I’m a sucker for a portal story, where the main character falls through some sort of access point into - well, whatever the authorFantasy Review Barn
I’m a sucker for a portal story, where the main character falls through some sort of access point into - well, whatever the author cares to imagine (past, future, parallel world, some other planet altogether). It’s always fun to watch the character work out what’s happened, and trying to deal with the new setting. It can be trite, but there’s always room for a fresh take on the idea.
Jessica has always been an outsider. She’s taller than average, for one thing, not very womanly in shape, has some odd birthmarks, and then there’s the whole web of light thing she does with her mind. Useful for dealing with truculent bulls, but it can kill, too, and she’s still not sure how to cope with it. And then one day, something odd happens and the small plane she’s in crashes somewhere weird. As in very weird.
Straight away I like that the inhabitants of this weird place don’t automatically speak English. And they have tails! Yay for humanoids with tails. Although some of their customs do seem to be very, very odd... But they're not the only people around. This is, in fact, a very complex place, with a number of different species (or sub-species or races, not sure exactly how it works), and some complicated political arrangements. And Jessica is thrust into the middle of it all, seen as a saviour by more than one faction, but not necessarily for good reasons.
I'll confess I didn't always know exactly what was going on. Some aspects were deliberately mysterious, like Jessica's strange mental connection to the man called Daya, and sometimes characters were keeping information from her or outright lying, which made it difficult to follow. Then there was Jessica's web-like power, which I never fully understood. But the story swept me along and I never worried too much about the details.
Jessica herself is a gloriously independent-minded, spiky individual, the ideal focus for a story like this because she constantly asks the obvious questions that also spring to the reader's mind. She doesn't always get a straight answer, but at least she asks, and she keeps on asking. She also makes efforts to avoid being manipulated too much by the people around her, but it's difficult to know who to trust in this strange new world. She also has to come to terms with her powers and the revelations of her heritage, and that's a lot to take in.
It was disappointing that such an otherwise intelligent, sensible and together character ended up drawn into sexual relationships which only served to complicate everything. I wasn't sufficiently drawn to either of the men to be rooting for either of them. Really I was only rooting for Jessica, and longing for her to stand up to both of them and tell them to ^&*% off and leave her alone until she's sorted out which way is up in this strange new world.
The ending was the usual dramatic high-action affair, with a few things sorted out but plenty of scope for further developments in the series. Overall an enjoyable read, with bonus points for the originality of the setting. Four stars....more
This is one of those British-based police procedural books where the author did pretty much everything right - interesting characters, a nice (but notThis is one of those British-based police procedural books where the author did pretty much everything right - interesting characters, a nice (but not gory) murder mystery/kidnapping, some intriguing reveals along the way - all in a pleasant, undemanding style. I enjoyed the read but it never quite caught fire for me, somehow.
The central character is Kate Redman, a detective with a history, starting a new job with a case involving a disappearing baby and a murdered nanny. The parents are a workaholic self-made businessman and his Z-list celebrity wife. Kate has to unravel the mystery while staying on the right side of her new colleagues and keeping her past firmly out of sight.
None of this is particularly radical, but the methodical police work rustles up enough clues to keep the pages turning. The writing style is sometimes pedestrian: whenever our trusty detectives meet with potential suspects, greetings are exchanged, cups of tea are offered, chitchat is documented in exhaustive (and sometimes exhausting) detail.
However, it never gets too slow, and the characters are drawn with a light hand, with just enough detail to bring them to life. The settings are described in a more minimalist way. For instance, the police station is said to be “a charmless, redbrick sixties building”, which Brits can visualise instantly, but non-Brits might have more trouble with. There’s some low-key British humour, as well, which is easy to miss.
The conclusion was fine, with a nice build-up to the reveal of the culprit and a not too over-the-top dramatic climax, nicely resolved. After which the cops all sat round in the pub explaining everything to each other. Guys, we got it, OK? There were only one or two missing pieces that needed an explanation at that point.
And then - one of my pet hates - the story ended at the 86% mark, and the rest was filled in with a chapter of a different book altogether. Sigh. This always makes me feel short-changed. I might well buy the next book in the series, but it will be because I enjoyed this one, not because the author has sneaked a chapter into this book.
My book group has a sadistic streak. They recommend chick lit and Booker prize winners and other deeply worthy stuff, and turn their noses up at perfeMy book group has a sadistic streak. They recommend chick lit and Booker prize winners and other deeply worthy stuff, and turn their noses up at perfectly good fantasy. Why? I can’t understand it. ‘Wolf Hall’ would have been so much better with dragons in it (everything’s better with dragons). And here’s another of their good ideas: let’s do a proper classic. Now, I’d struggled with Hardy at school, but that was a long time ago. Surely it will be better now, with my greater maturity. So here’s the opening paragraph and a bit:
“One evening of late summer, before the nineteenth century had reached one-third of its span, a young man and woman, the latter carrying a child, were approaching the large village of Weydon-Priors, in Upper Wessex, on foot. They were plainly but not ill clad, though the thick hoar of dust which had accumulated on their shoes and garments from an obviously long journey lent a disadvantageous shabbiness to their appearance just now.
The man was of fine figure, swarthy, and stern in aspect; and he showed in profile a facial angle so slightly inclined as to be almost perpendicular. He wore a short jacket of brown corduroy, newer than the remainder of his suit, which was a fustian waistcoat with white horn buttons, breeches of the same, tanned leggings, and a straw hat overlaid with black glazed canvas....”
