Monthly Archives: June 2015

Review of The Long Mars – Book 3 of The Long Earth series by Terry Pratchett and Stephen Baxter

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I’ve enjoyed this intriguing series so far – read my review of the first book, The Long Earth here. The premise is that humanity has learnt to step across to parallel Earths that exist in an infinite series of universes that stretch away from Datum Earth. Would this third adventure be as engrossing?

thelongmarsThe Long Earth is in chaos. The cataclysmic aftermath of the Yellowstone eruption is shutting civilization down. As populations flee to the relative safety of stepwise Earths, Sally Linsay, Joshua Valienté and Lobsang do what they can to assist in the perilous clean-up. But Joshua is called to a crisis close to home: a newly emergent breed of young, super-bright post-humans threatens the status quo of ‘normal’ human society and violent confrontation seems inevitable. And now Sally has been contacted by her long-vanished father, Willis Linsay – the maverick inventor of the original Stepper device. His is planning a fantastic voyage and wants her to join him, but what is his true motivation?

If you haven’t yet encountered The Long Earth series, my advice is not to start with this book, which plunges you right into the Yellowstone eruption, with only the sketchiest introduction to the main characters. It took me several pages to get back into the groove, and I’ve read the previous two books fairly recently.

This whole series has an old-fashioned feel – lighter on indepth characterisation and focussing more on the consequences and descriptions of the varying landscapes and exotic lifeforms. Because the premise is so fascinating and well written, I don’t find this as annoying as I usually do. Of course it doesn’t hurt that both authors are experienced and extremely talented.

The devastating consequences of the Yellowstone eruption around the world makes for riveting reading, but for me, the highlight of this book is the exploration of Mars. There are universes where Earth has been wiped out and in the nearest one to Datum Earth, a space station has been built in readiness for exploring Mars. Because in this universe, Mars is not the sterile, dead planet we know. This particular Mars has an atmosphere, water and vegetation. This particular Mars is – literally – a stepping-off point to explore the other versions of the Red Planet. I found this sub-plot utterly engrossing, packed with wonderful imaginative touches and an enjoyably surprising conclusion.

Another main thread is the rise of The Next – a group of super-intelligent children who are descended from the inhabitants of Happy Landings. This poses all sorts of major moral questions, which is often what really good science fiction excels at. It provides us with an arena where we can explore and debate likely consequences and how society should respond – both for good and ill.

If you have ever seriously considered how humanity impacts upon our home planet, then go looking for the first book in this quality series.
9/10

Reader Problems Tag

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Many thanks to Sara Letourneau for nominating me to answer these questions, after tackling these questions here herself. It’s always fascinating to discover how other people approach the very personal business of reading.

You have 20,000 books on your TBR. How in the world do you decide what to read next?

Pile of Books @ Windham library

Pile of Books @ Windham library

Hm. You’ve been peeping, haven’t you? It feels as if there are nearer 50,000 actually… And I sort them into piles with complicated theories of how I’m going to spread my reading time between Indie books and traditionally published books; books written by men and written by women; science fiction, fantasy and outstanding other reads, while wearing my writing tutor hat.
Then comes the time when I’ve finished a book at 2 am and I’m still not ready for sleep, so I reach for the next book on the pile – and nine times out of ten my hand will skid sideways onto another volume I somehow feel more in the mood for. I’ve learnt to my cost that if I DO force myself to read the book I ‘ought’ to read, it’s rarely as enjoyable and fulfilling an experience as it is when I just go with the flow. So that’s what I do, these days.

You’re halfway through a book and you’re just not loving it. Do you quit or commit?
I’ll give most books twenty pages, though I have been known to abandon a book halfway through the first page. And if I’m not actively enjoying the book, then it gets tossed. I log it, explaining to myself what my problem with it was, and then move on. The world is FULL of wonderful books I haven’t yet read, why would I waste my precious time and energy slogging through something that makes my heart sink every time I pick it up?

