Here be Dragons

Archive for February, 2013

Fantasy Review: ‘The Swordsman’s Oath’ by Juliet E. McKenna

Not long ago I reviewed Juliet McKenna’s debut novel, ‘The Thief’s Gamble,’ a good fourteen years after its publication.  An enjoyable book with a strong lead in Livak, I caused a bit of a discussion about tropes when I suggested that the book hit quite a few of the genre’s big ones.  The author herself pointed out that what was once fresh may now be seen as a trope.  Perhaps lost in the discussion was the fact that I really raced through ‘The Thief’s Gamble,” enjoying the book throughout.  As would be expected, I eagerly dove into the second book of the series.

“The Thief’s Gamble” ended with a narrow escape from some yellow haired island baddies by Livak and her band, including the swordsman Ryshad, who takes over the first person point of view in “The Swordsman’s Oath.”  Like the first book, there is also third person narrative based around other characters, and various historical letters that help flesh out the world’s history.  The story follows Ryshad, working with the wizards of the land, tracking down artifacts that could help explain the Elietimm’s (yellow hair baddies) unknown and devastating magical abilities. Along the way he reunites, and is taken away from, Livak and the complicated relationship they share.

There are several interesting things happening in this story.  Flashbacks can be hit or miss but I feel McKenna handled them very well.  They were introduced gradually and in the early going I didn’t even realized I was looking into the past.  Slowly but surely they were tied into Ryshad’s story until they were so intertwined as to be one story.  Another unique story line involved a new culture; polygamist but misunderstood, with the wives’ being responsible for all trade and business.  And while Livak is no longer the main point of view, she is still an active character in this book, and is still a joy to read about.

So did this book live up to my expectations?  Yes, as much as I enjoyed the first book of the series I feel this one was superior in many ways.  I did miss the voice of Livak and found her more compelling of a main character than Ryshad; but when combined with secondary character of Temar (a voice from the past) he gets more interesting.  The setting for this one was much more unique and dare I say, less trope filled.  The characters have grown past their trope beginnings; making Livak much more than a thief, Shiv shows he is not just a mage, etc.  The overall problem the protagonists and his group face is highly entertaining, racing the Elietimm’s to discover a lost society and its secrets, and fighting them for them when needed.  Obviously war is coming, and while it doesn’t come to head, the first battles are fought.

While I didn’t enjoy Ryshad as much as Livak as a protagonist, he is still and interesting character.  He takes his responsibilities serious, and can’t quite shake that something is influencing his thoughts when he thinks otherwise.  McKenna shows strength in real relationships again; while Livak and Ryshad are becoming more typical love interests, Temar and a women named Guinalle have a much more complicated relationship that doesn’t follow the “one true love” plot line.

Once again I felt the author went on a long, semi confusing, tangent.  Ryshad is taken as a slave to the polygamist culture, and I still can’t quite figure out why or what it added.  Unlike the search for a wizard in the first book I found this diversion interesting; the new culture he had to learn was interesting to be sure, but it didn’t seem to add anything special to Ryshad’s character and the circumstances behind his travels confused a bit.

But outside of that minor complaint, I felt the book was an improvement throughout.  The miscellaneous correspondences to start the chapter added so much to the story, the pace was quick, and the characters continued to be a strong point of the series.  Still love it, still plan on reading the rest.

4 stars.

My thanks to Cheryl from Wizard’s Tower Press for the copy to review.

Books in the Series
The Thief’s Gamble
The Swordsman’s Oath

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Fantasy Review: ‘The Prophecy’ by Jeffrey M Poole

This is Book 1 of the Bakkian Chronicles, which is, naturally, a trilogy. The premise is a simple one: Steve Miller learns that he has inherited a mansion from his little-known grandparents. When he and his wife Sarah go to investigate, they find themselves stepping through a portal into a strange new world, one where griffins, dragons and magic exist.

