Saturday, 31 December 2011

Review: 'The Delinquent Teenager' by Donna Laframboise

This 'exposé' of the IPCC, the UN body which assesses the climate change science, has polarised its readership exactly as climate change does - you are either for or against, it seems. So the reviews are either glowing 4/5 star affairs, or outraged 1 stars. Well, my middle name has always been awkward, so I'm going to put this firmly in the three star box - it's a lightweight little effort, fluffing a small amount of actual data into a book-length diatribe.

Much of the supposed scandal is, to be honest, not very dramatic. So some of the authors of the IPCC's reports are students and mere graduates? A science graduate is still a scientist, and the quality (or otherwise) of the science is all that really matters. So some of the authors are also publishing their own research, which they then quote? I would expect a climate scientist worthy of inclusion in IPCC to be conducting research and publishing it, in fact, it would be more of a worry if they weren't (they are supposed to be experts on the subject, after all). So the head honcho makes glib statements not borne out by the facts? This happens in any big organisation.

And shock horror - the IPCC is a political organisation. Of course it is, it's part of the UN, a wholly political body, funded by national governments to create an entire extra layer of bureaucracy. Like any parasitic bureaucracy, it has no actual political power, but it has great influence, and is self-serving, self-perpetuating and effectively accountable to no one.

The author does a useful job pulling together some of the biggest outrages perpetrated by the IPCC. It put forward the view that climate change was making hurricanes more frequent and more severe. It proposed that natural disasters cost more because of climate change. It warned that malaria would spread because of warming. It suggested that the Himalayan glaciers were melting faster than expected. All of these contradicted the consensus views of experts, and were not supported by hard evidence.

Then there is the infamous hockey stick graph, showing temperatures flat for a thousand years and a sharp recent rise, thereby ignoring the well-known Medieval Warm Period and the Little Ice Age. It's worth quoting the reaction of geologist Don Easterbrook on this: "If you look in GeoRef, which is the bibliography for publications in geology, you will find 485 papers on the Medieval Warm Period and you'll find 1,413 on the Little Ice Age. So the total number of papers in the geologic literature is 1,900. And we're expected to believe that one curve [based on] tree rings is going to overturn all of those 1,900 papers? I don't think so." Several people have devoted a lot of time and effort to working out just where the hockey stick graph came from and finding the flaws in the data and analysis behind it, and the IPCC has quietly dropped it from its latest publication, but it was hugely influential at the time.

There have been many books published over the years about climate change (on both sides of the debate) and the argument has become increasingly acrimonious. This book looks closely at the organisation most responsible for bringing the issues to public attention, and persuading governments to do something about it. Given the high stakes and costs involved, and the implications for those impacted by government action, it was time for an investigation of the IPCC. This book questions the process it uses, its standards and methods, and even its motivations. There is nothing terribly profound or surprising in here, but it needed to be said. Three stars.

Thursday, 29 December 2011

Review: 'Women in the Middle Ages' by Frances and Joseph Gies

I read a lot of fantasy novels, many of which are set in a gloomy created world not unlike the European middle ages. This book was my attempt to see whether the truly dismal picture painted therein has any truth in it.

The book discusses the life of women in the thousand years or so from around 600AD to 1600AD, illustrated by a detailed look at the lives of a few specific women of whom accurate records exist. It's fairly dry, academic stuff, but there is a great deal of information in there.

How accurate are the fantasies? It's true that women's lives were very hard, and few below the level of royalty were able to sit around waited on by servants while they embroidered. Childbirth was risky, children routinely died before maturity, and adults, too, were often carried off prematurely by illness or accident. Medical knowledge was rudimentary, at best. Wealthier families had to fight to maintain and improve their position in society (sometimes literally) while peasants struggled to find enough to eat and pay their rents.

It's true, too, that women were regarded as subservient to men - their fathers, brothers, husbands and local lords (but men were also subservient to their masters and lords). Nevertheless, they could and did work and run businesses on their own account, they could inherit property and land, they could resort to law to defend their rights. Widows in particular could take over the rights of their dead husband, carrying on his business or craft, training apprentices and so on. And although marriage was an economic, not romantic, proposition for all ranks, wives were an essential adjunct to the partnership and (royalty apart) not just there to produce children. So although inequality was enshrined in law, the practical application was very different.

Review: 'The Wit and Wisdom of Discworld' by Terry Pratchett

We live in an age of miracles. I say to my daughter - I'd love to read all the Discworld books but there are just too many, why doesn't someone distill all the best bits into one book for me? And lo, here it is! The snippets vary from laugh out loud funny to groan-worthy to mildly amusing to silly to fairly incomprehensible without context. And even in such small doses, the Pratchett sense of humour tends to pall quite quickly, I find. There is genuine wit (and wisdom) here, but it's largely buried under a deluge of cheap gags.

Monday, 26 December 2011

Review: 'The Steel Remains' by Richard K Morgan

This is not a book for everyone. I guess you either love it or hate it, no in between. Graphic violence, graphic sex, a shedload of seriously weird beasties and enough swearing to last the average squaddie or indie-band-with-attitude for a couple of lifetimes. Anyone sensitive to the f-word should move swiftly on. But, for a gritty realism fantasy, it has a charm all its own. The main character, Ringil, is a pugnacious, arrogant, in-yer-face type of bloke, a world-weary ex-warrior who prefers to settle any kind of dispute with a barrage of expletive-laden abuse, followed in short order by some good, solid killing. Not a guy to mess with, then, but quite fun to see in action.

He also happens to be gay. Now, this is a nice take on the fantasy warrior stereotype, and, were this simply a subtle character motif, would merit no more than an approving footnote. World-saving hero is gay - hoorah! But Morgan doesn't do subtle. Ringil is just as pugnacious, arrogant and in-yer-face about his sexual preferences as everything else, and since homosexuality is illegal in this particular world, this creates problems as he punches his way through all levels of society. Fortunately, his family is both rich and powerful, which allows him to escape any kind of retribution for his actions. It's a pity, however, that his aggressive gayness is almost the only source of dramatic tension in his thread in the early part of the book, so that somehow everything that happens to him turns out to be about him being gay. It's pointed out explicitly on page 1, and in case we miss that, there are repeated comments about queers and faggots. When he meets the local inquisitor, his venom is not just because he's a snotty little lowlife upstart, but that the man once had a lover of Ringil's executed, horribly and painfully. When he rescues a former soldier from trouble, it turns out the trouble arose from beating up gays. Oh the irony <sigh>. So what might have been simply a fantasy novel which just happens to have a gay protagonist, turns out to be a novel about a gay bloke which just happens to be fantasy.

Even this, in itself, would not be so bad, if the created world were not so disappointingly unoriginal. The author can be endlessly creative when it comes to races and bizarre lifeforms and gruesome methods of execution, but the rest of it... Blokes pack into the local tavern for alcohol, whores and a jolly good fight. The church is an evil, repressive force. The emperor is dissolute and has the inevitable harem. Local officialdom is corrupt. Slavery (particularly sex slavery) is legal. Women are domestic drudges, whores or mothers, while men (particularly rich men) run everything. This is both a grotesque caricature of the semi-recent past, and also a very common portrayal of a fantasy world, to the extent that it's almost a cliche.

The treatment of women in this book makes me very uneasy. It is commonplace in fantasy with a pseudo-medieval background to portray society as an entrenched patriarchal one, where women have no role beyond those defined by men - daughter, wife or mother (of a man), sexual plaything (of a man), low-level servant (of a man). This is something of a distortion of the true medieval situation, where women, while not enjoying equality, nevertheless had many rights and some independence (which varied according to time and place and her exact position in society, but was never, ever as bad as portrayed here). Very often the fantasy version is also pretty grim for men, but they still have far greater powers than women do, and some freedom of movement, choice of employment and so on.

