Monthly Archives: July 2010

Review of The Accidental Sorcerer by K.E. Mills

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Do you groan every time you come to the end of a Diana Wynne Jones tale? Or pine for another Neil Gaian masterpiece? Fear not, I’ve found you another author with the same quirky humour and deft storytelling skills. For those of you interested in such things, K.E. Mills has also written the fine fantasy Kingmaker, Kingbreaker duology – a thoroughly worthwhile read – under the name Karen Miller.accidentalsorcerer She has also written some of the Stargate and Star Wars tie-in novels, so is thoroughlyexperienced as a science fiction/fantasy writer – and it shows.

Gerald Dunwoody is a wizard. Just not a particularly good one. He’s blown up a factory, lost his job and there’s a chance that he’s not really a Third Grade wizard after all. Career disaster strikes again. Luckily, an influential friend manages to get him a post. So it’s off to New Ottosland to be the new court Wizard for King Lional. His back-up, an ensorcelled bird with a mysterious past, seems dubious. But it’s New Ottosland or nothing.

Unfortunately, King Lional isn’t the vain, self-centred young man he appeared to be. With a Princess in danger, a bird-brained back-up and a kingdom to save, Gerald soon finds himself out of his depth. And if he can’t keep this job, how can he become the wizard he was destined to be…?

All the characters are well drawn, particularly the main protagonist, whose flounderings are nicely counter-pointed by his humorous musings and his constant fights with the bird who has adopted him. It is the slight eccentricity of all the characters that I find so appealing. From the no-nonsense Princess – whose tweedy efficiency put me in mind of my PE teacher – to Rex, Gerald’s feathered companion no one in this novel is exactly normal. Just as in Wynne Jones tales, when events continue to stack up, there is an initial false sense of security before the narrative becomes a whole lot darker in tone and action. The story steadily pulls you in – and by the time the climax crackles across the pages, it is impossible to put the book down.

Despite having the memory of a concussed goldfish where books are concerned, I generally remember Gaiman’s and Wynne Jones’s offerings – and I suspect it will be the case with this book.
9/10

Review of Poison Study – Book 1 of the Yelena Zaltana trilogy by Maria V. Snyder

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This enjoyable fantasy – like all of the better quality books in any genre – possesses all the ingredients that make speculative fiction fans look for more of the same, but also gives a new spin on the premise. So you have your intrepid, but severely victimised heroine; a poisonstudysatisfyingly nasty and dangerous villain and a plethora of awkward and potentially lethal choices confronting your plucky protagonist…

And the difference? Already convicted for murder, Yelena is under the death sentence when the book opens and has a choice – be executed for murder or become food taster to the Commander of Ixia. She leaps at the chance for survival, but her relief may be short-lived. The Commander’s food tasters don’t have much life expectancy – and small wonder. Life in the palace is full of hazards and secrets. Yelena must learn to identify poisons before they kill her, recognise whom she can trust and how to spy on those she can’t. And who is the mysterious Southern sorceress who can reach into her head?

I liked the fact that Snyder opted not to give us a blow-by-blow account of Yelena’s grim history of coercion, torture and rape – but started the book at the point when she is offered a way out. Told in first person POV, the story whips along at a suitably cracking pace as Yelena struggles to survive in this hostile environment. Snyder gives us a reasonably rounded protagonist and the supporting cast are well drawn and interesting. Although I found the main male character just a little too much in command of everything going on around him. If he’d floundered a little bit more, there could have been a greater sense of danger during the main crisis point of the plot.

However, this is a relatively picky point in a well-written and slickly crafted story that zips along with plenty of action and character development. When I finished the book, I immediately reached for Magic Study, the second book in the series. And when I finish it tonight, I’m going to dive straight into the third book…
8/10

Review of The Night Watch – Book 1 of The Night Watch trilogy by Segei Lukyanenko

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Enjoy reading fantasy with a distinctly different feel? What about a world that raises issues that keep tickling the edges of your brain long after you’ve put the book down? If so, then reach for The Night Watch – you’re in for a treat.

thenightwatchWalking the streets of Moscow, indistinguishable from the rest of its population, are the Others. Possessors of supernatural powers and capable of entering the Twilight, a shadowy world that exists in parallel to our own, each Other owes allegiance either to the Dark or the Light.

This story follows Anton, a young Other of the Light. As a Night Watch agent he must patrol the streets and metro of the city, protecting ordinary people from the vampires and magicians of the Dark. When he comes across Svetlana, a young woman under a powerful curse, and saves an unfledged Other, Egor, from vampires, he becomes involved in events that threaten the uneasy truce, and the whole city… And – yes – I’ve mentioned the V-word. However, if you’re not a Sookie Stackhouse or Twilight fan, please don’t roll your eyes and mentally dismiss this book. It isn’t concerned with the trials and tribulations of sucking blood, suffering extreme sunburn – or anything else about the vampire sub-culture.