Right. This is going to need a lot of wine.
Now, the language is (not surprisingly) old-fashioned, since it was written in 1886. It’s not that difficult to follow, but it isn’t as readable as Jane Austen, who wrote more than half a century earlier. It’s quite dull, however, for a great deal of it is focused on turgid descriptions of the scenery. I know Hardy is famous for his poetic descriptions, but it’s that heavy mid-Victorian poetry that’s very much an acquired taste. And I haven’t acquired it.
Beneath the verbiage, there’s an interesting plot going on. A man gets drunk at a fair and sells his wife and child to a passing sailor for five guineas. Twenty years later, when he’s the eponymous mayor, the wife and daughter return. In the meantime, the man has had a liaison with another woman and promised to marry her, and when the wife dies she, too, turns up. To make the romantic entanglements complete, there’s a bright young Scotsman who becomes the mayor’s protégé, then falls out with him, and attracts both the daughter and the mistress. And that’s enough plot.
There are enough complications there to keep the average soap opera going for years. The most appealing aspect, to me, is that all the characters are well-meaning and trying very hard to do the right thing. They may make mistakes, but they do everything they can to correct them. The mayor agrees at once to court and re-marry his original wife. The wife agrees to it. The daughter, when she finds out the truth, goes along with it. The mistress agrees that’s the best thing to do. There are no villains here.
On the minus side, a great deal depends on coincidence. Important information is overheard. Secret letters are found. Characters fortuitously bump into other characters. Characters believed to be dead miraculously reappear. This all becomes terribly silly and quite incredible. Then there are the hordes of comedic yokels, wheeled out for a bit of local colour and stupidity from time to time. Combined with the heavy prose, this all became a bit much, and I gave it up at the 50% point. But the nice thing about dead authors is that their books are described in detail on Wikipedia, so I could read the entire plot without feeling I’ve missed anything (other than the comedic yokels, of course). One star for a DNF. ...more
It’s such a lovely idea: you fall asleep and your dreams are actually about another world. And just a few special people are GiftedFantasy 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....more
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 charminFantasy 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....more
A nice little short story giving a glimpse into the background of Sicarius the emotionless assassin and Sespian the future EmperorFantasy Review Barn
A nice little short story giving a glimpse into the background of Sicarius the emotionless assassin and Sespian the future Emperor as a child. One for the fans, and best read after some of the Emperor's Edge series to fully appreciate the nuances....more
I read ‘Dreams of Darkness Rising’ more than a year ago, and much admired the strong characterisation, detailed world-building andFantasy Review Barn
I read ‘Dreams of Darkness Rising’ more than a year ago, and much admired the strong characterisation, detailed world-building and truly epic plot. Since then the book has been picked up by a publisher, the title has been shortened to ‘Darkness Rising’ and the projected trilogy has been chopped up into six smaller volumes. The book I read has now been republished as Book 1: Chained and Book2: Quest. This new book is Book 3: Secrets. The disadvantage of this is that with a book of this type, with many characters following several different plotlines over a complex world, the challenge of reminding the reader of the key points of the previous books becomes an increasingly onerous task for books 3, 4, 5 and 6. The author manages it rather elegantly in this book, but even so there are a lot of threads to pick up and many references in the early chapters whizzed straight over my head.
The world-building is industrial-strength here. There are entire continents filled with races and cultures and belief systems and architectural quirks and geography, and all of them distinct and memorable. It all feels completely real, and the throwaway references to wars and battles and so forth add depth. I like the way, too, that the author tosses out cultural references: "Cliffstead. Tough place - you'll like it. More fights than a Thetorian wedding." I love this sort of colour in a book. As before, there’s a medley of interesting races - goblins, ogres, giants, lizardmen, griffin, mini-dragon flying reptile thingies used as beasts of burden... and (yay!) one dragon.
The greatest strength here is in the characters. Most fantasy works struggle to muster two or three fully rounded characters, but here there are enough to satisfy even the most demanding reader. Who could not feel for Emelia, with her alter-ego Emebaka, inextricably bound to the evil Vildor? Or enjoy the extrovert Hunor and the deep Jem? Even Orla, the Eerian knight, who was a bit of an idiot at times in the last book, gets some serious backstory here which makes her much more human. And Marthir the shape-shifting druid is fascinating. There are several points where various characters have key points filled in with flashbacks, and although this is a slightly clunky device, the storytelling is good enough to carry it off.
The plot is, perhaps, somewhat less successful. Various groups of characters are off on their own missions - alright, let’s call them quests. The crystals that enhance magic I could see the point of, but it wasn’t always clear to me quite what the other groups were up to. Aldred, in particular, kept getting distracted by side issues. And what is the point of Torm? He appears only briefly in this book, although presumably he will be more significant later. Then there are some political machinations. A princess from somewhere who’s marrying someone from - well, somewhere else. The lizardmen doing a deal with - um, someone or other. This is always the problem with full-blown epic fantasy - the epicness involves a lot of complication that’s hard to keep track of without taking notes. Or maybe that's just me. Fortunately there was plenty of action to keep things bubbling along, and enough time for some romantic interludes as well, albeit slightly contrived. And even - uh-oh, love triangle ahoy!
