Here be Dragons

Archive for November, 2012

The Complete Discworld Re-read

This is something a little different, but it will be a lot of fun for me, and hopefully a few others will enjoy it as well.   I have long listed Terry Pratchett as my favorite author, and I was reading him before I read much fantasy at all.  I have read some of his books only once, and some more times than I can count.  But I have never read them all in order, nor I have I reviewed any but a few newer ones.

So that is what I will do now.  I think it will be interesting to see how the books hold up on reread, what references I get more now than the first time, and how the series has grown.  I hope people will join me on this journey, offer comments on what they see, and enjoy the ride!

Please note, I am not turning this into a Pratchett site.  I will be reading these slowly, between other books.  This is a side project, nothing more, and I have no idea how long it will take.  Expect plenty of diverse reviews as always.

Update: 1/5/13 – Adding a few links at the bottom of the list.  Other interesting things that deal with Discworld

The Color or Magic - 3 Stars
The Light Fantastic
- 4 Stars
Equal Rites
- 4 Stars
- 4 Stars
- 3 Stars
Wyrd Sisters -
5 Stars
- 4 Stars
Guards! Guards! -
4 Stars
Eric -
4 Stars
Moving Pictures -
3 Stars
Reaper Man -
3 Stars
Witches Abroad - 4 Stars
Small Gods - 5 stars
Lords and Ladies - 4 Stars
Men at Arms - 4 Stars
Soul Music - 2 Stars
Interesting Times
Feet of Clay
The Last Continent
Carpe Jugulum
The Fifth Elephant
The Truth
Thief of Time
The Last Hero
The Amazing Maurice and His Educated Rodents
Night Watch
The Wee Free Men
Monstrous Regiment
A Hat Full Of Sky
Going Postal
Making Money
Going Postal
Unseen Academicals
I Shall Wear Midnight
Interesting Links-
-Wastral has begun to embark on a complete reread of his own.  Check it out for another opinion. 
-A great series titled Pratchett' Women from
-A nice graphic that answers the common reading order questions. 


Fantasy Review: ‘The Color of Magic’ by Terry Pratchett

Part 1 of the Complete Discworld Reread

“What is your name?”…
“My name is inconsequential.”
“That’s a pretty name.”
The Color of Magic– Terry Pratchett

Part one of a complete reread of Pratchett’s Discworld series.  As such the style will be a little different from other reviews.  The “review” portion will be shorter.  Following the short review will be my thoughts of the book from a rereading standpoint, on how it holds up to expectations, the evolution of the series, and other musings.

The Color of Magic is the first book of Discworld, a humor/parody series of fantasy books.  This book is set up in four parts, which act almost as four short stories all featuring Rincewind, the worlds most inept wizard.  Each section is a direct parody of specific fantasy tropes; the city of assassins and thieves, the barbarian adventure book, and a direct parody of the Pern series, and gods playing games with mortals.  Rincewind is stuck “protecting” a man named Twoflower (much against his nature, and abilities), the worlds first tourist, who wants to visit all the fantastic places he has heard of in his boring desk job.

Some may hear the book is a parody and cringe, as many works of parody these days take the easy joke and milk it for cash(I am thinking of a whole line of movies here).  If that describes your thoughts, do not worry.  Pratchett shows some skill in making a very interesting story on its own, that happens to gently mock some tropes(not beat you over the head with them, with the exception of some of the Pern references). While fantasy has moved in unique directions, it is interesting how many of the tropes Pratchett is working with are still in play.  Because of this the book has aged well, and the humor holds up.

If you like both fantasy and comedy, The Color of Magic is still a very fun, very short read.  It should be noted that it ends on a cliff hanger(the only book of the series that does), and The Light Fantastic is required if you want to know the end of the story.

3 stars, a good series start, but not a lot of depth.


To start with, I was reading Pratchett before i read fantasy in any volume, so I had no idea how much of this first book was a direct parody.  It almost reads like Rincewind travels through The Tough Guide to Fantasyland.  I see why so many fans tell people not to start with this book if reading the series.  It lacks the things that make Discworld, well, Discworld.  The silly asides are noticeably absent.  The depth of characters is no here yet, almost everyone is a caricature.  It is too short to be any more than a novelty parody, and while some work well, some were to obvious(putting a ! in the middle of a dragon writers name, for instance).

