Way back in the seventies, there was a UK TV program called ‘The Survivors’. The premise was that almost everyone on earth had been...moreFantasy Review Barn
Way back in the seventies, there was a UK TV program called ‘The Survivors’. The premise was that almost everyone on earth had been wiped out by some kind of virus or illness, and dealt with how the minute number of people left alive coped. They passed through several stages: immediate survival, meeting up with other survivors, scavenging, forming larger groups, beginning to build sustainable communities and so on. Along the way, they dealt with deeper issues, like avoiding hostile communities and exploitation, and law and order: how do you deal with crime when you can’t spare the manpower for prisons, and the criminal may be an essential worker? It’s a dramatic theme, and must have been tackled a thousand times, in different ways, but there’s always room for one more take on it. This book starts in the same place, with some kind of unexplained flu-like illness that is invariably fatal. Fortunately a few people are immune, like Dani, the main character here. The plot covers her family’s attempts to flee to safety, then the struggle for basic survival, meeting up with a small number of other survivors, and the very first stages of long-term planning. It doesn’t quite reach to settled communities or the more difficult issues, but this is the first book in a series, so undoubtedly that will come later. You would think with such a well-trodden plot, this would be a predictable story, and in some ways it is, but that certainly doesn’t make it dull or dry. The early chapters, the cross-country escape bid, beautifully captures the tension and fear of Dani and her parents and sister as they try to get home. Then there’s the pathos of coping in isolation, without most of the trappings of the modern world, and having to do the sort of dreadful jobs that someone else always took care of - like burying bodies. Dani is a smart and resourceful young lady, and although sometimes her decisions felt just a little too clever, and she seldom made mistakes, that’s far better than being stupid. The other characters were well-drawn, too, but they fell rather too neatly into the good guy or villain dichotomy; I like a little more grey in my characters for preference. The ending fell slightly flat for me. It was hugely dramatic and a real page-turner, but it seemed to me that the villains behaved pretty stupidly, in a number of ways. Sometimes you just have to cut your losses, and accept that you’ve been outsmarted. Plus, waving guns around really isn’t terribly sensible when everyone else has guns too and there’s no hospital to patch up any accidents. Survival is the name of the game. But it all made for a breathlessly exciting climax. My only other slight grumble is that, since this is YA, the characters we spent most time with were all teenagers, which made me feel about a hundred and three. I am so far outside the target demographic it’s silly, and for that reason (and probably that reason alone) I felt little emotional engagement with the characters, even in their darkest moments. On the other hand, I read this from cover to cover in no time flat. It’s an engaging, well-written story with a clever array of breathless car-chases and dramatic escapes, intermingled with more introspective passages, very appropriate for the end-of-the-world scenario. Dani may be a bright girl, but she’s still, in many ways, just a kid, and the author doesn’t shy away from the desperation Dani feels from time to time. An enjoyable and thankfully zombie-free post-apocalypse story. Four stars.(less)
So here we are at the end of the trilogy. The first book, 'The Tattered Banner', I found a refreshing change from the typical sword...moreFantasy Review Barn
So here we are at the end of the trilogy. The first book, 'The Tattered Banner', I found a refreshing change from the typical swords-based fantasy, focused as it was around the rapier as the weapon of choice. It was in many ways a conventional coming of age story, a young man discovering unusual abilities in himself and learning to manage his talent, but lifted above the average by excellent writing and some awesome confrontations. The second book, 'The Huntsman's Amulet', was more of a boys’ own adventure, quite episodic and uneven, although hero Soren visited some intriguing locations and there were the usual array of terrific sword fights. And pirates!
This book feels a little slow to start. After some initial action, which convinces Soren that he and his lady love, Alessandra, will never be safe from the assassins sent by his former mentor and now arch-enemy Amero, he spends some time arranging matters so that he can return to Ostenheim with the sole objective of killing Amero. I was a little disappointed that Alessandra, a smart lady perfectly capable of wielding a sword when necessary and protecting herself, was parked in a place of safety so that Soren could go about his murderous business without having to worry about her. However, I could see the logic in it.
Then almost half the book passes with very little happening, as a number of additional characters are introduced, their motivations explained and their activities described in some detail. These are not uninteresting, but some of this felt a bit like filler. The eastern mage, for example, was an interesting character and I would very much like to have known more about his organisation the Twelve, their practices and rules, but in the end he was reduced to just another obstacle for Soren to overcome.
None of the characters really stand out, apart from Soren himself (and maybe the banker). I would have liked a little more description of how he calls upon his 'gift', and more detail of the fights from within his enhanced perspective, which, for me, have always been the most awesome part of the story. Sadly, there is nothing here quite comparable with the fight with the belek in 'The Tattered Banner', but nevertheless all the fights are well-written, even if mostly the outcome is never in doubt. In fact, seeing Soren back amongst the regular street thugs and sell-swords of Ostenheim only serves to underscore just how easy he finds it all. Fortunately for the excitement quota, there are still ways in which he's vulnerable and his careful plans can go off the rails, and the encounter with the eastern mage was dramatically unpredictable.
The descriptions of Ostenheim, in fact the whole of this world the author has created, are excellent, just enough to bring the streets and buildings into sharp focus without distracting from the action. It all feels wonderfully real, brought alive by scores of understated little details. I was rather pleased that the duelling arena where the story first started featured for a significant exchange in this book.
There were a couple of moments that felt suspiciously like logic issues. One is that Amero is in dire straits financially, on the brink of ruination, yet he still managed to find the funds to send assassins repeatedly after Soren. That's one obsessive grudge he's holding. The other is a magical healing that happens late in the book, despite the recipient being resistant to magic and the character who organises it having spent much of the book destroying magic-users. I can see that it was necessary to the plot, and maybe I missed some crucial explanation that made it obvious, but it felt to me like a bit of a fudge.
However, towards the end, all the disparate threads come together into the inevitable final confrontation, the lesser issues cleared away and the focus finally on Soren and his nemesis Amero, and no, it doesn't go at all as planned. This was a wonderful and very fitting climax to the story. Being the end of the trilogy, I honestly had no idea how it would turn out, and the author had several nice surprises up his sleeve, not least the explanation for the title of this book. A terrific ending to a fine series. Four stars. (less)
If I had to describe the characteristics I most look for in a book, I’d probably answer: memorable characters, an interesting setti...moreFantasy Review Barn
If I had to describe the characteristics I most look for in a book, I’d probably answer: memorable characters, an interesting setting, a plot that constantly surprises me and plenty of humour. This book ticks all the boxes. It isn’t at all the sort of fantasy I’d normally read (whimsy? a boy and his dog go on a journey? a wishing tree? erm...) yet it sucked me in and left me with a huge smile on my face.
When Billy’s scientist mother disappears on a trip to find food, Billy sets off with his dog Max to find her. An encounter with a wishing tree has some unexpected side effects, leaving Billy and Max able to communicate telepathically. And then things get really weird. The story tears from place to place as Billy and Max are swept along in their adventure, meeting some entertainingly oddball characters, avoiding the villains, solving the world’s problems in beautifully inventive ways and never, ever falling into dull predictability. Rather wonderfully, this is not just an episodic road trip. Everything that happens, however unexpected, is completely logical in a slightly off-the-wall way. And it’s laugh-out-loud funny.
This is one of the most original and delightful books I’ve ever come across. The language is simple enough to be read by children, but adults would enjoy its offbeat humour and imaginative twists just as much. It’s difficult to think of anything comparable, but the humour and rather surreal train of events remind me of ‘Alice in Wonderland’. The most amusing and charming book I’ve read all year. Four stars.(less)
Wouldn’t it be lovely if you could compose a song which would guarantee good weather or bountiful harvests or a cure for illness? T...moreFantasy Review Barn
Wouldn’t it be lovely if you could compose a song which would guarantee good weather or bountiful harvests or a cure for illness? That’s the premise here, and what an enchanting one it is. The creator god made the world and left a series of specific tunes (‘tropes’) which allow the humans to control their environment and live in peace and plenty. The god has moved on to other worlds but the tropes should carry on working indefinitely – except that something is going wrong. Harvests fail, epidemics break out, the weather has turned nasty and no one knows why.
Sarya is a part of this magical-music world, having both a True Voice (one which can affect things by singing) and being also a trained Arranger, someone who takes the required tropes and combines them into an effective choral arrangement. Inevitably (this is fantasy, after all), she’s an orphan with a rough past, whereas most of the people at the Skola (musical academy) are upper class and wealthy, so she has had trouble being accepted into the community. But when one of her arrangements goes disastrously wrong, Sarya is determined to find out why and begins researching the strange tropes which accompany the disasters.
From here on, the plot accelerates at a dizzying speed, and this part of the book is perfectly judged, with each success followed by a greater failure, and Sarya forced into more and more difficult decisions. There are some darker passages towards the end, but I didn’t find them too unsettling, and I liked the mature way the author handled the consequences of traumatic experiences. There were a few credibility issues, where I expected greater opposition to Sarya’s proposals, but in the end people just said, ‘Oh, all right then.’ And Sarya’s conviction that love interest Adan couldn’t possibly love her despite all the evidence to the contrary was not terribly believable. I mean, that passionate kiss should have been a bit of a clue, right? But the action rolled on unstoppably, and every crisis was page-turningly dramatic. This was a book that was hard to put down, and although there was nothing wildly original in the way events played out, it was still an exciting read.
