Here be Dragons

Archive for June, 2013

Fantasy Review: ‘Sunbolt’ by Intisar Khanani

I discovered the author’s debut novel, ‘Thorn’, quite accidentally, one of those magical reads where you start on the sample and find yourself so swept up in the story you just can’t put it down. It was one of my best reads of last year, so I approached the author’s latest offering with trepidation. Can the next book possibly be as good? Quick answer – yes, it can. This is a novella, the first in a projected series of perhaps six altogether, a beautifully written piece which displays all the author’s trademark originality, terrific characters and an intriguing world.

Hitomi is an orphan, struggling to survive on her wits – no, it’s not the most original scenario, but this is possibly the only aspect of the book which has that problem. This has to be one of the most unpredictable stories I’ve ever read, a new twist at every turn, and as the book is incredibly fast-paced, that means a breathtaking ride. There are one or two jarring moments, though. Just as the reader gets accustomed to one setting and its cast of characters, there’s an abrupt shift to a new location, a new villain, new challenges for Hitomi. But it’s all perfectly logical, and just served to keep me on my toes.

Hitomi is a lovely heroine – spirited, enterprising and imaginative, and never, ever prepared to be pushed aside. I loved the way in the early chapters she always did exactly what she wanted to do, regardless of whatever instructions she was given. Later, she shows her indomitable spirit, and never gives up, even when things look black. Some of the other characters were fascinating too – Val, in particular, but all of them had depth. I hope we find out more about the character left behind in the cells, too. I loved the way the author managed to fudge the question of who were the good guys and who were the villains. Things just aren’t that simple here.

One doesn’t expect much in the way of world-building from a novella, but there’s surely enough background here to fuel a full-sized trilogy at least. There are kingdoms and religions and races and magical capabilities and cultures, all beautifully defined and nuanced. The speed of the book was a real hindrance here, since every few pages I found myself saying: wait a moment, that’s interesting, I’d like to know more about that. Hitomi’s family history, her magic, Ghost and the secret society, Blackflame, the breathers, the mages… But no, the plot swept on relentlessly. Hopefully, with another five or so books to come, the author will be able to develop these aspects in more detail.

This is a wonderful book, with memorable characters, some great world-building, an action-packed plot that never lets up for a moment and a surprising twist every few pages. All this in a beautifully written novella format. Highly recommended. Five stars.

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Fantasy Review: "Lords and Ladies" by Terry Pratchett

Part 14 of The Complete Discworld Reread

I have said several times that Granny Weatherwax is my favorite character of the genre by quite a long ways.  But it is in Lords and Ladies that I start to realize that Nanny Ogg gives her a heck of a run for the money.  She may always play second fiddle to Granny, but at times there are clues that it may be because that is where she prefers to sit.

The formula is well established now; take a well known story, strip out a good portion of it while keeping what works on Discworld, set the most entertaining witches into it and watch the fireworks.  A wedding is to take place on the eve of midsummer and the whole world is invited.  Traveling from the University is a group including the Archchancellor and the library.  Lancre preps in awkward ways, including an impromptu play but on by some of the craftsmen of the area (ie Carver the Weaver and Thatcher the Butcher, how did I miss this joke so many times before?).  If the bride is less than happy it is not because she doesn’t want to get married, but damn it would have been nice to have some say in the matter.

But reality is rather thin, wannabe witches play with a few things they shouldn’t have, and Jason Ogg’s play suddenly gets too real.  Next thing we know the village of Lancre has an infestation of nasty elves convicting people with glamour that maybe they are not that bad.  Terrific and terrifying are just different sides of the same coin after all.

Somehow the formula for witch novels hasn’t gotten old yet, perhaps because Pratchett has felt little need to stick to the parodied stories very closely at all and maintains flexibility.  The story starts strong, with Granny needing to deal with a new crop of wannabes led by a girl with some real power.  She wins a witches duel in an unconventional way, in no small part due to the hidden strengths of Nanny.  Nanny has no need for the spotlight (at least when it comes to magic; she actually uses her attention seeking ways to avert people’s eyes to her very real power).  Magrat is wonderful in this book; wanting to mope around but realizing that it really isn’t her way.  When elves attack she thinks she is channeling an old warrior queen, when in reality she is showing the same inner strength we have seen several times; strength that for some reason Magrat always seems to forget she has.

