I don't read a lot of urban fantasy, but this one has a great premise: Cleo has an unusual talent. She can see when people lie, by...moreFantasy Review Barn
I don't read a lot of urban fantasy, but this one has a great premise: Cleo has an unusual talent. She can see when people lie, by way of a shadow mask that covers their face to a greater or lesser extent, depending how big the lie is. Sometimes the mask comments, too, betraying the person's real feelings. This is such a cool idea, but there's a dark side too. What must it be like to know, beyond any possibility of doubt, when someone lies to you? Your best friend? No, of course your bum doesn't look big in that. No, of course I’m not trying to steal your bloke. Yes, I'd love to see you tonight but I've really got to work. Your boyfriend? I love you. You're the only one. You're the best ever in bed. Eek.
So when Cleo is recruited by other 'supras' (people with similar talents), part of her is thrilled to be amongst people who understand, with whom she doesn't have to pretend. Sadly, Cleo is immediately sent undercover to winkle out a traitor amongst the supras, which involves a lot of hanging around people to watch for lies, and asking leading questions, so she's still on her own.
Cleo isn't the usual self-confident assertive female lead character so common in urban fantasy. Instead she's a much more realistic person, damaged to some extent by the lies she's been exposed to by everyone around her. However, her slightly chirpy voice and her constant mistakes get very wearing after a while. Another big problem: way too many characters to keep up with. I could possibly remember names, but trying to keep track of everyone's supra abilities (which they often hid, even from other supras) was impossible. And the plot fell over because it depended on Cleo being kept in the dark about crucial information. As she herself pointed out, if she'd been told everything right from the start, the problem could have been solved in five minutes.
Somewhere in the middle of the book things begin to pick up, and there's a secret about one character that I just didn't see coming. And at about the three quarters point, there's possibly the best sex-with-subtext scene I've ever read. Quite brilliant. But after that, things crater spectacularly. Firstly, after all the undercover work, the bad guys reveal themselves to Cleo after she makes an unbelievably stupid decision and puts herself into their power. Then things degenerate into a long-drawn-out and totally farcical melee of a finale. Authors really have to decide whether they're going for the serious, oh-no-everyone-might-die line, or whether it's going to be lighthearted fluff. Once characters start dying (well, one character, anyway), you're fairly well committed to serious, and fluff seems distasteful (to me, anyway).
There are a few loose endings left dangling, like the oft-mentioned but never seen step-father, and why did Beau conceal his true nature? But I guess there's a series in the pipeline, so there has to be fodder for future books. There were too many flaws and saggy moments for me to enjoy this completely, but even for a non-fan of urban fantasy like me, there were still plenty of fun moments, a few nice characterisations and that amazing sex scene. Recommended for fans of the genre, and it is a brilliant premise. Three stars.(less)
This is one of those books with loads of interesting ideas where the execution falls a little flat. The concept of the human mother...moreFantasy Review Barn
This is one of those books with loads of interesting ideas where the execution falls a little flat. The concept of the human mother being forced to bear the child of a demon is not at all an original one (Rosemary's Baby, for instance), but there's always room for a novel twist on the idea. In this case, the demon is prevented from taking the child, and the child himself is prevented from total evil, by the unconditional love of his older brother. The mother, on the other hand, sees the child as nothing but a monstrosity and treats him very badly. We're so used to the idea of mothers loving their children no matter what that this is quite a difficult idea to read about, and made me wonder: just how would a mother react to such a child? I'm not convinced that Ashra would be quite so proud of her eldest son and loving towards him, while hating her youngest quite so strongly. And why doesn't Wilhelm, the eldest, notice the difference and lose respect for his mother?
The author has created a wonderfully detailed world as background for this story of two very different brothers. There is a mythology involving a god-love-triangle, and there are throwaway lines about drunken gods and the like which I found very intriguing. Then the Big Bad is referred to as ‘God’ by his head minion, which is interesting too. However, despite some nice little snippets of history, I never quite got a clear picture of how these gods fitted into the current picture, whether they were real or even whether they were good or evil. The rest of the world is obviously just as carefully thought out, but without a map or a little more detail it was hard to see quite what was what. Sometimes as our heroes travelled around the scenery, a character would say: ‘Well, I’ll just pop back to Falar for...’, which always took me by surprise. It’s that close and I never knew? The various towns are nicely differentiated from one another, it’s just me that needs some kind of a visual aid to help me understand the setting. Like a map. [Edit: there's actually rather a nice map provided, which I stupidly missed. Doh!]
There’s magic in this world, but it’s fairly limited in scope. There are just fourteen spells available to mages, they’re difficult to learn and to perform and they bite back if you get them wrong, killing the mage. Even if you get them right, you have to rest for a long time before you can perform them again. The mages actually forget each spell after it’s been used, and have to have a spell-book to remind themselves, which is a cool idea. As if that wasn’t tricky enough, mages are bound by restrictive laws and almost universally despised, so they can be attacked and even killed for no reason other than being mages.
The story follows the lives of two brothers, Wilhelm and Salvarias, the sons of a female mage struggling to make a living. Wilhelm’s father is a mystery, having disappeared shortly after getting Ashra pregnant. Nice guy (not), but he’s supposedly doing something important in the world, and I have no doubt he’ll turn up in a future book. I'm actually quite interested to meet dad, because Wilhelm has inherited some interesting genes. Enormous height and strength, for instance, as well as charm and (it seems) supernatural skills with the ladies (well, I've never heard of a fifteen year old who can perform such prodigious feats).
Salvarias is the demon-child, who inherits his mother’s mage abilities at an unusually early age. This book takes the story from Salvarias’s conception through to his late teens, and there are necessarily big gaps where several years pass between action episodes. The plot is very uneven, depending to a large extent on coincidence and, frankly, deus ex machina at times. The brothers find themselves out on the streets trying to survive, and almost the first person they meet is a friend not seen for many years who turns up out of the blue and looks after them. Other characters who might be expected to help are unaccountably missing when needed. A mage turns up in the nick of time to heal Salvarias, and then vanishes. All of this is very convenient. If there are plot-related reasons for these fortuitous events, they aren’t made clear.
The other characters, who pop up as needed and vanish the rest of the time, are not terribly realistic. They all tend to the handsome/beautiful end of the spectrum, and fall neatly into good or evil categories, without much blurring of the lines. Despite a running theme of who could be trusted, which had me on the watch for a traitor in their midst, there were no dramatic reveals (at least not in this book). The female characters (with the notable exception of Ashra, the mother) are frequently madonna types, sweet and maternal and in need of protection, with the occasional warrior-babe or raunchy type for variety. There's a very odd attitude to the romance element of the book. Wilhelm is much in demand with the ladies (with unlimited stamina, it appears), but as soon as love looms on the horizon, somehow sex is off the agenda. The old madonna/whore dichotomy.
The writing style is oddly awkward at times, with a few characteristic quirks. For instance, characters routinely 'accept' food or hugs, which sounds odd to my ears. Then there's the cloying closeness of the two brothers, where sometimes it seems as if every scene ends with them saying how much they love each other and hugging. There was way too much repetition of phrases, like Wilhelm's tree-like stature. There are numerous small typos scattered throughout, but nothing so egregious as to interfere with readability for me.
I've listed a lot of grumbles with this book, yet I was never tempted to give up on it, and the reason for that was very simple: the deeply compelling character of Salvarias. It's not easy to draw a character which is inherently evil, yet who struggles to overcome that evil every day. His dreams, his internal conversations with his (almost paternal-sounding!) father, his unique approach to life, and even his magic (anthropomorphised here, so that he has long conversations with it), make for a fascinating portrayal. I liked the way that different characters saw him in different ways, so as we moved from one point of view to another, we saw him as essentially evil or deeply charismatic. I was intrigued, too, with the mother, who could be so normally maternal with one son, while hating the other relentlessly. This is an uneven book, which would have benefited from tighter editing and (perhaps) losing some of its bulk. I found it frustratingly flawed, yet still a rewarding read. Three stars.(less)
The first book in this series, ‘The Duchess of the Shallows’, was a breath of fresh air, a fantasy work set in a single city, with...moreFantasy Review Barn
The first book in this series, ‘The Duchess of the Shallows’, was a breath of fresh air, a fantasy work set in a single city, with compelling characters and a beautifully woven plot, filled with double-dealing and double meanings, where nothing and nobody can be taken quite at face value. I could say that this is more of the same, which is true as far as it goes, but it doesn’t do the book justice. This time we begin to see far more of the underpinnings of the city, both literally (the maze of tunnels and caves dating back much further than the present regime) and in political terms, as Duchess is drawn into the orbit of the upper echelons of society. The three main religions also feature heavily, and we learn a lot more of the history of the city and of Duchess herself. If this sounds like a lot of ground to cover, it is, but the authors skillfully weave the many different strands together to create a brilliantly nuanced picture of Rodaas and its people, which comes alive in a way that the first book didn’t quite manage, for me.
