Monthly Archives: September 2012

Review of Spirit Walker – Book 2 of the Chronicles of Ancient Darkness by Michelle Paver

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This popular Young Adult series has been on my radar for a while, but when I won a copy of this book in a raffle, I was delighted to finally dive into Paver’s historical fantasy world.

Torak is a boy apart: a boy who can talk to wolves. As the clans fall prey to a horrifying sickness, only he can find the cure. His quest takes him to the perilous islands of the Seal Clan, where he battles an unseen menace – and uncovers a shattering betrayal.

spiritwalkerPaver’s vivid, straightforward style has this Bronze Age historical adventure bouncing off the page. Her skill is in powering the narrative ever forward, with a cast of interestingly nuanced characters in her detailed, rich landscape with the minimum of fuss or stylistic tricks. Given that she has set her book in distant prehistory, so there are relatively few reference points that her readers can latch onto and identify with, she provides a wealth of enjoyable details about food, clothing and their attitudes. This is a period that Paver has clearly extensively researched, and while Spirit Walker is crammed with all sorts of relevant details, at no time did I feel that I was being given a history lesson. The dialogue – both spoken and internal – are well conveyed and convincing.

This is a deal more difficult than Paver makes it look. Given that her readership is young and relatively inexperienced, the moment she wanders away from the storyline, or tries to pad her characters with too many gestures or long speeches, she’ll lose her audience. And she doesn’t. This series had been an international success, selling over a million copies in Britain alone and the last and sixth book in the series, Ghost Hunter, won the 2010 Guardian Children’s Fiction Prize. The only surprise for me is that no one has snapped it up yet with a view to making the series into a film or films.

Paver manages to throw in a number of plot twists that I really didn’t see coming – not that I was straining overmuch to try and second-guess her. When an author writes with Paver’s quiet authority, I tend to relax and just enjoy.  Am I going to go to the bother of tracking down the other books in the series, to read to my granddaughter in due course? Absolutely. This book certainly lives up the hype and I recommend that you get hold of it for the youngster in your life – but before presenting it, give yourself a treat. Read it first…
9/10

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Review of Angelmaker by Nick Harkaway

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I loved The Gone-Away World, as anyone who has read my review will realise. So when I managed to get my hands on Harkaway’s second book, I was delighted. Question is – can Harkaway manage to harness his exuberant prose and sprawling genre mash-up to provide the same breathtaking result?

All Joe Spork wants is a quiet life. He repairs clockwork and lives above his shop in a wet, unknown bit of London. The bills don’t always get paid and he’s single and has no prospects of improving his lot, but at least he’s not trying to compete with the reputation of Mathew ‘Tommy Gun’ Spork, his infamous criminal dad.

Edie Banister lives quietly and wishes she didn’t. She’s nearly ninety and remembers when she wasn’t. She’s a former superspy and now she’s… well… old. Worse yet, the things she fought to save don’t seem to exist anymore, and she’s beginning to wonder if they ever did.

These two main characters pick up this tale of an apocalyptic thriller, fantasy clockpunk, crime caper and spy noire with a Dickensian angelmakertwist – and plunge into this tale. All the things that Edie is, Joe isn’t. And alongside the story of the infernal machine with its golden bees (love the cover, by the way… fabulous!) it really is all about the progression of a struggling clockmaker, beset by guilt and anger over his father’s criminal past, into someone else. Do I feel completely comfortable at the transformation of a quiet, law-abiding man into a reckless lawbreaker? Well, yes, actually. Because it’s Fantasy… Had the prose, structure or characterisation set this book up to remotely reflect reality in any way – then I’d have felt a lot more ambivalent.

Harkaway’s prose is exactly NOT what modern readers are supposed to enjoy. There is more than a nod to a more florid 19th century style with plenty of descriptors scattered throughout; enjoyable and arresting imagery; long passages of descriptions, ranging from the physical appearance of all the main characters to every setting; slightly mannered and unrealistic dialogue – even the humour owes more to Dickens than, say, the likes of Pratchett. But this rich flavour, with the viewpoint veering towards the omniscient – another major no-no, in these days when the authorial voice is supposed to be completely subsumed by the thoughts and words of the protagonists – certainly works most of the time. And although there are sections in the first half where I feel that Harkaway’s writing does slightly silt up the pace, this may also reflect my personal preference for first person protagonists – I certainly don’t recall feeling the same sense of drift in The Gone-Away World, which was narrated in first person point of view.