This would be fine - multiple quests work well in a series as complex as this - but this book felt as if it lacked some overall objective. Obviously there is the ultimate aim of getting all the crystals and defeating the Big Bad and saving the world, and so on, but I would have liked to see some clearly-defined and compelling story that gives structure to this book, rather than struggling to survive a series of hostile encounters and simply moving a few paces forward along the path to the final confrontation. A lot happens and there’s forward progress, but it feels like a small part of the big story rather than a story in its own right. Of course, this is the same middle book problem that all series suffer from. The numerous points of view and the frequent change of location makes things a bit choppy, but again that’s an effect of the epic platform. The writing style is elegant, and my only grumble is with the author’s habit of not using names much of the time. Almost every time I came across ‘the Thetorian’ or ‘the wild-mage’ or 'the tracker' or whatever, I had to stop and work out who was being referred to. It's a shame that the story has been split into so many parts. It seems to me that this sort of expansive tale, which meanders across continents, needs the space found in larger books to really shine. There's a reason why 800 page books are common in epic fantasy.
Despite these minor grumbles, when it comes to the crunch everything gels beautifully and the ending is totally satisfying in a no-holds-barred, mages-hurling-thunderbolts sort of way. I’m not generally a huge fan of this sort of full-on magic battle, where hordes of nameless minions are splattered about in a multitude of gory ways, while our heroes (and heroines, of course) survive the mayhem with barely a scratch, and everyone is improbably muscular and awesomely talented with an array of weaponry, but I have to admit it’s great fun, if a bit cartoonish. And Aldred’s little escapade, in particular, was hugely entertaining - a bit of humour goes a long way to lighten the tone. This book had smatterings of humour right the way through, arising naturally from the personalities of the characters, but there were also more serious moments, and the swamps of Ssinthor gave the whole story a whole extra layer of atmosphere.
This is a wonderfully inventive story, with great characters, brilliant world-building and non-stop action. Yes, it’s confusing sometimes, but that’s a reflection of the complexity within and my own inability to keep up, and not at all a criticism. There’s plenty of detail on the website, for those who want to get into the nuts and bolts of the author’s world, and there are good maps and a dramatis personae at the front of the book. I would have preferred a shorter list of just the significant characters, but that's just me. This is an enjoyable continuation to the series, and highly recommended for fans of ambitious multi-threaded fantasy.
So why have I only given it three stars? I found that I just wasn’t that invested in either the characters or their objectives. The attempt to rebuild a prism of power by tracking down its component crystals is, frankly, a fairly ho-hum sort of exercise. It gives an artificial structure to the books (this one was the yellow crystal), but chasing round after a magical gizmo isn’t the most original premise ever. And while I liked the characters, and they’re nicely drawn with their quirks and mannerisms, they rarely had the space to breathe between the constant outbreaks of mayhem. When there was a pause, it turned into a slightly clunky romantic interlude. There were only a few events that truly moved me - Marthir becoming a druid, Orla befriending the slave and the death of Hunor’s friend. These incidents brought real emotional depth to the characters, and I hope future books in the series will have a slightly less frenetic pace and more of these unforgettable moments. ...more
This is another mini-story for fans of the characters in the full length novel ‘Critical Failures’. It probably works best if you’ve read that first,This is another mini-story for fans of the characters in the full length novel ‘Critical Failures’. It probably works best if you’ve read that first, but there’s enough explanation within the story for first-timers to keep up. The idea is that a group of friends have become trapped in a real version of the roleplaying game 'Caverns and Creatures'. If you’ve ever thought it might be cool to be a half-orc barbarian or a dwarf healer or an elf sorcerer for real, this book is probably enough to put you off permanently. Or at least to convince you not to have a half-orc barbarian in the party unless you have a very strong stomach. But it’s riotously funny, if you don’t mind the bad language, the preponderance of vomit (and worse) and the gleeful descriptions of dangling intestines. Not deep, but an entertaining, albeit brief, read. Three stars....more
I loved this book, loved, loved, loved it. It’s the first book in ages to keep me up until the wee small hours because I absolutelyFantasy Review Barn
I loved this book, loved, loved, loved it. It’s the first book in ages to keep me up until the wee small hours because I absolutely positively had to know what was coming next. Here’s the premise: almost-eighteen year old Cass is walking home from her suburban school one day after her last exam before graduation when - pop! - she finds herself in the middle of a not-Earth forest, with no way back. For a while, she is on her own, walking through this world with its odd mixture of Earth-like creatures (deer and otters) and other more alien types, surviving as best she can. She’s a pretty resourceful type, but even so it’s a marginal business. But luckily some super-ninja soldier types from a technologically advanced society turn up and rescue her, and after that things get seriously weird.
Cass is an unusual sort of heroine. She’s clearly intelligent, but she’s not the kick-ass type of female so beloved of the current sci-fi and fantasy scene. She seems quite passive, going along with everything that’s asked of her, even though she’s basically being used as a military tool, but then her new ‘friends’ don’t abuse or hurt her (at least, not intentionally!) and, frankly, I’m not at all sure what other options are open to her. Being useful and helpful (at least until you know your way round and have got a better grasp of the language) is just plain common sense. I loved the way that Cass gradually brought her hosts to see her as a person, with needs and feelings of her own, and not just a passive piece of kit (‘Military equipment doesn't salute’ she comments drily at one point).
The book is written in the first person in the form of a diary, which works very well to tell us what’s going on in Cass’s head. It also brilliantly conveys the sense of disorientation she frequently feels, and the ‘otherness’ of an Australian girl parachuted into a culture which has many similarities with Earth but is also scarily alien. Fortunately Cass has a great sense of humour, and sees the funny side of many of the peculiar situations she finds herself in. This is one of the great perks of portal-type stories, that the transported character can toss around all sorts of slang and in-jokes and cultural references: (‘I tried very unsuccessfully to explain Clint Eastwood, and then moved on to Johnny Depp, and now all of First Squad except Maze have sworn to find a path to Earth so they can watch Pirates of the Caribbean’).
