Friday, 30 September 2011

Review: 'Cloak of Magic' by S A Rule

Some fantasy books sort of parachute you into the middle of the action, and hurl bits of information around in a whirlwind, and it can be several hundred pages before you begin to get your head above water (if you'll excuse the clashing metaphors) and work out at least some of what's going on. I hate that type of book, and fortunately this is quite the opposite. It starts slowly, with characters immersed in their world, and the background is released at a nice steady rate, so that it's not hard to keep up with what's going on. It's very pleasant to feel that you're at least a step or two ahead of some of the characters, anyway.

The world-building is rather good. Shahaios is a very believable and distinctive place, not so much because of any wildly original flora or fauna or climate (it feels vaguely European or perhaps Canadian to me, with forests, lakes, bears and deer, although there are unicorns, dragons and phoenixes too, to liven things up a little), but because of the carefully thought out social structure, which differentiates it from the standard sort of low-technology pseudo-medieval world. It feels a little utopian, but that's fine, this is fantasy. The evil Empire from beyond the mountains, on the other hand, is entirely conventional (it had a Romanesque feel to me). The magic is of the best type, too - simple but powerful, and with plenty of scope for development as the series continues.

Of the characters, Kierce is the most interesting by far. I liked the idea of the young man with unusual powers who uses them to win games and to get laid. Well, of course he does. So obvious. And when he reluctantly becomes the Lord High Magician, he discovers that politics is just another type of game. He also has a terrific sense of humour - I'm a sucker for a book that makes me laugh out loud. Caras is much less interesting - a worthy but dull (and very stupid) bloke. It's difficult to make such a character sympathetic, and I have to admit it took the entire book, but I did eventually get to that point. Orlii, the apparently mindless captive, is a wonderfully complex character, whose growth over the course of the book is entirely believable and deeply disturbing. Of the rest, although they are only lightly sketched out, and some need just a little more depth to make them truly shine, generally they succeed as rounded characters.

The plot, such as it is, relates the uneasy alliance between the militaristic Empire and the naive Shaihen, with their simple farming and hunting lifestyle, and built-in sense of equality and respect. They address everyone the same: first name for familiarity, or more respectfully as 'lord' or 'lady', from the barely adult farming girl, to the King himself, who is more of a 'first among equals' than a ruler. The political machinations associated with the arrival of the Empire's soldiers (after the King marries a daughter of the Emperor) are the usual sort of thing. It is the culture clash between the two very different lifestyles which provides most of the interest, and the author brilliantly conveys the near impossibility of either side trying to understand how the other's mind works. It's hard to elicit answers when you don't even know what questions to ask.

The widest gulf is in their belief systems. The Empire has a mish-mash of gods, with individuals believing in and worshipping their own selection from the available pantheon. Some are fanatical about their particular god, some are more pragmatic, and the gods themselves seem to require different responses from their adherents. And there are devils and demons and a hell, and a great deal of fear. The Shaihen, on the other hand, have no gods or demons, just a single magician, able to read and manipulate minds and tap into the spirit of the land and its people. Neither side really understands the other, and, most intriguingly, the Imperials, quite happy to believe in a myriad of invisible gods, are quite unable to believe in Kierce's magic. They assume it's just illusion, and if they see incontrovertable evidence, they shy away in fear from his 'sorcery'. It's a fascinating juxtaposition.

The story builds well, becoming a real page turner. Partly this is due (aspiring authors take note) to Rule's neat little chapter titles. It's very trendy these days to name each chapter for a specific character (so you turn the page and think - oh no, not him again!), or else there are no titles at all beyond the rather dull 'Chapter 17', which makes it easy to put the book aside. But when you finish a chapter and the next one is called something intriguing ('Encounter with a dragon', for instance, or 'Kierce makes an entry') it's all too easy to think - hmm, well, just one more chapter then. The book is well written, with only a few small typos and some odd chunks of repetition in the middle.

The climax of the story is both inevitable and very moving. This is not a story of great wars or wizardly duels, although there are a few battles and magical outbreaks along the way. This is about people, and how they understand and misunderstand each other, how they try to do what others want of them or try to avoid it, how they deceive themselves and others. Mostly, it's about illusions, and what happens when they are stripped away. It's a terrific book, actually, well thought out and absorbing. It reads perfectly well as a stand-alone, although it's actually the first part of a trilogy. An enjoyable read. Four stars.

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Review: 'Under the Stairs' by John G Stockmyer

The trouble with reading really wonderful fantasy is that for a while afterwards everything else seems incredibly meh. It's like eating a box of chocolates and then having to eat the cardboard box. This is probably an OK sort of book, but I just couldn't get through it. Premise: bloke buys an old house where strange things happen, discovers it's a portal to an alternate reality. The bloke and his modern world life are rather dull. The alternate reality is standard fantasy - there are mages and crystals and warring kingdoms and evil priests and a long-lost heir to the throne. Stop me if you've heard any of this before. There's also an Ethereal, a girl who has to be tortured to release some sort of power, which is (slightly) interesting. But none of it grabs me enough to keep reading. One star.

Sunday, 25 September 2011

Review: 'Rings of Poseidon' by Mike Crowson

I daresay it's me, but I just couldn't read this. I think there's an interesting story in here somewhere, but it's buried under a mountain of uninteresting characters and unnecessary details about the more mundane aspects of their lives. Do we really need to know what they ate, what the sleeping arrangements were, or the precise transportation details? Short summary: it's an archaeological dig in the Orkneys, they find some jewelry, it connects them in some mystical way with events of the past. That's it.

Review: 'The Preacher's Bride' by Jody Hedlund

I'm not exactly in the target audience for this book. It's described as an 'inspirational historical romance', and I don't do romance, I don't do historical and I certainly don't do inspirational. So what on earth am I doing reading it? Well, the author, Jody Hedlund, writes a blog about her authorial and family life that I rather enjoy. She sounds like a nice lady, who writes in her spare time, while also home-schooling five young children. Presumably she doesn't chain them up in the cellar while she writes, so I daresay there's a tame husband in the picture too. I have nothing but admiration for those who manage to create something for themselves, as well as baking cookies, bandaging grazed knees and all the myriad other duties of motherhood.

