Monthly Archives: November 2011

Review of Banners in the Wind – Book 3 of Chronicles of the Lescari Revolution by Juliet E. McKenna

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This is the final instalment in this intriguing series where McKenna decided to see what would happen if the downtrodden masses and squeezed middle men revolted. And, no, I’m not guessing about this – I happened to be at Bristolcon this year when McKenna gave a fascinating talk on her world. She is an articulate, intelligent speaker and if you get a chance to meet her, take it. You won’t be disappointed.

A few stones falling in the right place can set a landslide in motion. That’s what Lescari exiles told themselves in Vanam as they plottedbanners to overthrow the warring dukes. But who can predict the chaos that follows such a cataclysm? Some will survive against all the odds; friends and foes alike. Hope and alliances will be shattered beyond repair. Unforeseen consequences bring undeserved grief as well as unexpected rewards. Necessity forces uneasy compromise as well as perilous defiance. Wreaking havoc is swift and easy. Building a lasting peace may yet prove an insuperable challenge.

And there you have the blurb – congratulations on whoever wrote it, by the way. It’s a relief to read a back-of-the-book taster that doesn’t feel obligated to give away half the plot… So, the question has to be – after the tumult of the pitched battles, does McKenna manage to convincingly tie up the host of loose ends still waving in the wind along with those banners? Well for my money, this book is the best of the trilogy. This was always an astoundingly ambitious project – to depict a full blown revolution through the viewpoints of six characters.  McKenna succeeded so well because she is an experienced, skilled writer whose epic Fantasy has always been character-driven.

However, this series is not something a reader can skim through. McKenna has taken care to ensure all six characters are widely differing, but several of them are constantly on the move – as would be the case in a war. So that means, with a couple of exceptions, the backdrop to much of the action, especially the battles, is also changing.  In addition,  there is a host of other characters constantly processing through the story. It really took me until halfway through Blood in the Water, the second book in the series, to slow up my reading pace sufficiently to ensure I was able to fully absorb what was happening. The advantage of immediately picking up Banners in the Wind straight afterwards was that I was already in Lescari mode from the start and fully in touch with all the characters.

This is the book where the stakes are at their highest. As the death toll has steadily mounted, I really cared whether the revolutionaries managed to bring about any peace in Lescar. Because if they haven’t managed to do so, then a lot of lives have been ruined and lost in vain. It wasn’t a surprise to learn that McKenna studied history – the political powerplays and unintended consequences of apparently good ideas rang all too true. And her depiction of the damage to all those involved in the revolution also feels very realistic – this is no romp where everyone gets to swash their buckles with a witty chortle on their lips. This is a gritted, desperate business brought about by a group of individuals who simply felt they had no choice.

The themes that were started in Irons in the Fire are still being played out here – the nature of power, who has it and who is desperate to hold onto it; as the struggle continues, what rules of engagement get broken – this particularly applies to magic. The Archmage has expressly forbidden the use of magic in warfare – however, the speed and convenience that magic can provide proves to be far too tempting for this edict to be obeyed by either side. And it is this aspect of her world that McKenna continues to explore in her latest trilogy.

Meantime, she manages to bring this trilogy to a satisfactory, if not wholly tidy conclusion – which is just fine. Revolution is a messy, bloodsoaked business that hurts both the innocent and guilty, and it is a measure of McKenna’s writing skill that this final book is such a gripping, engrossing read.
10/10

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Review of EBOOK More Than Kin by Ty Johnston

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As Ty guested on my blog on 22nd November, I uploaded his book More Than Kin from Amazon for the princely sum of £2.15 – and I have to say that other than Terry Pratchett’s Snuff, it is the cleanest and least error-pocked text I’ve yet encountered.

morethankinWalt Johnson has been a rolling stone most of his life, moving from town to town and living on the edges of homelessness. Now he has run out of time as lung cancer has left him only months to live. Walt then begins a quest to find the son with whom he lost contact decades earlier. Out of money, he lands a job at a small-town restaurant in an attempt to save enough to buy a bus ticket to the last known whereabouts of his son. The friends Walt makes at his new job soon become family for him, especially 14-year-old Danny who is emotionally paralyzed at the loss of his own father in Iraq. Faced with Danny’s struggles to grow up and the struggles of his other new friends, Walt comes to realize he is not only on a journey to find his own son, but he is on a journey to find himself worthy of being a father.