As a piece of science fiction, this is fairly light on the sciencey bits. There’s nanotechnology, and a universal interface system (brain-embedded internet, basically), but the Ena (‘A dimension connected to the thoughts, memories, dreams and imagination of living beings’, it says in the glossary) which surrounds Cass’s new home, the monsters (Ionoths) living there and the psychic abilities of the Setari (the ninja soldiers) seem closer to fantasy to me. As with all the author’s work, there are plenty of deeper themes for those who like to look beneath the surface: about being an outsider, being treated with respect, duty versus freedom, the greater good versus the individual. Not to mention the pleasures and perils of a permanently wired-in internet.
This is another terrific piece of writing by one of my favourite authors. I was a little concerned about it being a YA book, but no need - there’s no love triangle, and the very small amount of angsting over boys is actually very funny. The only (minor) grumble I had was the sheer number of characters involved, a situation not helped by Cass’s early problems with the language, so that she spells names wrongly in the early parts of the book. But there’s a full list of characters at the back, plus a very useful glossary, which rather wonderfully explains all Cass’s Australia-speak and geekisms alongside the in-book terminology. This is very much the first book of the trilogy, so although there’s a mini-resolution, this doesn’t have the feel of a stand-alone book. Be prepared to invest in the whole trilogy (available as an omnibus), not to mention the fourth part, entitled ‘Gratuitous Epilogue’. Five stars. ...more
This starts out as a straightforward child abduction case, but quickly becomes something more complicated. Two sisters, aged twelve and eight, sneak oThis starts out as a straightforward child abduction case, but quickly becomes something more complicated. Two sisters, aged twelve and eight, sneak out from Grandma’s house during an overnight stay to go to a concert. When they find they’re too late to catch a train or bus home, and have no money for a taxi, they accept a lift from an apparent good samaritan. The older daughter manages to escape but the younger vanishes. The family implodes during the police investigation, there’s a suspect but no evidence and no sign of the missing daughter. But then, strangely, the suspect confesses. The story then jumps forward several years...
The biggest problem for me is that all the characters are completely colourless, and never come to life. Even when they’re ranting and raving and falling apart, there’s no impact behind it, no emotional engagement. The facts of a child abduction, a guilt-ridden survivor, a cruel mother are not enough in themselves to arouse sympathy in the reader. After all, it's not an original idea, we've all read similar tales and seen them on TV. It needs something more from the author to make us feel for these characters. It doesn’t help that there is no real focus. Who is the book about? Is it Tina, the daughter who survives? Or is it Ruth, the police officer who stays with the case and the family over the years? And the story hops about from one character to another, never long enough or in enough depth to give any real insight into motivations.
Another problem is that the settings are not terribly convincing. There’s no sense of place (apart from the odd use of ‘pet’ to suggest the north-east, and name-dropping one or two real locations), and the prison seems to be a terribly nice, cosy affair, less brutal than the average girls’ school, where the inmates fall out over a bar of chocolate. The police don’t seem very convincing, either. Right the way through, they fail to ask obvious questions and follow up on possibilities that would occur to any reasonably sensible person.
However, once the police manage to get themselves on track, the book beomes something of a page turner, although there's never any real tension. It's not just the prison inmates who are unusually nice here, even the child abductors are mild-mannered gentle souls, shocked by the occasional swear word and clearly incapable of actual violence, so despite the police flap, the reader feels no real fear that the abductees will ever be killed. This is revealed at an early stage, along with the abductors' motives, so the only real excitement comes from watching the police gradually circle in on the perpetrators.
And then it ends, just like that, leaving readers to imagine for themselves just what would become of the various characters, which isn't very satisfactory. On the whole, this is a readable little book with a few logic flaws, which suffers from trying to cover too many aspects of the story. I get the point of the prison story, another instance of a vulnerable youngster falling under the influence of a strong character, just like the obedient young people of the church, but it felt like an unnecessary distraction. The story would have been stronger, I think, if it had focused solely on one side or another. This just about scrapes three stars. ...more
Well, I got through two thirds of it, by virtue of listening to the audiobook while I do other, more worthwhile, things. Like ironing. Eventually, I lWell, I got through two thirds of it, by virtue of listening to the audiobook while I do other, more worthwhile, things. Like ironing. Eventually, I lost the will to live and stopped listening. I’ve been putting off writing anything about this in case I get a sudden urge to pick it up again and carry on, but it’s not going to happen.
There’s a lot to enjoy in this book. There are wonderful characters, caught at a crucial moment in history. The author has captured to perfection the sights and sounds and smells of the Tudor era. There’s humour, too, from time to time. But there’s just so much of it, every scene dragged out to many times the necessary length, endless discussion around meal tables with only a few meaningful lines. If it could have been distilled to normal book size, it would have been a very readable book. As it is, I found it plain tedious, especially after Wolsey’s demise.