That in itself isn't enough to make me rush out and buy her book, but I was fascinated to read the reviews, because they were almost uniformly glowing, and far too many to all be written by friends of the author. That was intriguing. So when I discovered that the Kindle version was a free download, I decided to find out for myself what it was like. It took me a while to get into it (did I mention it's not my usual type of thing?) but I was determined to give it a fair shot, so I kept going.

In historical terms, I have no idea how accurate it is. The Kindle version employs an irritating pseudo-archaic font with curly bits, and the text is sprinkled with 'twas' and 'besure' and 'mine own' and 'oft' and suchlike, which don't always sound totally convincing. I got very little sense of place - there are few descriptions of buildings or scenery or clothes, so I had to use my imagination a lot. I wasn't even sure if it was set in England for a while. But occasionally the author uses a term or describes an event (like the bread-making) which sounds completely authentic, so she's obviously done her research.

The romance is - well, the usual thing. Two people who absolutely positively don't even like each other, but after a series of trials find that they do, actually, quite a lot. The hero and heroine are a bit irritating to start with. Elizabeth is a curious mixture of determined assertiveness and maidenly helplessness. She's quite priggish with her sister, too, constantly nagging her virtuously to be more of a good person. John is quite gruff and snappy, but then he has just lost his wife, so perhaps that's only to be expected. He's supposed to be quite a charismatic character, but that never quite came across to me.

The inspirational part is not a problem. There's a lot of talk about doing God's work and submitting to the will of God, but that's very much in keeping with the setting. Maybe I'm cynical, but it surprised me just how often God's will turned out to coincide with exactly what a character wanted to do anyway.

I had some issues with the logistics of the plot. The initial premise that the local matrons would allow a baby to die rather than permit an unsuitable (read: not a virtuous person like us) wet-nurse seemed a bit of a stretch to me, and I couldn't totally buy into Elizabeth's excessive zeal to remedy the situation. And when she found the unsuitable Lucy, the matrons apparently do nothing about it. Then there is the evil Mr Foster. I know times were different then, but they were not quite lawless, and I find it difficult to believe that anyone, however rich or powerful, could get away with murder in broad daylight without any fear of retribution. In fact, the bad guys were far too bad altogether, and the good guys were a little too virtuous. Shades of grey are much more interesting and believable than outright black and white. But then, it's a book about Christians and persecution, so perhaps that's inevitable.

The other issue is that much of the tension in the romance part of the story hinges on the fact that the protagonists either misunderstand each other or deliberately refuse to talk to each other. Given that both of them are supposedly eloquent and persuasive speakers, it seems odd that they become so inarticulate with each other. The author makes a good attempt at explaining this away, but it remains a hindrance to credibility.

But despite these minor niggles, the story rattles along quite nicely and becomes a real page-turner. None of the minor characters have much real depth to them, although the shallow Catherine was more interesting than most. Elizabeth's suitor, Samual Muddle, is made into a cartoonishly ridiculous figure, but it seems to me that her dilemma would be given more pathos if he were less silly - a worthy but dull man, perhaps. However, the hero and heroine were quite well done, considering how difficult it can be to make such pious characters sympathetic (the villain is always easier to write, and to read about too!). There were some philosophical points in there, too, about who has the greatest right to interpret the word of God, and the effect on a highly structured society of working class people taking control of their own beliefs. Since the story is based (rather loosely) on the life of John Bunyan and his second wife Elizabeth, his ideas are bound to infuse the book. Some of the dialogue is apparently taken directly from his writings.

On the whole, the book was enjoyable enough and surprisingly readable - well, it surprised me. As a debut effort, it has some structural flaws, and the writing is sometimes a bit clunky, but the romance was nicely done, if a little overwrought at times, and the historical aspects were interesting. Three stars.

Saturday, 24 September 2011

Review: 'The Lions of al-Rassan' by Guy Gavriel Kay

Well, this was a three Kleenex book and no mistake. That's three boxes of Kleenex, of course. Not a book to read on public transport, unless you have no embarrassment gene. No one does grand tragedy quite like Kay. But I'm not totally sure what genre this is. It's more fantasy than anything else, but the world-building is lifted more or less wholesale from the real world, and to say the magic is minimal would be to overstate the case. One individual with sporadic visions does not a magic system make. Not that it makes the book any better or worse to have a neat pigeon-hole for it, of course, but still....

I regard myself as a Kay fan, but I was surprisingly reluctant to start reading this. My only previous encounter with the author was 'Tigana' which I consider a brilliant book, but deeply flawed. Unfortunately, the problems with that book - an over-wrought writing style, too much introspection, a few plot holes, unconvincing last-minute romances - are quite likely to be repeated here. This book is problematic in another way for me, too - it is apparently based on medieval Spain, and the religions are closely modelled on those of the era, only thinly disguised. I find it very disconnecting in a fantasy world to come across anything that reminds me directly of real-world matters. But happily I know nothing at all about that time and place, and 'Tigana' was modelled on medieval Italy and that didn't impinge at all. Altogether, Kay's writing is (mostly) so good that I absolutely have to read this, albeit with concerns.

Typically, having laid out all these reservations, I was under Kay's spell again almost instantly. This is partly the old trick of dangling a mystery under the reader's nose - you have to read on to find out more. What happened to Jehane's father? Whatever catastrophe befell Alvar? But partly it was just the wonderful evocative prose that drew me in. The prologue couldn't quite match the tragedy of the 'Tigana' equivalent, but it was still hugely immersive. Then it was immediately into the middle of a whirlwind of names and places and sly references to events which the reader can't possibly understand (but this is standard fantasy strategy). Despite this, the opening chapters are very readable, with events and settings and characters all interesting in their different ways, culminating in the very moving disclosure of what happened to Jehane's father.

