Wednesday, 27 March 2013

My Other Blog: Weekly Roundup

Here are the reviews added to Fantasy Review Barn, my shared blog, by my very prolific fellow bloggers Nathan and Anachronist for the past week (and a bit!) which might interest you:

The Pratchett review is part of Nathan's ongoing project to reread the entire Discworld canon in sequence.

You can find the blog here. Naturally, all my reviews will continue to be posted here and on Goodreads, and my other ramblings will be posted exclusively here. All my fantasy and sci-fi reviews will also be posted on Fantasy Review Barn.

Tuesday, 26 March 2013

Fantasy Review: 'The Lost Cactus' by David S Jamieson

Not the world’s most original premise - Daniel Howard discovers that by some quirk of fate, he’s the last great hope for mankind and must undertake a dangerous quest... and so on and so forth. But then the plot isn’t really the point. There are masses of ideas in here, all jostling for position, strugging to get themselves noticed in the crowd. Every page is filled with amusingly quirky talking animals or scenery, squirrels rushing about with post-it notes and the like, or corridors full of vine-covered forest, or tables made of ice, while our hero stands around gawking and doing the what-the-*&^%’s-going-on role. And there are some laugh-out-loud moments, it’s true. But comedy is difficult to do well, and a character who ends every third sentence with ‘Oh crap!’ gets tedious pretty fast. I think there’s a good story in here, but the author is trying too hard to be clever and amusing. For anyone looking for a light-hearted and irreverent piece of fantasy with the world’s most unlikely hero, this might be just the job, but for me it just doesn’t work. One star for a DNF. [But I did like the talking lift!]

Monday, 25 March 2013

Fantasy Review: 'Ashes in the Fall' by Christopher Martinez

The premise here is that Carleon, a former imperial soldier, has turned rebel for some reason (explained later in the book), and is training up a motley collection of disaffected soldiers, criminals and peasants to fight. Amongst the latter is Danario, whose village was razed to the ground by the imperial army for helping the rebels. I have problems with this right from the start. Firstly, the main character is not merely rebellious, but, given that his objective is to overthrow the rightful government, he's treasonous, too. Plus he uses torture to extract information. Normally this would make him a villain. His wife was killed by the imperialists, but that seems to be after his rebellion, so it's not really motivation. And frankly, he seems fairly stupid, constantly walking into difficult situations and then being surprised when people get killed, or the mission fails. Taking on a large, well-trained, well-funded army needs (surprise!) another army, at least as large. Danario, on the other hand, is more believable. He no longer has a home or family, so joining the rebel cause seems like a reasonable step. His meeting with the princess seems incredibly unlikely to me, but there you go, this is fantasy, incredible things happen.

The writing is quirky. Hair colour is ‘argent’ or ‘sterling’, port is ‘velvet-colored’, a pine marten is ‘cinnamon-furred’, eyes are 'amaranthine'. Each time I encounter something like this, I have to stop and work out what it means. And velvet coloured port? Velvet might be port coloured, but the opposite makes little sense. Every chapter is a separate episode, disconnected from the ones before and after. Even when a chapter ends on a dramatic cliff-hanger, turning the page means a big jump and the outcome explained in flashback. This makes the book feel very disjointed. Invented words are used without explanation (or else I missed it). I never quite got the meaning of 'namhai', for instance, and 'akhai' seemed to have two different meanings, which was confusing. And what exactly is a ‘derthai’? A really solid edit would help to smooth away the oddities.

Having said all that, it's still a very readable book, if short, and I kept turning the pages to find out what happens. And then I came to the ending. Oh. My. God. Courageous is the word that springs to mind. And also realistic, because this really is what happens to rebellions. Kudos to the author for having the guts to follow through with his ideas to the bitter end and not fudge the bleakness of it. But still - I’d advise having a supply of strong liquor to hand when reading it. There’s a good story in here, but the short format and writing quirks tend to obscure it until the last few chapters. At that point, though, it becomes a thought-provoking if depressing read. Recommended for anyone who thought George R R Martin’s writing was way too upbeat and cheerful. Three stars.

