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
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 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.
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
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. 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
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
How do you follow off-the-scale awesomeness? There’s only one way – with a shed-load more awesomeness, that’s how, with a dollop ofFantasy Review Barn
How do you follow off-the-scale awesomeness? There’s only one way – with a shed-load more awesomeness, that’s how, with a dollop of awesome sauce on top. I love this series. After ‘The Light of Kerrindryr’s tight focus on Guardian-carrying Cob and his escape from slavery, this time the camera pans back a little to show the devious machinations at the heart of the empire. And there’s a quest! Yay for quests!
I raved about ‘The Light of Kerrindryr’, rating it my second favourite read of 2013, but that always makes me nervous about reading the follow-on. I needn’t have worried. The author’s trademark elegant writing style, vivid visual imagery and endlessly inventive imagination are all present and correct. And the characters come to life in ways that many popular writers could only envy. Cob is still his grumpy self, but he handles his anger-management issues better here as he gradually comes to terms with the Guardian (and pals) lurking inside him. Cob in full-on Guardian mode is still an awe-inspiring, if slightly worrying, sight. But Cob is no longer alone. He has collected possibly the most mismatched group of characters ever seen in fantasy – a wolf shape-shifter, a wraith, a religious warrior, a shadowlander and – well, whatever Dasira is.
And Cob finally gets him a little loving. Not the world’s most earth-shattering romance, perhaps, and I wonder slightly at the lady’s motives, but it’s still nice to see Cob growing up a little and enjoying himself. I would have liked a little more detail of the event itself, because such an important moment in a character’s life justifies some exploration, but that’s just me. The fade-to-black made it feel more perfunctory than perhaps it would have been for Cob.
Of the other characters, I loved Arik the wolf-man, who acts like an excitable puppy around Cob. Even when he’s in human form, the author never lets us forget his wolfish side, so his movements, his thoughts, the scents he’s constantly aware of are all completely animal-like. Fiora the religious warrior-babe is less likeable, to me, because I was never completely convinced that Cob’s welfare was her sole objective. But I have to admit that she’s a handy girl to have at your side in battle, and being able to summon godly power at will is a useful ability.
All the rest of the vast array of characters populating these lands are complex, fully rounded personalities, all with their own agendas – boy, do they have agendas. The political nuances are such that the reader can never be totally sure who is on which side, or (more likely) playing both sides against the middle. And who would have guessed that seemingly out-and-out villains like Kelturin and Enkhaelen could be made so distressingly sympathetic? My heart bled for both of them. For the ultimate in complicated motivations, there is Dasira, a character with a jaw-dropping history. It’s probably perverse of me, but I was half-hoping that Cob’s romantic tendencies would lean that way, because – well, just because. Maybe as well they didn’t.
The author has one habit which is almost unavoidable in a series as epic as this, namely, switching point of view frequently. I hate the Game of Thrones technique of assigning point of view by chapter; there’s nothing more dispiriting than finishing a Tyrion chapter and turning the page to find it’s Catelyn next. Fortunately, here the point of view sections are as long or short as they need to be, and sometimes a character is wheeled on briefly just to reveal a key piece of information. This strategy makes the transitions as painless as is humanly possible, and never disrupts the flow of the story. I found, too, that there was no equivalent of Catelyn, a character who made my heart sink every time she appeared. All the characters here are interesting enough to carry their own sections effortlessly.
If you like your world-building industrial strength, this is the series for you. There are countries, races, religious systems, ecologies, languages – everything worked out to the last decimal place. Magic? Oh, yes, loads of it. Now I don’t pretend for one moment to have followed all the subtleties, but I was never out of my depth, either. There were no more than a couple of places where I didn’t get a reference. Mostly everything was beautifully clear or else (like some of the details of dress and so on) added colour without slowing things down. I never felt the need to take notes to keep up, never had to struggle to remember what happened in the last book, never got distracted by extraneous side-issues. This world always felt completely real, and not merely a sketched-in backdrop for the action.
And what action it is. There is a lot going on in this book, not just with Cob and his disparate band, but in the imperial army, amongst the wraithy-types, and (oh joy!) at the imperial palace, which is weirder than I’d have believed possible. And then there’s the Emperor. No wonder there are some peculiar things afoot in the empire. As with the first book, there are also sequences that are maybe dreams or hallucinations or other states of not-realness, or perhaps not-of-this-worldness. This elision between real and ‘other’ is one of the most fascinating aspects of the story.
There’s a touch of middle-book-itis in some aspects of the story. Iskaen and Rian are not much more than tokens, promises of some wonderful clashes to come (and Rian’s one of my favourite characters, who surely deserves his own spin-off series). Sarovy’s role is modest in this book, which is a slight disappointment to me, as he’s another favourite, with his ultra-strict and unquestioning adherence to the rules. Nevertheless, they still get scenes of unforgettable power. The moment when Sarovy’s ‘specialists’ reveal their true natures is one that will stay with me for a long time.
And this is, ultimately, the author’s greatest strength. It’s not just the amazing world-building or the complex and layered characters or even the plot that sweeps me off my feet. It’s these moments of vividly-drawn images – Kelturin before the Emperor, the battle at the crystal tower, the escape from the blood-red plant-life of Haaraka, Cob in full-on not-really-human mode powering through the wintry landscape, Enkhaelen painstakingly mending bodies, Cob learning to fight, Cob (again) at Enkhaelen’s house. It’s these powerful moments, balancing on the edge between fantasy and a kind of spine-chilling horror, that lift the book way above the average fantasy saga. And if you want layers of meaning, about reality and dreams and truth... that’s all there too.
I don’t often recommend books. Mostly I say: here’s what worked for me, and here’s what didn’t, and you can decide for yourself. But this is a book, or indeed a series, that deserves a wider audience than it’s likely to get. It should be on bestseller lists and winning awards. It should have a horde of excitable fans lovingly compiling Wikis, wearing cosplay antlers and endlessly debating the nuanced differences between airahenes and haelhenes. So just go out and buy it, OK? It’s piking awesome. Five stars....more
It's a strange thing, but I had 'Prince of Thorns' sitting on my Kindle for a full year before I got round to reading it. I'd readFantasy Review Barn
It's a strange thing, but I had 'Prince of Thorns' sitting on my Kindle for a full year before I got round to reading it. I'd read the reviews, I knew something of what it was about, I knew it would be good, but I kept putting it off. Part of me felt: well, it's probably not as good as the rumours have it, I'll only be disappointed so no point in rushing. Eventually, when not just the second but the third book in the trilogy was imminent, I grudgingly made the time for it. And it blew me away. The second part, 'King of Thorns', was a spottier affair with some creakiness, but I loved it despite those weaknesses. And here I am with the final part of the story, and I already know it really is final. The author has said there will be no more.
A brief recap, with spoilers for books 1 and 2: Jorg is still king of the tiny mountain kingdom of Renar, but since his defeat of the Prince of Arrow, he's acquired several more kingdoms. He's married to Miana, an alliance which secured the help of his maternal kin in the battle against Arrow. This book has moved on a year or two, and Miana is now pregnant. The primary timeline is the journey to Vyene, the seat of the emperor, for the four-yearly congression where the petty kings and their ever-shifting allegiances try to agree on a new emperor. To vote on the matter, no less. I really like the idea of electing an emperor in a world of swords and castles and constant border wars. You’d think it would be settled on the battlefield, and to some extent it is (that’s how Jorg acquired some of his votes, after all), but in the end everyone gets together and negotiates. The secondary timeline carries on with the flashback sequence from book 2, with Jorg ambling about at the behest of the 'ghost in the machine', Fexler Brews (is that an anagram?), and grubbing around in the almost-but-not-quite-functional left-overs of the long-ago Builders’ world. There are other occasional flashbacks tossed out here and there, as appropriate. And instead of the strained device of Katherine's diary, we get the journey of Chella, the necromancer.
For almost half the book, I was just a little disappointed. Many of the complaints I had about the second book are here again: the disjointed timeline that hops about, the seemingly random traveling through the landscape. The writing is not exactly lacklustre, the author is too adept for that, but it's very repetitious in places. I'd like a pound for everyone who spat, or for every time giving birth was described as squeezing out a baby. Meh. But then suddenly everything cranks up a gear and we're back with lots of glorious Jorgness and all's right with the world again.
Jorg is a much more mature person now, although still prone to outbreaks of kill-everything temper. But he's beginning to think more carefully about the consequences of his actions, and when he goes walkabout, he takes care to leave the rest of the crew behind out of harm's way. When he does kill he has a reason for it (although yes, sometimes it's pure revenge), and he takes care to leave the minimum of blameworthy mess behind him. He has more than just himself and his fellow road-brothers to consider - there's the imminent arrival of his firstborn, and that’s an interesting challenge for him and no mistake. How will Jorg take to fatherhood, given his dire relationship with his own father?
None of the other characters quite rise to three-dimensional roundedness. He still has his sidekicks, Makin, Rike, Marten and so on, who have developed a solidity through familiarity, and a variety of lesser characters pass through his life, but they are no more than momentary glimpses. That's appropriate, however, since this is entirely Jorg's story, told in the first person, so we see these people as he sees them and when he moves on, they're gone. This being our world in some future time (a thousand or more years in the future), it's disappointing how much cultural baggage seems to have been carried along. The Catholic church, the African man who was an ex-slave, the Muslim Arab world - given the enormity of the 'Day of a Thousand Suns', the apocalyptic event a thousand or so years ago, and the number of people who must have died, and the turmoil since, it's astonishing that any cultural norms survived unscathed. A thousand years is a very long time.
A word about women in Jorg's world. It's striking that all the dynamic characters are men. Men run most of the petty kingdoms, and beyond that there are few women even mentioned. Just occasionally a woman turns up where a man might be expected (a female Pope? Really? Even a thousand years from now? Did hell freeze over in the interim?), but generally speaking the female characters are an insignificant part of the plot. The men run kingdoms or wave swords about, but the women, not so much. Miana, a truly strong, proactive female, is only there as a single strike get-out-of-jail-free card in book 2, and to produce the son and heir in book 3. There is a moment at the very end where Miana is the blindingly obvious choice for one specific role, but no, Makin is chosen instead. Disappointing. Katherine does better, at least having an agenda of her own (even if I wasn’t always clear why she did certain things), but she is also sexual fantasy and motivation for Jorg, and her magic, cool as it is, is not much more than a convenient plot device. I would have loved her to do something truly worthwhile in the big finale, but no, she seems to have just as little purpose in this book as in book 2. And Chella? More sexual fantasy and plot device. As for the female Pope, I'm not sure whether that was a random gender-neutral choice, or whether Lawrence is actually making a point about organised religion here, but whatever the reason for it, I loved how Jorg dealt with her. Way to go, Jorg!
There are various aspects of the plot which come together beautifully as the book develops. One is the straightforward political story - the fractured empire with the unremitting squabbling for supremacy amongst those who see themselves as entitled to claim the emperor’s throne. Then there is the slowly revealed world left behind by the Builders, with their high-tech gizmos, some of which have survived intact, even though their original functions may have been long forgotten. There’s a cool game observant readers can play - spotting which modern device is actually masquerading as an unfathomably mysterious Builder artifact. Finally, there is magic - inadvertently released into the world by a Builder-created catastrophe and over time spinning increasingly out of control, so that even the dead walk again, led by the mysterious Dead King.
