Monthly Archives: November 2012

Review of The Heir of Night – Book 1 of The Wall of Night by Helen Lowe

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I’ll come clean – Epic Fantasy generally doesn’t do it for me. While I find a book sporting a cool spacescape cover well-nigh irresistible, having some grim-faced warrior in deep shadow glaring out at me while brandishing a kind of sharp pointy weapon tends to encourage me to pass it over… So when my husband came home clutching Helen Lowe’s book, I wasn’t best pleased. But he strongly recommended I give it a go. So I did.

Young Malian is being trained to rule. Her people garrison the mountain range known as the Wall of Night against an ancient enemy, theheir ofthenightkeeping a tide of shadow from the rest of their world. Malian is expected to uphold this tradition, yet she’s known little of real danger until the enemy attacks her fortress home and the Keep of Winds becomes a bloodbath. And that’s as much as I’m going to give you of the backcover blurb, otherwise we’re into spoiler territory…

If you’re looking for any major genre-bending, then this isn’t the book for you. Lowe has the mandatory young, inexperienced heroine who unexpectedly finds that she fulfils an ancient prophesy. All reasonably staple stuff… But. There are some really enjoyable touches in this book. Firstly, there isn’t just the main female character – who, let’s face it, things mainly happen to, rather than her taking any sort of real control. But there is also a female Captain of the Guard, a female steward of the fortress and the Temple complex is also run by a Priestess. Lowe presents us with a world where men and women seem to be truly equal – which is a refreshing change, particularly in this sub-genre. Furthermore, she’s good at writing convincing strong females.

Malian is part of a particularly miserably grumpy race known as the Derai. And no wonder – they get to spend most of their time brooding on a large wall in bad weather trying to keep the Darkswarm at bay. However in an interesting twist, the Derai have landed on this world, bringing their ancient enemy with them. And over time due to misguided convention, they have isolated those with telepathic abilities who can sense the Darkswarm and kept them out of the army. This is a repeated theme in the book – that historical custom often is misleading and unhelpful when trying to apply it to current problems…

Lowe manages to sustain a real sense of tension – and writes action scenes very well. The passages where Malian is scurrying for her life had me reading well past the time I’d planned to put the light out, because I wanted to know what was going to happen next.  Any niggles? Well, Lowe’s dialogue at times lets her down. Her plotting, pace and ability to set the scene while keeping the tension bar tight are extremely good – so the fact that there are places where the conversation between the characters plain graunches is thrown into sharp relief. This inevitably impacts on the characterisation, at times.

But despite that one grizzle, I zipped through this book with such enjoyment I immediately tracked down the second in the series, Gathering of the Lost, which picks up the story five years later – and if anything, is better than The Heir of Night. So I shall be keeping an eye out for the next two books in the series. And then lie down in a darkened room from the shock of having read so much highly readable Epic Fantasy…
8/10

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Review of Fated – Book 1 of the Alex Verus series by Benedict Jacka

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There’s been a slew of excellent fantasy featuring London, recently – Kate Griffin’s Midnight Mayor series, Ben Aaronovich’s Peter Grant series and Nick Harkaway’s latest hefty offering, Angelmaker, spring to mind, for starters. Now add another newcomer – Benedict Jacka. The snag in choosing a genre as popular as urban fantasy, however, is that it is already crowded with plenty of excellent writing. Can Jacka’s new hero, Alex Verus, favourably compare in such company?

In the heart of Camden, where rail meets road meets leyline, you’ll find the Arcana Emporium, run by one Alex Verus. He won’t sell you a wand or mix you a potion, but if you know what you’re looking for, he might just be able to help. That’s if he’s not too busy avoiding his would-be apprentice, foiling the Dark, outwitting the Light and investigating a mysterious relic that’s just turned up at the British Museum.

fatedIf you’re thinking that the blurb sounds a tad familiar, you’d be right. There is a lot about this book that will be squarely bang in the middle of the genre conventions – London is used as an effective backdrop to a lot of the magical chicanery; Alex Verus with his trolleyful of emotional baggage could fairly be described as isolated and conflicted; there is a swathe of magical infighting that somehow sucks Alex in… But what is also true is that Jacka has added some twists of his own. Alex is a probability mage. His particular gift is the ability to be able to see into the future. Jacka has thought through what this gift actually would encompass – and I found his take on divination a plausible and enjoyable version that provides Alex with problems and strengths in equal measure.

