This is exactly the sort of book I love: a well-conceived fantasy world with an intriguing magic system; some great characters who...moreFantasy Review Barn
This is exactly the sort of book I love: a well-conceived fantasy world with an intriguing magic system; some great characters who behave in a believable way; a plot that’s driven more by the background and characters than the need for relentless action; and a strong, satisfying romance. Why can’t all fantasy be like this?
Let’s start with the characters. Perarre (no, I don’t know how it’s pronounced) is a woman determined to make a success of her career in a male-dominated world. After a wild phase, she’s settled down to an academic life as a translator of old books, aided by her ability to magically ‘read’ the intent of the author (and haven’t we all read books where we could have used a talent like that?). Roric is the buttoned-up and demanding professor she ends up working for, a man hiding a surprising past. He’s given the task of finding out why the ‘magica’, the tricky to manage magic system, is no longer easy to balance. Something has gone wrong, but finding out what has happened and whether it can be fixed means taking big risks.
As the two investigate, they naturally start to see each other as more than working colleagues. This part of the book is exceptionally well-written, as they circle round each other and gradually set aside their prejudices and inch towards an understanding. The romance builds slowly, right up until the point where they hurtle headlong into a passionate affair. The change felt a little bit abrupt, but given their personalities (Perarre’s wild-child past and Roric’s obsessively constrained behaviour), it was believable and I can go along with it.
From this point onwards, the pace accelerates to become a breathless ride from one end of the country to the other, and back again, multiple times. I was quite relieved that later journeys were condensed to ‘After a month of travel…’. Nevertheless, the various locations where the pair end up, whether the sophisticated and political big city, the village or small farming community, the isolated woodsman’s hut or the very different society of the nomadic steppe clans, are beautifully described. I never had any trouble visualising the settings and understanding the prevailing customs.
Both Perarre and Roric have to leave their old ways behind and open their minds to other cultures (quite literally, in fact). I found it fascinating to watch Roric in particular shed the thick shell he’d built to protect himself from hurt, and face up to both his own heritage and a future very different from anything he’d ever envisaged. This is where the rock-solid love between the two is absolutely critical. And yet he never changes his inner self, and never loses his scientific spirit of seeking the truth, regardless of the cost.
There were moments in the second half of the book where I began to feel that the pace was sagging a little, and wondered whether I was being fed a certain amount of filler. But then things would veer sharply off in a completely unexpected direction. I do love it when a book surprises me, and this one has several such moments, much to my delight. The ending is less unexpected, and (to my mind) falls slightly flat, and I wasn’t totally convinced by the oh-so-convenient way the population of the capital city falls into line, but it isn’t a major stumbling block. A very enjoyable read. Highly recommended. Four stars. (less)
What a lovely book. Literate, elegant and charming, with a touch of whimsy, this is a story in the high fantasy style of Tolkien,...moreFantasy Review Barn
What a lovely book. Literate, elegant and charming, with a touch of whimsy, this is a story in the high fantasy style of Tolkien, although on a more domestic scale. It’s set in a world where tree spirits, Silvanii, reside in trees in the wildwood, living in harmony with men. Occasionally, a Silvana will choose to take a human husband, leaving her tree to take human form and live a different life.
The story focuses on Fabiom, son of the lord of Deepvale, following his life from age four through to maturity. Fabiom has always been drawn to the wildwood, and on the eve of his seventeenth birthday he determines to try to win a Silvana wife for himself. What happens that night and afterwards affects him and his family deeply, and changes his whole life, bringing conflict between his duties as lord and holder, and the needs of the Silvanii.
The backdrop to the story is a fascinating world, drawn with a deft but light hand. Fabiom’s society is Romanesque in many ways, with the house constructed around the central courtyard, and reclining on couches to eat formally. I liked the idea of the heart room, too, where everyone entering the house washes before entering the house proper. There are other cultures in existence, well-differentiated but very believable. I loved Fabiom’s shock at the idea of sitting on chairs to eat, grumbling that he found them very uncomfortable. Because of the influence of the woodland and the Silvanii, there is a great deal of detail about herbs and plantlife generally. The author has clearly done a great deal of research, but occasionally I could have done with less detailed herbology.