Now, I like the idea of a portal. It’s a simple and effective trick to set straightforward modern-day people in a fantasy world. The reader finds it easy to identify with Steve and Sarah, with no need to understand complicated backstories for them, the fantasy world can be explained step-by-step by the clueless newbies asking questions or simply walking into trouble, and there’s an immediate set of problems to be solved – survival, first and foremost, and ultimately a return to the home world. Plus, portals are compelling by their very nature. Who could not read Narnia, and then look at their own wardrobe and think… if only?


The trouble with portals, however, is that they’ve been done to death, and it’s increasingly hard to put an original spin on it. The hapless arrivals blunder around getting into and out of trouble, and eventually get drawn into whatever big event is going on in the fantasy world. What’s new to say? The twist here is that the protagonists are a happily married couple, and hurray for that, something which is all too rare in fantasy. Problem is, Steve and Sarah are just too nice. They rarely so much as disagree, and when they do, it’s over in a flash and they’re high-fiving or hugging. There’s altogether too much enthusiasm for their newfound world, in fact. They are lovely people, in the real world sense, and I would be delighted to have them as neighbours or workmates or friends, but for my taste fictional characters need a bit more bite to make them interesting.

Another problem I had is with grandma and grandpa. You would think, wouldn’t you, that if you planned to leave your house to your unknown grandson, knowing that sooner or later he would blunder unwittingly through the magic portal and all too probably be eaten by a griffon, that a hint or two on health and safety issues, and how to get back might be in order? Unless the family feud is so serious that the griffon-eating is actually the intention… BAD grandma and grandpa.

Up to the halfway point, I struggled to find the spark in this book. But with the appearance of Kahvel the dragon, things begin to pick up and the book finds its proper tone – lighthearted and humorous, with Steve’s infectious enthusiasm finally winning me over. The macho contest between dragon and man was a highlight, and the expedition with the dragon and five soldiers turned into a very entertaining romp. The battle with the guur was very satisfactory (I hate bugs too). Although I have to say, the idea of a dragon of Kahvel’s size sneaking up on anyone without being noticed stretches credibility somewhat.

This book will never win any prizes for originality or depth, and it has no literary pretensions. The writing style is basic, characterisation is flat and the point of view head-hops with dizzying speed. It fails to provide any unexpected plot twists, and there’s not as much humour as I might have expected, in the early parts at least. And having criticised it to death, I have to say that, actually, I rather enjoyed it. If there were few stand-out pluses, there was nothing that really grated, either. It’s incredibly readable, with a certain charm and plenty of lively action in the second half, and that was more than enough to keep me turning the pages. For those who enjoy a straightforward traditional easy to read fantasy, this would certainly fit the bill. It doesn’t quite make it to four stars, but it’s a good three stars.

Short Review: ‘From Man to Man’ by D.E.M. Emrys

I received this submission from the author and read it quickly between other books.  As it is a short story being used promote the larger series (self-published), I can not give it a proper review.  I will however give a quick overview of my thoughts.

The story follows Draven, former mercenary trying to make a new life, and is exactly as long as one small adventure.  While working through a mundane job of chopping trees in the village he is offered an escort job, which he takes despite his promise of staying away from violence.

What I liked:

Draven had a nice internal monologue going through the book, and for the most part it was fairly intriguing.  I also enjoyed an early scene in which the imagery is one of war, while the action is as mundane as chopping down a tree.  It provided a nice image of where Draven’s head really is, and what kind of character to expect from him.  It is hard to talk about pacing in something so short, but for what it is worth the book did move at a decent clip.

What I didn’t like:

As much as I dug Draven’s internal monolog, the external dialog of the book was awkward.  The writing needs some cleaning up too. “Draven looked to his wife, to the chest, to his wife, and back again an hundred times or more.” Hard to read, and doesn’t really pass the logic test.  The third person narrator using the word “fellers” caught me off guard a few times as well.  And lastly, the small battle near the end wasn’t convincing to me, especially after a standoff when a character calls attack first and then takes the time to give more vocal instructions.