And he certainly has problems as he crosses paths with the Dark Mages, whose brutal treatment of their apprentices – or anyone else who takes their fancy – is overlooked by the Council responsible for magical law and order. There are a number of vividly depicted antagonists whose brand of aggressive battle magic manage to make Voldemort look almost cuddly. There are also some intriguing allies – Luna, whose family curse means that if anyone gets too physically close to her they end up dying; Starbreeze, a friendly air elemental that whisks Alex off at the speed of wind that ensures the pace doesn’t flag and Sondor, a bookish mage with a real interest in History.

The writing is slick and accomplished. Scene setting and exposition are all seamlessly woven into the story arc, which is a deal harder than Jacka makes it look. As I’ve mentioned, the story is set in London and Jacka uses particular landmarks, such as the British Museum, to great effect. While Alex is hauled unwillingly into the middle of the action, we are also given slices of backstory that explains why he is so paranoid and anti-social. Overall, this debut is a thoroughly entertaining, satisfying read that establishes Jacka as One To Watch. If you have a weakness for conflicted wizards that operate in a hostile, layered world and haven’t yet encountered Fated, then I recommend that you go looking for this book – because when you do, I’ll be very surprised if you don’t immediately go hunting for the sequel, Cursed, once you’ve completed the book.
9/10

Review of The Alchemist of Souls – Book 1 of the Night’s Masque series by Anne Lyle

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I’d had Anne Lyle’s historical fantasy debut on my radar for a while, but when I got to meet her again at Fantasycon this year, I also picked up her book and tucked into it on the journey home…

When a Tudor explorer returned from the New World, they brought back a name out of half-forgotten Viking legend: Skraylings. alchemistofsoulsRed-sailed ships followed in the explorers’ wake, bringing Native American goods – and a Skrayling ambassador – to London. But what do these seemingly magical beings really want in Elizabeth I’s capital? Mal Catlyn, a down-at-heel swordsman, is appointed as the ambassador’s bodyguard, but assassination attempts are the least of his problems. What he learns about the skraylings and their unholy powers could cost England her new ally – and Mal his soul.

This debut novel is an intriguing alternative historical fantasy adventure where Elizabeth I has married and produced two princes. The Skraylings – a mysterious and powerful New World race that is proposing an alliance with England at a time when formidable interests are ranged against the country raises the stakes in this involving tale of political manoeuvring and personal ambition. There are three main protagonists whose stories intertwine – Mal, a mercenary fallen on hard times; Ned, a scribe who works in the theatre and Coby, a girl posing as a young man working as a tireman for the famous theatre group the Sussex’s men. Going for three protagonists is always something of a risk – I often find there is one character’s storyline I skim in order to get back to my favourite. It didn’t happen in this case. All three stories held me sufficiently to want to follow each one to the climactic and satisfying conclusion.

What this isn’t, is some rollicking swashbuckler. Lyle’s London is too gritty and full of menace – in her attention to detail, I was at times reminded of C.J. Sansom’s depiction of Tudor London in his successful Matthew Shardlake series. And although this is a fairly hefty read at just over 500 pages, the book zipped along at a fair clip.
The heart of the story – just what exactly the Skraylings represent and how this is going to impact on all three main characters – is a strong story arc with plenty of narrative tension along with the period detail. The only caveat I have is that perhaps Ned would have felt a bit more tormented about the prospect of Hell due to his lifestyle and I wasn’t completely sure that Religion was important enough to all the protagonists at the time when hundreds of people were willing to die and kill for their beliefs. However, this one quibble didn’t prevent me from hugely enjoying this impressive debut and very much looking forward to the sequel.
9/10

Review of Four Children and It by Jacqueline Wilson

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This modern makeover of E. Nesbitt’s classic story Five Children and It, could have been a wincingly purile dumbing down of a much-loved gem in children’s literature. But, of course it is in the hands of the very capable and experienced Jacqueline Wilson…

4childrenWe have been reading Wilson in our household since my granddaughter, reeling from her parents’ separation, seemed to need stories that reflected her own devastating experience. Her books were an immediate hit – and when I saw this book on the shelves, I couldn’t resist it…

Rosalind and Robbie don’t want to spend the summer stuck in their dad’s new house with irritating Smash and her glamorous mum. Dad’s biggest wish is for everyone to get along. So when he suggests a picnic in nearby Oxshott Woods the children grudgingly agree. That afternoon, in a golden sandpit, Rosalind makes a wish of her own and something extraordinary happens. It just might change their summer from weeks of rows and bickering into the best holiday these four children have ever had…

Rosalind and Robbie are part of a modern blended family – their step-sister, Smash, takes delight in tormenting them. In fact, the only thing they can all agree on, is that little Maudie, Dad and Alice’s daughter, is an absolute poppet – but that leads to squabbles over which of her half-siblings she prefers. Wilson’s unflinching depiction of what marital breakdown means to the children caught in the middle should be required reading for all divorced and separated parents.

