asks the obvious questions that also spring to the reader's mind. She doesn't always get a straight answer, but at least she asks, and she keeps on asking. She also makes efforts to avoid being manipulated too much by the people around her, but it's difficult to know who to trust in this strange new world. She also has to come to terms with her powers and the revelations of her heritage, and that's a lot to take in.
It was disappointing that such an otherwise intelligent, sensible and together character ended up drawn into sexual relationships which only served to complicate everything. I wasn't sufficiently drawn to either of the men to be rooting for either of them. Really I was only rooting for Jessica, and longing for her to stand up to both of them and tell them to ^&*% off and leave her alone until she's sorted out which way is up in this strange new world.
The ending was the usual dramatic high-action affair, with a few things sorted out but plenty of scope for further developments in the series. Overall an enjoyable read, with bonus points for the originality of the setting. Four stars....more
I have no idea what to make of this. I don't even know how to characterise it: literary paranormal fiction, maybe? Or a psychological... hmm, not thriI have no idea what to make of this. I don't even know how to characterise it: literary paranormal fiction, maybe? Or a psychological... hmm, not thriller, exactly, but mystery, perhaps. And although it was interesting, in an oddball sort of way, it never quite flowed for me. It felt just a bit out of kilter like a slightly convex mirror, everything coming across as distorted. Maybe that's appropriate for the story, I don't know. Certainly the future parts were much more interesting and vivid to read about.
The premise is that a talented London pianist, Carol, finds herself unable to play because of repetitive strain injury. Her flatmate, Jerry, is pursuing his personal demons by way of regressive hypnotherapy; he feels he's been a victim of Jack the Ripper in a previous life. Carol tries it too, but finds herself in the future, a soothesayer called Andreq, someone who is trained to soothe people using some technique called xech. Everyone is able to xech, apparently, but not future-Carole, although no one seems to know that, at least not officially. She seems to be able to wing it when required, though. Present-day Carole takes herself off to some coastal backwater to recuperate, where her hypnotherapist, Gene, is also now working.
The London scenes were fine, but the stay in small town Vellonoweth (is that an anagram?) is treated with big-city contempt. It must be very amusing to be so scathing about such quaint customs as half-day closing and quirky local radio, and part of me was entertained by all this vitriol, while the other part was outraged on behalf of the inhabitants of Vellonoweth and small towns everywhere. To be honest, it was hard to believe in this very small place which is apparently stuffed to the rafters with aspiring singers for Carol to attempt to teach. Not to mention wall-to-wall clairvoyants and the like.
Of the main characters, Gene, the enigmatic hypnotherapist, is easily the most interesting. Every scene with him is unexpected, and I never felt I had a handle on him at all. Just too enigmatic altogether. His relationship with Carol was a fascinating mix of professional distance, suppressed sexual tension and an edge of something much, much darker. A compelling character. Jerry, the London friend, is fun, if not particularly original. Carole herself is a curious mixture of upper-class haughtiness and arrogant disdain for lesser mortals, at least in musical terms.
The ending was a little too contrived for my taste, and the author would have done better, in my view, to cut short the post-drama ruminations and leave the reader to take from it whatever he or she will. The writing style is sharp, although I occasionally found the use of metaphor too intrusive. But that's a matter of personal taste.
A quirky and thought-provoking read. Four stars. ...more
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
This is one of those British-based police procedural books where the author did pretty much everything right - interesting characters, a nice (but notThis is one of those British-based police procedural books where the author did pretty much everything right - interesting characters, a nice (but not gory) murder mystery/kidnapping, some intriguing reveals along the way - all in a pleasant, undemanding style. I enjoyed the read but it never quite caught fire for me, somehow.
The central character is Kate Redman, a detective with a history, starting a new job with a case involving a disappearing baby and a murdered nanny. The parents are a workaholic self-made businessman and his Z-list celebrity wife. Kate has to unravel the mystery while staying on the right side of her new colleagues and keeping her past firmly out of sight.
None of this is particularly radical, but the methodical police work rustles up enough clues to keep the pages turning. The writing style is sometimes pedestrian: whenever our trusty detectives meet with potential suspects, greetings are exchanged, cups of tea are offered, chitchat is documented in exhaustive (and sometimes exhausting) detail.
However, it never gets too slow, and the characters are drawn with a light hand, with just enough detail to bring them to life. The settings are described in a more minimalist way. For instance, the police station is said to be “a charmless, redbrick sixties building”, which Brits can visualise instantly, but non-Brits might have more trouble with. There’s some low-key British humour, as well, which is easy to miss.
The conclusion was fine, with a nice build-up to the reveal of the culprit and a not too over-the-top dramatic climax, nicely resolved. After which the cops all sat round in the pub explaining everything to each other. Guys, we got it, OK? There were only one or two missing pieces that needed an explanation at that point.
And then - one of my pet hates - the story ended at the 86% mark, and the rest was filled in with a chapter of a different book altogether. Sigh. This always makes me feel short-changed. I might well buy the next book in the series, but it will be because I enjoyed this one, not because the author has sneaked a chapter into this book.
This is 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