Unlike the first book, which had a single audacious theft as its heart, this one has multiple plot threads. For one, Duchess decides to set up business with a talented young weaver who is unable to get guild membership because she’s not Rodaasi. I found the motivation for this move a bit unclear; it seemed rather an odd thing for Duchess to want to do. However, Jana, the weaver, is a lovely addition to the character list, and her Domae culture adds depth to the story. Then there's a ring stolen by dodgy gaming practices to retrieve, and a scheme to provide Duchess with a skilled swordsman as a bodyguard. Again, the bodyguard scheme seemed an odd thing for Duchess to want to do. While it led to some exciting moments, and the bodyguard came in very handy for a couple of incidents (a warrior-type is a great addition to the book, in my opinion), but then at a crucial moment he leaves Duchess on her own. It struck me as being a bit implausible (methinks I smell a plot device). However, all of these are dealt with in Duchess's usual audacious style (read: almost impossible to pull off), so there’s plenty of action along the way.
These various schemes, however credible or otherwise they may be, give Duchess the excuse to move around the city, and it is her adventures in the various districts and below the surface that bring the book to vivid and dramatic life. Some of her encounters are unforgettable: the strange candlelit ceremony at one temple, the meeting with the facet (priestess) in another and the events underground, for instance. The facets are a truly spine-chilling invention, a sort of hive-mind of masked women, all identical, and there’s a moment near the end, when the hive-mind slips slightly, which is awesome.
The characters are as believable as always. Lysander is (as before) my favourite, but I liked Jana and Castor (the bodyguard), too. Duchess makes a very sympathetic lead, although she’s a little reckless for my taste. Is that a hint of a romantic interest for Duchess in Dorian? Even the minor characters have a complexity which is refreshing, and add depth to the story.
What didn’t work so well for me? As with the first book, I found the convoluted plot threads a tad too tricky to follow all the time, so there were references along the way that I just didn’t get. Sometimes there would be a line revealing some possibly crucial information (‘Ah, so that’s what so-and-so meant...’), which just whizzed over my head altogether. There is also the constant problem that everyone Duchess encounters may possibly be double-crossing her, so I tend to regard every new character as potentially hostile. I found myself always waiting for the double-cross from them. In fact, mostly they were surprisingly helpful and even charming, perfectly willing to further Duchess’s ends, while (obviously) working for their own ends as well. In some ways, everything was a little too easy for Duchess, as things fell into place rather readily. The retrieval of the ring, for instance, was a real let-down.
One issue that bothered me was the bodyguard, whose name started as Pollux and then changed to Castor, with an overt reference to the mythological twins. Does this mean, then, that we are in our own world at some future point? Or perhaps this is an alternate world, that happens to have some common history. Either way, it jolted me out of the story altogether for a while.
A highlight for me was the uncovering of some of Duchess's family history. For the first time, there is some detail about what actually happened when her father died and she was torn away from the safety of her family. More significantly, we learn what should have happened that night, and some of what went wrong. The suggestion that perhaps her brother and sister may have survived too opens up all sorts of intriguing possibilities.
As with the first book, the authors have pulled off an impeccable blend of mystery, action and world-building, combined with compelling characters about whom it's all too easy to care deeply. Who could be unmoved by Lysander and his friends, dealing with tragedy in the only way they can; or by Duchess, accepting the truth about Lysander for the first time, or realising the sort of life she might have had if events had gone otherwise, and coming to terms with her life as it now is? And then there was her final meeting with one of the facets, which was truly heartbreaking. This is a polished and cleverly thought out book which would repay a second read to understand all the nuances and subtexts. Highly recommended for those who like depth to their fantasy. A very good four stars.(less)
The author’s steampunk series, ‘The Emperor’s Edge’, has built up quite a following, but this is something very different, the star...moreFantasy Review Barn
The author’s steampunk series, ‘The Emperor’s Edge’, has built up quite a following, but this is something very different, the start of an urban fantasy [*] series, set the southwestern US. The setting may be different, but the principle is the same: a collection of interesting characters, a pacy action-packed adventure with loads of unexpected twists and some great humour.
Here’s the starting point: archaeology drop-out Delia and geek Simon are trying to get a business off the ground discovering buried artifacts and flogging them to collectors. Temi is a old friend of Delia’s, a former tennis pro on hard times. There’s also another old friend who handily analyses DNA samples when necessary, and a couple of weird guys on Harleys. Oh, and a monster. A going-round-randomly-killing-people-in-the-dead-of-night type monster. When Our Heroes stumble across a body in a cave, they find themselves sucked into a bizarre monster-hunting expedition. And when I say ‘sucked into’, I mean, of course, that they rush around following mysterious footprints or bloodtrails or exploring underground caverns with wilful disregard for their own safety.
For the first half of this book, I felt like I was reading the script for one of those cheap summer horror movies. Monster. Check. Bunch of nice, harmless kids. Check. Lots of stalking, screaming and desperate attempts to escape. Check. Yes, it’s all a bit cheesy but then there are some wait-what? moments. The two Harley riders who speak no known language (‘It’s not Klingon’, says the linguistics professor, deadpan). The non-human blood. The magic glowing sword (I kid you not). And the monster’s made of what? And the humour made me laugh out loud, which is always a plus, in my book.
The characters don’t sparkle yet, but this is the first in the series, and it’s hard to squeeze in all the character-building background when Our Heroes are frantically trying to escape the monster’s claws. Simon is a stock geek, more interested in apps and gadgets and blog posts than common sense, and a bit awkward with the ladies. Delia - well, I don’t get much of an impression of Delia. Both of them are far too ready to go careering after monsters or mysteriously hostile men, but then there wouldn’t be much of a story if they weren’t. Temi is more interesting, with her falling out with her family, her tennis and the sudden loss of that, and another mysterious quality which I won’t reveal but it’s intriguing. She was a little uneven, on the one hand perfectly ready to dive into whatever adventure the other two were haring off on, but also the voice of reality: “Guys, is this a sensible thing to do?” But if the main trio fell slightly flat, the two men on Harleys more than made up for it. I do like ultra-mysterious but very cool blokes. And there is one other character now on the loose that I am very much looking forward to seeing again.
This is a slightly lumpy start to the series, but that’s a very common problem. Once the characters settle down and start to gel I’m sure a lot of the rough edges will be smoothed away. For now, this is a straightforward, lightweight adventure caper, easy to read and a lot of fun, especially once the main chase begins, around the halfway point. There are a number of implausibilities, but, for me anyway, the humour more than makes up for it. The modern setting allows for a lot of quick-fire jokes, which you don’t actually need to be a Trekkie to appreciate (although maybe it helps). I wavered between three and four stars, but I’ll be generous on the grounds that a new series always needs time to iron out the kinks. Four stars.
[*] Look, the author self-defines it as urban fantasy, OK? So I'll go with that. But honestly, I don’t know what the hell it is - sci-fi or fantasy or paranormal or some wild mash-up of all of them. And honestly, it doesn’t really matter what you call it.(less)
This is the fourth part of a six-book series, and if that sounds like a Wheel-of-Time-esque slog, it’s not as bad as it sounds. The...moreFantasy Review Barn
This is the fourth part of a six-book series, and if that sounds like a Wheel-of-Time-esque slog, it’s not as bad as it sounds. The series was planned as a trilogy, which is standard fantasy fare, and it was the publisher’s decision to split it into six smaller books. Whether that was a wise move or not is a moot point.
I read the first two books (‘Chained’ and ‘Quest’) as the originally intended single volume, and I loved the epic-standard world-building, the array of well-rounded characters and the literate writing style. The third book (‘Secrets’), worked less well for me as the complexity increased, and the action began to dominate. This book starts well. It’s always a problem with a series as complex as this to get the reader up to speed on the events of previous books. Some authors sprinkle little reminders here and there, and some don’t feel the need to bother (we’re presumed to have encyclopedic memories, presumably, or to reread everything before the new release - well, stuff that, life’s too short). But Kitson produces perhaps the most creative approach yet to the problem, having the characters fill the reader in, and all in their own inimitable style. Way to go.
Everything I liked about the previous books is all here. The world has awesome depth and breadth, the characters feel real, the writing is as good as ever if slightly overblown at times, and there’s a touch of humour here and there. The magic system is simple enough: elemental magic powered by crystals or gems, but with wild magic thrown into the mix as well. The things I liked less well are also here: the evil villains bent on global domination, the hordes of mindless minions, the over-the-top action scenes with mages hurling fireballs at each other (although the earth mages were quite fun).
The risk with creating a full-blown epic fantasy in the traditional style is that sooner or later the complexity grows to such a level that it’s liable to overwhelm the story. There’s a moment to pull back and start drawing the threads together again, but unfortunately Kitson hasn’t yet reached that point. The characters that I loved so well in the first book are here choked by the need to move the plot along and rarely have time to breathe between bouts of action. With characters this well-realised, there needs to be time for them to express some emotional depth, otherwise they become caricatures, wheeled onstage as plot devices and then smartly pushed off again to make way for the next battle. Sadly, I never felt engaged by the characters; the romantic entanglement seemed contrived, and the deaths were dealt with in an almost perfunctory fashion. Even the world-building feels stifling here. It pains me to say this when a world is so brilliantly conceived down to the last detail, but I could have done with a little less history and fewer info-dumps (although they were mercifully short).
Perhaps the worst problem for me is that the plot has become predictable. Time after time our heroes find themselves in an impossible situation, overwhelmed by the enemy, yet miraculously manage to pull through. Even grievous injuries barely seem to slow them down. There were one or two nice twists at the end but otherwise I could see everything that had to happen, and I’m not the most astute of readers.
