Monthly Archives: December 2011

Review of The Summoner – Book 1 of Chronicles of the Necromancer by Gail Z. Martin

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The world of Prince Martris Drayke is thrown into sudden chaos when his brother murders their father and seizes the throne. Forced to flee, with only a handful of loyal colleagues to support him, Martris must seek retribution and restoresummoner his father’s honor. But if the living are arrayed against him, Martris must learn to harness his burgeoning magical powers to call on a different set of allies: the ranks of the dead.

This fantasy tale, released in 2007, is a solidly crafted piece of work in a highly recognisable world. The hero, Tris, is suitably likeable and upset after the death of his family. His companions include a hardened mercenary who is also loyal; a boyhood friend who becomes increasingly nervous at his increasing power; a court bard and in amongst their adventures, they manage to scoop up a princess on the run. Nothing original, there.

But Tris is an emerging necromancer whose source of power comes from his links with his dead grandmother. However, his brother’s wicked sorcerer is blocking his path to his dead family and he is tormented by images of his sister’s ghost imprisoned and unable to escape – unless he can build sufficient power to challenge the master necromancer whose power seems overwhelming…

As with all the better S & S, the magical element isn’t merely an additional weapon to be flicked around at the end of a wand. It is dangerous and quite capable of wiping out the magical user, along with all his followers if he can’t very quickly get the hang of how to harness it.

I’m not going to promise you an original world of complex characters that lodge in your head and won’t let you go… Neither will I claim that this is the greatest addition to the canon – that said, all the reviews I’ve read about the series have claimed that it goes on getting better in the subsequent books. However, in The Summoner the characters develop as the adventures stack up, the magic does have an interesting twist and Martin writes engrossing magical action and keeps the narrative pace moving at a good clip. All in all, an enjoyable read for fans of this sub-genre.
8/10

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Review of Spindrift – Book 4 in the Coyote series by Allen Steele

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The starship Robert E. Lee is bearing a controversial cargo on its return to Earth: the only surviving crew of the EASS Galileo. This ship and all aboard vanished decades previously, while examining an apparently alien artefact.

spindriftAs John Shillinglaw, director general of the European Space Agency, waits nervously for the vessel to dock, he ponders the mystery. First Officer Theodore Harker, astrobiologist Jared Ramirez and pilot Emily Collins have been missing for fifty-six years. Where have they been… and why have they returned now?

While Spindrift is clearly set in the same world as the other Coyote novels, with the same political tensions and difficulties, readers don’t need to have read any of the previous books to be able to easily access the story – a major plus as far as I’m concerned. However, I came to Spindrift after reading the previous trilogy, which is the tale of a planet colonisation, leading to a war of independence from Earth. There were classic elements from Steele’s other novels – the political manoeuvring, leading to stupid mistakes being made. That strand certainly plays to Steele’s strengths – he is good at ramping up tensions between suspicious individuals and the Galileo’s outward journey provides a strong backdrop for these tensions to nicely fester.

I also really enjoyed the exploration of Spindrift, the enigmatic alien object. Steele manages to evoke the sense of wonder and excitement, as well as danger, while his three protagonists are confronted with the very first alien artefacts seen by humans. It is a staple of science fiction writing and all too often, authors are so carried away by telling their particular stories, they fail to take the time to adequately convey just what a big deal this event is. Not so Steele.

So far, so good. However, I do have several problems with this book, which in my opinion, isn’t as strong as his previous offerings. The first is the basic structure. As the blurb suggests, the book starts off in John Shillinglaw’s viewpoint as he waits to interview the three survivors of this expedition. Then the story is told from the viewpoints of the three main protagonists throughout the adventure, and then right at the end, it reverts back to Shillinglaw – as if the whole intervening narrative is in flashback, before the conclusion.

