Here be Dragons

Archive for May, 2013

Fantasy Review: ‘Orlind’ by Charlotte E English

This is the third and final part of the Draykon trilogy. I very much enjoyed the first two parts, ‘Draykon’ and ‘Lokant’, and this continues in the same vein, a wonderfully eccentric mixture of unique world-building, believable characters and an action-packed story. In the first book, I was very nervous that Llandry, one of the main characters, a diminutive person with wings, might actually be a fairy. In fact, I can safely say she is nothing at all like a fairy, and not in the least twee. During the course of the three books, Llandry transforms herself from a shy child-like girl who suffers from panic attacks into a self-reliant and formidable person. And by person, I mean draykon (more or less a dragon), of course.

The setting for the story is one of the most inventive I’ve ever encountered. I’m not going to attempt to describe it, but it’s a truly magical array of places, populated with some bizarre creatures and plants. Some of the animal life is, not unexpectedly, tending to the fearsome and toothy kind of monster, but there are also some charming little beasties. I love the way the upper and lower realms change dramatically in moments, so that the landscape is constantly roiling and flowing unpredictably. This book explains a great deal of why this happens. I love, too, that some parts are in constant daylight and some in constant night light, kept that way magically. That’s a really ingenious and (possibly) unique approach to world-building.

The plot continues without a pause from where book 2 left off. The draykoni are attacking Llandry’s home in Glinnery, and villain Krays is cooking up some vague but evil scheme. There is high drama and action right from the start as everyone scrambles to find some way to protect themselves. The humans are trying mechanical weaponry. Llandry and her fellow friendly draykoni are exploring their new powers in the hope of finding alternative defences. And Eva and Tren are – well, this was the point for me where the plot lurched into implausibility. Eva dreams up a scheme so downright dangerous and with so little likelihood of success that, honestly, I don’t know what she was thinking. It’s not unusual in fantasy for characters to be set some impossible task, in order to accomplish some worthy outcome, but it’s never very convincing, frankly, and in this case, it’s not imposed on them, they decide to attempt it themselves. So I just had to switch off the logical part of my brain and go with the flow. This isn’t so difficult, fortunately, since the story rattles along at unstoppable and unputdownable pace.

The second clunky moment is the transition from chasing around after villain Krays to haring off to investigate the mysterious seventh realm, Orlind. Since this is the title of the book, it’s not unexpected that this turns out to be the key to everything, but the way the characters are led there by the nose feels a bit contrived. But it really doesn’t matter. This is the book where everything boils to its dramatic conclusion, and there’s not a dull moment in it. The true nature of the Lokants is revealed in all its duplicitous glory, and the final confrontation is a wondrous explosion of creative magic and whimsy (believe it or not). I’ve never read a book before which so successfully blends together powerful magic, dragons, steampunk, sentient furry insects and multi-coloured mushrooms. It all makes sense, too. And there’s humour, even at the tensest moments. A thoroughly enjoyable, fast-paced read, with some memorable characters, absolutely fizzing with brilliant ideas. Only the slightly not-quite-believable plot contrivances let it down. A good four stars.

Fantasy Review: ‘Small Gods’ by Terry Pratchett

Part 13 of The Complete Discworld Reread

I. ‘ SMALL GODS’ IS THE STORY OF BRUTHA, LAST OF THE PROPHETS TO THE GREAT GOD OM.  IT IS CONSIDERED BY MANY TO BE THE BEST BOOK BY PRATCHETT FOR GOOD REASON.  IT SHOULD BE THE ONLY BOOK A PERSON EVER NEEDS TO READ.

It is true that ‘Small Gods’ is a hell of a book, and is probably my favorite of the author’s vast catalog.  I don’t know how many times I have read it in my life, but over a dozen is a safe bet.  It tells the story of Brutha, an illiterate novice in the Church of Om.  Tending the garden he hears the voice of his god coming from a small turtle.  Turns out that in the middle of the temple dedicated exclusively to Om, filled with statues in his image and an inquisition designed to keep everyone on the true path, Om can only find one actual believer.  And for gods on Discworld, belief is the sole way to power.

II. EVERYONE MUST KNOW THE STORY OF OM AND BRUTHA.  THE TRAVELS THEY TOOK TOGETHER.  BRUTHA’S RISE.  THE NEED TO ALWAYS BE KIND TO TURTLES.