The end of the year is coming and you’re so close yet so far away on your GoodReads challenge. Do you quit or commit?
Confession time – I’m not a member of Goodreads yet, although it’s something I keep meaning to join. But I’ve set myself the challenge to post 100 book reviews on my blog during 2015. As I wouldn’t consider reviewing any book I hadn’t finished, it follows that I have to read said 100 books. Last year I achieved it with ease, having read 143 books and written 126 books reviews. As it was so successful, I decided to keep the same challenge. So far I am on track, having read 53 books to date, although this time last year, I’d read 64.
However, if I do get to the middle of December and find that I’ve only read 75 books, then I’ll abandon the challenge and start a new one next year. I read primarily for enjoyment and review books for a hobby as a way of spreading the word about the good’uns.

The covers of a series you love DO. NOT. MATCH. How do you cope?
Roll my eyes over the avoidable mistake and take a deep, calming breath. I also get very fed up when heroines are described as red-headed/with a facial scar/dark-skinned all though the book – and end up on the cover looking completely different. But it isn’t a dealbreaker. At the end of the day, it’s all about the words.

Everyone and their mother loves a book you really don’t like. Who do you bond with over shared feelings?
You know that log I told you about earlier? It’s private, as I never publically really tear a book apart. After all, I’m also a writer and I know only too well the effort and hard work that goes into crafting a book, even a bad one. But that doesn’t mean I don’t have STRONG opinions. That log holds them all. It’s wonder the pages don’t catch fire at times, when I’m really venting…

You’re reading a book and you’re about to start crying in public. How do you deal?
It takes a lot to make me cry over a book, these days. And it hasn’t happened in public – if I saw where the scene was going, I’d stop reading. But I emptied a laundrette in St Peter Port on Guernsey on holiday many years ago, reading Terry Pratchett’s Moving Pictures and howling with laughter while waiting for the family’s washing to cycle through the machines…

A sequel of a book you loved just came out, but you’ve forgotten a lot from the prior novel. Will you re-read the book? Skip the sequel? Try to find a summary on GoodReads? Cry in frustration?
If it’s a book I loved, I’ve probably written a review, or failing that, a brief synopsis as I always record the books I’ve read. That always reminds me sufficiently to dive into the book knowing enough to fully enjoy the experience.

You don’t want ANYONE borrowing your books. How do you politely tell people “nope” when they ask?
There are only a handful of authors whose books I feel possessive about – and that’s chiefly because Himself is a great re-reader and enjoys going back again and again to books he really loves. I don’t. The other category of books I wouldn’t lend are those which are signed by the author. Other than that, come and get ‘em. You’re very welcome to borrow them!

You’ve picked up and put down five different books in the past month. How do you get over the reading slump?
It simply doesn’t happen. I pick a book up and read it. Or it goes flying across the room. There are times when I read less books, but that tends to happen if I’m busy writing course notes into the wee small hours. I don’t stop reading when I’m writing my own novels.

There are so many new books coming out that you are dying to read! How many do you actually buy?
*sigh* More than I should… I am truly a book addict – and so is Himself. Our house is crammed with far too many books and we MUST get around to sorting them out and getting rid of some. Though we’ll probably fill up the freed space with more books.

After you’ve bought a new book you want to get to, how long do they sit on your shelf until you actually read them?
It varies. Common sense dictates that if it’s newly published, then I’ll make it a priority – and mostly that’s the case. But there are times when it still just sits there, because I wasn’t in the mood to read it when the time came.

Nomination time
I quite understand if you don’t have the time or inclination to take part – but I’d love the following to ‘fess all about their reading habits!
Mhairi Simpson
Sophie E. Tallis
Joanna “Melfka” Maciejewska
Charles French
Leiah Cooper (So I Read This Book Today)

Though if your name isn’t on the above list and you feel inspired to answer these questions, do please go for it. I’d be delighted and insanely curious  interested to find out how other people go about the very private business of reading for pleasure…

Review of KINDLE Ebook White Mountain – Book 1 of The Darkling Chronicles by Sophie E. Tallis

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I loaded this book onto my Kindle after meeting Sophie at Bristolcon last year. But what with one thing and another, I hadn’t managed to get around to reading it…

whitemountainAmongst our modern world lies another, an archaic and hidden world of tradition, sorcery and magic. As dark demons awaken from our past, the last remaining wizards are being hunted and murdered by a changeling of terrifying strength. Attacked and drained of most of his powers, a dying sorcerer must race against time to save himself, and the fate of all, from an enemy intent on cleansing the planet of humanity… Darkness spreads as friendships, betrayals and horrifying truths await…

If you are looking for some modern twist on the classic epic Fantasy setup, this isn’t it. Tallis gives us a straight Fantasy tale, complete with an evil mastermind who has been plotting the overthrow of the world for ages – and now his plans have finally come to fruition. We have a stark demonstration of the power of said evil mastermind very early into the story. It was at this stage, I bonded with Marval and his grumpy dragon Gralen.