There was a rare danger of the cast growing too large this outing.  Granny and the Archchancellor’s past was handled well and was very sweet in a melancholy way but I would have loved more scenes with them.  Ponder and the Bursar are completely wasted in this story.  I was also disappointed a bit by the ending, a giant Dues ex Machina that was somewhat saved by the smart route Nanny went through to achieve it.  Granny looks like the hero in this one, providing the most impressive magic and most vocal resistance.  But it is Nanny who thinks it all through and finds the solution.

The elves themselves were kind of boring villains but it didn’t really affect the enjoyably of the book.  How to explain?  The elves were like an agar for the protagonists to grow in.  They provided the outlet for each character to do their thing, rather than doing anything themselves.  Even the Queen was more useful as a way for Granny to push herself to the limit than she ever was as leader or scary villain.

A few jokes fell flat near the end but otherwise this is one of the funnier outings of the witch sub-series.  I want to learn the bucket dance, loved Nanny playing footsie with steel toed books, and the Archchancellor going on about not being invited to his own wedding never got hold.

4 stars. Not one of my favorites but another very solid outing. 

Fantasy Review: ‘In Wilder Lands’ by Jim Galford

And now for something completely different… or at least, new to me. Estin, the hero of this book, is a wildling, a kind of humanoid animal, one of whole variety of such animals superficially resembling actual animals (fox, bear, ferret, etc) but able to speak and act in many ways like humans. They live in packs in the woods, but their lifestyle is not unlike a kind of technology-free human existence. It’s an uneasy juxtaposition. Estin has an enhanced sense of smell, he has fur, he climbs well with clawed paws, yet he walks on two legs most of the time, he talks and thinks and in many ways behaves in very unanimal-like ways. The wildlings are not anthropomorphised animals, they’re a hard-to-define mixture of human and animal. I’m not sure whether I like it.

The story opens in a very traditional way. Estin was orphaned at a young age, his family slaughtered before his eyes, and since then he’s scratched a precarious living stealing and scavenging on the city streets, and avoiding being captured by slavers. He’s asked to undertake a difficult mission to settle some debts. So far, so very dull. But his accomplice is a gypsy girl with an agenda of her own and during the mission Estin encounters Feanne, another wilding, and the first he’s seen in the city who isn’t a slave. They escape together and Feanne takes Estin back to meet her rather bizarre pack.

None of this is original in plot terms. The orphan finding out about himself and his heritage is a trope almost as old as the genre. There’s always room for a new spin on things, though, and the author’s inventiveness is exemplary. The wildlings themselves are original enough to leave plenty of scope for revealing new and intriguing twists. The wildlings based on predators don’t get along terribly well with the wildlings based on prey animals, for instance.

The use of magic is a bit random. It seems that they can do whatever the plot needs them to do. If there was any logical system to it, I never found it. The healing power is particularly convenient. An injured good guy can be healed almost without constraint (there are a few limitations, but not many). Even when dead, they can be coaxed back to life by healing their injuries and then cajoling the detached spirit back into the body (which doesn’t always work, since the spirit has a mind of its own). Eventually the healer will get tired, but a lot of healing can be done before the batteries are flat (so to speak).

One aspect the author did rather well was the way different characters spoke in different ways. The gypsy girl had a very strong accent, and Soren the ferret-like character has a kind of speech which bounces uncontrollably just like he does. Then there is Finth the dwarf, who (again traditionally) fulfils the role of plucky comic relief. Humour is always welcome in a long, battle-heavy work of fantasy, but some of Finth’s joke were a little too modern for my taste – I have difficulty suspending disbelief when a dwarf talks about rugrats, for instance.