And then somehow, as things move on and the story gets into its stride, everything becomes inexplicably camp and joky and almost silly. Everyone is beautiful and clever and immaculately dressed and three steps ahead of the game. Enemies are easily out-manoeuvred and made to look stupid. The men are super-skilled warriors (or want to be) and/or terribly clever strategists, the women are feisty and opinionated, even the doctor of the low-ranking sect, who should be appropriately subservient, and instead of having her head chopped off for her insubordination, is treated with a chivalrous respect bordering on deference. And everyone has amazing sex, even the religious one who really feels she shouldn't but somehow just can't help herself. There's a certain amount of climbing around on balconies, and writing magnificent poetry, and masquerading unnoticed as a slave, and being tied up by your own wife (one of the feisty women, naturally) leading to more amazing sex. There's a moment where the two leading male protagonists' eyes meet across a crowded room which would be in slow motion if it were a film. It could almost be a parody. And for some completely unknown reason, every time one bloke's pearl ear-ring was mentioned, I had a sudden mental image of Captain Jack Sparrow. And the one with the moustache - Tom Selleck. Very disconcerting.

Fortunately, Kay is a skilled writer who never quite lets things slip out of his grasp into the ridiculous. There's a lot of introspection and people standing around analysing and explaining things to each other, but just at the point where you start thinking - that's enough, get on with it - things start happening again. And all that analysing does make it easy to follow the intricacies of the political situation. There's a lot of jumping about from one perspective to another, and some of the jumping is in time, too, so you hear about an event from one character and later (sometimes much later) see it happen from a different perspective. This is confusing at first, but quickly becomes easy to follow.

The characters are all larger than life, but then sometimes, even in real life, people really are that talented, that charismatic, that brilliant, that far-sighted. The story is about sweeping changes and epic battles and extraordinary times, and maybe that demands extraordinary characters to match. Kay's skill is in also making them human and believable, which he does much better here than in 'Tigana', although a few frailties wouldn't have gone amiss either. Sometimes one tires of perfection.

The various cities, or the parts we see, are created with a nice eye for detail, although the world beyond is only sketched in with a word or two here and there. The author brilliantly conveys the nuances of the different societies and religions in his world, and the uneasy tensions between them - the pious and unrefined Jaddites in the north, the relaxed and cultured Asharites in al-Rassan, and the fanatical desert-dwelling Muwardis to the south. And caught in the middle, the quiet and learned Kindath, despised by everyone.

Eventually, the story builds to the point where Our Heroes are no longer three steps ahead of everyone else, and start having to react to events, and this is where things really become tense. I do find it a little odd that, just as the continent-wide war is coming to the boil, some of the top warriors start careering all over the place on purely personal business, to rescue two specific individuals, the parents of a friend. I know that Kay is making a point about friendship and loyalty (regardless of faith) here, so I let it pass, but it still seems a little suspect for contracted warriors to just take off like that.

And so the point arrives that has been unavoidable almost from the start, and the reason for all the Kleenex. And even though I guessed it had to come, I still wanted, deep inside, someone to see sense and call a halt to it all. There has to be a better way to settle differences than having the prime of your manhood slaughtering each other on the battlefield. Football, maybe. Going off to the pub and getting plastered and singing maudlin songs together. Pretty much anything, really. The ending actually feels slightly rushed - a quick summary of the war so far, leading to the inevitable confrontation, where Kay totally cheats - he doesn't tell us the outcome, moving instead to an epilogue twenty years later, with at least two clear pieces of deliberate misdirection before we finally find out what happened. Naughty.

This is one of those books that stays with you. Despite the sometimes overwrought writing style, despite the oddly camp moments, the story has both breadth and depth. The themes it touches on are timeless - duty and honour and the glory of war, as well as the personal tragedy of it. Friendship and loyalty and love and family. The nature of civilisation. Why good men who share love and trust and respect can still kill each other for abstractions like god and country. How honourable and pious people can do unspeakable things to their fellow humans. It's all very depressing, but then it's about war and religion so common sense doesn't come into it. I would have liked a more upbeat ending, but this is Kay's story and it certainly carries great emotional resonance.

My initial reservations were not entirely without foundation. The setting was too close to historical reality for my taste, and the three religions were too easily equated with Christianity, Islam and Judaism. Kay's writing style is still highly emotional, but, compared with 'Tigana', I felt it was under better control here, and the love affairs were much better integrated - entirely integral to the story and given some depth, instead of feeling like an afterthought. I enjoyed this one even more, and see it as a very worthy five stars.

Monday, 19 September 2011

Review: 'The Emperor's Snuff Box' by John Dickson Carr

This was first published in 1942. The author has written numerous murder mystery novels, usually of the locked room type, and other seemingly impossible situations. Many are out of print now, but still obtainable second hand. My daughter got hold of this one, complete with yellowed pages, but the antique state of the book fits with the slightly archaic style of writing.

I found it a little difficult to read - I guess writing styles have changed somewhat in the last half century or more. The author takes the omniscient role, jumping from head to head with impunity, which is something no self-respecting writer would attempt these days. In this context, a murder mystery where every character is initially suspect, it is disconcerting to be told categorically what this or that one is feeling. I wasn't at all sure who I could trust, or even whether I could trust the author.

The mystery itself wasn't too difficult, surprisingly. I guessed the culprit early on, and spotted A Big Clue about half way through, so the ultimate reveal wasn't much of a surprise, although there were enough red herrings to keep me wondering if I was right until the very last moment, and plenty of background details which I could have guessed if I'd been paying attention. But there were a number of implausibilities which kept it from being a real success.

My main complaint was the characters. The female protagonist was quite the most spineless creature I've ever had the misfortune to read about. I just wanted to slap her. The others were very cardboard, without a single one who felt like a real, rounded human being. And the detective (actually a psychologist of some sort) was downright irritating, claiming to have worked out the whole story at an early stage but refusing to give any hints. In fact, the author had to jump through hoops to manage this, with several instances where he's about to reveal something, only to be conveniently interrupted or else there's a clunky jump to the next scene. So a nice mystery but not the best written ever. Three stars.