This may sound very negative, but I want to make it quite clear that this is a purely personal perspective. I look for character-driven fantasy first and foremost, and here the characters have become subservient to the action. But everything that didn’t work for me is something that another reader would find awesome. For anyone who relishes a well-written traditional epic fantasy with multiple bands of characters roving across the landscape on intertwining quests, heroes facing impossible odds, humungous battles full of wizardry and an array of evil-to-the-core bad guys, this is definitely the series for you. Enjoy! But for me it was only two stars. (less)
This is rather a short book, closer to a novella than a full-length novel, but it packs a hefty punch for its size. Eurik is a huma...moreFantasy Review Barn
This is rather a short book, closer to a novella than a full-length novel, but it packs a hefty punch for its size. Eurik is a human who was found as a baby in a boat with his dead parents, and raised by a non-human island-based society called the San. Ah, the orphan of unknown heritage story, that's always a good one, if a little over-used. The opening chapters, where we see Eurik living amongst the very alien San, are terrific. I'm a big fan of non-human societies, and this one has been very well thought out. But then, sadly, Eurik is given the living sword of the title, the only possession found on the boat, and told he has to leave the island to find out what happened to his parents, and where they came from. This means living amongst humans for the first time, a race (or species, maybe?) he's previously only read about in books.
The humans, frankly, are less interesting, because their way of life is very similar to that of millions of other fantasy human societies. It’s the differences, the idiosyncrasies of this world that make it interesting. Fortunately, the author doesn't belabour the idea that the human world is very new to Eurik. He's well read, so he manages to recognise many ordinary items (bread, for instance) from book descriptions. It would be tedious if every common item he saw was described through his eyes as something novel and strange. Still, he does seem to accept things very quickly, without too many ‘whoa! whatever’s that’ outbreaks.
There’s some nice world-building going on here, with various different races and languages and customs which have clearly been well developed. The author doesn’t infodump all this background, it’s simply there, and the reader just has to keep up with the various references to the unknown. Sometimes, there’s an explanation later or the meaning becomes clear, but there were a few times when just a little extra detail would have made it easier to follow and increased the richness of the world. For instance, there are throwaway lines about the San being ‘tree-people’ and ‘genderless’. Hold it right there, that sounds interesting, tell me more. But no, the story moves swiftly on.
I very much liked the two forms of magic being used, or rather one form of magic and one which is merely a different philosophy (I liked Eurik’s insistance that the amazing things he can do, purely through his mind, is not magic). The San method of steering a boat is particularly clever, and it’s amazing just how much can be achieved by shifting earth about. It’s clear the author has worked things out very carefully, and there are rules and limits and costs involved. And for those who like wizardy-type battles, there are some absolute crackers in here.
The characters fell a little flat, for me. Eurik, in particular, is a very unemotional bloke, and considering all that happens to him and the fact that he’s tossed out of the world he’s known from babyhood and into a very different world, he seems almost implausibly stoical. Some of his actions, too, are just too relaxed, such as when he decides to talk to the fighting San by signing up for the contest and walking out into the arena. I can’t believe this was the only way he could get to see the San. Admittedly, it led to a great scene, but it seemed to me that Eurik was far too calm about it. I would have liked to see a little more reaction from him at times. He gets involved in some truly terrifying incidents along the way, so a little bit of fear at the time and angst afterwards would make him more human. Or maybe that’s the point, that he’s been so well taught by the San that he has lost some of his humanity. In which case, that was a bit too subtly done, since it’s only just occurred to me. Doh.
Of the other characters, the only one that most stands out in my mind is Broken-Fang. Gotta love a captured female who doesn’t wait around to be rescued. There are some interesting side characters along the way too, and I have to give an honourable mention to one of the most important characters, the living sword himself. He (can a sword have a gender? I certainly thought of it as male) has a very distinct and entertaining personality all his own, although his inexplicable lack of knowledge until the plot requires it veers dangerously close to deus ex machina. There are some villains, but they simply appear out of nowhere and their motives seem a bit suspect.
The plot is rather episodic, with spells of furious magic-fuelled battles interspersed with ambling through the scenery or finding inns and such like. The book has a somewhat unfinished air, and seems quite disjointed. For instance, a section starts off: “They entered Campan together, passing the watchtower they'd seen from afar.” There’s virtually no description of Campan itself (it’s a town, as we find out a few lines later, but when I first saw the name, it could be almost anything - a country, a swamp, a fort, a castle...), and no warning beforehand that they were heading that way. This is very jarring (I actually searched to find out if I’d missed an earlier reference). A line or two linking the previous section to the arrival at Campan would help the book flow better. There are a number of places where a few extra lines of description would help to bridge these gaps. The writing is fairly untidy, with numerous punctuation errors, misplaced words and a couple of wrongly used words (shoulders instead of soldiers, feint instead of faint). This didn’t bother me unduly (I’m more of a grammar pedant), but some might find it distracting.
This is a difficult book to review. On the one hand, I enjoyed it a great deal, especially everything to do with the San and their ‘philosophical’ form of magic. The world-building was good, and the plot was full of drama. On the other hand, the choppiness of the writing, the sloppy editing and the lack of background information in places, often jarred me out of immersion. Still, I was never tempted to stop reading and the action moments were very good, even if sometimes events seemed a bit contrived. Three stars.(less)
I love the premise here: every twelve years twelve people are chosen for a ritual; they wake one morning to find a coloured stone b...moreFantasy Review Barn
I love the premise here: every twelve years twelve people are chosen for a ritual; they wake one morning to find a coloured stone beside them, or under their pillow. They then have to travel to the capital, throw their stones into a waterfall and one will then be magically selected as a sacrificial victim, to appease something (or someone?) known as the Gloom. This is such an intriguing idea, especially given the variety of people chosen by the stones: a simpleton, a rapist and murderer, an elderly swordsman, a slave woman, a young girl, the king's only son... This is fascinating, not only for the question of how all this works, but also why? Why are things done this way? And what exactly will happen if the ritual fails? There are hints, but no clear answers. Of course, there's a lot more going on below the surface, with conspiracies and deception, and a plot to defeat the Gloom once and for all.
The first point of view character is Marybeth, one of the Order, a group which oversees the process of the ritual, magically empowered to ensure the compliance of the selected twelve. Then there's Rhact, an ordinary man in the village Marybeth is watching, whose daughter Janna is one of the chosen ones, and who isn't about to accept that without a fight. These two points of view give a very nice dual perspective on Marybeth: we see her first as a member of a group working to ensure that the country can continue peaceably by the sacrifice of a single person, a necessary evil that works for the good of all, while also hoping to put an end to the ritual altogether; but we also see her through Rhact's eyes as an evil witch, a terrifying person inflicting untold harm on families and communities. This is nicely done.
There’s also the king, Jacquard, who tries to rule generously and not be a ruthless tyrant, but finds himself at risk of rebellion by his warlords for weakness. His son Althalos is nicely drawn, too. The other characters are less than convincing. Some are complete caricatures, like the rapist or the slave woman's evil master or the simpleton. Some just lack depth. Everyone is either good or bad, with no in between at all. Not that bad means unspeakably evil, necessarily, sometimes it just means silly and feckless, but still, there are few shades of grey. Even when characters change over the course of the book, the switch is absolute: a totally evil person is redeemed to become a hero, while a good person is so overwhelmed by revenge that all normal human feeling is lost, and they become evil. This is less than subtle.
To my mind, the female characters seemed to have less active roles than the men. To start with, the women are largely wenches or nervous mothers or cowed daughters or silly bits of girls who squeal. Or else they are witches, or otherwise evil. There's Marybeth, for a start, ostensibly a very active character, and we see her doing some very courageous things. Why does she do them? Initially because of her father, and latterly because some random dude, more powerful than her, told her to. Doesn't she have a mind of her own? Fortunately, there are also quite a few moments where women stand up and take charge, sometimes to shocking effect, when the men can’t or won’t. For instance, Janna, Rhact's daughter, has a brave moment, doing what needs to be done when the travelling party is attacked by bandits. And I did like the female assassin. I’d happily read a whole book about her.
The world-building is rather good, and clearly a lot of thought has gone into the details. I like the three moons of different colours, which clearly have a big influence on everything, as well as inspiring the various religions. We’re in the standard pre-industrial pseudo-medieval world, with the usual patriarchal overtones, but there are some nice details too. For instance, a woman’s period is known as being visited by the red moon. The magic is largely unexplained, but there are some nice non-human things around, and the Gloom, when we finally get a good look at it, is suitably scary.
The writing style is serviceable rather than ornate, but it lacks polish. In some places clauses are written as if they were sentences, elsewhere sentences are shunted together. There are some anachronistic expressions used, such as the king spending 'quality time' with his son, and Rhact's son having 'teenage' moodiness (the concept of teenagers is very recent; in a pre-industrial age, thirteen-year-olds would be doing the work of an adult, with neither time nor energy for moods). I find these modern colloquialisms jarring, but that’s just me. There there was the horse who was 'saddled' in order to pull a wagon (harnessed would be a better word). Much of the backstory and descriptions of feelings, particularly surrounding the king, are told narratively, which keeps the tone flat. However, there are moments of eloquent description as well. A warning for those sensitive to such things: there’s some earthy language, and some fairly graphic acts of violence and other unpleasantness.