However, the slightly old fashioned feel to the prose doesn’t mean that this is a cosy book – for all the rollicking adventuring feel, there are some gritty edges to this tale. There are lost loves, lives laid down in vain causes, cynically corrupt Governments – chiefly ours – where Justice is arbitrary and often unfair. There is also a prolonged episode of torture and plenty of graphic violence – and the larger-than-life feel to this book also extends to the darker aspects. Harkaway writes with passion about the lost souls in this tale, so we care because he demands that we do.

Any niggles? There are times during this monster read of over 550 pages, that Harkaway’s control does slip, and the prose stops singing off the page and instead slows everything down; where the dialogue stops being amusingly unexpected and becomes annoying; and where the authorial voice becomes a tad insistent. Overall, though, Harkaway successfully negotiates his way through this ambitious novel and ties everything up completely satisfactorily – which when working on such a large scale is a major achievement. If you haven’t yet treated yourself to this book, go and find a copy – it’ll certainly help you recover from the post-Olympic blues…
8/10

Review of Deadlocked – Book 12 of the Sookie Stackhouse series by Charlaine Harris

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Our favourite cocktail waitress, Sookie Stackhouse, is once more embroiled in another adventure… A young girl has died at a vampire party – and it looks as though her lover, Eric, might be responsible. Eric swears he didn’t do it, the police don’t believe him, and even Sookie isn’t so sure. Nor is she inclined to take his word for it, having caught him enjoying the victim’s blood minutes before she was killed.

deadlockedBut something strange is going on. Why was Sookie asked to come to the fateful party a few minutes early – just to catch Eric in the act? And why had the victim spiked her own blood before approaching Eric? Was it simply because she wanted to be irresistible, or was it something more sinister?  Sookie will have to find out… but it’s the worst moment to investigate, as her Fae family are having troubles of their own and Sookie is, inevitably, drawn in.

This is the penultimate book in the series, and I think even if you didn’t actually know it, there is a sense of Harris drawing together various storylines and starting to provide us with the concluding storylines for some of the main players in this popular, likeable series. There is a marked darkening in the overall tone of this book. Sookie is increasingly unhappy with her single status as her biological clock is chiming… There is also a significant lack of steamy sex in this book. Having turned 28 and experienced enough tumult in the last few years of her life to fell an ox (the two-natured kind, of course) Sookie is bound to be tired of constantly being in danger – and fed up with the lop-sided power ratio in her relationship with Eric. Even the most infatuated girlfriends start counting the cost when they have to continually drop everything to spend quality time with that special someone – and Eric is never going to do contented domesticity. While Sookie is, at heart, an intensely domesticated woman…

Hooray for Harris having the guts to shine a bit of honest relationship reality in amongst the supernatural murder and mayhem! So, does Deadlocked unduly suffer with Sookie so depressed? Well, the pace is certainly slower than the usual headlong rush – but that didn’t find me wanting to skim or skip. I was enjoying catching up with the other characters, while appreciating Sookie’s issues. It’s refreshing to find a feisty female protagonist struggling to cope.

Harris is clearly cranking up the overarching story climax ready for the final denouement in the final book of the series, Dead Ever After, due to be released next year. In the meantime, does the murder investigation in Deadlocked reach a credible conclusion? Yes, I think it does. Like many others, I’d already guessed who had killed the girl well before the end – but that isn’t the heart of this plot. The other issue surrounding Sookie’s unique qualities were being addressed in this book – I’m going to some lengths to avoid Spoiler territory, here – which was one plot-point waving in the wind that was starting to annoy me, anyhow. So I was quite happy to see Harris tie it into previous storylines and other characters, while providing yet more information on Sookie’s background. I happen to think that she is one of the most competently written main characters in urban fantasy and all that Deadlocked has done is confirm that opinion.

I know that I’ll miss my annual visit to Bon Temps, but the way that Harris is winding up the series makes some kind of crisis leading to a step-change in Sookie’s fortunes an inevitability. All I’m hoping is that poor Sookie ends up with someone who will ultimately make her happy – and I, for one, am not convinced that someone should be Eric…
9/10

Review of Mainspring by Jay Lake

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This interesting science fiction, alternate history offering is a twist on the steampunk genre that has become so popular. In Lake’s detailed world the big difference is that God has constructed a clockwork Earth that runs on huge brass runners that follow the equator in the form of a huge wall – so here is an example of clockpunk.

Her Imperial Majesty Queen Victoria still rules New England and her American Possessions; the Royal Navy rules the skies with its might Airships; and Earth still turns on God’s great brass gears of Heaven as it makes its orderly passage around the Lamp of the Sun from Midnight to Midnight and Year to Year.