Saturday, 17 September 2011

Review: 'Soul Identity' by Dennis Batchelder

Another free ebook, another plunge into the unknown. Will it be brilliant (unlikely) or trash (more likely) or simply a workmanlike, if readable, effort (most likely). The premise is intriguing - everyone has a unique soul identity, recognisable from the eyes, which reappears down the generations, enabling those with the foresight to bequeathe their future selves their wealth, artworks and knowledge. So far, so promising.

The opening is good - the first-person protagonist, Scott, is a security consultant and computer expert with a likeable personality, a laid-back lifestyle and two of the gamest parents on the planet. And the quaint Bob, and the way Scott is drawn into the soul identity business, are charming and very enjoyable. But after that things get a little bogged down. The new characters come thick and fast, each with some distinguishing folksy quirk rather than a personality, and there's a huge info-dump of background history, made clunkier than it needs to be by the first person narration which forces it all into rather stilted dialogue.

Although the plot rattles along at a fair pace, there's time for detours to India and Venice, where the author takes the opportunity to show off his in-depth research of both places. Not that either place has anything significant to do with the story, they feel more as if they were shoe-horned in because the author has actually visited them and wanted to show off his knowledge of local colour.

On the whole, the plot is fairly predictable. The writing style is so flat that the denouement (which should have been a dramatic moment) is, like the rest of the book, completely free of tension. The characters never rise above the level of cardboard cutouts, and show virtually no emotion no matter what happens to them (even when they are almost blown up). I'm not a big fan of angsty hand-wringing, but I'd expect a slightly stronger response than - well, that was a surprise, here's what we'll do next. In fact, none of the characters really behave believably (although the excitement-seeking parents should get an honourable mention here), and I simply didn't care about any of them.

This isn't a bad book, if you like this sort of thing, and there's a layer of religious philosophy-lite which might appeal to some people, and hey, it's free, which is always good, right? And I finished it, which is something, I suppose. But I really can't give it more than two stars.

Thursday, 15 September 2011

Review: 'Principles of Angels' by Jaine Fenn

I saw a review of a later book in the same 'Hidden Empires' series, and thought this was worth trying. Each book is an independent story, but they are all set in the same world/universe and later there is some overlap of characters. The genre is science fiction, but with a fantasy feel about it, at least for this book.

I have to admit to a certain ambivalence about this book. The setting - a decadent city with a violently seedy underworld, and a protagonist just barely surviving on the margins of society - is one that I normally avoid. I've put aside several highly rated books that zoomed in too quickly on torture or grim malevolence or piles of dismembered corpses. Life's too short to read such depressing stuff. But oddly, this one kept me turning the pages, almost despite myself, and I'm not quite sure why. Maybe because, despite the background, it's not really that grim. And another thing - why is it that, no matter how original the setting, somehow the society falls into traditional patterns? It would be refreshing for once to read about characters who get laid or stoned in safe, hygenic government-run facilities, while having to sneak around in dangerous back alleys dealing with crooks just to get themselves a wee dram. Anyway, on to the book.

The opening drew me in at once. Taro, one of the two main protagonists, is on the run, fearing for his life, in the (literal) underworld of the floating city he inhabits, since his aunt, an Angel, was killed two days before. Now the young man living off society's dregs is a dull cliche, and there's the usual heavy splattering of impenetrable jargon to wade through, but the half-Angel lineage is intriguing. Taro is a likeable character, a prostitute by choice, and charmingly well-meaning but naive, almost innocent, in many ways. Despite his best intentions, he gets himself into trouble at every turn.

The other main character, Elarn, is very different. She's also naive, and obviously forced into a horrible situation against her will, which should make her sympathetic. Instead, she's whiny and tearful and helpless and falls instantly in lurve and.... well, generally manages to be really, really irritating. If she were sixteen, this might be just about tolerable, but she appears to be much older than that (although her actual age is not mentioned, or else I missed it).

Some aspects of the book's world struck me as rather hard to believe. The attempted mugging of Elarn seemed quite implausible in a city which seems to depend for its livelihood on tourism - surely there would be some basic kind of security for arriving visitors, rather than a life-threatening encounter the instant she set foot in the city? And I found it hard to get a feel for the nuances of this society. Despite the dramatic opening with its underdog impression, within a few pages Taro is talking matter-of-factly with the Minister (presumably the equivalent of the Mayor). Later, he moves seamlessly among his gangland underworld, the high-ranking and respected Angels, and the city above, despite being effectively an outlaw. We are told repeatedly that his protected status lapsed when his aunt died, yet he moves insouciantly around the city, both above and below, without much difficulty, and seems constantly to land on his feet, whatever scrapes he gets into. But on the whole, the plot is easy to understand and free of unexplained coincidences.

The writing style is rather flat. Encounters which appear to be life-threatening actually have no tension at all. Only occasionally does the author manage to generate a crackle of real fear. But eventually, more than half way through, the story kicks into a higher gear, the stakes are ramped way up and things get nicely exciting. There's a little too much straight exposition here, and the point of view hops frenetically from one character to another, which I found distracting and a little difficult to follow, but nevertheless everything builds page-turningly to the dramatic finale. Some of the twists were predictable, and some were underwhelming, and there's an outbreak of over-wrought hyperbole near the end (although I understand the effect the author was attempting), but still the ride was fun.

For a debut, this was a competent effort, very readable and thoroughly enjoyable. I shall certainly be reading more in the series. Four stars.

Sunday, 11 September 2011

Review: 'Wycliffe and the Guild of Nine' by W J Burley

It's always difficult deciding what to read next after a particularly absorbing book. I find it impossible to plunge straight into another book of the same genre, and if a book is particularly haunting or emotionally draining, it can be hard to read anything at all. So I have a reserve of formulaic books that are gently easy to read - rather like the sorbet to clear the palette between courses, they are insubstantial and easy to digest.

Wycliffe books fall into this category. Every one follows the same pattern. There's a murder, and a group of eccentric suspects with mysterious and devious pasts to be uncovered, and a morose but persistent detective who gradually pieces it all together (but not before the reader, hopefully). It's all rather charming and cosy. There are more than twenty Wycliffe stories, all set in Cornwall.