Then there’s the ending. There are several shifts before things come to a final stop, and some are as expected, and some are predictable in one way or another, and some are moments where I thought: ah, yes, I see where this is going. Except that it didn't. And then a final switch that I didn't see coming at all, but it is utterly brilliant and entirely fitting. Ever since I finished reading, the story has been swirling round in my head. I go to sleep thinking about it. I wake up thinking about it. It’s rare for a book to get under my skin quite so much. Partly that’s due to the towering personality of Jorg himself, both boy and man. Whether you love him or hate him, he’s totally unforgettable. Partly, too, it’s the unusual combination of medieval-style fantasy plus magic, with the still fuctioning technology of the Builders playing a very active role in events. And partly, of course, it’s the author’s spare writing style and uncompromising approach to telling the story. It may have offended some readers, but it is entirely in keeping with Jorg’s personality.
I'm not going to attempt to describe what these books are 'about'. Everyone who reads them will have a different take on it. For me, it was Jorg's sheer bloody-mindedness which struck a chord. If someone told him he couldn't do something, his usual response was: just watch me. Something in me just loves that about him. Yes, he was a mess, an evil bastard who slaughtered his way to the top without remorse. Yet there were occasional hints about the normal well-meaning person he might have been if life had treated him better. There’s a flashback to a point when he’s about ten or so, and to earn the respect of his road brothers he volunteers to spy out the thieving possibilities of an abbey by joining as an orphan. He’s set to work with the other orphans:
“It turns out there’s a certain satisfaction in digging. Levering your dinner from the ground, lifting the soil and pulling fine hard potatoes from it, thinking of them roasted, mashed, fried in oil, it’s all good. Especially if it wasn’t you who had to tend and weed the field for the previous six months. Labour like that empties the mind and lets new thoughts wander in from unsuspected corners. And in the moments of rest, when we orphans faced each other, mud-cheeked, leaning on our forks, there’s a camaraderie that builds without you knowing it. By the end of the day I think the big lad, David, could have called me an idiot a second time and survived.”
I don’t think it gives away too much to say that Jorg’s time at the abbey doesn’t end well (it’s a flashback, after all), but for me this scene is the most poignant in the whole trilogy.
For those who hated the first book because of the way Jorg is - his propensity to kill, rape and otherwise cause havoc wherever he goes - you might like to know that this book puts his behaviour in a different perspective. Yes, he's done some terrible things, and he does a few more in this book, but in the end his willingness to cross lines and think the unthinkable, his determination, his inability to compromise and his desire to put himself on the emperor's throne whatever the cost are exactly what's needed to take the final step to mend the Broken Empire. It had to be done, and it took a long time for the right person to come along. If Jorg is an extreme example of humankind, it's because he needed to be.
This book, indeed the whole series, isn’t perfect. Nothing is. It is lumpy in places, and slow in others, and sometimes Jorg is too over-the-top for words. But it’s also sharply funny and slyly clever, and written in an incisive, focused style that makes a refreshing change from a lot of rambling fantasy. And that’s another question - is it even fantasy at all, since it veers so close to science fiction? To my mind, it transcends genre classifications altogether, and enters the realm of greatness. Whatever you call it, it’s a masterpiece of in-depth character analysis, with an ingeniously interwoven setting and a mind-blowing and absolutely right ending. A fine piece of writing. Five stars....more
Ah, that difficult middle book of the trilogy! The one that carries all the baggage of the first without the freshness, while alsoFantasy Review Barn
Ah, that difficult middle book of the trilogy! The one that carries all the baggage of the first without the freshness, while also setting up the climax of the third without being able to resolve the big questions. All too often it feels like drifting - there’s motion of a sort, but it’s slow or undirected. There’s an element of that here. What seems like the main plot, the massive army of the Prince of Arrows camped at Jorg’s gate, seems to play second fiddle to the flashback story which feels like nothing so much as a road trip. If it had a magic gizmo to be found or a Big Bad to defeat, we could call it a quest, but actually it just feels like ambling through the scenery. Look, a circus. And some Vikings. Here’s a swamp, and some ghosts, and ooh! zombies! And now let’s visit the family. Wait, now we’ve got a sort of murder mystery. It’s all a bit choppy. Of course, even a road trip is brilliant fun with Jorg.
To recap: the fourteen-year-old who grabbed a throne as part of his revenge plot in book 1 is now eighteen, getting married and simultaneously facing up to the massive army of the would-be emperor, the Prince of Arrows. Interspersed with that are flashbacks starting four years earlier, filling in some of the missing four years. As if that wasn’t enough, there are also snippets from the journal of Katherine, Jorg’s step-aunt, for whom he has the hots, which are also flashbacks and also reveal crucial information just when the author wants to. And on top of all that is possibly the most outrageous device ever for witholding information from the reader - the memory box. This is an ingenious twist on the old bump on the head amnesia trick; Jorg has done something so terrible that the memory of it has been taken from his mind and put into a box. So we get little reveals trickled out over the whole course of the book as Jorg almost-but-not-quite opens the box.
I have to be honest and say that I found these different threads confusing. In ‘Prince of Thorns’, there was a now plot and a four-years-ago plot, and the two wove together very well. Here, the multiple timelines meant that more than once I had a wait-I-thought-he-was-dead moment, and had to think quite carefully to work it out. It’s very disconcerting to grieve over the death of a character one moment only to have him appear alive and well a few pages later. Sometimes it felt like there was a page or three missing. At one point, Katherine turns up with the Brothers - why? How did that happen? And the calculated dribbling of those reveals felt quite contrived, especially the big one at the end, which borders on cheating.
The background to this world continues to open up in intriguing ways. When I read 'Prince', there was still room for a tiny sliver of doubt about this post-apocalyptic world, that perhaps it might be some parallel but freakishly similar world to our own, almost the same but not quite. Not any longer. Even in a universe of infinite possibilities, there can surely only be one world which has 'American Pie' in it. We get to see some of the Builders’ devices, and find out what the Tall Tower really is (or was, perhaps). I have to say, I’m not sure that I buy into the idea that such things could last a thousand years unscathed. I assume the Builders’ heyday was a little after our own, with technology just a bit more advanced.
Jorg has matured somewhat, which is hardly surprising. In the earlier parts, when he’s still around fourteen or so, he still has his let’s-just-do-this attitude, where he listens carefully to advice (“This is a bad idea, Jorg”) and then cheerfully ignores it. He’s still reckless and careless of his own (or anyone else’s) welfare. But by the latest time shown here (when he’s eighteen), he is definitely on top of his game, showing an astonishing degree of forward planning, and becoming quite philosophical to boot. He deals unexpectedly gently with his bride, Miana, and while he’s never exactly sentimental, he’s certainly less cavalier with his friends.
I have to say that Miana is one of my all time favourite fantasy princesses. She smart and resourceful and apparently just as likely to take the spectacular one-shot chance as Jorg, and she probably has the funniest lines in the book. Katherine, on the other hand - not sure what to make of her. I’m not at all sure what Jorg sees in her, except that she’s unattainable and therefore he’s determined to get her. Meh. The rest of the characters - I have to confess that I found the Brothers fairly undistinguishable. It’s not that they don’t have differences, it’s more that I can never remember which one is which. Plus Jorg sheds them like dandruff; no point getting attached to a character that could be dead two pages further on. Of the others, I liked Uncle Robert and Makin and Gog and the big guy (Gorgoth?). And the Vikings - gotta love the Vikings.
With book 1, I had very little to grumble about, and this review seems like a catalogue of complaints by contrast. Doesn’t matter. Jorg’s wild journey to the emperor’s throne is as compelling as ever. Lawrence has a wonderfully vivid writing style which makes even the craziest moments pop out into stark 3D relief, so that images linger unforgettably. In the cave with Ferrakind and Gog. The ghost in the basement. Miana and the ruby. The swamp. And the dog - ye gods, the dog. I’m sitting here trying not to cry just thinking about it. I rarely find books that have such emotional depth, and there’s also an intellectual depth, if I could only tear myself away from the racing story for a second to ponder it. I like Lawrence’s economical way with words, too; he never uses twenty or even ten words where four will do, but every one chosen with surgical precision.
I know not everyone approves of Jorg’s style. He’s basically a villain, a lying, cheating scumbag, and there’s a wonderful contrast here with the heroic Prince Orrin of Arrow, the honourable selfless leader that everyone likes. His meeting with Jorg early in the book is heart-rending. But this is not a story of heroes, and I loved watching Jorg’s progress. Yes, he cheats, he’s prepared to do whatever it takes to win, but he’s smart, he’s endlessly creative, he’s wickedly funny and he never hesitates to put his own life on the line. This book isn’t quite as smooth as the first book, but it’s still an astonishing performance. Five stars. And now on to ‘Emperor’......more
This could be the world's shortest review. I could just say: this book is piking awesome. Read it. The end.
Or I could tell you exactly why it’s so awesome (a much, much longer review). So let’s do that. Settle down, I’m going to ramble a bit so this may take some time.
I read a lot of debut fantasy, and there's no way to predict exactly what you might get. Even the sample isn't a good guide, because a promising opening can sometimes tail off disappointingly. Mostly, I find them to be varying shades of mediocre; imaginative but ploddingly written, or nicely executed but trite. Very occasionally, something truly exceptional turns up. I've been lucky enough to find a few such gems in the last year or two, and this one is right up there with the best of them. It has great characters, awesome world-building, an incisive writing style and a rapid-fire plot with a surprising twist on almost every page. There’s a slightly slow start with a deluge of hard-to-grasp detail, but once I got past that, the story sucked me in and never let go.
I have to mention the world-building first. There are two kinds of fantasy authors: one kind draws a squiggly-edged continent, adds several kingdoms, three rivers and a mountain range, decides how many gods are in the prevailing religion and - we’re done! On with the story! And then there are those who actually invent worlds. Some are so complex and layed and nuanced that they make our own world look simple. Tolkien invented entire languages for his. Others create architectural styles, clothing, flora and fauna, cultural variations, weaponry, even cutlery. I haven’t found invented cutlery in this book, but pretty much every other detail you could wish for has been thought about. You want to know where the highest rainfall is?  Which are the best grain-producing regions? Where the stables are in the army camp? How the ogres count? (Seriously; in base six, if you want to know, which gives the mathematical module in my brain a frisson of pure delight.) And yes, there are languages and fantasy’s second-best invented swearword.  The author has it all worked out, starting right at the beginning, with the creation. And the best part of it is that all this world-building isn’t slapped on like theatrical make-up. Instead, there are little snippets here and there, where the story needs it (or lightly brushed on, to continue the make-up analogy). The result feels extraordinarily real. I love it.