As you may have gathered from the blurb, while Johnston is principally a Fantasy writer, this offering is set in contemporary America. So, an elderly dying man befriends a troubled teenager and gets side-tracked from his quest to track down his son. Does Johnston manage to evoke the sense of urgency and regret expected from a man with only months to live – without lapsing into sentimentality?
If you’re looking for an adrenaline-fuelled slice of escapism, this isn’t it. The writing effectively evokes Walt’s failing strength as he still yearns for the next cigarette and cup of coffee as soon as he pitches up in yet another small town on his constant wanderings. I’ve never been to America, but had no problem envisaging the setting thanks to Johnston’s slick writing and assured characterisation of Walt. It would have been easy to have put a Disney spin on this tale – especially given the forename of the protagonist – but I’m glad to say this didn’t happen. The gentle pace is deceptive as it doesn’t prevent Johnston dealing with some gnarly issues – concerns that globalisation is swallowing up small town values, is one of the recurring themes. I found it fascinating that a spokesman for smalltown America – a country often perceived as purveying many commercially crass values around the globe – should also share the worries I regularly hear voiced here in Britain.

In addition, Walt’s regret at his lapsed relationship with his own son wasn’t ducked. I was impressed at Johnston’s ability to draw out the poignancy of a life wasted on too much booze. It seemed a terrible shame that an intelligent man with the right instincts had ended up living on the edges of society for so long. Johnston’s depiction of a young teenager devastated at the loss of his father didn’t pull any punches, either – and the fact that his father died in Iraq added teeth to the situation. Other social issues were also addressed, such as the seeming growth of gangs of disaffected youngsters who spend their spare time causing trouble.

The only aspect of the book that got a bit treacly for my taste were the passages featuring Libby. Other than that, I feel that Johnston adroitly avoided the temptation to coat this thought-provoking storyline with a layer of sentiment. I’m conscious that so far I may have given the impression that this is a slow-paced trudge through a worthy subject – and it’s nothing of the sort. While no zombies or aliens make an appearance, there is still plenty of narrative tension to keep readers wanting to turn the pages – I devoured the book in two sittings. Overall, this is an accomplished exploration of some of the issues bedevilling contemporary society in a story that still manages to deliver its message with charm and lack of judgement. I’m certainly going to be uploading the first of Johnston’s Fantasy offerings – if City of Rogues is written as well as this, it’ll be well worth reading.
8/10

Ty Johnston’s Guest Blog

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Fantasy author Ty Johnston’s blog tour 2011 is running from November 1 through November 30. His novels include City of Rogues, morethankinBayne’s Climb and More than Kin, all of which are available for the Kindle(http://www.amazon.com/Ty-Johnston/e/B002MCBQRU/ ), the Nook (http://www.barnesandnoble.com/c/ty-johnston ) and online at Smashwords (http://www.smashwords.com/profile/view/darkbow )  and online at Smashwords (http://www.smashwords.com/profile/view/darkbow ). His latest novel, Ghosts of the Asylum, is available for e-books in all major formats. To find out more, follow him at his blog tyjohnston.blogspot.com.

As I’m out and about on the blogosphere this month promoting my new epic fantasy e-book novel, Ghosts of the Asylum, I’m finding I’m writing a lot about writing, or elements related to my own personal path as a writer. Each day I’m appearing on a different blog, which means I have had to come up with 30 different topics to write about. Oh, once or twice I’ve gotten off easy by simply having to answer questions or by providing an excerpt from my new novel, but otherwise, I’ve been pretty busy working on guest blog posts.

One might think this was an easy task, especially for a writer, to write 30 guest blog posts. But keep in mind, I still continue to write some at my own blog, I also am beginning work on my next project, and as of the time I am writing this (late October) I am still working on final edits to Ghosts of the Asylum.