Brutha never had a single doubt about his god, but once he gets proof the rest of his beliefs go up in flames.  The church itself is going through some harsh measures to enforce its beliefs.  The inquisition enforces the rules of prophet after prophet, rules that the great god Om claims to know nothing about.  A resistance is growing, starting with the simple verifiable fact that globe Omians claim the world to be a globe is false, every traveler knows it is a disc sitting on a turtle.  With the cry of “the turtle moves” flowing through the church Vorbis, high deacon of the inquisition, decides it best to stamp out the heresy at the source.  A trip to the philosophers’ city of sin is planned, and Brutha is dragged along.

III. VORBIS IS A COMPLETE ASSHOLE.

Ya, he really is, but he is a wonderful villain character.  Ice cold doesn’t even begin to describe him.  It is pointed out that some people in the inquisition truly enjoy hurting people, making them merely terrible humans.  Vorbis truly thinks people deserve it, making him a true monster.  Terrible as he is Vorbis makes the perfect counterpoint to the saint like Brutha.  Even after he shows his worse Brutha is there time and time again to right his path, right up to the perfect ending.

IV. DESPITE BEING WRONG IN THE PAST BE ASSURED THAT THE CURRENT CHURCH OF OM CAN NEVER BE WRONG.

Writing a book that mocks religion, or aspects of religion, can be tricky.  Many authors would be content to just be mean; have everyone in power shown to be a buffoon and make fun of the funny little rituals and contradictions in text.  Pratchett took a different tact.  While the institutions of the church had major problems the solution was a reformation rather than a dismantling.  It is a more respectful tone that is one of the reasons I find the book so readable.  The fact that we know from the start that God exists changes everything.  People living in fear find themselves believing in fear more than the god.    A favorite passage comes from an outsider to the church remarking on a stoning he watched; every person present was absolutely certain of one thing, that they were not the person being stoned.

V. THE GREAT GOD OM DEMANDS THAT REVIEWERS OF HIS BOOK GUSH A BIT MORE.  THERE IS NEVER ENOUGH PRAISE!

I can’t really gush enough about Small Gods.  There is no way I can give it a fair review, and it took me a week to write this silly thing up.  I never realized how hard it is to explain why one of your favorite things is so good.  But damn, it is hard.  This is the best I can do.  Please read Small Gods if you have not, it is one of the best.  As a plus it is a standalone within a series and requires no knowledge of the rest of the series to read.

5 stars.

VI. THE END!

Fantasy Review: ‘The Tyrant’s Law’ by Daniel Abraham

Pauline’s Review (5/23/13)

This is the third volume of the Dagger and Coin Quintet, the difficult middle book – the one that drags the weight of two books’ worth of previous history, that also has to begin arranging all the pieces for the endgame and still has to make sense by itself. It should be an impossible task, an experience as dense and heavy and glutinous as treacle. Yet it flows like cream, tastes like chocolate and slips down just as easily. Abraham’s prose is a joy to read, elegant and spare, every word in its proper place.

As before, the cast of point of view characters is limited – Clara is finding her feet amongst the nobodies of Camnipol after her noble husband was executed for treason; Cithrin is in another new city learning more about banking; Geder the unstable Regent of Antea is making war again, aided by his spider-goddess priest; and Marcus the former soldier is hiking through the southern jungles with escaped spider-goddess man Kit looking for a magic sword. And as before, the story jumps about from one to another, but the individual plotlines are not independent, so one chapter will show the events of that character is close-up, while also revealing something of events elsewhere, glimpsed from afar in rumour and hearsay. This is done very cleverly, so the overall plot flows beautifully from chapter to chapter.

This is industrial-strength fantasy, so Geder’s war is spilling across the whole northern continent, and is seemingly unstoppable. This is the third campaign to feature in the story. The first book centred on the fall of the city of Vanai. In the second, Antea conquered neighbouring Asterilhold. This time, Geder (or rather, his spider-priest adviser) has his sights set on Sarakal. There is inevitably some sense of repetition in all this, but Abraham gives the events a new perspective to keep things fresh. This time, Geder’s capabilities are well understood, and there are no illusions about the consequences.