Fantasy romance (or romance in a fantasy setting) is a difficult genre to pull off. It’s hard to get the perfect balance without one aspect swamping the other, but the author has done a terrific job here. The world-building is not extensive, since almost all the action takes place within the city of Sucevita, indeed within the Skola, but other areas are mentioned sufficiently to give the setting a feeling of real depth, both of geography and history. The religion, based around the magical tropes, is also well-conceived. The romance happily avoids the insta-lust and triangle clichés, and is enjoyably satisfying without ever overwhelming the action.
If there is a weakness to the book, it lies with the characters. Sarya is too impossibly altruistic and self-effacing and robustly determined to do the right thing no matter the personal cost, and the angst factor is quite high in consequence. Adan is too impossibly noble and generous and self-sacrificing and understanding. He’s also impossibly handsome and well-honed and a perfect specimen of manhood, but that’s par for the course for this kind of story, and I’m certainly not going to complain about it. Both main characters have their frailties, of course, but these pale beside their vast array of virtues. The other characters fall neatly into the good guys/bad guys duality, without too many distinguishing characteristics.
These are very minor quibbles however. On the plus side, the villain was chillingly evil, and one of the highlights of the book for me. His meetings with Sarya were wonderfully mysterious, and I enjoyed the way his true intentions were concealed until the last possible moment. Sarya’s past also gives her some depth, and the moment when she overcomes her history and gives herself unreservedly to Adan is a lovely piece of writing.
This was a very enjoyable read, a perfect blend of well-thought-out fantasy with a satisfying romance. I loved the ingenious and cleverly implemented concept of music as a form of magic. Highly recommended. A good four stars.(less)
I bought this for all the wrong reasons. It’s not my usual genre (paranormal urban fantasy) in any way, but... it’s set in Liverpoo...moreFantasy Review Barn
I bought this for all the wrong reasons. It’s not my usual genre (paranormal urban fantasy) in any way, but... it’s set in Liverpool, and that was a huge attraction. There’s a special buzz in reading a book where the action takes place in Lime Street station, the Mersey ferry, Edge Hill, Sefton Park and even Bidston Hill, all places I know well. So I was prepared to take a punt on this, and step outside my comfort zone for a while. And it almost worked.
Lily McCain is a young woman with a secret: when she touches anyone, skin on skin, she gets a vision of their future. And however horrible it is, she can’t do anything to prevent it. No wonder she avoids contact with anyone, not easy given her chosen profession of music reporter for the local paper, which requires her to spend her time in packed clubs. But then one day a mysterious stranger turns up, tells her that she’s really, really special, so special she’s destined to save the world (or at least be his mate and have his babies), whereupon various other mysterious strangers start trying to kill her. And there’s a bunch about the Otherworld and the High King, and Ireland comes into it somewhere, and... OK, I got all fuzzy about the plot at this point. And really, it doesn’t much matter. There are good guys and bad guys, all right? And all Lily has to do is work out which is which.
There’s a lot to enjoy about this (besides Sefton Park having some kind of magic portal in it, which amused me no end). It’s an easy read, with some great humour, and Lily and her amusing sidekick Carmel are true feisty Scouse birds (when not curled up in wardrobes crying, that is). There are a few quibbles, though.
Quibble number one: vampires, because... no, actually, I don’t need a ‘because’. Just vampires. Ok, they’re background characters, and they have a goth band, naturally, which mitigates the effect, but really – vampires. It’s a testament to the strength of the writing that I didn’t toss the book (I’m SO allergic to the blood-sucking undead).
Quibble number two: scorching hot blokes (and some of the women too). Apart from Lily and Carmel, everyone seems to be impossibly hot and fit and awesomely honed. Which is kind of tedious. I like a bit more realism than that.
Quibble number three: logic failures. Now, I read a lot of fantasy, so I’m perfectly capable of believing six impossible things before breakfast, but the internal logic has to be consistent. And I just can’t accept that Gabriel (the aforementioned High King and Lily’s designated mate) would dump her at age six with one of the least sensible carers in the known universe. That makes no sense. And then only turn up again when there's a crisis looming only days away. She's in her twenties, for goodness sake, surely you could have dropped in a little sooner with the 'By the way, there's something you ought to know...' speech? And then there’s Lily herself. I lost count of the number of times someone said to her: whatever you do, don’t do X. And what’s the first thing she does? Of course it is. It’s a wonder she survived past chapter three.
Now, to be fair, these are all personal gripes of mine, and I’m sure the vast majority of the intended audience doesn’t care about a bit of wobbly logic. The writing is a little uneven – the scene where Lily returns to her nan’s house and emotes all over it goes on way too long, for instance. Plus there are numerous moments where the story felt contrived in order to squeeze in another famous Liverpool location (did we really need the entire history of the Cavern?). Those few quibbles aside, though, the story’s an entertaining read, with some great humour (only occasionally veering off into silliness), with an ending which avoided the easy options. An enjoyable three stars. Recommended for fans of vampires, hot blokes and Liverpool.(less)
Glenda Larke is one of a very small number of authors whose works are on my must-buy list, and a new book, and the first of a serie...moreFantasy Review Barn
Glenda Larke is one of a very small number of authors whose works are on my must-buy list, and a new book, and the first of a series to boot, is always cause for celebration. Larke writes a traditional kind of fantasy, not the elves and dwarves sort, but the type that relies on a refreshingly original created world, engaging characters and a story that compels right from the first line. And it doesn't hurt that she has a wonderfully vivid writing style.
So why does this one not quite set me on fire? I think it’s because there are so many elements that feel very unoriginal, not to say tired. Parts of the world feel like just another pseudo-medieval setting, the parts that involve the patrilineal kingdom with the cold-hearted king, the playboy prince and the resentful but plucky princess, doomed to marry some hideous older man for political reasons. Yawn. And I’m always deeply suspicious of kings who have precisely two children, one of each gender. In a hereditary monarchy, there should be hordes of hopeful heirs, legitimate and otherwise, in every generation, or else an extremely good reason why not.
Other parts of the story are well up to Larke’s creative standards. The unusual physical world, with the continents clustering inconveniently around the polar ice-cap. The importance of the spice trade. The uneasily united branches of the prevailing religion. And the dagger of the title, a creepily semi-alive weapon. I’m a sucker for sentient ironmongery.
The main character of the story is Saker, low-born but now a pretend priest and spy, working undercover for his religious mentor while supposedly tutoring the royal children. And here’s another problem. Saker is a likeable enough character, but he’s made out to be some ultra-smart, ultra-devious guy, when the entire book is no more than a catalogue of his mistakes, where he’s taken in by one smarter, more devious character after another. Gullible is his middle name, and while I excuse his entrapment by the lady (he’d have to be super-human to resist, frankly), the rest of it just makes him look stupid. And I have to wonder why his mentor sends him off to tutor the prince and princess in the first place, a position he seems spectacularly unsuited for.
Of the other characters, Ryke the prince is the standard template for princes in fantasy, only interested in hunting, whoring and himself. Mathilda the princess has an even more limited range of interests – herself and... erm, that’s it. And yes, of course, it’s a horrible situation, young woman forced to marry evil older man for the good of the kingdom (and a lucrative trade agreement), but we have heard it once or twice before. Sorrel, the widow coerced into virtual slavery by Mathilda, would be more interesting if she stopped whining for five minutes. Yes, life’s really tough living in the royal palace with all your comforts provided, isn’t it?
Ardhi, on the other hand, the original owner of the eponymous dagger, is a truly fascinating character. More of him, please. Saker’s religious mentor, the Pontifect, is also interesting, and I also enjoyed the few moments onscreen of light-hearted nobleman Juster (although he reminded me somewhat of Maldynado from the Emperor’s Edge series; actually quite a few of these characters reminded me of some other book).
The plot is a little slow to get going, although that’s typical of most fantasy and isn’t a problem. It takes time to paint in the backdrop before the action starts. Once it does, though, things take off spectacularly, and the second half of the book is a fast-paced romp as Saker and pals stagger from one disaster to the next. Beneath the veneer of entertainment, though, there are some thought-provoking themes – of slavery, for one thing. Several of the characters are, in various ways, compelled to do things they desperately don’t want to do. This ought to make me more sympathetic towards them, but somehow it feels more like a plot device and therefore loses its emotional impact.
This fell a little short of my expectations. It felt uneven, the characters failed to engage me, the plot, while executed with all the author’s flair, seemed a little contrived. Political machinations are less interesting to me than well-rounded characters. However, the writing is, as always, excellent, and the foundations are laid for the next two books in the series to venture out of the familiar world of kingdoms and organised religions into more exotic settings. I’ll certainly be reading on. Three stars.(less)
It’s such a lovely idea: you fall asleep and your dreams are actually about another world. And just a few special people are Gifted...moreFantasy Review Barn
It’s such a lovely idea: you fall asleep and your dreams are actually about another world. And just a few special people are Gifted: able to move between the two worlds physically. So this is a portal story, one of those tales with a dull, modern-day section which then shifts in an instant into a far more interesting fantasy world with swords and whatnot. The twist here is that every time the main character falls asleep in the interesting fantasy world – bam, he’s back in the dull modern world.
The fantasy world is not the most complicated ever. The map gives it away. There are a few rivers and hills, a sprinkling of cities, a castle and – erm, that’s about it. And no, dropping in phrases like ‘a white fillet of summerton and a peeled sopple floating in its bowl of sweet craniss wine’ doesn’t give it a more authentic depth. However, it does have a slightly steampunk air, with pistols and a steam-powered cable-car for long distance travel, which is quite cool. But (phew!) there are still swords and horse-riding soldiers who gallop into battle. So that’s all right then. Sadly, the modern world is every bit as dull as it usually is.
