Sunday, 30 September 2012

Fantasy Review: 'Anuna' by Helen E Sharman

This is an interesting book which I enjoyed a great deal, although with a few reservations. I loved the setting - Anuna's people live in a village built under an overhanging rock shelter, in the style of many such found in the southwestern US and Mexico. This is an unusual and evocative setting, very nicely drawn. The author has also created a beautifully detailed world view, a religion combined with a magic system, which makes perfect sense. The early part of the book, which describes how Anuna becomes a 'Weaver' (spiritual leader and healer) to her people is lovely, and the little traditional stories scattered throughout the book are charming.

The characters are more of a mixed bag. Anuna herself is a very sympathetic character, whose anxieties are perfectly in keeping with her age and experience. She knows herself to be capable, but she is easily cast into despair and needs constant reassurance. However, her growth in confidence during the story and the way she takes up the role of leader while retaining her humility is very believable. Baran, too, comes across as a fully rounded person, and Dog, of course, is a wonderful character.

The villain is a little too black to be truly believable. The author makes a good effort to give him redeeming qualities and the sort of history which explains his behaviour, even if it doesn’t excuse it, but still I found him just too evil to be realistic, and his men seemed too ready to follow him unquestioningly. And then there are the kidnapped women from Anuna’s village. Oh dear, what a bunch of useless victims. Even given their beliefs and the horror of the situation, I would have expected a touch more resilience and common sense. Given that a large part of the plot revolves around them, it’s a pity they’re not a bit more robust.

The plot is a fairly simple one: while Anuna is off in seclusion becoming a Weaver, her village is raided and almost everyone killed, apart from four women taken off to become breeding stock for the raiders. There are no swords, no battles, no kings or empires, no duelling wizards, no quest to save the world. The only fights are the scuffling in the dirt variety, with the occasional dagger, spear or kick to the groin. This is a very basic story of survival in very trying circumstances, the battle of good and evil writ very small and personal. I had some issues with the women’s belief that suicide is the only honourable solution to the defilement of rape, but the author addresses the idea head on, so it doesn’t go unchallenged. For those sensitive to the subject, rape is a central theme but there is nothing graphic or erotic in the depiction of it, although I confess to some unease at the heroine’s sexual response in a context of captivity, brutality and rape.

The author’s writing style is rather nice, detailed and descriptive without being overwrought. However, there’s a great deal of angsting amongst the women, a lot of crying and even falling into swoons, which I don’t have much patience with, I’m afraid. There’s also a lack of polish - numerous minor typos (not spelling or grammatical errors, so much as mistypes - ‘it’ for ‘in’ and the like - plus words missed out and odd extra words, as if an edit failed to remove all the unwanted words). A character called Korak later becomes Karak. And a logic fail - a major plot point is that two of the village women reject Anuna because she is now ‘tainted’, except that one of the women, Orana, is herself ‘tainted’ in exactly the same way. Hypocrisy by the women, or an error?

There are also outbreaks of total stupidity on the part of some of the characters. Who, given the choice of being burned alive or trying to escape, would actually say - no thanks, we’ll burn? And who, having reached safety, would actually turn round and go back for them? In fantasy, all sorts of improbable things can happen, but (magic aside) human nature remains the same, and some actions just aren’t credible.

Despite these quibbles, I enjoyed the story and tore through it a couple of days. There is a strong romance element, and for those who like large-scale action and epic dilemmas, this is not the book for you, but I rather liked it, especially the unusual setting and the well-thought-out magic/religious system. And Dog, who has a starring role. The negatives keep it to three stars.

Friday, 28 September 2012

Mystery Review: 'The Quiche of Death' by M C Beaton

I’ve read some of the author’s Regency romances, but this is a very different animal, a cosy murder mystery in the style of Agatha Christie, the first in a long series featuring grumpy middle-aged Agatha Raisin, a London PR executive taking early retirement in the picturesque Cotswolds and finding it deadly dull, until a murder crops up. This is very much a formula book, where the key is not so much the crime itself, but the nature of the detective (or amateur sleuth, in this case) and colourful setting. This one does well on both counts. Agatha herself may not be the most accomplished social animal (translation: she falls out with pretty much everyone), but she’s still someone we can sympathise with and root for when her quiche poisons the local bigwig. And having lived in a small village myself, the descriptions of rural life and attitudes struck a chord with me. The first half of the book I found very readable, as Agatha tries, and mostly fails, to fit in with village traditions, and the author describes these twee Cotswold villages very well. Non-Brits might find it hard to believe just how stuffy these small English villages can be, but I found Agatha’s experience totally plausible.