Lukyanenko offers us a far more original take on supernatural politics. The leaders of the Dark and Light have organised a Treaty that has to be followed to the last letter. So the front line – the Night and Day Watches – are not only engaged in protecting/exploiting humans, they are also obliged to keep the Peace. At all costs. Leading to a situation not so much black and white, as a grubby grey when we discover some of the deals involving the Light are dubious, to say the least. While a number of Dark agents seem to have been guilty of little more than being in the wrong place at the wrong time…

The book is divided into three discrete stories – which doesn’t really affect the overall narrative arc, as each one follows the other in strict chronological order. Lukyanenko’s descriptions of the Moscow cityscape offer an interesting backdrop to the action and his nuanced, slightly world-weary approach is a fascinating contrast to much of the snappy, glossier North American fantasy I’m used to reading. Not necessarily better – just different. A treat in itself. His characters, in particular, Anton, are slightly opaque. But this only mirrors the tangled politics in a world where no one lets down their guard unless they’ve drunk far too much vodka…

Any quibbles? The pace at the start of the last story did flag, holding up the whole narrative in an annoying way. But the final climax to the book is sufficiently action-packed and quirky to bring the book to a satisfying conclusion – and a resolve on my part to get the next two books in the series. Urgently…
9/10

Put Out Your Hand…

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Question is – which one? Are you one of the right-handed majority – or a leftie, like me? There’s only about 10% of us, and it is a statistic that has held fairly steady despite predictions when children were no longer forced to write with their right hand, that the figure would rise to be approximately 50% of the population. Why is there a rump of us who don’t fit the norm, when it comes to handedness – or lateralisation – to use the proper term? It’s a question I’ve often wondered about.

zurdo3It certainly didn’t make life particularly easy at school. We used ink pens to learn to write so you can imagine the smudgy messes I produced, when struggling to form letters and trying to avoid them with my hand. Handicraft lessons (now called Design Technology) were a nightmare when even cutting paper with scissors posed a challenge back in the days without left-handed scissors. I didn’t manage to tie a bow until I was 8 years old and couldn’t reliably catch or hit a ball until I was 12.

Since then, I’ve had to cope with right-handed typing desks and right-handed checkout tills back in the days when you still pressed all the buttons and bar codes were in the future. It took a long time, but I eventually managed to become reasonably dextrous (a derivative from the Latin word for ‘right’) – and able to perform a number of tasks with my right hand.

There have even been some advantages. I made my VI Form College Fencing team and was regarded as a fairly able tennis player. Not, I hasten to add, through any real talent, but because the average college fencer and tennis player, when confronted with my left-handed play, was at an immediate disadvantage. And while painting walls and ceilings – the only part of DIY I enjoy – when my left hand gets tired, I simply swap hands as I’m completely ambidextrous with a paintbrush. However, when it became apparent that my children and grandchildren were right-handed, I was relieved. Life throws enough curved balls at us without having to battle through being sinister/gauche – the Latin and French words for ‘left’…

Still – it could be worse. Poor George VI, the stammering king who reluctantly stepped up to the job when his elder brother abdicated to marry Mrs Simpson, was reputed to start stuttering when his tutors forced him to write using his right hand, instead of his left. Fortunately, we are more enlightened towards left-handers in the classroom, these days. Which doesn’t stop them encountering more difficulties in learning to write and left-handedness is linked with dyslexia and autism.

What has been discovered, is that humans aren’t the only species with left/right preferences. All manner of animals show signs of preferring a fin/paw/wing/claw. Some of these are gender based. Your tom cat will probably bat a moving leaf with his left paw, while a female is more likely to use her right. So why is this business of lateralisation so widespread throughout the animal kingdom? Experiments with parrots have shown that those displaying more pronounced lateralisation have greater capacity to solve puzzles,schooling-fish-photo than ambidextrous birds. Scientists believe that when the brain categorises physical tasks to one hemisphere or another, rather than splitting them across both halves, it allows more ‘processing’ power for problem solving. So maybe that’s why I took four goes to pass my driving test. It’s not that I’m a particularly bad driver – it’s just that I have to stop and think when anyone directs me in terms of left and right. And I’m likely to turn the wrong way, anyway…