In this book virtually all the women depicted are whores or sex-slaves (compulsory unpaid whores) or promiscuous (voluntary unpaid whores). Even characters who might be expected to be gender neutral (innkeepers or house servants, for example) are male. There are two exceptions. One is Ringil's mother, who was married at the age of thirteen to a man she dislikes (also a kind of sex-slave, actually). The other is Archeth, who is an advisor to the emperor (and is therefore at the disposal of a man). Other women mentioned in passing (like the wife of Egar's brother) are spoken of disparagingly, or, like Erith, are barking. Even the female dwenda is bitchy. Why would an author do this? When you can create any kind of world your imagination can dream up, why confine yourself to this already over-worked vision? Low-technology doesn't necessarily equate with the worst kind of patriarchal society, and even if an author wishes to explore the dark side of humanity, it's surely possible to invest the background with some original twists, and populate it with ordinary people (male and female) just getting on with life.

But having said all that, the book is actually an exciting, pacy read. Apart from Ringil, the other two main characters are both ex-war comrades. Egar is head of his clan of herdsmen, but finding himself increasingly uncomfortable in the role. Archeth, as mentioned, is an engineer in the service of the emperor. Their plot threads are less dramatic than Ringil's, but still interesting, partly because they illuminate different corners of the created world and its history, and here the author has done a better job than with the social structures. The places all feel very believable (and I like that there's no moon, just a band of something-or-other draped across the sky), and there's a nicely-worked out history, with pieces cleverly dropped here and there. There is a real feeling of depth to the various races, in particular - the recently-departed and technologically superior Kiriath, the semi-legendary and feared dwenda, the defeated lizards, the gods/demons. And there are dragons, ape-like creatures, some strange beasties that prey on corpses... And while the imperial religion, with its Revelation (which allows a man six wives!), is a standard issue repressive hierarchical organised religion, elsewhere the herdsman clans each have their shaman, there are sorcerous rituals going on in far-flung corners, and a general feeling of intriguing complexity. Whether there is any actual magic going on (as opposed to manipulation of natural forces) is not clear.

None of the characters is particularly believable, they're all simply too over the top for that, but Ringil in particular is great fun, especially while in rampaging warrior mode. Egar is fairly superfluous, his sole purpose, apparently, is to play axe-wielding support to Ringil in the big battle (which he does rather well). As for Archeth, being a badass with knives and having a liking for weed is not enough to create a fully rounded character. I found her situation completely unbelievable. In a world entirely dominated by men of power (whether military or financial or religious), where women have (apparently) no role beyond the subservient, Archeth manages to be the only exception. She has no army behind her, no organisation, no money, no unique skills and, it seems, no friends, yet she is treated with a respect bordering on reverence. She is entirely at the mercy of the emperor, yet he protects her because he promised his father he would? Really? I hope the subsequent books in the series will provide something a little less flimsy than that.

The plot is pretty thin and at times some of the devices required to get the characters into position for the big battle sail dangerously close to (literal) deus ex machina. However, it might be that the gods/demons really are integral to the story rather than a plot device, so I'll reserve judgment on that. The writing style is very Ringil-esque (if I can put it that way) - sharp, aggressive, colourful, vividly over the top, sometimes. Occasionally a metaphor falls flat on its face, but mostly it works. The fight scenes are terrific, especially the final confrontation, which pulses with energy. The sex scenes are fine too, although there's one in particular which felt rather like porn, and I did briefly wonder at one point if I'd drifted into a paranormal romance by mistake. The otherworldly sequences are brilliantly done. It's very difficult to do this kind of not-quite-reality well, but to my mind this was quite the best part of the book. There's an overpowering sense of loss - of innocence, of simplicity, of clarity of purpose, of lives and loves and friends and youth.

This is one of those books that, while recognising some flaws, I nevertheless enjoyed immensely. It had passion and depth and thought-provoking undertones, and some nice sci-fi-ish nuances. Morgan's writing is flamboyantly self-confident, in a show-offy kind of way, although I don't think it's quite as clever or original as it likes to think. There's plenty of humour, too, which is always a plus. Being the first part of a trilogy, there's scope for the author to develop his themes, round off his characters and fill in the gaps in the background with (hopefully) some more realistic female roles. And Ringil's gayness works, too, and brings an unexpected resonance to his interactions with the dwenda; I don't think that part of the book would have worked nearly as well as it does with a heterosexual main character. Four stars.

Tuesday, 20 December 2011

Review: 'The Silence of Medair' by Andrea K Höst

For those who say all self-published works are dross - this book is a stunning counter example. The manuscript spent an unbelievable ten years - I'll say that again, TEN years! - languishing with a single publisher before the author withdrew it in disgust and self-published. You can see why they might have had a problem with it, because it's very different from the average. It's intelligent, thought-provoking and well written. It avoids cliches. It's character-driven fantasy at its best. It's also a cracking story. I loved it.

The opening is, surely, how all fantasy novels should begin: not by parachuting the reader into the middle of a battle, or some gruesome moment intended purely to shock, but quietly, with the main character in her setting, then adding in the mysterious background, some magic and a threat, to draw you in. But then this is an unusual book in a number of different ways. Many of the events which other writers would turn into a whole trilogy - a massive magic-induced disaster, an empire threatened by invasion, an escalating, seemingly unwinnable, war, a desperate race to find a magic gizmo to turn the tide, and then, miraculously, actually finding said gizmo - all happened five hundred years in the past, and are revealed only briefly in passing. The author even resists the temptation to put them into a prologue. Instead, the story starts some months after the primary character, Medair, has returned with the gizmo, only to find that centuries have passed, the invaders have become the establishment and she herself is the outsider. Her sense of dislocation, and how she adjusts to the new regime, form the substance of the book.

The created world is not outrageously original, just the standard-issue pseudo-medieval arrangement, with a few little touches to make it different, and happily no hackneyed taverns, assassins, thieves, whores and the like, and no gratuitous violence or sex. So this is a relatively civilised and orderly world, where the complications are political rather than societal. And unlike many low-technology worlds, there's a relaxed gender-neutrality in operation. Women can, and do, become soldiers, heralds, mages, whatever they have an aptitude for. They can inherit empires, too. I get tired of the patriarchy thoughtlessly assumed in most fantasy.

And there's magic, of course. Oodles of magic. There are mages and adepts (which may be the same thing, I'm not clear about that) who have quite powerful abilities, and there are also magical artifacts. There is also 'wild magic', which is hugely, earth-shatteringly powerful (literally) and very unpredictable. I liked the way that magic can be sensed in some physical way, some kind of feeling that allows a character attuned to it to know that magic is being used, and sometimes what kind, and where, and how powerful it is. That was neat.

But it has to be said that sometimes the magic borders on being deus ex machina. The heroine gets into a tricky situation and has only to reach into her dimensionally flexible satchel and pull out some magic gizmo or other to effect her escape. Or else another character waves his or her hands around and - pow, she is magically constrained to do something or other. Is it really deus ex machina if we know ahead of time that the satchel contains magical gizmos, or that the character is a mage? Not sure, but it certainly made a very convenient plot device. On the other hand, it allowed the heroine to use her own self-reliance and not be dependent on a bloke turning up with a sword or a spell to rescue her. In fact, she was usually the one rescuing the blokes.

The heart of the book is the nature of the Ibisians, the invaders of five hundred years earlier, now the establishment. Medair's hatred and mistrust of them is still fresh, and the scenes between them crackle with tension, as she tries to adjust her strong and perhaps legitimate feelings to this new world order. The issue is complicated, too, by the other countries and factions still fighting against the new rulers. Where exactly do her loyalties lie? She has the magic gizmo which will destroy the invaders, but are these people still her enemies five centuries later? These themes - of loyalty and oppression and enforced compliance and the nature of colonialism - weave throughout the story.

This part of the book is beautifully done. The subtle and not so subtle differences between the world Medair remembers and the current one are neatly drawn - the architecture, clothing, food, mannerisms and customs - so that we first see the invaders through Medair's eyes as strangely alien beings, and only gradually begin to soften towards them as we get to know them better. It becomes apparent that five hundred years of assimilation has worked both ways, and these Ibisians are not the same as the enemy of Medair's own time.