The series is called The Dagger and the Coin, and is presumably intended to contrast the two powerful forces of conquest, by armed force, or by economics. Geder’s military ambitions continue to roll onwards, but for the first time there are signs that the financial clout of the bank can have an impact. There are hints about the difficulties of maintaining long supply lines, and getting the staple crops planted and harvested when so many men are tied up in the war. There are hints, too, that the bank can help indirectly with the refugee and resettlement problem, and more directly, in supporting covert acts of rebellion. However, it’s still not obvious how economics will bring a real direct challenge to bear against military might. Perhaps this isn’t Abraham’s intention, but if not, the whole banking plot becomes marginalised.

Abraham has a nice way of subverting the tropes of the genre. Most fantasy is (in the broadest sense) about swords and sorcery, so that all problems are eventually disposed of by one or other of these elements (or occasionally both). The evil villain is bent on global domination for vague reasons, and the hero (or occasionally a heroine) tools up with a magic sword or else learns to use the magic powers they’ve mysteriously been endowed with. Here, the evil villain is sort of bent on global domination, but it’s a role he more or less reversed into accidentally, and all with the very best of intentions. What could be so malign about spreading the spider-goddess’s message of truth across the world? Meanwhile, Marcus and Kit go on a traditional fantasy quest to track down the magic sword which will kill the goddess, but (without giving too much away) that doesn’t go quite as they expected. As for magic, there’s very little around at all. Proponents are called ‘cunning men’ and have minor roles as showmen and healers.

One nice aspect is that we have two interesting female characters taking strong leadership roles in the fight against Geder the war-making Regent. Clara is now released from the stifling conformity of court rules and taking advantage of her freedom to plot and scheme in Camnipol, as well as enjoying a degree of personal freedom. I very much like Clara, her subtlety, her cleverness and her determination. It makes a nice counterpoint to her husband’s more ham-fisted efforts in the previous books. Even though things don’t always go quite as anticipated (what ever does in an Abraham book?), she always makes well-considered decisions.

In contrast, Cithrin… Look, I’m going to have a bit of a rant about Cithrin, so feel free to skip ahead to the next paragraph if you want. Cithrin, you stupid, stupid woman. When will you ever learn? Your entire character arc has been defined by short-sightedness and downright bad decision-making. You find yourself stuck in the wrong city with the bank’s wealth? Why not forge a few papers to set yourself up as a pretend bank? After all, it would be too simple just to write to the bank’s head and await instructions, wouldn’t it? And if you find yourself trapped during an uprising with a powerful but totally unstable character who wants sex? Well, why not? This book is quite a good explanation of why not, actually. And then, given a one-time opportunity to get close to the Regent, to influence the events of history and do some good, could you actually, just once in your life, do something sensible? Course not. Gah. Stupid woman. I mean, what exactly does she think Geder is going to do now? Smile sweetly and forget all about her? He already burned one city because he felt slighted.

Geder himself is a fascinating character. Of course he makes dumb decisions as well, but in his case his motives are entirely understandable and believable, and it’s possible to feel very sympathetic towards him, and appalled at the same time. Being the focus of everyone’s amusement is dispiriting and annoying, and being the patsy for other people’s political games would get anyone riled. His response to the Vanai problem, although it was more a fit of petulance than a rational decision, was not an unusual way to deal with a recalcitrant conquest. Even when he’s behaving very badly, it’s easy to see exactly how and why it happened. He’s a social incompetent, who would be very much at home in the modern world, head buried in his iPad or harmlessly slaughtering orcs in World of Warcraft. It’s only in his fantasy setting that he is the tyrant of the title.

Marcus – meh. I like the banter, and the low-key cynicism which sometimes borders on suicidal fatalism, but it’s not an original character trait, and the whole tragic wife and child history is a bit over-used. I like Yardem a lot better, in fact, because although he has baggage (why did he leave the priesthood, exactly?) he doesn’t let it define him. Although that may simply be an artefact of not being a point of view character; because we never get inside Yardem’s head, we never see how tortured his soul is. Or it may just be the ears. Gotta love a character with such speaking ears.