There is also a theory that schools or herds of prey animals have the maximum chance of survival while trying to escape a predator if the majority of them turn in one direction, allowing for safety in numbers. But, this advantage is reinforced if a smaller number turn off unexpectedly in the opposite direction. The sudden change of direction within a wheeling mass helps to confuse the attackers, while this smaller number will have an opportunity to escape because they have broken away from the main group. Apparently.
Hm. I’m not so sure. I have a sneaking suspicion that this rump of wrong-footed/finned creatures are the sacrificial offering. Their ill-advised break for freedom provides a tasty meal, while their more fortunate friends and relations rush off in tight formation, to live another day…

 

Review of The Demon Inside – Book One of The Zone War by Terry Cloutier

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I’ll be honest – after reading the blurb, I didn’t open this book with joy in my heart. The prospect of reading a postmodernist twist on the genre, wherein the protagonist is lying in a coma while some fantasy world battles for his life, didn’t thrill. However, I was very pleasantly surprised.

Edward Fox has always retreated to his created fantasy world, The Zone, when the going gets tough. Traumatised at an early age by a horrific kidnapping ordeal and mentally abused by his stepmother, inside The Zone he is free of his dark memories and feels safe from the real world. Here, he is a God with awesome powers at his disposal.

However, when his worst memory somehow finds its way into his safe haven, Edward cannot cope. After a botched suicide leaves him thedemoninsidein a coma, he awakens inside The Zone to find the rules have changed. Having lost his powers, he is being hunted by a mad Emperor, who is chillingly familiar…

This is a very different read from Stephen Donaldson’s Thomas Covenant series, despite some superficial similarities. For starters, Cloutier is a lot less dark than Donaldson and while both Edward Fox and Thomas Covenant are adrift in their own fantasy worlds, Edward is more at home in his creation. He is also a far more sympathetically flawed character. Although we are treated to glimpses of Edward’s childhood showing why he is so closed off, Cloutier is unflinching in depicting him as an inattentive husband too wrapped up in his own concerns. And yet we still care about him. It’s a neat trick to pull off.

It gets even more interesting. Interweaving through Edward’s life story is The Zone, peopled by a series of classic archetypal characters – the heroic, highly skilled swordsman… the overwhelmed wizard who finds extra power when necessary… the wise old man who foresees the coming calamity… the sadistic ruler… the feisty and capable heroine… As Edward stumbles helplessly amongst these people, they fall into two camps – those who believe in him as a God – and those who look at the trail of destruction in his wake and don’t believe.

It is an extremely clever, pertinent examination of some of the big questions that surround religion generally, and Christianity in particular. The theme of religion is a recurring one within the Fantasy genre – but it normally entails some priest/priestess questioning some of the values within an arcane, rigidly orthodox Faith. I cannot recall having a fallen God watch ‘his’ people suffer and not being able to help them. Or having a furious sufferer accuse said God of callous indifference.

And if this seems far too deep for you, because all you want out of a book is some escapist adventure tale with plenty of sword fighting – well, yes – this book ticks those boxes, too. The narrative zips along at a tidy pace and one of Cloutier’s strengths is his ability to describe every bloody sword slash in cinematic detail. There is plenty of blood and guts for those who enjoy such things – without any bad language or sex, by the way. All in all, this is an excellent, thought-provoking read – and I’ve started the second in the series with a great deal more enthusiasm. Which just goes to show that you can’t always judge a book by its cover…

8/10

Review of In Ashes Lie – Book 2 of The Onyx Court by Marie Brennan

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I thoroughly enjoyed Brennan’s first book in this series, Midnight Never Come, a tale of faerie plot and counterplot set in Elizabeth I’s England. Therefore, I was keen to sample Brennan’s next offering.

The year is 1666. The King and Parliament vie for power, fighting one another with politics and armies alike. Below, the faerie court has enemies of its own. The old ways are breaking down and no one knows what will rise in their place.

But now a greater threat has come, one that could destroy everything. In the house of a sleeping baker, a spark leaps free of the oven – and ignites a blaze that will burn London to the ground. While the humans struggle to halt the conflagration that is devouring the city street by street, the fae pit themselves against a less tangible foe: the spirit of the fire itself, powerful enough to annihilate everything inahsesliein its path.

Mortal and fae will have to lay aside the differences that divide them, and fight together for the survival of London itself…

As anyone who has more than a nodding acquaintance of English history can see, this book isn’t a straight sequel. Despite some of the same characters, there is a jump from the time of Elizabeth I’s reign between 1588/1590 and the timespan of In Ashes Lie, which hops between 1639 and 1666. One thing you can’t fault Brennan for is her ambition. Using any historical setting requires a degree of research and knowledge before putting word processor to paper – and even then it can all go horribly wrong. To swing between two major, disparate events throughout the first half of a novel as the setting for your action is brave to the point of being recklessly daft. I’d love to report that Brennan pulled it off. But sadly, I don’t think she does.