So here’s the plot. Every once in a while, a Gifted turns up who can cross freely between the two worlds. The last one was a total disaster, so when Chris finds himself the latest Gifted, he’s not exactly welcomed with open arms. The king just wants him to keep out of the way of the coming war. The religious fanatics want to use him as an excuse for trouble. The Searcher, the king’s daughter Alarra, has unresolved issues because of her failure to manage the previous Gifted. And as soon as he arrives in parallel world Lael, Chris is manipulated into bringing war-mongering Mactalde across from the modern world, thereby creating a tear in the space-time continuum. Or something. Something bad, anyway, since it makes the weather deteriorate.
The characters are the usual thing. Feisty independent princess. Check. Brave but sensitive manly type. Check. Stalwart, fiercely loyal old retainer. Check. Heroic but tormented warrior-type. Check. Evil villain. Oh yes. Amusing and/or irritating sidekicks. Check. Check. Check. There’s also a talking winged beast of some sort, who is supposed to keep the important characters informed but actually withholds vital information for his own (presumably plot-related) reasons. Which is terribly convenient.
Now, the author has done a good job of giving all the characters strong background stories, but this does rather substitute for actual characterisation. Stripping away the layers of guilt and fear and anger and betrayal around them leaves not much more than the bald stereotypes mentioned above. And then they will angst about it endlessly. I’m not a big fan of angsty characters, and, to be honest, I got a bit cross with them here. Chris, for instance, is weighed down with guilt because he brought Mactalde back, but since no one told him the truth, how was he supposed to know? And Allara is weighed down with guilt because she failed with the previous Gifted. Ye gods, she was nine years old at the time, being advised by a winged beastie who makes the Sphinx look like a model of clarity. Guys, it wasn’t your fault, OK?
I confess to having problems with the logic behind the basic premise. Yes, I know, magic... duh. But still, it should make some sort of sense. So we have these dual worlds, each one the dream world of the other. And the same people exist in both worlds. They do different jobs, but they’re the same people. You can die in one but your doppelganger lives on. So that boggled my mind right away. Then there’s the whole dreams business. You fall asleep in one and you wake up in the other? But... but... most people don’t sleep more than eight or so hours a day, so you get eight hours’ sleep in one world, eight hours in the other and... what happens to the other eight? OK, so I may be overthinking this, and to be fair Chris does seem to sleep a lot, in one world or the other, so I guess it works out.
A more serious problem is that the characters do really stupid things. I’ve already mentioned that Chris was manipulated into bringing Mactalde back, and I don’t totally blame him for that, but when some people are saying, ‘Yes, yes, do it, it’ll totally fix everything” and others are saying, “This is a really, really bad idea”, it might be smart to ask a few more questions, don’t you think? And thereafter the guy is constantly leaping into his horse or one of the cool skycar thingies to rush into battle or rescue people who’ve been given up for dead. In fact, the whole bang lot of them are prone to the horse-leaping and rushing and rescuing thing, including the king’s entire family. Well, it shifts the plot along, I suppose. But then the guy who betrayed them sends a message that he has some useful information, but Chris has meet him alone... I mean really, who is stupid enough to do that? Well, Chris, apparently. Doh.
Now if all this sounds as if I didn’t like the book, actually, I did, on the whole. It was entertaining and readable in a lightweight way, and for a bit of easily-digested fluff it’s very effective. As long as you don’t think too hard about it, it all works very well. By the middle of the book, it had settled down into a nicely paced, if over dramatic, tale. Latterly it degenerated into one of those we’re-all-doomed-we’re-saved!-oh-no-we’re-all-doomed see-saws, with our heroes implausibly surviving every tricky moment while the baddies are constantly two steps ahead. Which was, in places, eye-rollingly silly. But then came the ending, one of those unexpected moments when the author takes the mature, difficult, but obviously logical road. I love it when that happens. So kudos to the author, and extra brownie points. Recommended for anyone who likes relentless action and is able to switch off the but-but-why? side of their brain. Three stars.(less)
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...moreFantasy 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.(less)
The novella prequel to this book, 'The Girl With No Name', was hugely entertaining, a charming fairytale which was anything but tra...moreFantasy Review Barn
The novella prequel to this book, 'The Girl With No Name', was hugely entertaining, a charming fairytale which was anything but traditional, with a nice line in humour and, for its short length, a surprising number of delightfully unexpected twists along the way. This is a full length (albeit still fairly short) novel in similar style, which somehow fell a bit flat for me. Maybe the charm of the novella just doesn't scale up, or maybe my grumpy pre-Christmas mood is at fault, but somehow the whimsy failed to enchant, the writing seemed less light and the humour was sprinkled too thinly, like a pizza with too little cheese.
Partly this is because of the rather old-fashioned writing style. Contractions (like 'can't' and 'don't') are avoided, every action is described in detail even when a character isn't doing anything interesting at all, and although there are various point of view characters, the author merrily tells us what everyone is thinking or feeling. There's nothing at all wrong with this, and I daresay for a fairy tale it's appropriate, but I much prefer a tighter writing style.
So here's the premise. There's a princess and a couple of princes and a magician's apprentice, there's an evil villain, there's a land where nobody has magic and a land where almost everybody has it. And there are winged unicorns, which (rather cutely) aren't necessarily able to fly properly, sometimes they just bounce a little as they run, like a plane on a particularly bumpy runway. There's a royal wedding and a kidnapping and an array of monsters to be faced. All good fun, although sometimes things got a little predictable. I liked that the princess was a smart cookie and able to get herself out of awkward scrapes. I disliked that too often things happened purely by chance, and she was saved by some lucky event.
The best character by far is the magician's apprentice, Phillip. Phillip? In a fairy tale? Erm, yes. The names in this story aren't really the best. Some characters have sensible fantasy-sounding names (Neithan, Kaleb, Sargon) and some have weird names (Seventh Night) and some have terrible names (the poor girl with no name from the prequel, who finally acquires a name half way through this book, and it's surely the worst name ever; and no, you'll have to read the book to find out what it is).
But then, just when I was preparing my oh-dear summary in my head, things took off, became charmingly unpredictable and ended with one of those wonderful moments that brighter people than I probably saw coming a mile away, but for me it came out of nowhere and just blew me away. So three stars for the slightly pedestrian air of the first three quarters, five stars for the brilliant ending, so an average of four stars.(less)
This is the second book the Alchemancer series, following on from ‘The Five Elements’. Like that one, this starts with a bang, lite...moreFantasy Review Barn
This is the second book the Alchemancer series, following on from ‘The Five Elements’. Like that one, this starts with a bang, literally, a mysterious underground explosion in the city of Brighton, just as our heroes from the first book, Aaron, Serena and Ensel Rhe, arrive there, followed almost immediately by demon houndmaster Krosus and his evil pack. In dealing with the hounds, Aaron and Serena manage to get themselves arrested and tossed into the dungeon. It has to be said, the author knows how to drop straight into the action.
After this, the pace lets up just a little, and branches out into multiple point of view threads to ensure that the plot is nicely stirred. There’s the airship which featured in the first book, newly arrived for repairs; there’s a King’s Patroller, whose function I’m not sure about, but he seems to be a good guy; there’s a disgruntled pyromancer; there’s a dwarf underworld boss with a beautiful daughter; there’s an old enemy of Ensel Rhe’s; and there’s a nest of rats-on-steroids under the city, who wear clothes and wield swords and are definitely bad guys. Well, they eat people. Oh, and there’s a machine, the Nullification Engine of the title, which is seriously cool and I can’t wait for the movie to be made to see exactly what it looks like.
Of the characters, Ensel Rhe is the most interesting, with his mysterious past and his super-ninja skills. In the first book, he was rather lightly sketched in, more plot device than rounded character, but here he gets a lot more screen-time and a chance to shine. Every scene he was in sizzled with tension. We learn quite a bit more about him here, which only serves to make him more intriguing. Aaron, the prodigy applying logic and science to largely magical artifacts, is also fun, and I loved the way he cracked the code. Serena worked less well for me. Her conventional upper-class family setting did nothing to make her interesting (to me), and there were times when she simply acted in ways that had me rolling my eyes. Speaking up at the funeral, for instance, and only realising afterwards that it might be a Bad Idea. And when her former mentor tells her to stay away from a device, what is the very first thing she does? Doh.
Of the other characters, they’re nicely drawn and work very well. I particularly liked the newly introduced Jakinda, a nice fiery character. I’m very much looking forward to seeing her in action in the next book. The dwarves were huge fun, too, although why is it dwarves are always the comic relief? I blame Peter Jackson. But the star character for me (if I can describe it this way) was the Nullification Engine itself, which stole the show in every scene it was in, and was a wonderfully unpredictable and fascinating device.
As with the first book, the plot rattles along at a breath-taking pace, with an unpredictable twist in almost every chapter. If I had a beer for every time I muttered ‘Didn’t see THAT coming’ I’d be blind drunk under the table by now. My only complaint is that I had trouble remembering everything that had happened in the first book, so I was flummoxed for a while when certain characters turned up again. A summary would have helped, although to be perfectly fair, I’m very bad at remembering plots in general, so I have the same trouble with every series. In other words, my fault, not the author’s. There’s a list of characters at the front and some good maps, too, as well as a sprinkle of reminders throughout the story, so I got past the confusion stage in the end. There was one plot-thread that I didn’t fully understand, involving Krosus the demon houndmaster and Ursool the witch; I’m still not sure just how things ended up there, but again, I suspect it’s just me not paying attention, since everything else was tied up beautifully, with neat little bows on top.