None of it matters too much, however, because the plot is an absolute cracker and gallops along in a breath-taking page-turning manner. The moment of the actual ritual, when the various conspiracies and secrets and deceits all clash together at once, is terrific. I had absolutely no idea what was going to happen, my eyes glued to the pages. After that it’s a mad dash to restore the realm to some kind of stability before everything falls apart, but there are plenty of unexpected and dramatic twists before the final confrontation, which also sets things up nicely for the next book. There were some confusing moments, not helped by the need to give names and backstories to all twelve of the stone-holders, as well as all the king’s knights. So many characters are easy to forget, and I would have liked a little reminder when each one reappeared. This was particularly troublesome at the ritual, when characters were described only as ‘the boy’ or ‘two men’ or ‘the elderly woman’. I’m still not quite sure who was on whose side. And who exactly was that random dude who sent Marybeth off on her little quest?
This is a fun and imaginative story, not subtle but well thought out, with plenty of action and some nicely moving moments too, written in an easy style, marred only by some flatness in the writing and some over-the-top cartoonish characterisations amongst the walk-on parts. For those who aren’t concerned about that, I recommend this book, but for me it was enough to keep it to three stars.(less)
It's a strange thing, but I had 'Prince of Thorns' sitting on my Kindle for a full year before I got round to reading it. I'd read...moreFantasy Review Barn
It's a strange thing, but I had 'Prince of Thorns' sitting on my Kindle for a full year before I got round to reading it. I'd read the reviews, I knew something of what it was about, I knew it would be good, but I kept putting it off. Part of me felt: well, it's probably not as good as the rumours have it, I'll only be disappointed so no point in rushing. Eventually, when not just the second but the third book in the trilogy was imminent, I grudgingly made the time for it. And it blew me away. The second part, 'King of Thorns', was a spottier affair with some creakiness, but I loved it despite those weaknesses. And here I am with the final part of the story, and I already know it really is final. The author has said there will be no more.
A brief recap, with spoilers for books 1 and 2: Jorg is still king of the tiny mountain kingdom of Renar, but since his defeat of the Prince of Arrow, he's acquired several more kingdoms. He's married to Miana, an alliance which secured the help of his maternal kin in the battle against Arrow. This book has moved on a year or two, and Miana is now pregnant. The primary timeline is the journey to Vyene, the seat of the emperor, for the four-yearly congression where the petty kings and their ever-shifting allegiances try to agree on a new emperor. To vote on the matter, no less. I really like the idea of electing an emperor in a world of swords and castles and constant border wars. You’d think it would be settled on the battlefield, and to some extent it is (that’s how Jorg acquired some of his votes, after all), but in the end everyone gets together and negotiates. The secondary timeline carries on with the flashback sequence from book 2, with Jorg ambling about at the behest of the 'ghost in the machine', Fexler Brews (is that an anagram?), and grubbing around in the almost-but-not-quite-functional left-overs of the long-ago Builders’ world. There are other occasional flashbacks tossed out here and there, as appropriate. And instead of the strained device of Katherine's diary, we get the journey of Chella, the necromancer.
For almost half the book, I was just a little disappointed. Many of the complaints I had about the second book are here again: the disjointed timeline that hops about, the seemingly random traveling through the landscape. The writing is not exactly lacklustre, the author is too adept for that, but it's very repetitious in places. I'd like a pound for everyone who spat, or for every time giving birth was described as squeezing out a baby. Meh. But then suddenly everything cranks up a gear and we're back with lots of glorious Jorgness and all's right with the world again.
Jorg is a much more mature person now, although still prone to outbreaks of kill-everything temper. But he's beginning to think more carefully about the consequences of his actions, and when he goes walkabout, he takes care to leave the rest of the crew behind out of harm's way. When he does kill he has a reason for it (although yes, sometimes it's pure revenge), and he takes care to leave the minimum of blameworthy mess behind him. He has more than just himself and his fellow road-brothers to consider - there's the imminent arrival of his firstborn, and that’s an interesting challenge for him and no mistake. How will Jorg take to fatherhood, given his dire relationship with his own father?
None of the other characters quite rise to three-dimensional roundedness. He still has his sidekicks, Makin, Rike, Marten and so on, who have developed a solidity through familiarity, and a variety of lesser characters pass through his life, but they are no more than momentary glimpses. That's appropriate, however, since this is entirely Jorg's story, told in the first person, so we see these people as he sees them and when he moves on, they're gone. This being our world in some future time (a thousand or more years in the future), it's disappointing how much cultural baggage seems to have been carried along. The Catholic church, the African man who was an ex-slave, the Muslim Arab world - given the enormity of the 'Day of a Thousand Suns', the apocalyptic event a thousand or so years ago, and the number of people who must have died, and the turmoil since, it's astonishing that any cultural norms survived unscathed. A thousand years is a very long time.
A word about women in Jorg's world. It's striking that all the dynamic characters are men. Men run most of the petty kingdoms, and beyond that there are few women even mentioned. Just occasionally a woman turns up where a man might be expected (a female Pope? Really? Even a thousand years from now? Did hell freeze over in the interim?), but generally speaking the female characters are an insignificant part of the plot. The men run kingdoms or wave swords about, but the women, not so much. Miana, a truly strong, proactive female, is only there as a single strike get-out-of-jail-free card in book 2, and to produce the son and heir in book 3. There is a moment at the very end where Miana is the blindingly obvious choice for one specific role, but no, Makin is chosen instead. Disappointing. Katherine does better, at least having an agenda of her own (even if I wasn’t always clear why she did certain things), but she is also sexual fantasy and motivation for Jorg, and her magic, cool as it is, is not much more than a convenient plot device. I would have loved her to do something truly worthwhile in the big finale, but no, she seems to have just as little purpose in this book as in book 2. And Chella? More sexual fantasy and plot device. As for the female Pope, I'm not sure whether that was a random gender-neutral choice, or whether Lawrence is actually making a point about organised religion here, but whatever the reason for it, I loved how Jorg dealt with her. Way to go, Jorg!
There are various aspects of the plot which come together beautifully as the book develops. One is the straightforward political story - the fractured empire with the unremitting squabbling for supremacy amongst those who see themselves as entitled to claim the emperor’s throne. Then there is the slowly revealed world left behind by the Builders, with their high-tech gizmos, some of which have survived intact, even though their original functions may have been long forgotten. There’s a cool game observant readers can play - spotting which modern device is actually masquerading as an unfathomably mysterious Builder artifact. Finally, there is magic - inadvertently released into the world by a Builder-created catastrophe and over time spinning increasingly out of control, so that even the dead walk again, led by the mysterious Dead King.
Then there’s the ending. There are several shifts before things come to a final stop, and some are as expected, and some are predictable in one way or another, and some are moments where I thought: ah, yes, I see where this is going. Except that it didn't. And then a final switch that I didn't see coming at all, but it is utterly brilliant and entirely fitting. Ever since I finished reading, the story has been swirling round in my head. I go to sleep thinking about it. I wake up thinking about it. It’s rare for a book to get under my skin quite so much. Partly that’s due to the towering personality of Jorg himself, both boy and man. Whether you love him or hate him, he’s totally unforgettable. Partly, too, it’s the unusual combination of medieval-style fantasy plus magic, with the still fuctioning technology of the Builders playing a very active role in events. And partly, of course, it’s the author’s spare writing style and uncompromising approach to telling the story. It may have offended some readers, but it is entirely in keeping with Jorg’s personality.
I'm not going to attempt to describe what these books are 'about'. Everyone who reads them will have a different take on it. For me, it was Jorg's sheer bloody-mindedness which struck a chord. If someone told him he couldn't do something, his usual response was: just watch me. Something in me just loves that about him. Yes, he was a mess, an evil bastard who slaughtered his way to the top without remorse. Yet there were occasional hints about the normal well-meaning person he might have been if life had treated him better. There’s a flashback to a point when he’s about ten or so, and to earn the respect of his road brothers he volunteers to spy out the thieving possibilities of an abbey by joining as an orphan. He’s set to work with the other orphans:
“It turns out there’s a certain satisfaction in digging. Levering your dinner from the ground, lifting the soil and pulling fine hard potatoes from it, thinking of them roasted, mashed, fried in oil, it’s all good. Especially if it wasn’t you who had to tend and weed the field for the previous six months. Labour like that empties the mind and lets new thoughts wander in from unsuspected corners. And in the moments of rest, when we orphans faced each other, mud-cheeked, leaning on our forks, there’s a camaraderie that builds without you knowing it. By the end of the day I think the big lad, David, could have called me an idiot a second time and survived.”
I don’t think it gives away too much to say that Jorg’s time at the abbey doesn’t end well (it’s a flashback, after all), but for me this scene is the most poignant in the whole trilogy.
For those who hated the first book because of the way Jorg is - his propensity to kill, rape and otherwise cause havoc wherever he goes - you might like to know that this book puts his behaviour in a different perspective. Yes, he's done some terrible things, and he does a few more in this book, but in the end his willingness to cross lines and think the unthinkable, his determination, his inability to compromise and his desire to put himself on the emperor's throne whatever the cost are exactly what's needed to take the final step to mend the Broken Empire. It had to be done, and it took a long time for the right person to come along. If Jorg is an extreme example of humankind, it's because he needed to be.