Saturday, 23 March 2013

Fantasy Novellas Reviews: 'The Wandering Tale' by Tristan Gregory

This is a collection of novellas set in a single world, and only loosely connected: a minor character from one story becomes more important in the next one. Each one is published and sold separately.

#1: The Swordsman of Carn Nebeth When a man returns to his village after nineteen years away fighting in the wars, young William is fascinated by his stories of the life of a soldier, and the battles hes been in. But when other former soldiers start to cause trouble, he realises that bravery isnt just for kings and soldiers. This is a cracking story of a boy growing to manhood in a small village, and learning the truth about being a hero. Great characterisation, a well judged balance between action and slower passages, a perfect ending and with more emotional resonance than Ive seen in some well-regarded works many times its length. A beautifully crafted piece which I loved. Five stars.

#2: The Three Fingers of Death This book focuses on the apprentice smith seen briefly in the previous story, and tells a tale which doesnt quite have the same charm as the first, but has an atmosphere all its own. The characters here are equally well-drawn, and the story unfolds in easy stages until the smith is called upon to use some unusual skills. And then, suddenly, were in different territory altogether. I have to confess that when the smith created the three swords of the title, it made all the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. Truly a fascinating perspective on the use of magic, and the responsibilities inherent in that. Four stars.

#3: The Giant of the Tidesmouth Im beginning to get the hang of the authors strategy now, so I spotted the connecting character in the previous book - Hedmund, the very large young man setting off for his big walk, the period as a mercenary traditional amongst his mountain clansmen. This story is about Hedmunds adventures on the road and his first battles. As always, the characters are wonderfully real, with dialogue which captures the essence of each one. There is some solid world-building going on in the background, too. Each story in the series can be read on its own, but anyone who reads them all will begin to understand a great deal about the history of this world. And possibly geography too, but for the directionally challenged among us, a map would have been useful. This seemed a little more lightweight than the previous two tales, and I never felt that Hedmund was in serious danger. An enjoyable read. Four stars.

#4: The Crown Unconquered In this story, the mysterious man, Daven, seen in the woods of the previous tale, takes centre stage, becoming the ambassador at the court of Normarch, a potential ally for Valec, the kingdom vanquished in the war. The political machinations and shifting alliances are the background here, so this one is a little more complicated but it's not hard to work out the various factions. There's a lot of tension, since Daven has to pass through enemy territory to reach Normarch, and then has the risk of presenting himself to the king without knowing quite what reaction he'll get. Another cracking story, with some great characters, just enough action and room for a romantic distraction. I very much liked the dilemma Daven was presented with. Clearly he has dutifully married to produce heirs, even though his wife is - not compatible, shall we say. And then he meets Allindra... who wouldn't be tempted? This was beautifully done. And a fine ending, too. The book may be short, but it's absolutely perfect. Five stars.

The story so far... I don't know how many of these tales the author plans, but with each release a little more of the created world and recent political events is revealed, and the more fascinating it becomes. There's a lot of subtlety here. People are honourable without being stupid or caricatures, they behave in believable ways and display both intelligence and strength of character. Even the bad guys have reasonable motivations. Below the surface are some thought-provoking themes - of war and honour and duty and bravery, the responsibility of power and the pragmatism of politics. Each episode is a little gem in its own right, but together they add up to something much more interesting. Highly recommended.

Thursday, 21 March 2013

Post-Apocalypse Fantasy Review: 'Wixon's Day' by Phil Williams

This is a curious and unusual book. There has been some sort of apocalypse, not explained, but a kind of civilisation has been maintained or restored. There is education, trade, the arts, money, technology. Some type of cloud or fog covers much of the sky, creating a grey world where not much grows, but there are rumours of better places further south with more sunshine. Marquos, the main character, lives on a small barge, travelling restlessly around the canals and rivers of Estalia. At some point in the recent past, he was working in the mines to the south, but seems to have absconded, taking with him Red, a six-year-old child, in order to return her to her parents in the north.