Another fun read, very entertaining, with a great ending setting everything up nicely for the next book. Highly recommended. Four stars. (less)
I started 2014 with a determination to reduce my backlog of books to be read, books I've already bought and paid for that are just...moreFantasy Review Barn
I started 2014 with a determination to reduce my backlog of books to be read, books I've already bought and paid for that are just sitting waiting on my Kindle. Here's one way of doing it: read a third of a book, say 'Nah, not doing it for me' and toss it.
Now, there's nothing much wrong with this book. It's nicely written, it's won the Aurealis Award for goodness' sake, so lots of people think it's a cracker. And it has a terrific premise, which is what drew me to it in the first place: a woman wakes up seemingly in another body, with no memory of who or what she is, surrounded by dead people wearing rubber gloves. And inside the pocket of her jacket, a letter from her (former) self, telling her that she's some kind of supernatural spy secretly working for the British Government, but – oh no! – there’s a traitor in the camp. Sounds great, doesn't it? A tad clichéd, but fun, perhaps.
So what went wrong for me? First off, the main character tells herself in the letter that her name is Myfanwy, but not pronounced the Welsh way, but to rhyme with 'Tiffany'. Erm... what? Well, OK, let's roll with that. Then there are the two aristocrats, Lady Linda Farrier and Sir Henry Wattleman. The lady is mostly called Lady Farrier, which is probably correct, and once is Lady Linda, which probably isn’t, but the gentleman is variously called Sir Henry (fine) or Sir Wattleman (which is so not fine that I found myself tensing up at every scene he was in, or likely to be in, just in case). This is not the kind of tension an author wishes to inspire in a reader.
So, fine, Mr O'Malley is Australian with some American, and I don't expect colonials to get the nuances of the British aristocracy, which take at least five hundred years to master. But then Myfanwy calls a cab in London, and the driver has to look the address up, and I’m immediately distracted. London is possibly the only city in the world where cabbies spend years doing 'The Knowledge', learning their way to every little back jigger, every obscure hotel, every dodgy nightclub in the capital. Now, it could have been a mini-cab that she called, whose drivers don’t do ‘The Knowledge’, but a British author would have made that clear. Small point? Very, but it brought me to a crashing halt for a while.
Then Myfanwy is invited out for lunch (or dinner, not sure which) by Lady Farrers. They go to a very famous restaurant, and there they sit, surrounded by hordes of hovering waiters, talking about their organisation. The one which is so secret that absolutely no one outside a select few heads of government and the armed forces is supposed to know about it. So the author lost me right there. And let's not mention the school for supernatural spooks which is on Kirrin Island (if you don’t get the reference, look up the Famous Five).
If I'd been enjoying the story, this stuff wouldn't have bothered me nearly so much. Maybe not at all. These are teeny tiny details, flea bites of irritation. Trouble is, the story just didn’t grab me, the characters, despite their supernatural quirks, were flat, and the humour likewise. And the worst of it was that despite a nice premise, the style of the story requires that mind-wiped Myfanwy learns everything she needs to know from letters presciently written by her former self. So there's a page or two of Myfanwy winging it through this or that meeting, followed by umpteen pages of what's essentially info-dump. That gets tedious very fast.
The whole secret supernatural spy thing felt like a poor imitation of Ben Aaronovitch's secret supernatural policeman series, and that at least has the advantage of a real feel for London, plus his wonderful dry British humour. It didn't work for me, but lots of people seem to like it, so there you go. Not a great start to 2014. One star for a DNF.(less)
That difficult middle book of the trilogy? Nope, no problem. Just send the hero off in a different direction altogether, with a bit...moreFantasy Review Barn
That difficult middle book of the trilogy? Nope, no problem. Just send the hero off in a different direction altogether, with a bit of seafaring and... pirates! What could be better than chasing around the oceans, with a sea battle and a storm and... and... You can probably fill in some of the blanks here. Very little of this took me by surprise, but that doesn’t make it any less of an enjoyable romp.
The plot is, in many ways, a choppier affair than in ‘The Tattered Banner’. Main character Soren starts off looking for missing girlfriend Alessandra, then gets distracted by a search to find out more about his Gift (the mysterious power that overtakes him during a fight and makes him super-fast). That thread ends abruptly, and then a storm at sea leaves his ship vulnerable to pirate slave-traders, when that is resolved he falls in with an old acquaintance and sets off after the pirate... and so on. This kind of episodic story has some advantages, and there’s never a dull moment, but it does feel sometimes as if Soren is passively being pushed around by events. He ends up bouncing around all over the place, like a glorified travelogue of his world, and while the places he visits are interesting in themselves, the speed with which he hops from one to another, and the ease with which problems are solved, dulls the impact.
The most interesting place, to my mind, was the mysterious island in the centre of the ocean where there are the remains of a great city. The place is tainted with magic, so it’s dangerous to visit, and the peculiar and foreboding atmosphere of it is conveyed very well. But then, it becomes unexpectedly easy and frankly an excuse for a big info-dump, so in the end it’s a bit of a let-down.
The rest of the book is a giant boys-own adventure, with regular outings for Soren’s talent with a sword. In the first book, the fights, and the outbreaks of magic that accompanied them, were a highlight. Here much of the awesomeness is lost and the fights become rather mundane, as Soren tries to gain full control of his power so that it doesn’t overwhelm him. And it has to be said that the sheer number of times the swords come out makes this aspect of the book repetitious.
If this makes it sounds as if I was disappointed, well, perhaps I was, just a little. I would have liked more of the magic, more of the mind-blowing Gift-infused moments like the Belek battle in the first book (which remains an unforgettable image, still vivid in my mind), more times when things went wrong and I was taken by surprise. Everything was just a tad too easy and predictable. On the other hand, this was a cracking action-adventure, elegantly written and enjoyable from first to last, with no problems picking up the threads of the story from book 1, and no sign of middle-book doldrums. Four stars. (less)
I don't read a lot of urban fantasy, but this one has a great premise: Cleo has an unusual talent. She can see when people lie, by...moreFantasy Review Barn
I don't read a lot of urban fantasy, but this one has a great premise: Cleo has an unusual talent. She can see when people lie, by way of a shadow mask that covers their face to a greater or lesser extent, depending how big the lie is. Sometimes the mask comments, too, betraying the person's real feelings. This is such a cool idea, but there's a dark side too. What must it be like to know, beyond any possibility of doubt, when someone lies to you? Your best friend? No, of course your bum doesn't look big in that. No, of course I’m not trying to steal your bloke. Yes, I'd love to see you tonight but I've really got to work. Your boyfriend? I love you. You're the only one. You're the best ever in bed. Eek.
So when Cleo is recruited by other 'supras' (people with similar talents), part of her is thrilled to be amongst people who understand, with whom she doesn't have to pretend. Sadly, Cleo is immediately sent undercover to winkle out a traitor amongst the supras, which involves a lot of hanging around people to watch for lies, and asking leading questions, so she's still on her own.
Cleo isn't the usual self-confident assertive female lead character so common in urban fantasy. Instead she's a much more realistic person, damaged to some extent by the lies she's been exposed to by everyone around her. However, her slightly chirpy voice and her constant mistakes get very wearing after a while. Another big problem: way too many characters to keep up with. I could possibly remember names, but trying to keep track of everyone's supra abilities (which they often hid, even from other supras) was impossible. And the plot fell over because it depended on Cleo being kept in the dark about crucial information. As she herself pointed out, if she'd been told everything right from the start, the problem could have been solved in five minutes.
Somewhere in the middle of the book things begin to pick up, and there's a secret about one character that I just didn't see coming. And at about the three quarters point, there's possibly the best sex-with-subtext scene I've ever read. Quite brilliant. But after that, things crater spectacularly. Firstly, after all the undercover work, the bad guys reveal themselves to Cleo after she makes an unbelievably stupid decision and puts herself into their power. Then things degenerate into a long-drawn-out and totally farcical melee of a finale. Authors really have to decide whether they're going for the serious, oh-no-everyone-might-die line, or whether it's going to be lighthearted fluff. Once characters start dying (well, one character, anyway), you're fairly well committed to serious, and fluff seems distasteful (to me, anyway).
There are a few loose endings left dangling, like the oft-mentioned but never seen step-father, and why did Beau conceal his true nature? But I guess there's a series in the pipeline, so there has to be fodder for future books. There were too many flaws and saggy moments for me to enjoy this completely, but even for a non-fan of urban fantasy like me, there were still plenty of fun moments, a few nice characterisations and that amazing sex scene. Recommended for fans of the genre, and it is a brilliant premise. Three stars.(less)
This is one of those books with loads of interesting ideas where the execution falls a little flat. The concept of the human mother...moreFantasy Review Barn
This is one of those books with loads of interesting ideas where the execution falls a little flat. The concept of the human mother being forced to bear the child of a demon is not at all an original one (Rosemary's Baby, for instance), but there's always room for a novel twist on the idea. In this case, the demon is prevented from taking the child, and the child himself is prevented from total evil, by the unconditional love of his older brother. The mother, on the other hand, sees the child as nothing but a monstrosity and treats him very badly. We're so used to the idea of mothers loving their children no matter what that this is quite a difficult idea to read about, and made me wonder: just how would a mother react to such a child? I'm not convinced that Ashra would be quite so proud of her eldest son and loving towards him, while hating her youngest quite so strongly. And why doesn't Wilhelm, the eldest, notice the difference and lose respect for his mother?