The characters are quite nicely drawn. Even if they never quite came alive for me (the human/animal thing mentioned above) there was a lot of depth to many of the characters which I appreciated. There was also some interesting philosophy in there, between battles or skin-of-the-teeth escapes, especially between the various races (or species, I suppose). Estin himself isn’t quite as riveting as he might be – again, he falls square into the traditional line of little person who becomes central to the plot. He isn’t quite the long lost heir to the kingdom, but he does acquire a lot of abilities – warrior skills and magic – in a very short time. He’s also way too restrained and honourable for my taste. I like a hero who has a few human (or wilding) weaknesses. Feanne, the complex and driven fox-type character, is, to my mind, far more interesting. Although she’s unstable and overly aggressive, with a tendency to fight to the death first and then (possibly, if she feels like it) ask questions later, this makes a refreshing change from subservient or the typical sort of warrior babe. I was disappointed when such a strong character fell apart emotionally half way through the book.

One grumble. Estin knows nothing of his heritage because he was orphaned (obviously). This means that he transgresses in some way or other every few pages, just from not knowing the rules. Yet no one ever seems to make allowance for him, or to explain properly what he’s done wrong. It’s all “Oh no, you shouldn’t have done that!” and then maybe some pretty nasty repercussions. His training in the wildling group is all pretty cryptic too, so that when someone turns on him, he’s not sure whether it’s a genuine problem or a test of some sort. He is very patient about all this, but I would be seriously ticked off about these repeated tests and the lack of clear-cut explanations.

A minor grumble. There are quite a lot of little typos and such-like – ‘taught’ instead of ‘taut’, for example – and odd words missing or misplaced, which mar an otherwise professional piece of work. However, I’ve had the book sitting on my Kindle for over a year, however, so it’s possible these have now been tidied up. There is a certain sloppiness in the writing, however, which only a ruthless rewrite would eliminate.

After the midpoint, the book becomes quite episodic, jumping from one situation to another unpredictably and abruptly. While I like to be surprised, this was a little too choppy for my taste. It also ran into the typical problem of the nobody-to-hero trajectory: Estin becomes very powerful, especially in his magic, and that becomes a bit of a get-out-of-jail-free card in numerous situations. I also disliked what I can only describe as a lot of soppiness over the children, and a great deal of artificially generated tension between Estin and Feanne. In fact, much of the later part of the book felt rather contrived, as if, having got the characters to a certain logical point within this book, the author needed to rearrange everything ready for the next volume. Either that or the author had a quota for fight scenes. Some of this is inevitable, but it felt to me very drawn out and stretched beyond sensible limits. A little tightening up here, eliminating the in-camp arguments altogether (oh no, not another leadership challenge…), and perhaps reducing the number of hooray-we’ve-escaped-oh-no-we-haven’t moments, would have been a great improvement.

This is an unusual and readable story, well written bar a few quirks. For those who enjoy action, there’s plenty here, with an array of traditional fantasy races (even halflings! don’t see many of those nowadays), as well as the wildlings, a whole zombie army, fae, dragons, elemental spirits of some sort and a really creepy mist thing. The magic is a pretty mixed bag, too. The ending lost the plot a little, with one melodramatic moment after another, without a respite or much detectable logic. There’s some depth to both world and characters, and the themes of family, race and slavery were well made, if a little heavy-handed. I found the mixing of animal and human characteristics problematic, it just didn’t work for me. I’m equally happy with human or non-human characters in a book, but I found this to be an uneasy blend of the two. That’s a personal preference, no more than that, and in other respects the book is excellent, but I can’t give it more than three stars.

Paranormal m/m Romance Review: Among the Living (PsyCop 01) by Jordan Castillo Price

Synopsis (from Goodreads):

Victor Bayne, the psychic half of a PsyCop team, is a gay medium who’s more concerned with flying under the radar than in making waves. He hooks up with handsome Jacob Marks, a non-psychic (or “Stiff”) from an adjacent precinct at his ex-partner’s retirement party and it seems like his dubious luck has taken a turn for the better. But then a serial killer surfaces who can change his appearance to match any witness’ idea of the world’s hottest guy.