This particular one is a follow-on to 'Wycliffe and the Quiet Virgin', in that some of the characters from that one reappear here, but it isn't at all necessary to have read the earlier book first (although it would be odd to read it afterwards, since this book gives away key aspects of the plot). This isn't a demanding read (one of the big mysteries was, I thought, blindingly obvious) and the big reveal of whodunnit is quite simplistic, but nevertheless it whiled away a few hours very pleasantly. Not great literature, but then it has no pretensions to be. If they were a little cheaper, I would probably buy the whole lot.

Thursday, 8 September 2011

Essay: On Reviews (Writing and Reading)

For most of my life, whenever I read a book, I simply enjoyed it (or not) and moved on. I rarely wondered what it was about a book that I liked (or didn't), or which parts worked (or failed). But three years ago, I joined a book club and started reading books that were outside my comfort zone, more literary than the science fiction and murder mysteries that had kept me entertained for decades. The club discussions were lively, to put it mildly, but I found it very difficult to string any coherent thoughts together. I read each book carefully, but I could never find much to comment on. Some I liked well enough, and some I didn't, but I could never work out why. This gave me a vague sense of unease - it should be possible, surely, to analyse the content in more meaningful ways than: 'well, it was OK, I suppose'? The most I could ever say was that I liked such and such a character, or the prose was difficult (or easy) to read. It wasn't very satisfactory, but no one else in the group was very much better.

But then one of the club members went to some trouble to find out the background to one of the books. He looked up details of the author, her personal life, the stimulus for the story and some of the reviews. I didn't like the book any better, but it made it more interesting. So I decided to approach the problem differently. For each book, I would read reviews of it, and whatever other information I could find, before I started reading, in the hope that I would find the process more meaningful. I read reviews on Amazon, and then discovered the (better) reviews on Goodreads, and then I started getting interested.

I began, rather tentatively, to write my own reviews, and started to wonder a little about the craft of writing - about structure and pacing and character development and plot arcs and all the other technicalities. I started reading books on writing, and even dabbled a little with writing software. Not that I'm a writer, but it gave me some perspective. And I found that it all helped to focus my mind on the mechanics of a book as I was reading, so that at the end of it, I could begin to say with some confidence whether the characters (or plot or pacing) worked or not. Gradually my own reviews became more detailed, and nowadays I try to review every book I read (although the formulaic murder mysteries and cheap self-published ebooks might not merit more than a few lines - my longest reviews tend to be for fantasy).

So what goes into a review? Generally I try to comment on the first chapter; characters; writing style; pacing; plot; ending; and an overall impression. For fantasy, I'll also cover world building and magic. Having specific topics to cover ensures that the review has some structure, and also helps me to notice weaknesses (and strengths) as I read. I try to write the review as I go along, otherwise it gets a bit difficult to remember that part in chapter 7 which felt clunky or over the top. I try to mention the things I liked as well as the things I disliked, but I don't feel any obligation to 'balance' a review: if I hated a book, I'll say so.

Some people feel that a review should always be positive - the basic principle being, I suppose, that if you can't say anything good, you shouldn't say anything at all. I've even seen one poor blogger agonising over what to do when someone asks her to review a book and she really didn't like it. There's no need for such angst. Any review is just one person's opinion, neither more nor less. I have hated books that other people raved about (and vice versa, of course), so I don't feel any compunction in giving my opinion (politely, naturally).

Is there any such thing as a good book? I've waded through critically acclaimed works that I found completely unreadable, I've struggled through (and abandoned) books with strings of glowing reviews, and surely most of us have read bestsellers and emerged, puzzled, wondering just what so many millions of people saw in such tosh. So, no, I don't think there is such an animal as a 'good book'. Popular, maybe, or classic, or interesting, but 'good' is too nebulous a concept to be nailed down.

On the other hand, there may well be such a thing as a bad book. Whatever the plot or characters may be like, if it's badly written, it's a bad book. And I don't just mean using too many adverbs and cliches and other such issues beloved of the creative writing gurus - if it's ungrammatical, poorly spelled, or full of typos, it's badly written. I find, however, that grammatical errors and the like go hand in hand with poorly drawn characters and an unbelievable plot (although you still get these even with soundly constructed prose).

What is the downside of writing reviews? The main problem is that once you start analysing as you go, it becomes impossible to stop. I have heard professional writers compain about the same issue - when you are aware of writing techniques, you no longer have the ability to simply lose yourself in the story, since you're constantly noticing the clever foreshadowing, or the deftly managed rise in tension, or the subtle use of dialogue to convey character. Of course, if you do find yourself immersed in the story, that's a clear sign of a well written book. Personally, I find it's the negative aspects which tend to jerk me out of my state of disbelief - an overly hyperbolic chapter, an unbelievable plot contrivance, or an action that's out of character.

Anyone can write reviews. If you can read, you can review. All that's necessary is to give your opinion of what you liked and disliked, and (most important) to give some reason why. Even if you loved a book, it's not useful to simply say so: 'it was AWESOME!' won't help you to work out later whether to read another book by the same author, nor will it help anyone else decide whether to buy the book.

And that brings me to the other important aspect of reviews. Book-buying sites like Amazon encourage readers to add their own reviews, in the hope of making it easy for potential purchasers to decide whether or not a book is for them. There are also book-lovers' sites like Goodreads and Shelfari, with their own reviews facility. The more people who post reviews and ratings, the more information is out there and the more meaningful it is. Anyone who uses these sites regularly, and reads the reviews on them, will be aware of the number of glowing reports. If you've just read some amateurish trash, it can be quite a shock to find Amazon awash with 5 star ratings. Did so many people really love this? Or are they all friends of the author?