This is not a high-action book. Even though there’s a war going on, and a new religion spreading like a stain from Camnipol, and the whole continent is in turmoil, it still feels like an intimate, close-up portrait of the characters before all else. A whole chapter may feature nothing but Clara walking about Camnipol, Clara taking tea with a friend, Clara going home again, but this gives the characters the space to breathe, to live, to think, to feel. Between paces, Clara can contemplate a great many subjects without it becoming heavy philosophising. Abraham doesn’t ever tell his readers what to think about anything (religion, war, slavery, inherited monarchies), and those who want can simply enjoy the story and the author’s exquisite prose, but the deeper themes are there to be explored by those who wish, usually by the contrast of one approach with another. For example, Kit and Basrahip are both spider-infested; one is using that to control people so that he can take over the world in the spider-goddess’s name, while the other goes to great lengths not to control people at all, and is trying to find a way to end the spider regime altogether. Is it evil to remove lies from the world and impose honesty? Good question.

The ending? Awesome. A great big bowl of awesomeness, with lashings of awesome sauce on top. The first two books I had some settling down reservations about, but this one, none at all. It’s a quieter book than the previous ones, but in my view it’s all the better for that. Perhaps the series is just getting into its stride, or the characters have grown into their roles (even Cithrin, maybe, possibly), or perhaps it’s just that, after a lot of circling round, we’re getting to know something about the dragons at last. Dragons make everything better. So unquestionably five stars. And now the long wait until the next book…

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Nathan’s Review (5/23/13)

I can think of no way to talk about The Tyrant’s Law without including some spoilers from the previous books.  While I will try not to be blatant, consider yourself warned.

Three books in and the series continues to keep a hold of me.  What the series is trying to be continues to confuse me, but if the sole goal of the author is to entertain me and steal my sleep whenever a new book come out the consider book three of ‘The Dagger and Coin’ to be yet another success.

I am not sure what the series wants to be.  Through two books I would have suggested it was a subtle bender of fantasy tropes.  Geder seems destined to be the good guy who rises in power due to hidden strengths; instead he was an insecure monster who has risen well beyond his capabilities.  Cithrin was a genius who seemed to embody purity; when in reality she was reckless and concerned with her own wellbeing more than anything.  Comparing the series others trope benders in the genre Abraham was doing it in a much more subtle way.  Most are taking all the hero tropes and making them unlikable jerks, Abraham is doing the same but made you think they were all nice deep inside.

But outside of Geder (who takes yet another creepy turn) this track seems to no longer be the case.  Cithrin is turned into a near angelic figure and Clara is genuinely likable.  Marcus had a dark past but his big talk of violence stays talk.  I am not passing judgment on this apparent change of pace, just making an observation.

Simple by purpose, outside of the prolog and epilog the book once again sticks to the point of view of Marcus, Cithrin, Geder, and Clara.  If a reader already had a favorite, or most hated, PoV then I doubt it will change after this outing.  Personally I feel that Clara is threatening to take over as the star of the series; her fall from grace allowing her to work behind the curtain, never quite certain if she is making a difference or not.  She walks the line delicately, working within the system she has grown up with while fighting against it where she can.  Loved it.

The simple nature of the book is also present in the story itself.  Nothing surprised me, only a few big reveals, just more of the same entertainment.  Gedar continues to wage war, Cithrin works within the bank in yet another city surrounded by war, Marcus goes on quests (remarkable simple quests in my mind, but perhaps Kit’s presence explains the ease).  There is a bit of middle book syndrome going on here, outside of a certain reveal near the end I can’t say for sure anything all that important happened.  But I was entertained the whole time.  How can I explain this?  I don’t know that I can.

A few areas of enjoyment I can explain.  I love the spider cult and the difference between Kit and the other followers.  The priest scoffing at putting a contract in writing amused me.  I love that the only obstacles that Gedar seems to be facing in his war are financial, really bring the “coin” portion of the series into play.  I hope that the ending leads to some big movement in the next book.

We are now three books in so I have to assume people are either invested in the series or they are not.  If you happen to be someone who is, this is a fine continuation.  I think Clara’s passages are some of the strongest yet in the series.  Fans like me who keep hoping for the series to take the upward turn of the author’s Long Price probably need to reset our expectations.  It is apparent the author isn’t trying to do something completely unique at this point, but rather seems to be taking the most enjoyable points from the history of fantasy and fine tuning them into the best piece of book candy around.