For historians, it must be a thrill to see these important characters brought to vibrant life. For literary types, there is pleasure in the elegant language and apt turns of phrase. For me, as a reader looking for a story, it was a failure. There was no tension in the retelling of events to which every child knows the ending. The one character who needed to spring to life, Thomas Cromwell himself, was flatter than paper. He was described in the blurb as ambitious, and other characters mention him as a climber, yet we see no examples of it. On the contrary, he remains loyal to Wolsey to the end, and appears to luck into his role with the king. He’s hard working and intelligent, rather than conniving. We see something of his family life, but rarely see any signs of affection. And in the end, I didn’t care about him, either, or any of them, with the possible exception of Wolsey. One star for a DNF....more
I loved this book, absolutely loved it. It’s an object lesson for me, actually, in not pre-judging a book, because this one ticks so many of my ‘no’ bI loved this book, absolutely loved it. It’s an object lesson for me, actually, in not pre-judging a book, because this one ticks so many of my ‘no’ boxes: it’s YA, it’s a fairy-tale retelling, it’s first person present tense (“I back away...”, “I gaze at him”), it’s more or less a romance, it’s about a princess who doesn’t quite fit in, it has villains with no redeeming characteristics. Had I known all that beforehand, I would never have touched it and I would have missed a lovely, lovely story. As it was, it popped up on a list of free books, I started reading the sample and just kept reading, couldn’t put it down, in fact.
For those who know their fairy tales, this is a reworking of the Goose Girl story. I didn’t know anything about it, so maybe I missed a few subtleties, but I felt it worked perfectly well without any prior knowledge, and apart from a few oddities (like the talking Horse!) there was nothing in there that couldn't be found in conventional fantasy. One of the great strengths of this book is that the characters all feel truly rounded, so even though they are fulfilling traditional roles (the princess, the prince, the witch and so on) they have great depth and believable personalities. The villains seem at first glance to be simplistically cruel and evil, but they all have enough backstory to make them credible, if not exactly sympathetic.
The magic in the book is quite powerful, but the fundamentals are explained clearly enough to be believable, even the talking Horse. The author has thought everything out very carefully, and it works so well that when the heroine is rescued by magical means, it makes perfect sense. Not that she has to be rescued very often, mostly she is perfectly resilient and self-sufficient, and manages to get herself out of trouble and help others as well. I liked, too, that the magic is simply an integral part of life, everyone accepts it and it’s properly regulated. Interestingly, there is also religion, never explained or central to the plot, but just there, as a natural and perfectly normal thing. There are also social customs which are alluded to without full explanations, like a system of debt between people (if someone helps you out, you owe them a debt of comparable value). At one point there’s a discussion of a gift, and whether it incurs an obligation (a debt) or whether it’s just a gift, freely given, and a decision is reached without any attempt to explain the ‘rules’ of such an arrangement to the reader. I rather like this relaxed attitude towards world-building. Some things just are, and don’t need to be elaborated.
The character of Alyssa, the princess, is central to the story, naturally, and the first person narration makes it imperative that she is both likeable and believable. I feel the author pulls this off magnificently. Of course Alyssa makes mistakes sometimes, but she copes well with the strange events which overtake her, and is strong-minded, caring and intelligent without ever turning into the tedious type of kickass female protagonist so often depicted in fantasy these days. On the contrary, she often feels overwhelmed and suffers a great deal, but she always tries to do the right thing, as far as she can. There is a certain amount of angsting, but it's actually understandable, given Alyssa's predicament.
The plot rattles along very nicely, with some unexpected twists and turns. There are villains, of course, so bad things happen, but there are also friends who help out from time to time, just as in real life. Also realistic is that physical encounters have physical effects - if you roll down a cliff, for instance, or get beaten up, there will be cuts and bruises, maybe even broken bones, and time needed to recover. The climax is a bit of a show-stopper, a wonderful outbreak of magical manipulation with everything at stake, and no real certainty of how things will go. And the author neatly side-steps the clichéd ending. It's a fairy story, so of course good triumphs over evil, but the way that is achieved is refreshingly different. And there's not the obvious happy ever after, either. Rather, there's an acknowledgement that a lot has happened and there are bound to be scars, and a tentative sense of moving forward.
This book surprised me. It may be YA, but it addresses some very profound issues, like the nature of justice, the corroding effect of revenge, questions of loyalty and trust and honesty, and the inner goodness (or not) of people, regardless of what they look like, or their rank. The romance element follows a traditional path but with great originality and commendable restraint. The writing style is eloquently literate, and I barely noticed the use of first person present tense. I had a very few minor quibbles - there were a few places early on where I wasn't clear about relationships or what exactly was happening - but nothing major enough to spoil my enjoyment. A terrific read. Five stars. ...more
This is a book that surely strikes a chord with every avid reader: the society it describes is one recovering from the worst of allFantasy Review Barn
This is a book that surely strikes a chord with every avid reader: the society it describes is one recovering from the worst of all traumas, where all the books were burned. Not just a few heretical ones, but almost all of them. Just a few precious scraps of information remain from the collected history and scientific knowledge of the time before the burning. Dennon Lark, the scriber of the title, is an academic, dedicated to recovering as much of the lost knowledge of the pre-book-burning age as possible, wherever it may be found. But after an excavation of a possible book hoard site went horribly wrong, killing several people and destroying priceless religious artifacts, he ran away to a peaceful life in obscurity.
