Sunday, 25 May 2014

Fantasy Review: 'Scriber' by Ben S Dobson

This is a book that surely strikes a chord with every avid reader: the society it describes is one recovering from the worst of all traumas, where all the books were burned. Not just a few heretical ones, but almost all of them. Just a few precious scraps of information remain from the collected history and scientific knowledge of the time before the burning. Dennon Lark, the scriber of the title, is an academic, dedicated to recovering as much of the lost knowledge of the pre-book-burning age as possible, wherever it may be found. But after an excavation of a possible book hoard site went horribly wrong, killing several people and destroying priceless religious artifacts, he ran away to a peaceful life in obscurity.

There wouldn’t be much of a story if he stayed there, though, would there? There are strange goings on in the land, Dennon hears voices in his head and a chance meeting with soldier Bryndine, the King’s niece, sees Dennon caught up in the defence of the kingdom. It’s the characters that shine here. Dennon himself is nothing at all like a typical hero – an almost pathologically reclusive academic, with no courage to speak of except in pursuit of his precious books. Bryndine fills the heroic role here, a woman of honour and unswerving devotion to her oaths and her people. She has gathered together a motley band of female warriors, of mixed backgrounds and personalities but all implausibly skilled at arms and of infinite courage and powers of endurance. And if that sounds eye-rollingly bad, they never came across as being the least bit cliched, so for me, at least, they worked.

The plot was a tad less successful. To say it was predictable doesn’t really do it justice. If our merry band rides into a rocky mountain pass on the cusp of winter, it doesn’t take a crystal ball to guess that there will be a) a snowstorm; b) an avalanche; or c) an attack of fearsome beasties. Or all three. Sigh. And I lost count of the times the search for some gizmo or other (in this book, it was a letter or journal or stash of books) ends in apparent failure, only for a chance remark to have Dennon suddenly say: ‘Oh, wait a minute, that gives me an idea...’.

The world-building, by contrast is rather good, even if everything interconnects rather too neatly. The writing is excellent (I didn’t notice a single typo, which must be some kind of record). However, I very much disliked the author’s habit of ending a chapter on a dramatic note, a fade-to-black or some other cliff-hanger, and opening the next chapter with: ‘I woke up to find...’. Bleh.

The ending is the expected grand battle which, to be honest, was so emotionally overwrought that I skipped most of it, as well as the endless pages of angsting that preceded it. Not my thing, I’m afraid. Nothing terribly unexpected happened, so for anyone looking for an original twist, this is not the book for you. Nor will you find any deep introspection or a profound philosophical treatise.

What you will find is a terrific adventure story with ever-escalating action, some unusual but convincing characters and a well thought out background. It’s dragged down a little by the slightly implausible ending, and the repeated attempts to evoke an emotional response and ramp up the stakes by killing and maiming characters (leave my favourite sidekicks alone, dammit!). On the whole, though, this is an excellent piece of fantasy. Four stars.

Saturday, 17 May 2014

Paranormal Urban Fantasy Review: 'Dark Visions' by Debbie Johnson

Dark Vision

I bought this for all the wrong reasons. It’s not my usual genre (paranormal urban fantasy) in any way, but... it’s set in Liverpool, and that was a huge attraction. There’s a special buzz in reading a book where the action takes place in Lime Street station, the Mersey ferry, Edge Hill, Sefton Park and even Bidston Hill, all places I know well. So I was prepared to take a punt on this, and step outside my comfort zone for a while. And it almost worked.

Lily McCain is a young woman with a secret: when she touches anyone, skin on skin, she gets a vision of their future. And however horrible it is, she can’t do anything to prevent it. No wonder she avoids contact with anyone, not easy given her chosen profession of music reporter for the local paper, which requires her to spend her time in packed clubs. But then one day a mysterious stranger turns up, tells her that she’s really, really special, so special she’s destined to save the world (or at least be his mate and have his babies), whereupon various other mysterious strangers start trying to kill her. And there’s a bunch about the Otherworld and the High King, and Ireland comes into it somewhere, and... OK, I got all fuzzy about the plot at this point. And really, it doesn’t much matter. There are good guys and bad guys, all right? And all Lily has to do is work out which is which.

There’s a lot to enjoy about this (besides Sefton Park having some kind of magic portal in it, which amused me no end). It’s an easy read, with some great humour, and Lily and her amusing sidekick Carmel are true feisty Scouse birds (when not curled up in wardrobes crying, that is). There are a few quibbles, though.

Quibble number one: vampires, because... no, actually, I don’t need a ‘because’. Just vampires. Ok, they’re background characters, and they have a goth band, naturally, which mitigates the effect, but really – vampires. It’s a testament to the strength of the writing that I didn’t toss the book (I’m SO allergic to the blood-sucking undead).

Quibble number two: scorching hot blokes (and some of the women too). Apart from Lily and Carmel, everyone seems to be impossibly hot and fit and awesomely honed. Which is kind of tedious. I like a bit more realism than that.