This book, indeed the whole series, isn’t perfect. Nothing is. It is lumpy in places, and slow in others, and sometimes Jorg is too over-the-top for words. But it’s also sharply funny and slyly clever, and written in an incisive, focused style that makes a refreshing change from a lot of rambling fantasy. And that’s another question - is it even fantasy at all, since it veers so close to science fiction? To my mind, it transcends genre classifications altogether, and enters the realm of greatness. Whatever you call it, it’s a masterpiece of in-depth character analysis, with an ingeniously interwoven setting and a mind-blowing and absolutely right ending. A fine piece of writing. Five stars.(less)
Ah, that difficult middle book of the trilogy! The one that carries all the baggage of the first without the freshness, while also...moreFantasy Review Barn
Ah, that difficult middle book of the trilogy! The one that carries all the baggage of the first without the freshness, while also setting up the climax of the third without being able to resolve the big questions. All too often it feels like drifting - there’s motion of a sort, but it’s slow or undirected. There’s an element of that here. What seems like the main plot, the massive army of the Prince of Arrows camped at Jorg’s gate, seems to play second fiddle to the flashback story which feels like nothing so much as a road trip. If it had a magic gizmo to be found or a Big Bad to defeat, we could call it a quest, but actually it just feels like ambling through the scenery. Look, a circus. And some Vikings. Here’s a swamp, and some ghosts, and ooh! zombies! And now let’s visit the family. Wait, now we’ve got a sort of murder mystery. It’s all a bit choppy. Of course, even a road trip is brilliant fun with Jorg.
To recap: the fourteen-year-old who grabbed a throne as part of his revenge plot in book 1 is now eighteen, getting married and simultaneously facing up to the massive army of the would-be emperor, the Prince of Arrows. Interspersed with that are flashbacks starting four years earlier, filling in some of the missing four years. As if that wasn’t enough, there are also snippets from the journal of Katherine, Jorg’s step-aunt, for whom he has the hots, which are also flashbacks and also reveal crucial information just when the author wants to. And on top of all that is possibly the most outrageous device ever for witholding information from the reader - the memory box. This is an ingenious twist on the old bump on the head amnesia trick; Jorg has done something so terrible that the memory of it has been taken from his mind and put into a box. So we get little reveals trickled out over the whole course of the book as Jorg almost-but-not-quite opens the box.
I have to be honest and say that I found these different threads confusing. In ‘Prince of Thorns’, there was a now plot and a four-years-ago plot, and the two wove together very well. Here, the multiple timelines meant that more than once I had a wait-I-thought-he-was-dead moment, and had to think quite carefully to work it out. It’s very disconcerting to grieve over the death of a character one moment only to have him appear alive and well a few pages later. Sometimes it felt like there was a page or three missing. At one point, Katherine turns up with the Brothers - why? How did that happen? And the calculated dribbling of those reveals felt quite contrived, especially the big one at the end, which borders on cheating.
The background to this world continues to open up in intriguing ways. When I read 'Prince', there was still room for a tiny sliver of doubt about this post-apocalyptic world, that perhaps it might be some parallel but freakishly similar world to our own, almost the same but not quite. Not any longer. Even in a universe of infinite possibilities, there can surely only be one world which has 'American Pie' in it. We get to see some of the Builders’ devices, and find out what the Tall Tower really is (or was, perhaps). I have to say, I’m not sure that I buy into the idea that such things could last a thousand years unscathed. I assume the Builders’ heyday was a little after our own, with technology just a bit more advanced.
Jorg has matured somewhat, which is hardly surprising. In the earlier parts, when he’s still around fourteen or so, he still has his let’s-just-do-this attitude, where he listens carefully to advice (“This is a bad idea, Jorg”) and then cheerfully ignores it. He’s still reckless and careless of his own (or anyone else’s) welfare. But by the latest time shown here (when he’s eighteen), he is definitely on top of his game, showing an astonishing degree of forward planning, and becoming quite philosophical to boot. He deals unexpectedly gently with his bride, Miana, and while he’s never exactly sentimental, he’s certainly less cavalier with his friends.
I have to say that Miana is one of my all time favourite fantasy princesses. She smart and resourceful and apparently just as likely to take the spectacular one-shot chance as Jorg, and she probably has the funniest lines in the book. Katherine, on the other hand - not sure what to make of her. I’m not at all sure what Jorg sees in her, except that she’s unattainable and therefore he’s determined to get her. Meh. The rest of the characters - I have to confess that I found the Brothers fairly undistinguishable. It’s not that they don’t have differences, it’s more that I can never remember which one is which. Plus Jorg sheds them like dandruff; no point getting attached to a character that could be dead two pages further on. Of the others, I liked Uncle Robert and Makin and Gog and the big guy (Gorgoth?). And the Vikings - gotta love the Vikings.
With book 1, I had very little to grumble about, and this review seems like a catalogue of complaints by contrast. Doesn’t matter. Jorg’s wild journey to the emperor’s throne is as compelling as ever. Lawrence has a wonderfully vivid writing style which makes even the craziest moments pop out into stark 3D relief, so that images linger unforgettably. In the cave with Ferrakind and Gog. The ghost in the basement. Miana and the ruby. The swamp. And the dog - ye gods, the dog. I’m sitting here trying not to cry just thinking about it. I rarely find books that have such emotional depth, and there’s also an intellectual depth, if I could only tear myself away from the racing story for a second to ponder it. I like Lawrence’s economical way with words, too; he never uses twenty or even ten words where four will do, but every one chosen with surgical precision.
I know not everyone approves of Jorg’s style. He’s basically a villain, a lying, cheating scumbag, and there’s a wonderful contrast here with the heroic Prince Orrin of Arrow, the honourable selfless leader that everyone likes. His meeting with Jorg early in the book is heart-rending. But this is not a story of heroes, and I loved watching Jorg’s progress. Yes, he cheats, he’s prepared to do whatever it takes to win, but he’s smart, he’s endlessly creative, he’s wickedly funny and he never hesitates to put his own life on the line. This book isn’t quite as smooth as the first book, but it’s still an astonishing performance. Five stars. And now on to ‘Emperor’...(less)
I’m a huge fan of the author, having given five stars to both ‘Thorn’ and ‘Sunbolt’, so this was a must-have for me. It’s a charmin...moreFantasy Review Barn
I’m a huge fan of the author, having given five stars to both ‘Thorn’ and ‘Sunbolt’, so this was a must-have for me. It’s a charming little short story, a prequel to a future novel, with all the author’s trademarks: great characters, a well-defined setting and an intriguing plot, beautifully written, creating an altogether beguiling experience.
Rae is the eldest of three sisters, who live with their parents. No, the main character isn’t an orphan, isn’t mistreated and actually has a great relationship with her siblings and parents, a refreshing change from so much fantasy. But Niya, the middle sister, has a secret: a talent for magic, which she uses in delightfully domestic ways, enhancing the bread or the stitches in the curtains. But in this world, magic-users are obliged to be trained as mages and serve the king, so Niya has to keep her ability hidden. Into this placid setting comes potential trouble, a man wanting to buy horses. He just happens to be a faerie...
It’s difficult in a short story to create characters who have any real depth, but the author carries this off with aplomb. Rae, the girl with a clubfoot, sneered at and ignored by the villagers, is also intelligent and resourceful. The rest of the family have their own distinctive personalities. But the star of the show is the faerie, a creature both frightening and eerily compelling at the same time, and very much ‘other’, something not human. He steals every scene he’s in, frankly, and I hope we see more of him in the full-length novel.
My only quibble with the story is that the villagers seem to be rather different from Rae and her family. In short, they are somewhat lacking in common sense, and I’m not sure why they are so overtly hostile towards the faerie, when Rae’s father is quite happy to do business with him. It may be that there’s some reason behind that, which isn’t being made clear, but it struck me as odd. It’s a very small point, however.
I really enjoyed this, but be warned: it is very short, and stopped at 47% on my Kindle, the rest being taken up with samples of the author’s other works. A good four stars.(less)
This is a set of three novellas which combine to form one longer story. The first part, 'The Prisoner', is beautifully done, with a...moreFantasy Review Barn
This is a set of three novellas which combine to form one longer story. The first part, 'The Prisoner', is beautifully done, with a wonderfully mysterious and quite spine-chilling atmosphere. The second part, 'The Knight', is still very readable but loses a little of the atmosphere. The third part, 'The King', gets a bit bogged down in politics and loses traction a little, but ends on a fine note.
The three stories together form a complete whole, or perhaps I should say a potentially complete whole. The story arc is resolved with a satisfactory flourish (although with plenty of room for possible future development), but many elements seem quite skeletal. The characters, in particular, are not quite fully fleshed out. The world-building is very solid and well thought out, but the little glimpses we catch here and there of how things work are tantalising; more detail would have been welcome. I would have liked to know more about the religious system, for instance, and how the power of the light works in this world. I'm a big fan of not info-dumping the background, but this was a little too minimalist for my taste.
The main character, the elf, is quite compelling, although we weren't given much detail about him but the gradual reveal of who he is and his powers was masterfully done. However, although some development is expected, even in a piece as short as this, and it was always clear why he changed, I still didn't find his transformation entirely credible. Again, a little more time spent on fleshing out the character would have been good. Of the other characters, the good ones seem a little too good, sometimes, especially Lenora and Fredric. The king's mixed motives seemed believably human, although he was rather too stupid at the end. The prison warden, Captain Torren, I liked very much. This was an excellent portrayal of an honourable man caught in an extremely difficult situation, and trying to do the best he could.