The plot revolves around Medair's struggles with her own antipathies and growing respect for the Ibisians, so there is a great deal of introspection and (it has to be said) downright angsting going on. There were a few moments when I wished she would stop agonising and just get on with it. But fortunately there was enough action interspersed with the angst to keep things rattling along. There were a few places where I wasn't too sure what was going on, where a little more explanation or description would have helped. Occasionally the complex hierarchy of the Ibisians caught me out (all the ranks begin with a 'k', so they begin to blur together), and sometimes I wasn't even sure which character Medair was talking to. But these are minor issues, which never seriously affected my enjoyment. This is a great read, a story with an intriguing premise, unexpected twists and plenty of action. It's also that rare beast, a fantasy novel with a truly strong female lead character who's not remotely a stereotype. I recommend it. A good four stars.

Friday, 16 December 2011

Review: 'The Ascendancy Veil' by Chris Wooding

I have to confess to some disappointment with this, the final part of the 'Braided Path' trilogy. The first two were terrific, with great world-building, a brilliant magic system and a suitably apocalyptic threat to be dealt with, and if some of the characters were not all that interesting, it hardly mattered. But this book, despite a resounding climax and some nifty tying up of numerous plot threads, felt - just meh.

As usual, Wooding dumps us right into the middle of the action, without a moment to catch our breath. Not a writer to ease the reader gently into the story. He's very good, however, at scattering gentle hints as a reminder of the previous two books. The story picks up roughly four years after the last book ended, deep into a war between the Weavers (those who can manipulate the underlying 'weave' of the world, something like another dimension) and the remnants of the Empire. Both sides have their Aberrants on hand, twisted evil creatures fighting for the Weavers, and humans with unusual powers, once secret, but now openly supporting the Empire.

I've noted in reviews of the first two parts that Wooding's world-building is absolutely awesome. Everything is here - races, cultures, belief systems, flora and fauna, weather, languages, architecture, even the cutlery - all worked out to the last detail. It makes the average fantasy sort-of-medieval backdrop with peasants and castles seem incredibly dull by comparison. The magic is pretty damn good too. I was a little concerned that Kaiku, whose development has been the focus of the story, has now turned into some kind of River-esque 'I can kill you with my brain' superhero. And that would be very boring. But not to worry, because the Weavers have come up with something even more powerful, something that even Kaiku and her friends can't deal with. And we are beginning to find out about the strange and capricious spirits who also inhabit Saramyr.

The story builds through crisis after crisis and, as in the previous books, it seems that the main characters can't put their noses out of the door without some life-threatening encounter, and every one hyped to the max, and filled with foul monsters and dismembered corpses and all sorts of horrors. You know what? It gets a bit repetitive after a while. And even the relatively quiet moments are full of angst. There always seems to be one character or another over-analysing. I got a little jaded with it.

The characters have acquired some depth (well, over three books they have history, so it's inevitable), but none of them are really particularly likeable or emotionally engaging. Frankly, I just don't care whether they live or die, for the most part. Tsata is the most interesting, by a long way, with an honourable mention for Mishani's mother. Oh, and perhaps Lucia too. But Kaiku has turned into something of a selfish cow. Having being rescued from certain death by others numerous times, and trained to use her powers by the Red Order, she now starts agonising about - well, everything. She turns against the Red Order, she encourages Lucia to think of herself first (bit late for that), and she is horrible to Tsata. [Spoiler below] And yet she is nice to the one person who treated her abominably.

The problem for me is that this book is so dismal. All the things I loved about the first two - the weird flora and fauna, the etiquette, the elegant lifestyle and rituals of the Empire - all that is effectively gone, and the story staggers from one horrendous battle of monsters to another. It's like Frodo and Sam endlessly trekking through Mordor, really depressing stuff. Actually, it's worse, because there is so much gore and blood and spilled entrails and limbs chopped off, each monster more hideous and unbeatable than the last. And although everything that happen is completely logical, and feels as if the whole story was worked out from day one, there was no emotional resonance to it, in the end. Three stars.


On Kaiku and Tsata: I mean, really. She has been mooning over him for three quarters of the book, she forces him to declare himself, and then, when they are just about to set off on a suicidal mission, the obvious time to get it together, she says - well, actually, I really need to think about this. And starts agonising over the fact that her powers will make her live longer than him. Not if you both die horribly in the next chapter. I mean, get a grip, woman, just get on with it.

Review: 'Elantris' by Brandon Sanderson

This was really difficult to get into. Nice starting premise, nice magic system, but cardboard characters, unbelievable plot, clunky writing style and ponderous humour. And nothing happens for chapter after chapter, apart from people milling about having things explained to them. And the names! Raoden, Reod, Shaod, Heod, Seon, Iadon, Hrathen, Kiin, Telrii... what was the author thinking? Well, typical debut book, I suppose.

There are three main characters with their own plots threads. Raoden, the king's son, is banished to the once glorious city of Elantris, and the world is told he is dead. Sarene, his newly-arrived betrothed, now widow, has to make sense of the political machinations of court. Hrathen, a priest, has the task of converting the entire kingdom to his religion. Hrathen is the only one with any real complexity to him.

The world-building is mostly perfunctory. Elantris itself and its one remaining satellite town of Kae are the focus of all the action. They are reasonably well described, and various other parts of the world are merely mentioned in passing. Each has its own culture, but somehow they never really come alive. There are comments about styles of dress and customs, but these are not very convincing. There are various different religions which are well differentiated (they have to be, since Hrathen's brand is significant to the plot) but I wasn't very sold on the idea that one branch is more based on 'truth' than the others. How do you even distinguish truth in an entirely faith-based system?

The world is disappointingly patriarchal. Considering that until ten years ago the culture revolved around Elantris, which was far more egalitarian, how did women become so side-lined, to the point that intelligent women were forced to hide behind their embroidery? And while I appreciate the author's attempt to introduce a feisty, spirited, self-willed (ie modern) woman in Sarene, perhaps someone should tell him that 'assertive' is not the same as bossy. Nor is it such a bad thing to be assertive, even in a patriarchal society, particularly within the nobility. A man may not want an argumentative wife, but even if he banishes her to the domestic sphere, she still has a castle full of servants to organise, not a job for the timid. Nor do I believe for one moment that Sarene would be unable to find herself a husband, however tall or bossy she might be. King's daughters get married for political reasons, and there would have been princes and dukes queued up round the block, even if she looked like the back end of a carthorse. And her much-vaunted intelligence was not greatly in evidence, either. Half her schemes ended in near-disaster, with the feisty heroine having to be rescued by the blokes.

But the real problem with this book lies in the plotting. Everything the characters are required to do depends on everyone around them being mindless and stupid. Elantris lost its magic and power ten years ago, yet no one had thought of any of the ideas Raoden comes up with? No one had looked into the Aons (magic symbols) before, not even the surviving original Elantrians, who (you would have thought) might have had some inkling of what had gone wrong, or at least known where to look to find the answer? Yet Raoden works it out in a matter of weeks. And then there's Sarene, who arrives from a distant kingdom and starts making pushy suggestions to the nobles, and they all say: stone me, that's a good idea, never thought of that. Really? Even the most plausible plot thread, Hrathen's attempt to convert the locals, depends on crowds who can be swayed in unison (very 'Life of Brian': "We are all individuals"). At least the nobles are a bit more independent, even if most of them are also corrupt.

Given all this, and the largely turgid writing style, where everything was explained by way of lengthy and confusing dialogue, I was finding it really hard to get through. But about half way through, things start to pick up. The three plot threads become intertwined, and suddenly things get very unpredictable, with some nice twists and turns right to the end (thank goodness, since the ending was obvious virtually from page 1). Some of it was a bit contrived, but never mind. And even the inevitable romance feels like an organic part of the story, not something squeezed into a corner to be produced with a flourish at the last moment.

