Monthly Archives: February 2011

Review of Voice of the Gods – Book 3 of The Age of Five trilogy by Trudi Canavan


For those of you out there who don’t necessarily want your fantasy setting in a city with a vampire or werewolf lurking in every shadow. Don’t panic. It isn’t all fangs and blood-drenched sex. There are still authors prepared to write with a fresh twist for those of you who prefer good old-fashioned fantasy… Where magic is lethal and everyday. And a young, untried but talented acolyte struggles to prevail… Enter Trudi Canavan.

It’s been a while since I read Priestess of the White and Last of the Wilds – and if you haven’t yet come across this trilogy, I VERY voiceofthegodsstrongly recommend you get hold of them first, before embarking on Voice of the Gods. Canavan doesn’t do ‘the story so far’, which I frankly think is a shame. I have a shocking memory and after reading the first two books one after the other some two years ago, it took me some time to get back into the story and recall exactly who the characters were. Of course, with an accomplished author like Canavan, I was scooped up into the story and fully engaged well before the halfway mark. But as I didn’t have time to go back and re-read the first two volumes, it would have been helpful to have a few pages explaining what had happened so far, clearly marked so those who didn’t need them could skip that bit…

The series follows the fortunes of those who worship the Five, a pantheon of five gods who were the sole survivors of a war in Heaven, where they revolted against the old gods, who were cruel and uncaring of humankind. These gods control the destiny of the mortals in the North, while pitted against them are an opposing five gods who rule the Southern lands. Told in multiple viewpoint, the main protagonist is a young girl, Auraya, who rises up through the ranks of the priesthood in the first book. Apart from the feuding sects are the mysterious Dreamweavers, who pledge themselves to the healing arts and refuse to believe in any gods, at all. Their fortunes – particularly that of their leader – is tightly interweaved in amongst the adventures and rivalries of the two opposing religions.

And that’s about all I’m going to say about the plot, because as you’ll appreciate, if I try to get too specific about Book Three, I’ll inevitably be doing some major Spoiling. However, if you’re rolling your eyes at the notion of a trilogy all about Religion, I would add that there is nothing stodgy or slow-paced about this series. In it, Canavan manages to raise some interesting questions about the role of faith and religion within society in general – questions in our largely secular western world that we don’t generally bother to examine until we are in some sort of personal crisis. But those questions are neatly nested within plenty of battles, adventures, quests and satisfying well-depicted characters.

Canavan’s world building is thorough – complete with the mandatory maps at the front of the volumes – and she manages to take us through the varied settings throughout the trilogy without any tedious info-dumping.

This, the third book in the series, has the important task of rounding off the long journey (this book, alone, is 626 pages…) that started at the beginning of Priestess of the White. A crucial point. I’ve become awfully fed up with authors who lead us through a winding adventure – only to wrap it up unconvincingly in the last page and a half. Does Canavan pull it off? Yes, she does. I love the twist near the end, although the idea had occurred to me before. However, I was still able to empathise with the characters’ reactions to the denouement.

While there are still Fantasy writers like Trudi Canavan producing enjoyable, well crafted and thought provoking series like the Age of Five, those of you who deplore the rise and rise of urban fantasy needn’t worry that the more traditional sub-genre is in any danger of disappearing. Meantime – any vampire fans who fancy a break from urban bloodletting are in for substantial treat…

Review of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms – Book 1 of The Inheritance trilogy by N.K. Jemisin


This fantasy debut novel is different – no, really… I’ve read one or three fantasy books in my time – urban, paranormal, high, low, dark – and this isn’t like any of them. The closest in feel, I suppose, is Liz Williams’ Inspector Chen series, and even then, there are at least a dozen ways in which this book differs.

thehundredthousandkingdomsYeine Darr is an outcast from the barbarian north. But when her mother dies under mysterious circumstances, she is summoned to the majestic city of Sky – a palace above the clouds where the lives of gods and mortals intertwine.  There, to her shock, Yeine is named one of the potential heirs to the king. But the throne of the Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is not easily won, and Yeine is thrust into a vicious power struggle with a pair of cousins she never knew she had. As she fights for her life, she draws ever closer to the secrets of her mother’s death and her family’s bloody history.