The author has created a wonderfully detailed world as background for this story of two very different brothers. There is a mythology involving a god-love-triangle, and there are throwaway lines about drunken gods and the like which I found very intriguing. Then the Big Bad is referred to as ‘God’ by his head minion, which is interesting too. However, despite some nice little snippets of history, I never quite got a clear picture of how these gods fitted into the current picture, whether they were real or even whether they were good or evil. The rest of the world is obviously just as carefully thought out, but without a map or a little more detail it was hard to see quite what was what. Sometimes as our heroes travelled around the scenery, a character would say: ‘Well, I’ll just pop back to Falar for...’, which always took me by surprise. It’s that close and I never knew? The various towns are nicely differentiated from one another, it’s just me that needs some kind of a visual aid to help me understand the setting. Like a map. [Edit: there's actually rather a nice map provided, which I stupidly missed. Doh!]
There’s magic in this world, but it’s fairly limited in scope. There are just fourteen spells available to mages, they’re difficult to learn and to perform and they bite back if you get them wrong, killing the mage. Even if you get them right, you have to rest for a long time before you can perform them again. The mages actually forget each spell after it’s been used, and have to have a spell-book to remind themselves, which is a cool idea. As if that wasn’t tricky enough, mages are bound by restrictive laws and almost universally despised, so they can be attacked and even killed for no reason other than being mages.
The story follows the lives of two brothers, Wilhelm and Salvarias, the sons of a female mage struggling to make a living. Wilhelm’s father is a mystery, having disappeared shortly after getting Ashra pregnant. Nice guy (not), but he’s supposedly doing something important in the world, and I have no doubt he’ll turn up in a future book. I'm actually quite interested to meet dad, because Wilhelm has inherited some interesting genes. Enormous height and strength, for instance, as well as charm and (it seems) supernatural skills with the ladies (well, I've never heard of a fifteen year old who can perform such prodigious feats).
Salvarias is the demon-child, who inherits his mother’s mage abilities at an unusually early age. This book takes the story from Salvarias’s conception through to his late teens, and there are necessarily big gaps where several years pass between action episodes. The plot is very uneven, depending to a large extent on coincidence and, frankly, deus ex machina at times. The brothers find themselves out on the streets trying to survive, and almost the first person they meet is a friend not seen for many years who turns up out of the blue and looks after them. Other characters who might be expected to help are unaccountably missing when needed. A mage turns up in the nick of time to heal Salvarias, and then vanishes. All of this is very convenient. If there are plot-related reasons for these fortuitous events, they aren’t made clear.
The other characters, who pop up as needed and vanish the rest of the time, are not terribly realistic. They all tend to the handsome/beautiful end of the spectrum, and fall neatly into good or evil categories, without much blurring of the lines. Despite a running theme of who could be trusted, which had me on the watch for a traitor in their midst, there were no dramatic reveals (at least not in this book). The female characters (with the notable exception of Ashra, the mother) are frequently madonna types, sweet and maternal and in need of protection, with the occasional warrior-babe or raunchy type for variety. There's a very odd attitude to the romance element of the book. Wilhelm is much in demand with the ladies (with unlimited stamina, it appears), but as soon as love looms on the horizon, somehow sex is off the agenda. The old madonna/whore dichotomy.
The writing style is oddly awkward at times, with a few characteristic quirks. For instance, characters routinely 'accept' food or hugs, which sounds odd to my ears. Then there's the cloying closeness of the two brothers, where sometimes it seems as if every scene ends with them saying how much they love each other and hugging. There was way too much repetition of phrases, like Wilhelm's tree-like stature. There are numerous small typos scattered throughout, but nothing so egregious as to interfere with readability for me.
I've listed a lot of grumbles with this book, yet I was never tempted to give up on it, and the reason for that was very simple: the deeply compelling character of Salvarias. It's not easy to draw a character which is inherently evil, yet who struggles to overcome that evil every day. His dreams, his internal conversations with his (almost paternal-sounding!) father, his unique approach to life, and even his magic (anthropomorphised here, so that he has long conversations with it), make for a fascinating portrayal. I liked the way that different characters saw him in different ways, so as we moved from one point of view to another, we saw him as essentially evil or deeply charismatic. I was intrigued, too, with the mother, who could be so normally maternal with one son, while hating the other relentlessly. This is an uneven book, which would have benefited from tighter editing and (perhaps) losing some of its bulk. I found it frustratingly flawed, yet still a rewarding read. Three stars.(less)
This is the third in the ‘Lirieia’s Children’ trilogy, following on from ‘Prophecy’ and ‘Affirmation’. The first was a slightly wob...moreFantasy Review Barn
This is the third in the ‘Lirieia’s Children’ trilogy, following on from ‘Prophecy’ and ‘Affirmation’. The first was a slightly wobbly beginning, but the second was much more readable, for me, with tighter writing, plenty of action, and well-drawn characters. It ended with our heroes on the brink of battle.
It’s a year since I read ‘Affirmation’, and many other books have passed through my Kindle since. While I remember the main characters and the general drift of the story, the details are gone, and life’s too short to reread everything before the next volume. Unfortunately, the author makes no concession to readers like me at all. There’s no synopsis, virtually no in-text reminders. Here’s the opening paragraph:
“Their excitement was beginning to diminish, rapidly becoming replaced by exhaustion. Surveying the battlefield from the air, they cautiously allowed the bubble of Translocation energy they held to dissipate. The enemy archers were either dead or had fled and the last of the enemy forces were rapidly retreating through the Lord Defender’s Translocation portal, harried by Jurel’s Gryffin Guard.”
Any clues as to who ‘they’ might be? Believe it or not, it’s several pages before the identity of the opening characters becomes clear, and I struggled to keep up during the early chapters. Some of it came back to me as I read, but there are still mysteries; there’s a man called Ben, described regularly as a ‘jolly smith’, who was picked up by some of the characters in a previous book. Have I any idea how they met, or why he tagged along? Not in the slightest. Does it matter? Probably not, but it still sets me on edge.
Fortunately, I was able to pick up enough as I went along, either from clues in the text, or dredged from memory, to follow along, although I daresay I lost some of the subtleties. The main characters are Anarion, the half human, half Orryn, mage, and Teryl, his telepathically linked Gryffin pal. The various races are one of the great joys of this series. They each have their own unique characteristics, and the author is brilliant at applying them, through behaviour and dialogue. It’s possible to read a piece of dialogue out of context and know exactly what race was speaking, and that sureness never faltered. The different magic systems between the Orryn (who have innate magical capability) and humans (who power their magic through stones) is fascinating, and one of the key themes of the story. I was disappointed, however, that the tiny Grovale (the Gryffins’ servants) made no appearance in this book. I would have liked to know more about them.
The minor characters are more problematic. This is the downside of including several races, in that there are vast numbers of named characters, few of whom actually stand out. There were some I knew nothing about, not even what race they were. There were some who were more than just walk-on parts. Shayla was a great character, and her dealings with the Lord Defender (the villain of the piece) were brilliantly written, entirely in keeping with the personalities of both and very moving. Kaidal was another with a stand-out part to play.
And here we come to the main problem with this volume of the trilogy. The plot comes down to the question of how to defeat the Lord Defender. Since the major battle of the series was in book 2, and Anarion and his pals have run off to hide out in the desert away from his reach, the entire book revolves around planning to tackle the Lord Defender head on, and the best means to do that. Chapter after chapter involved large groups of people simply sitting around discussing the various options, and arguing about them. There was virtually no action, apart from the odd diversion for Anarion and Teryl to frolic with their lady friends, or a couple of experimental forays.
Eventually, however, we get to the final confrontation and suddenly things become interesting again. The resolution is both entirely appropriate for the races involved and yet quite unexpected, and I applaud the author for not taking the easy way out, but following the story to its logical conclusion. There is a teeny bit of arm-waving out-of-nowhere-ness, but even that made sense in the context of the story. And there are some really deep themes buried beneath all the magical portals and illusions and 'knowings', about what it really means to be human.
I find this a very frustrating review to write. This is a book which is brimming with creativity. It's taken some very original ideas and developed them in a logical and thought-provoking way. It could have been a great book, something I could happily give 5* to. It's a diamond of a story, but unfortunately it's an unpolished diamond. All the elements are there: great characters, great world-building, a great plot and magnificent attention to detail. The downside of attention to detail, though, is a tendency to throw in every little conversation and tie-up every conceivable plot thread, all at excessive length. With some editorial buffing, and excision of some of that wordiness, it could have been a true gem.
For those who aren’t bothered by the often dry wordiness, I can highly recommend the whole series. I enjoyed it and was captivated by the Orryn, the Gryffin and their very well drawn racial differences, and the ending was excellent. However, the flaws in this book in particular kept it to three stars for me.(less)
The first book in this series, ‘The Duchess of the Shallows’, was a breath of fresh air, a fantasy work set in a single city, with...moreFantasy Review Barn
The first book in this series, ‘The Duchess of the Shallows’, was a breath of fresh air, a fantasy work set in a single city, with compelling characters and a beautifully woven plot, filled with double-dealing and double meanings, where nothing and nobody can be taken quite at face value. I could say that this is more of the same, which is true as far as it goes, but it doesn’t do the book justice. This time we begin to see far more of the underpinnings of the city, both literally (the maze of tunnels and caves dating back much further than the present regime) and in political terms, as Duchess is drawn into the orbit of the upper echelons of society. The three main religions also feature heavily, and we learn a lot more of the history of the city and of Duchess herself. If this sounds like a lot of ground to cover, it is, but the authors skillfully weave the many different strands together to create a brilliantly nuanced picture of Rodaas and its people, which comes alive in a way that the first book didn’t quite manage, for me.