The real star of the show, however, is the magic system - a way of 'writing' symbols which harnesses some natural power. This is beautifully developed over the course of the book, and the way it is revealed to be interwoven with the culture and even the country itself is very clever. I liked the mysterious Seon beings, too. So despite all the flaws, and the complete lack of emotional engagement with any of the characters, this merits a good three stars.

Monday, 5 December 2011

Review: 'The Time Weaver' by Thomas A Knight

I really liked the opening of this one - a dramatic wizardy end-of-the-world type battle, which turns out to be - well, something else (not wanting to spoil the surprise). An elegant way to introduce the main characters and the backstory in one go.

The plot is not the most original ever for a fantasy novel. There's a King. Check. Beautiful Warrior Babe. Check. Wizards. Check. Farm boy with unsuspected magical powers. Check. [OK, so he's a geeky software developer, same deal.] Magic Sword. Check. The Dark Lord. Check. [Didn't he get defeated before? Once or twice?] Well, nothing wrong with the familiar tropes, if the author adds a new twist. This one has a mystery (what happened to the software guy's father), and some nice humour wrapped round the cross-universe culture clash. The warrior babe assumes modern world people are peasants because they have no swords. Well, you would, wouldn't you? And Seth (geeky software guy) is astonished by simple fire-lighting magic, and horrified at being asked to use a sword: "Do I look like the kind of person that can handle a sword?"

This is all good knockabout stuff, no problem there. And I like that Seth isn't just spirited away to the alternate universe in the middle of the night, to be returned later (presumably) with no one any the wiser. Instead it all happens in the middle of a busy intersection, with a mega pile-up going on, leaving behind a dead monster and lots of witnesses to swear they saw a knight in armour kill said monster with a sword and then walk into a big blue hole  with an unconscious man and vanish.  Great fun.

So far, so good. Unfortunately the writing isn't quite up to the promise of the opening. The characters are all rather stereotyped, with not much subtlety to them. There's a lot of heavy description of people and places, the point of view hops about confusingly, and we rarely get any sense of what the characters are feeling, although Seth's sense of disorientation is clear. Sometimes the tension in a dramatic scene is dissipated instantly by a particularly clunky line. After a wizard meets a vividly gruesome end, we get only: "The remaining five council members suffered a similar fate..." There are quite a few typos, too, like 'isle' instead of 'aisle', 'peal' instead of 'peel' and the inevitable 'peaked' instead of 'piqued'. I can ignore the over frequent use of 'shall', which is probably intended to sound archaic, and the lack of 'had' (as in 'Some healers arrived already and...') which is an Americanism, I think, but the use of 'that' instead of 'who' really grated (as in '...children that ran about'). My pedantic school teachers would never have allowed it. Nitpicks, maybe, but if you notice them they really interfere with the suspension of disbelief.

The story jumps backwards and forwards between the two worlds, which works rather well. However, the modern world investigation into the incident soon turns up DNA differences between Malia (the Warrior Babe) and regular humans, and Seth is even more different. The military immediately jump to the weapons potential. This makes the whole magic business no more than a matter of chromosomes, and somehow it all becomes far more mundane. I don't mind magic that has a system or rules of some kind, but when there's an actual sciencey-type explanation for it, it loses its - well, its magic. As for the need for words to make magic happen, that's fine, it's a bit of a tradition, but I've always thought that in a wizard battle, you'd really want to choose the spells with the fewest words. Or else talk really, really fast. Apart from that, the magic system is nicely thought out, and I like the way a defended spell turns itself against the caster, with dire consequences.

Just as I thought things were straying into military scifi territory, the campy Cedric and the Man in Black turn up and the plot really cranks into high gear. After that, it's a matter of hanging on tight as things roller-coaster to the end. If you like wizardy thunderbolt battles and armies of weird creatures and the whole farmboy turned hero scenario, not to mention some interference from the gods, this book is for you. There's nothing wildly original in any of this, but if you can ignore the rather flat and heavy writing style, and you don't expect too much depth, it's an entertaining romp. I'm not sure what age group the author is aiming for but there are some wonderfully gruesome moments that would appeal to a certain type of child: "His eyes exploded out as his brain superheated in his skull, and then he fell to the ground, smoke rising from his empty eye sockets." Eew, gross. Ultimately, although I kept reading to find out how it ends, and it had some very enjoyable moments and a couple of nice twists at the end, it turned out to be not really my thing, sadly, so combined with the weaknesses in writing, that keeps it at two stars.

Review: 'Lies, Damned Lies and Science' by Sherry Seethaler

I'm not quite sure who the intended audience is for this one. It's a serious and deeply worthy look at how to make sense of the scientific and pseudo-scientific claims in the media, which is probably too heavy for the average curious Joe Public, and not news for anyone already scientifically minded. There are a lot of interesting examples in here, and it's well researched, but the text in-between which explains the general principles is very dry and I often found myself skipping paragraphs. It would suit a teacher looking for real-world examples to explain statistics or psychology or even aspects of politics (the book touches on all of these). I got it for free, somehow (it's quite expensive now), so I'm inclined to be charitable; three stars.

Saturday, 3 December 2011

Review: 'Stormfront' by F K Wallace

This is the second part of the 'Stormwatcher' trilogy, and starts off pretty much where part one ended. There is the usual problem with follow-on books of picking up the story again. The characters were easy enough - some were very memorable and for the rest there were deftly placed shorthand reminders - but the politics was a different matter. Dispute with Gault? What was that all about? Sometimes it would be nice if authors gave a helpful two-page summary at the start of the book, as Tolkien did. Here the backstory is scattered all over the book, so some of it came a bit late in the day - the book was almost over before there was a reminder about Carsarrion, for example.

The fallout from book one is the initial focus of the story, and this is largely centred on the two romantic pairings - Ketten and Aravir, and Caedun and Merrell. Both of them started off in difficult, not to say traumatic, circumstances, and now they have to come to terms with the past and decide how they want to move forward. For Ketten and Aravir, both imprisoned and sick, in their different ways, married on an emotional impulse, the problem is in adapting to a normal married life. With Caedun and Merrell, he is the king's bard and closest friend, she is a former slave who was abducted, raped and beaten, and is widely despised, creating a gulf between them.

It is difficult to do this sort of thing well, and fantasy authors are often particularly bad at it. The romance is often bolted on as an afterthought to the main wizardy or sword-wielding aspects, and the (female) love interest becomes subservient to the all-action male. Alternatively, there are entire chapters of hand-wringing over the flimsiest little difficulty. It's not easy to create a relationship which builds in a natural way, but with enough meaningful obstacles to create some real 'will they/won't they' tension.

Wallace, however, does this rather well. The romantic elements of the first book were a minor part of the plot, but were nicely handled, and here she makes all the four characters act in understandable and perfectly believable ways. Ketten and Aravir inch to an understanding, while Caedun and Merrell tiptoe round each other and lurch nearer and then further away, before a crisis forces the issue. Rordan's reactions are realistic, too, and I very much liked that when Merrell was ill, Caedun took her to his own family at the coast to recover. It's all too easy for authors to get swept up in the current part of the tale, so it's nice to find one who remembers where her characters came from. My only complaint is that after such a traumatic experience, Merrell is very quick to find sex enjoyable. But this is fantasy, I suppose.

But if the love affairs are beautifully believable, there are other character aspects which are much less so. The worst of these is Sedeth. Now I daresay there are plot-related reasons for what becomes of him (I don't want to give too much away by going into details here), but for me it was too much of a stretch, I simply don't believe it. It's not even that it was too quick, I just find it impossible. The physical issues, yes, but the psychological? No. Not without magic, anyway.