No, I’m not complaining. I simply wish to point out to other writers that doing a blog tour is a lot more work than it might seem. Coming up with all these ideas is easy enough at first because most who have been writing for a while will have some standard issues worth discussing, ideas they’ve probably written about to some extent or other at some point. Then there are the familiar questions from readers, other writers and fans. Where do you get your ideas? How do you come up with the name of your characters? Who is your favorite character? What do you read? What is your next book?

Eventually, after a fiction writer has been blogging and/or answered enough questions, he or she has ready answers. After all, there’s only so many times one can hear, “Who is your favorite author?” before the answer is slipping off your tongue before the question is even finished. My ready answer to that question is, Alexandre Dumas. But that’s not the truth. It’s not a lie, either, as Dumas is regularly one of my favorite authors. The truth to that particular question is much more complicated, in my case. Who is my favorite author? It depends upon my mood. Often it is Dumas, but sometimes it’s Stephen King or Steven Erikson or Max Brooks. Sometimes my favorite author is Hemingway or Homer or Capote. I could name another dozen just as easily. Margaret Mitchell comes to mind.

But complicated answers don’t usually make for good reading material in articles. The last thing a writer wants is for a reader’s eyes to glaze over from boredom, so we try to answer questions as briefly and succinctly as possible. Which is why my favorite author is Alexandre Dumas, he of The Count of Monte Cristo fame.

Now, back to blogging and guest posting.

When some writers attempt a blog tour, they only appear on a blog a week, or a blog every few days. Some, like me, prefer to appear an a blog each day of the month. As I’ve mentioned, this can be a lot of work. First you have to try and find others who will host your for a day, and you might not know well everyone you contact. You also have to keep up with a schedule. What day of the month are you appearing on a particular blog? And, of course, you have to write your guest post.

All that might sound easy, but it’s not. Making contact through e-mail is probably the easiest part, though not everyone will e-mail you back in return. Keeping the schedule straight starts off easy because the month is wide open, but once you’ve got half or more of your guest posts schedule, then things can become a little tricky, even a little tight. Lastly, you’ve got all those guests posts to tackle, and coming up with fresh ideas can start grinding on you after a while.

It’s work. But guess what? It’s also a lot of fun.

By appearing as a guest on other blogs, you get to meet and chat with writers and readers with whom you otherwise might never interact. You have the opportunity to discover new books, to make new acquaintances, and yes, to introduce yourself to others.

The initial goal of a book blog tour is promotions, to hopefully sell a writer’s books or e-books, but that goal can quickly give way to discovering new friends.

And there’s nothing wrong with that.

Ty Johnston is a former newspaper journalist and the author of City of Rogues, Bayne’s Climb, More Than Kin, and his latest novel, Ghosts of the Asylum. His e-books are available for the Kindle (http://www.amazon.com/Ty-Johnston/e/B002MCBQRU/ ), the Nook (http://www.barnesandnoble.com/c/ty-johnston ) and online at Smashwords (http://www.smashwords.com/profile/view/darkbow ). When not busy writing and reading (which is most of the time) he enjoys traveling with his wife, drinking quality beer and walking the beagle. To find out more, follow him at his blog tyjohnston.blogspot.com.

Review of The Quiet War by Paul McAuley

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This hard science fiction tale grabbed my attention because being a shallow sort, I loved the cool cover…

thequietwarOn twenty-third-century Earth, ravaged by climate change, political power has been grabbed by a few powerful families and their green saints. Millions of people, most little better than slaves, labour to rebuild ruined ecosystems. Those who fled Earth’s repressive regimes to the moons of Jupiter and Saturn live in a fantastic variety of habitats, some deep underground, others protected from inhospitable atmospheres by vast tents; all scientific utopias crammed with exuberant inventions of the genetic arts.