Quibble number three: logic failures. Now, I read a lot of fantasy, so I’m perfectly capable of believing six impossible things before breakfast, but the internal logic has to be consistent. And I just can’t accept that Gabriel (the aforementioned High King and Lily’s designated mate) would dump her at age six with one of the least sensible carers in the known universe. That makes no sense. And then only turn up again when there's a crisis looming only days away. She's in her twenties, for goodness sake, surely you could have dropped in a little sooner with the 'By the way, there's something you ought to know...' speech? And then there’s Lily herself. I lost count of the number of times someone said to her: whatever you do, don’t do X. And what’s the first thing she does? Of course it is. It’s a wonder she survived past chapter three.

Now, to be fair, these are all personal gripes of mine, and I’m sure the vast majority of the intended audience doesn’t care about a bit of wobbly logic. The writing is a little uneven – the scene where Lily returns to her nan’s house and emotes all over it goes on way too long, for instance. Plus there are numerous moments where the story felt contrived in order to squeeze in another famous Liverpool location (did we really need the entire history of the Cavern?). Those few quibbles aside, though, the story’s an entertaining read, with some great humour (only occasionally veering off into silliness), with an ending which avoided the easy options. An enjoyable three stars. Recommended for fans of vampires, hot blokes and Liverpool.

Paranormal Review: 'Life After Life' by Kate Atkinson

Life After Life

This is one of those books that I started with every expectation of hating it. It would be too pretentious, too clever for its own good, and too full of itself, I was sure of it. And the central conceit, of living the same life over and over, has been done a few times before. But then, quite unexpectedly, the quirky charm of the characters drew me in, and the excellent writing raised my hopes. I ended up enjoying it far more than anticipated, with a couple of reservations.

The story follows Ursula, the third child of Silvie and Hugh, who is born in the middle of a snowstorm in 1910. And promptly dies, the cord being tangled round her throat. And is born again. This time, she’s saved and lives a little longer. There are a great many deaths, in a great many different ways (and sometimes the same way, repeatedly), and some are pretty depressing, but knowing that Ursula will be reborn every time makes this less fraught than it might be.

As these various lives come and go and come again, Ursula starts to have some memory of her previous incarnations. These are not clear memories, but vague feelings of dread when in a place where something bad happened in a previous life, or a strong feeling that she should (or shouldn’t) do certain things. Her subconscious attempts to mitigate the effects or avoid a situation altogether are fascinating, and she gradually begins to adapt her life towards certain specific ends. It’s almost inevitable, given the timeframe here, that the whole killing-Hitler-to-prevent-the-war scenario should raise its head, but I won’t spoil the surprise by revealing what actually happens (well, it was a surprise to me, anyway).

The first reservation I had was that the heavy focus on the second world war, and the graphic descriptions of the lives that Ursula lived, made the mid-section of the book appallingly miserable. Nothing good seemed to happen to her at all. In all her many lives, there was no life where she simply met a nice man, married, settled down into baby-infested domesticity and had a pleasant, if dull, life. No, time after time, she lived miserably and died horribly, and I really resented that. Although possibly that was the entire point of her existence, I don’t know. Or some deep philosophical point: life’s a bitch and then you die and then (lucky you) you get to go through the whole awfulness of it all again.

But then the ending rolled around and this is where things went slightly off the rails, because (and I’m going to be honest here) I didn’t understand it at all. There were hints that some of the other characters also had some vague memories, but it wasn’t at all clear (to me). And the last chapter – what was that all about? It’s been driving me nuts. The blurb on the cover seems to suggest that, in true ‘Groundhog Day’ style, there will come a point when Ursula does everything right and the endless cycling will stop. Yet the book itself appears to contradict that. Or does it? Dunno. And what does it all mean? Dunno again. But the writing is very effective, the characters have a quirky, and very English, charm, and on balance I found it an enjoyable read. The deeply depressing wartime scenes and cryptic ending keep it to three stars.

Wednesday, 14 May 2014

Romance Review: 'Scandal's Heiress' by Amelia Smith

Scandal's Heiress

I don’t read much Regency romance these days, although at one point in my life I worked my way through the entire Georgette Heyer catalogue, multiple times. And Jane Austin remains a favourite. I still have a soft spot for the genre, but recent forays have been less than satisfactory – either too silly for words, or too cavalier with historical accuracy. I see no reason why a romance set in historical times shouldn’t provide something more substantial than meringue to chew on, and also be true to the nature of those times, without being too pedantic about it.

This book manages to please in both areas. The plot is the usual romance formula: boy meets girl, there’s an instant attraction but insuperable problems, they gradually work their way towards a happy ending. However, the author sidesteps the now customary pitfalls: there’s no insta-lurve to stretch credibility, just the attraction between the only two people of a certain age on board ship for a long journey, kept in check by common sense. I liked the way this was handled very much. And the problems are real ones, arising from family history, social status and the personalities of the couple themselves.