Will I read more?

No, I won’t be reading any more of the series.  It is not trash by any means, but it requires a strong editor to clean up the awkward writing.

No star rating will be given, the story is just too short.  At time of review the short story was free on Amazon.

Urban Fantasy Review: ‘Greywalker’ by Kat Richardson (Greywalker 01)

Synopsis:

Harper Blaine, a PI living with her ferret, Chaos, in Seattle, sometimes runs out of luck. One of such instances (a very agressive debtor determined not to pay his debt) results in her being taken to a hospital in a very bad state of utter confusion – grevious bodily harm and such. When she comes to her senses (more or less) she finds out that she was clinically dead for approximately two minutes. Ok, no big deal, it can happen in this line of work and if the paramedics still manage to resuscitate you it is fine, right? Wrong.

Harper goes out of the hospital, determined to continue earning her living and paying the outstanding bills when things start getting strange. It seems she has developed the ability to see into the Grey, the purgatory-like alternate reality in between here and the afterlife, full of vampires, ghosts, and various creepy critters. Unfortunately for Harper, the creatures of the Grey have the ability to see her as well and not all of them are exactly harmless or friendly. Will she be able to learn how to defend herself?

Back to the normal world. Soon enough Harper is having two new clients. A posh, middle class lady is looking for her missing son, a uni student, who’s disappeared without most of his precious goods and chattels. The police don’t want to investigate because a missing student is hardly a big deal. A strange foreigner is looking for old pipe organs, once allegedly his possession, and wants Harper to find them for him. Nothing difficult for a PI, isn’t it? Or maybe, just maybe, these two cases are somehow connected and far more complicated than they sound?

What I liked:

I found this one in a bookshop with cheap sale books and somehow the blurb took my fancy so I bought it. The book one is not exactly new (it was released in 2006) but I admit I found it a lot more unique than I expected. The Grey, somewhere in-between the real land of the dead and the harsh reality… an intriguing concept and the author didn’t disappoint in that respect. The world building was a refreshingly different, and surprisingly coherent and let me tell you, it is no mean feat to achieve it with more and more series being increasingly oversaturated with vampires, werewolves, and intrepid female PIs. We have vampires and revenants and witches and ghosts all inter-twined in different ways – and even these simple labels rarely encapsulate the full power and variety of each being.

Unlike the familiar heroine in the genre, Harper appears older and rather mature (however her age is not stated in the first installment so forgive me if I am wrong). I was so happy we were spared annoying wisecracks and fashion tips, not to mention shopping for clothes. Also the vampires, presented here, are more bloodthirsty and cunning than in your average paranormal romance. Yes, we get one Edward and one Alice but Edward is a manipulative, sadistic businessman and Alice is his biggest enemy – no Twilight traces. Which is good.

The plot I found interesting and well-spaced, although a bit slow at the beginning; still starting a book with the death of the main character is always an original move. There is some romance but no insta-love or any such inanities.

What I didn’t like:
I know it is the first book in the series and a debut novel to boot but it was sometimes weird that you don’t learn anything about the main character except that she was attacked, died for two minutes, has shoulder length hair, lives alone and owns a ferret. Ferret was actually sweet and funny but she can’t stand for the whole family, right? In my opinion such skeletal characterization makes Harper harder to relate to at first. It seems as if this book was just a lot of set-up for other books, and that the author idn’t have a clear picture of how she wanted to flesh out her main character.

The narration also spends quite a lot of time on Harper blindly trying to figure out what the heck is going on with her and not believing other people (like one Irish witch called Mara) who try to help her. It was a bit irritating. From time to time (too often in my humble opinion) we get such a scene:

Harper: I don’t want this Grey. It hurts!
Mara: Because you’re fighting it. Accept it and it’ll stop hurting.
H: But I don’t want it. I want it to stop, to go away, to vanish! Shooo ugly monsters!
M: They won’t go away and this can’t be undone. Accept it and it will be easier.
H: But I don’t want to be the Greywalker! I don’t believe in it and I don’t like the smell!
M: You must accept it. There is no other option.