The first part of the book is a fairly slow and gentle amble, stopping at Marquos’s home town to meet his family briefly, then on northwards, with various encounters along the way. Marquos is a strange character, hostile to a passing group of Estalian military pursuing some rebel Kands (foreigners), but surprisingly tolerant when he later meets up with a couple of the Kandish rebels. Helping the Kands is likely to be a seriously bad move, but Marquos does it anyway. The only argument the Kands use is that their cause is just, something that should carry no weight with Marquos, who is not Kandish and has no reason to be sympathetic. Yet he takes them in anyway - why?

Inevitably, things go pear-shaped, and Marquos loses Red, the one person he truly seems to care about and want to help. And instead of setting off to rescue her (again), he trusts the Kands to do it, and accepts a mission to go north and find a missing scientist. I have to say, Marquos is not a typical fantasy main character, the sort with a Destiny and a Purpose and eyes glinting with determination. He’s more of a shrug and drift along with life sort of man. Not that I have any objection in this case, since Red was fairly wet, as motivational characters go, and finding her and restoring her to her family sounds a lot less interesting at this point than heading for the mysterious north.

Once Marquos is committed to the Kands (and when I say committed, I mean that he shrugs and goes along with whatever they suggest, while feebly protesting), the pace begins to hot up and there are numerous fights and narrow escapes and chases. And explosions. And fires. And a whole heap of death and destruction and devastation along the way. In between times, there are pages and pages of earnest conversations about what the Kands are fighting for and their history and the various injustices of this world and general philosophical discourse. Which is lovely, if you like that sort of thing, but I would have traded much of it for some depth to the characters (any of the characters, actually, not just Marquos) and some more realistic human interaction.

Some grumbles. I would have liked more information about this world, and how things now operate. If it’s so difficult to grow things, how come there is enough food to go round? And there seem to be no population pressures, since everyone’s expected to marry and have children. I would have liked to know what, exactly, the staple foods were. And a map - I desperately wanted a map. Being post-apocalypse, I presume that Estalia is based on the real world (Britain?), and it would have been nice to tie some of the places mentioned to real world places. And all those canals - old ones restored, or new ones? We’re never told. The political situation, especially the numerous factions of tribes of Kands, seemed very complicated to me, and I was never quite sure I’d got it straight in my head.

The writing style is rather odd, slightly clunky as if it’s a translation, or English was not the author’s first language. For instance, Marquos doesn’t shave, he ‘chiselled the stubble from around his jaw with a knife’. Sounds painful. There are numerous small, insignificant typos which nevertheless grate when you notice them. In a few places, a word choice was so unusual I wasn’t sure if it was a typo or a deliberately obscure metaphor. A thorough edit would have cleaned up a lot of the oddities.

The biggest problem I had with the book was the lack of emotional engagement. I didn’t care much about any of the characters. I didn’t care about their objectives. I certainly didn’t care about the Kands and their rebellion, and I couldn’t see that they were any better or more justified in their actions than the Border Guards they were fighting. Partly, I suppose, this is because of Marquos himself, who is essentially disconnected from any personal engagement. If the main character doesn’t care about the events of his own world, why should the reader? The writing style is a contributary factor here, simply describing the events in a fairly flat tone and rarely delving into what the characters are actually feeling, except for occasional outbreaks of despair or borderline insanity.

What kept me reading, though, was curiosity about the world. I really wanted to know more about it, and how things work. There are some wonderfully atmospheric passages as the barge chugs along the waterways through grey, lifeless countryside. The north was eerily empty and cold, and the moment when the stars appear is beautifully and vividly described. The technology is fascinating too (gyrocopters, airships, floating castles and a vast array of improvised weaponry). And the ending is suitably epic and uplifting. For those who enjoy a lot of philosophising about war and injustice and the meaning of life in a bleak steampunkish setting with plenty of high-casualty battles and explosions, this is the book for you, and there are some thought-provoking ideas here for those who can tease them out of the general ramble of dialogue. I found it too depressing a read overall to be quite comfortable, and I like my characters a little more realistic and less arbitrary than this, but it was certainly an interesting tale, unusual and completely unpredictable (there was only one moment where I actually guessed what was about to happen). Three stars.