Solving murders is a snap when you can ask the victims whodunit, but this killer’s not leaving any spirits behind. What’s wrong? How to catch a murderer who doesn’t leave any traces?

What I liked:

I am not a fan of romance. I am definitely not a fan of m/m paranormal romance. My first impression was I wasn’t going to like it. Vic hops on the first page higher than a kite and not ashamed or worried about it (as he is officially allowed to take drugs). Marks, Vic’s crush, seems at first a bit too power-crazy and domineering for my taste, not to mention the fact that he is a gym rat through and through. I still ended up liking this novel quite a lot, all things considered. Why?

Firstly it was an original idea, to present psychics not as shadowy charlatans they normally are (my skewed opinion of course) but as rare professionals whose talents are much sought-after by different government agencies, police and intelligence services among them. Accordingly Victor Bayne is a PsyCop, working with the local Chicago police force, with the ability to see and communicate with the dead. Imagine that: he arrives at a crime scene and he can actually see and sometimes even talk with the victim. He can’t do anything else but his brains and intelligence make him more than just a level 5 medium. Detective Bayne also investigates and solves crimes – quite a nice surprise.

Apart from that Victor has one of the most fascinating narrative voices I’ve met recently.He’s been through a lot, firstly diagnosed as schisophrenic and institutionalized, then closed in Camp Hell, where his unusual skills were supposed to be honed and developped and where he suffered mental and physical abuse. It left him scarred, perhaps for life. Now he is not bothered by his flaws and moderately interested in what happens around him if he’s not involved. He keeps himself to himself. He is raw honest and not ashamed of practically anything = a flawed hero I like. And of course he has his secrets, not to be revealed to anyone, among them the true scope of his possibilities.

He is paired with Jacob Marks, “a big, strapping guy with a deep voice and a piercing gaze that could nail you to the wall.” It is evident what those two see in each other: Vic, emotionally unstable and physically weaker, is looking for protection against the ugly world around him. Jacob admires Vic’s skills when it comes to the souls of the departed, even though he is the elegant, smart and fitness-club-poster muscled one. Their love story started a bit too suddenly for me (but I suppose it will be explained in more detail later) but then it was surprisingly sweet and steamy for an m/m romance arc. Yes, the sex is rather prominent but the book actually has an interesting plot as well so I became a very tollerant and patient reader all of a sudden.

Finally let me say that I liked Lisa Guttierez – an interesting albeit secondary character with an unusual gift. I do hope to meet her again.

What I didn’t like:

My slight disappointment with this one was the showdown. Spoiler, highlight to read: so there is that shape-changing incubus which explodes, end of the story. That’s it? Really? That’s all you’ve got? Oh, right…still a little anti-climactic. I wish there was a little more world building as well but I keep in mind the fact that it is just a beginning of a series so there is some hope. Let me also add that the sex scenes sometimes bordered on too descriptive, even gratuitous, but perhaps it’s just me.

Final verdict:

There is so much scope for this author to build on.I have a feeling that if I continue with the series that Jacob and Vic will grow on me…considering that I really do like flawed characters and urban fantasy, even if it comes with m/m flavour.

Fantasy Review: ‘The Ocean at the End of the Lane’ by Neil Gaiman

Two confessions.  I am a Neil Gaiman fanboy and love everything of his I have read.  I also have a history of overrating books immediately after reading them, and only upon reflection do I rethink ratings. (I don’t change ratings though; A. they are not that important and B. books deserve the rating I give from my immediate emotions).

So keep that in mind when I say that I loved ‘The Ocean at the End of the Lane” and would recommend it to everyone (but then I recommend American Gods at every chance I get, and am flabbergasted that some (i.e. my wife)  don’t like it.  Different strokes and all that).  A plot synopsis would be impossible; the book is so short almost any synopsis would be spoilerific.  Nothing will come as a surprise, and ordinary person (this time a young boy) is taking from the mundane into the incredible. 