It can be very difficult to interpret such reviews, particularly for new or unusual books, which generally have very few. With a popular best-seller, there may be thousands of them, which gives a good statistical average of the ratings, although it can be difficult to trawl through the reviews themselves to find the most useful (useful being, in this context, those which are a reasonable length and which explain the good and bad points in some detail). But when there are only a few, it becomes more problematic, because some or all of them may not be trustworthy. So how can you tell?

Firstly, some reviewers are honest enough to confess if their opinion may be skewed. Anything that starts: 'I've known Bill for years, and this is not my usual type of reading, but hey, I thought it was brilliant...' can probably be ignored. Anyone who receives an advance review copy (ARC), or otherwise gets given a copy in exchange for a writeup,  is also supposed to state this. Some reviews of this type are moderately honest, but many are from semi-professional reviewers - they may run a blog, or simply hang around discussion groups volunteering. Some get paid for their reviews, or get other inducements. The top reviewers on Amazon (yes, they have a grading system) fall into this category, and when you see how many reviews they churn out, it's obvious that they must be paid for it in some way (only the most altruistic would do all that for nothing).

But how can you tell? The FOBs (friends of Bill) are easy enough to spot. On Amazon, you can click the 'See all my reviews' link, and you will see that they've only posted a very small number of reviews. They tend to fall into the 'it was AWESOME' category, too, and may be quite short, with lots of CAPITALS and !!!!! Bear in mind, too, that these may not be FOBs at all, and may not even be real people - it's not uncommon for the author himself/herself (or agent, publisher, etc) to create a spurious account (a sockpuppet) in order to post positive reviews. The semi-professionals, on the other hand, have numerous reviews, and they're often long and superficially genuine, but they tend to follow a formula and be very upbeat, with few negatives. You don't get freebies from authors and publishers by being overly critical. Basically, any book with just a handful of glowing reviews is suspect.

Even if there are more reviews to choose from, it's not easy to spot the genuine ones. I routinely ignore both 5 star and 1 star reviews. A 3 star review is often a good guide, because no fake review would give such a low rating. If it's several paragraphs long, and makes some negative comments, even better. A reviewer who has published a number of other reviews in the same genre is also a good bet.

But however difficult it can be to find genuine information, it's still better than the good old days when the only information you had to go on was the cover and the publisher's blurb on the back. At least nowadays there is a possibility of finding unbiased reviews from people who have actually read the book. And with care, reading between the lines, it's possible to work out whether it might be the sort of book you would enjoy.

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

Review: 'Stormlord's Exile' by Glenda Larke

And so on to the final part of the 'Watergivers/Stormlords' trilogy. At this point, I'm sufficiently invested in the characters and their world to care deeply about what happens to them. I have no expectations, going in, as to where the story will end up. The obvious possibility is a simple return to the status quo - Shale and Terelle will succeed in finding a new source of water-power (whether from the mysterious Khromatis or elsewhere) and everyone will settle down to rebuild the Scarpen cities with water supply assured.

But there are other potential outcomes too. It may be that the stormlord approach will fail utterly, and there will be a return to the time of random rain and everyone will have to adjust to a new, more flexible, way of life. But there is also the question of why there is a problem with rain in the Quartern at all, given that elsewhere water is plentiful. So it may be that some way will be found to change the climate entirely. This will still require a lot of adjustment, but it might be a better long-term solution. So the author could go in any one of a number of different directions, all with satisfying and emotionally resonant endings.

There are some implausibilities creeping into the plot, the convenient secrecy of the Alabasters, for instance. And Shale's propensity for rushing off to deal personally with whatever crisis is going on makes for an exciting ride, and is consistent with his personality and age (he's still a teenager, after all), but it isn't very sensible, given that he's the only stormlord left in existence. And I have to agree with the (several) characters who pointed out to him that going off to talk to his hostile brother in his own camp, and almost unaccompanied, is a seriously stupid thing to do.

And then there's Bice and his motley collection of sons. The bad guys have been a little too openly evil right from the start, but at least the likes of Taquar and Laisa have a certain charm. Bice, however, has none, and I find it difficult to accept a character who is so instantly aggressive and murderous. I like my villains to have at least a little personality. Besides, the obvious response to Terelle turning up out of the blue in Khromatis is to disbelieve her story entirely. She can't become Pinnacle unless she is accepted as the rightful heir, yet Bice never questions her ancestry.

Somehow this book seems a little more uneven than the previous two. Minor skirmishes early on become unexpectedly fraught, while other situations which should have been hazardous or difficult pass off unexpectedly easily, almost frivolously. The acquisition of new stormlords passes almost without comment, even though all indications are that the Khromatis will be highly unwilling to help out, and one of them, at least, is taken forcibly. Virtually nothing is said about whether their powers are even suitable (I recall just one casual comment), even though this is a crucial factor in the entire trilogy. Some aspects of the plot, and some minor characters, are dealt with in an almost perfunctory way. There were a number of places, too, where I lost track of who was speaking and had to reread carefully to work it out. This happens occasionally in every book, but it seemed a lot more frequent here than in the previous two. And there were quite a few small typos towards the end, as if the author was rushed.

I also felt there were some loose ends left dangling. I half expected Bice to make a reappearance, for instance, and I was surprised we never heard how Jade learned of what happened to her two sons. Much was made of keeping this from her, so I would have expected the point to be resolved. Nor did we ever find out how Khromatis coped with the loss of the rightful heir. Again, much was made earlier of the point that the position of Pinnacle was inherited and there could be no other option. And we never did find out exactly why the Quartern had so little rain when seemingly other parts of the world were generously supplied. I suppose it was just a climatic shift, but it would have been nice to know if this was natural or man-induced or magical, at the least.

But, niggles aside, the major plot points were resolved in suitably dramatic and satisfying ways (some twists I saw coming, but others were a complete surprise). The final confrontation with Ravard was particularly poignant, encompassing both tragedy and humanity. I didn't foresee Shale's final decision, but it made sense. The last chapter felt slightly rushed, though - not much more than a quick summary of where everyone ended up, almost as an afterthought.