Huge chunks of lore will change from this book going on the series.  Death is almost sadistic, not the business-like entity we grow to love.  Wizardry changes dramatically, in The Color of Magic spells are one time use.  In later books almost any location can show up in another book, the world is tied together pretty tightly.  But almost none of the locations in TCoM are ever seen again.

Pratchett does a great job in later books with his female characters, I would rate Granny among the top characters in fantasy lit.  So it is a bit surprising that here he sticks with stock females from fantasy tropes.  Four females are present.  One is a goddess, two wear very little clothing, and all three mortals are out to do harm to the hero.

This book also starts the tradition of Rincewind being off the world, in another dimension, or just believed dead that continues through all the Rincewind books. 

All said, I still enjoyed this read, but it certainly lacks the strengths of later novels.

Notable Firsts, in no particular order: Rincewind, Twoflower, Luggage, Death,  and possible the Patrician(though it may be a different one.

Fantasy Review: ‘The Duchess of the Shallows’ by Neil McGarry and Daniel Ravipinto

Some books draw you in with some dramatic piece of action right at the start; a battle, perhaps, or something intriguing and unexplained. Some start off slow and gentle, and build up to the action later. This one starts with the characters, with Duchess and Lysander, a relationship, a little bit of history and yes, a bit of a mystery, too. And within a chapter, it’s tugging at me, making me care about these people. Some books take their full length to do that, and some (quite a few actually) never do it, but these two authors have a sure touch for creating the emotional resonance that I look for in a book.

The heart of this book is Duchess, the sixteen year old orphan from a noble family, who was brought up in anonymity by a baker and has now been turfed out to make her way on the streets. This all sounds fairly ho-hum, but it’s given a fresh and original twist here, and the mystery of what really happened to Duchess and her family underpins the whole book. Then there is Lysander, her sort-of-but-not-really boyfriend, who is, to be honest, more interesting than she is. Or maybe I’m just naturally drawn to roguish, amusing, charming men rather than to sixteen year old girls, who knows. But their relationship is lovely, most unusual, and beautifully revealed.

The world-building is, in one sense, limited, because all the action takes place within the city of Rodaas. However, the city is well described, with all its different districts, each with a very distinct feel. I’m not sure I find it totally credible that they would stay so separate (in real life they would blur at the edges and blend together, I would think), but I suppose it all happens by imperial edict. Still, it worked very well to give the city a believable feel, and the very nice map helped. I also liked the atmospheric fogs that roll in from the sea at regular intervals – that’s a very evocative idea, which works well to give the place an other-worldly quality, mysterious and slightly creepy.

In some ways this is a conventional setting for a fantasy novel. There’s an Empress and the nobility, where men rule the roost and women do what they’re told; there are merchants and craftsmen and traders and guilds, and all the usual paraphernalia; and at the bottom of the heap are the thieves and street urchins and beggars. There is law and order (of a sort) but also corruption and a degree of brutality. And there are prostitutes (male and female) who tread an uneasy path between the classes, being low in the social standing themselves but taking their clientèle from the upper ranks. There’s religion, too, three main ones, recognised by the empire, and numerous minor or unusual ones, and again there are intriguing but well delineated differences between them. Magic? Possibly, but it’s not very clear.

Then there’s the plot. The premise is that Duchess has been thrown out of the bakery (for unknown reasons) but has been given a special coin which might allow her to join one of the elite gangs of the city, the Greys. To do this she has to undertake an initiation test. Now, there’s a long tradition in the same vein: the hero (or heroine, in this case) is called upon to undertake a seemingly impossible task, and this has certain advantages. It drives the plot, for one thing, and it ramps up the tension, by setting up the possibility that if she fails, she will die (or worse). I’m not a big fan of this kind of plot device. For one thing, it always seems so much more sensible to just say no, and settle for a nice respectable job, or at least guaranteed survival. And of course no one really believes she’s going to fail. So it’s all a bit artificial. But never mind.

Once the Impossible Task ™ gets under way, there are a few contrivances to allow Duchess to get to where she needs to be, and to case the joint, as it were, and this part is all a bit predictable. But once things start moving, the story hits the turbo button and becomes a terrific page turner, and not predictable at all. In fact, there’s a moment in the middle of the action where Duchess has to make a difficult decision. I expected the authors to opt for cheap sentimentality here and take the easy route, but no, not at all, and they faced up to the consequences too. This was a very nice piece of writing. Details: (see SPOILER below.)