It may be that the author intends to pad this out to novel length at some point, in which case undoubtedly the rather unfinished nature of this material will be irrelevant. Even if not, a final editing polish wouldn't go amiss; I didn't spot any errors, but there were a few slightly clunky lines which a little rewording would deal with. I cringed, for instance, when the elf said he would 'holler'. This may seem like a long list of criticisms, but it’s more a matter of frustration that the book was so short - I would have liked much more. Despite my grumbles, none of them affected my enjoyment of the book, which I found very readable. Four stars.(less)
I enjoyed the author's full-length fantasy 'Heart of the Witch', an unusual story with great characters and plenty of depth, so I t...moreFantasy Review Barn
I enjoyed the author's full-length fantasy 'Heart of the Witch', an unusual story with great characters and plenty of depth, so I thought this novella was worth a try. Main character Iona is a college student, studying social psychology. During the day, she attends lectures and tries to fend off the unwanted attentions of a persistent suitor. Each night, she is plagued by unusually vivid dreams of herself as a Mayan priestess. Not surprisingly, I found the Mayan dreams far more interesting than Iona's humdrum daily life, and this part of the story is beautifully realised. The interweaving of Iona's present-day and dream lives is very neat, too, if not overwhelmingly original. The romance element wasn't quite as romantic as I would have liked, and perhaps this part of the story could have been filled out a bit more.
I don't normally like short form fantasy, and this was a bit too short for my taste and the ending crept up on me rather suddenly. However, it makes a light, pleasantly enjoyable read, with a nicely ambiguous twist at the end. The Mayan element was intriguing enough that I'd be happy to read more about it. Three stars. (less)
This could be the world's shortest review. I could just say: this book is piking awesome. Read it. The end.
Or I could tell you exactly why it’s so awesome (a much, much longer review). So let’s do that. Settle down, I’m going to ramble a bit so this may take some time.
I read a lot of debut fantasy, and there's no way to predict exactly what you might get. Even the sample isn't a good guide, because a promising opening can sometimes tail off disappointingly. Mostly, I find them to be varying shades of mediocre; imaginative but ploddingly written, or nicely executed but trite. Very occasionally, something truly exceptional turns up. I've been lucky enough to find a few such gems in the last year or two, and this one is right up there with the best of them. It has great characters, awesome world-building, an incisive writing style and a rapid-fire plot with a surprising twist on almost every page. There’s a slightly slow start with a deluge of hard-to-grasp detail, but once I got past that, the story sucked me in and never let go.
I have to mention the world-building first. There are two kinds of fantasy authors: one kind draws a squiggly-edged continent, adds several kingdoms, three rivers and a mountain range, decides how many gods are in the prevailing religion and - we’re done! On with the story! And then there are those who actually invent worlds. Some are so complex and layed and nuanced that they make our own world look simple. Tolkien invented entire languages for his. Others create architectural styles, clothing, flora and fauna, cultural variations, weaponry, even cutlery. I haven’t found invented cutlery in this book, but pretty much every other detail you could wish for has been thought about. You want to know where the highest rainfall is?  Which are the best grain-producing regions? Where the stables are in the army camp? How the ogres count? (Seriously; in base six, if you want to know, which gives the mathematical module in my brain a frisson of pure delight.) And yes, there are languages and fantasy’s second-best invented swearword.  The author has it all worked out, starting right at the beginning, with the creation. And the best part of it is that all this world-building isn’t slapped on like theatrical make-up. Instead, there are little snippets here and there, where the story needs it (or lightly brushed on, to continue the make-up analogy). The result feels extraordinarily real. I love it.
Cob, the main character, a slave in the Empire’s army, is frustrating in a lot of ways. He’s seventeen, possibly not the sharpest knife in the drawer, has been messed about with mentally for years (as all potentially rebellious slaves are), and his stubbornness level is set to eleven, at least. He believes absolutely everything he’s been told by his parents and, more recently, by his Empire masters, has a touching faith in their dogmatic religion, and did I mention how stubborn he is? So every time someone tries to help him or rescue him or intervene in any way, he reacts with a certain amount of negativity, shall we say. For much of the book he’s merely a pawn in other people’s machinations, reacting to events (mostly by saying no) and constantly trying to be normal, even when it’s obvious that he really isn’t. Even his escape from slavery is very much against his will (and isn’t that a wonderful break from tradition, a slave who doesn’t want to escape?). He absolutely wants to conform, to be a good Imperial citizen. You’d have to have a heart of stone not to ache for poor Cob, caught up in events way out of his league and finding out some truly heart-breaking things about his past. And the present, come to that. Or finding himself temporarily in the midst of a real family and being astonished that the children play around.
There are a number of other characters who also have point of view episodes, sometimes quite briefly as the plot requires, and this could have been a mess, hopping from one character to another. It works very well on the whole, although there were a few times when the rapid jumps from place to place felt a bit choppy. Fortunately, all the characters have depth, even the walk-on parts. Darilan and Sarovy, who both end up chasing after Cob, are wonderfully deep and nuanced characters, and just as tragic, in their different ways. Only Lark fell a bit flat for me; although she had her moments in the early parts of the story, she became not much more than baggage for a while, and I didn’t feel I got to know her well enough to get under her skin, so to speak. But I loved her pet goblin, Rian, who stole every scene he was in (even while fast asleep), while never saying much more than ‘Meep’ and ‘Ys’ (yes). And there are some peripheral characters that I would love to see more of, like the Archmagus and the Crimson General (although from a safe distance, perhaps).
The magic is fairly straightforward. There are mages who use sigils and runes and words and hand-waviness to create their spells, so there’s a fair amount of hurling of thunderbolts and the like going on. So far, so conventional. There are portals (yay for portals!), some permanent, some created on the fly. Some mages are also mentalists, able to probe into the minds of subjects, see their memories and moderate them. Mindwashing, it’s called, and the process and its after effects are truly unsettling. Almost everyone in the army, freesoldier or slave, is subjected to it at regular intervals, to keep them content by removing distressing experiences from their minds, with odd effects, but like any such capability it also becomes a means of keeping control.
The author’s world comes fully stocked with a range of interesting lifeforms, not just humans. There are ogres and skinchangers, goblins and some really creepy beings called eiyet. Creepy oozes out all over the place, actually, and there are moments of pure horror, in the Hitchcock sense of chills up the spine, rather than the more usual sense these days of grossness and spilled entrails. There are also magically enhanced - well, things, for want of a better word, about which I will say no more . There is a certain blurring of the distinction between alive and not-alive which gave me the heeby-jeebies, frankly.
The plot... look, if I say that the book’s about a slave who escapes and is chased across several countries by a bunch of people who mean him harm because of something powerful inside him, something he’s not even aware of, well, it sounds like a million other fantasy books, doesn’t it? So let’s not worry about the plot. In reality, it’s not at all trite, and everything fits together beautifully, the characters all behave perfectly believably and it’s anything but predictable. It’s absolutely the opposite of predictable, in fact. I just never knew what was coming next, not once.
Where the book excels for me is the way it deals with the spirit world, the shadow world, dreams and not-dreams, things which are beyond human understanding (to express it in a very pedestrian way). It’s very difficult to convey these sort of airy-fairy concepts effectively, but the author does it brilliantly here. I generally have real trouble visualising these non-world (and non-rational) experiences, but here I always knew what was happening, even if I didn’t always know why. The author’s writing style is a big help, with a precision of word-use that is a joy to read.
I've found it difficult to write this review. I enjoyed this book so much, and at a much deeper level than the usual run-of-the-mill fantasy, that it’s hard to express. It's not easy to write intelligibly about an experience which wound its tendrils around me and burrowed inside my mind. It’s still in my head, buzzing round and making me think about memory, and belief, and friendship, and good and evil and (worst of all) good intentions, and people who aren’t what you think they are, and who knows what else. There are parts that are unforgettable: Cob doing his thing in the tavern; Lark getting left behind by the shadowbloods; the wolf; Darilan's dagger and bracer; some of Cob's dreams (or not-dreams, maybe); Lerien; the crows; the thing that Weshker encountered; the teardrop pendants (and who would imagine that a modest piece of jewelry would be so scary?). The characters are unforgettable too, and I cared about all of them (well, OK, maybe not Annia!). The story is complex, subtle and many-layered, and yet I never felt out of my depth, never wondered what the hell people were doing, never had to go back and look up who a character was or what a reference meant. That’s an outstanding achievement in a genre that too often mistakes cryptic for clever. And - a bonus - there are outbreaks of humour at the most unexpected times.
You’re probably getting the picture by now. I liked it, quite a lot actually. Compelling characters, a fully-realised world, an action-packed plot that zooms along at a rate of knots and never feels in the least contrived, and a wonderful ending with plenty of emotional resonance. A beautifully conceived and written book with real depth. Highly recommended. Five stars.
 If you really want to know this sort of thing, I recommend the author’s website, which is amazing.
 The best is in Glenda Larke’s ‘Stormlords’ trilogy: ‘pedeshit’. But ‘pike/piking’ is close, very close. And then there’s ‘Morgwi’s balls’. Gotta love an author who can invent great swearwords. ETA: well, who'd a thunk it, apparently 'piking' isn't an invented swearword after all. It's been around since the 18th century, and is an integral part of the Planescape D&D setting. So now we know. Still think it's a cracking word, though.(less)
This short book is a delight from start to finish. It’s written in traditional fairytale style, beginning with ‘Once upon a time......moreFantasy Review Barn
This short book is a delight from start to finish. It’s written in traditional fairytale style, beginning with ‘Once upon a time...’, with a charming simplicity which hides a great deal under the surface. The heroine of the story, who never has a name throughout the book, is a shapeshifter and magic-user, in a land which doesn’t understand or respect magic. Orphaned and raised by a kindly old man, she is forced to leave her home village when he dies, and sets off to find her place in the world. Her travels, the people she meets and the answers she finds to her questions about her missing father and her own magic, form the body of the story.