The characters are not the conflicted souls so common in fantasy these days. They mostly fall clearly into one or other camp, either good or bad, with the good characters paragons of honour and integrity, and the bad thoroughly devious, greedy and unscrupulous. Fabiom himself was a bit over-endowed with all the virtues, unselfishly doing his best for all parties, liked by everyone and never putting a foot wrong. It made him a bit dull at times. The other characters are more interesting in being somewhat more human (Silvanii and their woodmaids excepted, naturally). The woodmaids were a delight, and added a sprinkle of humour to the otherwise serious tone of the book.
The book was divided into a multitude of parts, with sometimes a big time jump between them. This enabled the story to cover a lot of ground, but it did sometimes feel very episodic, like a series of novellas glued together. There were some parts, particularly the campaign in Gerik, which seemed to serve no purpose other than to pass the time. Then, after a rousing crescendo, the last paragraphs of the book are pure setup for the next book in the series, which felt somewhat off to me.
I had a few credibility issues. The Silvanii objected violently to the stealing of the secret of silkmaking, imposing a horrible punishment on Fabiom and Casandrina. Yet they knew perfectly well that the mulberry trees won’t grow without their help, so there was no long-term risk at all. I didn’t find it convincing that they couldn’t distinguish between the betrayal of one individual and a betrayal by all of mankind. They themselves take on human form and live as humans, so they really should have a better understanding of human ways.
I also had a problem with the secrecy surrounding Casandrina. I could understand the reasoning behind not wanting to broadcast the news, but enough people knew who she was. It would have been impossible to keep it a secret for long. Yet it was a major plot point late in the book that her nature was unsuspected. Another point was that more than once a boy’s seventeenth birthday passes unnoticed. Other important dates seem to be remembered well enough, and given the significance of this particular date, the only time when a young man may try to win a Silvana wife, you would think it would have a big red ring around the date in the calendar.
I also had one or two clarity issues. The author is very good about not beating the reader over the head with world-building minutiae, and that’s generally a good thing, but the question of the daughter was dealt with too subtly, in my view. I would have liked a much clearer explanation of the seventeen year rule right from the start. As it was, a lot of important information was handed out in casual conversational asides, without further explanation, or mentioned as an already understood thing, leaving me sometimes trawling through the book looking for obscure hints that I’d missed first time round. As a personal preference, I also would have liked a little more explanation about the Silvanii reproductive system. Now I understand why the author chose not to dwell on it, but it seemed to be rare for a Silvana to take a human husband, and each marriage only produced one daughter and one son. Is this the only way Silvanii have offspring? Or is there an asexual method as well, producing cloned daughters? Why are Silvanii all female anyway? And the whole daughter business boggled my mind. Well, OK, that one can stay mysterious. But lots of questions raised.
These are relatively minor grumbles. This is a beautifully written, lyrical book, with a wonderful love story and an enchanting setting. Not for the grimdark or sword-and-sorcery fan, but for those who enjoy a more traditional tale in the literary style of Tolkien’s era, this is a delightful read. A good four stars.(less)
This is one of those British-based police procedural books where the author did pretty much everything right - interesting characters, a nice (but not...moreThis 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.
It’s the curse of the book group, isn’t it? Someone suggests a book, and you think: yes, that will be a light, fluffy read, something to make us laugh...moreIt’s the curse of the book group, isn’t it? Someone suggests a book, and you think: yes, that will be a light, fluffy read, something to make us laugh, a bit light-hearted and not too heavy or intellectual. Well, it wasn’t intellectual, sure, but light? Fluffy? A book about incompetent National Service conscripts sent off to fight in the jungles of Malaya?
There were a few laugh out loud moments, it’s true. And the book had some potential to be the comic novel it was billed as. Perhaps when it was first published in 1966 it resonated more harmoniously with the experiences of others who had served their time in the immediate post-war years. There was a risque element, too: the inexperienced ‘virgin’ soldiers (in the literal and metaphorical sense) whiling away dull moments in their two years by dreaming endlessly of finally losing their virginity, and finding willing helpers amongst the local prostitutes. In the newly unlaced sixties, that must have shifted a few copies.