Written in first person viewpoint, we are immediately sucked into a world where nothing is as it seems and the impossible and improbable occur at least a dozen times a day. Yeine finds herself fending off the unwelcome attention of all sorts of people. And gods. The bar-tight tension twanging throughout this tale relies in a large part in our belief in the capricious, lethal mutability of the immortal beings who crowd into this story and upstage everyone else – particularly Nightlord Nahadoth who fascinates and terrifies Yeine in equal measure. The stakes are high – if for one moment we decide that Naha (his nickname) and his equally lethal sidekick, Sieh, aren’t convincingly scary, then the whole plot crashes to earth with all the grace of a duck landing on ice.  Not only do we have to believe that these gods are terrible, but come to accept and understand why Yeine falls under their spell and start to pity them and want them to behave well – in other words empathise and care about them. That’s always a tough call – to make really ‘other’ characters become sympathetic to the reader. It’s one of the major problems I have with so many hard science fiction books set hundreds of years into the future when Humanity becomes Posthuman – I often don’t bond with the main protagonists because they are just too different. I’ll bet that I wouldn’t have that problem if Jemisin wanted to write that genre, though. She is good at connecting her reader with the weirdly creepy.

She manages to sustain the tempo, while juggling a cast of outstandingly difficult characters in a bizarre setting and suck us right in to this page-turner until the climax and denouement, which I didn’t see coming. At no time did I feel that I was in the hands of some newbie feeling her way into this novel-writing business. Jemisin writes as if she’s been doing this all her life. As if she’s written a good dozen books and got another batch still cooking in her head. I surely hope so – because with a debut like this, I’ll want to jump into her worlds, again. That difference is addictive…

Review of White Witch, Black Curse – Book 7 of The Hollows by Kim Harrison


This is yet another urban fantasy series where supernatural creatures rub shoulders with the rest of us mere mortals, with often spellbinding consequences.

Set in Cincinnati after a plague triggered by a mutant form of tomato has decimated the human population, Rachel Morgan is a witch whitewitchwho makes a living as a runner and bounty hunter. She has taken her fair share of hits and has broken lines she swore she would never cross. But when her vampire lover was murdered, it left a deeper wound than Rachel ever imagined and now she won’t rest until his death is solved… and avenged. Whatever the cost. Yet the road to hell is paved with good intentions and when a new predator moves to the apex of the Inderlander food chain, Rachel’s past comes back to haunt her. Literally…

Those of you who haven’t yet sampled the delights of Harrison’s work and are considering picking this book up, my advice to you is – don’t. Like all genres, urban fantasy comes in varying levels of complexity and while I wouldn’t claim that White Witch, Black Curse is a particularly demanding read, it is a chunky 552 pages. Which is a long time to be floundering around in a morass of unfamiliar words and names, while you attempt to get a grip on the extensive cast of characters and exactly what they do. Especially as the author doesn’t attempt to do a ‘Story So Far’. Go back to the start of this excellent series and read Dead Witch Walking.

Rachel’s story is told in first person POV with pleasing complexity and – like Jim Butcher’s Harry Dresden books – issues started in previous stories continue to develop throughout the series, rather than just pop up in one book, never again to be mentioned. Her world stands out as being particularly well-rounded and three-dimensional with plenty of tension between the different races, nicely filtered through Rachel’s viewpoint.

Inevitably, the series is getting steadily darker as the storylines progress and Harrison effectively portrays Rachel’s grief at her lover’s death without slowing down the action-packed plot. That said, there are lighter moments and the relationship between Rachel, her vampire friend Ivy and the pixie Jenks has a nice mix of humour and edginess.