Rating it is hard.  I enjoyed every word, with Abraham’s smart but easy flowing style allowing me to read the book in near record time.  My minor disappointments have more to do with expectations that may have never been fair.  But there was a lack of movement in the plot I have to take into account,as the book was a lot of set up.

4 stars.   

The Dagger and the Coin
The Dragon’s Path
The King’s Blood
The Tyrant’s Law

Paranormal Romance Review: Dead Ever After (Sookie Stackhouse 13) by Charlaine Harris

Synopsis:

Sookie is going to face sharp, unexpected turns and twists of fate. Nothing new, right? Ok, perhaps nothing new for the faithful readers of the series but it is supposed to be new to her. You see, she will have to redefine her love life and her social status. She will have to face the music after the magic revival of Sam Merlotte, her former boss and her business partner. She will be pursued and harmed and hurt. She will experience the force of true friendship and the bitterness of an estrangement. She will find her true partner for life. She will be shot at and wrongly accused of murder. Will she survive? It’s the last part, officially anything can happen and yet…and yet… you don’t have to be a Sherlock Holmes to guess the rest. Because the rest is the silence (and I would love to add ‘the silence of the lambs’ but I suppose I would get you spooked so let’s leave that out, ok? Just an innocent remark in parentheses).

My impressions (with spoilers):

Writing a book is a strange business. Sometimes you think you get all the ingredients for a great story and you find yourself one character or one scene short for a complete, unparallel disaster. Sometimes you think the whole enterprise is just a silly prank and you are wrong again. Finishing a popular series is even a stranger business. You already know it’s been a success, you have your devout audience, plenty of people have nourished their own expectations concerning the story and now they want you to deliver. What to do? Fulfill the wishes of your most faithful fans (hey, they deserve it! They’ve voted with their money and made it happen!)? Follow stubbornly and proudly your own vision (providing you’d had one at all)? Listening to your editor, publisher and marketing gurus who are whispering in your ear some uncomfortable truths (‘hey, it’s the last chance to earn a bit more, most probably not to be repeated any time soon!’)? All of the above? Neither of the above?

I completely agree that finishing a series is more daunting a task than starting one. I do applaud Ms Harris that she never went back on her word (she’d promised she wouldn’t follow the example of Twilight and her Sookie would never become a vampiress). Still the last Sookie novel left me cold, miserable, shrugging and sad. As I predicted some time ago (and no, I wasn’t alone) Sookie ended up with Sam. Yes, it was a kind of disaster. I’m writing it without even a drop of malicious satisfaction.

Yes, I used to like that silly Sookie girl and her supernaturally exciting albeit completely small-scale life in the middle of nowhere (read: the southern rural America). Some of the installments were better, some were worse but in those better ones I found really good observations about the contemporary America and its inhabitants – their hopes and fears dressed up as supernatural creatures of different but mostly bloody sorts. Meanwhile the last part sounded banal and boring, from the beginning to the very end, as if it was written by somebody else who just gritted her teeth and ploughed through the plot to finish the blasted thing once and for good. Yes, the book consisted of roughly the same elements as the previous ones but somehow the whole magic was gone and my interest was never stirred, not even once.

Now the list of my woes. Sookie predicaments rang hollow. Her love life went into a nose-dive with Eric so clearly out of the picture most of the time (if I had to be honest it had gone into a nose-dive even one or two installments earlier but at that point you still could hope). I didn’t care whether the unimportant and completely superficial crime riddle concerning the death of a certain white trash slut called Arlene would be solved or not. I didn’t enjoy the cavalcade of different, half-forgotten characters from previous parts the authoress forced to parade through more than half of the book without any sense, reason or fun. The new child of Eric, an ashen blonde called Katrin the Slaughterer, was almost comically bland compared to other vampires who had been presented in the heyday of the series. The almost- final sex scene between Sookie and Sam left me bored stiff and yawning (seriously, I bet sex in elderly nursing homes can be more hot than that). Nothing made sense. Nothing was new or clever or funny. Nothing worked anymore.