This has two effects – the first is that throughout the storyline of the expedition, we are aware that only Ted, Jared and Emily survive. So certain key moments are robbed of their shock or surprise value – we wait to discover in what way the Galileo comes to a sticky end, rather than being shocked that it happens. If a writer is going to pull that kind of stunt on his readers, he needs to provide another surprise – or make the characterisation so engrossing and original that the fact we already know several big spoilers doesn’t matter. Steele doesn’t provide either, so while the story is effectively told we already know too much, which robs this tale of a lot of its potential impact.

The other aspect is that as Shillinglaw ‘bookends’ the whole narrative, his character really needs to leap off the page, or he needs to provide a keynote role that helps to satisfactorily wind up the plot to a proper ending. In my opinion, Steele didn’t manage to fully persuade me that Shillinglaw’s contribution to the whole business was sufficiently important – and as for creating a really strong character – that isn’t one of Steele’s innate strengths, anyhow.

As a woman, I was particularly frustrated with Emily’s character – I felt she was very much the ‘token’ female – the fluffy, submissive kind. We kept being told that she was a wonderful pilot, despite the fact that she had all the drive and personality of a wet flannel. Both the male protagonists were a lot more interesting and I found myself wishing that Steele had stuck to making all three protagonists men.

However, all that said – it is still a worthwhile, reasonably enjoyable read. My frustration with the book is that if only Steele had restructured the story differently, it could have been so much better.
7/10

Father Christmas – What Do You Tell Them?

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Having a distinctly Scrooge-like attitude, it was the only Christmas task I really enjoyed – overseeing the children’s ritual of leaving mince pies and milk out for Father Christmas, together with a carrot for Rudolf. And later tiptoeing into their bedroom with filled Christmas stockings. For several blissful years I sang When Santa Got Stuck in the Chimney to them and fielded questions about Santa’s domestic arrangements (Is Father Christmas married? What does Mrs. Christmas do on Christmas Eve?) And it all seemed perfectly straightforward…

Screen-Shot-2012-12-23-at-11.35.55Until my six year old daughter rushed across the school playground one afternoon, red-faced and indignant, “Katherine Shawcross says that Father Christmas isn’t real! She’s lying, isn’t she, Mummy?”

Could I bluff it out? It seemed so unfair – to be stripped of all the illusions about Father Christmas at the tender age of six. After heartily wishing Katherine Shawcross a really miserable Christmas, I took only option I really had. I told the truth. If I lied now, she would never trust me again.

She was appalled. “But… we write letters to him every year! And in assembly Mr. Weaver read out a poem about Father Christmas and talked about the reindeer and he’s the Headteacher and he hates lying, he told us so… Are you sure it’s made up.”

“I’m afraid so,” I mumbled.

We walked home in an unhappy silence. When she finally started to cry, I nearly joined in.

Of course, it didn’t end there. Her trust in adult ability to tell the truth evidently undermined, my formidably precocious daughter interrogated me about other characters she had doubts about – I soon had to come clean about the Tooth Fairy.

Rebecca frowned. “I’ve always wondered about her, anyhow. And what about this business about God and Jesus, then? Is that the same?”

“Oh no.” At last, I was on solid ground. “There are people who don’t believe in God or Jesus. But millions of clever people around the world do and pray to them every day. While no grown-up really believes in Father Christmas or the Tooth Fairy.”

She then decided that her four year old brother ought to be told about the ‘Father Christmas lie’, as she put it. After a long discussion, we agreed it would be fairer to tell him when he was at least six.

A relief, as this had been the first year that he hadn’t been nearly hysterical at the sight of a large, red-robed man with a bushy beard. A perfectly understandable reaction, if you think about it. Of course, until confronted with a screaming, sobbing child in Santa’s Grotto, I hadn’t. However apparently, it is a common reaction. My sister spent a sleepless, tearful Christmas Eve before finally getting her youngest to explain he was terrified of Father Christmas coming into his bedroom while he was asleep. So she pinned a note to his bedroom door explaining to Father Christmas that David would rather have his stocking filled in the lounge, after which he finally calmed down sufficiently to go to sleep.