One of the other classic aspects of this book is the semi-omniscient viewpoint Tallis uses. To be frank, it isn’t a favourite viewpoint choice of mine, as writers who use it are too liable to canter through a story long on action and description, while being rather light on characterisation. However, Tallis writes with passion and eloquence that breathes life into her characters. There is plenty of description, but as the tone of the story inexorably darkens and becomes steadily grimmer, those descriptions, imbued with Tallis’s strong visual imagination and fluent writing add rather than detract to the story. sophiedrawingAn enjoyable addition are the beautiful illustrations drawn by Tallis herself, evidently a talented artist.

The initial light and affectionate exchanges between Marval and Gralen abruptly disappear after Marval’s abduction and draining as the tone of the book darkens. There is a real feel of danger – partly because Tallis isn’t afraid to kill off some of her more major characters.

My personal favourite is Gralen, the impulsive and outspoken dragon. He manages to provide shafts of light relief throughout the book, which I very much appreciated as the stakes steadily go on getting ever higher. The climax – the huge battle – was every bit as big a deal as Tallis continually flagged. In fact, while I’d already realised she is a writer of ability and passion, it was her depiction of the major conflict that confirmed her as a gifted storyteller. Did I see the final denouement coming? Yes, but that didn’t really matter – because it’s what the consequences are going to be that will count.

I will certainly be looking out for the second book in this series – and if your taste runs to quality epic Fantasy, then track down White Mountain – you won’t be disappointed.
8/10

Shoot for the Moon Challenge 2015 – May Roundup

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At the end of yet another month, how am I doing with my series of my ambitious targets? Hm. Not brilliantly. Family commitments have to come first, of course and during May they featured fairly heavily.

• I have had some extremely detailed feedback on Running Out of Space from two of my marvellous beta readers, so I’m in the throes of addressing some of the issues they suggested I revisit and fix. It’s been very helpful to be able to give the manuscript a thorough going-over before presenting it to another wonderful writing friend who has agreed to comb through it for me. As for the other two manuscripts – I’m still in the very early stages of knocking them into shape.
Challenge – To have my science fiction series, The Sunblinded Trilogy,moon ready to publish by the end of August. A target that is looking increasingly unrealistic. I’ll keep working as hard as I can to get the books ready, but obviously the requirement is to have the books as polished and readable as possible. It would be completely daft to compromise the quality of my writing for the sake of a timescale.
• I wrote eight reviews this month, so I’m still on target for the year. Although I’ve noticed that so far this year, I’ve read and reviewed 9 less books than this time last year.
Challenge – To review a minimum of 100 books during 2015. I should still easily fulfil this target, unless something major happens before the end of the year.
• I am still in the process of submitting Mantivore Dreams and Netted to agents.
Challenge – To seek and procure representation for at least one of my novels. Still ongoing.
• As the academic year at Northbook College draws to a close, I have an opportunity to judge whether this year’s courses have been successful. Overall, I think they have worked. The interactive nature of this term’s course has meant I have had to alter my working methods more than I’d initially anticipated and it should run more smoothly next year. But I am definitely going to give it another go. The students seem to have found it an enjoyable and stimulating experience to share their favourite authors with the rest of the class and I have found it fascinating and enlightening to observe the wide variation in choices.
Challenge – To make this term’s Creative Writing courses more interactive.

In addition, I gave a talk to West Sussex Writers’ in May, along with my committee colleague and computer guru, Ian Black, on the available technology to help writers. It took us a while to organise and design a structure so we could deliver the information in the most user-friendly way, but it was evidently worth the effort as the talk was received positively by the membership.