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Fantasy Review: 'Fargoer' by Petteri Hannila

This is essentially a collection of short stories gathered into one book, telling the life of a single character, Vierra. The setting is the forests and lakes of the far north of Scandinavia, where Vierra’s people live a placid life as hunter/gatherers, moving around their domain with the seasons and ruled by a female chieftain and a female witch, as is normal for their culture. But things are changing; to the south, there are experiments with settlement and agriculture, and from further afield come the Vikings in their longboats, stealing goods and capturing slaves.

Vierra’s people, the Kainu, have a complex spiritual life, built around their environment, and involving poems to invoke the spirits as well as actions. At Vierra’s puberty ritual, she is told of a destiny for her, although it’s clear as the book progresses that this is not cast in stone, and her own actions may affect things. The various stories tell episodes from Vierra’s life, and some of it is fairly bleak, it has to be said. Many bad things happen to Vierra, and she herself changes as a result, losing her faith in the spirits and perhaps losing some of her humanity along the way. She is a compelling character, though, and I raced through the book to find out what happened to her in the end. The other characters are somewhat less rounded, with the possible exception of Rika. Most fall neatly into the good or bad ends of the spectrum.

The book was translated from Finnish, and although the translator has done a good job (this is not a Babelfish travesty, by any means), there is some very stilted and clunky language in places, and one or two words are outright wrong. I had the feeling that the original language was rather elegant and poetic - not just the poems themselves, which crop up frequently, but many of the descriptive passages too, and along the way something got lost in translation. Nevertheless, it was always clear what was meant, and it never interfered with my enjoyment.

Anyone looking for a cheerful read may be disappointed. After all her struggles, a truly happy ending would have been too much to hope for, but it is at least uplifting. It’s clear that’s there’s more to tell about Vierra’s life, so I guess there will be more stories to come. This is a great read for anyone who enjoys stories with a mythological twist, it features a truly strong female character, and it’s set in a time and place rarely featured in fantasy. I really enjoyed it. Four stars.

Saturday, 16 March 2013

My Other Blog: Weekly Roundup

Here are the reviews added to Fantasy Review Barn, my shared blog, by my fellow bloggers Nathan and Anachronist for the past week which might interest you:

Nathan also has an ongoing project to reread the entire Discworld canon in sequence.

You can find the blog here. Naturally, all my reviews will continue to be posted here and on Goodreads, and my other ramblings will be posted here. All my fantasy and sci-fi reviews will also be posted on Fantasy Review Barn.

Thursday, 14 March 2013

Mystery Review: 'Gently With The Painters' by Alan Hunter

This is the seventh of the series about the genial pipe-smoking George Gently, now promoted to Superintendent, and chafing rather at his desk-bound life. The author is getting into his stride now, and many of the rather dated quirks which enlivened the earlier books have been dropped - no more peppermint creams, for instance, and the investigation is much more conventional - Gently visits various suspects, asks them questions and mulls over the answers. He even philosophises over his approach, describing it as more art than science. There are still meals, fortunately; I do enjoy Gentlys hearty meals. Grapefruit, followed by liver and bacon for breakfast, then toast and marmalade. Lunch is naturally a multi-course affair - soup, steak, new potatoes and peas, followed by apple turnover and 'custard sauce'. Not quite as vintage as the brown Windsor soup of a previous book, but still entertainingly large.

The other vintage aspect of these books (these early ones were written in the mid to late fifties) is the attitude to women. Female characters are never regarded as being worthy of attention. They may have evidence to impart, like Dolly the barmaid (addressed simply as 'Miss'), or they may be right in the middle of the action, like the girlfriend (addressed respectfully as 'Miss Butters' because her father is someone of importance; the class system is alive and well), but they are otherwise ignored. One woman who takes a car and drives off in it causes a tremor of alarm in the policemen: you mean she was on her own, they cry plaintively. A woman who dislikes her husband is inevitably thought to be a lesbian (even though there's absolutely no evidence of it). Often the women are portrayed as being on the verge of hysteria. The girlfriend would be a prime suspect in any rational story of this type, but it never occurs to anyone to investigate that angle. A woman of that era could probably get away with literal murder because no one would imagine her capable of it.