Final verdict:

Yes, I have been warned not to read this one. Yes, I couldn’t stop myself, especially that a friend lent me the book so I didn’t have to buy it. Yes, I regret it ended how it ended. Yes, I wasted an hour or two of my life again. Flames to dust… Now I need a pick-me-up rather badly. In fact it should be added to every copy of this novel for free.

Fantasy Review: ‘All The Paths of Shadow’ by Frank Tuttle

There is an old story that this reviewer is much too lazy to do any research that would verify or debunk.  The story says that a man who went by Dr. Suess wrote Green Eggs and Ham on a dare based on only using a hundred distinct words.  I bring this up only because I wonder if there was a dare behind ‘All the Paths of Shadow.’

“Mr. Tuttle,” I imagine a smug friend of the author saying (though he probably wouldn’t use the impersonal Mr., but rather a more friendly Frank).  “I dare, no, I double-dog dare you to write a book within which the protagonist spends at least seventy five percent of the page count doing math in her lab.  You must also find a way to incorporate a talking houseplant.”

“Easily done,” the author may have replied.  “I accept your laughable simple challenge.”

“Not so fast!”  Our imaginary smug friend decides to up the ante on the game.  “I also want to see the most ludicrous use of a magic user’s power ordered by a king, without making the king himself look like an idiot.”

“Ideas are already forming in my head, are there any more caveats to be added?”  The imaginary conversation continues, and for the first time the spell checker comes out because who knew that was how to spell caveat?

“Only one more, at least one character must be an enigma, wrapped in a mystery, who no one knows the trustworthiness of.  And that character must be a damn good cook.”

And thus is how I imagine the geneses of All the Path of Shadow came about.  Mr. Author, will you verify this story for me?  And while you’re at it, feel free to fact check that Dr. Seuss one as well.

Anyway.

The land of Tirlin is about to hold an accord in which each of the kingdoms attends.  The king orders the books protagonist, young mage Meralda Ovis to find a way to move the shadow from the lands ancient, mysterious tower so he can give a speech at its base.  Seemingly the request of a mad king, in reality the speech may be the final point of a new era as the mysterious Hang are coming across the sea to join the process.  As could be expected, tampering with an ancient mysterious tower causes its own problems. Meralda soon finds herself responsible for saving the kingdom from an ancient curse, watching the land’s back with other dangerous mages around, and when she finds time for it, getting the darn shadow to move.

Pacing in the book is surprisingly a strong point as I wasn’t kidding about the kind of time spend doing math in a lab.  The magic Meralda uses is heavily based on math, but still mystical enough to be considered magic and not science.  Thankfully the author keeps the math in Meralda’s head; we don’t see pages of figures, only the results.  The time spent in the lab is usually heavy on entertaining dialog; either in the form of brainstorming sessions or banter with the talking house plant.  Light humor also helps the flow in spots that could have become tedious.  While not action heavy there are a couple entertaining spots where danger lurks around the corner (or right in front of everything).

Meralda is a wonderful character to follow.  The youngest mage to hold the top title, and first woman, she was put through advanced training when she turned Mug into a sentient plant with no training at all.  While often overwhelmed she does everything possible to keep a straight head; this is not a character that breaks down and whines until someone fixes her problems.  It was obvious that despite the gender politics Meralda had earned the respect of many in the land, especially the other magic users.  She works through the problems the way people really do; some help from friends, occasional lucky breaks, and a whole lot of hard work.

The rest of the cast was enjoyable, though almost everyone fades into the background; this is assuredly Meralda’s story.  Mug the talking plant was entertaining, though like most familiars got a bit Disney cartoon at times.  The guards assigned to Meralda were sweet and endearing, obviously smitten with their keep but never annoying.  Meralda’s mentors were great.  Villains went both ways.  One was too obviously evil for my liking; luckily his screen time was low.  But I did like that his co-conspirators were a few bad seeds from several countries, rather than all cut from the same cloth.

Yes I enjoyed this book.  Meralda is a great character, and I am glad a few loose ends were left so I can hope for a sequel.  Recommended for fantasy fans looking for something light and fun with a likable main character.