The ending was neatly done, even if very slightly predictable (well, even I guessed bits of it), and it did seem sometimes as if things just worked out a little too conveniently, although partly that was just the complications of the various factions. I’m not sure that I’ve got them all clear in my head, even now (it was complicated), but even so I liked the way it all felt like a whole array of multi-layered games going on simultaneously, with only odd moves becoming visible here and there. To say that everyone’s motives were questionable would be an understatement. But the authors managed to create a satisfying resolution for this book, while also laying the foundations for future books, not always easy to do.

I have a few minor quibbles: I would have liked to see something of the world outside Rodaas, for example. The city felt just slightly claustrophobic. And while I don’t normally comment on cover images, this one, while it nicely depicts Duchess herself, is a bit too much the conventional fantasy-character-in-a-hood. I would have liked to see Lysander on there too (but maybe that’s just me!), and also something of fog-bound Rodaas as well. Also, although the authors have attempted to create something of a past for Rodaas, the few snippets of events and stories we get don’t really give the impression of a fully realised history.

On the plus side, the writing is excellent, drawing out the atmosphere of Rodaas and creating fully rounded characters. There are virtually no typos or clunky moments. I particularly liked the subtleties of the exchanges with Minette and Uncle Cornelius, with all their double meanings and innuendo, where the reader is given just enough information to work out what is really being said without being spoonfed. Duchess is a sympathetic main character right from the start, and did I mention that I really like Lysander? I think I may have… A really enjoyable read. Four stars.


I thought she would race to Lysander’s rescue, for sure, when he was captured by the Brutes, and was pleasantly surprised when she turned away and left him to his fate. In a grittier book, he would have died or been maimed as a result, but this is not a gritty book and fate intervened to rescue him more or less unscathed. But it did damage their relationship, as it should (although this gets slurred over a bit later, sadly). It did cross my mind, however, that if the Brutes had dragged Lysander off to the underground chamber to be tortured, as they intended, they would have been there just as Duchess needed to make her escape that way. Which would have been interesting. [First posted on Goodreads May 2012]

Fantasy Review: ‘The Riddler’s Gift’ by Greg Hamerton

At first glance, this is a very traditional fantasy story about a magic ring which slips away from its evil owner at a critical moment, and finds its way into the hands of the most unlikely person imaginable. There’s a benign wizard acting as mentor and guide, there’s an evil wizard spreading darkness over the land, with the help of some evil minions, and there’s a collection of good guys uniting to defeat evil. You might think you’ve read something with a plot not a million miles from this one before. But not so fast; this book is proof of the theory that even the oldest and most overworked tale can be infused with new life in the hands of a good storyteller.

The plot isn’t really as unoriginal as I made out. Tabitha is the teenage girl who ends up with the magic ring, but she uses it to sing the Lifesong, the music that (somehow) triggers or even transcends the magic in this world. Ashley is an apprentice Lifegifter (or mage) who finds himself with the convenient ability to read thoughts. Garyll is the Swordmaster (chief warrior and law enforcer), and also love interest for Tabitha. The Riddler is the good wizard, there to help Tabitha. Kirjath Arkell is one of the minions. And although there are good guys and bad guys, things aren’t at all as clearcut as is usual in this type of fantasy.

The worldbuilding has been quite carefully done. The setting, Eyri, is rather small, being no more than two to three days riding from one side to the other, but there’s a reason behind that, and hopefully a later installment will see the story expand into the outside world. One grumble: there is a point where some of these external places are mentioned, with a string of incomprehensible names like Lûk and Jho-down and lots more, in the worst kind of infodump. Fortunately this is brief. The setting is the usual pre-industrial-revolution affair – a rather idyllic and twee collection of villages filled with more or less honest, upright citizens. The author has made efforts to avoid the standard generic fantasy template for his settlements, so each one has some distinguishing characteristic. Russel, for instance, is an artists’ colony, with houses built on stilts. While these distinctions seem a little artificial, it’s better than every place being the same as all the others.

The magic system is very nice. There are three ‘axes’ of magic: the axis of darkness and light, that of energy and matter, and that of order and chaos. I liked the way that it’s necessary to keep the opposing forces in balance, which leads to some very elegant methods of keeping the heroine and the villain apart until the right moment. The Lightgifters (mages who use the magic of light to heal and uplift the spirits) call upon sprites to power their spells, which are charged each morning by a communal song. There are also Darkcasters, who control a dark equivalent to sprites, known as motes, and spread gloom and despair. This all works rather nicely.