Cob, the main character, a slave in the Empire’s army, is frustrating in a lot of ways. He’s seventeen, possibly not the sharpest knife in the drawer, has been messed about with mentally for years (as all potentially rebellious slaves are), and his stubbornness level is set to eleven, at least. He believes absolutely everything he’s been told by his parents and, more recently, by his Empire masters, has a touching faith in their dogmatic religion, and did I mention how stubborn he is? So every time someone tries to help him or rescue him or intervene in any way, he reacts with a certain amount of negativity, shall we say. For much of the book he’s merely a pawn in other people’s machinations, reacting to events (mostly by saying no) and constantly trying to be normal, even when it’s obvious that he really isn’t. Even his escape from slavery is very much against his will (and isn’t that a wonderful break from tradition, a slave who doesn’t want to escape?). He absolutely wants to conform, to be a good Imperial citizen. You’d have to have a heart of stone not to ache for poor Cob, caught up in events way out of his league and finding out some truly heart-breaking things about his past. And the present, come to that. Or finding himself temporarily in the midst of a real family and being astonished that the children play around.
There are a number of other characters who also have point of view episodes, sometimes quite briefly as the plot requires, and this could have been a mess, hopping from one character to another. It works very well on the whole, although there were a few times when the rapid jumps from place to place felt a bit choppy. Fortunately, all the characters have depth, even the walk-on parts. Darilan and Sarovy, who both end up chasing after Cob, are wonderfully deep and nuanced characters, and just as tragic, in their different ways. Only Lark fell a bit flat for me; although she had her moments in the early parts of the story, she became not much more than baggage for a while, and I didn’t feel I got to know her well enough to get under her skin, so to speak. But I loved her pet goblin, Rian, who stole every scene he was in (even while fast asleep), while never saying much more than ‘Meep’ and ‘Ys’ (yes). And there are some peripheral characters that I would love to see more of, like the Archmagus and the Crimson General (although from a safe distance, perhaps).
The magic is fairly straightforward. There are mages who use sigils and runes and words and hand-waviness to create their spells, so there’s a fair amount of hurling of thunderbolts and the like going on. So far, so conventional. There are portals (yay for portals!), some permanent, some created on the fly. Some mages are also mentalists, able to probe into the minds of subjects, see their memories and moderate them. Mindwashing, it’s called, and the process and its after effects are truly unsettling. Almost everyone in the army, freesoldier or slave, is subjected to it at regular intervals, to keep them content by removing distressing experiences from their minds, with odd effects, but like any such capability it also becomes a means of keeping control.
The author’s world comes fully stocked with a range of interesting lifeforms, not just humans. There are ogres and skinchangers, goblins and some really creepy beings called eiyet. Creepy oozes out all over the place, actually, and there are moments of pure horror, in the Hitchcock sense of chills up the spine, rather than the more usual sense these days of grossness and spilled entrails. There are also magically enhanced - well, things, for want of a better word, about which I will say no more . There is a certain blurring of the distinction between alive and not-alive which gave me the heeby-jeebies, frankly.
The plot... look, if I say that the book’s about a slave who escapes and is chased across several countries by a bunch of people who mean him harm because of something powerful inside him, something he’s not even aware of, well, it sounds like a million other fantasy books, doesn’t it? So let’s not worry about the plot. In reality, it’s not at all trite, and everything fits together beautifully, the characters all behave perfectly believably and it’s anything but predictable. It’s absolutely the opposite of predictable, in fact. I just never knew what was coming next, not once.
Where the book excels for me is the way it deals with the spirit world, the shadow world, dreams and not-dreams, things which are beyond human understanding (to express it in a very pedestrian way). It’s very difficult to convey these sort of airy-fairy concepts effectively, but the author does it brilliantly here. I generally have real trouble visualising these non-world (and non-rational) experiences, but here I always knew what was happening, even if I didn’t always know why. The author’s writing style is a big help, with a precision of word-use that is a joy to read.
I've found it difficult to write this review. I enjoyed this book so much, and at a much deeper level than the usual run-of-the-mill fantasy, that it’s hard to express. It's not easy to write intelligibly about an experience which wound its tendrils around me and burrowed inside my mind. It’s still in my head, buzzing round and making me think about memory, and belief, and friendship, and good and evil and (worst of all) good intentions, and people who aren’t what you think they are, and who knows what else. There are parts that are unforgettable: Cob doing his thing in the tavern; Lark getting left behind by the shadowbloods; the wolf; Darilan's dagger and bracer; some of Cob's dreams (or not-dreams, maybe); Lerien; the crows; the thing that Weshker encountered; the teardrop pendants (and who would imagine that a modest piece of jewelry would be so scary?). The characters are unforgettable too, and I cared about all of them (well, OK, maybe not Annia!). The story is complex, subtle and many-layered, and yet I never felt out of my depth, never wondered what the hell people were doing, never had to go back and look up who a character was or what a reference meant. That’s an outstanding achievement in a genre that too often mistakes cryptic for clever. And - a bonus - there are outbreaks of humour at the most unexpected times.
You’re probably getting the picture by now. I liked it, quite a lot actually. Compelling characters, a fully-realised world, an action-packed plot that zooms along at a rate of knots and never feels in the least contrived, and a wonderful ending with plenty of emotional resonance. A beautifully conceived and written book with real depth. Highly recommended. Five stars.
 If you really want to know this sort of thing, I recommend the author’s website, which is amazing.
 The best is in Glenda Larke’s ‘Stormlords’ trilogy: ‘pedeshit’. But ‘pike/piking’ is close, very close. And then there’s ‘Morgwi’s balls’. Gotta love an author who can invent great swearwords. ETA: well, who'd a thunk it, apparently 'piking' isn't an invented swearword after all. It's been around since the 18th century, and is an integral part of the Planescape D&D setting. So now we know. Still think it's a cracking word, though....more
I discovered the author’s debut novel, ‘Thorn’, quite accidentally, one of those magical reads where you start on the sample and fiFantasy Review Barn
I discovered the author’s debut novel, ‘Thorn’, quite accidentally, one of those magical reads where you start on the sample and find yourself so swept up in the story you just can’t put it down. It was one of my best reads of last year, so I approached the author’s latest offering with trepidation. Can the next book possibly be as good? Quick answer - yes, it can. This is a novella, the first in a projected series of perhaps six altogether, a beautifully written piece which displays all the author’s trademark originality, terrific characters and an intriguing world.
Hitomi is an orphan, struggling to survive on her wits - no, it’s not the most original scenario, but this is possibly the only aspect of the book which has that problem. This has to be one of the most unpredictable stories I've ever read, a new twist at every turn, and as the book is incredibly fast-paced, that means a breathtaking ride. There are one or two jarring moments, though. Just as the reader gets accustomed to one setting and its cast of characters, there’s an abrupt shift to a new location, a new villain, new challenges for Hitomi. But it’s all perfectly logical, and just served to keep me on my toes.
Hitomi is a lovely heroine - spirited, enterprising and imaginative, and never, ever prepared to be pushed aside. I loved the way in the early chapters she always did exactly what she wanted to do, regardless of whatever instructions she was given. Later, she shows her indomitable spirit, and never gives up, even when things look black. Some of the other characters were fascinating too - Val, in particular, but all of them had depth. I hope we find out more about the character left behind in the cells, too. I loved the way the author managed to fudge the question of who were the good guys and who were the villains. Things just aren’t that simple here.
One doesn’t expect much in the way of world-building from a novella, but there’s surely enough background here to fuel a full-sized trilogy at least. There are kingdoms and religions and races and magical capabilities and cultures, all beautifully defined and nuanced. The speed of the book was a real hindrance here, since every few pages I found myself saying: wait a moment, that’s interesting, I’d like to know more about that. Hitomi’s family history, her magic, Ghost and the secret society, Blackflame, the breathers, the mages... But no, the plot swept on relentlessly. Hopefully, with another five or so books to come, the author will be able to develop these aspects in more detail.
This is a wonderful book, with memorable characters, some great world-building, an action-packed plot that never lets up for a moment and a surprising twist every few pages. All this in a beautifully written novella format. Highly recommended. Five stars. ...more
In this novella, the mysterious man, Daven, seen in the woods of the previous tale, takes centre stage, becoming the ambassador atFantasy Review Barn
In this novella, the mysterious man, Daven, seen in the woods of the previous tale, takes centre stage, becoming the ambassador at the court of Normarch, a potential ally for Valec, the kingdom vanquished in the war. The political machinations and shifting alliances are the background here, so this one is a little more complicated but it's not hard to work out the various factions. There's a lot of tension, since Daven has to pass through enemy territory to reach Normarch, and then has the risk of presenting himself to the king without knowing quite what reaction he'll get. Another cracking story, with some great characters, just enough action and room for a romantic distraction. I very much liked the dilemma Daven was presented with. Clearly he has dutifully married to produce heirs, even though his wife is - not compatible, shall we say. And then he meets Allindra... who wouldn't be tempted? This was beautifully done. And a fine ending, too. The book may be short, but it's absolutely perfect. Five stars....more
When a man returns to his village after nineteen years away fighting in the wars, young William is fascinated by his stories of theFantasy Review Barn
When a man returns to his village after nineteen years away fighting in the wars, young William is fascinated by his stories of the life of a soldier, and the battles he’s been in. But when other former soldiers start to cause trouble, he realises that bravery isn’t just for kings and soldiers. This novella is a cracking story of a boy growing to manhood in a small village, and learning the truth about being a hero. Great characterisation, a well judged balance between action and slower passages, a perfect ending and with more emotional resonance than I’ve seen in some well-regarded works many times its length. A beautifully crafted piece which I loved. Five stars. ...more
This was the author’s first published work, but shortly after its appearance in 1999 the publisher sank, and the book with it. NowFantasy Review Barn
This was the author’s first published work, but shortly after its appearance in 1999 the publisher sank, and the book with it. Now the author has self-published it (hurray for the digital age). Not only is it available once more, it has been picked up by a traditional publisher too. A result whichever way you look at it.
The story has one of the most original settings I’ve encountered. A cataclysmic event tore the world apart, spreading chaos everywhere apart from a few islands of stability which are kept that way by rigorous adherence to a religion-based system of rules. Travel between these islands is made possible by accurate mapping of the chaotic patches between them. Main character Keris is the daughter of a mapmaker who dies under mysterious circumstances in the unstable lands between islands, and she is forced away from her home as a result. And that doesn’t begin to describe the complexities of this world.
There’s no easy entry here. The reader is dropped into this complicated background without a parachute, so the early chapters are riddled with jargon and references to unexplained events, places, people. It isn’t long, however, before explanations begin to appear, and although it took me a long time to work out the differences between tainted, unbound, excluded, unstablers, ley-lit and the like, things do become clearer. The ley lines are the most significant element; these are the ever shifting rivers of chaotic energy which criss-cross the landscape, the source of power for Carasma, the lord of chaos and his minions.