Unlike the first book, which had a single audacious theft as its heart, this one has multiple plot threads. For one, Duchess decides to set up business with a talented young weaver who is unable to get guild membership because she’s not Rodaasi. I found the motivation for this move a bit unclear; it seemed rather an odd thing for Duchess to want to do. However, Jana, the weaver, is a lovely addition to the character list, and her Domae culture adds depth to the story. Then there's a ring stolen by dodgy gaming practices to retrieve, and a scheme to provide Duchess with a skilled swordsman as a bodyguard. Again, the bodyguard scheme seemed an odd thing for Duchess to want to do. While it led to some exciting moments, and the bodyguard came in very handy for a couple of incidents (a warrior-type is a great addition to the book, in my opinion), but then at a crucial moment he leaves Duchess on her own. It struck me as being a bit implausible (methinks I smell a plot device). However, all of these are dealt with in Duchess's usual audacious style (read: almost impossible to pull off), so there’s plenty of action along the way.
These various schemes, however credible or otherwise they may be, give Duchess the excuse to move around the city, and it is her adventures in the various districts and below the surface that bring the book to vivid and dramatic life. Some of her encounters are unforgettable: the strange candlelit ceremony at one temple, the meeting with the facet (priestess) in another and the events underground, for instance. The facets are a truly spine-chilling invention, a sort of hive-mind of masked women, all identical, and there’s a moment near the end, when the hive-mind slips slightly, which is awesome.
The characters are as believable as always. Lysander is (as before) my favourite, but I liked Jana and Castor (the bodyguard), too. Duchess makes a very sympathetic lead, although she’s a little reckless for my taste. Is that a hint of a romantic interest for Duchess in Dorian? Even the minor characters have a complexity which is refreshing, and add depth to the story.
What didn’t work so well for me? As with the first book, I found the convoluted plot threads a tad too tricky to follow all the time, so there were references along the way that I just didn’t get. Sometimes there would be a line revealing some possibly crucial information (‘Ah, so that’s what so-and-so meant...’), which just whizzed over my head altogether. There is also the constant problem that everyone Duchess encounters may possibly be double-crossing her, so I tend to regard every new character as potentially hostile. I found myself always waiting for the double-cross from them. In fact, mostly they were surprisingly helpful and even charming, perfectly willing to further Duchess’s ends, while (obviously) working for their own ends as well. In some ways, everything was a little too easy for Duchess, as things fell into place rather readily. The retrieval of the ring, for instance, was a real let-down.
One issue that bothered me was the bodyguard, whose name started as Pollux and then changed to Castor, with an overt reference to the mythological twins. Does this mean, then, that we are in our own world at some future point? Or perhaps this is an alternate world, that happens to have some common history. Either way, it jolted me out of the story altogether for a while.
A highlight for me was the uncovering of some of Duchess's family history. For the first time, there is some detail about what actually happened when her father died and she was torn away from the safety of her family. More significantly, we learn what should have happened that night, and some of what went wrong. The suggestion that perhaps her brother and sister may have survived too opens up all sorts of intriguing possibilities.
As with the first book, the authors have pulled off an impeccable blend of mystery, action and world-building, combined with compelling characters about whom it's all too easy to care deeply. Who could be unmoved by Lysander and his friends, dealing with tragedy in the only way they can; or by Duchess, accepting the truth about Lysander for the first time, or realising the sort of life she might have had if events had gone otherwise, and coming to terms with her life as it now is? And then there was her final meeting with one of the facets, which was truly heartbreaking. This is a polished and cleverly thought out book which would repay a second read to understand all the nuances and subtexts. Highly recommended for those who like depth to their fantasy. A very good four stars.(less)
The author’s steampunk series, ‘The Emperor’s Edge’, has built up quite a following, but this is something very different, the star...moreFantasy Review Barn
The author’s steampunk series, ‘The Emperor’s Edge’, has built up quite a following, but this is something very different, the start of an urban fantasy [*] series, set the southwestern US. The setting may be different, but the principle is the same: a collection of interesting characters, a pacy action-packed adventure with loads of unexpected twists and some great humour.
Here’s the starting point: archaeology drop-out Delia and geek Simon are trying to get a business off the ground discovering buried artifacts and flogging them to collectors. Temi is a old friend of Delia’s, a former tennis pro on hard times. There’s also another old friend who handily analyses DNA samples when necessary, and a couple of weird guys on Harleys. Oh, and a monster. A going-round-randomly-killing-people-in-the-dead-of-night type monster. When Our Heroes stumble across a body in a cave, they find themselves sucked into a bizarre monster-hunting expedition. And when I say ‘sucked into’, I mean, of course, that they rush around following mysterious footprints or bloodtrails or exploring underground caverns with wilful disregard for their own safety.
For the first half of this book, I felt like I was reading the script for one of those cheap summer horror movies. Monster. Check. Bunch of nice, harmless kids. Check. Lots of stalking, screaming and desperate attempts to escape. Check. Yes, it’s all a bit cheesy but then there are some wait-what? moments. The two Harley riders who speak no known language (‘It’s not Klingon’, says the linguistics professor, deadpan). The non-human blood. The magic glowing sword (I kid you not). And the monster’s made of what? And the humour made me laugh out loud, which is always a plus, in my book.
The characters don’t sparkle yet, but this is the first in the series, and it’s hard to squeeze in all the character-building background when Our Heroes are frantically trying to escape the monster’s claws. Simon is a stock geek, more interested in apps and gadgets and blog posts than common sense, and a bit awkward with the ladies. Delia - well, I don’t get much of an impression of Delia. Both of them are far too ready to go careering after monsters or mysteriously hostile men, but then there wouldn’t be much of a story if they weren’t. Temi is more interesting, with her falling out with her family, her tennis and the sudden loss of that, and another mysterious quality which I won’t reveal but it’s intriguing. She was a little uneven, on the one hand perfectly ready to dive into whatever adventure the other two were haring off on, but also the voice of reality: “Guys, is this a sensible thing to do?” But if the main trio fell slightly flat, the two men on Harleys more than made up for it. I do like ultra-mysterious but very cool blokes. And there is one other character now on the loose that I am very much looking forward to seeing again.
This is a slightly lumpy start to the series, but that’s a very common problem. Once the characters settle down and start to gel I’m sure a lot of the rough edges will be smoothed away. For now, this is a straightforward, lightweight adventure caper, easy to read and a lot of fun, especially once the main chase begins, around the halfway point. There are a number of implausibilities, but, for me anyway, the humour more than makes up for it. The modern setting allows for a lot of quick-fire jokes, which you don’t actually need to be a Trekkie to appreciate (although maybe it helps). I wavered between three and four stars, but I’ll be generous on the grounds that a new series always needs time to iron out the kinks. Four stars.
[*] Look, the author self-defines it as urban fantasy, OK? So I'll go with that. But honestly, I don’t know what the hell it is - sci-fi or fantasy or paranormal or some wild mash-up of all of them. And honestly, it doesn’t really matter what you call it.(less)
This is the fourth part of a six-book series, and if that sounds like a Wheel-of-Time-esque slog, it’s not as bad as it sounds. The...moreFantasy Review Barn
This is the fourth part of a six-book series, and if that sounds like a Wheel-of-Time-esque slog, it’s not as bad as it sounds. The series was planned as a trilogy, which is standard fantasy fare, and it was the publisher’s decision to split it into six smaller books. Whether that was a wise move or not is a moot point.
I read the first two books (‘Chained’ and ‘Quest’) as the originally intended single volume, and I loved the epic-standard world-building, the array of well-rounded characters and the literate writing style. The third book (‘Secrets’), worked less well for me as the complexity increased, and the action began to dominate. This book starts well. It’s always a problem with a series as complex as this to get the reader up to speed on the events of previous books. Some authors sprinkle little reminders here and there, and some don’t feel the need to bother (we’re presumed to have encyclopedic memories, presumably, or to reread everything before the new release - well, stuff that, life’s too short). But Kitson produces perhaps the most creative approach yet to the problem, having the characters fill the reader in, and all in their own inimitable style. Way to go.
Everything I liked about the previous books is all here. The world has awesome depth and breadth, the characters feel real, the writing is as good as ever if slightly overblown at times, and there’s a touch of humour here and there. The magic system is simple enough: elemental magic powered by crystals or gems, but with wild magic thrown into the mix as well. The things I liked less well are also here: the evil villains bent on global domination, the hordes of mindless minions, the over-the-top action scenes with mages hurling fireballs at each other (although the earth mages were quite fun).
The risk with creating a full-blown epic fantasy in the traditional style is that sooner or later the complexity grows to such a level that it’s liable to overwhelm the story. There’s a moment to pull back and start drawing the threads together again, but unfortunately Kitson hasn’t yet reached that point. The characters that I loved so well in the first book are here choked by the need to move the plot along and rarely have time to breathe between bouts of action. With characters this well-realised, there needs to be time for them to express some emotional depth, otherwise they become caricatures, wheeled onstage as plot devices and then smartly pushed off again to make way for the next battle. Sadly, I never felt engaged by the characters; the romantic entanglement seemed contrived, and the deaths were dealt with in an almost perfunctory fashion. Even the world-building feels stifling here. It pains me to say this when a world is so brilliantly conceived down to the last detail, but I could have done with a little less history and fewer info-dumps (although they were mercifully short).