But with the benefit of almost half a century of hindsight, the writing style is flat and emotionless, the characters are eccentric but not really interesting and the story is episodic and jumpy, hopping from near-farce to heavy war-zone experiences without the slightest change in tone. For me, it didn’t work at all, and I gave up at the 27% mark, looking up the rest of the plot on Wikipedia. One star for a DNF. Oh, and the rest of the book group didn’t much enjoy it, either, with the exception of one lady who went on to read the sequels with gusto.(less)
This is a cracking story. Fantasy romance is a tricky format. It can veer from straight fantasy with a little romance on the side,...moreFantasy Review Barn
This is a cracking story. Fantasy romance is a tricky format. It can veer from straight fantasy with a little romance on the side, through to outright romance with a little arm-wavy magic or the occasional dragon thrown in for light relief. This book leans more to the relationship side of the equation, but there’s some solid world-building underpinning it.
Many elements of the story are quite conventional. Rowan is the teenage girl expected to do her duty and marry well, producing the babies in unexpectedly short supply in her country, Darmid. But she’s fascinated by magic, even though it’s illegal, and why does she have strange headaches? Aren is the royal from the neighbouring country, Tyrea, a powerful sorcerer whose even more powerful older brother now rules. When Aren is sent to capture a sorcerer from magic-less Darmid for experimentation, he meets Rowan and… Well, we can see where this is going, can’t we?
Despite the well-worn plotlines, the opening chapters draw the world and characters with deft brushwork, and if Rowan is a little too quick to help the injured Aren, and Aren is a little too easily drawn to Rowan, I can let that go for the depth of world-building below the surface. There are some nice details here: like the idea that eliminating magic in Darmid acts to weaken the magic in next door Tyrea, too. And women in Darmid are only fertile once a year. No wonder they have so much trouble producing babies. The author cleverly follows this through in logical ways: sex before marriage is positively encouraged, because it just might result in a successful pregnancy.
The middle part of the book sags somewhat, becoming a slightly dull travelogue, with various threats leaping out of the scenery to liven things up. In between dealing with these events, the two main characters angst about what they’re doing, and each other, and the future. The story is told from both Rowan’s and Aren’s point of view, in first person. Occasionally I found this confusing, but it did help to get under the skin of both characters. Both of them are smart and behaved sensibly, but Aren I found particularly fascinating. His background and history, his suppressed anger, his status as a loner and outsider despite his family connections - all made him far more interesting to me than Rowan, whose life was far more settled.
Aren’s history also made the romance difficulties work well. It’s a convention in a romance story that although the main characters are irresistibly drawn to each other, something prevents them from being together. And when one of them is a professional assassin and ruthless fixer-upper? Yes, I can see why Rowan might have second thoughts about a man like that.
The plot rolls along quite nicely, until… Look, I’m going to rant for a minute here, so you can skip ahead to the next paragraph if you want. So we have our plucky hero and heroine racing to escape a fate worse than death, chased by evil villains here, there and everywhere, things getting fraught, building nicely to a climax, and then what happens? There’s a ball, that’s what. Well, a party, anyway, with fancy frocks, and dancing, and general merriment. Guys, there are people out there wanting to kill you, probably painfully and very, very slowly - get a sense of urgency, for goodness sake. No, I get it, I really do, the two main characters have to have their Big Romantic Moment, but I do struggle with credibility here. As it happens, it was a particularly good BRM, so that’s fine, but please, authors, skip the frocks and dancing, OK?
The climax is a suitably dramatic confrontation with a fairly long-drawn-out post-dust-up scenario, which managed to bring some emotional resonance to bear without sacrificing common sense or betraying the characters of the principals involved. And needless to say, there are enough loose threads to continue the story into the next book. This is a particularly well written and well plotted fantasy romance, which finds a good balance between the two elements and has unusually strong characterisation. A good four stars. (less)
This is a nice mixture of science fiction short stories, varied in both length and subject matter. I have to confess, I’m more of a...moreFantasy Review Barn
This is a nice mixture of science fiction short stories, varied in both length and subject matter. I have to confess, I’m more of a fantasy reader, so I got a bit bogged down in some of the sciencey bits. However, the author’s trademark smooth writing carried me along.
The first two stories, Digital Soul and Pillar, were both awesome - beautifully crafted, immersive and with that deft little twist at the end which makes a short story so satisfying. The third story, The Last Gasp of the Dragon, was short and sweet - maybe too short to make an impact (or maybe I just didn’t get it - always possible).