Keris is accompanied on her journey into the unstable world between the eight stabilities by a motley collection of people - a priest following orders, a high-ranking man making a pilgrimage alone, a brothel-keeper repenting of her sins, a timid man trying to impress his father and so on. The guide, Davron, and his tainted assistant, Scow, seem almost normal by comparison. And then there's the mysterious Meldor, who is blind but surprisingly adept for all that. All of them feel like real, fully rounded people, and if they aren’t exactly people you would meet down the pub (Scow is described thus: ‘His head was built on a grand scale, perhaps twice normal size, and his outsized face was circled by an animal’s mane. The hair—fur?—of it cascaded down on to his shoulders, hiding his neck.’), they all have their own secrets and tragedies. The tainted, in particular (those caught out while crossing a ley-line and transformed in some way) are very tragic figures, unable to return to the stabilities, unable even to touch other people. Davron is particularly tragic, and the way he and Keris gradually come to understand one another, and the development of their slowly unfurling love story, undeniable and yet impossible, is masterfully done.
The story is intriguing right from the first page, and quickly builds to a fast paced and dramatic adventure. The consequence of a world infused with chaos is that anything can happen at any moment, creating a tale which crackles with tension and (I’ll be honest) fear; some of those tainted and wild creatures were pretty horrifying. And yet there was always humour, too, especially from Corrian, the pipe-smoking former brothel-keeper with her down-to-earth attitude and appetite for life, and the timid Quirk, who takes to life in the unstable world with surprising nonchalance.
The religion of this world is not, at first sight, much different from any other hierarchical, rigid, dogmatic religion, but beneath the surface it’s unusual. For one thing, it’s an integral part of the division between stable and unstable areas. The stable zones are maintained by the continuous application of kinesis (a kind of gesture) around the borders and rigorous adherence to exhaustively detailed rules within the boundaries, which prescribe what may be grown where, what colours and styles of clothing may be worn, how many children may be born and what jobs they can do. All of this is intended to minimise the number of changes occurring and thus maintain order, a kind of stultifying stasis. Inevitably, this leads to some painfully inhumane results. Babies surplus to the permitted two are removed at birth and brought up in the religious order. Those who are deformed or who defy authority are thrown out of the stabilities altogether, left to survive as best they can. Inevitably, such a system has its share of the secretly defiant, the petty tale-tellers and the corrupt, who will bend the rules or turn a blind eye for a consideration. I wasn’t sure whether the author was making a general point about organised religion, but I found it very thought-provoking.
This book is awesome. It has all the characteristics I look for in fantasy: an original, well thought out world, a simple but powerful magic system, compelling characters who behave realistically, and a plot which never lets up for a moment. It’s emotionally engaging, too; I always cared about the characters and there were moments that reduced me to tears. Keris the map-maker’s daughter is a fantastic heroine, and the ending - well, the ending was perfect, I can’t describe it any other way. A truly wonderful story. Five stars....more
One of the pleasures of reviewing books on a blog is that from time to time an author will suggest you read their book, and as a reFantasy Review Barn
One of the pleasures of reviewing books on a blog is that from time to time an author will suggest you read their book, and as a result a little gem drops into your lap completely out of the blue, something that you would never, ever have found by yourself. This is one such book. It’s rather a shame, actually, that the paranormal aspect will cause it to fall into a genre black hole, because it truly deserves a wider audience. Yes, it’s paranormal fantasy, and perhaps it’s technically urban, too, but it’s not a romance, and there are no vampires or werewolves. It’s about people, and the choices they make, and it’s much closer to literary fiction than fantasy.
The premise is a simple one. Five friends from university days hold a reunion twenty years later on the eve of the predicted Mayan calendar apocalypse. During the evening, all five of them are mysteriously shown an alternate life and get to choose which one to stay in: the current life or the alternate. The five alternate histories are, in certain ways, like short stories, but they are all compelling and they fit perfectly into the overall story arc without feeling forced. There are some odd pacing choices - the earlier episodes are noticeably longer than the later ones, which puts them right on the edge of starting to drag. Quincey’s alternate history in particular was both slow and overly schmaltzy, and I really wanted to hurry things along to find out how she would choose. Fortunately, the author’s elegant writing style stops things from tipping over into overt sentimentality.
As the five step into their alternate existences, and decide which of the two lives they will choose, we learn a great deal about each of them, their personalities, the influences for good or bad on them, and their relationships. The choices are never easy, and in at least one case heart-wrenchingly difficult, but there are no right or wrong answers here, and this is not about correcting past mistakes. Rather, it’s about who you want to be, who you are and about being true to yourself, even if that means giving up something else along the way. These are profound questions, and I’m sure everyone who reads this will find themselves in contemplative mood afterwards.
The ending is deeply poignant, and yet perfectly fitting. This is a beautiful book, elegantly written, with wonderful and memorable characters, and a thought-provoking subtext. It is barely-there fantasy, and would fit comfortably into mainstream literature. If the author hadn’t suggested I try it, I would probably have passed over it as being ‘not my thing’, and I would have missed a treat. The only minor criticism is that some of the alternate lives are slightly idealised, but I enjoyed it so much I can overlook that. Five stars. ...more
I spend a lot of time seeking out interesting new reading, but sometimes plums just drop into my lap. This was recommended to a reddit member seekingI spend a lot of time seeking out interesting new reading, but sometimes plums just drop into my lap. This was recommended to a reddit member seeking original, unusual fantasy and that it is. So original and unusual, in fact, that I have no idea how to categorise it. The blurb describes it as ‘alchemypunk’, and if I fully understood what that was, I might agree. The demon of the title is the central character, unnamed and of unknown species, living where she has always lived, once alone but now in the shadows of a human city. She has swirling alchemical markings on her body, long claws which can cut through metal or stone, and great strength and agility. She likes to walk on ceilings when indoors because humans never look up.
Her world is just as unusual. The city of Cliffside is built on some unfathomably high - mountain? plateau? - hard to say, but so high that clouds roil round below and cause massive rainstorms every night. Water, therefore is a major feature of the city, having to be piped and funneled away, but also powering machinery and transport. Recently, the inhabitants have discovered glowstone which powers alchemical lights and other machinery, and the ‘demon’ finds she has an unusual innate connection to the glowstone. She is, in some way, herself entwined with alchemical power.
The strength of the book rests, naturally, on the main character, and what a fascinating character she is. The author beautifully captures the ennui that inevitably arises from countless centuries of life, the detachment from the concerns of the humans who come and go, the ‘seen it all before’ cynicism. The ‘demon’ is truly alien, and I honestly never had any idea how she would behave under any given set of circumstances. In fact, the whole book was a long series of surprises, every turn of events bringing a new and revelatory twist. The other characters are less well-defined, but that’s entirely appropriate, since they are seen through non-human eyes.
The ending is page-turningly dramatic, and everything comes together very well. My only minor grumble is that parts of it seem a little too ‘magical’, as the ‘demon’ very quickly discovers and masters a whole range of new capabilities at crucial moments. It’s not quite deus ex machina, since the essence was flagged up right from the start, but there is an element of with-one-bound-they-were-free. One more edit would have added a final polish, too.
This is a haunting and evocative story, with a fascinating lead character and a terrific setting. The city above the clouds, beset by storms, is one I would like to know more about, indeed the whole of this created world. The alchemy is not merely a sideshow, but the idea which underpins the whole book. I’ve never read anything like this before, but I loved every moment of it. I agonised over the rating for this one, because of the slightly over the top ending, but I enjoyed it so much I'm going for the full monty. Five stars. Highly recommended for anyone looking for fantasy that breaks away from the more conventional tropes.
Many works of fantasy tell epic tales without a single non-human character in them. Most have largely human casts with a sprinklinFantasy Review Barn
Many works of fantasy tell epic tales without a single non-human character in them. Most have largely human casts with a sprinkling of non-humans thrown in for effect - a few elves or dwarves or demons. But here we have a world, it seems, with no humans in it at all. The main character, Moon, is a Raksura, a shapeshifter - a humanoid in one form, and a somewhat reptilian winged creature in the other. His family was killed long ago, leaving him to survive amongst the ‘groundlings’, a variety of humanoid species (or races, perhaps), by hiding what he is, and in fact not even knowing exactly what he is, until he finally meets up with other Raksura. How he adapts to his new way of life forms the body of the story.
It's not easy to create a whole new species which feels believably 'other', and yet at the same time has enough recognisable human characteristics to be likeable, but the author does a brilliant job of it here. The Raksura are a social species, like ants or wasps, building colonies around a fertile queen, and with various different castes to fulfil the various roles. Queens, their consorts (fertile males) and warriors have wings, while the Arbora (drones or workers) are smaller and wingless. Yet in many ways a Raksura colony is very like hua man village. They bake bread and cook their vegetables, wear clothes and jewelry, fall in love and have sex at will, read and write, and so on. They also have mentors - historians and archivists who also have shamanistic powers.
The other species are just as well thought out, with an array of sentient beings of various shapes and sizes and temperaments, the Fell being the bad guys in the neighbourhood, being set, it appears at first sight, on destroying pretty much every settlement they can get their hands (or claws) on. They too are winged reptilian beasties and the Raksura can take them on, en masse, but the Fell currently have the upper hand. Wells doesn't go into much unnecessary detail with the world she has created, simply describing this valley or that range of hills or lake as needed, but there are numerous ruins scattered about which tell of civilisations long gone. I don't know whether these become important later in the series, but in this book they are simply there, structures and decorations crumbling into the forgotten black hole of unrecorded history. There are current civilisations, too, sometimes created in the ruins of the old, or in one case literally on top of it, where a species of sentient winged beetles has built a hive above a disintegrating city. I also loved the idea of floating islands, chunks of land which simply drift along on the air currents.
For all their non-humanness, the characters are incredibly real. Moon, in particular, is a wonderful mixture of shyness and suspicion and aggression, perfectly in line with his nature and upbringing, or lack of it. I was intrigued by the behaviours that came to him by instinct - his hostility when challenged, for instance, and the willingness to fight, which was common to all the Raksura, from the queens downwards. Despite the Raksura way of life, which necessitates a large number of characters, there were many whose individual personalities made them stand out - Chime, Stone, Flower, Pearl and Jade, for instance. The names sound odd, perhaps, but then it must be difficult to dream up names for all the children when they arrive in clutches of five at a time. It was hard to keep all the Raksura straight, though, especially the numerous warriors, hunters, teachers and so on, which made it more difficult to care when one was injured. And the Fell, despite the bestial nature of some of their castes, which seemed to do little beyond killing and eating pretty much anything, were given depth and reasons for some, at least, of their behaviour. It's always good to find villains whose objectives are purposeful and reasoned, rather than simply being evil for the sake of it.
This is not a book of epic scope, involving vast armies and the future of empires, but those who enjoy action will find plenty to satisfy here. The problems at Indigo Cloud Court, their pursuit by the Fell and their attempts to escape and form a new, safer colony provide numerous conflicts, both aerial and grounded. It's hard to describe aerial combat well and I occasionally got lost in the details, but it didn't matter. I liked that both the Raksura and the Fell turned to ingenious and creative methods to attack and defeat their enemies, rather than simple brute force or magic. There is magic in this world, but it's innate and low-key rather than dramatic, and it felt completely right to me. The ending leaves open enough loose threads for future books in the series, while tidying up this one nicely and bringing Moon's relationship with Jade to a very satisfactory point with a perfectly judged moment (which I won't spoil by describing).