4 Stars

Steampunk Review: ‘The Kaiser Affair’ by Joseph Robert Lewis

I recently read ‘The Burning Sky’, the author’s debut book, and while I loved the original setting and found the story a fast-paced steampunk adventure, the characters never quite came alive for me. The author had a truly wonderful response to that; he made the whole Halcyon series (of which ‘The Burning Sky’ is the first part) very cheap, and encouraged readers to decide whether they agreed or not. And he added: ‘I want you to go read my latest steampunk thriller, ‘The Kaiser Affair’, and let me know if I have improved my characters in the time between the two publications’. I dutifully went off to check it out, started reading the sample and (you can probably guess the rest) yes, I got so engrossed I ended up buying the book and neglecting a long-awaited new arrival to finish it. So indeed I would agree that Mr Lewis’s writing (and not just the characters) has improved hugely.

Like the previous work, this is steampunk but this time with strong fantasy overtones. The story is part of a collaborative effort between a number of authors, who pooled their talents to create the background world, and then each set a stand-alone story in that world, under the collective title ‘The Drifting Isle Chronicles’. The Kaiser of the title is Ranulf Kaiser, imprisoned for complex and ingenious financial crimes, who has managed to escape from prison only a short time before his release date. Our heroes, Bettina Rothschild and her husband Arjuna Rana, are given the task of tracking down the missing Kaiser and putting a stop to whatever nefarious schemes he has in mind. And so begins an entertaining chase all round the city of Eisenstadt, and above it, too.

The two main characters are a delightful pair, with a charmingly bantering relationship and a liking for steamy sex in unlikely locations. While Bettina is clearly the senior (in professional terms), and is the one giving orders, she generally sits out the fights, while improbably athletic husband Arjuna does battle with the baddies. This makes her seem oddly passive. I appreciate that the author has put female characters in strong plot-driving roles, and obviously they don’t all have to be the kick-ass type, but the contrast between these two is extreme. However, when Bettina does get drawn into a fight, she’s quite capable of laying into her opponent without a problem, and I totally loved the imaginative ways she used her cane. Another nice contrast between the two – Bettina is smart and thinks things through carefully, while Arjuna is clever in a different way, knowledgeable and with what appears to be a photographic memory.

The other characters are relatively minor, but are neatly drawn, if a little one-dimensional at times (but then minor characters are allowed to be). The plot is hare-brained, of course, but it hardly matters and it all resolves itself very effectively and logically. And (the part I really liked) there are some wonderfully fantastical elements – the drifting isle itself, slowly circling above the city, mysterious and enticing; the talking birds; and the shadow people. I really love this kind of world – original, intriguing and wildly unpredictable.

I’ve found it fascinating to read these two samples of the author’s work back to back. The style is the same, of course, and both could do with a bit more polish on the editing front, but where one had a mish-mash of main characters and a complicated inter-weaving of plot threads, this one focuses tightly on just two characters and follows them throughout the book. There’s still a lot of chasing about and fighting and guns and improvised weapons and even a bow but the actual injuries are few, and they are more realistic, no more than a few scrapes here and there or the occasional arrow to the shoulder, so the whole story is more plausible and less cartoonish (although – an autogyro chase? Well, that’s different!). There isn’t much introspection or philosophising going on, and I wouldn’t say the characters are exactly deep, although there are one or two moments when they do reach for something more meaningful (especially the discussion about Arjuna’s home), but they’re always likeable and behave believably. In addition, there’s loads of humour and a light touch that is (to me, anyway) way more enjoyable than ‘The Burning Sky’. Highly recommended for a light, entertaining read. Four stars.

Steampunk Review: Vampire Empire Book Two: The Rift Walker by Clay Griffith and Susan Griffith

Synopsis (from Goodreads):

Princess Adele struggles with a life of marriage and obligation as her Equatorian Empire and their American Republic allies stand on the brink of war against the vampire clans of the north. However, the alliance’s horrific strategy for total victory drives Adele to abandon her duty and embark on a desperate quest to keep her nation from staining its hands with genocide. Reunited with her great love, the mysterious adventurer known to the world as the Greyfriar, Adele is pursued by her own people as well as her vengeful almost-husband, senator Clark who wants to be emperor at all costs. With the human alliance in disarrray, Prince Cesare, lord of the British vampire clan, seizes the initiative and strikes at the very heart of Equatoria.