The fourth story, Orphaned World, was long and filled with blow-by-blow detail which lost me somewhere along the way. The tension built and built, yet the resolution felt insufficient for all that build-up. I had the feeling there was some profound idea being conveyed which my befuddled brain wasn’t grasping properly. Over my head, I suspect.
But the final story, Too Dumb To Die/The Sea Beyond the Stars, hit the spot beautifully, with a wonderful tale that asked all the difficult questions about what it actually means to be human. Or perhaps, more subtly, about the nature of humanity. Epic stuff.
For me, this collection didn’t quite reach the glorious heights of The Wandering Tale, but for those who like their speculative fiction both thought-provoking and elegantly written, this is highly recommended. Four stars.(less)
Warning: this is the fourth book in a five-book series, and for anyone who hasn't read all the previous books, there will be spoile...moreFantasy Review Barn
Warning: this is the fourth book in a five-book series, and for anyone who hasn't read all the previous books, there will be spoilers ahead, so read at your own risk.
When I first saw the title of this book, I deduced that the widow was Clara, whose husband Dawson was executed as a traitor in a previous book. Clara had a walk-on part in the first book, and her own chapters thereafter, but now she finally takes centre-stage, not necessarily as a player in her own right (although to some extent she is), but more specifically as the mother of sons involved in different ways in the ongoing war. So, the widow's house: not a physical house, but house as in family.
Clara is one of four point of view characters, to cover the full scale of the war that's been gradually building since book one. The four are: Geder, the Regent and spider-priest-motivated driving force behind it; Cithrin, the banker opposed to him for personal as well as ideological reasons; Marcus the soldier with a long, battle-scarred history; and Clara herself. The book follows the Game of Thrones principle, where chapters from different characters rotate, although here the rotation is quite regular. This has the usual disadvantage: a cliff-hanger at the end of a chapter can't be resolved until that character's turn comes round again, usually four chapters later. Authors, please don't do this, it's very annoying. At its best, the plot flows seamlessly from one character's point of view to the next, but mostly there's that little hiccup of adjustment when you flip to a new chapter, that where-were-we? moment.
When Abraham pitched this series, he offered either a three book version or this, the five book version. This is the first point at which I'm tempted to say: three might have been better. The actual events of this book could be written on half an A4 sheet of paper, and not using an abnormally small font, either. The story doesn't sprawl in the way that some other, very expansive, series do (George R R Martin, I'm looking at you...), but it isn't tightly written, either. Now, in the hands of a master wordsmith like Abraham, this isn't a problem. A chapter curls around you like smoke, warm and comforting (like Clara’s pipe, if you want the full analogy), and it's only afterwards that you think: nothing very much happened there. This is particularly obvious with Clara's thread, since she's thrown into the role of an observer of the war and not much else. I like Clara, but her plotline was stretched very thin here.
The author's great strength (OK, one of his many great strengths - can you tell I'm a fan?) is the depth of characterisation and so it is here. All the characters feel fully rounded and as real as anyone you could meet in real life. Even Geder, or perhaps especially Geder. In many ways he’s a villain of the first order, but also a deeply insecure and uncertain man. And some of his moments with Prince Aster, the heir to the throne, show him as a caring, even compassionate man, with a certain wisdom. His care for the pregnant wife of his best friend (and possibly only friend) is both moving and slightly creepy in its intensity. The previous books were littered with horrifying 'Geder moments' like the burning of Vanai, or the summary execution of his closest advisers, with the result that you tiptoe through Geder’s chapters wondering when he’s going to explode. He still has no sense of perspective, and puts far too much trust in the spider priests who have an agenda of their own. The most worrying aspect of Geder, for me, is that I actually like him, or, I suppose, pity and sympathise with him. He's done some terrible things, but he's also an enormously tragic character, and part of me desperately wants him to find a happy ending, to settle down somewhere to a quiet, obscure life with his books.