Hell if I know what it is about.  Early reviews said it was about longing for home, so why not?  Let us go with that.  I do know that the whole book was a short dream-like journey that had me captivated.  Likewise I have no idea what the influences were for the rather unique mythology of this book.  The Maiden, Mother, and Crone was the obvious one.  But whether or not the flea or the cleaners represented an unknown to me tie to existing myth I regret to say I do not know.

But readers of Gaiman should be well used to the style, and as strange as all the new unknown elements were to me I never felt any disbelieve.  This to me is the author’s genius, taking the unbelievable and making it real.  He has been doing it for years, and in my mind succeeded once again.

If I had to nitpick I would point out that at times I felt I was reading a gritty remake of Coraline, if not in substance in style.  But that could be attributed to being a bit too familiar with Gaiman’s style, after all I have read each of his books several times.

Not my favorite book by any means; of the adult novels by the author it is firmly third on my list.  But when it comes to Gaiman most people have their minds made up already.  People are going to read it or not, and my opinion is just one I a vast sea of them.

4 stars

Fantasy Review: ‘The Whitefire Crossing’ by Courtney Schafer

Good Idea:  Taking advantage of a free book deal and downloading a book that has received good ratings from all of your friends.

Bad Idea:  Not reading the book for over a year because you are scared the “rock climbing elements” will overshadow everything else in the book.

I can’t believe I let this sit on my Kindle without reading it for so long.  I truly did put it off because all the talk was about how the author is a rock climber and put it into her book; my brain went meh and I skipped it repeatedly.  My loss.

Yes, the book does contain some rock climbing elements.  Protagonist Dev is an outrider who scouts the terrain for trade caravans with climbing being one of the many duties.  Dev is also making a bit of a side profit by smuggling magical items into a city with very strict controls on magic.  The book starts with almost no bull****; Dev going to his usual contact and learning that this time he is being asked to smuggle a person across the border.  With reasons of his own to take the cash he reluctantly agrees, taking on Kiran as an “assistant” to provide cover on the next run.

Bouncing back and forth between the point of view of both Dev and Kiran (with Dev’s chapters being in the first person) the author artfully makes us care about both characters; even when their goals may not be aligned.  Strong engaging characters may have been my favorite thing of many this story.  Not only do we have Dev and Kiran, both good people hiding something; but several of the support characters had almost as much life as the two protagonists.  Villains were pure evil but for some reason this was a story where that didn’t bother me as much.  Usually I like my villains to have a human element, but complete monster worked in this environment surprisingly well.

Pacing was a huge point in this story’s favor.  A good amount of the background info was told within the journey rather than funneled down our throat.  There was plenty of action, with magic that was enough of a threat to matter.  By switching PoV’s regularly I never got bored with one character, and by keeping it at two I never god mad when a switch happened; I knew I would see him again soon.  I have learned over time that I almost always prefer my fantasy in shorter chunks; at about 350 pages this book was perfect for what I needed.

“World building” doesn’t really occur here, but there is some very good “small area building.”  Only hints of a larger world are shown, this book deals with two cities and the passage between them.  But it is so full of life!  One city thrives on magic, living in an almost magical anarchy where mages of different types can do anything they want.  The other is almost Orwellian in their attempt to keep people safe from the magic; using the very magic they are suppressing to enforce the rules.  Charms are sold for different uses, some quite powerful.  Different mages use different power bases, and if some of the “blood mage” power felt like mana in a video game to me it is probably proof that I have played too many damn video games.

My only real complaint comes the warded city of Alathia, it of magical suppression.  The city is protected by spells that will alert the guard if the wrong types of magic are used, while ignoring the more benign.  In theory.  In reality it felt like one of the most blatant author’s conveniences I have ever read, a nice security blanket that let the author do just about anything with it.  We see all kinds of magic take place within it without setting off the alarms, but also see the guards called in for something they didn’t come for the first time we saw it.  I would have liked some more consistency on that front, but maybe it is addressed in later books as a misconception (or deliberate misleading).  In any case, it didn’t distract much from the reading.