*Harper glowers, pouts and storms out without another word*
*Hours pass and then they talk over the phone or in person and…*

M: I’m sorry I pushed you too strongly.
H: It’s okay. I know you did me a favour.
M: Come along for a piece of cake and some good energy.


Yeah…did I say the heroine is mature? Scratch that. She is SOMETIMES mature and sometimes not.

Final verdict:

In my opinion Greywalker has a potential to evolve into a good series. The good news is that you don’t have to wait forever for the rest – as far as I know there are at least seven other novels available on the market.

If you’re looking for an original spin on the standard urban fantasy tropes or a female-protagonist urban fantasy with a lot more action and a lot less romance, then this novel is worth taking a look at. It is nothing great but it will keep you entertained.

Fantasy Review: ‘Exile’ by Betsy Dornbusch

I gladly took this submission when the author suggested it.  The blurb offered me a hope for a unique setting, and I was hoping the book offered something a little different as well.  I also fully admit I was intrigued knowing the author was from my home state, which shouldn’t affect which books I pick but did.

A strong hook pulled me in early.  Protagonist Draken is wrongly accused of the murder of his wife, and we first meet him on a ship “walking the plank” into a new land; a forced exile because his homeland of Monoea believe in letting the god’s decide criminals fate.  Akrasia is a land of magic, and Draken quickly finds himself in trouble.  Saved by a Mance (necromancer) who has plans of his own, Draken finds himself entangled in politics and a possible war.

The book was fairly strong through the first third.  The magic shown has a since of wonder, a touch of the unknown rather than being explained in detail.  After accidentally saving the queen from an assignation attempt, Draken is placed in charge of the investigation despite being a stranger in the land.  And working with the Mance and his female companion as investigators showed the protagonist has the potential to be a smart and able character.  Osais, the Mance, is intriguing as well; is he helping or using Draken?

Sadly, after the first third I struggled through the rest of the book.  It is hard to explain, but it basically comes down to this;  too much in this book happens because the author decided to make it happen, rather than letting the narrative work to make it happen.  For example, you know that trope in which a character in major peril is knocked unconscious, and when he wakes he is safe and has friends explain what happened?  This happened multiple times in ‘Exile.”

Draken can’t even be described as Gary Stu, as he doesn’t really have control of what is happening.  Despite that the entire world starts revolving around him.  He can’t sleep so he gets lucky and stops an assassination.  Despite being a complete stranger to the land, he becomes the queen’s most trusted adviser and is given an army.  Despite not doing much of anything he quickly becomes the best known person in all the land, and beloved by all the people in the land (more so than the queen even!)

The plot becomes a travelogue where the world continues to revolve around Draken.  The bad guys entirely unbelievable plan comes to fruition, but of course fails to take into account Draken finding his secret ability (which is tied to a famous, highly desired magic sword that was just given to him).  A fairly confusing, and entirely uninteresting, final battle puts Draken in a position to have even more power.  Every new passage found Draken gaining power and prestige in this land, without it ever really making sense.

I hate to pile on, but going through my notes I have to add a few things.  Draken acts like a horny teenager for most the book, mentally lusting after every female he meets.  Lucky for him he is apparently irresistible, and the girls throw themselves at him.  The only interesting character in the book was Osais, but for all the mystery behind him he turns out pretty unremarkable.

2 stars.  A shame, because the beginning of the book had some real promise. 

Review copy of this book was provided by the author.

Fantasy Review: ‘Lokant’ by Charlotte E English

Warning: contains major spoilers for book 1 of the series, ‘Draykon’.