Cithrin, on the other hand, irritates me. She always has, although her juvenile behaviour in the early books was at least understandable by virtue of her age and social inexperience. Her sole function seems to be to do incredibly stupid things for most of the book, or to lounge around in a drunken depression, getting into trouble and being rescued by everyone else, and then pull a rabbit out of a hat at the last minute and have everyone proclaim her a genius. Two cities have fallen solely because of her stupidity, and she's not done yet. Pah. Marcus I like a lot, although he's typical of the stoical, worldly-wise, slightly cynical warrior type, whose experience keeps him out of a lot of trouble. And keeps others out of trouble too. But then I have a soft spot for stoical, slightly cynical warrior types. And I do like sidekick Yardem. Especially his ears. It was nice to find out a little more of their dramatic history, and highly entertaining when the pair of them turned up at Carse to have everyone say: ‘Yeah, yeah, sure you’re Marcus Wester and Yardem Hale… Whoa!’
While we're on the subject of characters, I’m a big fan of Vincen Coe, Clara’s servant-turned-lover, but please, Mr Abraham, will you stop beating him up? However, my absolute favourite in this book has to be Inys (and if you don't know who Inys is, go back and reread book three, last chapter). Everything he says and does is entirely believable, given his history and his nature. Plus he has some of the best moments in the book. Him and the pirates. I mean, pirates and a dragon - what are you waiting for, folks? Go out and buy this book immediately.
There are a few minor grumbles. The cunning men (sorcerers, basically) become even more useful in this book, but there’s no explanation of what they do or how it works. Much of their capability is dismissed as mere trickery, put on to impress people, yet their talent for healing seems to be quite real and rather useful. A little more detail about them would be nice. And a surprising grumble: my Kindle version had an astonishing number of typos in it, far more than I would expect in a major release like this (and this wasn’t an ARC copy, it was the actual day-of-release version).
This book feels far more like a transition than the previous ones in the series. Everything is being put in place for the final confrontation, but there were no huge out-of-nowhere moments, just some nice little twists that made me smile. And somehow it felt repetitious, both in phraseology (fingers were repeatedly laced together, cotton was fresh from the boll), but also in plot terms - the Cithrin plan, the dramatic escapes, the out-of-nowhere attacks, yet I never felt that the main characters were seriously at risk. Even Geder was milder this time round, still creepy as hell, especially over Cithrin, but perhaps less likely to explode at any moment, channelling his energies into his best friend’s wife and baby, and a clever little piece of engineering research. However, the important factor in this book was the shift in attitude. From being an unstoppable force, Geder and the spider priests now have vulnerabilities, and the opposition have plans and weapons. And a dragon. Inys wasn't the get-out-of-jail-free card that might have been expected, but he's still a wild card. I have no idea how this is going to end, but I can't wait to find out. Four stars.(less)
A lot of books are described as psychological thrillers, but very few genuinely merit the label. This one is everything a psychological thriller shoul...moreA lot of books are described as psychological thrillers, but very few genuinely merit the label. This one is everything a psychological thriller should be. The characters - all the characters - are in some way damaged, and therefore nothing is certain or reliable, and all their actions are questionable.
Here’s the plot: Sam, the narrator, specialises in writing biographies of women who’ve suffered major traumatic events in their lives: kidnappings, murderous boyfriends and the like. Trouble is, his approach inevitably leads him to become involved with the victims he’s writing about. When he has to abandon his latest book after an affair with the subject leads to the breakup of his marriage (to his previous subject!), he finds himself scratching round for a new project. Fortuitously, he is approached by Lola, a woman whose parents were murdered when she was twelve by a man who then kidnapped her and carried on killing until she managed to break free. Or that’s the official story…
Sam has to try to work out exactly what happened, and whether Lola was truly an innocent child victim, or something more sinister. But Sam has his own history lurking beneath the surface. And when the murderer breaks out of jail and sets off after Lola and Sam, life gets very complicated.
This is a fantastic story where nothing can be taken for granted. Everyone Sam talks to gives a different impression of Lola, and Lola herself is a curious mixture of tearful victim, sexual predator and manipulative bitch. The author brilliantly captures the sheer creepiness of Lola’s behaviour, yet she’s always perfectly believable. Sam is also incredibly well-drawn, and as we’re inside his head the whole time, he’s both a very sympathetic character and also seriously stupid, in a young, socially-inept male way.