Many of the characters were no more than caricatures, and the irritating Ray was quite implausible, but there were one or two with some depth - Agatha herself, and the vicar’s wife, Mrs Bloxby, in particular. I liked the young policeman, Bill Wong, as well. As for the murder - the most likely suspect and motive were obvious, so it became a question of working out how it was done, and frankly, anyone could have come up with half a dozen different ways of achieving it. Not the most challenging exercise for the little grey cells, but neither the police nor Agatha could manage it, it seems. And then at the end the book descended into farce. Nevertheless, this was an enjoyable light read. Three stars.

Wednesday, 26 September 2012

Fantasy Review: 'Flank Hawk' by Terry W Ervin II

I knew something of what I was getting into when I chose to read this book. Within the first couple of chapters, there are zombies, ogres, goblins and dragons. And panzers. That’s panzers as in German WWII tanks. Heading each chapter is a snippet of seemingly modern-day technology-heavy action. This is a doozie of a tale. It’s as if the author wrote a checklist of all the fantasy elements he liked and threw everything into the mix. Wizards? Check. Golems? Check. Magic swords? Check. Cannons, rifles, pistols... Yep, let’s have all those too. Crusaders, troglodytes, gargoyles, unicorns, giants, werebeasts, elemental spirits, ogres? Why not?

Well, why not is an interesting question. This is certainly a book where anything can happen, and most likely will. There are long - very long - battle sequences where one evil thing after another appears, and just as our heroes appear to have triumphed, something even more horrible appears, yet the eponymous Flank Hawk, a farmboy having no special skills, improbably survives everything. For anyone who likes high-octane action, this is definitely the book for you. But it does mean that a lot of other things get lost by the wayside. There’s no subtlety or depth to the characters, for instance, they are mostly just a succession of names, most of whom will become (literally) cannon fodder before too long. There’s little time for introspection or thoughtful addressing of deeper themes. There’s not much background or world-building or detailed history, although what there is is nicely done. There’s no sense of unique time or place. And there’s no sign of complex motivation. There are just a lot of unspeakably evil things trying to wipe out everyone else and take over the world because - well, just because, I guess.

But interspersed with all the zombified mayhem, there are, eventually, moments of greater interest, to me at least. In fact, almost everything beyond the battlefield is intriguing. The encounter with the seer in the King's City is fascinating. The dragons are cool (but then, dragons are always cool). I liked the whole hierarchy of wizards, and the differences between them: “... the elemental magic of wizards left no trace, while that of an enchanter could linger for hours.” I have a suspicion that the principles were inspired by either online or tabletop gaming, but still, it felt nicely complex. And towards the middle of the book, when Flank Hawk sets out on his Impossible Quest (tm) and forms an unlikely alliance with two passing characters, the story opens up nicely to become something much more interesting.

The writing style is unsophisticated, and there are clunky moments (“Ha ha,” he laughed...) and times when things were clumsily phrased and could have been clearer. The Crusader's pseudo-medieval language grated on me a lot, and there are a few mistakes in it. I would have liked some more information about the wizardly hierarchy - Grand Wizards and Lesser Enchanters and Imperial Seers are a bit hard to sort out without some kind of guide. And a map would have been very useful. Throwaway references to Milan and the Alps are mixed in with talk of the Faxtinian Coalition and the Vinchie Empire and the Reunited Kingdom.

It's hard to imagine any of the bigger traditional publishing houses picking up a book like this. Only a small independent would take a chance on this sort of off-the-wall book. To say it's original doesn't even come close. I would love to be a fly on the wall if the author ever has to pitch this to one of the big six publishing executives. "Well, it's got every fantasy idea you can think of in it.[*] And Nazi technology. And a nuclear holocaust. And an Ebola outbreak. And Crusaders..." Frankly, I love the ideas more than the execution, as the writing perhaps isn't quite up to the ambition of the plot, but it rattles along at a frenetic pace, and in between the overlong battles, there's a nice little story with an interesting backdrop. There were moments when I laughed out loud at the sheer craziness of it - for instance when the trio face down a giant, armed variously with rocks, a spear, a rifle with bayonet, a prayer and an evil magic sword. This is just not your average fantasy book.