I really enjoyed the first book of the Draykon series. It had interesting characters, an unusual world and magic system, and that just-one-more-chapter style that makes even such a long book flow past very easily. This one, the second in the series, picks up not long after its predecessor ended, and is largely concerned with the fall-out from events in that book. Eva and Tren are trying to work out just what is going on, Llandry’s father is trying to find her, and Llandry herself – well, more on Llandry in a moment.


I was a bit hazy on the details of the story so far, but there’s enough information given to get even the most casual reader up to speed without infodumping. The setting is quite complicated – a series of seven realms, some of which are in permanent daylight, some in permanent night, and one is half and half, comprise a ‘middle’ world, and there are upper and lower worlds as well, which in some way occupy the same space as the middle world, but are very different. We don’t see quite as much of the enchanting light-filled upper and threatening lower worlds in this book, which is a shame. Their constantly changing aspects and bizarre life forms fascinate me.

As always, it’s the characters who make or break a book for me, and there’s a particularly fine collection of them here. Llandry and her parents were a highlight of the first book, but the stars here are Eva and Tren, who provide both romantic interest and comic relief, as well as much of the action. Eva was difficult to like in the first book, being a little too composed, too competent, too contained for sympathy, and Tren seemed like a minor character, but both of them blossom here, and are a delightful pair. An honourable mention, too, for Rheas, Llandry’s grandfather, who combines stubborn eccentricity with family affection in a delightfully unusual way. There are several new characters, too, amongst the Lokants of the title, about which I will say no more, to avoid spoilers. As before, the odd creatures from the upper and lower worlds prove to have their own quirky charms, although we see less of them in this book.

OK, here comes the big spoiler from book 1: at the end of it, Llandry was transformed into a draykon (a dragon, basically), and her delight in her new form, the contrast with her timid and all too human self, and her relationship with Pensould, the draykon revived at the end of book 1, are wonderful to read. Both of them have adjustments to make which are clearly not easy for them. She shows at one point that she’s capable of very draykon anger, while he becomes noticeably more human as the book progresses. I am very much looking forward to finding out the conclusion of their story in book 3, to see where on the draykon/human spectrum they end up, and whether they end up together or not.

The story opens out a great deal in this book, and many things which mystified me in book 1 are explained, such as the full importance of the strange ‘istore’ material which Llandry found, and something of Llandry’s own nature and the significance of it. We learned a lot about Eva, too. I found the Lokants and their abilities a little too convenient, but the explanation for it, and the way it relates to the known forms of magic (the split into sorcery and summoning abilities, for instance) is very clever, and elegantly done.

The pace seemed to be quite slow for much of the time – there was a great deal of Eva and Tren researching, for instance, and a certain amount of sitting around while one of the Lokants explains the backstory – but things hot up dramatically at the end and suddenly there’s the threat of full-scale war looming. And then, rather abruptly, it ends. I suppose that’s the sign of an enjoyable book, when you’re so absorbed that the end comes as a surprise. I liked the way that, despite the action (and actually, there’s plenty), the book is largely about people and their relationships. Llandry and Pensould, Llandry and her parents, her parents and her grandfather, Eva and Tren – all of these relationships are believable, and most of the characters are likeable, in their various ways, even the grumpy Rheas and the unevolved Pensould. I loved that Tren and Eva have only the slightest qualm about their age difference (she’s thirteen years older than him); the difficulty is far more subtle and more unusual than that.

If I have a grumble, it’s that the names are difficult to remember – people have first names, surnames and diminutives; there are multiple names for places, too. And none of the names are meaningful (to me, that is), which makes them hard to remember. But I’m at last beginning to get the hang of the seven realms (the wonderful map helped here), the daylands and darklands, and the upper and lower worlds, which I found confusing initially. As the second book in the series, it naturally loses a little freshness and originality, but it gains in the greater depth in the characters and in revealing more of the overall story. I enjoyed this perhaps more than the first, and I’m very much looking forward to reading the conclusion. A good four stars.