The climax is the usual dramatic and violent confrontation, somewhat less contrived than is customary in this sort of book, and kept me guessing right to the end about who was manipulating whom, and where the truth lay in the morass of self-created fantasies in the heads of all the main characters. An excellent, well-written story with a nice little time jump at the end which is absolutely fitting for the character concerned - one of those ‘oh, of course’ moments.
And if that had been all, it would have been enough. But this book has an unusual degree of depth to it, with some thought-provoking elements that lift it well above the norm. One aspect is that many (perhaps all) of the damaged characters have been affected by a heavily religious home life. The author doesn’t make a big deal of this, so it almost slips by unnoticed, but it’s interesting, nevertheless. For instance, Sam’s mother: “It upset Sam that even though she was free of her controlling husband, she still was spending her time praying to a magic fairy invisible person somewhere in the sky.”
Then there’s the sex. Yes, this book has some graphic sex scenes, but they’re all integral to the plot and true to the characters. These are people who use sex as a manipulative tool, and the author also doesn’t shy away from the association between sex and violence. This is uncompromising stuff, and for anyone who would find these elements problematic, this is not the book for you. For everyone else, this is a cracking read, with some deeply thought-provoking aspects. Highly recommended. Five stars.(less)
I love a good Regency romance, but all too often the ones I find are disappointing: too silly, too inaccurate historically, too inept with the languag...moreI love a good Regency romance, but all too often the ones I find are disappointing: too silly, too inaccurate historically, too inept with the language of the era. So finding an example which ticks all the right boxes, and also manages to portray realistic and well-rounded characters is almost too good to be true. But so it is here.
Daphne is the eldest daughter of the Bridgerton family, a lady of remarkable common sense, intelligence and humour. She wants to get married, but not merely because it's the thing to do, or to be something grand in society, but because, having grown up in a big, happy family herself, she can't conceive of any more fulfilling ambition than being a mother of many children. I liked Daphne very much; she's a down-to-earth person that I'd be very happy to have as a friend.
The male main character, Simon, has had a very different family life, having been rejected by his father at a very early age because he was slow to talk, and when he did, he had a very bad stutter. His father believed him to be stupid and an unworthy inheritor of the family title, but Simon has carved out his own path to a high-flying career at Eton and later at Oxford. When his father makes overtures towards him, however, he takes off for the continent, only returning home when his father is dead. This is the point at which the story proper opens, but Simon's history is told in what is effectively a long prologue. I'm not usually a fan of prologues, but in this case it was very necessary, so that the reader fully understands Simon's state of mind.
And so the two main characters bump into each other at a ball, both bent on escaping the matchmaking of various ambitious mothers, and she pursued by her one sole suitor, a spectacularly unpromising specimen. Over a long-drawn-out discussion (implausibly lacking any interruptions despite the number of people attending the ball) about what to do with said suitor, the two principals are, in the well-worn tradition of such romances, instantly drawn to each other, while neither knows who the other is. We know this because the author jumps merrily from one point of view to the other, another romance tradition which I don't much like even though I do see the necessity for it.
Thereafter, the plot continues through the typical array of misunderstandings and entanglements, with the usual resolution at the end. What lifts this above the usual level of such romances is the quality of the dialogue, which was always funny even in moments of high stress, and the depth of characterisation. Simon, in particular, is a hugely tragic yet sympathetic character. It's impossible not to feel for him, and his decisions are therefore totally understandable. But Daphne too is very much her own person, not constrained by the conventions of society but trying to do the best for everyone involved.
For those who are averse to such things, there are some fairly graphic (and long drawn out) sex scenes, but in this case it's not in the least gratuitous - the sex between the couple is a very significant part of the plot. There is one scene late on in the story which a number of readers objected to, on the grounds that Daphne behaves very badly. To be honest, it didn't bother me at all, since by that point both the main characters have behaved quite badly already, and have got themselves into a huge emotional mess. In addition, I felt that Daphne was acting very much in character. She was presented with an opportunity to (possibly) take what she wanted, and it wasn't a great surprise that she went for it. In fiction, I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect characters to make the right decision on every occasion. Misjudgements make them human. But understandably some readers feel that there is a line which a sympathetic heroine must not cross.