Ultimately, it really didn’t work for me. There were too many zombies for my taste, too many mindless and weird creatures altogether, and I would have liked more depth to the characters and less fighting. The interesting combination of the mercenary, the werebeast and the Crusader was one which, had the story slowed down enough to let the characters blossom a little more, could have been very powerful. Although I like a story to surprise me, this is one where there appear to be no constraints at all on what might turn up next. It reminded me a little of my only encounter with the imagination of China MiĆ©ville (an encounter I lost, I might add; I just don’t have the right receptors in my brain for that kind of weird). So for me it was no more than two stars. But for those made of sterner stuff, or who like rip-roaring action from start to finish, this is an interesting book with a nicely worked out ending and some clever ideas. There are some really neat details tucked in there which show a great deal of careful thought. I commend the author for his fertile imagination.

[*] There were no fairies, pixies or prophecies. I didn't notice any vampires, either. But pretty much everything else. Even the farmboy turned hero.

[Edit: the author has posted a link to this review on his own blog, which has attracted an interesting comment on my 'gender bias'. You can read it here.]

Friday, 21 September 2012

Mystery Review: 'Dusk' by Maureen Lee

Maureen Lee has written a great many nostalgic family saga type books about her native Liverpool, but this is a different kind of story, set in Cornwall, written some years ago and now self published. Or rather, it was - it seems to have disappeared from Amazon, and the author's website has no information about other plans, so I'm not sure whether it's about to be republished or whether she simply withdrew it from sale.

This book has ‘THRILLER’ on the cover in capital letters, but it wasn't, in the end, a particularly thrilling experience. The story of three sixteen-year-old girls, not children and not yet women, and what happened during their last summer of innocence and the secret they kept for many years afterwards, is not an original idea, and for most of the book the story crawls along predictably and uninterestingly. The author has made some attempt to give the three distinctive personalities, and to some extent this works but there wasn't quite as much depth as I would have liked to any of them. It's difficult, admittedly, to describe severe depression convincingly. Daisy should have been a sympathetic character, but somehow we never quite get under her skin, although, to be fair, this is partly because we only ever see her through Norah’s eyes.

Fortunately, there are some twists at the end which raise the book above the merely pedestrian. It isn't a bad book, actually, it's a workmanlike and readable affair, with characters which are moderately realistic, a plot that rises above the hackneyed and a comfortable writing style. There are numerous minor typos, words missing and the like, but nothing drastic. It's disappointing, however, that it never quite manages the depth that would have made it memorable. The way in which the three women are affected by their experience and how it influences their lives is a theme that the author touches on, but never manages to imbue with the emotional resonance it deserves. Nor is there much sense of time or place, just a few topical issues tossed for dramatic effect. So I never much cared about the characters and it wasn’t particularly thrilling, but nevertheless I kept turning the pages, and it was an easy enough read. Three stars.

Wednesday, 19 September 2012

Fantasy Review: 'Twixt Heaven And Hell' by Tristan Gregory

The beauty of fantasy is that you just never know what you’re going to get. Even when it sounds like a conventional plot theme, an accomplished author can put a new spin on it and produce something special. I was nervous about this one - a war between Angels and Demons, waged with the help of humans? It sounded trite - but as I read on, it turned into an absorbing study of magic, and an unexpectedly thought-provoking analysis of war.

The central character is Darius, a wizard who has built an elite troop of soldiers around him, a sort of special-ops with magic. There are numerous other characters in his world - his fellow wizards in the city of Bastion, some of his soldiers, and, on the opposing side, the warlord and his sorcerors. And a few angels and demons put in an appearance, too. Although Darius is the main point of view character, several other characters have point of view chapters too, partly to fill in details of events in other places and partly to fill in background. Of course, this also serves to give them more depth. I’m very much a fan of this way of writing which is nicely fluid and works well to keep the action moving. Having a single POV protagonist is very restrictive, and having equal rights always feels artificial to me.