It’s a busy time of year. My teaching commitments are intense right now, the garden needs knocking into shape if it is going to be anything other than unruly jungle for the rest of the summer, and Family need more of my time than I’d anticipated. But then, that’s Life isn’t it? Unpredictable, often frustrating and taking me off into unexpected directions. And if that didn’t happen, I’d be a diminished, narrower version of myself. That’s what I keep telling myself, anyway. Though I’d LOVE a clone to get on with all those boring-but-vital chores that still need doing.

In the meantime, I wrote just over 9,000 words on books reviews in May and just under 11,500 words on my teaching courses, bringing my word count to date to around 106,500 words. There’s been one bright spot in my creative landscape. I am not a brilliant poet, but sporadically the idea for a poem rattles around in my head until I do something about it. As submitting to magazines takes time and organisation that I currently don’t have, I’ve been posting some of my poems on my blog. This has prompted me to tidy up and thoroughly edit some of my rougher-edged efforts. Thank you for the kind comments and Likes some of you have taken the trouble to leave. It was unexpected and very cheering.

Review of Wild and Free by Wendy Holden

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Several of my students recommend Wendy Holden’s books with affection, so when I spotted this offering on the shelves I scooped it up. Would I also enjoy the humour?

wild&freeWild & Free is the festival du jour. Everyone piles through its gates – and Cupid lies in wait to sprinkle a little midsummer madness on them all. Teacher Ginnie is desperate to forget her crush on headmaster Mark, and hopes glamping might do the trick. But Mark is also heading for Wild & Free to re-form his college band – desperate not to be seen by anyone he knows.

That is as much of the rather chatty blurb I’m prepared to divulge, but you get the idea. What you may not appreciate from the blurb is the large cast of characters Holden throws into this giddy mix of confusion and general mayhem. Ginnie and Mark are clearly the main love-crossed couple and the ones I cared most about, although there are four other romantic encounters charted in the book. The festival also attracts a man experiencing a mid-life crisis; youngsters trying to establish a business; youngsters wanting to get smashed off their faces; a band of thieves; a wannabe author desperate to get her book idea recognised; an author desperate to get wider recognition for his book… and no, I still haven’t come to the end of the plot strands weaving through this busy book.

So does Holden pull off this attempt to depict the festival experience? Anyone who has ever attended any sort of festival will recognise the sheer disorientating blast of sensory overload described so vividly in Wild and Free. Her cast of characters are generally overwhelmed by the sheer sprawling enormity of the event – a reaction I certainly recognised from my own limited experience. This aspect of the book was the most successful – the festival was a bit like the enchanted wood in Midsummer Night’s Dream where everyone who plunged in was confounded, confused and changed by the experience.

Holden’s writing style is punchy, slick and pacey. She manages to pack a lot into a book running out at just over 450 pages. Whether she effectively brings all the storylines she is juggling to an entirely satisfactory conclusion is more debatable. This is a feel-good comedy that doesn’t take itself too seriously, which is absolutely fine by me. It’s not a genre I read extensively, but I enjoyed most of the sub-plots running through the story – and the main romantic story was written with conviction and skill. I really cared for both Mark and Ginnie and wanted them to get together.

Inevitably with such a large cast of characters, some worked better than others. The teenager, Guy, didn’t convince me, and neither did Jude, the thief. This wasn’t a dealbreaker, though. There were so many others to entertain, these failures didn’t jar as much as they might have. What grated more, was Holden’s irritating trick of suddenly planing the edges off some of her spikier characters in the interests of an upbeat ending. There were two gloriously chippy females I was thoroughly enjoying as they stomped through the book, creating mayhem around them. And I was disappointed to see both of them suddenly turned into a shadow of their former stroppy selves in the interests of a tidy ending. I would have far preferred to have them march off into the sunset, still driving everyone around them into an imminent nervous breakdown.

Overall though, Holden mostly pulls this off. Free and Wild is a madcap farce that whisked me into the weird world of festival-going, while putting a smile on my face. I now know why my students are so fond of Holden’s work and if you feel the need for a bit of light relief, go and track this down. It’s fun.
7/10

Readers returning E-books

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I happen to think this is a something of an issue. Susan’s thoughtful article highlights the problem from a writer’s viewpoint, but what do you think?

Into Another World

No this isn’t a post about ME returning a book but rather other readers returning an e-book they purchased. As usual, I am late to the party over this issue but reading online it seems it was a big uproar a few years ago with self-published authors.