I loved this book, absolutely loved it to pieces. It has all the characteristics I look for in my fantasy - characters I really care about who behave credibly, world-building that's original and well thought out, subtle magic and a plot which derives from these factors. There are themes of real depth for those of us who look for more than action in fantasy - about how you come to terms with who you are, for instance, and about fitting in, even when you're different. I found Moon's transition from outsider to someone who belongs, and his awkwardly prickly relationship with the Raksura, to be endlessly fascinating. The book was a real page turner right from the start, and as Moon and his fellow Raksura are hounded and attacked relentlessly and the pace picks up, I found it hard to put down. A great read. Five stars. And now I'm terrified to read the next book in the series; it can't possibly be as good, can it?...more
I loved ‘Stray’, the first part of the Touchstone trilogy, so I moved straight onto part two. And wouldn’t you just know it, the onFantasy Review Barn
I loved ‘Stray’, the first part of the Touchstone trilogy, so I moved straight onto part two. And wouldn’t you just know it, the one time I don’t need a ‘Previously on...’ type recap because it’s all fresh in my mind, there one is at the front of the book. And again there’s a glossary and list of characters at the back. If only all authors were so considerate. The previous book had no cliffhanger ending, but there wasn’t much resolution, either - just an acceptance by main character Cass that, having stepped accidentally through some kind of wormhole-type ‘gate’ from Earth and finding herself on a different planet altogether, there’s not going to be a happy ever after any time soon, and doing her bit to help out the locals with their problems in the meantime is not such a bad thing. So at first, the story continues in much the same way, with Cass being carted about on missions, tested and trained, and treated very much like the lab rat she designated herself early on. So for anyone who disliked that aspect of the first book, this is more of the same.
Fortunately, we haven’t yet seen the full extent of Cass’s unique set of abilities, so even a routine test can suddenly turn into a frantic scramble for survival or an ooh-aah moment. The opening up of the abandoned planet of Muina through Cass’s talents is fascinating. We also see more in this book of the other societies descended from the abandoned planet of Muina (where Cass first arrived), so there is a certain amount of inter-planetary posturing going on, which is quite fun. And Cass becomes a media star! But much of the action centres around the Setari (psychic ninja space soldiers, basically), who are defending Tare, their home planet, from the creepy and highly variable Ionoth which leak through from - well, wherever they come from (I’m hazy about the ‘spaces’ and ‘pillars’ and whatever it was that happened). In book one, the Setari mostly treated Cass as a piece of military equipment, useful but not particularly interesting, and she had to fight to get them to see her as anything other than an object. This time round, they are much more aware of her as a person, and she is beginning to build relationships with some of them, and assert herself as a person.
Partly this is because she can speak the language better, so she is able to express herself with more subtlety, and display her wonderful sense of humour. I very much like the way the author has handled the language differences, so that Cass gradually becomes more fluent over the course of the books, although lapsing sometimes when under stress. I have no idea whether the early efforts are an accurate simulation of how a native English speaker would adapt to a new language, but it seemed pretty convincing to me. I found it totally believable that the Tarens would not appreciate how intelligent she is, when her only communications are halting baby sentences with bad grammar.
I like Cass very much. She’s exactly the sort of person I would love to have for a friend - smart, self-deprecating, sensible and very, very funny (in a totally non-vicious way). Her observations of Taren life and the people around her are wonderful. And I have to confess to having the hots for Ruuel (the love interest), which is so not me. My taste in men was formed by Woody Allen (cute and funny) or Robert Redford (roguish in a dishevelled but handsome way), and perfectly honed, impossibly fit and laconic-bordering-on-terse types don’t do much for me. But Ruuel? Mmmm, yes. There’s a certain amount of angsting going on Cass’s head about him, but it’s very funny. She rates men on the Orlando Bloom-meter, and when one of the Setari registers a 7, she points out that Orlando Bloom himself registers a 7 on the Ruuel-meter. Did I mention how much I love Cass’s sense of humour? And for anyone concerned about the romance level, it's certainly higher than in the first book, but there’s still a lot more plot than angst.
This book is pure undiluted pleasure. I was slightly drunk on the enjoyment of it, and hey - no calories, no falling over and no hangover afterwards. Just a great big smile. Why isn’t every book like this? Twelve stars. At least. And now straight on to the third book... ...more
This is the third part of the Touchstone trilogy, and anyone who, like me, loved the first two, won’t have any problem enjoying thiFantasy Review Barn
This is the third part of the Touchstone trilogy, and anyone who, like me, loved the first two, won’t have any problem enjoying this too. I’ve classified these as sci-fi (other planets, high-tech everywhere) but I’m getting less sure, since the technology is delightfully arm-wavy. All communication is via the ‘interface’, a brain-embedded universal internet which is incredibly useful at crucial moments. It can send/receive messages, provide all sorts of background information (aka instant info-dump) at the drop of a hat, and helpfully records everything so that the detail can be picked up later. There are ‘drones’ (robot things) which are deployed in a variety of plot-facilitating ways. Then there’s the literal world-building - when a new building is required, a bucket of special goop is ‘programmed’ with an architectural plan and away it goes. It beats scaffolding and uncouth building workers, anyway. Even the ‘ships’ used for inter-planetary travel are largely undescribed and unexplained. Then there are ‘psychics’ with all sorts of powers - elemental, levitation and teleportation, as well as actual psychic (mind-reading, sort of) abilities - all of which seems suspiciously fantasy. No quest, no secret heir to the kingdom, and definitely no magic swords, but there is a heroine with mysterious unexplained powers. There are monsters and at least one traditional fantasy beast, too.
Whatever you call it, the setup is much the same. Cass is still the stranger from Earth with the weird unexplained abilities which are so useful in unlocking the abandoned planet Muina, if they don’t get her killed her first. The inter-planetary politics and resettlement are taking centre stage now, but the psychic military, the Setari, are still back and forth on missions to fight monsters. And we finally have a Big Bad - the particularly creepy humanoid monsters who are both intelligent and organised. And hell-bent on destruction and mayhem, not to mention capturing Cass. So the race is on to find out what is going on, and a way to fight back.
The tension ramps up nicely to the grand confrontation, and much of the book has rather a heavy background tone. Cass and friends are doing various fluffy things (going shopping, eating out, socialising) while waiting for the Big Bad (the Cruzatch) to turn up again and kidnap Cass for various evil purposes, destroy the known world, kill all the nice friends and generally carry out their villainous plans. The good guys, meanwhile, are more or less floundering round trying to guess what awful thing might be coming up next, with no greater ambition than just - well, surviving. Their only plan seems to be - let’s blow stuff up and see if that helps. Or throw Cass at something to see what happens (which has been going on throughout, really).
This part of the book stretches the diary format to its absolute limits. It worked well earlier on, I think, to get the reader right under Cass’s skin, and was a very effective way of getting across her sense of isolation and differentness. It really doesn’t work so well for big battle scenes, because the reader knows immediately that Cass survived, or she wouldn’t be writing her diary afterwards. So the big confrontation is effectively told in abbreviated summary form (‘and then I... and then we...’), which loses a lot of the tension. There is also the problem that the romance has been settled, and while it's a lot of fun going through the are-they-no-surely-not phase with friends, it was actually more fun when they were kept apart and Cass secretly had the hots for him. Or at least, it was more tense. A large part of the atmosphere in the first two books revolved around the very strict military protocols wrapped around everything Cass did and the stiffly correct attitude of the Setari, which kept her so heart-rendingly alone. Now that she's sleeping with one of the Setari and is (largely) friends with the rest, things get a little warm and fuzzy and group-hug-y.
One aspect is unchanged, however; everything still hinges on Cass and her strange set of abilities as 'touchstone', the key to revealing the past, what went wrong to cause the planet Muina to be abandoned, and (indirectly) the present and future too. It's surprising how often these talents drive the plot by revealing key information or making some unfeasibly difficult task possible, but while this is very convenient, it never feels like deus ex machina, since Cass has had these abilities from the start and has simply learned to use them (or to use them better, perhaps). Plus they frequently go wrong or out of control or twist off in unexpected ways. The author is very good at following the appropriate logic for these developments, so that when Cass has one of her frequent brushes with death, she is 'grounded' for a while afterwards, even when it might have been more dramatic to have her present at some incident or other, instead of hearing about it second hand. Nice, too, to see Cass herself using her talents directly to fight her own battles (sometimes literally), instead of being a passive tool to be manipulated. The moment when, in the midst of mayhem, she decides to visualise into reality a battle-winning device of awesome proportions is simply epic.
This is the final part of the trilogy, and I hugely enjoyed the first two parts, so it’s not exactly a big surprise that I loved this one too. Of course, it’s not perfect (what is?). The problem with keeping track of the vast array of characters is even greater this time round, and apart from the Big Bad they all seem to be rather nice, pleasant people. Even the few set up as hostile turn out to be gruff and suspicious rather than outright nasty, in the end. And who'd have thought so many of them would be breath-takingly beautiful, intelligent people? From being entirely alone on a strange planet, Cass ends up friends with pretty much everyone, which is slightly implausible. The complexities of a society of umpteen million people are fairly comprehensively airbrushed away into one homogenous mass (although I guess the ubiquitous interface would eliminate a lot of differences). The rather different society on Nuri was interesting, and I would have liked to know more about it. I also found it strange that so much of life on Tare and Muina was similar to Earth; there was really no effort to make these worlds truly alien, apart from a few minor details tossed in here and there. And anyone looking for explanations for every little mystery will be disappointed, since much remained unanswered or vague.
In the end, though, none of that mattered. I loved Cass's shift over the course of the trilogy from schoolgirl thinking only about romance and exams, to the saviour of worlds and the focus of inter-planetary law-making. And she makes the transition without fuss - the occasional totally justified hissy-fit excepted - and without losing her essential nature or her sense of humour. Much of what she goes through is pretty horrible but she bears it with quiet fortitude and oodles of common sense. One of my favourite fictional characters. Five stars....more
This is the third volume of the Dagger and Coin Quintet, the difficult middle book - the one that drags the weight of two books’ woFantasy Review Barn
This is the third volume of the Dagger and Coin Quintet, the difficult middle book - the one that drags the weight of two books’ worth of previous history, that also has to begin arranging all the pieces for the endgame and still has to make sense by itself. It should be an impossible task, an experience as dense and heavy and glutinous as treacle. Yet it flows like cream, tastes like chocolate and slips down just as easily. Abraham’s prose is a joy to read, elegant and spare, every word in its proper place.
As before, the cast of point of view characters is limited - Clara is finding her feet amongst the nobodies of Camnipol after her noble husband was executed for treason; Cithrin is in another new city learning more about banking; Geder the unstable Regent of Antea is making war again, aided by his spider-goddess priest; and Marcus the former soldier is hiking through the southern jungles with escaped spider-goddess man Kit looking for a magic sword. And as before, the story jumps about from one to another, but the individual plotlines are not independent, so one chapter will show the events of that character is close-up, while also revealing something of events elsewhere, glimpsed from afar in rumour and hearsay. This is done very cleverly, so the overall plot flows beautifully from chapter to chapter.