The characters fall neatly onto the good or bad side of the equation, and although sometimes it’s not immediately clear which side a character is on, ultimately it’s a black or white distinction, there really aren’t too many shades of grey here. What’s even more depressing is that so many of the characters are quite passive. Tabitha and Ashley, the two youngest, are essentially pushed around by circumstance and the machinations of other characters, and when it appears as if they might drift into the wrong place or make a mistake, someone more competent comes along to rescue them. If that fails, then they just happen to realise what they ought to do – Tabitha by way of her magic ring, and Ashley by virtue of his oh-so-convenient ability to hear thoughts, although not all thoughts, you understand, just certain key thoughts. Even Garyll the Swordmaster with his named sword (Felltang, since you ask) who strides around fearlessly as the epitome of well-honed manly virtue, imparts backbone into his weaker subordinates, and accosts the bad guys in stern brook-no-nonsense tones, is pushed here and there by the schemes and devices of others. Meanwhile Kirjath the evil minion and his boss the Big Bad are running rings round everyone, and the Riddler – well, OK, the Riddler is actually interesting. He has a certain complexity, for a start, and isn’t a straightforwardly good or bad character, although he does tend to turn up at crucial moments to rescue poor Tabitha from yet another tricky situation.

The romance – no, on second thoughts, don’t get me started on the romance. Putting Garyll of the Manly Virtues together with Tabitha the Meek and throwing in a few burning glances and shivering touches does not a romance make. I’d rather an author skip that part of the story altogether than make such a ham-fisted effort, especially since a large part of it is just about motivation. Tabitha’s in danger, so Garyll must ride heroically to her rescue or Sacrifice All for her sake. But there is one interesting aspect in the apparent equating of sex with the dark side. The good guys go for romantic dinners and in moments of excitement hold hands or exchange chaste kisses. Even thinking about sex pushes them over to the dark side (apparently). Then they make very questionable decisions because they’re in love. The bad guys, on the other hand, indulge in wildly passionate sex while casting spells of extraordinary power (which sounds like a lot more fun, actually). But maybe I’m just overthinking this.

I liked the writing style, and although there are a lot of point of view characters, the author uses them to good effect to drive the story forward. I enjoyed the little ‘riddle’ at the start of every chapter, too. But this is a huge book. I’m a fast reader but it took me forever to get through it. In a sense, this is a strong point, because the story is detailed enough to sustain it, and there’s very little filler. There are a few places where scenes dragged on a bit too long, and some questionable motivations, where the plot was pushing characters along, but most of it felt necessary. Nevertheless, I found myself tiring of it more than once, especially during the more horrifically graphic torture scenes or the multitude of depressing oh-no-the-bad-guys-are-too-powerful moments.

There was one major irritant to me and that was Tabitha’s complete inability to work out what she needed to do. I wouldn’t say she was stupid, exactly, just very, very slow on the uptake. Even when the Riddler led her step by step, she never seemed to make the necessary jump until it was blindingly obvious. It was quite painful sometimes. I enjoy a story where the author drops enough clues for the reader to work things out a moment or two before the protagonist does, but not when it happens ten chapters before and I find myself muttering: ‘Come on, it’s so obvious!’. I wanted to slap her upside the head sometimes.

The ending was suitably dramatic, and the last few chapters flew by with all the usual swings and reversals, one or two not terribly surprising reveals, and a satisfying, if slightly overwrought, conclusion at both the overarching plot level and the human level. For those who like a straightforward traditional fantasy, with clearcut heroes and villains, a battle between good and evil, and a young innocent discovering amazing powers, this is an excellent example. It’s very well written, with a large cast of characters who are well drawn and memorable, and a clever and elegant magic system (and bonus points for the very ingenious use of mathematical principles; any author combining magic with möbius bands has my vote). I found it just a little too predictable for my taste, and I look for a bit more complexity in my characters, but that’s personal preference, and the solid ending and neat magic system make it a good four stars.

Fantasy Review: ‘Lonely Werewolf Girl’ by Martin Millar

This is a reread of a favorite, but the first time I have reviewed it.

Describing this book is hard.  The underlying plot is a war of ascendency in an ancient clan of werewolves, set in modern Great Britain.  It is not a comedy, but often funny, and completely absurd.  Most of the book involves the politicking between two brothers involved in gaining the votes for a new Thane, but the moving parts involved include alcoholic werewolves, fashion obsessed fire elementals, a guild of werewolf hunters, and two college students who get caught up in all of it.