Overall, this is a nice example of what fantasy should be. Larke's world-building is excellent, and while the level of detail is no more than in many other books, she is quite brilliant at keeping the reader fully immersed. She is a painter with words, using just a few brushstrokes here and there to sketch in the background in the most economical way. She uses a few simple tricks ('ye be going...' or 't'see...') to suggest the dialects of the White Quarter and the Gibber Quarter, and even the multitude of swearwords (sunfried, sandbrain, pedeshit...) constantly reinforce the hot, arid nature of the Quartern and its sheer differentness. It's great fun to visit Khromatis in this book, and encounter natural rain (and even snow!) from the perspective of the water-starved Quartern folk. The plot rattles along nicely, building slowly but inexorably to the major confrontations, which are not always resolved by brute force. In addition, the main characters are likeable, but with enough quirks to make them interesting, the magic system is both simple and powerful (and creates numerous entertaining and original ways of fighting and overcoming obstacles), and the plot derives almost entirely from the situation. Only the slightly over-the-top evilness of the bad guys detracts, and mostly there is enough depth to make them believable.

I always like a book that makes me think, and there's plenty here to ponder - the origins of religion, for instance, or the nature of prejudice (each of the regions has its own set  - Scarpen folk are scathing about dark-skinned 'Gibber grubbers', but perfectly accepting of sexual preferences), or the necessity for killing, even in time of war, and whether you would ever sacrifice the life of your own child for the greater good. Then there is the matter of family loyalty and how far it should stretch. And perhaps the largest question of this book, set in a land of severe water shortages - how to distribute what resources you have, and whether it's better to build vulnerable cities or try to live more simply in harmony with the landscape. Cleverly, Larke never beats the reader over the head with her own views. Rather she allows her characters to put forward the alternate positions, so that, for example, when two infants are (separately) held as hostages, their fathers take different stands on whether to try to preserve the child's life, whatever the cost. All in all, this is very elegantly done.

I have to say that it's a long time since I've enjoyed a fantasy trilogy this much. Often they start well, but bog down in overly complicated plot developments, or the characters fail to develop believably, and more often than not they concentrate on the action scenes or the grand confrontation in book 3 to the detriment of everything else. Larke avoids these pitfalls, and adds a layer of subtlety, and a spare, clean writing style, which make every chapter a joy to read. I don't often give 5 star reviews, and by itself this book would perhaps just fall short, but the overall quality of the series deserves it.

Thursday, 1 September 2011

Review: 'Stormlord Rising' by Glenda Larke

This, the second in the 'Watergivers' trilogy, picks up exactly where the previous one left off, in the immediate aftermath of battle, and the surviving characters are all plunged into crisis without preamble. Having grumbled in my review of book 1 that so many major characters died, my complaint this time is over the number who miraculously survived, despite being believed dead. I suppose there's just no pleasing some people. Given all these unlikely reincarnations, maybe we will yet see Lyneth and Moiqa? Well, maybe not.

The events of the previous book and the background of the Scarpen cities and their rainlords and stormlords are sketched in rather briefly here and there, but it might not be enough for anyone coming back to the story after a long gap. The pace is rapid from the start and never lets up, so anyone who's not up to speed on the story so far is liable to get left behind.

All our main characters are trapped in situations not of their making. Terelle is a prisoner of Russet's water-painting magic, Shale is forced to work alongside the devious Taquar, while Ryka and Kaneth are slaves of the Reduners, the dune nomads. This creates real tension, and the plot races along as they all work to set themselves free (with varying degrees of success), although not without useful dialogues which serve to keep the reader well informed about all the various options. It is a little surprising, actually, how often these people sit down in the midst of dire circumstances to talk at great length, and this reaches ridiculous levels near the end when Shale and Ravard hold a full conversation in the middle of a massive battle.

The world-building is necessarily less detailed in this book, but we do move out of the Scarpen cities and into some of the other regions. We saw a little of the Gibber plains last time out, but this time we also see the Red Quarter (home of the dune tribes) and the White Quarter (the salt plains of the Alabaster folk), and both of these are interesting scenically and in their societal structures, as well as giving us some insight into the economics of Quartern life. We haven't yet seen the coast or the mysterious Khromatis region, but perhaps that will come in book 3.

It is nice to learn more about the indigenous lifeforms, notably the seriously scary ziggers, truly the stuff of nightmares, and the ubiquitous pedes, used for both riding and carrying. Rather delightfully, the pedes turn out to have personalities and memory, and even affection for humans who treated them kindly in the past, which is unexpectedly charming. I never would have thought I'd consider giant creepy-crawlies in terms of 'Ah, how sweet!' but that's fantasy for you.

We also learn something of the various religions - the dune gods of the Reduners, the One True God of the Alabasters, and the delightfully earthly origin of the Sungod worshipped in the Scarpen cities, the giver of water-powers. This is hugely entertaining stuff. I particularly liked the thought tossed out, almost as an aside, that the innate water-sensing ability is god-given and not magical at all, while the power of water painting is sorcery and therefore totally evil. This is, of course, a question which should be considered by all fantasy writers (and readers, for that matter) - what exactly is magic anyway?

The characters continue to be interesting and (sometimes) to behave in unexpected ways. The changes to Kaneth as a result of his injuries are particularly intriguing, although his rapid recovery is slightly implausible. Most of the main characters are likeable and believable. The bad guys are still a little too bad to be truly credible, but on the whole (Taquar and Ravard in particular) they have enough depth to be more than just cartoons. I particularly like Kaneth and Ryka (and Kaneth's friend), and all the squabbling rainlords (even Laisa and Senya). And I love the slightly bonkers Iani. And Shale and Terelle are OK too. Shale has grown up big time in this book, although still with an adolescent's peculiar combination of angst and over-confidence, and Terelle is getting there too.