The world-building is rather well done. The field of conflict between the two warring sides seems rather small and empty - a city or two, some fortresses and not much else. But it becomes clear that there’s a reason for this, and there are other settlements and cultures existing around the fringes and beyond the immediate range, and in the past there were more. The history of this war, in fact, is very much a central part of the story and the author draws out the strands of the past very elegantly. And then there’s the magic. The real meat of the story, for me, is the growing realisation (on both sides) that magic is not just a static ability, it can grow and be developed in all sorts of new and ingenious ways. The way that Balkan, for instance, researches and then experiments with new forms of magic, and even a sort of magical technology, is fascinating to watch. Even wizards, it seems, must adapt and change with the times.

Ultimately Darius is forced to face up to the consequences of the current war and its escalation, and decide whether having the angels on your side is sufficient reward for the constant battles and deaths caused by the demon-supported enemy. This is a fascinating train of thought - is it really such a great idea to have angels bringing you healing and other gifts, or are you better off on your own? I don’t think I’ve ever encountered this argument before, or at least not so explicitly. And so, eventually, the story reaches its own answer to the question, or at least sets events in train for it to be discovered (in a future book, presumably). The final conflict is huge, an earth-shattering experience which changes everything. It should be an emotional overload, but somehow it just - isn’t. If I have one complaint about the book, it’s that somehow there isn’t enough emotional engagement with the characters and their respective fates. Even when named characters died, I didn’t feel it. The author sets everything in place and pushes all the right buttons, but for me it simply didn’t work. I don’t know why that should be, it’s a complete mystery to me, and I can only assume it’s just a matter of mood.

I had some minor quibbles along the way. I felt there were too many important new characters introduced late in the day. Sometimes the attempts to humanise characters were a little clunky (the family lives of Balkan and Pendrick in particular). I would also have liked to have Traigan, the enemy warlord, make an appearance at the end, since he had been such an important part of the plot, and I wondered what happened to the thralls at the end. I’m not mad keen on angels and demons in fantasy, since inherently good or evil characters are a bit dull, but in this case the author showed a much more complicated and interesting side of the angels, at least (the demons were - well, just demons, on the whole). But on the plus side, the characters all behaved sensibly and intelligently, and I very much liked the way that Arric (the council leader) and Darius overcame their initial hostility and reached a working accommodation. In fact, the whole story simply oozes intelligence, and easily overcame the modest amount of clunkiness here and there in the writing, or the very small number of typos. An enjoyable and thought-provoking story, notable for the well-developed world-building and constantly evolving magic system. And a map - always extra brownie points for a map. Four stars.

Tuesday, 18 September 2012

SciFi Review: 'The Phoenix Conspiracy' by Richard L Sanders

This seems like a fairly standard sci-fi affair, but there’s a nice mystery at the bottom of it, and there are some amusing elements tossed into the mix. Thought you couldn’t find vampires and werewolves in sci-fi? Think again. And it starts well, oh so well. But then... oh dear. What a disappointment.

The characters are basic cookie-cutter types. There’s the maverick captain with the tragic past and an addiction problem, brilliant (of course), young, a risk-taker but gets results. There’s the seasoned senior officer with the impeccable career who suddenly and inexplicably goes rogue. There’s the beautiful female second-in-command, who plays things strictly by the book. And so on. It’s not that these are uninteresting, but there isn’t anything very original about them either. Nevertheless, there’s a good rapport between the various crew members, and a real feeling that they work well together as a team. I enjoyed the early parts of the book very much - the confidence and joking between the characters, the mysterious goings on the team are investigating, the easy writing style without too much techno-babble - all of this was very appealing.

There are some oddities that jumped out at me. The hero goes into a crowded bar to meet his friends but has trouble finding them. Erm, isn’t that a problem that was solved by mobile phones? So why have spaceships in the future lost the ability to track down individuals? The hero keeps his stash of illegal drugs in a safe, opened purely by thumbprint. Well duh, there’s a reason safes usually have a combination lock. And how many times must this supposedly brilliant person forget to hide his pills away before he gets the message?