The first third of the book is taken up with re-establishing the characters, filling in odd bits of the plot and tidying up the leftovers from the previous book. After that, there's a shift of pace as new characters are introduced and we begin to get to the heart of things. Many of the new characters have a sameness to them - this or that child (or adult, but it's mostly a child) suffering abuse is rescued by one or another main character, and taken off to somewhere or other. Quite a number of plot points hinge on someone being extremely cruel to someone else, for no obvious reason. Of course, this sort of thing does happen in the real world, and in some societies such behaviour is endemic, especially against certain races (or women), and the reasons may be very complex, but to my mind fantasy writers need to show clearly why this happens within the context of the story. It just doesn't feel natural to me to find so many otherwise ordinary people being so relentlessly cruel. I feel that Wallace doesn't quite get this right in all cases, and sometimes it feels like just a rather clunky way to introduce a character. And sometimes the rescue teeters on the edge of sentimentality. And to be honest, it does get a bit tedious to have so many characters bravely trying to overcome their dreadful past. They tended to merge together in my mind at first, and when they were in danger, it's not as affecting as it would be for a long-established character.

The created world is rather unoriginal. It's the usual pseudo-medieval low-technology setting, with kingdoms and dukes and swords and taverns and whores and all the rest of it. But the different kingdoms each have their own unique flavour - each one has a different approach to slavery, poverty, education, medicine, religion and so on. And there are elves and magical creatures in the mix, not to mention warring gods. There is nothing terribly wrong with any of this, and the different regions are nicely differentiated. I like the sound of Holt, where younger sons and daughters of the nobility routinely go into the army. And there are some intriguing throwaway lines - like Asra being called De'Mestre, and references to the 'old language' - which add some welcome depth to the setting.

Elves are a bit out of fashion these days, but they still work well as a shorthand for 'another race' - sort of the same, but different - without the bother of creating one from scratch. These elves are not the twee, whimsical version seen in 'The Hobbit', nor the immortals on a higher plane, seen in 'Lord of the Rings'. These are just - well, different, not better or worse than humans. I rather liked them. Or maybe I just haven't read enough fantasy to be jaded by them, who knows.

The plot, and the backstory underpinning it, is becoming clearer now, in the sense that it's more obvious what is happening (or is going to happen) but it still isn't clear why, at least not to me. In particular, there are now several Seriously Bad Guys who are planning to destroy the world or civilisation (or something), but I have no idea what their motives are. This is always an issue with fantasy - is character X just irredeemably evil, and if not, what does he (or she) hope to get out of this? Surely there has to be more to it than a simple desire to rule the world. Not sure why gods do it, mind you. Who knows why gods do anything? But humans (or elves) really need to have a clear motivation for what they do.

The magic system is another aspect that's not overwhelmingly original, but is still rather well done. There are mages who have innate powers and they need to be trained to achieve their full potential. There are no chants or magic wands (thank goodness), just an inner force which can be harnessed in various ways, and such power comes with its own costs. I loved the descriptions of magic being used, particularly when it was all about what the user experienced. Magic really came to the fore in this book, being an important part of the plot, and the author cleverly showed the uncertainty involved in it - both in knowing how to achieve an objective, and then to find the strength to sustain it.

This is not an all-action book. There are no big battles. The political manoeuvrings are mostly off-stage. There are a few skirmishes, but they mainly serve to ping one or other main character with an arrow to create a little 'will they survive?' tension and an opportunity for angst and/or bonding. It got a little repetitive. Some other quibbles: there were several multi-year time jumps, and I quickly lost track of dates and ages. There was a lot of to-ing and fro-ing between the Castle and Taarhan, and sometimes I wasn't sure why. There were a few typos and oddities, but not many. I could have done with some foreshadowing of the place where Sild was hidden (if it was there, I missed it). But these are minor criticisms.

What Wallace does well is characters and their interactions, and that's what this book is all about. Where the first part of the trilogy was mostly Caedun, this one focuses on Tiel. Now Tiel was not a particularly inspiring person to start with - he came across to me as a tediously whinging teenager - but in this book he becomes a truly deep and complex character. He grows into his abilities, and learns to live with his past (and future). He still has a temper, is inarticulate and makes stupid mistakes, but he begins at last to show real maturity. It is rare to find this kind of development in a character, where you can understand not only what he is but exactly why, but Wallace pulls this off brilliantly.

I enjoyed this book even better than the first. Despite the world-threatening events going on in the background, the focus was on much more intimate matters - families and how they work, friendship, and fathers and sons. Best line of the book: "I killed the monsters [...]. That's what fathers do." Yes! This is one of those rare moments of perfect rightness. Loved it. So despite the lack of set-piece battles and the like, this is a terrifically readable book. It feels like there's a lot of setup in it, it's true. Yes, we're inching painfully slowly towards the big showdown and yes, much of the book is taken up with putting the important characters where they need to be, but it doesn't matter. I was absorbed every step of the way, loved seeing Tiel come into his own and the pages just kept turning. A good four stars, and let's hope it's not too long before the final part is out.

Review: 'The Hill Bachelors' by William Trevor

This is a collection of short stories set either in the author's native Ireland, or else in England, his later home, with one set in France. He is regarded as a master of the short story, and it's true that each is a little masterpiece of prose, with a skillfully drawn set of characters, an intriguing scenario gradually revealed and a little twist at the end. Each one is a perfect vignette of lives at a moment in time. The stories themselves are often full of pathos, with enough subtleties and undercurrents to intrigue. Some are quite hauntingly memorable, and the Irish ones in particularly have a wonderful resonance of time and place.

And yet... It's not that I disliked these stories, I didn't at all. But a short story is, somehow, a peculiarly artificial form of prose. The twist at the end is, after all, the whole point, so the story is entirely constructed around it, with the aim being to deceive and then, triumphantly, reveal it. It's intended to be clever rather than to tell a story, and personally I would rather have had more depth and development and less cleverness. I can't help feeling: if the author didn't care enough about these characters to give them the space to grow, why should I care about them either?

It's all too easy to see them as disposable products - read, enjoy in the moment and then throw away. But some of them really deserved a broader canvas. 'The Virgin's Gift', for instance, raised more questions than it answered. Readers will have their own views on the nature of the visions of the Virgin Mary, but what exactly was the gift? Was it simply the obvious one, of returning a son to his home? Or did the author intend the more subtle irony of giving back something which had been taken away in the first place? And what would become of the main character after that? And 'The Hill Bachelors' could easily have made a full length novel, or a film. It seems a shame to criticise a short story for being too short, yet several of them felt that way - too much detail crammed in, cluttering up the simplicity of the picture. And occasionally it felt clunky, as if the author was determined to shoehorn in a particular piece of information, relevant or not. Nevertheless, these are superb examples of the art of the short story, for those who enjoy the genre. Four stars.

Sunday, 27 November 2011

Review: 'The Drowned World' by J G Ballard

When I first got my Kindle a year ago, and before I got side-tracked by fantasy (thank you George R R Martin!), I set out to read the top 100 sci-fi books I found on an internet list somewhere. Fortunately for my bank balance, very few of them were then available for the Kindle, but this was one of the ones I downloaded, which has been waiting patiently in my 'to read' folder ever since.

This was first published in 1962, and has held up pretty well, on the whole. This is largely because it's far more on the fiction end of the spectrum than the science; in fact, it's really speculative fiction, I would say. The science is all a bit arm-wavy - the atmosphere is no longer protecting the earth from the full power of the sun, overwhelming the planet with heat and radiation, melting the ice caps and hurling the planet back into a steamy Triassic jungle populated with giant prehistoric-style plants and reptiles. And all this within a generation or two. But the reasons are beside the point. Ballard is much more interested in the psychological effects on humans of this sudden regression to an earlier age, and speculates that the mind will, if allowed, also regress, dredging up shared tribal memories.

This leads to some frankly weird behaviour on the part of virtually all the characters, as they fall into a passive dream-like state, or insanity (or perhaps both). There is a curious disconnect between the lassitude experienced by many of them (partly because of the overwhelming heat, and partly the need to feel the resonance of the distant past), and the bursts of frenetic activity. The protagonist, in particular, spends much of his time lying about, half-asleep and half-awake, too exhausted to move, and at one point is supposedly close to death, yet when the plot requires it he can climb fifteen stories, or clamber all over a boat, or run through deep silt. So a great deal of suspension of disbelief is required.