Wilson’s storytelling doesn’t dodge the sadness – we both found the story quite emotional in places. But there are also places where we were laughing aloud. Smash’s comments were often astutely amusing – especially about the adults. As for the adventures that involve the four children – they are suitably madcap and Wilson’s sharp, pacey style made them compelling – I read aloud one afternoon for nearly two hours, because neither of us wanted to stop until we knew what happened next… But there is a big bonus for Wilson’s readers – she doesn’t only provide an engrossing, enjoyable story. Each of the main characters in the story is depicted with compassion, some humour and a large dollop of understanding – it’s a very neat trick to pull off. So many children’s books have the adults behaving like absolute idiots or tyrants – and while Wilson’s grown-ups often get it wrong, there is generally a sense that they are trying hard to do their best in difficult circumstances. It also means that while Wilson portrays the children as getting the raw end of the deal, she resists making them into total victims – and while she doesn’t have their parents magically getting back together, which is generally what most children would like to see, she does provide a shaft of hope that everything is going to get better.

Having recently re-read the original story, Five Children and It, I was struck by how much each magical adventure seemed to conclude with some moral lesson for Edwardian children. I can’t help thinking that Wilson’s trick of offering real comfort for children confronted with major family upheaval a far more valuable gift.
10/10

Review of Jump Twist Gate – a Jon and Lobo duology by Mark L. Van Name

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This duology of the first two books, One Jump Ahead and Slanted Jack, in the popular Jon and Lobo series was released by Baen in a smart marketing move a couple of years ago.

Jon Moore: A nanotech enhanced wanderer who wants nothing more than a quiet life and a way back to his strange home world. Lobo: An incredibly intelligent machine equipped for any environment from the sea to interstellar space. Two battle-scarred veterans jumptwistgateunwilling to tolerate injustice. Together in a jam-packed collection that not only includes the two novels, but also two short stories giving some of the backstory to the two protagonists and an interestingly frank foreword and afterword by the author.  I read the third book in the series last year, Overthrowing Heaven, and was very impressed – so when I got the opportunity to grab a copy of this duology off the shelves, I took it. Did it live up to my expectations?

This series falls into the adventure/military science fiction sub-genre. Sort of. Because although Jon is an ex-mercenary who offers his services for hire – including his lethally effective battleship – he is also allergic to killing anyone. Indeed, he goes to great lengths to try and avoid using lethal force and if someone does die, Jon treats it as a very big deal. I have to say that I find this approach to the inevitable violence very refreshing and a lot more thought provoking than those shoot-em-ups where bodies are constantly being blown up or ripped apart in a variety of gory ways.

I also very much enjoyed the unfolding relationship between Jon and Lobo. In One Jump Ahead, Jon meets Lobo for the first time and they work together. Jon’s enhancements have forced him to be constantly careful how he interacts with other people, as his greatest fear is finding himself locked up by some large corporation and treated like a labrat as they discover exactly how he came by his unique abilities. One of the consequences of these enhancements is his ability to communicate directly with the machines around him – including, of course, Lobo, his intelligent battleship. Lobo’s constant frustration with Jon’s micro-managing temperament creates a nicely sharp relationship between the two of them, which gradually deepens into trust and genuine affection – from Jon’s side, anyway. We can only guess at what Lobo really thinks…

However, Lobo isn’t the only machine that Jon can communicate with – he is also able to chat and eavesdrop on drinks dispensers and toasters, which produces some amusing interludes. I really enjoy this world – the inevitable mcguffin that allows humanity to zip around the universe in next to no time are a series jump gates, apparently left or seeded by another species. All very convenient – but there are also a number of interesting aspects to these gates that have a bearing on the plot, in addition to creating extra layers to the story and giving faster-than-light travel extra zip, something that this author is adept at doing.

In a sub-genre where a number of effective world-building writers manage to create their particular brand of magic at the expense of characterisation, Van Name’s characters are believable and suitably complex, allowing him to weave engrossing and complicated plots in first person viewpoint. Indeed, approaching the climax in Slanted Jack, I actually felt physically nervous… If you enjoy fast paced, lively space opera featuring interesting characters then this is a must-read – even if you don’t generally dip your toe into science fiction on the grounds that all that nerdy, techie stuff gets in the way of a good story, you owe it to yourself to track down this book. It’s worth it.
10/10