As I am a fan I am going to start the review with reasons a person may not like it, before I move on to all the reasons it is one of my favorites.  To start with, my copy has 235 chapters, at 560 pages, do the math.  Rapid fire doesn’t begin to cover it, not only are chapters short, but the author can use three paragraphs to focus on three characters in three different cities.  While the book isn’t “silly,” many aspects of it are completely absurd.  While the pieces fit, Millar isn’t Tolkien, and building the back story isn’t his focus(at one time why her cloths are gone in werewolf form and back in human form, the title character replies “I don’t know”).  Lastly, part of the rapid fire pace results in points being hammered repeatedly.  You will know that Kalix is lonely, college boy Danial is shy, and various characters are very beautiful, and you will be reminded of the fact often.

But if you can handle the unique style, then you may find a surprisingly great book.  While revolving around the title character, Kalix, the cast of characters is huge for the book size.  The rapid fire switching of viewpoints keeps the book from every becoming bloated, each chapter advances one(or more) of the many side stories that will eventually bring the main plot together.  The shear number of plot lines Millar is pushing is huge, but the most amazing part is as a reader, I never felt lost.  I knew what each character was doing, who they were sided with, and I never had to back up to past pages to remind myself of anything.  Even more impressive, despite several rereads I have still not found a side plot that wasn’t in some way resolved, and almost every named character mentioned in some ways advanced the main plot-line.

Characters were great.  While not every character was likable, all were entertaining.  Most books have one PoV that readers dread seeing.  Perhaps the fact that I never had to spend more than a page at a time with a character had something to do with it, but I truly enjoyed learning what was happening to every major player.  The fashion obsessed fire elemental(who looks like a super model and acts like a child) was a particular high light.  Moonglow, one of the college students, has a sweetness and kind heart that is infectious.  I defy someone to not have sympathy for the other college student, Danial. 

The book had the right amount of humor.  It is a serious story (bands called Yum Yum Suguary Snacks aside), but i was chuckling throughout.  It also has the right amount of violence.  Despite a war being fought, there is not lingering on the ins and outs of battles or even particular fights.  The set up and aftermath is more important than details of who did what to who.

Lastly, despite leaving enough open for a potential sequel(which eventually came), the book reached a true conclusion.  Some may think the final showdown ended abruptly, but there was almost nothing about it that wasn’t foreshadowed subtlety throughout the rest the book.

Pros: Well crafted, and the handling of plot-lines is among the best I have seen.  Humorous and believable despite the absurdity of some situations.

Cons: Some dialog rings false.  Every single character is a true beauty, male and female.  Really?  Not one unattractive werewolf?

5 stars, a personal favorite.

Fantasy Review: ‘Dragon’s Path’ by Daniel Abraham

This is the first of a proposed quintet (‘The Dagger and the Coin’), and is the author’s first foray into what might be termed mainstream fantasy, after the critically applauded but unconventional ‘The Long Price Quartet’. The dagger of the series title represents war, while the coin is economics – the twin approaches to conquest, or defence against it. The story centres around four main characters: Cithrin, a girl who is a ward of the Medean bank, shortly to achieve independence; Marcus, an experienced soldier; Geder, a low-ranking nobleman with a liking for speculative writings; and Dawson, a middle-aged nobleman with political tendencies. The plot jumps from one named POV to another.