As Adele labors to bring order to her world, she learns more about the strange powers she exhibited in the north. Her teacher, Mamoru, leads a secret cabal of geomancers who believe Adele is the one who can touch the vast power of the Earth that surges through ley lines and wells up at the rifts where the lines meet. These energies are the key to defeating the enemy of mankind, and if Princess Adele could ever bring this power under her command, she could be death to vampires. But such a victory will also cost the life of Adele’s beloved Greyfriar.

The Rift Walker is the second book in a trilogy of high adventure and alternative history. Combining rousing pulp action with steampunk style, the Vampire Empire series brings epic politcal themes to life within a story of heartbreaking romance, sacrifice, and heroism.

What I liked:

Adele is getting more mature and she learns to make her own choices – always a good thing in any novel. Vampires change their tactics (ok, prince Cesare changes them to tell you the truth and he has some brilliant ideas despite being a monster so overall I warmed up to him despite his murder at the end) and make alliances previously unheard-of. Characters who were supposed to be white hats in the first part got gray hats or even black hats this time – I liked that very much, especially as it concerned some of court politicians. Good moves.

The world building was exquisite although this time we see more of Africa and less of Scotland or London. Still it was a nice trip, especially as it featured the Abu-Simbel temple of Ramsesses and Amun – I would love to visit that site myself. The steampunk factor was not as pronounced as in the first part but it was felt there nevertheless. Farenheit blades are great. ;D I would fancy one.

The plot was fast-paced with some really nice scenes (the meetings between Adele and senator Clark were actually my favourites), the narration smooth and interesting although not to the very end. Why not ? Read the next section to find out.

What I didn’t like:

The closer the plot drifted to those cheesy Zorro movies and indeed, pulp fiction, the less enjoyable it became to me. Rescuing Adele right from the altar at the last possible moment, right after vows? Oh dear, please, it was done to death; it’s enough to remind that fabulous scene from Shrek 01 where the Donkey flies through a big glass window (exactly like our Greyfriar) on a she-dragon (not exactly like Greyfriar who is a vampire and can fly on his own) and shouts: “I have a dragon and I won’t hesitate to use it!” As an ironic, tongue-in-cheek pastiche it worked perfectly well for me; as a serious, big, fat and romantic plot device – not at all. In fact, in my very humble opinion, it was an insult to Adele’s and Gareth’s intelligence and their ability of strategic planning – they could have orchestrated the whole kindnapping a lot better.

Unfortunately after that scene everything went pretty much downhill. Greyfriar proves time and again that the South is not for vampires and the second part of this book is not for more demanding audience. It is heartbreaking to write it but so I felt. Not even Flay who, next to Cesare, is indeed my favourite black character of this series (if you haven’t read the first part – she is a powerful vampiress in love with Gareth and also a woman spurned by him and believe me, she minds it a lot), could rescue it. Not really. I also hated the fact that Gareth was so weak while travelling in the South. I liked him better while in Scotland.

What I found downright funny (beware: spoilers and some nasty PG remarks ahead – highlight and read at your own risk!):

Ok, so we have this big, teary romance between the princess and her vampiric beloved. They missed each other terribly and they finally meet after a long time in extremely romantic circumstances – he saves her from being married to an American brute she doesn’t love, right? After that they run away together and spend a lot of time alone.Aaaaaaaaaaaaand…he kisses her. Only. Oh, wait, they also cuddle a bit on the same bed and yes, he treats her as his private emergency food storage so he drinks her blood. Still, nothing untoward passes between them because…well, the authors seem very inclined to tiptoeing around that issue as if it was one big hot piece of coal, to be treated with utmost care, preferably to be avoided completely. Honestly… I know it is an YA book but even in such novels these things are at least mentioned, if not vaguely described. At the very end Gareth is princess Adele’s official consort and still they only cuddle…and kiss…and cuddle some more… and drink deeply.
My conclusions? Gareth must be homosexual or a saint or he simply cannot perform. Maybe all these three are true who knowns…

Final verdict:

A good YA novel but also, in my opinion, one definitely worse than the first part which I truly enjoyed. I am still willing to read the third and the final one but I must admit I am a bit wary now. The Rift Walker fell a bit short of my expectations so I wonder what solutions the authors will chose to finish the series. Two and half stars.

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