But the fragile peace between Earth and the colonies is threatened by the Outers’ growing ambitions to spread out through the Solar System, pushing human evolution forward. On Earth argument rages: whether to take pre-emptive action against the Outers, or to exploit their scientific talents. Amidst all the debating and turmoil, war between the two branches of humanity moves ever closer.

This book looks at a familiar conflict point much explored by the likes of Alistair Reynolds, Eric Brown and Iain M. Banks – that of humanity diverging as the diaspora start living in space. McAuley, like a number of other science fiction writers, trained as a scientist and this becomes apparent in the loving detail he lavishes on the extra-terrestrial vegetation that the Outers manage to establish in all sorts of unlikely nooks – like Callisto and Titan, for instance.

So, how ably does he handle this ambitious tale that spans a number of far-flung settings, with six main characters? Is the characterisation sufficiently complex and compelling? Do the passages concentrating on the extra-terrestrial eco-systems silt up the narrative pace and get in the way of the book’s message?

While there are six viewpoint characters, it is Macey Minnot and Professor Doctor Sri Hong-Owen whose stories drive most of the action. McAuley has tweaked this familiar territory in interesting ways – while we are given a ringside seat into the slow, inexorable slide into war, all the main characters including Macey and Sri are all underlings, hemmed in by a strict chain of command. Not one of them are free to follow their own wishes – and when any of them try to do so, the consequences are dramatic and dangerous. This gives the reader a first-hand appreciation of the limits experienced by the Earth-based characters, both good and bad. However, it is interesting that we are not privy to any Outer viewpoint. I’m wondering whether McAuley covers the experiences of that faction in detail in the sequel, Gardens of the Sun. I’m not willing to believe that this was just some random omission – McAuley is too careful a craftsman to make such a basic mistake.

I particularly enjoyed Macey and Sri who are both well rounded, complex creations – neither are innately likeable, yet I was able to empathise with their dilemmas as the stakes become ever higher in the increasingly febrile political situation. It was interesting to compare how both women deal with the unfolding conflict, given that there are some obvious similarities along with their very different backgrounds. There is an implicit suggestion that had Macey enjoyed Sri’s advantages, she could have achieved similar success and status. McAuley does an effective job of providing a sophisticated Earth society with a variety of influences and differing agendas, while the Outer factions are less well defined. Though, I’m betting he’s going to get round to those in due course.

Loc Ifrahim is less successful. He starts off very well, but unfortunately towards the end of the story, he becomes too much of a caricature. There are plotlines that could have coped with that type of shorthand, but this isn’t one of them. McAuley’s initial approach is too nuanced and knowing to allow such a lapse to be anything other than a disappointment. The other fascinating character is Dave #8. Perhaps his journey is the most dramatic of all and I’m going to track down Gardens of the Sun in no small part because I want to discover what happens to him.

McAuley is an accomplished, experienced writer and when I realised that he would be devoting pages of detail to his invented world, I decided to go with the flow. After all, if it got too tediously wordy I could always abandon the book and pick up the next one on the pile teetering by my bedside. As it happened, I fell under the spell of his enthusiasm and rolling prose, growing to really enjoy the flights of imagination that had these fragile bubbles of life seeded in improbable crannies around the solar system.

Overall, I found The Quiet War an enjoyable, satisfying read and will be tracking down Gardens of the Sun to discover what happens next, and if your taste runs to the harder end of science fiction and you haven’t yet come across this little nugget, I recommend you do so.
9/10

Review of The Glass Painter’s Daughter by Rachel Hore

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Fran Morrison is returning home after a long absence. A falling out with her father led her to a life of traveling, playing the tuba with orchestras around Europe. She turned her back on the family glassmaking business, Minster Glass, along with her father and his assistant, Zac.

Now she’s back in light of her father’s illness and isn’t sure what she should be doing. In her discussions with those who knew her glasspaintersdaughterfather, Fran stumbles upon a mystery involving a stained glass window her family’s business made for the church in the 1800’s. As she becomes more and more immersed in the stained glass window, Fran begins making a home for herself, though she doesn’t know where she really belongs.