The scene that really bothered me was much earlier in the story. Now, I get that modern Regency romance heroines are not timid little misses, fluttering their eyelashes behind their fans. They tend to be far more forthright about - well, everything really. When introduced to sex, they're liable to get the idea pretty quickly. But at this point in the tale, Daphne is an innocent, in sexual terms (which becomes a significant plot point subsequently), and the idea that she would happily drag her reluctant suitor into the bushes at a ball and seduce him to the point where clothing is removed and breasts are bared, is, for me, just not credible. That he might do it, I could possibly buy into, or that they might take advantage of a private situation, but not that both would be so carried away by passion in such a public place. Yet the whole second half of the book hinged on that moment.
That aside, I enjoyed this book thoroughly. It's not the most complicated plot in the world, but the characters have real depth, there's humour and not much silliness, and there's also a fine ending with oodles of emotional resonance (translation: I cried). Recommended for fans of Regency romance who don't mind the main characters having a bedtime romp or three. Four stars. (less)
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)
This is one of those books that I started with every expectation of hating it. It would be too pretentious, too clever for its own...moreFantasy Review Barn
This is one of those books that I started with every expectation of hating it. It would be too pretentious, too clever for its own good, and too full of itself, I was sure of it. And the central conceit, of living the same life over and over, has been done a few times before. But then, quite unexpectedly, the quirky charm of the characters drew me in, and the excellent writing raised my hopes. I ended up enjoying it far more than anticipated, with a couple of reservations.
The story follows Ursula, the third child of Silvie and Hugh, who is born in the middle of a snowstorm in 1910. And promptly dies, the cord being tangled round her throat. And is born again. This time, she’s saved and lives a little longer. There are a great many deaths, in a great many different ways (and sometimes the same way, repeatedly), and some are pretty depressing, but knowing that Ursula will be reborn every time makes this less fraught than it might be.
As these various lives come and go and come again, Ursula starts to have some memory of her previous incarnations. These are not clear memories, but vague feelings of dread when in a place where something bad happened in a previous life, or a strong feeling that she should (or shouldn’t) do certain things. Her subconscious attempts to mitigate the effects or avoid a situation altogether are fascinating, and she gradually begins to adapt her life towards certain specific ends. It’s almost inevitable, given the timeframe here, that the whole killing-Hitler-to-prevent-the-war scenario should raise its head, but I won’t spoil the surprise by revealing what actually happens (well, it was a surprise to me, anyway).
The first reservation I had was that the heavy focus on the second world war, and the graphic descriptions of the lives that Ursula lived, made the mid-section of the book appallingly miserable. Nothing good seemed to happen to her at all. In all her many lives, there was no life where she simply met a nice man, married, settled down into baby-infested domesticity and had a pleasant, if dull, life. No, time after time, she lived miserably and died horribly, and I really resented that. Although possibly that was the entire point of her existence, I don’t know. Or some deep philosophical point: life’s a bitch and then you die and then (lucky you) you get to go through the whole awfulness of it all again.
But then the ending rolled around and this is where things went slightly off the rails, because (and I’m going to be honest here) I didn’t understand it at all. There were hints that some of the other characters also had some vague memories, but it wasn’t at all clear (to me). And the last chapter – what was that all about? It’s been driving me nuts. The blurb on the cover seems to suggest that, in true ‘Groundhog Day’ style, there will come a point when Ursula does everything right and the endless cycling will stop. Yet the book itself appears to contradict that. Or does it? Dunno. And what does it all mean? Dunno again. But the writing is very effective, the characters have a quirky, and very English, charm, and on balance I found it an enjoyable read. The deeply depressing wartime scenes and cryptic ending keep it to three stars.(less)
If I’d known going in that this was the twenty-fourth book in this particular series, perhaps I might have expected some problems. But it was a book g...moreIf I’d known going in that this was the twenty-fourth book in this particular series, perhaps I might have expected some problems. But it was a book group read, recommended by one of the members, and it seemed to be right up my alley – a murder mystery set in Victorian times. Well, that sounds like fun, doesn’t it? Something light and entertaining, but with a more interesting background than the usual inner-city fare or the Marple-esque twee rural village beloved of the writers of cosy mysteries.