I’m conscious that a number of folk are starting to roll their eyes at the torrent of books coming out with supernatural heroines stalking the streets. However, I still thoroughly enjoy a paranormal whodunit in a well-written world with a convincingly conflicted protagonist – and Harrison’s Rachel Morgan is right up there with the best of the best.

Review of Ghosts of Columbia omnibus edition by L.E. Modesitt, Jr


There’s a problem, I think, with extremely prolific writers. The obvious one is that someone regularly releasing two novels a year will – inevitably – at times have something published that would have been far better if only it had a chance to ‘incubate’ a bit longer, either in the author’s imagination or in the editing state. But another issue is that an author with fifty-something novels to his name will occasionally produce a book, or series that is absolutely outstanding – which somehow gets overlooked. Fortunately, someone at Tor had the good sense to realise that this had happened to Modesitt’s Ghost books and so Of Tangible Ghosts and The Ghost of the Revelator were republished together in an omnibus edition.

ghostsofcolumbiaI’m very glad they were – and that I stumbled across the book on the library shelves. This is a world where people who are killed violently or accidentally with sufficient time to realise that they are about to die, become ghosts. So large battles become undesirable – battlefields overrun with hordes of ghosts make an area uninhabitable until they fade. The point at which history has also diverged is when the colonists from the Mayflower landing in the New World succumb to the plague, denying England any foothold on the American continent. Which means a chunk of Canada and North America is settled by the Dutch, in a nation called Columbia with New France down in the south and the Mormon state of Deseret jostling in an uneasy truce. For the time being…

Drop into this interestingly original world, ex-espionage agent and political minister Johan Eschbach, now living quietly in New Bruges and working as a lecturer on Environmental Studies at the Vanderaak Centre who tells his story in first person POV. And we are sucked into a world where everything is in its place; where people all know each other in a small university town and Johan, recovering from the death of his wife and small son, gives us daily details of the food he eats, the lessons he teaches and his interactions with the Dean, his colleagues and cleaning lady – and the ups and downs of his relationship with the French opera singer and refugee, Llysette duBoise. Against this backdrop political tensions rise, murders occur and Johan is inexorably pulled into the deadly intrigue going on around the new research into ghosts.

It is masterfully done. Johan is a wonderful character, whose depth and complexity powers the whole narrative. Modesitt even pulls off the very difficult trick of giving the reader information about Johan through what he won’t discuss – his first wife and dead son… This is Modesitt at his blinding best – and that best is very good, indeed. Because the other major component that needs to really work in an alternate history, is the world.

In this particular plot Modesitt not only had to have the basis tenant nailed, he also needed to ensure all the details are convincing – this isn’t some paranormal fantasy where we can shrug our shoulders and assume that the odd flaky anomaly is ok – it’s a big ask. But Modesitt rises to the challenge magnificently and as far as I’m concerned, this is the best alternate history I’ve ever read. The world is there in a welter of detail that in its everyday ordinariness acts as a striking contrast to ghosts and the increasingly dangerous situation besetting Johan, thus adding to, rather than diluting the narrative tension.

Any niggles? Well, there’s one – which would have been a major problem if this review had been about Of Tangible Ghosts, rather than the omnibus. Modesitt slightly messes up the climactic denouement at the end of the first novel, so that I wasn’t completely sure exactly what had occurred – until I’d finished the first chapter of the second book where it is all properly explained. As I’ve been reading the second book, I’ve been slightly dreading the end – what if he does the same thing? It’s one of the major sins in my view – taking your reader all the way, only to rush the final details, leaving an unsatisfactory muddle. I’m delighted to report that Modesitt brings the plot to a complete and well explained conclusion in the second and final book in the omnibus. So despite that one glitch, I’m giving this book a 10.

If you enjoy well depicted, convincing worlds where the main character leaps off the page, complete with believable foibles – this is a must-read book that has been somehow buried under the weight of the rest of Modesitt’s output. A real shame… because it’s right up there as one of my most enjoyable reads, ever – and the skill required to produce such a gem shows that at his best, Modesitt is one of the outstanding speculative fiction writers of his generation.