And then there came a point about two thirds of the way through where the hero does something so incredibly stupid that I nearly tossed the book away. Now, I have no problem with protagonists who take risks in order to further the plot. Sometimes an author just has to have his characters do something radical to move things along. But it has to be plausible. Here, the options are: 1) we fail and we’re all screwed, totally; or 2) we succeed, and - well, actually we’re probably all screwed just the same. In other words, the likelihood of any realistic success is virtually zero. And from there it’s all downhill, so that the options become: 1), 2), 3)... we’re all screwed and this time we die, horribly, painfully. And the only way out is the miraculous rescue out of nowhere (also known as deus ex machina). No prizes for guessing what happens...

Now, maybe some readers are less critical than me, and in between all the frankly stupid decision-making is some quite dramatic action stuff - hand-to-hand fighting through the corridors of space-ships, that sort of thing. And for those who enjoy that, it may well compensate for the idiocy that made it necessary. It’s unfortunate that the author’s grasp on sentence structure breaks down at this point, and he develops a nasty habit of breaking off entire clauses. Which is very irritating. And makes my inner pedant scream. Which is quite unpleasant. Argh! Now, I understand the effect he’s trying to achieve - in a particularly tense moment, short choppy sentences work very well to increase the drama, but please, please, please - let them be sentences, and not horrible bits and pieces.

And then, right at the end, there’s a massive info-dump revealing the mystery that set things off and what’s going on behind the scenes, with the proviso that none of this may be true, it may just be a clever ploy to suck the hero into the conspiracy of the title. Plus it sets everything up for the next book in the series. It may not be a surprise that I won’t be one of those breathlessly waiting for it to download. Sorry, but this was too silly for words. I’m happy to accept that the hero of a book is a brilliant risk-taker, but only if his actions are in fact brilliant. The first two thirds of this book was heading for four stars, but then it cratered, leaving it at two stars, at best.

Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Fantasy Review: 'Throne of Jade' by Naomi Novik

This is the second book in the alternate history series about Temeraire, the dragon captured as an egg from the French and inadvertently hatched at sea and induced into captivity by the ship's captain, Will Laurence. Where the first book focused on Temeraire's growth and training as a part of the Aerial Corps, engaged in fighting the French during the Napoleonic wars, this book is about his personal history. For it turns out that Temeraire is a rare Chinese Celestial dragon, the egg was sent as a gift to Napoleon, and the Chinese are not happy about him being deployed in the war, ridden by a mere naval officer, and want him back. Relations with the Chinese are delicate, so Temeraire and Laurence are packed off to Peking to negotiate some kind of deal.

This book has the same characteristics as the first, being more about the formality of language and manners than action. There are some quite dramatic encounters, but these episodes are brief. The highlight for me is, as before, Temeraire himself, who is by far the most interesting character in the book. He has a refreshingly straightforward attitude to life, and time after time Laurence is forced to attempt to justify his own society's customs and morals against Temeraire's much more liberal ideas. These discussions are fascinating - Laurence is a product of his own era of history, and there are many ideas which he accepts without thinking, and others where he has absorbed his family's somewhat different ideas (he is against slavery, for instance, even though it is still legal in Britain). For instance, it is fascinating to juxtapose Temeraire's instinctive feeling that it is wrong to flog or hang a man, with the obvious need to maintain discipline aboard ship. The Chinese have very different ways of treating dragons, too, and Laurence is forced to acknowledge, against his natural feeling, that they do some things better than the west.

I have no idea how accurate the depiction of Chinese life of the era is, or whether the author has taken liberties, but it all seemed very plausible to me. There were some fascinating details, for instance the ceremony on board ship when crossing the equator, which the author mentions in passing without going into much detail. Both the Chinese delegation and Temeraire himself are mystified by the whole thing, but the author resists the temptation to info-dump all her research on the subject, writing as if we were of the period and would naturally know all about it. I rather like this minimalist approach, which suits the book very well, giving it almost an authentic air of having been written in 1806.

