Monthly Archives: February 2012

Review of Ghost of the White Nights – Book 3 of The Ghost trilogy by L.E. Modesitt, Jr.

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This is the third in the series and if you have missed reading the two previous books, Of Tangible Ghosts and The Ghost of the Revelator which Tor have conveniently put together in a single duology called, The Ghosts of Columbia – then I strongly recommend that you put this book on one side until you’ve read the previous offerings. If you are a fan of well constructed alternate histories and enjoy Modesitt’s intricate layering of daily detail, then this is a treat not to be missed.  Set in an alternative world in which ghosts are real, the United States never came into existence and Russia is still ruled by the Romanovs, this book continues the adventures of semi-retired spy, Dr. Johan Eschbach.

ghostofwhitenightsHis lovely wife, Llysette du Boise, a refugee from the burning remains of France and a world-famous vocalist, has been invited to provide a command performance for the Russian Imperial household. Johan accompanies her, allowing him to work on the oil concession in Russian Alaska that Columbia so desperately needs and do some spying on the side. Johan’s espionage is carried out against the backdrop of the famous white nights of St. Petersburg, and nearly Arctic midsummer when the sun barely dips below the horizon and the sky seems to dissolve in ivory light. But even the oil shortage will fade to insignificance when Johan discovers what new weapons technology the Russians are developing, a threat even more fearsome than the atomic bombs of Austro-Hungary.

This is a fascinating premise, because when someone dies a violent death and registers what is happening to them, they leave behind a ghost. So suddenly all the great battles that litters our history mostly don’t occur, including WW’s I and II – because having thousands of disturbed ghosts will make large areas uninhabitable. Unfortunately, it doesn’t completely prevent tyrants and Ferdinand of the Austrian Empire is a case in point. The Founding Fathers never made it to America, which is split up into a series of smaller states and Columbia, where Johan and Llysette live, was colonised by the Dutch. Modesitt’s world building is a delight and – unlike most series – I personally think the middle book is the strongest.

This Russian adventure is an enjoyable, engrossing read. I loved meeting up again with Johan, who is an interesting protagonist as a university professor. However, this time around I do have a couple of niggles. Modesitt carefully builds the tension by giving us all the small details of Johan’s life, which works very well. But when there is a sudden explosion of violence, I find it difficult to equate Johan’s completely casual approach to killing several people in quick succession to the man who quivers when his wife raises an eyebrow and snaps. It also disturbs me that, given we have a ringside seat into Johan’s first person point of view – he only once alludes to his dead wife and child, wincing when someone else brings them up. He is depicted as a thoughtful, sensitive person, desperate to keep Llysette safe and I find his absence of any remembrance of his former family at odds with the rest of his character.

These quibbles aside – and yes, I have marked the book down accordingly – I still found this book a really enjoyable read and if you haven’t yet gotten around to catching up with this excellent series, I would urge you to do so.
8/10

Review of The Hare With the Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance by Edmund de Waal

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This winner of the 2010 Costa Biography Award was fervently recommended by my sister-in-law, so I decided to give it a try – although to be honest, the blurb didn’t fill me with enthusiasm.

264 Japanese wood and ivory carvings, none of them bigger than a matchbox: Edmund de Waal was entranced when he first harewiththeambereyesencountered the collection in his great uncle Iggie’s Tokyo apartment. When he later inherited the netsuke, they unlocked a story far larger and more dramatic than he could ever have imagined.

From a burgeoning empire in Odessa to fin de siècle Paris, from occupied Vienna to Tokyo, Edmund de Waal traces the netsuke’s journey through generations of his remarkable family against the backdrop of a tumultuous century.

In my humble opinion, the blurb doesn’t do the book justice. However, I have a fair amount of sympathy with the publishers. How do you explain or sum up this story that spans three generations of a family caught right in the middle of the most turbulent events of the last two centuries? For de Waal, a noted potter in his own right, just happens to belong to one of the major Jewish banking families who operated out of Vienna, Paris and London at the height of their powers. Fabulously wealthy and highly influential, Charles Ephrussi, the younger son who didn’t go into the family banking business, collected and commissioned artworks from the likes of Manet, Degas and Monet. It is this section of the book that really sings off the page as de Waal is clearly entranced by Charles, both as an art collector and person. He charts Charles’ life and his collecting habit – including his long-term affair with Louise Cahen d’Anvers, until his collection of netsuke is given as a wedding present to his cousin, Viktor and his beautiful young wife, Emmy.

The special cabinet, known as a vitrine, that houses this collection ends up in the corner of Emmy’s dressing room and these small, valuable Japanese pieces become the playthings of the Emmy’s children. de Waal is particularly good at describing objects – not just their appearance, but their feel and quality along with the emotions they engender. He produces slices of the family history as Vienna is rocked by a series of world-shaking events.