In the face of Rebecca’s outraged reaction, I have often wondered since why we do spin such an elaborate story around a completely mythical character. Maybe, it’s some sort of preparation for all the disillusionments children will suffer, later on. Or maybe, it just seems like a simple, fun thing to do. Has anyone else encountered a similar reaction? I can’t be the only one who ended up being interrogated about the ‘Father Christmas lie’…

Review of Journey Into Space by Toby Litt

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This is a generation ship novel – a classic science fiction theme that has also been visited by Robert A. Heinlein in his book Orphans of the Sky, Paradises Lost by Ursula LeGuin and The Book of the Long Sun by Gene Wolf to name but a few…
A vast generation ship hurtles away from a violent, troubled Earth to settle on a distant planet orbiting an alien star. Those who set out on this journey are long-since dead. Those who will arrive at their destination have yet to be born. For those who must live and die in the cold emptiness between the stars, there is only the claustrophobic permanence of non-being. Life lived in unending stasis.
Then the unthinkable happens: two souls – Auguste and Celeste – rebel. And from the fruit of their rebellion comes a new and powerful force which will take charge of the ship’s destiny.

Auguste and Celeste pine for the lost Earth they’ve never seen and it is this craving that draws them together. Auguste’s character is journeyintospacevividly depicted as his longing for Celeste merges with his attempts to describe weather events that he has never experienced. Litt’s writing ability fully flowers in the first section of this short novel as the interaction between the young teenagers is poetically described and the characters sing off the page – although I did find myself skimming through a very long Earth-like metaphor… I felt it was too heavy-handed a literary flourish at this crucial stage in the action.

However, Litt’s focus abruptly shifts from the young couple as events move onto the next two generations and we don’t get the same depth and complexity of characterisation with any of the subsequent protagonists. To be honest, I found some of the following events difficult to believe. The notion that someone as spoilt and self-centred as Three would devote whole years of her life to producing a letter – and why wouldn’t there be paper and writing implements on a colonial ship, anyhow?

As the years speed on by and the crew become increasingly alienated from their original Mission and more wrapped up in the capricious demands of their mentally challenged Captain, the novel lifts away from the character-led depiction of the beginning and into an omniscient viewpoint as Litt skims across the next major protagonists in his story, leading to the shocking end which I should have cared about a lot more than I actually did.

I found the notion that humans start behaving oddly when shut away from Earth-based sensory stimuli to be entirely believable. However, I do feel that in order to fully convince his readership that Three’s behaviour or the ending is a convincing outcome, Litt needed to spend more time and energy on the second half of the novel. It seems to be a book of two halves and the latter section simply does not live up to the shining promise of the beginning, which is a real shame. Litt is clearly a talented and extremely capable writer – the fact that this is still a book worth reading despite the rather perfunctory ending demonstrates this. If only he had continued writing with the same fire and conviction shown in the first section, I believe this could have rivalled the likes of LeGuin’s outstanding Paradises Lost. As it is, Journey Into Space is a thought provoking but ultimately flawed attempt to examine this fascinating concept.
7/10

Review of The Lake of Destiny by Susan Bartholomew

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This fantasy adventure starts somewhat uncertainly, but my advice is to keep with it and you will be rewarded by a page-turning adventure.

lakeofdestinyIn medieval England, early Christians battle the forces of magic and the dark forests are filled with wolves. Laura, an eighteen year old convent girl, is chosen for a dangerous question. She must find a magical weapon of mass destruction and keep it safe from war-mongering demon hordes. She has a rival in her quest; Ciaran, a young wizard, longs to possess this instrument of power. They meet by chance and for a time they travel together, helping each other to face the dangers that wait for them on the path through the forest. But unknown to Laura, Ciaran is hiding something – or is it something hiding deep within Ciaran?