This is actually a thought-provoking book in many ways, addressing a number of ideas head on, such as slavery versus voluntary service, and others less directly, such as the absolute will of an emperor versus the democratic monarchy system prevailing in Britain. It’s not a high-action book, although there are episodes of drama, but in some cases they feel rather bolted on as an afterthought to ramp up the tension. However, the tension between the British and the Chinese is nicely done, and the slow but definite way in which the barriers begin to dissolve and the two sides inch their way towards an understanding is beautifully described. In the end, everything hinges on trust, or the lack of it, and the resolution is both frighteningly dramatic and ultimately very satisfying. Once again, I enjoyed this book unreservedly, and although it wouldn’t suit everyone, for me it’s another five star affair. I’m almost nervous to read any further in the series in case this high standard comes crashing down. Can any author sustain the ideas and this level of writing for nine books? It’s hard to imagine.

Mystery Review: 'Mama Does Time' by Deborah Sharp

This is a book that sets out right from the start to amuse and entertain, with no pretensions beyond that, and there's absolutely nothing wrong with that. I've never been to Florida, so I've no idea whether the small town lifestyle portrayed here is accurate, exaggerated or a parody, but it made me laugh and it gets extra brownie points for that. The author has a sharp and acidic way of describing characters so that they appear fully formed and in garish shades of dayglo orange or baby pink in the reader's mind. There's absolutely nothing subtle about it, and it's a style you either love or hate.

The plot - well, the plot is neither here nor there, but essentially, a body has turned up in the car of the eponymous Mama, and her three daughters attempt to clear her name. That's about it, really. The story is told from the point of view of the middle daughter, Mace. There's some romantic interest between Mace and the cute detective assigned to the case, and also between Mace and the cute ex-boyfriend. There are numerous possible murderers, all with plausible motives, and the whole thing builds nicely to the inevitable dramatic climax.

This will never win any literary prizes, but it's nicely done, the Florida setting is evoked well enough that you can feel the sweat trickling down your back, and the mystery is guessable without being overwhelmingly obvious, which is all one can expect. It wouldn't be everyone's cup of tea, and I found a few irritations - the author is inclined to explain even irrelevant details, such as why the heroine's watch is still working after she fell in the swamp (it was waterproof - well, duh!), and the characters are more like caricatures. But there's a Southern charm to it all, and I enjoyed it. Three stars.

Fantasy Review: 'Temeraire' by Naomi Novik

[Also known as 'His Majesty's Dragon'.] This has a very simple premise: imagine the Napoleonic wars, but with dragons. It sounds mad, but actually it works astonishingly well. The author manages to capture the ethos of the times perfectly - the class system, the rigid formality of manners, the somewhat florid language - while still creating a fascinating work of fantasy.

The starting point is the acquisition of a dragon egg from a captured French frigate, which inconveniently decides to hatch while the British ship is still returning to port. Not wanting to allow such a prize to go to waste, the crew, or rather the officers (that's the class system at work again), decide to see if the dragon will accept a harness. As it happens, it is the Captain, Will Laurence, who manages it and has to leave the Navy and join the dragon corps as a result. His regrets about this, which he regards as being cast out from good society, and how he comes to terms with his situation, form a good part of the book. It is interesting that he is now regarded as a pariah both by his own sector of society, including his family, and also by the Aerial Corps personnel, who see him as coming from outside their close-knit and unorthodox culture, completely untrained, and resent him walking off with a prize dragon when they have (in their own eyes) far more suitable and highly trained people.

There is a certain amount of action, since the dragons are all trained for aerial combat as part of the war effort against the French, but the focus is very much on the characters - both the humans who live with the dragons, and of course the dragons themselves, who are very much characters in their own right. Laurence's dragon, the Temeraire of the title, is in fact by far the most interesting character here, being highly intelligent and curious and somewhat radical in his politics, which puts Laurence rather on the defensive, forced to justify the customs he himself takes for granted. Laurence spends quite a lot of his free time reading to Temeraire, including scientific works which Laurence himself doesn't pretend to understand, but the dragon does. It must be a bit like having a very precocious child, I suppose. The relationship is a close one, and there are some wonderful moments between man and dragon. To be honest, Laurence himself struck me as a difficult person to like in many ways, since he has very rigid ideas of propriety - a very prickly man - but his affection for Temeraire is charming.