This is industrial-strength fantasy, so Geder's war is spilling across the whole northern continent, and is seemingly unstoppable. This is the third campaign to feature in the story. The first book centred on the fall of the city of Vanai. In the second, Antea conquered neighbouring Asterilhold. This time, Geder (or rather, his spider-priest adviser) has his sights set on Sarakal. There is inevitably some sense of repetition in all this, but Abraham gives the events a new perspective to keep things fresh. This time, Geder's capabilities are well understood, and there are no illusions about the consequences.
The series is called The Dagger and the Coin, and is presumably intended to contrast the two powerful forces of conquest, by armed force, or by economics. Geder's military ambitions continue to roll onwards, but for the first time there are signs that the financial clout of the bank can have an impact. There are hints about the difficulties of maintaining long supply lines, and getting the staple crops planted and harvested when so many men are tied up in the war. There are hints, too, that the bank can help indirectly with the refugee and resettlement problem, and more directly, in supporting covert acts of rebellion. However, it’s still not obvious how economics will bring a real direct challenge to bear against military might. Perhaps this isn’t Abraham’s intention, but if not, the whole banking plot becomes marginalised.
Abraham has a nice way of subverting the tropes of the genre. Most fantasy is (in the broadest sense) about swords and sorcery, so that all problems are eventually disposed of by one or other of these elements (or occasionally both). The evil villain is bent on global domination for vague reasons, and the hero (or occasionally a heroine) tools up with a magic sword or else learns to use the magic powers they’ve mysteriously been endowed with. Here, the evil villain is sort of bent on global domination, but it’s a role he more or less reversed into accidentally, and all with the very best of intentions. What could be so malign about spreading the spider-goddess’s message of truth across the world? Meanwhile, Marcus and Kit go on a traditional fantasy quest to track down the magic sword which will kill the goddess, but (without giving too much away) that doesn’t go quite as they expected. As for magic, there’s very little around at all. Proponents are called ‘cunning men’ and have minor roles as showmen and healers.
One nice aspect is that we have two interesting female characters taking strong leadership roles in the fight against Geder the war-making Regent. Clara is now released from the stifling conformity of court rules and taking advantage of her freedom to plot and scheme in Camnipol, as well as enjoying a degree of personal freedom. I very much like Clara, her subtlety, her cleverness and her determination. It makes a nice counterpoint to her husband’s more ham-fisted efforts in the previous books. Even though things don’t always go quite as anticipated (what ever does in an Abraham book?), she always makes well-considered decisions.
In contrast, Cithrin... Look, I’m going to have a bit of a rant about Cithrin, so feel free to skip ahead to the next paragraph if you want. Cithrin, you stupid, stupid woman. When will you ever learn? Your entire character arc has been defined by short-sightedness and downright bad decision-making. You find yourself stuck in the wrong city with the bank’s wealth? Why not forge a few papers to set yourself up as a pretend bank? After all, it would be too simple just to write to the bank’s head and await instructions, wouldn’t it? And if you find yourself trapped during an uprising with a powerful but totally unstable character who wants sex? Well, why not? This book is quite a good explanation of why not, actually. And then, given a one-time opportunity to get close to the Regent, to influence the events of history and do some good, could you actually, just once in your life, do something sensible? Course not. Gah. Stupid woman. I mean, what exactly does she think Geder is going to do now? Smile sweetly and forget all about her? He already burned one city because he felt slighted.
Geder himself is a fascinating character. Of course he makes dumb decisions as well, but in his case his motives are entirely understandable and believable, and it’s possible to feel very sympathetic towards him, and appalled at the same time. Being the focus of everyone’s amusement is dispiriting and annoying, and being the patsy for other people’s political games would get anyone riled. His response to the Vanai problem, although it was more a fit of petulance than a rational decision, was not an unusual way to deal with a recalcitrant conquest. Even when he’s behaving very badly, it’s easy to see exactly how and why it happened. He’s a social incompetent, who would be very much at home in the modern world, head buried in his iPad or harmlessly slaughtering orcs in World of Warcraft. It’s only in his fantasy setting that he is the tyrant of the title.
Marcus - meh. I like the banter, and the low-key cynicism which sometimes borders on suicidal fatalism, but it’s not an original character trait, and the whole tragic wife and child history is a bit over-used. I like Yardem a lot better, in fact, because although he has baggage (why did he leave the priesthood, exactly?) he doesn’t let it define him. Although that may simply be an artefact of not being a point of view character; because we never get inside Yardem’s head, we never see how tortured his soul is. Or it may just be the ears. Gotta love a character with such speaking ears.
This is not a high-action book. Even though there’s a war going on, and a new religion spreading like a stain from Camnipol, and the whole continent is in turmoil, it still feels like an intimate, close-up portrait of the characters before all else. A whole chapter may feature nothing but Clara walking about Camnipol, Clara taking tea with a friend, Clara going home again, but this gives the characters the space to breathe, to live, to think, to feel. Between paces, Clara can contemplate a great many subjects without it becoming heavy philosophising. Abraham doesn’t ever tell his readers what to think about anything (religion, war, slavery, inherited monarchies), and those who want can simply enjoy the story and the author’s exquisite prose, but the deeper themes are there to be explored by those who wish, usually by the contrast of one approach with another. For example, Kit and Basrahip are both spider-infested; one is using that to control people so that he can take over the world in the spider-goddess’s name, while the other goes to great lengths not to control people at all, and is trying to find a way to end the spider regime altogether. Is it evil to remove lies from the world and impose honesty? Good question.
The ending? Awesome. A great big bowl of awesomeness, with lashings of awesome sauce on top. The first two books I had some settling down reservations about, but this one, none at all. It’s a quieter book than the previous ones, but in my view it’s all the better for that. Perhaps the series is just getting into its stride, or the characters have grown into their roles (even Cithrin, maybe, possibly), or perhaps it’s just that, after a lot of circling round, we’re getting to know something about the dragons at last. Dragons make everything better. So unquestionably five stars. And now the long wait until the next book......more
I loved this book, loved, loved, loved it. It’s the first book in ages to keep me up until the wee small hours because I absolutelyFantasy Review Barn
I loved this book, loved, loved, loved it. It’s the first book in ages to keep me up until the wee small hours because I absolutely positively had to know what was coming next. Here’s the premise: almost-eighteen year old Cass is walking home from her suburban school one day after her last exam before graduation when - pop! - she finds herself in the middle of a not-Earth forest, with no way back. For a while, she is on her own, walking through this world with its odd mixture of Earth-like creatures (deer and otters) and other more alien types, surviving as best she can. She’s a pretty resourceful type, but even so it’s a marginal business. But luckily some super-ninja soldier types from a technologically advanced society turn up and rescue her, and after that things get seriously weird.
Cass is an unusual sort of heroine. She’s clearly intelligent, but she’s not the kick-ass type of female so beloved of the current sci-fi and fantasy scene. She seems quite passive, going along with everything that’s asked of her, even though she’s basically being used as a military tool, but then her new ‘friends’ don’t abuse or hurt her (at least, not intentionally!) and, frankly, I’m not at all sure what other options are open to her. Being useful and helpful (at least until you know your way round and have got a better grasp of the language) is just plain common sense. I loved the way that Cass gradually brought her hosts to see her as a person, with needs and feelings of her own, and not just a passive piece of kit (‘Military equipment doesn't salute’ she comments drily at one point).
The book is written in the first person in the form of a diary, which works very well to tell us what’s going on in Cass’s head. It also brilliantly conveys the sense of disorientation she frequently feels, and the ‘otherness’ of an Australian girl parachuted into a culture which has many similarities with Earth but is also scarily alien. Fortunately Cass has a great sense of humour, and sees the funny side of many of the peculiar situations she finds herself in. This is one of the great perks of portal-type stories, that the transported character can toss around all sorts of slang and in-jokes and cultural references: (‘I tried very unsuccessfully to explain Clint Eastwood, and then moved on to Johnny Depp, and now all of First Squad except Maze have sworn to find a path to Earth so they can watch Pirates of the Caribbean’).
As a piece of science fiction, this is fairly light on the sciencey bits. There’s nanotechnology, and a universal interface system (brain-embedded internet, basically), but the Ena (‘A dimension connected to the thoughts, memories, dreams and imagination of living beings’, it says in the glossary) which surrounds Cass’s new home, the monsters (Ionoths) living there and the psychic abilities of the Setari (the ninja soldiers) seem closer to fantasy to me. As with all the author’s work, there are plenty of deeper themes for those who like to look beneath the surface: about being an outsider, being treated with respect, duty versus freedom, the greater good versus the individual. Not to mention the pleasures and perils of a permanently wired-in internet.
This is another terrific piece of writing by one of my favourite authors. I was a little concerned about it being a YA book, but no need - there’s no love triangle, and the very small amount of angsting over boys is actually very funny. The only (minor) grumble I had was the sheer number of characters involved, a situation not helped by Cass’s early problems with the language, so that she spells names wrongly in the early parts of the book. But there’s a full list of characters at the back, plus a very useful glossary, which rather wonderfully explains all Cass’s Australia-speak and geekisms alongside the in-book terminology. This is very much the first book of the trilogy, so although there’s a mini-resolution, this doesn’t have the feel of a stand-alone book. Be prepared to invest in the whole trilogy (available as an omnibus), not to mention the fourth part, entitled ‘Gratuitous Epilogue’. Five stars. ...more
Prequels are difficult. Fans already know everything that happens down the line, so it’s hard to create enough tension and uncertaiFantasy Review Barn
Prequels are difficult. Fans already know everything that happens down the line, so it’s hard to create enough tension and uncertainty (It’s a battle! Will they survive??? Um, sure they will. Oh.). The characters are established, but there has to be enough information for new readers to follow along without boring the fans witless. It’s a tricky balancing act, but Mr Sullivan pulls it off magnificently. I loved this book to pieces, almost more than the original books (The Riyria Revelations), if that isn’t too sacrilegious. It’s a fun, easy to read, exciting romp, with the bonus of characters that have already had the benefit of several books to become beautifully well-rounded.
The plot, in brief: our heroes, Royce the cold-blooded assassin/thief, and Hadrian the highly trained soldier weary of killing, are brought together by eccentric academic Arcadius for one seemingly impossible job. They have to steal a journal from the top of the Crown Tower, home of the main religious leader, and bring it to Arcadius to read. And the sticking point is that, even though Royce can do the job single-handed, they both have to go. The meat of the story lies in their mutual dislike and disrespect, and how they gradually learn to overcome both and reach a somewhat more amicable working relationship. This part of the book, as they undertake their impossible mission, sniping at each other every step of the way, is full of dramatic adventures, with an unexpected twist at every turn, but it is also sharply funny, and I loved every single minute of it. We get point of view chapters from both Hadrian and Royce, which adds to the tension, as we see clearly just how deeply they each dislike the other. It’s very cleverly done.