Sci-Fi Review: ‘Song of Scarabaeus’ by Sara Creasy

Synopsis

Edie a young but very gifted cypherteck is kidnapped by a group of rovers- pirates from the space. As she can plug in and manipulate the biological tools that the Crib uses to terraform new worlds they want her skills to help them salvage material from the planet she called Scarabaeus – and sell those to less fortunate worlds of the Fringe for a lot of cash. What they don’t know is that the planet is the very sight of Edie’s worst failure and deepest secret. A world she wanted desperately to preserve from terraforming.

Finn, a former freedom-fighter turned slave (lag), is assigned as her bodyguard; as a cypherteck Eddie can be assassinated by eco-rads who are hunting mercilessly people like her, and she is on a ship where no one can be trusted. They are tied by a mental leash that will kill him if she dies. If she doesn’t cooperate, the pirates will kill them both. Edie is determines to cut this leash and save them but soon enough she finds it is almost impossible, not if she wants Finn to survive. She must play along, revisit Scarabeus and find a mysterious infojack who had created that leash and is her only hope to have it removed. Will she manage to do it on time, though?

What I liked:

I have to admit Song of Scarabaeus started off slowly. It was sometimes difficult to wade through all sorts of technological terms to keep track of the world building. Words like cypherteck, datastream, wet-teck interface, and biocyph retroviral automated terraformer (or BRATs for short) were thrown at me, making me wonder why I had picked up this book and whether it was switched with a tech nerd vocabulary. Then I adjusted and my reading was progressing more smoothly. Mind you it didn’t feel like infodumping but there was a LOT to know.

The concept is intriguing as well – a human who can change planets with a mere thought, mentally chained to a killer who must protect her or die. Brilliant.Finn and Edie, the heroine, are tied together by a “leash” that will cause Finn’s head to explode if he gets too far from Edie. It was an amazing plot device, making all those silly insta-love or insta-lust twists unnecessary. Still don’t let yourself be swayed by the blurb or the cover art, describing this one as a sci-fi romance of a kind ( this time it is a compliment). Let me assure you that the romance was practically non-existent. The characters did share a strong bond, they cared for each other, and they occasionally had some real moments of heat, but the closest thing to a romantic interlude in the first 150 pages quickly got shut down by the heroine.

Also Scarabaeus the planet and its creepy inhabitants were excellently portrayed. It would be quite a challenge for any ambitious sci-fi movies director but the results could be astounding.

Finally I found Ms. Creasy’s storytelling ability really gripping – I was able to finish the novel in two evenings despite the initial problems.

What I didn’t like:

The structure of the novel is somewhat episodic – to the point that it seems like reading a script for an television series. No, it is not a compliment in my view. Kidnapping – one episode. Coming to on the ship – another episode. Lag escape – another episode. And so on. Not to mention those blasts from the past that happen in Edie’s dreams or rather nightmares. Because we only got one POV, I felt we spent a lot of time in the heroine’s head, as she navigates what’s happening to her and what’s going to happen. I felt like the relationships she formed with other characters, not only with Finn, were only superficially developed if developed at all.

Apart from that the world building which at first promised me exotic planets and aliens didn’t deliver, nor really. You see, two thirds of the book takes place on the ship called Hoi Polloi .The problem is that it’s a very plain ship, in full accordance with its name (meaning ‘ordinary, simple people, the commoners’ in Greek). It has no odd aspects, it’s never bombarded by asteroids, it never loses propulsion. It’s just a ship. The rover crew of the ship had potential, but just like the main characters, neither Haller nor the captain ever mature into the full fledged villains.

Finally one more carping: Song of Scarabaeus? Really? In my humble opinion that’s a terrible title! When I heard about the book for the first time I was sure it would be actually about Egypt!

Final verdict:

This book will totally do it for you if you like SF with biotech elements and evolutionary biology. I liked it despite its flaws – it’s unique, it’s SF, it has a female protagonist. We don’t get many of those.

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