Saturday, 30 November 2013

YA Fantasy Review: 'Hunting' by Andrea K Höst

Now here’s a thing: a book by Andrea K Höst that doesn’t set me on fire. It’s a perfectly fine, entertaining read, you understand, a solid YA fantasy with a little romance, but it just doesn’t quite have that extra something that normally lifts the author’s writing out of the ‘good’ column and into the ‘awesome’. That makes me sad.

It starts badly. The first few chapters are a blizzard of names and titles and nicknames and throwaway references to customs and ideas that the average reader can’t possibly understand. And is that an orphaned heroine of mysterious background I see before me? (Well, not quite but close enough.) And - surely not? - that can’t be a girl masquerading as a boy? But it is. Can we say ‘overused tropes’ here? Naturally the author is far too creative not to put her own twist on all this, but it’s still a slightly underwhelming start.

The magic of this world is quite intriguing. The rulers are chosen by the gods, rather than simply inheriting their power, and the gods give them a direct connection with their land. Their job is to maintain the balance of the land, so that it’s not overused or neglected, and they have powers to enable them to do that. The gods also intervene at death, choosing whether a soul is worthy to go to the sun god (a heaven equivalent), or goes to a different god to be cleaned up first. A very few are rejected outright, if they’ve been very evil, or are reborn, if they have some task to finish.

The plot involves someone going round bumping off herbalists. The heroine, Ash, the one pretending to be a boy, is a friend of one of those murdered, and is taken up by outsider Thornaster to help him investigate the murders, since she has some knowledge of herbs. So there’s a lot of sneaking around, and improbable mingling with the nobility, and dramatic rescues of various characters from attempted murders and the like. And it’s all great fun and a nice, easy read, so long as you switch off all logical thought.

The whole girl pretending to be a boy thing is the biggest obstacle for me. Is it really possible to do this convincingly? The author has considered some of the difficulties, like breasts and periods and ways of walking, but I always wonder quite how you’d get away with not being able to pee standing up. And here Ash is mingling with an entirely masculine crowd, yet nobody wonders why she always sneaks away to pee?

But if you can get past that, the story rolls along very nicely, in the usual crisis-resolution, crisis-resolution way, and I suppose the final explanations and tidying up of loose ends made some sense. It just all seemed a bit less surprising and a bit more ordinary than I’d anticipated. The romance, such as it was, started too easily and resolved itself without very many difficulties. There were some nice moments along the way, though, and I rattled through this at a fair pace, without ever losing interest. This is, by any standards, an enjoyable read. It’s only by comparison with some of the author’s other work that it falls a little short. Three stars.

Monday, 25 November 2013

Fiction Review: 'Old Filth' by Jane Gardam

I think I must be losing my tolerance for books written to a theme, rather than the author’s burning desire to tell a story. This one is about Raj orphans, those children of parents busily engaged on the work of the British Empire in India or various parts of the Far East. While their parents swanned around the British Clubs and drank their gins and tonics and suffered from repeated bouts of malaria, the children were brought up by local ayahs or nannies, shipped home to relatives or foster parents at school age and shunted through boarding schools and Oxbridge until they, too, were old enough to be useful to the establishment.

And I’m sure it’s all deeply worthy and symbolic and all the rest of it. Parts of it are unexpectedly glorious, like little stars of perceptiveness in a velvet-black sky of nothingness. Trouble is, the whole wobbly edifice rests on the characters, and, frankly, I never cared about any of them. I like my fiction to tell a story, not be a collection of vignettes of eccentricity. Then there are outbreaks of unforgiveably pretentious writing: "...the train swayed insolently through Clapham Junction." I mean, good grief. I got through fifty percent before giving up. But it’s sold by the shed-load, and the most popular shelf on Goodreads is ‘book club’ so clearly it works for a lot of people. Just not for me. One star for a DNF.

Monday, 18 November 2013

Fantasy Review: 'Keepers of Arden: The Brothers, Volume 1' by L K Evans

This is one of those books with loads of interesting ideas where the execution falls a little flat. The concept of the human mother being forced to bear the child of a demon is not at all an original one (Rosemary's Baby, for instance), but there's always room for a novel twist on the idea. In this case, the demon is prevented from taking the child, and the child himself is prevented from total evil, by the unconditional love of his older brother. The mother, on the other hand, sees the child as nothing but a monstrosity and treats him very badly. We're so used to the idea of mothers loving their children no matter what that this is quite a difficult idea to read about, and made me wonder: just how would a mother react to such a child? I'm not convinced that Ashra would be quite so proud of her eldest son and loving towards him, while hating her youngest quite so strongly. And why doesn't Wilhelm, the eldest, notice the difference and lose respect for his mother?