But realism is not the point. The book is an examination into ideas of consciousness and deep-rooted memories, and the plot, with its bizarre but still strangely wooden characters, is no more than a vehicle for that. And the long, beautifully drawn descriptions of the newly created (and still evolving) environment are exquisite. The suffocating heat, the exotic plant-life, the giant iguanas and snakes, the silted-up city streets with their abandoned buildings and cars, mostly deep under water (the drowned world of the title) - all of these come to life in an astonishingly effective manner. Three stars.

Saturday, 26 November 2011

Review: 'The Stone Dragon' by Tom Kepler

Interesting book, most unusual. I could say that it features an orphaned young man, talking dragons, mages, bucolic country inns, stolen swords and a talking garden gnome, and it would all be true but it would give entirely the wrong impression. This seems like a cute coming of age story, and parts of it are exactly that, but it has far more backbone than that implies.

Firstly, the magic. The mages are not your average thunderbolt-hurling wizards. One of them  is someone who simply gathers magic around him, without any intervention on his part. And two are dream-mages, who are perfectly ordinary while awake, but have almost god-like powers while dreaming. Glimmer, the central character, is of this type, and how he learns to live with his abilities is the heart of the story.

More importantly, the author makes the point that magic is everywhere, in us, and around us, and at the core of everything. More specifically, he deals with the issue of how the human mind deals with magic (or fails to deal with it, sometimes). The dream sequences are (perhaps inevitably) the most interesting part of the book, and we feel Glimmer's own awe and fear at his dream-mage experiences. There are also other beings with magical abilities, and a general sense of all-pervading magic overlaying everything, whereever people are open-minded enough to allow for the possibility.

The real problem with this is that Glimmer is capable of almost anything, without any limitations. Even given that his abilities are unusually strong (another dream-mage is clearly less talented), magic without boundaries is really not particularly interesting. Time after time, people (or animals, or artifacts) simply appear where they are needed, or a way is miraculously found to achieve the seemingly impossible. There are events close to the end which come perilously close to deus ex machina.

The author has a suitably poetic writing style which works very well most of the time, although sometimes it gets a little overwrought, and (particularly latterly) tends to obscure what is actually happening. Sometimes (in the dreams, for instance) this is understandable, and there is always enough information given later to work things out, but still, there were several places where I had no idea what the hell was going on, and would have appreciated more clarity.

Plotwise - well, what plot? This is not really a coherent story, rather a series of tenuously linked episodes set against the backdrop of Glimmer growing up. This reduced the tension at several points, and made the book easy to put down, although each episode in itself was quite page-turningly dramatic. There are moments, too, when everything fell into place with perfect rightness - the unexpected appearance of DeVasier, for instance, made me laugh out loud at the sheer awesomeness of it.

Glimmer is a likeable character. In fact, almost all the characters are likeable in a realistic way and even the exceptions are understandably complex and believable. If I have a complaint, it is that almost everyone is simply too nice. Well - magic at work, I suppose. The dragons, of course, steal the show.

On the whole, I enjoyed this. There were times when it was just too twee and I thought - this is (essentially) a talking garden gnome riding a fox, here - and times when the magic just became too easy. I'm also quite confident that a lot of the themes of mind and consciousness were way over my head. But there were wonderfully lyrical passages too that were a joy to read. Four stars.

Review: 'Death in the Winter Garden' by Karen Lowe

This is the second murder mystery by this author featuring the gardening heroine (and amateur sleuth) Fern and her detective love interest Drummond. Both books have the same gentle charm, and this one is even more enjoyable to read than the first. It follows the well-established Agatha Christie formula where the first murder arrives in short order, a large array of suspects walks on and off stage, and our amateur detective leaps from clue to clue like a gazelle, leaving the local plod looking heavy-footed. Nothing wrong with that, of course.

The unique approach here is that the central character is a garden designer, so we also get a great deal of botanical information along the way. Whether you find this interesting is a matter of taste (I enjoyed it, although it is reminiscent of 'Rosemary and Thyme'). The background here is well drawn, and all the characters and their quirks are nicely believable. The on/off romance between Fern and Drummond is also quite credible. As a murder mystery, there were no great surprises in any of the revelations, but that's not really a problem. It's much better to spot the murderer right from the start than to be faced with a totally unexpected resolution.

Some criticisms: the botanical details, while interesting, tended to arrive in mini info-dumps. Also, the ending seemed a bit rushed, with various dangling loose ends being tied up with neat little bows (some of them I had completely forgotten about!). And for someone struggling to get a business off the ground, Fern certainly eats well (the cookery subtext is almost as large in this book as the horticulture). All that roast lamb and steak and cinnamon puddings - mmm, yummy. Although - a quick bowl of lentil soup? In my experience home made soup tends to take hours of chopping and simmering. Maybe she prepared a pot earlier.

But these are minor niggles. This is a quick, enjoyable read, something to while away a few hours on a dark, wet winter's day, curled up in front of the fire with hot soup (lentil, maybe?). I hope the author writes lots more books like this. Four stars.

Review: 'The Seekers of Fire' by Lynna Merrill

This is a debut work by a self-published author, the first part of a trilogy. The premise is not an original one - in a world infused with magic (or Magic, as the author has it, many such words being capitalised) which is for some unknown reason losing its power, a young woman must learn to control her own latent abilities. More interestingly, the magic (sorry, Magic) is being used to control fire in its various forms of both heat and light, and ultimately all forms of manufacture and agriculture, and thereby keep the entire population in subjection. There is also some kind of mind control in effect, and the whole setup tied into a religious cult based around a founding figure, called the Master.

The heroine, Linden, is probably intended as the conventional feisty, opinionated, independent type of female, and in the opening chapters that is exactly how she appears. In a difficult situation, with the population verging on rebellion because of the lack of fire, one of the fire-wielding Bers attempts to dominate the crowd by force, and Linden openly, although quite reasonably, defies him. Her reasons for doing this are not entirely convincing, but never mind, it's a rousing moment, which definitely has the reader rooting for her.

Unfortunately, Linden spends the rest of the book fainting and falling down and coming over all funny, and generally playing the weak and helpless female, needing rescue in the strong arms of the hero, who fortuitously appears in the nick of time. Now, later in the book it appears that there is actually a reason for all this, but somehow this is too late to save the character from the apparent role of useless wuss.

It has to be said that the hero, Rianor, is not averse to his own share of swooning and falling about, and the pair of them get themselves injured in more ways in a shorter space of time than I would have considered possible. So in between all the fainting and wooziness, there's a great deal of bandaging going on. They are both supposed to be interested in science (oops, Science), but frankly there wasn't much of this on display, and neither of them show the sort of observational skills one might expect from scientists.

One thing that drove me crazy with Linden is that no matter what anyone told her to do, she would invariably do the exact opposite. And there seemed to be no rational reason for it, either - she just 'had a feeling' or simply didn't want to be told. Sometimes I wanted to slap her. Having been rescued from her brave (if foolhardy) stance against the Bers by Rianor, a High Lord with undoubtedly more worldly experience than her, and agreed to become his apprentice, does she ever listen to him? Not a chance. I suppose this is designed to make her appear more feisty, but mostly it made her look silly, especially when her rebelliousness ended up getting them both into more trouble or injured (again).

One of the emerging themes of the book is that of insanity, and the possibility that those dealing with magic (sorry, Magic) are more prone to it. Much of the early part of the book (especially the escape through the secret passage (or rather Passage)) is written in a choppy, introspective style, so that there is a great deal about what Linden and Rianor are feeling and thinking and speculating, and numerous diversions into dream-like sequences or outbreaks of poetry. I found these very hard to follow. It was difficult to work out exactly what was happening, let alone why. At first I assumed this was just the author's style, but I suspect it was intended to show the effect of Magic on their minds. This might be very clever, but I would trade it any day for greater clarity of plot.