The actual perpetrator of the crime is not terribly surprising, although there's a lot of obfuscation along the way to avoid revealing the identity too soon. Gently, of course, guesses it early on and then, Poirot-like, spends time circling around in a slightly underhand sort of way. I have to say, though, that the murderer's motivation was not terribly convincing. And for all the comments about how clever he was, it always seems to me to be fairly stupid rushing round after the crime trying to pin it on other people. Nevertheless, this was one of the better books of this series. The attempts at dialect have almost entirely gone (not quite, sadly), the investigation depends less on lucky breaks than before and Gently himself is now a much more believable character. Three stars.

Wednesday, 13 March 2013

Fiction Review: 'Wolf Hall' by Hilary Mantel

Well, I got through two thirds of it, by virtue of listening to the audiobook while I do other, more worthwhile, things. Like ironing. Eventually, I lost the will to live and stopped listening. Ive been putting off writing anything about this in case I get a sudden urge to pick it up again and carry on, but its not going to happen.

Theres a lot to enjoy in this book. There are wonderful characters, caught at a crucial moment in history. The author has captured to perfection the sights and sounds and smells of the Tudor era. Theres humour, too, from time to time. But theres just so much of it, every scene dragged out to many times the necessary length, endless discussion around meal tables with only a few meaningful lines. If it could have been distilled to normal book size, it would have been a very readable book. As it is, I found it plain tedious, especially after Wolseys demise.

For historians, it must be a thrill to see these important characters brought to vibrant life. For literary types, there is pleasure in the elegant language and apt turns of phrase. For me, as a reader looking for a story, it was a failure. There was no tension in the retelling of events to which every child knows the ending. The one character who needed to spring to life, Thomas Cromwell himself, was flatter than paper. He was described in the blurb as ambitious, and other characters mention him as a climber, yet we see no examples of it. On the contrary, he remains loyal to Wolsey to the end, and appears to luck into his role with the king. Hes hard working and intelligent, rather than conniving. We see something of his family life, but rarely see any signs of affection. And in the end, I didnt care about him, either, or any of them, with the possible exception of Wolsey. One star for a DNF.

Monday, 11 March 2013

Fantasy Review: 'Havenstar' by Glenda Larke

This was the author’s first published work, but shortly after its appearance in 1999 the publisher sank, and the book with it. Now the author has self-published it (hurray for the digital age). Not only is it available once more, it has been picked up by a traditional publisher too. A result whichever way you look at it.

The story has one of the most original settings I’ve encountered. A cataclysmic event tore the world apart, spreading chaos everywhere apart from a few islands of stability which are kept that way by rigorous adherence to a religion-based system of rules. Travel between these islands is made possible by accurate mapping of the chaotic patches between them. Main character Keris is the daughter of a mapmaker who dies under mysterious circumstances in the unstable lands between islands, and she is forced away from her home as a result. And that doesn’t begin to describe the complexities of this world.

There’s no easy entry here. The reader is dropped into this complicated background without a parachute, so the early chapters are riddled with jargon and references to unexplained events, places, people. It isn’t long, however, before explanations begin to appear, and although it took me a long time to work out the differences between tainted, unbound, excluded, unstablers, ley-lit and the like, things do become clearer. The ley lines are the most significant element; these are the ever shifting rivers of chaotic energy which criss-cross the landscape, the source of power for Carasma, the lord of chaos and his minions.