Review of Nights of Villjamur – Book 1 of Legends of the Red Sun by Mark Charan Newton


nightsofvilljamurThis is Newton’s debut novel, which has some classic fantasy themes. Something cataclysmic is occurring to muck up the reasonably stable status quo, which in turn creates a number of opportunities for the insanely ambitious, while posing problems for the more noble-minded…

An ice age strikes a chain of islands, and thousands come to seek sanctuary at the gates of Villjamur: a city of ancient spires and bridges, a place where cultists use forgotten technology for their own gain and where, further out, the dead have been seen walking across the tundra.

When the Emperor commits suicide, the political balance becomes increasingly unstable while a force of hand-picked elite Night Guard are sent off to collect his eldest daughter, the heir to the Empire. Meanwhile, a senior investigator in the city inquisition must solve the high-profile and savage murder of a city politician, whilst battling evils within his own life, and a handsome and serial womanizer manipulates his way into the imperial residence with a hidden agenda.

When reports are received that tens of thousands of citizens are dying in a bizarre genocide on the northern islands of the Empire, members of the Night Guard are sent to investigate. It seems that, in this land under a red sun, the long winter is bringing more than snow…

And there you have the start of it. If you open this book, expecting action-packed scenes and teeth-clenching tension from page one, then you are in for a disappointment – this is a real slow-burn number. Newton is very leisurely in building up the action with his long descriptions of the cityscape, his characters and their stories. However, I think it’s worth the wait. For starters, Newton is a capable writer – and those descriptions are worth reading. He is good at interesting, snappy pen portraits of his cast of characters. I’m not going to pretend that there aren’t some recognisable stock characters – the bluff good-natured soldier who has seen better days; the solidly honest detective struggling to do a good job in a backdrop of increasing political corruption; the enigmatic, dangerously handsome woman with an uncertain agenda; the swashbuckling hero…

Having said that, Newton plays games with these eponymous characters – the detective isn’t actually human… the femme fatale has a badly scarred face; the swashbuckling hero is raising money for his sick mother – no, really… and that’s the bit that he doesn’t like people to discover. Written in third person, multiple viewpoint, Newton handles the different plotlines well enough that I wasn’t skipping through to find my favourite – a habit I fall into when I get fed up with an ever-expanding cast of characters.

Nonetheless, the star of this book isn’t the characters. It’s Villjamur – the city itself. Newton’s descriptions give a vivid backdrop to the building action and there are some very nice touches. The worsening weather helps to ramp up the increasingly claustrophobic atmosphere, as the street get icier and the high spires ever draughtier. This world has some really cool touches – I love the banshees that involuntarily scream every time someone dies; the garuda bird-sentries wheeling overhead; the non-human rumals who live alongside their smaller, more tender human neighbours…

What Newton does do is steadily wind up the tension – which then explodes in a flurry of action in the last quarter of the book and gives the reader a thoroughly satisfying denouement, while leaving a couple of plotlines dangling for the next instalment. It’s all very smoothly done for a first novel, marking Newton as One to Watch.

Review of Pride – Book 3 in the Shapeshifter series by Rachel Vincent


This is yet another series of paranormal fantasy about the highs and lows in the life of Faythe Sanders, a shape-shifting human/cat. You either like or loathe this currently fashionable sub-genre, and I thoroughly enjoy it – so long as the books are well written. And Vincent’s slightly spoiled, feisty girlie is depicted with understanding, humour and energy that has her leaping off the page, grabbing me by the throat and not letting go until I’ve read the last page.

prideThe werecat council has three cardinal laws and headstrong Faythe stands accused of breaking two of them: infecting a human with her supernatural skills and killing him to cover her tracks. With the death penalty hanging over her head, Faythe has no escape route left. Until a shapeshifter informs the pride of a rash of rogue strays terrorising his land. Yet this threat is nothing like any they’ve seen before. Only Faythe has the knowledge to save the pride, but can she prove her worth? Or will the council s verdict condemn them all?