But all that backstory inevitably cast a pall over proceedings. This is not the sort of series where everything resets at the end of each book. It’s clear that there have been years (perhaps decades) of interaction between most of the principle characters. To say they have history doesn’t begin to cover it. To be fair, the author fills in the details pretty well, and it wasn’t too confusing. The problem was that the earlier events sounded so much more interesting than this book. The lead character’s wife, Charlotte, for instance, and her sister Emily, who are nothing more than domestic goddesses in this book, appear in some earlier existence to have done a great deal of sleuthing on their own account. Now that’s a book I would willingly read.
Then there was the subject matter of this particular story, which revolves around anarchists, corruption in the police force and a plan to introduce laws to allow the police to be armed and to have greater powers in their investigations. Since it’s well known that the British police are not routinely armed to this day, there’s no dramatic tension in that particular plot line. It seems to be merely a platform for the author to express her own views through the characters, who hold endless worried conversations about how dreadful such a step would be, and blah blah blah. Yes, yes, but it gets old very quickly.
None of this would have mattered if the plot had ripped along or the dialogue sparkled or the characters were lively, but sadly, it was not so. After the initial excitement of bombings and shootings (where our hero Pitt repeatedly displays his over-sensitive horror at such dreadful goings on in England), the plot settles into a rather dull political affair. The writing style is loosely in the manner of Victorian novelists, although with intrusive diversions to explain subtleties of social propriety which the reader is (presumably) too stupid to understand otherwise. None of the characters really came alive for me, but perhaps they were constrained by the formality of the era. There were moments where the author captured the atmosphere of London in a truly evocative way – the scenes beside the river, for instance – but mostly the writing was workmanlike rather than compelling.
I suspect that the earlier books in the series were much more readable. This felt like a tired effort, where the author had run out of ideas and possibly even interest in the series, but was soldiering on in the interests of fan satisfaction. No doubt those who’ve read the preceding 23 books will love this one, but it wasn’t for me. I got to 30% before I gave up on it. One star for a DNF.(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)
I don’t read much Regency romance these days, although at one point in my life I worked my way through the entire Georgette Heyer catalogue, multiple...moreI don’t read much Regency romance these days, although at one point in my life I worked my way through the entire Georgette Heyer catalogue, multiple times. And Jane Austin remains a favourite. I still have a soft spot for the genre, but recent forays have been less than satisfactory – either too silly for words, or too cavalier with historical accuracy. I see no reason why a romance set in historical times shouldn’t provide something more substantial than meringue to chew on, and also be true to the nature of those times, without being too pedantic about it.
This book manages to please in both areas. The plot is the usual romance formula: boy meets girl, there’s an instant attraction but insuperable problems, they gradually work their way towards a happy ending. However, the author sidesteps the now customary pitfalls: there’s no insta-lurve to stretch credibility, just the attraction between the only two people of a certain age on board ship for a long journey, kept in check by common sense. I liked the way this was handled very much. And the problems are real ones, arising from family history, social status and the personalities of the couple themselves.
The main characters, Hyacinth, raised in Gibraltar, and Thomas, who’s spent most of his adult life in India, are both outsiders, which gives them a natural affinity. Hyacinth has inherited a small estate from a disreputable relative, and Thomas is now the heir to both wealth and a title, but neither want to conform to society’s expectations of them. They’re both smart, too, making sensible decisions. I liked both of them.
The historical setting is sketched in quite lightly (although everyone’s seen Pride and Prejudice and knows what this era looked like), but there’s enough detail to bring the period to life. The descriptions of life aboard ship were particularly effective, London a little less so (Thomas’s family’s house seemed vastly too big even for a family of such high social standing). However, the author has a very fluid way of handling titles and forms of address. For example, the hero, Thomas Smithson Pently, is routinely addressed as ‘Sir Pently’, which had my inner pedant screaming ‘What kind of title is that when it’s at home?’ I’ve given up reading some books for oddities like this, but here the charm of the main characters kept me going.
The plot burbles along very nicely, although I rolled my eyes a little when the heroine’s inherited estate turned out to be right next door to the hero’s family acres. Hmm... But it all wraps up beautifully, the obligatory sex scene is nicely judged and the ending is neither too glib nor too sickly-sweet sentimental. I enjoyed it very much. Well-drawn characters, elegantly written and with more to chew on than usual in a romance – highly recommended. Four stars.(less)