Keris is accompanied on her journey into the unstable world between the eight stabilities by a motley collection of people - a priest following orders, a high-ranking man making a pilgrimage alone, a brothel-keeper repenting of her sins, a timid man trying to impress his father and so on. The guide, Davron, and his tainted assistant, Scow, seem almost normal by comparison. And then there's the mysterious Meldor, who is blind but surprisingly adept for all that. All of them feel like real, fully rounded people, and if they aren’t exactly people you would meet down the pub (Scow is described thus: ‘His head was built on a grand scale, perhaps twice normal size, and his outsized face was circled by an animal’s mane. The hair—fur?—of it cascaded down on to his shoulders, hiding his neck.’), they all have their own secrets and tragedies. The tainted, in particular (those caught out while crossing a ley-line and transformed in some way) are very tragic figures, unable to return to the stabilities, unable even to touch other people. Davron is particularly tragic, and the way he and Keris gradually come to understand one another, and the development of their slowly unfurling love story, undeniable and yet impossible, is masterfully done.

The story is intriguing right from the first page, and quickly builds to a fast paced and dramatic adventure. The consequence of a world infused with chaos is that anything can happen at any moment, creating a tale which crackles with tension and (I’ll be honest) fear; some of those tainted and wild creatures were pretty horrifying. And yet there was always humour, too, especially from Corrian, the pipe-smoking former brothel-keeper with her down-to-earth attitude and appetite for life, and the timid Quirk, who takes to life in the unstable world with surprising nonchalance.

The religion of this world is not, at first sight, much different from any other hierarchical, rigid, dogmatic religion, but beneath the surface it’s unusual. For one thing, it’s an integral part of the division between stable and unstable areas. The stable zones are maintained by the continuous application of kinesis (a kind of gesture) around the borders and rigorous adherence to exhaustively detailed rules within the boundaries, which prescribe what may be grown where, what colours and styles of clothing may be worn, how many children may be born and what jobs they can do. All of this is intended to minimise the number of changes occurring and thus maintain order, a kind of stultifying stasis. Inevitably, this leads to some painfully inhumane results. Babies surplus to the permitted two are removed at birth and brought up in the religious order. Those who are deformed or who defy authority are thrown out of the stabilities altogether, left to survive as best they can. Inevitably, such a system has its share of the secretly defiant, the petty tale-tellers and the corrupt, who will bend the rules or turn a blind eye for a consideration. I wasn’t sure whether the author was making a general point about organised religion, but I found it very thought-provoking.

This book is awesome. It has all the characteristics I look for in fantasy: an original, well thought out world, a simple but powerful magic system, compelling characters who behave realistically, and a plot which never lets up for a moment. It’s emotionally engaging, too; I always cared about the characters and there were moments that reduced me to tears. Keris the map-maker’s daughter is a fantastic heroine, and the ending - well, the ending was perfect, I can’t describe it any other way. A truly wonderful story. Five stars.

Thursday, 7 March 2013

Non-fiction Review: 'Below Stairs' by Margaret Powell

This was written in 1968 and was supposedly the inspiration for the popular TV series ‘Upstairs Downstairs’ and (much later) Downton Abbey. The author describes her impoverished childhood, and then her experiences of working in service for various wealthy families, first as a kitchen maid and later as a cook.

The writing style is best described as naive. It reads as if she were simply chatting about her life, talking in her everyday manner, with all the repetitions and clichés intact. Everything is ‘marvellous’ or ‘tremendous’ or ‘I remember an occasion...’. I have an image of her as an old lady sitting in a wing chair beside the fire, telling her tales as someone (a favourite neice, perhaps) takes down her words. Which is the intention, I daresay.

The early chapters about her childhood and family are fairly stilted and dull, although there are occasional anecdotes that liven things up, and the author’s own personality shines through. Bolshy is the word that comes to my mind. She’s definitely not a meek and mild sort, and you wouldn’t think that a life of servitude to the upper classes would suit her, really. Once she starts work as a kitchenmaid, her asides about the disparity of life above and below stairs become an entertaining feature. Upstairs is furnished with plush carpets, elegant draperies and fine furniture, while downstairs is lino and wobbly cast-off chairs. Vast quantities of food are cooked, picked at and later thrown away by the fussy family upstairs, while down below the servants never have quite enough to eat.