I guess I am only thinking about it now as I finally have had readers who have returned my books to Amazon. The majority of my books are sold on Amazon, and those sales have been going pretty well since the release of my latest book, The Heir to Alexandria.

But as I looked at my past six-week royalty report, I noticed I had four returned books.

Returned books – April 19 to May 16

The Heir to Alexandria – 2

Summoned (Book 1 of The Elemental) – 1

The Elemental Box Set – 1

This had me wondering why these…

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POEM – Mother Moon

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As a young woman, I enjoyed walking alone at night looking at the moon and stars – until a scary encounter stopped my nocturnal wandering.  I wrote this as an expression of my frustration and sadness that I no longer felt safe enough to do so…

You send forth your milky
sweetness. Your silvered completeness
flowering for me to see.

You beacon the black night –
rounded in your contoured clearness,
powered to pull the sea.

You throw your welcome wide –
weaving spells of magic madness,
creating wells of tragic sadness
for those stranded in your tide.

You’re feared by the male mind –
your allure and maternal mildness
mistaken for a pretanatural wildness
by those who’d scorn womankind.

Oh Mother Moon, me and mine
are shuttered and trapped,
muffled and sapped,
our answering tune
strangled to a whine.

So, I shall never see dew-jewelled grasses
dance silvered, and gleaming in your milky tide.
For I am afraid to take the chance-

and instead
I press my hurting head,
against the chilly pane,
yearning for your silky touch –
in vain.

moon

Review of Day Shift – Book 2 of the Midnight series by Charlaine Harris

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I really enjoyed the first book in this series, Midnight Crossing – see my review here. Would the second book be as strong?

DayshiftIt’s a quiet little town, perched at the junction between Davy Road and Witch Light Road and it’s easy to miss. With its boarded up windows, single traffic light and sleepy air, there’s nothing special about Midnight… which is exactly how the residents like it. So when the townspeople hear that a new owner plans to renovate the run-down, abandoned old hostel in town, it’s not met with pleasure. Who would want to come to Midnight, with its handful of shops, the Home Cookin diner, and quiet residents and why? But there are bigger problems in the air. When Manfred Bernado, the newest resident in town, is swept up in a deadly investigation, suddenly the hotel and its guests are the least of the town’s concern. The police, lawyers and journalists are all headed to Midnight, and it’s the worst possible moment…

Harris has set up an enjoyable juxtaposition in this entertaining read, as this small settlement contains so few people that Manfred is able to observe their lives and characters fairly easily. So we have scenes set at the diner and meetings when concerned residents discuss the hotel renovations and we get to see some of their daily routines – which is when the cosiness fades… All Midnight’s residents are concealing some sort of secret that marks them apart. And in many cases, that secret would land them either behind bars, or in some secret Government facility where white-coated scientists would eagerly be experimenting on them. It also makes a number of them highly dangerous. So the mundane is rubbing shoulders with oddness in a disturbing mix that Harris fans recognise only too clearly and the HBO True Blood series spectacularly failed to achieve. They only managed to convey the danger and oddness, which wrecked the dynamic of Harris’s storytelling.

Though as one of his client readings turns into a tragedy, Manfred’s interest in his neighbours is lessened as his involvement comes under police scrutiny. Other Midnight residents pitch in to help. Not just out of neighbourly concern – no one in Midnight wants the police knocking on doors, or enquiring too closely into their movements. At all.

What I really love about Harris’s version of American Gothic are the slices of humour, where a tight-wound situation tips into farce. A growing boy needs new clothes and everyone notices that he is literally bulging out of his apparel, except his carer, the Reverend, who wears exactly the same clothing day in and day out. So it falls upon the kindly witch to provide him with new outfits and very welcome snacks. As well as providing necessary lighter moments, it is these small details that make me bond with the characters and have me holding my breath when the situation suddenly lurches into one of uncertainty and danger. I’m only too well aware that Harris is capable of killing off one of Midnight’s main residents, should the plot require it.