There is also a parallel story featuring Gwen, a downtrodden prostitute at the town of Medford. After one of the other girls is killed by a client who then simply pays off the brothel owner and the law, Gwen decides to set up her own brothel, with better working conditions. I’ve always liked Gwen, but she was a background character in the Revelations trilogy, albeit an important one, and I wished I knew more about her. Finding out something about her history and her ‘gift’ was interesting. However, at first I wondered just how exciting it was going to be reading about how she sets up her new business. Gwen goes shopping. Gwen deals with a smoking chimney. Gwen gets some carpentry done. Gwen applies for a permit. Hmm. But Gwen is a smart and resourceful lady, and I loved her clever ways of getting things done. I enjoyed finding out more about her gift, as well, and even though it sometimes felt a bit too convenient for the plot, there were some nicely chilling moments. In the end, the two parallel and seemingly disconnected stories (Royce/Hadrian and Gwen) collided in the most satisfying way imaginable, and even after that there’s a neat little twist at the end, which was fun.
I recently read the author’s venture into science fiction, ‘Hollow World’, which is a very different animal. There’s the same pacy action and array of fascinating characters, but there are also a thousand different ideas jumping up and down for attention, making it a deeply thought-provoking work. ‘The Crown Tower’ is pure entertainment and not ideas-driven, although there are some sharp asides tossed out along the way for those who notice them to savour, but what both share is the author’s trademark attention to detail in plot and character which make him such a joy to read. This is a perfectly judged story which works fine for newcomers, but also supplies some delightful moments for fans of the main series too. Mr Sullivan is a master story-teller writing at the top of his game. I enjoyed this so much I can’t possibly give it anything less than five stars....more
Goodreads has 42,945 ratings of this book, and 2,892 reviews. What can I possibly say that hasn’t been said already, and considerably better than anyGoodreads has 42,945 ratings of this book, and 2,892 reviews. What can I possibly say that hasn’t been said already, and considerably better than any combination of words I can come up with? Nothing at all, probably, but I’m going to have a bash anyway.
I first read this many years ago, and regarded it as one of the best books I’d ever read. This time, I tried the audiobook version, read by Dominic West, who has the appropriate gravitas for Stevens the butler. The plot - well, it hardly matters, being merely a vehicle to demonstrate the buttoned-up and rather tragic personality of Stevens himself, reminiscencing on the past glory days of the house where he serves. His memories of past events, coloured entirely by his own fossilised perspective of the professional nature of being in service, form the body of the story.
This has to be one of the finest descriptions of a single mind I have ever read. The author uses language with such skill that the reader completely understands Stevens and his world view, while also appreciating that the events described solely from his perspective are capable of alternative interpretations. While Stevens performs his duties with impeccable care, he is completely oblivious to the social nuances emanating from the people and events around him, which leads him occasionally to behave in misguided, almost wilfully blind, ways. Meanwhile his employer, Lord Darlington, is equally misguided in his efforts to promote the cause of Fascist Germany and equally oblivious to political nuances. Several times Lord Darlington is referred to as an amateur in politics, which contrasts elegantly with the professionalism of the butler.
I am not sure that I agree with the apparent suggestion of the later parts of the book that master and servant have both wasted their lives on inappropriate efforts. History is written by the victors, and if the war had turned out differently, then those who, like Lord Darlington, made approaches towards Hitler would have been fêted as heroes, not lambasted as near-traitors. And any employee who has done his job to the very best of his ability for many years can hardly be said to have wasted his life. I’m not sure that Stevens would ever have been capable of a normal life, regardless of occupation, so it seems unlikely that he made unreasonable sacrifices for his job. Frankly, I wondered quite what Miss Kenton saw in him.
Even with the benefit of hindsight, I still see little wrong with this book. The language is perfectly tuned for the voice of Stevens, the insight into his personality is profound and there is enough social commentary hidden below the surface to satisfy the need for depth. Five stars. ...more
This is the second book in the alternate history series about Temeraire, the dragon captured as an egg from the French and inadvertently hatched at seThis is the second book in the alternate history series about Temeraire, the dragon captured as an egg from the French and inadvertently hatched at sea and induced into captivity by the ship's captain, Will Laurence. Where the first book focused on Temeraire's growth and training as a part of the Aerial Corps, engaged in fighting the French during the Napoleonic wars, this book is about his personal history. For it turns out that Temeraire is a rare Chinese Celestial dragon, the egg was sent as a gift to Napoleon, and the Chinese are not happy about him being deployed in the war, ridden by a mere naval officer, and want him back. Relations with the Chinese are delicate, so Temeraire and Laurence are packed off to Peking to negotiate some kind of deal.
This book has the same characteristics as the first, being more about the formality of language and manners than action. There are some quite dramatic encounters, but these episodes are brief. The highlight for me is, as before, Temeraire himself, who is by far the most interesting character in the book. He has a refreshingly straightforward attitude to life, and time after time Laurence is forced to attempt to justify his own society's customs and morals against Temeraire's much more liberal ideas. These discussions are fascinating - Laurence is a product of his own era of history, and there are many ideas which he accepts without thinking, and others where he has absorbed his family's somewhat different ideas (he is against slavery, for instance, even though it is still legal in Britain). For instance, it is fascinating to juxtapose Temeraire's instinctive feeling that it is wrong to flog or hang a man, with the obvious need to maintain discipline aboard ship. The Chinese have very different ways of treating dragons, too, and Laurence is forced to acknowledge, against his natural feeling, that they do some things better than the west.
I have no idea how accurate the depiction of Chinese life of the era is, or whether the author has taken liberties, but it all seemed very plausible to me. There were some fascinating details, for instance the ceremony on board ship when crossing the equator, which the author mentions in passing without going into much detail. Both the Chinese delegation and Temeraire himself are mystified by the whole thing, but the author resists the temptation to info-dump all her research on the subject, writing as if we were of the period and would naturally know all about it. I rather like this minimalist approach, which suits the book very well, giving it almost an authentic air of having been written in 1806.
This is actually a thought-provoking book in many ways, addressing a number of ideas head on, such as slavery versus voluntary service, and others less directly, such as the absolute will of an emperor versus the democratic monarchy system prevailing in Britain. It’s not a high-action book, although there are episodes of drama, but in some cases they feel rather bolted on as an afterthought to ramp up the tension. However, the tension between the British and the Chinese is nicely done, and the slow but definite way in which the barriers begin to dissolve and the two sides inch their way towards an understanding is beautifully described. In the end, everything hinges on trust, or the lack of it, and the resolution is both frighteningly dramatic and ultimately very satisfying. Once again, I enjoyed this book unreservedly, and although it wouldn’t suit everyone, for me it’s another five star affair. I’m almost nervous to read any further in the series in case this high standard comes crashing down. Can any author sustain the ideas and this level of writing for nine books? It’s hard to imagine....more
I loved this book, absolutely loved it. It’s an object lesson for me, actually, in not pre-judging a book, because this one ticks so many of my ‘no’ bI loved this book, absolutely loved it. It’s an object lesson for me, actually, in not pre-judging a book, because this one ticks so many of my ‘no’ boxes: it’s YA, it’s a fairy-tale retelling, it’s first person present tense (“I back away...”, “I gaze at him”), it’s more or less a romance, it’s about a princess who doesn’t quite fit in, it has villains with no redeeming characteristics. Had I known all that beforehand, I would never have touched it and I would have missed a lovely, lovely story. As it was, it popped up on a list of free books, I started reading the sample and just kept reading, couldn’t put it down, in fact.
For those who know their fairy tales, this is a reworking of the Goose Girl story. I didn’t know anything about it, so maybe I missed a few subtleties, but I felt it worked perfectly well without any prior knowledge, and apart from a few oddities (like the talking Horse!) there was nothing in there that couldn't be found in conventional fantasy. One of the great strengths of this book is that the characters all feel truly rounded, so even though they are fulfilling traditional roles (the princess, the prince, the witch and so on) they have great depth and believable personalities. The villains seem at first glance to be simplistically cruel and evil, but they all have enough backstory to make them credible, if not exactly sympathetic.
The magic in the book is quite powerful, but the fundamentals are explained clearly enough to be believable, even the talking Horse. The author has thought everything out very carefully, and it works so well that when the heroine is rescued by magical means, it makes perfect sense. Not that she has to be rescued very often, mostly she is perfectly resilient and self-sufficient, and manages to get herself out of trouble and help others as well. I liked, too, that the magic is simply an integral part of life, everyone accepts it and it’s properly regulated. Interestingly, there is also religion, never explained or central to the plot, but just there, as a natural and perfectly normal thing. There are also social customs which are alluded to without full explanations, like a system of debt between people (if someone helps you out, you owe them a debt of comparable value). At one point there’s a discussion of a gift, and whether it incurs an obligation (a debt) or whether it’s just a gift, freely given, and a decision is reached without any attempt to explain the ‘rules’ of such an arrangement to the reader. I rather like this relaxed attitude towards world-building. Some things just are, and don’t need to be elaborated.
The character of Alyssa, the princess, is central to the story, naturally, and the first person narration makes it imperative that she is both likeable and believable. I feel the author pulls this off magnificently. Of course Alyssa makes mistakes sometimes, but she copes well with the strange events which overtake her, and is strong-minded, caring and intelligent without ever turning into the tedious type of kickass female protagonist so often depicted in fantasy these days. On the contrary, she often feels overwhelmed and suffers a great deal, but she always tries to do the right thing, as far as she can. There is a certain amount of angsting, but it's actually understandable, given Alyssa's predicament.
The plot rattles along very nicely, with some unexpected twists and turns. There are villains, of course, so bad things happen, but there are also friends who help out from time to time, just as in real life. Also realistic is that physical encounters have physical effects - if you roll down a cliff, for instance, or get beaten up, there will be cuts and bruises, maybe even broken bones, and time needed to recover. The climax is a bit of a show-stopper, a wonderful outbreak of magical manipulation with everything at stake, and no real certainty of how things will go. And the author neatly side-steps the clichéd ending. It's a fairy story, so of course good triumphs over evil, but the way that is achieved is refreshingly different. And there's not the obvious happy ever after, either. Rather, there's an acknowledgement that a lot has happened and there are bound to be scars, and a tentative sense of moving forward.
This book surprised me. It may be YA, but it addresses some very profound issues, like the nature of justice, the corroding effect of revenge, questions of loyalty and trust and honesty, and the inner goodness (or not) of people, regardless of what they look like, or their rank. The romance element follows a traditional path but with great originality and commendable restraint. The writing style is eloquently literate, and I barely noticed the use of first person present tense. I had a very few minor quibbles - there were a few places early on where I wasn't clear about relationships or what exactly was happening - but nothing major enough to spoil my enjoyment. A terrific read. Five stars. ...more
This is an astonishing book, at a number of different levels. The surface story is of Elaine, a middle-aged artist who returns to her childhood home oThis is an astonishing book, at a number of different levels. The surface story is of Elaine, a middle-aged artist who returns to her childhood home of Toronto for an exhibition of her work, which activates all sorts of long-buried feelings and memories, but as a summary, that doesn't even come close to capturing the essence. The approach is first person present tense ("I stand in the snow...", "I walk up the street...") for describing both present and past, which sounds confusing, but actually the switches in time cause only the slightest joggle before the mind adjusts. Using the same style for all eras of Elaine's life also works brilliantly to underscore one of Atwood's major points - that "Time is not a line, but a dimension, like the dimensions in space. If you can bend space you can bend time also, and if you knew enough and could move faster than light you could travel backwards in time and exist in two places at once."