At first, as the harrassed and put-upon kitchen maid, the chapters are full of grumbles, but as she branches out and becomes a cook, there’s more about the pleasures of life downstairs and the humour shines through. The most interesting aspect, for me, was the difference between those employers who treated their staff as little more than slaves, and those, more enlightened, who treated them as people. Some houses the author worked in provided properly furnished rooms for the servants, with plenty of modern equipment and good wages, and the staff were generally contented and stayed for many years. It was an era of transition, the period between the wars when staff were increasingly hard to find and so conditions had to improve, but some grand folk apparently adapted better than others to the new circumstances.

The author was always focused on getting a husband and thereby escaping from domestic service altogether, but it seemed to me that her married life was in many ways harder and less comfortable than her life as a cook. Certainly she had more freedom, but she was never well off, and at times was desperate for money. But at least she had the intelligence to see the value of education, and took evening classes and read a great deal. This (combined with her bolshy nature) gave her a certain self-confidence. My favourite moment from the book is when her posh employer tells her off for damaging a mirror. ‘You must treat things better, Margaret,’ she said. ‘Don’t you love good objects?’ ‘No, I don’t, Mrs Schwab,’ I said. ‘To me they’re just material things; I have an affinity with G. K. Chesterton who wrote about the malignity of inanimate objects,’ I said, ‘and I think they are malign because they take up so much of my time, dusting, polishing, and cleaning them.’ At this point in her life, she was a daily cleaner, and any daily who can answer back with such a quote (the malignity of inanimate objects!) is at least the equal of her employer, in my view.

Not the best written book ever, and it starts slowly, but it’s still a fascinating look at a lost way of life, and an entertaining read. Three stars.

Wednesday, 6 March 2013

Mystery Review: 'Heat Wave' by Richard Castle

Anyone who’s watched the TV detective series ‘Castle’, featuring Nathan Fillion as a writer tailing a NYPD cop solving murders, will know that this is the book that featured in the show, the book that Castle the character supposedly wrote as a result of his experience with the cops. The joke, of course, is that the characters in the book are thinly disguised copies of their TV show counterparts: Castle is Rook (a Pullitzer-prize winning journalist this time, not a fiction writer), Kate Beckett is Nikki Heat, sidekicks Esposito and Ryan are Ochoa and Raley, pathologist Lanie is Lauren and so on. Except that this time, the sexual tension between the two main characters is resolved in the steamy sex scene on page 105 (as fans will surely remember from the show).

As a murder mystery, this is a fairly run of the mill affair, but it rattles along pretty well and the plot really isn’t the point, after all. I found the overuse of slang and jargon a bit trying, but it does fit with the character. A (fictional) writer researching a book like this might very well accumulate a whole bunch of such phrases and sprinkle them absolutely everywhere. And it’s very funny imagining Castle writing this stuff. It seems like a hack piece of work, but then that’s the intention, so it’s actually quite cleverly done. Not recommended for anyone unfamiliar with the show, but for fans who would likely get all the jokes and sly references, this is an entertaining piece of fluff. Three stars.

My Other Blog: While I Was Away (Part 2)

Catching up with the new reviews added to Fantasy Review Barn, my shared blog, by my fellow bloggers Nathan and Anachronist over the last month which might interest you:

The Pratchett review is part of Nathan's ongoing project to reread the entire Discworld canon in sequence.

You can find the blog here. Naturally, all my reviews will continue to be posted here and on Goodreads, and my other ramblings will be posted here. All my fantasy and sci-fi reviews will also be posted on Fantasy Review Barn.