There wouldn’t be much of a story if he stayed there, though, would there? There are strange goings on in the land, Dennon hears voices in his head and a chance meeting with soldier Bryndine, the King’s niece, sees Dennon caught up in the defence of the kingdom. It’s the characters that shine here. Dennon himself is nothing at all like a typical hero – an almost pathologically reclusive academic, with no courage to speak of except in pursuit of his precious books. Bryndine fills the heroic role here, a woman of honour and unswerving devotion to her oaths and her people. She has gathered together a motley band of female warriors, of mixed backgrounds and personalities but all implausibly skilled at arms and of infinite courage and powers of endurance. And if that sounds eye-rollingly bad, they never came across as being the least bit cliched, so for me, at least, they worked.
The plot was a tad less successful. To say it was predictable doesn’t really do it justice. If our merry band rides into a rocky mountain pass on the cusp of winter, it doesn’t take a crystal ball to guess that there will be a) a snowstorm; b) an avalanche; or c) an attack of fearsome beasties. Or all three. Sigh. And I lost count of the times the search for some gizmo or other (in this book, it was a letter or journal or stash of books) ends in apparent failure, only for a chance remark to have Dennon suddenly say: ‘Oh, wait a minute, that gives me an idea...’.
The world-building, by contrast is rather good, even if everything interconnects rather too neatly. The writing is excellent (I didn’t notice a single typo, which must be some kind of record). However, I very much disliked the author’s habit of ending a chapter on a dramatic note, a fade-to-black or some other cliff-hanger, and opening the next chapter with: ‘I woke up to find...’. Bleh.
The ending is the expected grand battle which, to be honest, was so emotionally overwrought that I skipped most of it, as well as the endless pages of angsting that preceded it. Not my thing, I’m afraid. Nothing terribly unexpected happened, so for anyone looking for an original twist, this is not the book for you. Nor will you find any deep introspection or a profound philosophical treatise.
What you will find is a terrific adventure story with ever-escalating action, some unusual but convincing characters and a well thought out background. It’s dragged down a little by the slightly implausible ending, and the repeated attempts to evoke an emotional response and ramp up the stakes by killing and maiming characters (leave my favourite sidekicks alone, dammit!). On the whole, though, this is an excellent piece of fantasy. Four stars. ...more
This is a quirky little book, filled with eccentric characters who are nevertheless completely believable, reacting to an increasingly dramatic sequenThis is a quirky little book, filled with eccentric characters who are nevertheless completely believable, reacting to an increasingly dramatic sequence of events exactly as you would expect normal people to react. The first response to new information or a threat is always ‘let’s tell the police’ instead of the all-too-common policy in amateur sleuth stories of attempting to deal with everything single-handedly.
The plot: Nikki is out of work and depressed after a traumatic event at a previous job, forced back into work by the government’s ruthless program to reduce the unemployment numbers. She reluctantly takes a job as receptionist for a charity in a seedy part of London, where her boss dies in the middle of a meeting on Nikki’s first day at work. And from there onwards, things get steadily worse.
Nikki is a fairly likeable character, and her friends are an entertaining bunch. I don’t know London very well (I live at the other end of the country) but I did wonder how realistic it was to find quite so many gay, black/coloured, disabled and otherwise minority groups in an area who were all such cheerfully nice people, while the middle-class white folks were – well, less nice, in many cases, and downright creepy and villainous in some. It seemed a little like inverse type-casting. In my experience you find good, bad and downright weird in all ethnicities, and always more good than bad. I was half hoping that one of the minority characters would turn out to be a villain or at least pilfering the coffee money, just to redress the balance a bit, but no.
The early chapters were a little slow, and it took forever to determine that the initial death was indeed murder and not merely a tragic accident, which was frustrating given the book’s title. After that, the story unfolds very nicely, and winds up to fever pitch at just the right moment, although the reveals weren’t terribly surprising. The book is easy to read, although the author likes to detail every little part of each conversation, however banal. I’d have preferred a little more snappiness, but that’s just me.
I found the romance element a little too dominant for this kind of plot where the murder should be the main feature – and no, that’s not just because it involved a lesbian love triangle. I thought the new romance was rather sweet and beautifully judged, but the old flame angle got a bit tedious after a while. Too much angsting for my taste. However, for anyone who dislikes gay characters, be warned: the main character and most of her friends are gay, the gay lifestyle dominates and there is some (tastefully done) sex.
An entertaining, if light-hearted, read, with some well-drawn characters and a good sprinkling of British humour. I would have liked a little more unpredictability and perhaps a tad less political soap-boxing. Three stars....more
This is a free book that purports to help you become a successful blogger by asking 101 questions; when you have answered them all, you should be ableThis is a free book that purports to help you become a successful blogger by asking 101 questions; when you have answered them all, you should be able to create and build that successful blog. What is a successful blog, you might ask? That's probably question 5, 'What do you hope to gain from your blog?'. So yes, you really do have to provide all the answers yourself. It's aimed squarely at those who want to start blogging in order to make money from it. I'd always thought people start blogging because they have thoughts or events or opinions or wisdom that they want to share with the world, but apparently quite a lot of them just want to get rich. So although the book pays lip-service to those who blog purely for fun or out of generosity, there's a lot of talk about growing and business plans and profits and the like.
I'm not exactly the target audience for this book. Although I have a blog, it exists solely so that I have somewhere to dump all my Goodreads reviews so I can easily access them. I don't do anything to advertise it, apart from putting the url on my profile page, and just once linking from a book review to a series review that was only on the blog. It's a constant source of amazement to me that people manage to find it and read it and post comments on it and even tweet about it, it seems. I check my stats every day and admire the (very small) numbers. But I'm not interested in 'growing' it, and I'm certainly not interested in making money from it.