In the town of New Haven, a Clockmaker’s young apprentice is visited at midnight by a brass Angel, and told that he, and he alone, can find the Key Perilous to rewind the Mainspring of the Earth. If he does not, the planet will wind down, and life will cease.

mainspringAnd there you have it. A classic Quest plot, complete with naïve yet obscurely talented youngster, who finds himself ranged against forces far greater than his own slender resources… Cosily familiar in so many ways. And this is no accident. In tone and plot progression, this book relies on many forerunners of the Hero Quest genre – I was reminded of H. Rider Haggard’s novels when reading this book.

Hethor is an excellent young hero, whose initial assumptions become thoroughly overturned as he progresses through a series of engrossing adventures – including a gripping interlude on an airship, which I thoroughly enjoyed. Told in limited third person POV, the success of this ambitious book lies in Lake’s storytelling skills and ability to weave a complex world through the eyes of an inexperienced youngster without losing pace. No mean feat. And one that Lake pulls off with surefootedness that marks him out as One To Watch.

It takes great technical ability to meld modern tastes with a writing style that more than nods in the direction of its 19th century forebears – and Lake avoids the pitfalls that could have so easily turned Mainspring into a stodgy-though-at-times interesting tale, or wincingly embarrassing read. And if I write that with feeling – it’s because I’ve read them when dipping into the steampunk genre, and a major reason why it isn’t my favourite sub-genre.

Lake manages to immerse us in a Victorian experience without offending modern sensibilities by reprising the darker side of colonial adventuring that makes us uncomfortable these days when we read Haggard’s hero interacting with African inhabitants. He shows the same sensibility when Hethor falls in love – it wouldn’t have taken much to have marred the whole relationship by portraying a sense of superiority by the youngster.

Any grizzles? Well – there are some jarring moments. We always have a sense that Hethor is somehow uniquely talented in being able to sense the clockwork turning of the Earth, but this specialness is never fully explored. And a couple of times, I do feel that Lake leans far too heavily on Hethor’s abilities without actually properly explaining exactly what is going on. It’s a shame, as there are so many aspects of the world-building that are so slickly executed that I don’t believe that Lake didn’t actually know what propelled Hether to be able to do these things – I think these details just got buried in the plot momentum.

During all the adventuring, I was also fascinated by the questions thrown up by the failure in Earth’s mainspring – if God is such a perfect being, why has he produced a fault in the mainspring that creates the deaths of hundreds and thousands of people? Hethor has to work towards his own answers to that question – amid his interaction with some interesting antagonists who have come to a different conclusion.

If you are a fan of steampunk or alternate worlds, then this is a must-read novel. And if you aren’t – then try it anyway. As a slice of high octane adventure in a wonderfully described alternate world it takes a lot of beating.
8/10

Review of The Vampire Shrink by Lynda Hilburn

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This is a slightly different take on vampires, told from the viewpoint of a professional who finds herself involved when a client starts talking about the vampire world.

Denver Psychologist Kismet Knight, Ph.D., doesn’t believe in the paranormal. She especially doesn’t believe in vampires. That is, until a new client introduces Kismet to the vampire underworld, and a drop-dead gorgeous, 800-year-old vampire named Devereux. Kismet isn’t buying the vampire story, but can’t explain why she has such odd reactions and feelings whenever Devereux is near. Kismet is soon forced to open her mind to other possibilities when she is visited in her office by two angry bloodsuckers, who would like nothing better than to challenge Devereux by hurting Kismet.

vampireshrinkAnd suddenly Kismet is up to her chin in the vampire world. Hilburn tells this story with spark and flashes of ironic humour that kept me laughing throughout. I particularly liked the Miss Piggy slippers… The other thing that I enjoyed, was that it took an almighty long time before the heroine really believed that the vampires around her were more than deluded wannabes. I do get a tad fed up when supernatural creatures pop up in the middle of everyday situations and those around them completely fall in with the hurried explanation in amongst all the chaos that follows them. It was refreshing to find a heroine who didn’t believe until the proof was absolutely incontrovertible.

Any niggles? Well, what I did find jarring was that Kismet – who hadn’t had any kind of intimate relationship for two years – is then apparently willing to become sexually available to three men after her encounter with Devereux. I don’t think she worries nearly enough about this behaviour. It bothered me that the implicit explanation was that Devereux’s influence had lowered her inhibitions. Oh, really? And that’s a good thing? Graphic sex scenes are often part of the sub-genre, but they are generally in the context of a loving relationship – however, I wasn’t so convinced that this was the case in this novel. And – yes – for me that was a problem.

I’m hoping that this wrinkle is one that Hilburn will address in the next book, because I enjoy her irreverent humour and sparky writing style – and this series has potential to really take off.
8/10