However, the middle part of the book is the least satisfactory. While we get tantalising details of Emmy’s beauty and fashion sense, the candour he displays about Charles’ life is lacking. There is a sense that he has edited swathes of detail out of his great-grandparent’s lives. His grandmother, Elizabeth, clearly a remarkable woman, is also depicted with a frustrating amount of information omitted. Her persistent refusal to languish in depressed misery in England when the Nazi looting of her family home is airbrushed out of German history by an insultingly low offer of compensation had me initially convinced that she would be a major protagonist in this amazing story. She isn’t.

That honour goes to Uncle Iggie, another resourceful and remarkable member of the family, who becomes the custodian of the netsuke and finally takes them with him when he settles in Japan in the mid 1950’s. Once more, the narrative picks up and becomes rich with detail and anecdotes as the painful subject of World War II recedes, and de Waal recounts his uncles life and times.

So, given the sketchiness of some of the most catastrophic events in the family’s history – does de Waal do justice to his family’s unique and remarkable story? The answer has to be – a qualified yes. Using a collection of objects as the nucleus of the narrative was inspired and probably made it possible to consider recounting the trauma caused by the Nazi’s aggression and the vicious anti-Sematic comments and open prejudice that winds a dark thread through this account. Overall, though, this book is a testament to the sheer resilience and toughness of a family who have managed to not only endure being ripped apart, stripped of all their property and evicted from their country of birth – but thrive. Along with their collection of Japanese figures.
9/10

Review of The Prodigal Mage – Book 1 of The Fisherman’s Children by Karen Miller

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This is the first book of the series, but some familiar characters surface as we revisit the world depicted in The Innocent Mage some ten years later. Karen Miller is a prolific and successful writer, also writing a more modern take on Fantasy with her successful and highly recommended Rogue Agent series under the pen name K.E. Mills.

prodigalmageThe weather magic that holds Lur safe is failing, and the earth feels broken to those with the power to see. Among Lur’s sorcerers only Asher has the skill to mend the antique weather map that governs the seasons, keeping the land from being crushed by natural forces. Can he prevail against the ancient evil still simmering in dark corners of the kingdom – and the angry envy of the Doranen, who used to rule Lur?  And no – that isn’t the whole of the blurb, or even what is actually written… Trust me on this – DON’T read the blurb, because if you do, you’ll compromise your enjoyment of a cracking book.

Yes, this is all about a gifted magic user from humble origins who’s been shoe-horned into a role that doesn’t suit him… sounds reasonably familiar, doesn’t it? And yet… it isn’t. Like other gifted and intelligent fantasy writers such as Charles Stross, Juliet E. McKenna and Kate Elliott, Miller is taking the staple fare of the Fantasy genre in a different direction. The notion that a Great Mage stands aloof from all around him as he buries himself in his magical studies goes up in smoke with Asher, who wants only to forget and bury his violent magical past. And as his children start to grow and show signs of magical abilities of their own, he is horrified. Both he and his wife, Dathne, are determined that their children shouldn’t suffer as they have – after all, Morg is now dead, so there should be no need for either Rafel or Deenie to learn anything other than the basic Olken magics that most folks use.

However, one of those children doesn’t want to turn his back on his magic – finds it irresistible, in fact. A large part of this book is taken up with the family tensions against a deteriorating political situation as Lur comes under increasing threat from the natural forces sweeping across the land. The claustrophobic ties of love, duty and resentment between parents and children are vividly played out as the story unfolds. Because while the terrible sorcerer Morg was killed, far too much of his evil blight still permeates the land.

In order for the story to really work, Miller has to make us both care and empathise with each of the family, which she does very effectively. The characterisation of Asher, in particular, is exceptional. He sings off the page, with his short temper, humour and drive to try and do the right thing. The dialogue is delightful and I really enjoyed the scenes between Asher and the highborn Council officials as he now reprises the role of Grumpy Old Man.

There is a but, however… by focusing on the emotional interaction between the characters, Miller has taken something of a risk in a genre generally defined by lots of action. And despite the fact that I thoroughly approve of her intentions, there is a section of the book where the constant quarrelling becomes a tad tedious and I was fighting the inclination to skimread. However, once the final storyline gets going and the action picks up once more, I found the ending both engrossing and shocking. And will be tracking down the sequel, The Reluctant Mage, just as soon as I can.
8/10

Review of Summer of Dreaming by Lyn McConchie

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I’ll be honest – I don’t much enjoy reading books in PDF format. I spend most of my working day at the computer – sitting at the darn thing to read a book seems a bit too much like a busman’s holiday. So when Summer of Dreaming popped up on the computer, I wasn’t exactly rubbing my hands with glee at the prospect of reading it. Deciding just to give the first chapter a go before going off to bed, seemed a sensible option, however…

I was still sitting at the computer screen a couple of hours later, absolutely hooked. No way was I going anywhere until I’d finished summerofdreamingthis delightful YA adventure novel set in New Zealand.