Tuesday, 5 March 2013

Steampunk Fantasy Review: 'Healer's Touch' by Deb E Howell

This is billed as a steampunk fantasy, but don’t be fooled. The steampunk elements are negligible. In reality, this is a romance with a fantasy background. Since the heroine is seventeen and there’s a bit of a love triangle, I suppose it’s YA, too. The book has perhaps the most cliché-riddled opening I've ever encountered. The main character is an orphan with mysterious powers. She makes a living on the streets as a pick-pocket [*], disguised as a boy. Despite the disguise, twice during the first couple of chapters she suffers violent attempted rapes. She is betrayed by a former friend, arrested for a murder she didn't commit, and condemned to death. But she escapes and manages to run away. It's all pretty familiar stuff. It just needs a prophecy, a magic sword and a quest to complete the set (maybe that comes later...). And yet, despite the predictability, I kept reading, which is, I suppose, a testament of sorts to the author's writing ability, if not her originality.

[*] Why oh why do orphaned children always end up on the streets in fantasyland, their only option thievery or prostitution? Did their parents have no friends who might help them out? Is the town so lawless that orphans are simply abandoned to their fate? Is there really no honest work to be had?

The biggest interest for me is the main character's magical ability. Llew has the power to heal herself when injured, but only by drawing the life force from some other living thing - human, animal or plant. This is such an intriguing power that I really want to know more about it. Then there's Braph, a man with a mysterious background who is clearly searching for Llew, for reasons unknown. (Horrible thought: maybe she's the secret heir to the kingdom? No, surely not.) Less intriguing by far is the romantic interest. We know he's the romantic interest from the start because Llew comments on his nice ass, and mentions how handsome he is. Needless to say, he dislikes her on sight.

The plot isn’t much to write home about, but it’s serviceable. Llew picks up with a group heading north to the only port on a long, thin island-continent (really? no other suitable place?). There are encounters with highwaymen, Braph the Mysterious and the law, since Llew is still wanted for murder, and now witchcraft, since she used her magic to escape hanging. This is all good fun, and there’s the expected moment where Llew’s less-than-convincing boy disguise fails, and her new friends pop her in a frock for dinner. Cue much ogling from the men. There are some logic fails: a day when they appeared to have lunch twice, a bedroom scene segues to the garden and back again, and a time on a boat when Llew needed a living being to draw energy from, and everyone forgot about the horses in the hold. But still, things rattle along nicely, with one misadventure after another.

In a shock twist (not), the group includes the romantic interest, Jonas, who despite being a mean, cynical killing machine, immediately gets the hots for our heroine. He also shows his sensitive side, bringing her cloths when her period starts, giving her cute little hugs when she’s down and cuddling in bed in a heroically non-libidinous way at night. I began to wonder when they would start doing each other’s hair. But this does highlight the biggest problem I had with this book - the characters don’t behave in believable ways. When Jonas and Llew sneak out at night to meet up with Braph, a man known to be hostile and with probably evil intentions, how do they pass the time while they wait for him to show up? Sharpening their knives, perhaps? Discussing tactics? Hiding so they have the element of surprise? No, they lie down in plain view and get all hot and steamy. And when a child is accidentally killed, everyone acts like it’s the greatest tragedy ever, and Jonas is so distraught he gets wildly drunk. This is the man who says ‘I’ve killed... dozens, hundreds.’ Then when Braph does eventually turn up, no one recognises him or gets even remotely alarmed. There are any number of oddities like this.

I found this a very frustrating read. On the one hand, there's some wonderful magic, solid world-building and an interesting steampunkish vaguely western feel to it. The author's writing style is neat and unobtrusive, and the plot moves along at a fair canter. On the other hand, the romantic element pops up at the most inopportune moments, and the characters just don't behave rationally. There are also aspects that aren't explained well (or perhaps I just failed to get it, I don't know; I never did work out quite who Emylia was - friend, relative or paid chaperone?), so there are a number of wait-did-we-know-that? moments along the way. Better editing would have smoothed out some inconsistencies and odd hiccups, filled in the strangely sketchy minor characters and produced a better flow. But despite all the issues, I kept reading, sneaking a chapter here and there when I was supposed to be doing something else, until the ending lost me. Sadly, the last few chapters are littered with unlikely events, coindidences and outright deus ex machina. For those who can enjoy the romance, the interesting setting and a terrific magic system, and don’t mind the implausibilities, this would be a great read, and it’s clear the author can write, but for me it just didn’t work. Two stars.