This is not your conventional fairytale. At every turn, the author neatly sidesteps the traps and tropes of the genre, so there are plenty of wonderful surprises in store, and a nice line in humour too. Every town or village or country the girl visits is a little different from the others, with its own customs and peculiarities, and exploring these differences is one of the highlights of the book, for me. There’s a prince, of course, and a witch, but they’re not at all as you’d expect. The prince is possibly my favourite character in the book, but even though it seems things are set fair for a little romance, things take a different turn. It’s so much fun when a book refuses to toe the boringly predictable line this way. I do like to have my expectations subverted.
If there's a grumble at all, it's that the girl seems a little mature for her age, given her rather sheltered upbringing. She accepts whatever comes her way with equanimity, judges people quite well and isn't really bothered at having to travel around on her own. But then I suppose that being able to turn into a bear or a bird or something small enough to hide behind a bush is rather a good self-defence mechanism, plenty good enough to deal with most of the little difficulties that a not entirely law-abiding country can throw at her. I liked the way she grows over the course of the book, finding out what works and what doesn't and using her talents not for power or glory, but as a low-key way to survive so that she can do what she really wants to do (mostly haunt the libraries and bookshops, which I can relate to).
This is the first of four novellas relating the beginnings of four characters to feature in a full-length fantasy novel later.  The book is intended for any age reader from 9 upwards, and it would work brilliantly with an adult reading it to a child, whether to draw out the subtleties and provoke discussion, or just to enjoy the subtext. It would be a great communal read for schools as well. Whether it works so well as an adult-only read is less certain. I thoroughly enjoyed it, as a refreshing change of pace from grittier adult fantasy, but despite the subtleties it felt very child-oriented at times. Not childish, but perhaps lacking some of the multi-layering of the best adult fantasy. This is not a criticism, just a comment and a matter of personal preference. An entertaining read, with deceptive simplicity and an unexpected degree of humour. Four stars.
 At the time of writing (June 2013) this is the only one of the four published, and the second novella, ‘Horse Feathers’, is currently being posted a chapter at a time on the website, which is at Amoeba Ink.
The blurb says that “Enoch’s Device is a fast-paced medieval adventure steeped in history, mythology, and mysteries from a dark and...moreFantasy Review Barn
The blurb says that “Enoch’s Device is a fast-paced medieval adventure steeped in history, mythology, and mysteries from a dark and magical past” and the only part I’d argue with is ‘fast-paced’. I found it rather a slow book overall, and although it’s not without plenty of action, there’s also a heavy dollop of the above-mentioned history and mythology. Long and detailed explanations, it has to be said, don’t exactly help the plot to skim along. The setting is Ireland, France and Moorish Spain in the year 997, with the threat of the coming apocalypse when the millennium ends, and a race to prevent disaster for Irish monks Ciarán and Dónall and French aristocrat Alais.
This is historical fantasy at its best - so deeply rooted in its period that to my inexpert eyes it seemed entirely authentic. The weaving together of historical data with biblical references, religious and pseudo-religious details (druids and the zodiac), mythological elements like the Fae and outright fantasy (demons and just a hint of dragons!) is masterfully done, with a wealth of detail, and I had very little idea which aspects were solid fact, which were inference or speculation, and which were invented wholesale. Whether it’s an Irish monastery, the streets of Paris, the rich farmlands of rural France or the Moorish city of Córdoba, the author paints a nuanced and believable picture. Sometimes I felt there was a little too much detail for the needs of the story, as if the author had to squeeze in every colourful bit of his research, but that’s a matter of personal preference.
Where the story really sagged, for me, was the vast amount of backstory that had to be revealed. Sometimes it seemed as if most of the interesting action had happened years before, and was told in flashback. My heart sank every time I came across a paragraph beginning: ‘It seemed as if it were only yesterday when...’ or similar. Despite the drama of these events, it’s still the past and therefore less interesting than the actual story (the journey of Ciarán and Dónall), which seemed very slow by comparison. Worse still, much of the backstory was told in a very dry, text-book style which I struggled to get through. For example:
“She had been born a child of Aquitaine, the richest province in Gaul. Her grandfather was the third William, called Towhead for the pale flaxen color of his hair. He was both count of Poitiers and duke of Aquitaine, and her grandmother was the daughter of Rollo, then duke of Normandy. Her father, Odo, was cousin to the fourth William, called Iron Arm, who had ruled Aquitaine for nearly thirty years. William Iron Arm had strengthened his alliances by marrying his sister to Hugh Capet, the late king of France and father of the current king, Robert, and by arranging his own marriage to Emma, daughter of the count of Blois, who was lord of neighboring Touraine. Alais’ mother, Adelais, too, had been bound in a political marriage— a gift from her father, the count of Toulouse, who was currying favor with the house of Poitiers.”
I’m sure this sort of stuff is endlessly fascinating to some readers, but I was (mentally) tapping my feet and muttering, ‘Yes, yes, but are these people important? Does the colour of his hair matter? And if not, can we get on with the story, please?’.
The characters are well-delineated and mostly believable, the only exception being Alais, the token female, whose role is merely to be rescued periodically, to act as plot device and to inspire and motivate Ciarán as the object of his desire. I wonder how many captivatingly beautiful women have to be captured/almost raped/burnt at the stake before this particular seam of fantasy clichés is finally worked out. Alais spends the book gasping in horror, clinging to Ciarán's hand, or standing frozen with terror as various sharp implements are hurled at her, so that the nearest man has to leap in front of her or drag her out of danger. And finally, the one useful role she seems destined to play is snatched away from her at the last minute. Bleargh. I hate these useless hand-wringing females. There’s a slightly unpleasant tone to the writing sometimes: one character was described as being fond of his wife ‘despite the fact that she had borne him no children’. I get that this is an era when women were subservient by law and custom (the nuns are required to be silent in church, for instance), but there’s no need for that attitude to spill over into authorial voice. As for the bad guys, they are out and out evil, which is par for the course if not particularly interesting.
Fortunately, the plot is nicely convoluted, and once the bulk of the backstory is got out of the way things go along swimmingly. There are puzzles for our heroes to solve, clues to follow, crypic utterances to interpret and symbols to speculate about. There's also a prophecied apocalypse to avoid, and a mysterious device (the 'Enoch's device' of the title) to be discovered, understood and (perhaps) deployed. It’s all hugely detailed and impressively academic-sounding. For example:
“There is a text, the Sefer Yetzirah— the Book of Creation— that tells how Abraham received a divine testimony of mystic lore. He lived long before Moses received the Torah, so he must have received something different. Abraham was the father of Jewish mysticism, much of which focuses on the origins of the many names of God, and the various combinations of sacred letters that make up those names, all in the quest to realize the one great name of God. That is the knowledge that many believe Abraham received. If this knowledge was embodied in a physical object, one theory is that it was a gemstone.”
There’s a lot of this sort of stuff, and it may all be complete tosh, but if so, it’s impressive sounding tosh and I found it quite easy to let it all slide by, mostly way over my head. Sometimes, it has to be said, the interpretations of all these not very obvious puzzles seems a bit glib (if it were that easy, how come no one else has worked it out?) but it still made a nice story as piece after piece fell into place, and our heroes are driven from place to place in their quest. As with the backstory, the interludes when the characters sit around interpreting and speculating and saying ‘Gosh, it must be...!’ (paraphrasing ever so slightly here) slow the pace down to glacial levels, but as the action gets more frantic and intense towards the end, the pauses are a welcome respite from the drama.
There were moments when the theological debate got quite interesting. Our Irish friends were very confident of the truth of their interpretations, which the more conventional priests saw as simple heresy. There is a moment when one of the priests makes a pronouncement about the apocalypse, and Ciarán immediately says 'How do you know that?' It's a good question, but the priest deflects it with an outraged 'How dare you presume to question me!' The voice of absolute authority putting down the ordinary person who has the temerity to say 'Yes but...'. I'm not sure whether the author is making a general point about organised religion, or illustrating the religious dogma of the day, or simply painting the character as a bad guy, but it struck a chord with me. In this particular case, the Irish interpretation of events is presumed to be the correct one purely because they are the protagonists in this particular story, but more than once I was wondering how exactly they could know particular facts. Some chains of logic seemed rather tenuous to me.