Oh yes, I even liked the areas of the book that dealt with mountain climbing.

4 stars

Steampunk Review: The Kingmakers (Vampire Empire #3) by Clay Griffith, Susan Griffith

Synopsis (from Goodreads):

The epic Vampire Empire trilogy rushes to a conclusion of honor and love, hatred and vengeance, sacrifice and loss. A war to the death. Empress Adele has launched a grand crusade against the vampire clans of the north. Prince Gareth, the vampire lord of Scotland, serves the Equatorian cause, fighting in the bloody trenches of France in his guise as the dashing Greyfriar. But the human armies are pinned down, battered by harsh weather and merciless attacks from vampire packs. To even the odds, Adele unleashes the power of her geomancy, a fearsome weapon capable of slaughtering vampires in vast numbers. However, the power she expends threatens her own life even as she questions the morality of such a weapon. As the war turns ever bloodier and Adele is threatened by betrayal, Gareth faces a terrible choice. Their only hope is a desperate strike against the lord of the vampire clans-Gareth’s brother, Cesare. It is a gamble that could win the war or signal the final days of the Greyfriar.

My impressions:

It wasn’t a bad ending of a series but also one which left me a bit disappointed and strangely detached. I would call it an ending of lost potential. Perhaps it’s been too long between this one and part 2. Who knows.

My first carping: a big epic showdown should be anything but slow. This one was slow. I expected battles, strategy and wartime mayhem, a whirlwind of activity I got pages and pages devoted to single battles, Adele’s angst over the Greyfriar and the difficulties in their relationship. Pages and pages of the Greyfriar’s own angst – about everything not exactly connected to the ongoing war. I think everything that happened and everything anyone felt in this book had to be accompanied by a rather long winded internal monologue, sometimes but not always switching to a dialogue.

Many of these scenes weren’t bad – like Gareth visiting the King of Paris (a nice scene but also one that ended up pretty irrelevant so hardly mattered in the end), or Gareth cooking for Adele. Adele re-uniting with Morgana. Adele talking with Sanah. Anhalt sparring with Senator Clark. Senator Clark’s war in the US. They were all good scenes, albeit overly written with too much monologue, but they were great in their own right for character development and exploration and just plain fun with this world and these people who I enjoy. But they weren’t relevant to the plot – if they were removed the ending would be exactly the same as it was with them. It did seem as if glue, holding the whole novel together, was too weak or simply forgotten.

I hate to say it but Gareth was just a bore, there was nothing to him except for his love for Adele. Adele was supposed to mature and become a kick-ass empress which she did to some extend but also she could be surprisingly annoying. I didn’t understand why she kept questioning whether she should use her powers to kill the vampires despite the fact that 1) they were evil, most of them 2) they were responsible for millions of deaths and planned even more slaughter 3) they wanted to enslave humanity 4) they did nothing, literally nothing to persuade her and other humans otherwise. I suppose her defense of the vampires was meant to make her seem forgiving and compassionate but it just made her look like a dumb empress who wore her heart on her sleeve permanently, being the one and only person with super powers around enamoured with a real VAMPIRE who happened to be a decent guy and love her back.

Never mind that the future of humanity was in her hands, never mind that humans were dropping dead. None of that mattered if it hurt her centuries old lover (?). Everything seemed to fall into place too easily. Adele reads some doodles and realizes she’s the most powerful geomancer in the world at a time when all seems lost. A little too deus ex machina for my taste. All of the planning went nowhere, Adele saves the day and Gareth is immune to her geomancy now and they will be together and all ugly baddies who count are just killed, killed, killed. It served them right perhaps but it was also boring. No subtlety, no wits and no scheming. No compromises either.

Final verdict:

I expected this series to be better. I wanted this series to be better. Unfortunately I was a bit delusional about my expectations. I liked the first book the best, the second was weak and the last one was just so-so.

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