The main characters, Hyacinth, raised in Gibraltar, and Thomas, who’s spent most of his adult life in India, are both outsiders, which gives them a natural affinity. Hyacinth has inherited a small estate from a disreputable relative, and Thomas is now the heir to both wealth and a title, but neither want to conform to society’s expectations of them. They’re both smart, too, making sensible decisions. I liked both of them.

The historical setting is sketched in quite lightly (although everyone’s seen Pride and Prejudice and knows what this era looked like), but there’s enough detail to bring the period to life. The descriptions of life aboard ship were particularly effective, London a little less so (Thomas’s family’s house seemed vastly too big even for a family of such high social standing). However, the author has a very fluid way of handling titles and forms of address. For example, the hero, Thomas Smithson Pently, is routinely addressed as ‘Sir Pently’, which had my inner pedant screaming ‘What kind of title is that when it’s at home?’ I’ve given up reading some books for oddities like this, but here the charm of the main characters kept me going.

The plot burbles along very nicely, although I rolled my eyes a little when the heroine’s inherited estate turned out to be right next door to the hero’s family acres. Hmm... But it all wraps up beautifully, the obligatory sex scene is nicely judged and the ending is neither too glib nor too sickly-sweet sentimental. I enjoyed it very much. Well-drawn characters, elegantly written and with more to chew on than usual in a romance – highly recommended. Four stars.

Tuesday, 6 May 2014

Fantasy Review: 'The Lascar's Dagger' by Glenda Larke

The Lascar's Dagger (The Forsaken Lands, #1)

Glenda Larke is one of a very small number of authors whose works are on my must-buy list, and a new book, and the first of a series to boot, is always cause for celebration. Larke writes a traditional kind of fantasy, not the elves and dwarves sort, but the type that relies on a refreshingly original created world, engaging characters and a story that compels right from the first line. And it doesn't hurt that she has a wonderfully vivid writing style.

So why does this one not quite set me on fire? I think it’s because there are so many elements that feel very unoriginal, not to say tired. Parts of the world feel like just another pseudo-medieval setting, the parts that involve the patrilineal kingdom with the cold-hearted king, the playboy prince and the resentful but plucky princess, doomed to marry some hideous older man for political reasons. Yawn. And I’m always deeply suspicious of kings who have precisely two children, one of each gender. In a hereditary monarchy, there should be hordes of hopeful heirs, legitimate and otherwise, in every generation, or else an extremely good reason why not.

Other parts of the story are well up to Larke’s creative standards. The unusual physical world, with the continents clustering inconveniently around the polar ice-cap. The importance of the spice trade. The uneasily united branches of the prevailing religion. And the dagger of the title, a creepily semi-alive weapon. I’m a sucker for sentient ironmongery.

The main character of the story is Saker, low-born but now a pretend priest and spy, working undercover for his religious mentor while supposedly tutoring the royal children. And here’s another problem. Saker is a likeable enough character, but he’s made out to be some ultra-smart, ultra-devious guy, when the entire book is no more than a catalogue of his mistakes, where he’s taken in by one smarter, more devious character after another. Gullible is his middle name, and while I excuse his entrapment by the lady (he’d have to be super-human to resist, frankly), the rest of it just makes him look stupid. And I have to wonder why his mentor sends him off to tutor the prince and princess in the first place, a position he seems spectacularly unsuited for.

Of the other characters, Ryke the prince is the standard template for princes in fantasy, only interested in hunting, whoring and himself. Mathilda the princess has an even more limited range of interests – herself and... erm, that’s it. And yes, of course, it’s a horrible situation, young woman forced to marry evil older man for the good of the kingdom (and a lucrative trade agreement), but we have heard it once or twice before. Sorrel, the widow coerced into virtual slavery by Mathilda, would be more interesting if she stopped whining for five minutes. Yes, life’s really tough living in the royal palace with all your comforts provided, isn’t it?

Ardhi, on the other hand, the original owner of the eponymous dagger, is a truly fascinating character. More of him, please. Saker’s religious mentor, the Pontifect, is also interesting, and I also enjoyed the few moments onscreen of light-hearted nobleman Juster (although he reminded me somewhat of Maldynado from the Emperor’s Edge series; actually quite a few of these characters reminded me of some other book).

The plot is a little slow to get going, although that’s typical of most fantasy and isn’t a problem. It takes time to paint in the backdrop before the action starts. Once it does, though, things take off spectacularly, and the second half of the book is a fast-paced romp as Saker and pals stagger from one disaster to the next. Beneath the veneer of entertainment, though, there are some thought-provoking themes – of slavery, for one thing. Several of the characters are, in various ways, compelled to do things they desperately don’t want to do. This ought to make me more sympathetic towards them, but somehow it feels more like a plot device and therefore loses its emotional impact.

This fell a little short of my expectations. It felt uneven, the characters failed to engage me, the plot, while executed with all the author’s flair, seemed a little contrived. Political machinations are less interesting to me than well-rounded characters. However, the writing is, as always, excellent, and the foundations are laid for the next two books in the series to venture out of the familiar world of kingdoms and organised religions into more exotic settings. I’ll certainly be reading on. Three stars.