The best part of the book, for me, is the world-building. I couldn't read the map on my Kindle, so I don't know how much it helped, but most of the action is set in one city anyway. I loved the idea that the Magic-wielding Bers have manipulated society over the centuries to take control of almost every aspect of life, and that some parts of that process were only completed recently. The society is industrialised, to some extent, although it's not clear how advanced that is. Fire is supplied at fire-wells, or conveyed by pipes, like water (how, I wonder?). There are Factories and Mills and even elevators which are powered by Magic, but travel between cities is by horse-drawn carriage. I was taken aback, however, to read references to shopping bags and wire coat hangers, and even sports weights, which seem to suggest a very modern lifestyle, and the references to extreme diets seemed modern, too. I would have liked a little more description of the surroundings - streets, buildi ngs, clothes, furniture and so on, to help me visualise the setting.

The author is asking some truly interesting questions: where does science end and magic begin; and where does magic blend into religion? In my opinion, all fantasy authors should be addressing these questions, at least indirectly. The hints about the significance of insanity (and what is insanity anyway?), if the author chooses to follow this line of thought, would make the remaining two books in the series very interesting.

It is odd to reach the end and realise that only a couple of days have passed since the opening chapter. Despite all the falling down and bandaging and strange dreams, nothing much has actually happened. The escape through the Passage, in particular, seemed to go on forever, with very little achieved. Once Linden starts exploring Qynnsent, and especially once we meet some other members of Rianor's family, I found myself more absorbed and the pace seemed to pick up somewhat, although sadly I found the quite dull Jenne and Inni more interesting than our two heroes at this point. All that falling about wiped out any sympathy I might have had for them.

And just when it got interesting, there was a big info-dump of background, and the book stopped. Obviously, this is only part one of three, but still it would have been nice to have a bit more resolution than that. It may be that the complete trilogy will be a more satisfying read, and there is certainly a great deal of potential for some deeper themes to emerge. The world-building and the magic system are excellent and well thought out, and the decline of magic, while not an original idea, is still intriguingly implemented. Nevertheless, I am not particularly invested in any of the characters at the moment, and the uneven pacing and plot-obscuring writing style drag this down to three stars.

Review: 'Out Of Africa' by Isak Dinesen

'I had a farm in Africa...' It's a very famous opening line, and most people of a certain age will undoubtedly have seen the film and will therefore mentally hear it in Meryl Streep's distinctive accent. This is a little piece of history, like looking at the past through the wrong end of the telescope. Everything is clear and precise, but very far away, and as a way of life, it has gone for ever.

This is not a biography, more of an episodic type of memoir. The author tells us nothing of her formative years, or of her post-Africa life. It is as if she simply came alive when she first moved to her farm, and after she left it, she ceased to exist. It is clear that she had a deep affinity with Africa, its people and wildlife, and in particular with her own little patch of land, so perhaps she felt that the rest of her life spent elsewhere was not important to her.

What she chooses to tell the reader is very selective. There was at one time a husband, but whether he actually owned the farm or it was in her name is not clear. He is mentioned in passing two or three times, and was clearly not a significant part of her life. Instead, she talks a great deal about the Natives (capitalised) who worked on the farm, the Masai on their reservation nearby, her Somali servant, the Indian businessmen in Nairobi and the lions and other animals out on the plains. These were her interests, the things which absorbed her time and energy, together with her coffee plantation (never very successful and eventually sold, reluctantly, when its losses became unsustainable).

She seems to have treated her servants and farm workers very benevolently, setting up a school for the children, treating injuries and illnesses herself, although in a fairly haphazard fashion, or carting more serious cases off to hospital, and supervising (and adjudicating) their disputes. She was regarded by them as a combination of a local chieftain and the representative of law and order, almost like a demi-god, so they turned to her in any difficulty, seemingly confident of her ability to resolve all their problems. She regularly took the role of judge, applying a mixture of European and native rules to achieve an outcome which satisfied all sensibilities.

Nevertheless, she had an instinctive acceptance of white superiority, and a very pragmatic understanding of her workers as an economic resource. It was worth some effort to keep them well and contented, but there was no grief over a death or missing individual, or at least no more grief than when the hyenas got into the oxen shed. She observed them with the fascinated and curious eye of the naturalist, regarding them in exactly the same light as the wild beasts that roamed the plains - magnificent in their own way, but not her equals. She turned to her white friends for comfort or conversation or friendship.

The later chapters become even more episodic, being no more that a few paragraphs here and there - musings on wildlife, or an anecdote about someone she knew, sometimes second or third hand. These are not uninteresting, but so disjointed that any depth developed by the earlier chapters is lost. They emphasize, too, the impersonal nature of the whole book, for there is virtually nothing illuminating the author herself as a character. Right to the end, she remains shadowy.

The ending is rather a sad one, as she is forced by economic circumstances to sell the farm (it is bought by a builder for housing since it is conveniently close to the expanding city of Nairobi), and return to Europe. She finds the idea so intolerable that she effectively ignores it, even while her furniture is being sold around her. Eventually she finds herself surrounded by nothing but a few empty packing cases, but still she clings on. And then, passively, because the tickets have been booked, she allows herself to be sent back to Europe, leaving her chosen home behind. And so the book ends. The reader is left, rather sadly, to wonder how she got on and whether she ever got over a grief that was almost too deep for expression.Three stars.

Friday, 4 November 2011

Review: 'Ready Player One' by Ernest Cline

I loved every single word of this book. I actually read most of it with a silly grin on my face, even the seemingly boring info-dump bits that started off 'X was born in...' - it was just pure pleasure, especially the parts set in the OASIS (the avatar-populated artificial universe where most of the action takes place). I'm not even much of a geeky technophile - OK, I love computers, I'm a programmer by trade, and I confess to being one of the first people in the UK to own a Commodore 64, and I had a smartphone before the term was even invented, but I'm not a gamer in any way, shape or form. I recognised a few of the 80s games, hardware, music and film references, but most of them went right over my head. Didn't matter at all. The book is well enough written that anyone can play along. All the jargon and retro technology is explained along the way.

Plot? Well, there's a quest and a team of underdogs and an evil cheating group of corporate bastards and... well, that's about it, really. It just rolls along beautifully, and although there are no wildly unpredictable twists and turns, it never feels cliched. The lead characters are charmingly geeky and (initially) quite juvenile, and OK, they do seem to be incredibly good at everything game-related, but then that's the basic premise of the story, so it's hard to grumble about it. The author makes good use of the avatar vs real world persona problem - you just don't know anything about the people you meet inside the OASIS-verse, not gender, age, location, appearance - absolutely nothing beyond what they choose to show, and the reveals at the end are nicely done. Only one quibble here - the first person protagonist is initially the stereotypical geek, pasty-faced and overweight, but about halfway through he suddenly decides to get fit and ends up with a perfectly honed physique. I found it disappointing that the author didn't have the courage to leave him as he was. But it's a minor point.

The book would make a great movie. I actually wished I had a soundtrack to listen to (on 8-track tape, naturally) whenever a piece of music was mentioned, and it would be so much fun to actually see some of the OASIS-verse worlds. The final gate battle would be just awesome to watch on the big screen. But as a book - terrific. Five stars.

Monday, 31 October 2011

Review: 'Daughter of Smoke and Bone' by Laini Taylor

This is an amazing book, in lots of ways. It's way outside my comfort zone - I just don't do urban fantasy, angels and demons, seventeen year old female protagonists, or paranormal romance. And it was expensive, to boot. But the reviews were extraordinary, so I checked the free Kindle sample and yes, she can write, I get it.

The opening drew me in straight away, always a good sign. Karou is immediately interesting, with enough personality and mysterious history to be intriguing. And by the time the bizarre creatures who constitute the nearest she has to family are introduced, I was definitely hooked. What's not to like about a protagonist who has unlimited 'wishes' and uses them to turn her hair blue and give people she dislikes unbearable itches? And I just love the idea of being gifted fluency in a new language every birthday. I'm adding that to my Amazon wishlist immediately. Akiva, the abnormally beautiful angel, is well drawn, and people respond to him in perfectly believable ways: did you see that? is it...? it can't be, can it...? with no sleight of hand on the author's part. An angel walking around in Prague is a showstopper, exactly as you would expect.