Any niggles? Well, I did feel the denouement to Manfred’s problem lacked the satisfying smoothness I am accustomed to experiencing with Harris – the solution seemed slightly tacked on. But it that isn’t the dealbreaker you might imagine. Midnight has the same hold over me that Bon Temps exerted and I will happily tolerate the occasional unevenness in the plotting to experience Harris’s particular mix of charm and humour, death and alienation.
8/10

Susan Howatch- a writer to get addicted to

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After reading Viv’s wonderful review about the writing of one of my all-time favourite authors, Susan Howatch, I immediately wanted to share with you…

Zen and the Art of Tightrope Walking

 

You don’t hear much about Susan Howatch   these last few years and I think it’s a shame. If you love a book or a series of books to really get your teeth into, you can’t do better than discover this author.

I first came across her books when I was an undergraduate and my flatmate loaned me The Rich are Different, Sins of the Fathers and a few others. I enjoyed them a great deal, even though I am not especially fond of historical or period fiction.

The next time I crossed paths with Ms Howatch was when my husband was at theological college and I was undergoing something of a protracted breakdown of sorts. Her Starbridge series of novels gave me some relief from the emotional anguish I was in, partly due to the novels being about the very structure(the Church of England) I was battling to…

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Review of The Raven’s Shadow – Book 3 of The Wild Hunt by Elspeth Cooper

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Elspeth Cooper was kind enough to send me a review copy of The Raven’s Shadow – but the deal still applies. If I don’t like a book, I won’t bother to complete it and I certainly won’t write about it. It’s the reason why I don’t generally ask authors to submit books for review and am very reluctant to take requests unless I’m fairly certain that I’m going to enjoy the book. Did this, the third in this epic fantasy quartet, fulfil the promise of the earlier two books? You can read my review of the first book, Songs of the Earth here.

theravensshadowIn the Archen Mountains, Teia struggles through the high, snowy passes to warn the Empire: a war band is poised to invade, and their leader means to release the Wild Hunt – and with it Maegern the Raven, the Keeper of the Dead. In Gimrael, the fires of revolution robbved Gair of a friend and left him alone in a hostile city, unsure even if the Song is still his to command. He has one last duty to discharge, and then nothing will stand between him and his vengeance. And in the Nordmen’s chilly halls, Savin plays out a game in which kings, chieftains and men are but pawns on a chessboard than spans the Veil itself.

Yep. You’re right – it’s vintage epic Fantasy fare. But there is so much more to this excellent series than that. While the setup may not be groundbreakingly original, it is a solidly well-constructed world with plenty of depth and breadth – furthermore Cooper achieves this without pages of exposition.
I gave myself a break between reading the second and third books, as if I read a block of books from a single writer, I tend to find stylistic quirks start to grate and interfere with my enjoyment. But as soon as I opened up this hefty tome, I was immediately whisked back into the world of Teia, Gair and Tanith. The protagonists are vivid, enjoyable and bounce off the page such that I was soon immersed into the experience, relishing and savouring it – the mark of a thoroughly enjoyable read. That said, it isn’t a good book to pick up if you haven’t yet had the pleasure of this series. You’d miss far too much of the backstory to fully appreciate the characterisation and exactly why they are doing what. Gair, in particular, has a whole suite of emotional baggage due to his previous traumatic experiences – and neither would you fully appreciate Tanith’s irritation at the insufferable Ailric and his unwanted advances.

Obviously the main task of a mid-series book is to continue the story arc, continue the protagonists’ journeys ensuring the tension pings off the page and while the finale of this particular book cannot wrap the story up, neither can it sputter to an uninspiring close. And I’ve read far too many of those in my time.

Not so in this book – Cooper really lets loose. She has a clean, punchy writing style I really enjoy and when it came to the showdown that had been building from the opening scenes, she ensures she delivers an almighty battle scene that had me rapt. I should have got up and got going on my lengthy To Do list, but I was going nowhere without knowing first who prevailed. And – yes – I really didn’t know, because she has already seen off a couple of major characters that I’d become very attached to. We’re not talking the kind of protag persecution that Martin displays in his ‘A Song of Ice and Fire’ series, but nevertheless I was winded when they died. It was a triumphant climax to a cracking Fantasy read that is right up there with the likes of Joe Abercrombie, Kate Elliott and Glenda Larke in my opinion.

I’m really looking forward to the fourth book – and if you enjoy character-led epic Fantasy, then track down this series. It deserves be far better known.
9/10