Nevertheless, I thought this book might be interesting to me as a (sort of) blogger. First problem is that on Kindle for PC, the ink is green. Seriously. It's OK on the Android app, so I don't know what that's all about. Second problem is that there just isn't much content. Each page (or question) is just a few lines long, and really, it's not exactly earth shattering. Here's question 21, for example, 'What preparation does your ideal reader go through before they purchase?':
'What kinds of research does your ideal reader do before they purchase big-ticket items? 'Do they read Consumer Reports, other blogs, Amazon reviews, or ask their spouse? Do they have enough disposable income to buy whatever they want, whenever they want it? 'Answering this question can give you a few insights: 'It can help you understand your future readers better 'It can help you offer products that they need and want 'It can give you an idea of places to promote your website and blog'
And that's it, in its entirety. And then, towards the end of the book, there's an 'inspiration from other bloggers' section, where they say - pretty much the same things. Now, I can imagine that all this might just possibly be helpful to a few folks without any idea where to start, by focusing them on what matters to them and pointing out a few pitfalls. There are also a few tips about technical stuff which are slightly informative. There's nothing you couldn't find out from a couple of hours on Google (and reading a few blogs!), but it's free, so it just about scrapes two stars. But really, don't pay for this. ...more
It's hard to know how to categorise this. It's historical fiction, certainly, and it's a murder mystery complete with investigating detective, and theIt's hard to know how to categorise this. It's historical fiction, certainly, and it's a murder mystery complete with investigating detective, and there's enough paranormal flavour to make it (I suppose) fantasy, so take your pick. The setting is Stornoway, in the Outer Hebrides, and the dialogue is littered with plausible Scottish dialect and Gaelic, but don't let that put you off, because it's all very easy to read.
The plot is simple. It's 1882, and policeman Edmund Forrester is asked to investigate the disappearance of a young man from a fishing boat. The boat owner swears he fell overboard during a storm, but the victim's parents think there's more to it and the incident occurred in the Sound of Shiant, a mysterious body of water near the Shiant Islands hedged about with rumour and myth. Naturally, as soon as the hero begins to investigate, he's faced with opposition and downright obstruction from most of the locals, with a few more helpful souls and even just a teaspoonful of romance (sort of). Oh, and there’s a comic relief sidekick, as well.
My biggest problem with the book is the historical details. I don't know what Stornoway was like in 1882, so I'll assume the author's done his research there (although I did wonder a bit at the idea of pubs with booths), and London's Metropolitan Police did indeed have a Criminal Investigation Department and a small number of Detective Inspectors at that time (although only just). And all the characters seemed to smoke cigarettes constantly which seemed a bit unlikely. It was the divorce that got me. Forrester is divorced from his wife, yet he attends her second wedding, which takes place in church with the bride wearing a white dress amidst the usual celebrations. Why did they divorce? Because he devoted too much attention to his job.
Now divorce in 1882 was a very rare business indeed (a few hundred cases a year), and involved proving in court adultery, cruelty, desertion, bigamy or something equally major (and no, being obsessive about your work was not one of the allowable causes). There was always blame (one spouse had to sue the other for divorce), and even a hundred years later it was incredibly unusual and stigmatising for both parties. To this day it remains difficult to remarry in church (in England, anyway; Scotland is a little different). As for the white dress - you had to be rich to wear anything so impractical (even for a first wedding). It's not that any of this was actually impossible, I don't suppose, but the implausibility of it grated on me, and I almost gave up at that point.
What kept me going was the setting, the beautifully described Western Isles (or Outer Hebrides, or nowadays Na h-Eileanan Siar) and the waters round about. There was Gaelic and dialect scattered about everywhere, which seemed to my inexpert ears to sound exactly right. My Gaelic is negligible, but even so I recognised a few phrases and even spotted the odd occasion where a character mistranslated for the non-Gaelic-speaking main character.
Unfortunately, a nice way with language isn’t enough, and the book was a disappointment to me on almost every other level. The murder mystery wasn’t any mystery at all, the supernatural aspects were revealed in the prologue and the ‘hero’ is one of the most uninteresting and unlikeable I’ve ever come across. Determination to get to the bottom of things is a fine quality in a detective, but in this case it manifests as an aggressive refusal to give up, wilful disregard for his own or anyone else’s safety and some breathtakingly stupid decisions. Plus he decided at an early stage that the supernatural element was involved, even when he was told repeatedly that such things belonged to mythology. It’s an odd thing when the sophisticated English detective is more superstitious than the traditional islanders. A strange book. I couldn’t get past the improbabilities, but for those with a better developed ability to suspend disbelief this is a perfectly readable little story. Two stars for the atmospheric setting and the Gaelic....more
It’s an odd thing, reading. There you are, chugging along quite happily through a story, feeling perhaps that it’s not the most thrilling read ever buIt’s an odd thing, reading. There you are, chugging along quite happily through a story, feeling perhaps that it’s not the most thrilling read ever but there’s something appealing about it, and then something trips you up and you just can’t stand it a moment longer. Here, it was the meal at Le Gavroche that brought me to a standstill. Now, the author has a wordy style, I understand that. Every setting is described in great detail, every character given a name, an appearance, a backstory, the food and drink lovingly listed. That’s OK, I don’t mind wordy.