The story builds incredibly well. There are a few passages of exposition towards the end which feel a little heavy, it depends too much on Karou's ignorance of her past (why? what's wrong with telling people the truth?) and some of the writing is perilously close to over the top, but somehow it works. Occasionally, after a particularly emotional part, I would think: the guy's an angel, for goodness sake, with fiery wings and smouldering eyes, it's completely ridiculous and I'm not even tempted to laugh. And it ought to feel cliche-ridden - the orphan brought up not knowing about her heritage, the forbidden love, the portals to another world, the impossibly beautiful people, the kickass heroine - yet somehow it all works. The writing is that good. I was swept up in the story from start to finish.

Some minor criticisms: the world building is not great. The earthly cities are fine - Prague, Marrakesh and the rest feel like places the author has been to, and she evokes them well, but the 'other' world doesn't quite come to life in the same way. It felt rather perfunctorily sketched, an outline drawing rather than a fully nuanced painting. And really, did it have to be so patriarchal? That was disappointing. I can't quite believe in the chimaera, either, or a thousand year war. But I can let that pass.

The climax was brilliantly done, even if not totally unexpected. But after I stopped reading, I felt curiously flat. It was a very emotional book, yet I didn't feel emotionally drained or desperate for the next volume. It's a terrific story, beautifully done at every level, and yet it lacked - well, something. There was no profundity to it, no meaningful themes (beyond the trite: war is bad, angels/chimaera are people too, if you treat people badly, sooner or later they bite back) and too few moments of depth beyond the emotional storms. It's like a well-made souffle - exquisitely light, a delicate work of art, but still mostly air. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but I prefer a book with a bit more to it (more spicy or chewy or tart or meaty, say, to continue the food analogy).  At bottom, it's just a love story: a beautiful, forbidden, death-defying one, an extraordinarily well-written one, but still just a story of two people on opposing sides who fell implausibly in love at first sight. I would love to give this five stars on writing quality alone, and when I've read the rest of the story I may do just that, but for now this is a very good four stars.

Review: 'That Summer In Ischia' by Penny Feeny

This is a pleasant enough little book. The story is fairly slight - two friends filling a post-university hiatus with a cosy little job in Italy, and the after-effects when things go wrong. There is a bit of a mystery to resolve, but it wouldn't exactly tax the little grey cells of Hercules Poirot.

The characters are OK, without ever being very memorable. There are a few moments when they behave oddly, but on the whole they are believable, if uninteresting. The two settings, Liverpool and Italy, are well drawn and evocative. I know Liverpool quite well and that part certainly rang true, and the Italian parts seemed convincing enough to me too. Mind you, is there really so much street crime in Italy? It seems no one can move without being mugged. I doubt the tourist board will be promoting this book.

The plot was quite creaky in places. When Allie goes to Italy to seek out her father and is instantly accepted by the current generation at the villa where her mother worked, you can almost hear the author's thoughts: hmm, that was too easy, need some conflict there, and perhaps dreaming up the whole business of the withered arm to generate tension. And since the plot needs Allie to meet up with the policeman involved in the case from her mother's time, suddenly she is mugged (of course), hauled off to the police station and sent off for the night to a retired colleague now running a tourist operation. Oh look, it's Enzo. Well gosh, never saw that one coming.

The ending seemed a bit flat to me. The 'mystery' of what happened to Mimmo is resolved by Allie saying: well, I think it must have happened like this. Not that it was a big surprise, of course, I expect everyone worked it out several chapters before, but still, a bit more drama might have helped. And the astonishing reveal about Allie's father - well, huge surprise (not). And then we drift into an epilogue which summarises what happened to everyone, by way of some slightly forced business with old friends. All rather contrived. I don't know anything about the author, but the whole book has the feel of a formula, a sort of 'writing by numbers' effort, with just the right amount of tension here and partial reveal there and a carefully balanced mix of characters.

I don't mean this to sound too harsh. It's a professional piece of work, with no glaring problems, and some parts were excellent - the little descriptive flourishes, for instance, and the two older women, Liddy and Helena, who were the nearest this to fully rounded characters. Jake's story was also well done, cleverly revealed in tiny doses along the way, although, again, some contrivance was needed to get the final stage into the open. It's a perfectly readable book, although I have to confess that I never got totally absorbed in it, finding it all to easy to set aside. Basically, I never cared much about any of the characters, I never got invested in the story and it was almost a relief to get it finished. So that makes it three stars, a competent effort that would pass muster for light holiday reading, especially if you were going to Italy. Or Liverpool, maybe.

Wednesday, 19 October 2011

Review: 'Skein of Lament' by Chris Wooding

This is the seond part of 'The Braided Path' trilogy. Despite having read the first part relatively recently, I had forgotten quite a lot of it, and although Wooding reminds the reader of most of the salient points, there were still a few places where I was confused.

The author's world-building is awesome. This is not a word I use lightly, but nothing else quite covers it. Everything about Saramyr and its neighbouring territories - history, mythology, races, cultures, natural history, geography - is defined in infinitely layered and nuanced detail. Sometimes an almost throwaway line gives me a frisson of total pleasure - the flight of a bird, the noise of an insect, a rock formation, a character's tattoos, the way food is eaten. It's all there, all thought about and carefully dropped here and there for best effect, creating a world which truly feels 'other', almost alien.

I particularly liked the three moons, all different, which occasionally come into conjunction causing sudden moonstorms, followed by drifts of tiny ice crystals. I have no idea whether that is feasible in real-world physics, but it's extraordinarily evocative. And the moons are relevant to the plot, even. I love a fully worked out secondary world, and so many fantasy writers make do with some cobbled together mishmash of recognisable environments - medieval Europe, or Roman Empire, or whatever. That's OK, just a little disappointing (and lazy, maybe). Authors, this is how it should be done. My only criticism - could have done with a better map, showing all the places mentioned, and in hi-res.

The characters, on the other hand, don't work quite so well. It's not that they're uninteresting, for some of them - Saran, Tsata, Lucia, for instance - are intriguing enough, and Asara is downright creepy. Nor are they fantasy cliches. But somehow, it's as if Wooding has drawn up a laundrylist of defining characteristics (Mishani: small, delicate, ankle-length hair, reserved, diplomat) and they never acquire much depth beyond that. Apart from Kaiku learning to control her powers, there's not much growth in evidence, although Kaiku's relationship with Tsata is nicely developed. This makes them, on the whole, unengaging and hard to care much about. And maybe it's just me, but the male characters seem to have marginally more depth than the female ones.

Plotwise, there's no slow build-up or scene setting - it's straight into the action, which never lets up. Almost, there is too much action, really, and it seems as if Our Heroes can barely put their noses outside the door without finding themselves in yet another life-threatening encounter. So perhaps a little contrived in places. There are numerous different points of view, and the story hops from one to the other like a demented frog, including to minor characters, but at least this avoids tortuous tricks to reveal incidents we couldn't otherwise have seen. Along the way, there are several totally breath-taking shocks and twists - one in particular which completely blew my mind. And yet (like all the best such moments) it was completely predictable, if only I'd been paying proper attention. Clever author.

The climax brilliantly pulls all the different plot-threads together in a very satisfying way. All the various characters were needed to achieve the resolution, and it was done without any sleight of hand. Very neat. There were a number of blood-and-guts encounters, rather too many for my taste - I'm not over-fond of all that hewing, hacking, gutting, bone-crunching and disembowelling. Oh, and let's not forget the skinning. Nice people, the Weavers. But in between the episodes of slaughter were the really interesting (to me) parts - the time spent 'in the weave', the other-dimensional place where the Weavers and certain others can do - well, whatever it is they do. Is it magic? Or just something unexplained? Who knows, but it's a terrific concept, and definitely the best part of the story. And now everything is set up for the ultimate confrontation on a grand scale. A good four stars.