This is an interesting novel that I suppose is a romance – but that isn’t the engine that drives this book. As Fran’s father becomes increasingly ill, she is forced to confront the problem at the heart of their relationship – his refusal ever to discuss her mother. And when she continues to research the lost stained glass window in the local church, she finds out a lot more about the past than she bargained for. The book has two protagonists; Fran and Laura Brownlow, whose diary from the past draws Fran to examine aspects of her own life. This can be a tricky call – especially if one plotline is significantly stronger than another.

While Fran’s need to put down roots is the main story arc, I thoroughly enjoyed Laura’s struggle to cope with her grieving parents and the conventions of a gently brought up Victorian girl. Hore is an accomplished writer who deftly manages to convey just what a brittle, twitchy character Fran is – a difficult call when writing in first person viewpoint.

The other impressive aspect of this book is the amount of detail that Hore uses regarding the craft of making stained glass objects. Whether this has been a much-loved hobby, or she grew up in a family business like Fran, she produces just enough detail to intrigue the reader and make us aware of just what a skilled job it is, without silting up the narrative drive, again – a difficult balancing act.

I also enjoyed the fact that while Fran evidently comes from a fairly comfortable middle-class background and her research into a Victorian past initially appears to be quite gentle, Hore makes us very aware that this is a contemporary book with modern issues. While living at home, Fran encounters an old school friend, Jo, whose need to help leads her into a mess that causes personal havoc and we are never allowed to forget we are in the middle of London, with vandalism and crime a constant concern.

Any niggles? Well, I do have one – and it’s the fact that Fran discovers Laura’s story through her diary, but as often happens with such primary source material, the diary entries stop and her storyline is continued in third person point of view. While I fully accept that if Laura had been introduced and then the reader was left without knowing what became of her, it would have been extremely annoying, the historian in me was grumping a bit at this piece of ‘cheating’. The fact is, if we are lucky enough to possess a slice of writing from an ancestor in similar circumstances, they all too frequently stop pouring their thoughts out onto the pages when that particular crisis is past, leaving us perpetually wondering exactly what happened to them. It is the nature of looking back into the past. The neat closure Hore gave Laura was a solid piece of storytelling, but at the expense of the reality that faced Fran.

Overall though, this is an accomplished well-written book that manages to be so much more than an escapist romance read and one I highly recommend if you enjoy contemporary women’s fiction.
8/10

Review of EBOOK Atlantis by Greg Donegan

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What if the Shadow that destroyed Atlantis 10,000 years ago, comes back to threaten our present world? A war beyond time. An enemy beyond space. A thriller beyond your wildest dreams. Three areas on the Earth’s surface defy explanation: the Bermuda Triangle, the Devil’s Sea of Japan, and a small region of Cambodia. Inside these realms, planes have disappeared, ships have vanished, and, in Cambodia, an entire civilization has been lost leaving behind Angkor Wat.

In 1945, Training Flight 19 disappears in the Bermuda Triangle. In 1963, the USS Thresher, a nuclear submarine, is lost under unusual circumstances, part of a secret government investigation into mysterious gates.

altantisNear the end of the Vietnam War, Green Beret Eric Dane led a team of operatives deep into Cambodia and encountered a strange fog near the legendary city of Angkor Kol Ker. His entire team disappears, attacked by strange creatures out of the fog. Only Dane survives to return. Now a plane goes down. In the same area Dane lost his team. He’s called back. To find out who is the darkness behind these gates to our planet. What does this Shadow force want? It is a threat that will take on the world’s greatest military forces and defeat them. A power that will overwhelm our science and technology. A merciless enemy that will lead Dane—and the whole planet—into the final desperate battle for survival.

And there you have the blurb of this military science fiction thriller – although it reads far too much like a synopsis to me… It took me a while to get into this story, which has a really old fashioned feel – omniscient viewpoint isn’t my favourite narrative as I feel that the characterisation tends to suffer. In addition at the start, we kept dotting around all over the place as Donegan’s initial info-dump seemed to stretch on forever.