The notion that a young convent girl in medieval times is allowed to regularly practice with a sword, initially jarred with me. However, we do know that some women rose to positions of power within the early Christian church – and history is dotted with women who dressed up as soldiers and sailors and served alongside men in close quarters for whole campaigns without being discovered. There are even reports of Pope Joan, who ruled during the Middle Ages, and was only revealed when she gave birth… When all these facts are taken into account, then young Laura’s skill with a sword may not seem so surprising. And after a relatively short time, I stopped caring anyhow, as I got swept up in the plot. Another piece of advice – don’t judge this particular book by its cover… The soft focus and beautiful scenery led me to believe that I would be reading a fantasy romance and while there is a love interest in the book, it is not the engine that drives this story. This book is far sharper with a lot more action and sword-swinging adventure than I expected.

Bartholomew produces an event-filled plot. Her characterisation, though adequate, could be fuller and at times the dialogue is a tad clunky – but I’ll forgive her all that because she whips the story along at a fair clip, not forgetting to tie up all the trailing ends. She is also adept at setting the scene without holding up the action – something more experienced authors often seem unable to do – and while I thought I knew exactly where the story was going, it soon took off in an entirely new direction that had me sitting up late at night to discover what would happen next.

So, having taken us on this enjoyable fantasy adventure, does Bartholomew successfully manage to bring her story to a satisfying end? Yes, she does. I understand that there is a sequel is in the pipeline and I will be on the lookout for it in due course.
7/10

Review of Worldstorm by James Lovegrove

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Elder Ayn doesn’t really know why the Worldstorm comes to wreak devastation on the world any more than the next man. But, being a previsionary, he does know the exact time and nature of his death. He will be murdered and he will do nothing to prevent the killing blow.  Elder Ayn also knows why he has left the splendid academic isolation of Stonehaven and gone out into the world. He knows where his quest will take him. But he’s not about to tell his scribe, Khollo.

And meanwhile the world’s order is breaking down. In the country of Jarraine, war is brewing between the Earth and Fire Inclined, james-lovegrove-worldstorm-hbkbetween people who can shake the ground with a fist or pull fire out of the air with a simple thought. A storm is coming.

This being Lovegrove, the classic Fantasy template is tweaked more than a tad – so before you roll your eyes at the clichéd old Quest plotline that emerges from this intriguing world, I’ll reassure you that Lovegrove is a far too talented and original writer to fall into this overused trope without knowing exactly he’s doing. Elder Ayn is definitely the main character in this tale – again – a spin on the setup that has our plucky young hero mentored by a wise, all-knowing scholar/wizard who supports him because said scholar’s Second Sight has divined that this particular individual is crucial to the success of the mission… Ayn is driven by his previsionary powers to collect up Yashu and Gregory, the other two protagonists and is so convinced that he has the answer to the problem of the Worldstorm, that he also decides to hire Khollo for his powers of absolute recall to record the trip for posterity – as he also knows it will end in his murder.

Needless to say, the journey is uncomfortable and, at times, dangerous. But no one other than Yashu and Gregory will suffice – and I’m betting right now, that scenario of staple Fantasy fare is sounding very familiar.

Lovegrove depicts a fascinating conundrum surrounding these superhumans – Ayn is able to deceive Yashu and her lie-detecting skills by simply avoiding telling an outright falsehood. And increasingly, as we hear Ayn’s self-important justifications regarding his interference in Yashu and Gregory’s already difficult lives, the reader is encouraged to wonder about the extent of Ayn’s previsionary powers. Just how much of this adventure is fuelled by his drive to leave his mark on the world? We are left in no doubt of his drive, knowledge and supreme self-confidence – but how much of his belief that the Worldstorm is caused by the rise of humanity’s extra powers is based on his ability to see into the future, rather than the need to find evidence to fit his favourite theory?