Ravard is especially interesting. I don't suppose the revelation of his identity surprises anyone, but it's still fascinating to see the man he's become. I do have an issue with his behaviour, however. I'm not a psychologist, but I would have expected a boy who was abducted and enslaved, and who then worked his way up to leadership amongst his abductors would have wanted to show the strength of his loyalty by being even more committed to the tenets of his new society than everyone else. The Reduners espouse slavery and rape as well as bravery and warrior skills, yet Ravard keeps no slaves and is remarkably gentle and tolerant with Ryka. In fact, his whole relationship with Ryka felt quite unbelievable to me, given his age and the ethos of the society. Choosing an older woman, and visibly pregnant too? Odd behaviour. Choices of this type would be more consistent with a mature, self-confident character, which Ravard definitely isn't. And yet, the author makes even this bizarre arrangement seem quite understandable.

The magic system is coming into its own now. I was astonished at the number of inventive ways that Shale could find to use his (rather limited) skills to good effect in battle. Who would have thought that a shower of rain would be so effective a weapon? I very much like that all the rainlords have different levels of ability. This makes for a much more realistic type of magic (if there is such a thing, of course). Terelle's water painting is becoming exceptionally convenient from a plot point of view, but this type of magic was flagged up from early in book 1, so it's not a cheat, any more than Shale hurling water around is - both are just extensions of a form of magic already in existence.

The book ends, inevitably, with a huge battle (or perhaps a series of battles would be more accurate). I found it a bit difficult to work out exactly where everyone was (the map on my Kindle version is minute) so I was a bit unsure who was going up the hill and who was going down. After a while I stopped trying to work it out and let it flow over me, but then I found myself surprised when Ryka bumped into the Reduners again. The author is remarkably good at gently reminding the reader of key information, and she also describes the scenery very clearly and succinctly, so the fault is mine for not paying proper attention. This was the only point in this or the previous book where I went into 'wait - what?' mode. Not that there aren't twists in the plot, of course, but mostly it's very clear who's where and what's going on.

The book ends with the immediate crisis resolved, but the big long-term problem (the shortage of stormlords to provide water) is still hanging by a thread, and everything is now in place for the final showdown. The Reduners are still looking to return to the pre-stormlord era of random rain, while Shale and Terelle try to find a new source of water power, Ryka and Kaneth head for the dunes, and Laisa, Senya and the priest manoeuvre for their own interests. And Taquar is still around, and will undoubtedly come into play again very soon. It's been a long time since I enjoyed a series so much that I wanted to move straight from one book to the next, but this is one that I just can't put down. Four stars. [First written August 2011]

Review: 'The Last Stormlord' by Glenda Larke

This is one of those books that bobbed up somewhere while I was idly trawling through Goodreads and discussion groups, so I have no idea who recommended it. Whoever it was - you have my thanks! I loved this book. Right from the first page I was drawn into it and the magic never let go. It is (inevitably) the first part of a trilogy, so plenty more story to go.

The book is set in a desert environment where every aspect of life is governed by the availability or lack of water, and society is divided into those who have it and live comfortably, and those who don't and have to grub around on the margins to survive. Interestingly, there are other parts of the world where water is abundant, but nothing more is revealed about why that should be. Although there are similarities with 'Dune', this is a work of fantasy, so there is magic at work - some people have the ability to sense or move water, and a very few (the stormlord of the title) can draw water from the sea into clouds to create rainstorms where they are needed. Only one stormlord remains, and he is old and sick. His death will plunge the land under his care into crisis.

This background is beautifully created. The author has thought carefully about the possible lifestyles and likely forms of animal life in such a precarious world, and developed them brilliantly. The pedes and ziggers, dayjars and reeves, the multi-level cities with their water-traders and snuggeries - all are believable and evocative. The reader is instantly immersed, with foreign terminolgy scattered about everywhere. Many authors do this just to be cute or clever, but that didn't seem to be the case here. All the terms were either readily understandable (not hard to guess what a pede is) or were soon explained. I liked the dialects for the different regions, too, which were well-defined and credible. Even the swearing had local colour. The names were in keeping, even if often unpronouncable (Taquar? Moiqa? Nealrith?), but this is a bit of a fantasy convention.

The plot is nicely developed. The threat of impending catastrophe should the last stormlord die, and the likely consequences, are laid out right from the start and the tension builds steadily to the inevitable disaster. Everything that happens feels logical , and the motivations of the characters are always understandable. The author has a nice way of disclosing key information, so that the reader works it out just a satisfying moment or two before the reveal, without unnecessary cliff-hangers or overblown drama. The author is also very good about repeating essential details just at the point where it might become puzzling. This makes it really easy to keep track of what's going on and why. And the action just rolls along so that you have to keep turning the pages - that 'just one more chapter' effect.

The main characters are generally complex enough to be interesting. The bad guys are perhaps a little too evil to be credible, but the others are very much drawn in shades of grey. Terelle and Shale have both had difficult childhoods, but the effects of that are not overdone - it gave them depth rather than making them into caricature hero/heroine figures fighting back from adversity. Taquar was interesting, too, and I would have liked to know a little bit more about him. I also liked Kaneth and Ryka - their relationship felt totally believable. The squabbling amongst the various rainlords over how to deal with the situation, and the difficult decisions faced by decent people in impossible situations is beautifully done.

I loved the magic system. The idea of sensing water and moving it about at will is a beguiling one. I find myself looking at clouds now and thinking - if only... The author has devised some very clever applications of it - ways of killing, for instance, or surviving underwater. The water painting is obviously a related form of magic, but is not well developed so far. Presumably it will become more significant in the later books.

One aspect I particularly liked is that Terelle and Shale, while encountering their various difficulties, regularly received help from complete strangers - just normal people behaving decently to fellow human beings. There are too many fantasies around these days which focus unrelievedly on humanity's dark side and it's nice to find a more balanced portrayal.

My only complaint, such as it is, is that the death toll in the final battle was rather high amongst the named characters. The unwashed masses always die in droves, of course, but I like to see most of the significant characters survive, especially as there are still two more volumes to go. But it's a small quibble.

This is not a particularly original book in many ways, but it's good, solid fantasy which I found enjoyable at every level. It has unusually good world-building and an excellent magic system, with a nicely worked plot, believable characters and a down-to-earth writing style which I liked very much. I look forward to reading the rest of the series. Four stars. [First written August 2011]