Perhaps the worst problem for me is that the plot has become predictable. Time after time our heroes find themselves in an impossible situation, overwhelmed by the enemy, yet miraculously manage to pull through. Even grievous injuries barely seem to slow them down. There were one or two nice twists at the end but otherwise I could see everything that had to happen, and I’m not the most astute of readers.
This may sound very negative, but I want to make it quite clear that this is a purely personal perspective. I look for character-driven fantasy first and foremost, and here the characters have become subservient to the action. But everything that didn’t work for me is something that another reader would find awesome. For anyone who relishes a well-written traditional epic fantasy with multiple bands of characters roving across the landscape on intertwining quests, heroes facing impossible odds, humungous battles full of wizardry and an array of evil-to-the-core bad guys, this is definitely the series for you. Enjoy! But for me it was only two stars. (less)
This is rather a short book, closer to a novella than a full-length novel, but it packs a hefty punch for its size. Eurik is a huma...moreFantasy Review Barn
This is rather a short book, closer to a novella than a full-length novel, but it packs a hefty punch for its size. Eurik is a human who was found as a baby in a boat with his dead parents, and raised by a non-human island-based society called the San. Ah, the orphan of unknown heritage story, that's always a good one, if a little over-used. The opening chapters, where we see Eurik living amongst the very alien San, are terrific. I'm a big fan of non-human societies, and this one has been very well thought out. But then, sadly, Eurik is given the living sword of the title, the only possession found on the boat, and told he has to leave the island to find out what happened to his parents, and where they came from. This means living amongst humans for the first time, a race (or species, maybe?) he's previously only read about in books.
The humans, frankly, are less interesting, because their way of life is very similar to that of millions of other fantasy human societies. It’s the differences, the idiosyncrasies of this world that make it interesting. Fortunately, the author doesn't belabour the idea that the human world is very new to Eurik. He's well read, so he manages to recognise many ordinary items (bread, for instance) from book descriptions. It would be tedious if every common item he saw was described through his eyes as something novel and strange. Still, he does seem to accept things very quickly, without too many ‘whoa! whatever’s that’ outbreaks.
There’s some nice world-building going on here, with various different races and languages and customs which have clearly been well developed. The author doesn’t infodump all this background, it’s simply there, and the reader just has to keep up with the various references to the unknown. Sometimes, there’s an explanation later or the meaning becomes clear, but there were a few times when just a little extra detail would have made it easier to follow and increased the richness of the world. For instance, there are throwaway lines about the San being ‘tree-people’ and ‘genderless’. Hold it right there, that sounds interesting, tell me more. But no, the story moves swiftly on.
I very much liked the two forms of magic being used, or rather one form of magic and one which is merely a different philosophy (I liked Eurik’s insistance that the amazing things he can do, purely through his mind, is not magic). The San method of steering a boat is particularly clever, and it’s amazing just how much can be achieved by shifting earth about. It’s clear the author has worked things out very carefully, and there are rules and limits and costs involved. And for those who like wizardy-type battles, there are some absolute crackers in here.
The characters fell a little flat, for me. Eurik, in particular, is a very unemotional bloke, and considering all that happens to him and the fact that he’s tossed out of the world he’s known from babyhood and into a very different world, he seems almost implausibly stoical. Some of his actions, too, are just too relaxed, such as when he decides to talk to the fighting San by signing up for the contest and walking out into the arena. I can’t believe this was the only way he could get to see the San. Admittedly, it led to a great scene, but it seemed to me that Eurik was far too calm about it. I would have liked to see a little more reaction from him at times. He gets involved in some truly terrifying incidents along the way, so a little bit of fear at the time and angst afterwards would make him more human. Or maybe that’s the point, that he’s been so well taught by the San that he has lost some of his humanity. In which case, that was a bit too subtly done, since it’s only just occurred to me. Doh.
Of the other characters, the only one that most stands out in my mind is Broken-Fang. Gotta love a captured female who doesn’t wait around to be rescued. There are some interesting side characters along the way too, and I have to give an honourable mention to one of the most important characters, the living sword himself. He (can a sword have a gender? I certainly thought of it as male) has a very distinct and entertaining personality all his own, although his inexplicable lack of knowledge until the plot requires it veers dangerously close to deus ex machina. There are some villains, but they simply appear out of nowhere and their motives seem a bit suspect.
The plot is rather episodic, with spells of furious magic-fuelled battles interspersed with ambling through the scenery or finding inns and such like. The book has a somewhat unfinished air, and seems quite disjointed. For instance, a section starts off: “They entered Campan together, passing the watchtower they'd seen from afar.” There’s virtually no description of Campan itself (it’s a town, as we find out a few lines later, but when I first saw the name, it could be almost anything - a country, a swamp, a fort, a castle...), and no warning beforehand that they were heading that way. This is very jarring (I actually searched to find out if I’d missed an earlier reference). A line or two linking the previous section to the arrival at Campan would help the book flow better. There are a number of places where a few extra lines of description would help to bridge these gaps. The writing is fairly untidy, with numerous punctuation errors, misplaced words and a couple of wrongly used words (shoulders instead of soldiers, feint instead of faint). This didn’t bother me unduly (I’m more of a grammar pedant), but some might find it distracting.
This is a difficult book to review. On the one hand, I enjoyed it a great deal, especially everything to do with the San and their ‘philosophical’ form of magic. The world-building was good, and the plot was full of drama. On the other hand, the choppiness of the writing, the sloppy editing and the lack of background information in places, often jarred me out of immersion. Still, I was never tempted to stop reading and the action moments were very good, even if sometimes events seemed a bit contrived. Three stars.(less)
There's always a worry with an author's follow-up to a spectacular debut. Whether you loved or hated the Broken Empire trilogy (Pri...moreFantasy Review Barn
There's always a worry with an author's follow-up to a spectacular debut. Whether you loved or hated the Broken Empire trilogy (Prince/King/Emperor of Thorns), it was hard to ignore and for a while it seemed as if the entire book reading world was in a frenzy about gloriously bad boy, Jorg. So how do you follow something like that? Not with a sequel, that's for sure, because Emperor of Thorns rounded off the story with an unequivocal 'The End'.
So here we are with - not quite a prequel, either. A sort of concurrentquel, if you like. Set in the same world as Broken Empire, but a different part of it with different characters and an independent story, but interweaving to some extent with events of that story. And even the title follows the same pattern; after 'Prince of Fools', will there be a 'King of Fools' and an 'Emperor of Fools' as well? This isn't a good sign, and indeed the book is littered with encounters with the Broken Empire characters. Frankly, I wasn’t so enamoured of most of them that I’m going to be squeeing with delight at meeting them again (although the encounter with Brother Emmer was very funny). Then there are the knowing references to the previous trilogy, like this: Dropping into a thorn bush can lead to no end of grief. Oh, how terribly droll.
So, how does this work out? First big problem is that we already know a great deal about the world and its history. The background that was so deliciously revealed, drop by drop, over the previous three volumes is now out in the open, so the thrill of discovery is lost. It's not that there's nothing new to find out, but (to my mind) once a setting is revealed as just our own world, tenuously placed a thousand years after a major catastrophe, it loses some of its charm. The more real world the setting, the less interesting it is. And some of the customs and quirks which which have (apparently) survived intact after a millennium of anarchy are surprising. The Catholic Church, for instance. And Vikings? Really? Complete with horned helmets? Fantasy requires more suspension of disbelief than most genres, but that stretches my credulity beyond its snapping point.
But never mind the setting, what about the characters? Jorg was such a towering personality it would be impossible to repeat, and the two main characters here are very different. Sadly, they're far from unique. Jalan is fantasy archetype number 27, the dissolute playboy prince, without a serious thought in his head. He's also archetype number 43, the accidental hero, who distinguishes himself in a crisis by running away/falling over and thereby quite inadvertantly managing to kill or capture the bad guy, or otherwise save the day. And the second main character, Snorri the Viking, is archetype number 7, the big, muscular, warrior type, who lays about with an axe and destroys armies single handed.
Now, don't get me wrong, I like archetypes as much as the next reader, and Snorri in particular is quite awesome (Snorri and the bear... oh boy, a highlight of the year; I do so love it when a book surprises me). Jalan, however, isn't quite as successful, mainly because although his charm was much talked about (by him, naturally), it didn't come across too well on the page. Mostly I just found him tedious and whiny, although he does have a way with witty one-liners.
Another issue is the female characters. Tolkien defines three of the four principle archetypes in fantasy; the unattainable princess (Arwen), the warrior babe (Eowyn) and the scary witchy lady (Galadriel). Recent custom has added the whore to the collection. Lawrence has two scary witchy ladies, the Red Queen, who's admittedly more scary and cryptic (in an overpowering, hectoring, schoolmistressy way) than witchy, and the Silent Sister, who's pure undiluted scary witchy, the stuff of nightmares. Necromancer Chella merits a mention, too, and she’s also pretty scary. Then there are a few women who bounce in and out of Jalan's life, without ever being more than sex objects (which is in character for him, so let that pass). However, the elephant rider deserves an honourable mention for being more than an archetype.