However, once we finally got to the meat of the story, I found it an enjoyable concept and an intriguing take on both the Bermuda Triangle and Chernobyl. Dane was the stand-out character and I felt that if Donegan had pared back some of the other bods that occasionally popped up, the storyline would have been tauter. There were a number of scenes that I felt silted up the narrative flow, rather than driving the plot forward. Having said that, the Cambodian adventure worked very well and the passages in the crashed aircraft as the tension rose were also effective. Once the story finally picked up pace, I began to see why Donegan is a popular author as he certainly cranked up the tension and produced a satisfying conclusion to this particular story arc, while leading onto the next book in this series.

However, a much bigger problem was the number of editing mistakes, including misspelled words, punctuation errors and odd line breaks in places. While I’m aware that the Kindle edition of this book was very cheap, the error-riddled text has contributed to my decision not to go browsing again in the ‘Special Offer’ section. If you can zone out the bloopers, then by all means go for it – however, I can’t. I spend far too much of my life poring over texts looking for such mistakes and to keep tripping over them in a published book was annoyingly distracting and certainly prevented me from completely bonding with the story. Which was a shame, because Donegan’s concept of an alien threat to humankind nested within our far history, while not totally original, deserves better than the sloppy edit it has received.
6/10

Review of World’s End – Book 1 of The Age of Misrule trilogy by Mark Chadbourn

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All over the country, the ancient gods of Celtic myth are returning to the land from which they were banished millennia ago. Following in their footsteps are creatures of folklore: the Fabulous Beasts, shapeshifters and Night Walkers. Five flawed humans, named as Brothers and Sisters of Dragons but barely understanding what that entails, are drawn together on a desperate quest: to find four magickal talismans needed to fight the powers of old. As time draws short and the modern world falls into twilight, humanity looks set to be swept away in the terrible dawning of a new Dark Age.

This gripping mytho-fantasy isn’t set in some mythological land – this is Britain complete with motorways and actual cities, towns andworldsend villages with recognisable landmarks used as the backdrop to this quest. And don’t let the slightly high-flown language and capitals on the back cover blurb fool you into thinking that this is some polite version of a knightly tale brought into a contemporary setting. Chadbourn produces a couple of set pieces that wouldn’t be out of place in a horror book with his ability to depict chilling evil in all its bloody violence. However, this isn’t some gratuitous gorefest. As we follow the chosen five protagonists, all with troubled pasts, we get to know them and Tom, their reluctant, cranky guide. In fact, cranky sums up the relationship between these five different personalities as they careen across the British countryside in a desperate search for these ancient talismans, not even fully convinced that what they’re doing makes sense. It is in sharp and refreshing contrast to all those epic tales where everyone was courageously jolly.

There is more than a nod to the past in this tale, though. Even the name of the main protagonist – Jack Churchill – reprises echoes of another time in Britain’s history when her people were fighting for their existence. And that is the other main character in this story – the British landscape. I didn’t have to read that Chadbourn had spent six months tracing the best route for his characters to take from the south coast, right up into Scotland – it sings out of the pages in a hundred details that help depict the story in three-dimensional clarity.

Britain is drenched in history – for millennia our ancestors have roamed, settled, farmed and worshipped here. Placenames, pre-Roman roads, forts and settlements dot the completely manmade landscape. And in Chadbourn, we have an author whose detailed knowledge of the past has used this amazing backdrop to wonderful effect. The only criticism I could find was from an American who commented that he would have preferred some of the action to have been set in another country – which would have had the effect of shifting The Grapes of Wrath to Hawaii.

What Chadbourn doesn’t do with his vivid scene setting and in-depth mining of the Celtic myths, is hold up the action. This plot takes a bit of time to get going, as we learn about Ruth and Jack and what is driving them, but once we have the electrifying scene on the M4 depicted on the front cover, the pace goes on gathering momentum as the stakes are steadily raised.

As you might have guessed by now, I really enjoyed this one. It was wonderful to be able to so clearly imagine the different backdrops to the action with the braiding of Celtic mystery through the modern landscape, shot through with dread and fear. I’ll have to now track down the next two in the trilogy…
10/10