The prose is literate without ever being flowery or overblown, and Atwood has an uncanny skill for choosing exactly the perfect word every time. Whatever a reader may think of the story or themes, the book is a delight to read purely for the precision of the writing. Atwood writes with a painter's eye. "We wear long wool coats with tie belts, the collars turned up to look like those of movie stars, and rubber boots with the tops folded down and men's work socks inside. In our pockets are stuffed the kerchiefs our mothers make us wear but that we take off as soon as we're out of their sight. We scorn head-coverings. Our mouths are tough, crayon-red, shiny as nails. We think we are friends." And, like a painter, she carefully builds a picture of Elaine's life, brush-stroke by brush-stroke, layer by layer, to create a nuanced depth of character.
There are many different themes that resonate throughout the book. The art world. Gender roles and how women interract differently with men and women. The feminist movement. Childhood and adulthood. The nature of time. The casual cruelty of adults towards children and of children towards each other. The need for resolution. Science and art. Atwood takes sly digs at Toronto, old and new, and the modern world generally. Undoubtedly there are many more layers that whizzed over my head.
At a personal level, I felt an unusually strong affinity for the lead character. Certain aspects of her childhood life resonated with my own. Not that I was ever bullied, but the sense of dislocation from those around you, the desire to fit in at all costs and not make waves, the lack of connection with a childhood home and the unexpected connection with somewhere quite different (in Elaine's case it was Vancouver: "...as far away from Toronto as I could get without drowning", in my case Scotland). And I liked that Elaine was on the outside just a rather ordinary middle-aged woman, but her art seethed with violent emotions (not directly like me, there, but I can understand it).
But even without any personal connection, this book is a wondrous affair, every line a joy to read. The story itself is fairly slight, but the undertones have as much depth as the reader cares to draw out. And if it sounds dry, it's not, it's salted with humour that had me laughing out loud many times. I highly recommend it. Five stars. ...more
The fourth in the Black Sun's Daughter series, written under a pseudonym by Daniel Abraham, and at last things are coming to the boFantasy Review Barn
The fourth in the Black Sun's Daughter series, written under a pseudonym by Daniel Abraham, and at last things are coming to the boil. Jayne has finally stopped shopping and randomly cataloguing dear Uncle Eric's many houses, and started to think more carefully, both about herself and what she's doing, but also about the people who surround her. People who give her (mostly) unconditional love and support, but are also individuals with their own hopes and dreams and murky past histories. And Jayne now knows for sure that she has a rider - a demon residing inside her, who helps her in moments of extreme stress, but who is generally regarded as a Very Bad Thing.
This book leaves behind former lover Aubrey, now trying to reconcile with his ex-wife, and, for most of the time, philosophy-man Chogyi Jake, leaving Jayne with one-time priest Ex, a man she now knows desires her. It's a sign of how far Jayne has come that she doesn't fall into bed with Ex, despite the two of them being thrown together in a pretty intense way for some time. But Ex's intentions are not towards Jayne's body, but her immortal soul; he wants to exorcise her, to rid her of the rider inside her, and at the same time lay to rest his own ghosts.
This book has a very different tone from the previous horror-fest. There are some dark moments and dramatic confrontations, it's true, but the heart of the story is Jayne confronting (literally) her inner demon, finding out something about who or what she carries inside her. Jayne also has to come to terms with what she as an individual truly wants. In many ways this is more of a coming of age story than most that call themselves that. Jayne finally grows up.
It's typical of the author that when he writes urban fantasy, he isn't content to wheel on the evil beasties and leave it at that. Nothing in this book falls neatly into good and bad. Sometimes the best of intentions lead to terrible outcomes. Sometimes all you can hope for is a least worst option. Sometimes you have to hurt the people you love to do the right thing. Sometimes good things are destroyed along the way. And sometimes you need to join forces with a lesser evil to defeat a greater one.
This book is about trust and faith and doing the best you can and being able to bend when the wind blows. And love. That too. A fine book, and much deeper than urban fantasy has any right to be. Five stars.
Footnote: and that's it for me. I won't be reading any more about Jayne Heller and friends. Not because this is the end of the series - it isn't, there's a fifth book out. The series was projected to be ten books long, but I believe it was terminated after five. No, the reason why I won't be reading on is because book five, 'Graveyard Child', isn't out in ebook form. Can you believe, in this day and age, that it's not possible to get an ebook version of any book still in print? But I don't read dead tree books any more, so I'll never know how the series ends. Which makes me sad. ...more
[Also known as 'The King's Dragon'.] This has a very simple premise: imagine the Napoleonic wars, but with dragons. It sounds mad, but actually it wor[Also known as 'The King's Dragon'.] This has a very simple premise: imagine the Napoleonic wars, but with dragons. It sounds mad, but actually it works astonishingly well. The author manages to capture the ethos of the times perfectly - the class system, the rigid formality of manners, the somewhat florid language - while still creating a fascinating work of fantasy.
The starting point is the acquisition of a dragon egg from a captured French frigate, which inconveniently decides to hatch while the British ship is still returning to port. Not wanting to allow such a prize to go to waste, the crew, or rather the officers (that's the class system at work again), decide to see if the dragon will accept a harness. As it happens, it is the Captain, Will Laurence, who manages it and has to leave the Navy and join the dragon corps as a result. His regrets about this, which he regards as being cast out from good society, and how he comes to terms with his situation, form a good part of the book. It is interesting that he is now regarded as a pariah both by his own sector of society, including his family, and also by the Aerial Corps personnel, who see him as coming from outside their close-knit and unorthodox culture, completely untrained, and resent him walking off with a prize dragon when they have (in their own eyes) far more suitable and highly trained people.
There is a certain amount of action, since the dragons are all trained for aerial combat as part of the war effort against the French, but the focus is very much on the characters - both the humans who live with the dragons, and of course the dragons themselves, who are very much characters in their own right. Laurence's dragon, the Temeraire of the title, is in fact by far the most interesting character here, being highly intelligent and curious and somewhat radical in his politics, which puts Laurence rather on the defensive, forced to justify the customs he himself takes for granted. Laurence spends quite a lot of his free time reading to Temeraire, including scientific works which Laurence himself doesn't pretend to understand, but the dragon does. It must be a bit like having a very precocious child, I suppose. The relationship is a close one, and there are some wonderful moments between man and dragon. To be honest, Laurence himself struck me as a difficult person to like in many ways, since he has very rigid ideas of propriety - a very prickly man - but his affection for Temeraire is charming.
The dragons are quite carefully thought out. There are various wild species which have been bred and cross-bred for aerial combat purposes for centuries, and different nationalities have bred their own varieties with different characteristics. Only some can breathe fire, for instance, and none of the British ones can, but they have a variety which can spit acid, for instance. Unlike the Pern variety, these dragons aren't telepathic and they talk quite normally, but there is a very strong bond between dragon and handler, even if the handler mistreats his dragon (I found poor Levitas very distressing to read about). Nice, too, that there are female dragon handlers, although true to the times, this is by the choice of the dragons, not a blow for feminism. Laurence was quite shocked by the idea (but then Laurence is easily shocked, it has to be said). I also liked the idea that, since dragon handlers have much shorter lifespans than dragons, handlers try to arrange for a son (or daughter) to take over when they die, and there is a certain amount of pragmatic breeding of humans for the purpose - the author has obviously put a lot of thought into details like this.
The plot develops quite nicely, although it really isn't particularly important. The objective is to describe the society of two hundred years ago as it would have been if there were dragons in the world then, and this the author does brilliantly. One could argue that access to dragons over many previous centuries would have changed history far more than is evident here - would there even be a Napoleon and a Nelson, for instance? But that hardly matters.
The writing style is perfectly in keeping with the period, and so is the behaviour of the characters. It might seem a bit slow, and not everyone would enjoy the formal language used, but I loved it. I liked the whole idea of the Aerial Corps, with its slightly informal air, and the way the larger dragons go into battle loaded with gunners and bombers and whole teams of crew, rather like a ship of the air. This makes the battles quite unusual, with attempts to board enemy dragons and hand to hand combat (with swords and pistols!) while strapped on to a dragon conducting his or her own form of combat. This is one of those rare books where I actually didn't want it to end. Luckily there are nine books in the series to date, so those who want can indulge their enjoyment of Temeraire for quite some time. Five stars. ...more
I was very critical of the author’s debut work, ‘Elantris’, feeling that although it had an awesome magic system, the characters were cardboard and thI was very critical of the author’s debut work, ‘Elantris’, feeling that although it had an awesome magic system, the characters were cardboard and the plot mostly flat. This one is not simply better, it’s in a different league altogether. Another awesome magic system, plus well-developed characters and plot - and it’s funny! OK, it’s a little ponderous at times, but lots of extra brownie points for humour. There are some similarities - the princess uprooted from home, the all too human gods and the action largely takes place in a single location. And there’s a depth to it, a thoughtfulness, which I never found in ‘Elantris’.
This one focuses on four main characters. Not one but two of them are in fact princesses uprooted from home - two sisters, one of whom, Vivenna, was trained almost from birth to marry the mysterious god-king of the neighbouring realm, and the other, Siri, who is, at the last minute, sent in her place. Then there’s the flippant Lightsong, one of the pantheon of ‘returned’ gods. And the mysterious Vasher, a disreputable character with a sentient sword (ooh, I love talking weaponry!). In addition, there are also some wise-cracking mercenaries, various gods, priests and minions, and the god-king himself.
The plot is largely about the political machinations surrounding the god-king and a threatened war against the homeland of the two princesses, but the real depth to the book comes from the subtly different religions they follow. The questions of faith and who you trust and what you actually believe underpin the whole story, together with the theme that nothing is ever quite what it seems. Who is really good and who is evil? Who has real power, and who merely has the illusion of it? As the two princesses gradually adapt to their changed circumstances, they learn that everything they believed about themselves and the world may be wrong.
The magic system is hugely complicated and yet it all makes sense. It’s not as elegant, perhaps, as the air-writing system seen in Elantris, and it has a few contrivances that - surprise! - turn out to be essential for the plot, but on the whole it fulfils everything I expect of it: a few basic rules which can be adapted in a myriad different and ingenious ways. This results in a delightful surprise round every corner - someone gets into trouble, and the magic (called Breath here) is used to devise a way out. It never feels like a cheat, because the rules are laid out ahead of time. Not everyone likes this kind of magic system, admittedly, preferring the mystery of a more fluid type of magic, but I love those moments where it comes into play and you think: oh, of course, so obvious. Much better, to my mind, than those wait-what? moments where the wizard waves his staff to invoke some hitherto unsuspected spell.
I was drawn into this right from the first page, and it just got better. There are some very slightly saggy moments in the middle where I was thinking: not another Lightsong-being-daft chapter (there was a little too much of Lightsong, for my money), but then there's a terrific twist which turns everything upside down and after that the pace never let up. OK, the climax was a tad melodramatic, and the ending marginally implausible, and the big with-one-bound-they-were-free moment was one that was flagged up almost from the beginning, but nevertheless this was a terrific read with a tightly woven plot with reveals and reverses and unexpected outcomes all the way through. I loved it. Five stars. ...more