The author has created a wonderfully detailed world as background for this story of two very different brothers. There is a mythology involving a god-love-triangle, and there are throwaway lines about drunken gods and the like which I found very intriguing. Then the Big Bad is referred to as ‘God’ by his head minion, which is interesting too. However, despite some nice little snippets of history, I never quite got a clear picture of how these gods fitted into the current picture, whether they were real or even whether they were good or evil. The rest of the world is obviously just as carefully thought out, but without a map or a little more detail it was hard to see quite what was what. Sometimes as our heroes travelled around the scenery, a character would say: ‘Well, I’ll just pop back to Falar for...’, which always took me by surprise. It’s that close and I never knew? The various towns are nicely differentiated from one another, it’s just me that needs some kind of a visual aid to help me understand the setting. Like a map. [Edit: there's actually rather a nice map provided, which I stupidly missed. Doh!]

There’s magic in this world, but it’s fairly limited in scope. There are just fourteen spells available to mages, they’re difficult to learn and to perform and they bite back if you get them wrong, killing the mage. Even if you get them right, you have to rest for a long time before you can perform them again. The mages actually forget each spell after it’s been used, and have to have a spell-book to remind themselves, which is a cool idea. As if that wasn’t tricky enough, mages are bound by restrictive laws and almost universally despised, so they can be attacked and even killed for no reason other than being mages.

The story follows the lives of two brothers, Wilhelm and Salvarias, the sons of a female mage struggling to make a living. Wilhelm’s father is a mystery, having disappeared shortly after getting Ashra pregnant. Nice guy (not), but he’s supposedly doing something important in the world, and I have no doubt he’ll turn up in a future book. I'm actually quite interested to meet dad, because Wilhelm has inherited some interesting genes. Enormous height and strength, for instance, as well as charm and (it seems) supernatural skills with the ladies (well, I've never heard of a fifteen year old who can perform such prodigious feats).

Salvarias is the demon-child, who inherits his mother’s mage abilities at an unusually early age. This book takes the story from Salvarias’s conception through to his late teens, and there are necessarily big gaps where several years pass between action episodes. The plot is very uneven, depending to a large extent on coincidence and, frankly, deus ex machina at times. The brothers find themselves out on the streets trying to survive, and almost the first person they meet is a friend not seen for many years who turns up out of the blue and looks after them. Other characters who might be expected to help are unaccountably missing when needed. A mage turns up in the nick of time to heal Salvarias, and then vanishes. All of this is very convenient. If there are plot-related reasons for these fortuitous events, they aren’t made clear.

The other characters, who pop up as needed and vanish the rest of the time, are not terribly realistic. They all tend to the handsome/beautiful end of the spectrum, and fall neatly into good or evil categories, without much blurring of the lines. Despite a running theme of who could be trusted, which had me on the watch for a traitor in their midst, there were no dramatic reveals (at least not in this book). The female characters (with the notable exception of Ashra, the mother) are frequently madonna types, sweet and maternal and in need of protection, with the occasional warrior-babe or raunchy type for variety. There's a very odd attitude to the romance element of the book. Wilhelm is much in demand with the ladies (with unlimited stamina, it appears), but as soon as love looms on the horizon, somehow sex is off the agenda. The old madonna/whore dichotomy.

The writing style is oddly awkward at times, with a few characteristic quirks. For instance, characters routinely 'accept' food or hugs, which sounds odd to my ears. Then there's the cloying closeness of the two brothers, where sometimes it seems as if every scene ends with them saying how much they love each other and hugging. There was way too much repetition of phrases, like Wilhelm's tree-like stature. There are numerous small typos scattered throughout, but nothing so egregious as to interfere with readability for me.

I've listed a lot of grumbles with this book, yet I was never tempted to give up on it, and the reason for that was very simple: the deeply compelling character of Salvarias. It's not easy to draw a character which is inherently evil, yet who struggles to overcome that evil every day. His dreams, his internal conversations with his (almost paternal-sounding!) father, his unique approach to life, and even his magic (anthropomorphised here, so that he has long conversations with it), make for a fascinating portrayal. I liked the way that different characters saw him in different ways, so as we moved from one point of view to another, we saw him as essentially evil or deeply charismatic. I was intrigued, too, with the mother, who could be so normally maternal with one son, while hating the other relentlessly. This is an uneven book, which would have benefited from tighter editing and (perhaps) losing some of its bulk. I found it frustratingly flawed, yet still a rewarding read. Three stars.