Ayn is the classic unreliable narrator – and, as the plot unfolds, we begin to realise that Khollo also has his own agenda. Indeed, the interaction between Ayn and Khollo gives rise to most of the humour in the book – which is also counter-balanced by some of the graphic action scenes during the battle. I’m conscious that so far, I’ve managed to give the impression that this is a rather dry book concentrating on the characters’ motivations and Lovegrove’s subversion of the classic Fantasy tale. However, the staple of said Fantasy tale is adventure and Worldstorm provides it in spades – right down to the evil villain whose selfishness morphs into obsessive madness. The plot whips along at a clip, only slowing for Ayn’s narration to Khollo – which is just fine. Ayn is a wonderful character whose moods ranging from complacent smugness to grumpy annoyance leap off the page.

Any niggles? Well, when Lovegrove switches viewpoint several times, he reprises some of the events in the new point of view. Given that he’s already successfully established the characters along with their differences and conflict points, all this serves to do is silt up the narrative pace and undermine the importance of the one or two occasions when this ploy is actually necessary near the end of the book.

Apart from that, this book is an utter joy. Lovegrove is an intelligent, perceptive writer who delivers a cracking adventure, and (mostly) assumes that his readership can cope without having all the dots joined up. My one sorrow is that this is a stand-alone book as the world is a wonderful one with so much further potential.
9/10

Review of The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane by Katherine Howe

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This supernatural historical thriller is set in 1991, with flashbacks to the era of the notorious Salem witch trials. Don’t worry, though. You will not have to endure the whole harrowing business all over again – Howe has managed to put an interesting spin on this much-visited subject.

While clearing out her grandmother’s cottage for sale, Connie Goodwin finds a parchment inscribed with the name Deliverance Dane. So begins the hunt to uncover the woman behind the name; a hunt that takes her back to Salem in 1692 and the infamous witchcraft trials.

But nothing is entirely as it seems and when Connie unearths the existence of Deliverance’s spell book The Physick Book, the situation takes on a menacing edge as interested parties reveal their desperation to find this precious artefact at any cost.  What secrets does The Physick Book contain? What magic is scrawled across its parchment pages? Connie must race to answer the questions – and reveal the truth abuot Salem’s condemned women – before an ancient family curse fulfils its dark and devastating prophesy…

deliverancedaneThis story does have its creepy moments, but it is far more bound up in the everyday with the oddness and discordant details sneaking in when you’re not necessarily paying attention. I really like the way that while in Connie’s viewpoint, we gradually become aware that things are not exactly normal. So when we are confronted with the more gruesome details – they really provide full shock value.

One of the recurring themes in this enjoyable story, is the relationship between mother and daughter – and how circumstance and genes can conspire to create friction between the generations. Connie and her hippie mother, Grace, certainly have been at odds throughout Connie’s life. I found the telephone conversations between mother and daughter one of the book’s highlights, both managing to be poignant and amusing at the same time.

In setting the book in 1991, Howe has been smart. This is before the computerisation of records had really got going and mobile phones are not widely used. So as a historical researcher, she spends hours combing through the primary source materials in cotton gloves and when alone in her grandmother’s derelict cottage, she is truly marooned in a way that these days with wireless internet and mobile phones would be almost impossible.

Howe’s connection to this story is more than just keen interest – she is related to two of the victims of the Salem witch trials, one survived and one didn’t. In these sceptical times, the accepted version for the Salem witch trials is that the whole sorry business was as a result of an overly repressive regime, raging teenage hormones and an hysterical reaction to both the power and the attention. But, what if there really was an element of magic clouding the whole issue? The contemporary accounts certainly absolutely believed that witchcraft was in evidence. And this is the premise that Howe uses as the foundation and starting point for her tale, providing her with an enjoyably original and yet plausible version of the Salem trials.

This is book, while not necessarily found parked alongside the other Fantasy offerings on the bookshelves, offers a delightful slice of supernatural happenings from a refreshingly original angle by an accomplished writer. If you are feeling a tad jaded with the genre right now, I suggest you look this book out. You won’t be sorry if you do.
9/10