Thirteen-year-old Jo’s best friend is Rangi Jackson, a Maori boy from the neighbouring farm – which is a big problem for her grandmother and Rangi’s great-grandfather, who hate their friendship. When questioned about their hostility, they are both very tight-lipped – but mention a feud stretching back in time. Up to this point, it hasn’t been an issue, but when ill health forces Grandmother to convalesce during the summer at their farm and Jo finds herself sneaking off to meet up with Rangi, the pair decide to get to the bottom of this mysterious incident that has caused such enmity between their families…

Their investigation into their family histories is interspersed with daily events on the isolated sheep farm. McConchie’s fluid prose deftly draws us into this rural corner of New Zealand, giving us a taste of a very different lifestyle, without letting the pace or tension slacken one jot. Told in first person through Jo’s viewpoint, one of the main strengths of this book is the spot-on characterisation of the main protagonist, who jumped off the pages and grabbed my attention from the first chapter and didn’t let go until I’d finished the book. While she ensures that there is nothing too graphic, given the target readership’s age-group, McConchie isn’t afraid to confront her audience with a brutal scenario that didn’t end ‘happily ever after’ for those caught up in it.

Do I have any niggles? Well, I’m not too sure about the title. It makes the book sound less adventurous and action-packed than it is. It would be a crying shame if young readers didn’t pick it up because the title didn’t appeal.
All in all, Summer of Dreaming is a thoroughly accomplished, entertaining read that thoroughly deserves winning the 2011 Sir Julius Vogel Award for Best Young Adult Novel.
9/10

Review of Cyrus Darian and the Technomircron by Raven Dane

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The Technomicron: ancient, deadly, powerful. In the 1860’s London every seeker of power – natural or supernatural – wants to wield it; and will stop at nothing to get it. Enter Cyrus Darian: hedonist, philanderer, alchemist and necromancer; hired by wealthy American Zachariah P. Dedman to find it. Dedman’s life, the honour of his beautiful haughty daughter Athena and the future of the world; all depend on Cyrus Darian. What could possibly go wrong?

I’ll come clean – steampunk isn’t my all-time favourite Fantasy genre. However, Dane doesn’t depict this particular slice of English history as any rose-tinted version of the burgeoning brutality of the Industrial Revolution – it is all shown in grubby detail with a reasonably clear-sighted view of just what was true the cost of all those steam gismos. Air pollution, dying vegetation and dirt, with a plummeting life expectancy for the poor souls trapped in English cities. Dane even describes a gloriously grandiose scheme to blow the toxic smog engulfing London out to sea.

cyrusdarianBut Dane gives herself an even greater challenge – Cyrus Darian is an anti-hero. Greedy, selfish and ambitious, his most constant companion is a fallen angel. This is tricky to really pull off successfully. Joe Abercrombie’s crippled torturer, Inquisitor Glokta, in his First Law series is the most convincing anti-hero I’ve encountered to date. But he is just one amongst a cast of strong, if flawed protagonists. Dane has chosen to construct the whole novel around Darian – so if we are too disgusted with his antics, there is nowhere else to go. We drop the book and find something else to read. Being the shallow, old fashioned sort of reader who enjoys rooting for the main protagonist, I was initially concerned that I wouldn’t want to bond with Darian – particularly as Dane chooses to dot around Darian’s timeline in the opening scenes. Personally, for me, this is the least successful part of the book. If I hadn’t already met and liked the author at Bristolcon, I may have abandoned the book right at the beginning and for those who are a bit underwhelmed at this patchy beginning, my advice is – persevere. It gets better. A lot better.

Because Dane manages to depict Darian as a thorough-going villain with a charismatic streak. And at no point did I feel that she flinched or side-stepped the harder or trickier aspects of this. So we are confronted with a main character who consistently doesn’t behave all that well… It could have all been a rather grim read, if the overall tone wasn’t briskly breezy with some nicely humorous touches – which isn’t to say that there aren’t also some genuinely shocking moments. What befalls Athena had my jaw dropping somewhat and I’m still slightly uncomfortable at that particular plotline – especially as we didn’t ever get to the bottom of who was exactly responsible for drugging her. However, it further establishes that Dane isn’t afraid to take risks as an author – while being capable of pulling them off.

Overall, this is a thoroughly accomplished, riveting read that certainly stands out from the crowd. If it is the start of a series, I’ll be looking out for the next instalment – and Dane’s other work. If it is as good as this, it’ll be worth it.
8/10