For a start, the big threat facing the faerie at the beginning cannot get our blood racing too much – for the simple reason that throughout that narrative arc, we keep getting yanked forward to the start of the Great Fire of London. So immediately, the reader realises that whatever is facing our plucky crew – they are going to get through it in 1639, because there they are in 1666 confronted with this big old fire… I have to say, I found the juxtaposition of the two story arcs annoying and distracting.

This brings me onto my next point. I don’t think I’m giving too much away when I reveal that the first of these deals with the unsuccessful reign of Charles I, ending in his execution in 1649. Once again, in Brennan’s world, this event is strongly influenced by what is happening in the faerie court. However, the series of political crises surrounding the relationship between Charles and Parliament is quite a complicated story in its own right. My personal knowledge of this period allowed me to pick my way through the admirable amount of historical detail included, here. But I did wonder how readers wholly ignorant of this period would cope and felt that maybe the pace of the novel floundered at times, which added to the lack of narrative tension.

All in all, getting through the first half of the book wasn’t exactly a struggle – but it came perilously close. Which is a real shame, because if any readers did give up at this point, they missed a cracking (and crackling) second half that really did have me at the edge of my seat and wholly made up for the rather creaky start.

The concept of having the Great Fire become a powerful dragon is a lovely notion – and the power struggle between the faerie courts that endangers London is an excellent idea. I did feel that some of the main protagonists were not so sharply depicted in this book, mostly because of its overly complicated structure. However, despite its evident flaws, this book still managed to be a stimulating, enjoyable read with some excellent ideas and memorable scenes, especially when battling the Great Fire. I recommend it – and if you get initially bogged down, grit your teeth. The rest is worth it, I promise…
8/10

Review of Irons in the Fire by Juliet E. McKenna – Book 1 of The Chronicles of the Lescari Revolution

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I am a major fan of McKenna’s outstanding canon, The Tales of Einarinn, which comprises five books starting with The Thief’s Gamble and the next series set in the same world – even better – in my opinion, The Aldabreshin Compass which starts with Southern Fire. These books are bursting with memorable, exciting characters, fast-paced action and wonderful scenery. If you like intelligent, well written Fantasy, set in complex world and haven’t yet come across these books, then you are in for a treat.
ironsinthefireAnd why am I enthusing over her former nine books? Because Irons in the Fire is something of a disappointment in comparison. In my opinion, McKenna commits an unforgivable sin by treating us to a major info-dump, masquerading under the name of a Prologue. There are several pages of details including place names, ruling families and politics, along with their potted histories, without any attempt to nuance this information through character viewpoint. If I hadn’t read her earlier work, the book would have gone flying across the room at that point, along with a few choice words about the laziness of world building by dressing it up as some kind of Almanac… What further upsets me, is that the rest of the book is sufficiently well written that such a Prologue is actually unnecessary. Or – if she felt that she needed to help readers absorb her undoubtedly complicated world, this lump of information could have been offered as an Appendix.

The country of Lescar was carved out of the collapsing Tormalin Empire by ambitious men who all felt entitled to seize power for themselves. Now six rival dukedoms are ruled by their descendants, who all lay claim to the crown of the High King. Dukes pursue their ambitions through strategic alliances and strength of arms while their duchesses plot marriages and discrete pacts.
Meanwhile, ordinary people struggle to raise crops and families amid constant turmoil. Now a mismatched band of exiles are agreed that the time has come for a change. Can a small group put an end to generations of intractable misery? Perhaps. After all, a few stones falling in the right place can set a landslide in motion. But who can predict what the consequences will be, when all the dust has settled?

It is an intriguing proposition, charting the gradual rise of a revolution within a fantasy world. And when I got into the story, it is an entertaining, enjoyable read. The characters are well-rounded with good development, the world is complex and realistic and the plot progresses at a reasonable pace. But her outstanding achievement in this book – for me – is her treatment of magic. The best fantasy always ensures that magic users don’t just wave around some kind of ensorcelled artefact with an accompanying puff of coloured smoke… However, McKenna’s magical system is completely embedded within the political structure, which seems utterly believable to me. And it takes long, painful effort to fine-tune the mental disciplines necessary to use it, while profoundly changing the practioners.

While the book completes the story arc, like many fantasy series, it finishes at a point where we are set up for the next instalment. And – yes – I will be reading it. McKenna’s fantasy is too well-written and thought provoking to ignore. I just wish she had left out that darned Prologue!
7/10