I found the book slow to get into at first, but that is common with many fantasy novels, and this was easier to follow than many. But after a few chapters everything seemed to click into place, and the story picked up speed. It is still distracting, however, to hop around from one named POV (and plot thread) to another – just as you get interested in one part of the story you are whisked off somewhere else, perhaps less interesting. And some parts are definitely less interesting – Dawson, for instance. I much prefer not to know who the POV is in each chapter. It makes it much easier to stop reading, and harder to pick up again, if you think – ‘Hmm, another Dawson chapter…’.
It was hard to keep track of the politicking that went on in Camnipol, in Antea. The different factions and motives were not easy to follow, and it felt sometimes as if there was a whole subtext that I just failed to get. Why, for instance, was Dawson exiled but not Issandrian? I had a similar problem with the economics sub-plot in Porte Oliva, but this worried me less. I just assumed that if I took the trouble to work it out, it would probably make sense.
The four main characters build quite nicely in depth as the book progresses. Geder, in particular, is a fascinating character, and while his actions may seem horrifying they are always entirely understandable and (in some sense) justified. What he does to Vanai is a perfectly sensible solution to an economic problem, after all – what else is one supposed to do with an unprofitable vanquished city? – although the way he does it leaves something to be desired. Master Kit, of course, is clearly going to be significant somewhere down the line. Marcus and Yardem have a terrific relationship, and Cithrin is more complex than she appeared at first sight. It is quite fun to meet a female protagonist who is pragmatic about sex, and responds to setbacks by taking to her bed with as much booze as she can get her hands on and staying there until it’s gone. Even Dawson, for all his faults, raises a certain sympathy and his wife Clara is interesting too.
The world-building is not spectacular so far. It is yet another post-dragon, post-magic (more or less) world. The cities have interesting individual quirks, but the countryside in between seems pretty empty. The jade roads are intriguing, and the 12 created races are fascinating. At the moment they are merely ciphers, but presumably the differences will become important later. In particular, I suspect the Drowned will be crucial to something.
The plot rounds off with a flourish. Geder’s political success is, in retrospect, predictable but I failed to read the signs. On the other hand, Cithrin’s success is totally predictable and therefore dull. So she threatens the bank and the auditer promptly caves in? Rather lame. And the big reveal in the ‘Entr’acte’ was surely spotted by everyone long before. In summary, not earth shattering but a good and promising start to the series. Four stars. [First posted on Goodreads May 2011]

[Edited after a reread May 2013] Having just read the third book in the series, ‘The Tyrant’s Law’, I was disinclined to start reading anything new or different or (frankly) inferior. So I started all over again with book 1, and given that I hardly ever reread anything (so many books, so little time) this is a Big Deal.
What strikes me most is how well this reads for a little extra understanding. It’s not just knowing which characters will be important, recognising names of places and the foreshadowing of events, but so many scenes are perceived entirely differently because of understanding the full implications of the prologue (the identity of the apostate, the peculiar nature of his ability and the way he deals with that). There’s a lot of history, too, which makes far more sense when viewed from a couple of books further on. There are bits and pieces which whizzed by me previously: the prejudice against non-First-Blood races, for instance, which jumps out at me now.
The characters still fall into their original stances: Geder is fascinating, Cithrin is whiny and childish, but most of the time I like her, Marcus is still the laconic cynical ex-warrior with a tragic personal story (but I kinda like that trope) and Dawson is – yes, Dawson is still irritating and prejudiced and insufferably stuck in rigid protocol. I still don’t understand the whole plot business in Camnipol. How is it that Dawson and Issandrian were both penalised, when one of them stirred up an armed rebellion against the throne and the other ensured it failed? How does that work?
But still – great book, a brilliantly devised if controversial character (Geder) and that huge whoa! moment at Vanai. And I still love the way that Geder simply reverses into success in his clumsy, half-arsed badly-thought-out way. Hes almost a sympathetic character, with his oddly not-quite-one-of-us ways, always trying to please, always falling short, a disappointment to his father and the butt of everyone elses jokes. Terrific stuff. The plot is still half-formed at this point, but the characters just glow with life.

Reviews of Daniel Abraham

Expanse Series (Written as James S A Corey with Ty Franck)
Leviathan Wakes
Caliban’s War

The Dagger and the Coin
The Dragon’s Path
The King’s Blood
The Tyrant’s Law
The Black Sun’s Daughter (Written as M.L.N Hanover)
Unclean Spirits
Darker Angels

Long Price Quartet

Fantasy Review: ‘The Silence of Medair’ by Andrea K Höst

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The plot revolves around Medair’s struggles with her own antipathies and growing respect for the Ibisians, so there is a great deal of introspection and (it has to be said) downright angsting going on. There were a few moments when I wished she would stop agonising and just get on with it. But fortunately there was enough action interspersed with the angst to keep things rattling along. There were a few places where I wasn’t too sure what was going on, where a little more explanation or description would have helped. Occasionally the complex hierarchy of the Ibisians caught me out (all the ranks begin with a ‘k’, so they begin to blur together), and sometimes I wasn’t even sure which character Medair was talking to. But these are minor issues, which never seriously affected my enjoyment. This is a great read, a story with an intriguing premise, unexpected twists and plenty of action. It’s also that rare beast, a fantasy novel with a truly strong female lead character who’s not remotely a stereotype. I recommend it. A good four stars.[Originally posted on Goodreads December 2011]

By the same author

Stained Glass Monsters

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