The dragons are quite carefully thought out. There are various wild species which have been bred and cross-bred for aerial combat purposes for centuries, and different nationalities have bred their own varieties with different characteristics. Only some can breathe fire, for instance, and none of the British ones can, but they have a variety which can spit acid, for instance. Unlike the Pern variety, these dragons aren't telepathic and they talk quite normally, but there is a very strong bond between dragon and handler, even if the handler mistreats his dragon (I found poor Levitas very distressing to read about). Nice, too, that there are female dragon handlers, although true to the times, this is by the choice of the dragons, not a blow for feminism. Laurence was quite shocked by the idea (but then Laurence is easily shocked, it has to be said). I also liked the idea that, since dragon handlers have much shorter lifespans than dragons, handlers try to arrange for a son (or daughter) to take over when they die, and there is a certain amount of pragmatic breeding of humans for the purpose - the author has obviously put a lot of thought into details like this.

The plot develops quite nicely, although it really isn't particularly important. The objective is to describe the society of two hundred years ago as it would have been if there were dragons in the world then, and this the author does brilliantly. One could argue that access to dragons over many previous centuries would have changed history far more than is evident here - would there even be a Napoleon and a Nelson, for instance? But that hardly matters.

The writing style is perfectly in keeping with the period, and so is the behaviour of the characters. It might seem a bit slow, and not everyone would enjoy the formal language used, but I loved it. I liked the whole idea of the Aerial Corps, with its slightly informal air, and the way the larger dragons go into battle loaded with gunners and bombers and whole teams of crew, rather like a ship of the air. This makes the battles quite unusual, with attempts to board enemy dragons and hand to hand combat (with swords and pistols!) while strapped on to a dragon conducting his or her own form of combat. This is one of those rare books where I actually didn't want it to end. Luckily there are nine books in the series to date, so those who want can indulge their enjoyment of Temeraire for quite some time. Five stars.

Sunday, 2 September 2012

Fantasy Review: 'Baptism of Blood and Fire' by Damon J Courtney

This is a nice gentle little story, easy to read and much shorter than the average work of fantasy. It has the usual type of magic which can do almost anything, it has elves, goblins and dragons, and a little bit of history, with a war in the past, now ended. This is very much a traditional fantasy, where most people are good-hearted, the villains are evil, and the heroes are required to overcome all adversity so that good will prevail. Not too much gritty realism here, although the goblins do get up to some pretty despicable things.

So, the plot. Fifteen-year-old Elody has just become a dragonmage, by bonding with a newly-hatched dragon, which will power her magic. Her seventeen-year-old brother Rinn failed to bond with a dragon, but has his own innate form of magic. And there are goblins on the rampage, provoked by an elf wizard for his own reasons, who is also killing off dragons. And that’s about it as far as the plot goes. The world-building is fairly sketchy, since we only see one small village and its surroundings, and it’s all rather twee, but the magic system is nice, and very well described.

I’m not sure whether this is meant to be YA or not. The main protagonists are fifteen and seventeen, but in fantasy that doesn’t necessarily mean anything since over the length of a trilogy or more a fifteen-year-old can become seriously mature. However, there is a simplicity to both the story and the writing style which suggest a younger audience. Personally, I prefer something with a little more complexity to it, whether of plot or characterisation, but such things are a matter of taste, and later books may well develop that complexity, as is common in multi-volume works.

My biggest complaint concerns the two main protagonists. As teenagers, a certain amount of petulance and wilfulness is normal, but these two really are downright stupid sometimes. Time after time they get into trouble because they simply won't take advice, or do the obvious sensible thing. Elody does a lot of crying and Rinn rushes around with over-optimistic levels of bravado, they have to be rescued frequently, and both of them whine a lot. It makes them seem a lot younger than their stated ages, and in the type of simple agricultural community where they live, I really think they would both have grown up a lot more than seems apparent here. But when they do display a modicum of common sense and formulate a plan with the help of useful adults, the results are quite effective. I think the author was aiming for a pair of charmingly immature kids who are then forced to grow up rather quickly, but for me the charm got rather lost.

This is not a complicated book, but then it's also quite short. It's straightforward traditional fantasy with some nice dramatic moments and a good climactic encounter, reasonably well written, with few typos, and for those who like this kind of thing, it works fine as a pleasant undemanding story. I found it a little too simplistic for my personal taste, however, and the two protagonists too tiresome by half, which keeps it to two stars for me, but there's nothing wrong with it. In fact, I suspect that later books in the series, if Rinn, Elody and her dragon grow up a bit, might be very much more interesting.