And then there are zombies. Now, if you’re the sort of reader who wakes up at this point, thinking: ‘Wait, there are zombies in this? Great, I’m in!’, then you’re probably not going to agree with me here, but honestly, folks, zombies are just so dull and uninteresting and unoriginal and plain naff. Their only purpose is to provide a horde of mindless things who are trying to kill Our Heroes, and who are virtually impossible to kill themselves. It ramps up the tension artificially, but naturally, we all know that Our Heroes will prevail in the end. I can see the point in a video game, but in a novel? Puh-lease.
Shall I mention the plot? Better had. This is a quest/road trip/male bonding/coming of age adventure. Only with lots and lots of ice-bound wilderness and snow. And zombies. That’s probably all anyone needs to know about the plot. You’ll pick it up as you go along.
This seems like a lot of negatives, doesn't it? What saves it is that Lawrence can write. Every sentence is a carefully crafted work of art, and there are occasional phrases and even single perfectly-judged words, which light up the page like shafts of sunshine peeking from between the clouds. And it's funny, too, the same laugh-out-loud humour which shone through even Jorg's most despicable acts. Despite the world being known and the archetypes and the unoriginal plot and the wretched zombies and the endless snow, the thing is always compellingly readable.
The ending is good fun in an over the top, just one more even badder thing to defeat, sort of way, heaping one impossible-to-survive disaster on another. It was kind of exciting, but I was never convinced that Jalan and pals were totally screwed (it's a trilogy, hint, hint), and some of the twists were blindingly obvious (although fortunately not all, or it would have been very dull). I confess I got a little tired of the we're-safe-oh-no-we're-not repetition, combined with the sheer volume of blood and guts and dismemberment and the whole undead unpleasantness. This is definitely more on the horror end of the spectrum.
Is it as good as the Broken Empire books? For my money, no, it doesn’t quite have that breath-taking brilliance that blew me away. But in many ways it’s a more conventional book, and for a lot of readers who struggled with Jorg, that will make it a more enjoyable exercise. For me, for whom Jorg was a revelation, this was a very slightly disappointing come down. Three stars. Although... Snorri and the bear merit another half a star, at least, so let’s round up to four stars.(less)
I love the premise here: every twelve years twelve people are chosen for a ritual; they wake one morning to find a coloured stone b...moreFantasy Review Barn
I love the premise here: every twelve years twelve people are chosen for a ritual; they wake one morning to find a coloured stone beside them, or under their pillow. They then have to travel to the capital, throw their stones into a waterfall and one will then be magically selected as a sacrificial victim, to appease something (or someone?) known as the Gloom. This is such an intriguing idea, especially given the variety of people chosen by the stones: a simpleton, a rapist and murderer, an elderly swordsman, a slave woman, a young girl, the king's only son... This is fascinating, not only for the question of how all this works, but also why? Why are things done this way? And what exactly will happen if the ritual fails? There are hints, but no clear answers. Of course, there's a lot more going on below the surface, with conspiracies and deception, and a plot to defeat the Gloom once and for all.
The first point of view character is Marybeth, one of the Order, a group which oversees the process of the ritual, magically empowered to ensure the compliance of the selected twelve. Then there's Rhact, an ordinary man in the village Marybeth is watching, whose daughter Janna is one of the chosen ones, and who isn't about to accept that without a fight. These two points of view give a very nice dual perspective on Marybeth: we see her first as a member of a group working to ensure that the country can continue peaceably by the sacrifice of a single person, a necessary evil that works for the good of all, while also hoping to put an end to the ritual altogether; but we also see her through Rhact's eyes as an evil witch, a terrifying person inflicting untold harm on families and communities. This is nicely done.
There’s also the king, Jacquard, who tries to rule generously and not be a ruthless tyrant, but finds himself at risk of rebellion by his warlords for weakness. His son Althalos is nicely drawn, too. The other characters are less than convincing. Some are complete caricatures, like the rapist or the slave woman's evil master or the simpleton. Some just lack depth. Everyone is either good or bad, with no in between at all. Not that bad means unspeakably evil, necessarily, sometimes it just means silly and feckless, but still, there are few shades of grey. Even when characters change over the course of the book, the switch is absolute: a totally evil person is redeemed to become a hero, while a good person is so overwhelmed by revenge that all normal human feeling is lost, and they become evil. This is less than subtle.
To my mind, the female characters seemed to have less active roles than the men. To start with, the women are largely wenches or nervous mothers or cowed daughters or silly bits of girls who squeal. Or else they are witches, or otherwise evil. There's Marybeth, for a start, ostensibly a very active character, and we see her doing some very courageous things. Why does she do them? Initially because of her father, and latterly because some random dude, more powerful than her, told her to. Doesn't she have a mind of her own? Fortunately, there are also quite a few moments where women stand up and take charge, sometimes to shocking effect, when the men can’t or won’t. For instance, Janna, Rhact's daughter, has a brave moment, doing what needs to be done when the travelling party is attacked by bandits. And I did like the female assassin. I’d happily read a whole book about her.
The world-building is rather good, and clearly a lot of thought has gone into the details. I like the three moons of different colours, which clearly have a big influence on everything, as well as inspiring the various religions. We’re in the standard pre-industrial pseudo-medieval world, with the usual patriarchal overtones, but there are some nice details too. For instance, a woman’s period is known as being visited by the red moon. The magic is largely unexplained, but there are some nice non-human things around, and the Gloom, when we finally get a good look at it, is suitably scary.
The writing style is serviceable rather than ornate, but it lacks polish. In some places clauses are written as if they were sentences, elsewhere sentences are shunted together. There are some anachronistic expressions used, such as the king spending 'quality time' with his son, and Rhact's son having 'teenage' moodiness (the concept of teenagers is very recent; in a pre-industrial age, thirteen-year-olds would be doing the work of an adult, with neither time nor energy for moods). I find these modern colloquialisms jarring, but that’s just me. There there was the horse who was 'saddled' in order to pull a wagon (harnessed would be a better word). Much of the backstory and descriptions of feelings, particularly surrounding the king, are told narratively, which keeps the tone flat. However, there are moments of eloquent description as well. A warning for those sensitive to such things: there’s some earthy language, and some fairly graphic acts of violence and other unpleasantness.
None of it matters too much, however, because the plot is an absolute cracker and gallops along in a breath-taking page-turning manner. The moment of the actual ritual, when the various conspiracies and secrets and deceits all clash together at once, is terrific. I had absolutely no idea what was going to happen, my eyes glued to the pages. After that it’s a mad dash to restore the realm to some kind of stability before everything falls apart, but there are plenty of unexpected and dramatic twists before the final confrontation, which also sets things up nicely for the next book. There were some confusing moments, not helped by the need to give names and backstories to all twelve of the stone-holders, as well as all the king’s knights. So many characters are easy to forget, and I would have liked a little reminder when each one reappeared. This was particularly troublesome at the ritual, when characters were described only as ‘the boy’ or ‘two men’ or ‘the elderly woman’. I’m still not quite sure who was on whose side. And who exactly was that random dude who sent Marybeth off on her little quest?
This is a fun and imaginative story, not subtle but well thought out, with plenty of action and some nicely moving moments too, written in an easy style, marred only by some flatness in the writing and some over-the-top cartoonish characterisations amongst the walk-on parts. For those who aren’t concerned about that, I recommend this book, but for me it was enough to keep it to three stars.(less)
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...moreFantasy 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.(less)
Ah, that difficult middle book of the trilogy! The one that carries all the baggage of the first without the freshness, while also...moreFantasy 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’...(less)
I’m a huge fan of the author, having given five stars to both ‘Thorn’ and ‘Sunbolt’, so this was a must-have for me. It’s a charmin...moreFantasy Review Barn
I’m a huge fan of the author, having given five stars to both ‘Thorn’ and ‘Sunbolt’, so this was a must-have for me. It’s a charming little short story, a prequel to a future novel, with all the author’s trademarks: great characters, a well-defined setting and an intriguing plot, beautifully written, creating an altogether beguiling experience.
Rae is the eldest of three sisters, who live with their parents. No, the main character isn’t an orphan, isn’t mistreated and actually has a great relationship with her siblings and parents, a refreshing change from so much fantasy. But Niya, the middle sister, has a secret: a talent for magic, which she uses in delightfully domestic ways, enhancing the bread or the stitches in the curtains. But in this world, magic-users are obliged to be trained as mages and serve the king, so Niya has to keep her ability hidden. Into this placid setting comes potential trouble, a man wanting to buy horses. He just happens to be a faerie...
It’s difficult in a short story to create characters who have any real depth, but the author carries this off with aplomb. Rae, the girl with a clubfoot, sneered at and ignored by the villagers, is also intelligent and resourceful. The rest of the family have their own distinctive personalities. But the star of the show is the faerie, a creature both frightening and eerily compelling at the same time, and very much ‘other’, something not human. He steals every scene he’s in, frankly, and I hope we see more of him in the full-length novel.
My only quibble with the story is that the villagers seem to be rather different from Rae and her family. In short, they are somewhat lacking in common sense, and I’m not sure why they are so overtly hostile towards the faerie, when Rae’s father is quite happy to do business with him. It may be that there’s some reason behind that, which isn’t being made clear, but it struck me as odd. It’s a very small point, however.
I really enjoyed this, but be warned: it is very short, and stopped at 47% on my Kindle, the rest being taken up with samples of the author’s other works. A good four stars.(less)