Vincent’s paranormal tweak has werecat society rigidly organised by a cabal of Alphas – a bunch of elderly men whose political manoeuvring impacts on the prides who provide them with their powerbase. So Faythe’s rebellion is also an expression of frustration when she sees women of her age able to enjoy a level of freedom that is denied her. I both approve of and acknowledge Vincent’s skill in bringing the issue of feminism into her work – and clearly illustrating to her target audience, young western women, just how confining and dangerous it is to be a high spirited, intelligent girl in a number of societies around the world, these days… It is all the more effective for being implicit in the plotting and not at any stage waved under our noses. Nicely done, Rachel.
Like all the better multi-book series, Vincent allows her cast of supporting characters to also develop and deal with their own issues. So we get to know Faythe’s ex-lover a lot better, as well as other members of the pride, in addition to watching her deal with her father, whose authority she resents almost as much as she loves him. The story is well paced and slickly told, with the unfolding drama about the newcomer discovered in the woods very well handled. Yes – I did guess some of it before the reveal, but the extra political ramifications around the discovery were slickly executed and added an additional layer of interest.

All in all, this latest addition to the series is an enjoyable page turner that under all the apparent fluff and paranormal nonsense, has some dark and pertinent things to say about the status of far too many young women whose lives are in the hands of misogynistic men.

Review of The Drowning City – Book 1 of The Necromancer Chronicles by Amanda Downum


This is Downum’s debut fantasy novel, set in a jungle-type world with a complicated political system seething with discontent.
For Isyllt Iskaldur, necromancer and spy, the brewing revolution is a chance to prove herself to the crown. All she has to do is find and finance the revolutionaries, and help topple the palaces of Symir. But she is torn between her new friends and her duties, and the longer she stays in this monsoon-drenched city, the more intrigue she uncovers – even the dead are plotting.  As the waters rise and the dams crack, Isyllt must choose between her mission and the city she came to save.

This political intrigue certainly hits the ground running – events stack up and we are swiftly introduced to the cast of characters who are immediately plunged into the action. In this case, this has its drawbacks. Downum’s inexperience shows, I feel, in the lack of any real explanation about the political situation – it is all implicit, which is certainly a plus side for the narrative drive, but I did find myself floundering for a while as I sorted out exactly who was on which side. It didn’t help that in addition to the countries slogging it out – there were also a bunch of factions and clans weighing in.

In addition to the scarcity of background information necessary to clarify the plots and counter-plots, the three female protagonistsdrowningcity are far too similar. They are all reasonably young; all are competent magic-users; all have a conflict of loyalties and issues around their love life. Given that Downum doesn’t do hanging around to let the reader get her bearings, I was also a bit adrift as to exactly which one was doing what… Granted, I read this at a time when I wasn’t at my sharpest best – but I did feel this confusion could have been avoided if their characters weren’t so alike. The very similarity of the three main characters meant that they all occupied the same niche in the cast of characters. I think this very much lessened the impact at the end, simply because the reader has been asked to empathise with three versions of the same type, rather than a range of fully rounded, completely different individuals, thus diluting our feelings for each of them.

That said, I didn’t hurl the book across the bedroom. One reason is because Downum’s description of her world is outstandingly good. The city itself is beautifully described and one of Downum’s strengths as a writer is her ability to write action scenes where her characters experience the full range of climactic conditions, as well as coping with whatever else is going on.

I also very much enjoyed her magic and undead system. This was where Downum’s lack of explanation absolutely worked. The depiction of the various types of magic and nasty creatures was riveting and worked well with the action scenes. I note from the cover that this is the first in a series – which means that we’ll get a chance to revisit this exciting world. I’m hoping that next time around, Downum will take just a bit more time to better establish her political system and ensure her characters are more varied – and if she does, then she’ll have written a really superb fantasy thriller, rather than a good one with some flashes of brilliance.