Saturday, 16 November 2013

Fiction Review: 'The Child Inside' by Suzanne Bugler

I'm not sure what to make of this book. It's not the sort of thing I normally read - it's contemporary, and might perhaps fit the literary genre. I'm not even sure why I bought it now. The premise is a straightforward one: Rachel, a married woman with a son, gives birth to a stillborn baby daughter, and this event colours her family's life for years afterwards. She retreats into herself, her husband does the same, and the surviving child becomes the focus of all their attentions. There's also an event in Rachel's past, a childhood friend from a higher level of society, who died of a brain tumour, and that too becomes something which defines Rachel.

The problems with this book are the typical ones for the genre. Because the setting is very ordinary, there's an element of over-writing the descriptive passages to make them more evocative. Sometimes this works quite well, as the author is quite perceptive, but sometimes it just feels like... well, over-writing. Then there's the plot. Given the premise above, what would be the tritest, least original plot-line you could think up? Yep, that's exactly how it goes. I won't reveal it, in case there are two people left on the planet who might be surprised by any of it, but it's a total cliche-a-thon.

The biggest problem, for me, is that the story fails one of my standard tests for plots: if the entire plot would collapse if the characters simply talk to each other, then that's an epic fail. Romances typically depend on the author finding ingenious ways for the main characters to misunderstand each other, and fantasy depends on wizards or dwarves who talk in cryptic riddles, but in modern settings it all has to be done by character. Is Rachel believable as the sort of person who simply doesn't talk to her husband? Is the husband believable as a man who quietly accepts his miserable life for nine years? Is it really credible that Rachel's sister is such a cow, or that the man she confides in is a total jerk? Some people would probably let such issues slide by, but for me it just didn't work.

Ultimately, this is the sort of story a reader might well enjoy by simply accepting the characters as they are, and empathising with their tragedy. I was never tempted to abandon it, even when it descended from contrived plot devices into a farcical level of melodrama at the end. Up to a point, I even enjoyed it, but other people's miserable lives aren't that interesting to me, and there were just too many obstacles to full enjoyment so that for me it never rose above three stars.

Urban Fantasy Review: 'The Whole Truth' by Jody Wallace

I don't read a lot of urban fantasy, but this one has a great premise: Cleo has an unusual talent. She can see when people lie, by way of a shadow mask that covers their face to a greater or lesser extent, depending how big the lie is. Sometimes the mask comments, too, betraying the person's real feelings. This is such a cool idea, but there's a dark side too. What must it be like to know, beyond any possibility of doubt, when someone lies to you? Your best friend? No, of course your bum doesn't look big in that. No, of course I’m not trying to steal your bloke. Yes, I'd love to see you tonight but I've really got to work. Your boyfriend? I love you. You're the only one. You're the best ever in bed. Eek.

So when Cleo is recruited by other 'supras' (people with similar talents), part of her is thrilled to be amongst people who understand, with whom she doesn't have to pretend. Sadly, Cleo is immediately sent undercover to winkle out a traitor amongst the supras, which involves a lot of hanging around people to watch for lies, and asking leading questions, so she's still on her own.

Cleo isn't the usual self-confident assertive female lead character so common in urban fantasy. Instead she's a much more realistic person, damaged to some extent by the lies she's been exposed to by everyone around her. However, her slightly chirpy voice and her constant mistakes get very wearing after a while. Another big problem: way too many characters to keep up with. I could possibly remember names, but trying to keep track of everyone's supra abilities (which they often hid, even from other supras) was impossible. And the plot fell over because it depended on Cleo being kept in the dark about crucial information. As she herself pointed out, if she'd been told everything right from the start, the problem could have been solved in five minutes.

Somewhere in the middle of the book things begin to pick up, and there's a secret about one character that I just didn't see coming. And at about the three quarters point, there's possibly the best sex-with-subtext scene I've ever read. Quite brilliant. But after that, things crater spectacularly. Firstly, after all the undercover work, the bad guys reveal themselves to Cleo after she makes an unbelievably stupid decision and puts herself into their power. Then things degenerate into a long-drawn-out and totally farcical melee of a finale. Authors really have to decide whether they're going for the serious, oh-no-everyone-might-die line, or whether it's going to be lighthearted fluff. Once characters start dying (well, one character, anyway), you're fairly well committed to serious, and fluff seems distasteful (to me, anyway).

There are a few loose endings left dangling, like the oft-mentioned but never seen step-father, and why did Beau conceal his true nature? But I guess there's a series in the pipeline, so there has to be fodder for future books. There were too many flaws and saggy moments for me to enjoy this completely, but even for a non-fan of urban fantasy like me, there were still plenty of fun moments, a few nice characterisations and that amazing sex scene. Recommended for fans of the genre, and it is a brilliant premise. Three stars.