But then we came to the female lead’s heavy date, and things went seriously overboard. It takes an entire chapter to describe how she showers and dresses for the evening (painting her toenails after putting on dress and shoes, apparently), her journey to the restaurant, what her date is wearing, a great deal about the restaurant, what they drank, what the waiters looked like, what the menu was like... The chapter ended with them only at the first course. And this is what the writing’s like:
The Maitre D’ arrived at their table and introduced himself. He was silver haired and spoke with a slight French accent. He was perfectly charming to them but Lucy imagined he would be formidable with tardy waiters. He chatted for a minute or two and remembered Rupert from his last visit, which she could see made Rupert rather pleased. They were asked if they would like to see the menus, but they chose to wait until they went downstairs. The Maitre D’ moved on to the next table, and the barman appeared with a bottle of Taittinger to see if they would like a refill. Lucy declined gracefully, remembering that she had drunk too much last time she had been with Rupert in Lindy’s gallery. They finished their glasses and were conducted downstairs to the dining room by a waiter in black jacket, waistcoat and bow tie. The dining room was long and narrow like that of a ship. It had seating for sixty and was about two-thirds full. The style was similar to the bar above, except that here the walls were green and framed in gold and wood.
Now, I’m sure there are multitudes of readers who love this sort of minute detail, and many more who aren’t bothered one way or the other, but for me, it was just a deal-breaker. I’m very pleased for the author that he’s quite obviously visited Le Gavroche, but personally, I’m more interested in other things. Like the characters. And the plot.
On the plus side, there’s a really interesting story buried under this snowstorm of words, involving art forgeries, ex cons, devious gallery owners, stately homes and some fascinating background on the art world. Here the author is quite awesome, and although I know nothing at all about art, it had a totally authentic ring to it, to my ears. The detail about forgery techniques and the lengths painters will go to achieve a convincing effect is amazing, plus the astonishing level of observation needed to catch them out (watch for the wormholes, apparently). The author tosses out the names of artists and works and styles with an understated command of his subject which I could only admire.
The characters are mildly interesting without being particularly unusual (apart from the young Goth, perhaps). Given the moneyed setting of fine art, inevitably most characters are wealthy middle class or upper class, very English, and the settings were appropriate to that: London, Cambridge and the south coast. I rather enjoyed the descriptions of these places, and it’s obvious the author has done his homework.
For anyone with an interest in art who’s less picky about writing style than me, or perhaps is riveted by the history, layout and menus of Le Gavroche, I can recommend this, but I gave up at the 30% mark. One star for a DNF....more
I rather enjoyed 'Treespeaker' by the same author, so I was more than willing to try this. It turns out to be very different. The Fantasy Review Barn
I rather enjoyed 'Treespeaker' by the same author, so I was more than willing to try this. It turns out to be very different. The setting is a fairly generic one - a small town ruled by a lord, with doctors and horse-drawn buggies and a stratified society, but also with wizardry and dragons. Magic is tightly controlled in this particular realm. The main character, Kira, is living a quiet life with her widowed father, a teacher, when he uses magic to save a child's life, breaking an oath and condemning himself to death. The story follows Kira's attempts to rescue him from his fate.
There is an interesting story in here, and the background was very intriguing. The use of magic, how and when it can be used, the crystals which somehow enable its use to be monitored, the way it operates elsewhere, the agreement with the dragons - all of this was rather nice, and I would have liked to know more. But for me things fell apart with the characters, particularly Kira.
Now, there's no immutable law that says that every female main character in fantasy has to be feisty, resourceful, independent-minded and spirited. It's perfectly possible for a heroine (or hero, for that matter) to be timid, nervous, awkward, reclusive or shy, and still bravely do whatever the plot calls upon them to do. But what really doesn't work is stupidity, and Kira, it has to be said, is stupid. I thought at first she was just very young - everyone calls her 'child', and she acts like one, too. People treat her as if she's some delicate flower who has to be protected from the wind at all costs. Initially I guessed she was about six or so, but no - turns out she is actually fifteen. Even having lived a very sheltered life, she should be more sensible than she appears here.
First she is startled and falls over while escaping with her father, getting herself injured and causing him nobly to sacrifice himself so that she can be treated. Then she droops around doing nothing very much for several months, being looked after by helpful friends. Then when she thinks a former student of her father's, Arun, is going to rescue him, she decides to tag along. Why? What can she possibly hope to achieve? She has no skills, no magic, no artefacts which could conceivably make any difference, and she's so helpless, she's only likely to get in the way. As she does, in fact. When he (very sensibly) tells her to go home, she follows him anyway and manages to fall in the river. And so on. She isn't the only one making irrational decisions in this book (Arun is not without blame here, and Kira's father isn't always sensible either) but Kira is the worst. Being determined is an admirable quality, but not without a modicum of common sense.
The other characters are either good, kind people, or thoroughly bad people, with no in between, and sometimes without an obvious reason for being bad. The woman who is nasty to Kira, for instance, because her father has been sent to Verebor prison - why? In a small town, where Kira has grown up, there would surely be a great deal of sympathy for her situation, and people would rally round to help. It's designed to make the reader sympathise with her, perhaps, but it just seemed unrealistic to me.
This may seem very critical, but it's purely a personal reaction. There's a good story in here, and plenty of action. For those who don't mind a heroine who starts off rather limply and (I assume) becomes more self-sufficient later, this would work very well, and there are some interesting details to the magic system and background to be uncovered. I enjoyed the author's 'Treespeaker', a more unusual story than this, so it's not the author's writing style that's the problem here, but purely the extreme wetness of the main character which grates on me. I got about a third of the way through before giving up. One star for a DNF....more