This is a long, intricate book, literate and full of convincing historical detail, with demons, magic swords, a prophecy, mad monks and a whole host of great fantasy elements to spice up the well-realised setting. It's a pity there's so much sitting around analysing texts between the battles and so much dry exposition, and for my taste the battles got a bit over the top towards the end. But hey, this is the apocalypse, after all, so it's allowed to be epic in scale. For those who are riveted by the tiny details of medieval life or enjoy puzzling over the hidden meanings in religious texts and zodiacal symbols, I highly recommend this book. Anyone who is prepared to put up with the explanations to get to the juicy battles with demons, it's still a great read. For anyone who, like me, would willingly sacrifice historical accuracy for a more evenly paced story, it doesn’t work quite so well. The action scenes are terrific, the long sections of exposition less so, and I would have liked a less insipid female lead character. Three stars. (less)
“My eyes snap open the moment I feel it. The magic is palpable. It tingles as it travels up and down my arms. I am not happy. Whoev...moreFantasy Review Barn
“My eyes snap open the moment I feel it. The magic is palpable. It tingles as it travels up and down my arms. I am not happy. Whoever dares disturb my century-long slumber will suffer my wrath.” So begins 'The Binding Stone', one of the most intriguing openings I've ever come across.
Leela is a Djinn (genie) awakened from sleep by an unwitting new Master, Jered. This is not the three wishes kind of genie, but a powerful enslaved Djinn, compelled to do whatever her Master of the day tells her to. Mostly what Masters want is sex, riches, sex, power, sex, revenge and sex. With a little light torture thrown in for light relief. Are humans really so horrible? But no, Jered isn't like that at all, and wants nothing except world peace. And sex, of course (well, duh; this is a romance, after all).
But Leela has a long history with fellow slave Djinns and some evil Masters who are bent on - well, see above. So the story becomes a merry-go-round of battling Masters and Djinns. It's all good exciting stuff. I really like the premise here - the story of the entrapped genie, but told from the genie's point of view. The backstory, the interactions of a thousand years earlier which resulted in the enslavement of the Djinni, is interwoven with the present day, so that the significance of certain events and characters gradually becomes clearer. This was quite neatly done, although I sometimes found the transitions between then and now rather jarring.
The plot is wonderfully convoluted, and I defy anyone to foresee all the twists and turns. There's a vast amount of people being captured and others rushing off to the rescue, in various combinations of characters, and to be honest I lost track sometimes of who was where, who was captured and who was rescuing them, who was definitely evil and who might be and who wasn't and who would be if they were free and who was but only because they'd been commanded to be, but I just let it wash over me, and kept turning the pages. It’s that kind of book. I didn’t always know what was going on, but I was confident the author had got it all worked out.
The characters worked well enough without being terribly real to me. Leela was the best portrayed, but then she is the sole point of view and the book is written in the first person, so that's not surprising. There were moments when her tragedy was very affecting. The other characters? Jered is a little too implausibly nice. Gabe makes a great sidekick. The bad guys are evil personified, and therefore entirely uninteresting (to me; I’m sure some people like that sort of thing). The child is a little too grown up for her age, but never mind. I rather liked Taj though, the ever so slightly camp Djinn. Maybe that's just because he had some of the best lines (I do like a bit of humour in my fantasy). The romance was a bit insta-lurve, but that's par for the course.
A couple of grumbles. First, Djinn magic is almost infinitely powerful. You want to fly, or tunnel through solid metal, or be transported instantly, or be invisible? No problem (except when it might divert the plot, of course; then it's impossible). There seems to be very little cost to any of this (again, except when the plot requires it).
Secondly, I often found it difficult to work out exactly what was going on. Several scenes I had to reread to understand, and there were many, many times when a character would apparently switch sides in a heartbeat. Taj is here to kill you. No he isn't. Oh, it's Mira who's going to kill you. Apparently not. All these rapidfire oscillations were tricky to follow, I didn't always get the reason and it got tedious after a while. Probably if I'd slowed down a bit, I could have worked it out, I suppose.
A third grumble: Leela herself repeatedly came up with a cunning plan only for it to fall apart instantly. Oh dear, I should have thought of that, she wails. Many, many times. So ten out of ten for good intentions, none out of ten for forward planning.
What I liked very much was that the slave Djinni were obliged to follow their Master's commands exactly, but a clever Djinn could obey the literal meaning of the order while subversively not following the intended meaning. This led to some interesting and creative twists to the plot. It's a very nice idea, having a slave who is forced to obey but is constantly working to undermine his/her Master at every step, but without attracting a spectacularly unpleasant punishment.
I found this one difficult to rate. On the one hand, it's a cracking read full of page-turning drama. It doesn’t pay to think too deeply about it, but the author has a light touch and a sure hand, so it all flows beautifully. There’s some nice emotional resonance in the Djinni’s situation, too. On the other hand, the constant oh no we're doomed/hurray we're saved/oops we're really doomed/nope saved again cycling got tired really quickly. That and the anything goes magic kept it to three stars for me. But for anyone less picky than I am (which is most of the planet) I can highly recommend it. (less)
This is the second in the 'Theft and Sorcery' series. I really enjoyed the first book, 'The Ritual', and this one is even better. I...moreFantasy Review Barn
This is the second in the 'Theft and Sorcery' series. I really enjoyed the first book, 'The Ritual', and this one is even better. It's not serious or grimdark or heavy or profound, but it is a whole lot of fun. It wouldn't be everyone's cup of tea, let's get that straight right from the start; there's a fair amount of graphic sex, although nothing kinky or disturbing to my eyes, and there's swearing of a similarly earthy nature, so anyone who's bothered by that should steer clear.
Although this book is essentially a stand-alone, it is directly connected to the first book, but set some sixty years later. The two main characters in 'The Ritual', Rin and Zash, turn up again here in a minor role. Being half-elves themselves, a sixty year gap makes them still young and active, not pensioners. The main leads, Sita, the first person point of view, and Kai, both half-elves, are new characters here. Last time, Rin was the thief and Zash a sorcerer, but this time both Kai and Sita are thieves, and Kai is also a sorcerer, a nice twist. The two meet while both are trying to burgle the royal palace, the joke being that Sita actually lives there, but she is being trained on the queen's instructions in various nefarious pursuits, as well as forms of combat.
This is a romance, first and foremost, but that doesn't mean that the fantasy element is perfunctory. The world-building has ramped up somewhat from the first book, where it felt decidedly sketchy. This time, the author fleshes out the political element, and a conspiracy by the various high magistrates (kind of like dukes, ruling a domain of their own) to assassinate the queen. Sita is part of a group sent off with the heir to the throne, Tio; his role is to make a royal tour of the kingdom and cosy up to the magistrates, and hers is to uncover evidence of the conspiracy. As they travel through the countryside, there is some interesting detail of the economic strengths of each one. It isn't very complicated - the coast has fish, the mountains have mines, the warm south has vineyards - but it serves to make the world feel more fleshed out and realistic.
The other aspect that I found interesting is the three races - elf, human and half-elf. In the previous book, elves ran everything, humans filled the equivalent of the middle classes and half-elves were mostly slaves. The end of the story saw a change, with the incoming queen giving all the half-elves citizenship. In this book, we find (unsurprisingly) that not everyone is happy with that situation (hence the assassination plot), and that things are a lot more complicated than they seem. Since elves have low fertility, humans breed like the proverbial rabbits (contraception seems to be unheard of) and half-elves are infertile, there's a lot of potential for sexual exploitation. Male elves in this world are horny devils, and have a thing for human women, hence the numbers of half-elves. This book explores some of the uneasy relationships between the races.
The plot rattles along beautifully. There's plenty of action, some truly dramatic moments and a scary twist at the end - one of those phew-we're-all-safe-oh-no! moments. And yes, of course there's a happy ever after at the end (this is a romance, after all), but there were quite a few heart-stopping, page-turning, gotta-keep-reading incidents along the way. The magic is nothing unusual - muttered incantations, hand-waviness, almost anything goes, although the user gets tired so there is a price to pay. I liked some of Kai's illusions, though; the coloured light thingies sounded lovely. So as a fantasy, this holds up very well.
What about the romance side of things? Short answer - terrific. The relationship between Sita and Kai is perfectly believable, the obstacles (an essential component of any romance) were realistic, even the instant attraction is nicely done. I have to say that Kai is one of the most charming heroes I've ever encountered, with none of the smug arrogance that so often characterises the male lead these days. There were moments when Sita was pushing him away and I was muttering: look, if you don't want him, dear, send him my way. You just don't find blokes as nice as that too often. I had slight issues with him turning out so well after the sort of experiences he'd had, but let's not quibble over that. The sex was well written without being over the top, and there were some moments of pure romance that were perfectly lovely (sigh...). One other aspect that struck me - even though our athletic heroes spent a lot of time screwing each other silly, and the early encounters were given in great detail, the author was restrained enough to skip much of the graphic description for the later episodes, so it never became overly repetitive.
I do have some issues with the morality question. In the first book, the main characters were thieves almost by necessity, since the alternative was slavery. Here, Kai is a thief from choice, and although he attempts to justify that (he only steals one or two items from those rich enough to afford it), it's still fairly questionable. More seriously, there is a point when our heroes decide to kill a number of guards in order to free a lot of slaves. The author doesn't avoid the issue, showing the characters' unease with the decision, but it still made me uncomfortable. The guards were, after all, just paid employees following their boss's orders, not the enemy in a war, and it seemed extreme to kill them. I would have liked it better if a more subtle way could have been found to free them. But it's a minor point.
This was a hugely enjoyable read that had me grinning from ear to ear at times, and was also an exciting page turner. It's not deep, and the characters fall neatly into the good or evil columns (no shades of grey here, moral ambiguities aside), but it's a lot of fun, and both the romance and fantasy elements work very well. Recommended for anyone who enjoys their fantasy entertaining and fast-paced, with a hefty dollop of sex thrown in. A good four stars.