Tag Archives: troubled hero

*NEW RELEASE SPECIAL* Review of KINDLE novella Mira’s Last Dance Book 4 in the Penric and Desdemona series by Lois McMaster Bujold

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I’ve grown to really look forward to this novella series making a regular appearance from the talented author, Lois McMaster Bujold, whose Miles Vorkosigan series was a major gamechanger in the genre – see my review of Cryoburn.

In this sequel to the novella Penric’s Mission, the injured Penric, a Temple sorcerer and learned divine, tries to guide the betrayed General Arisaydia and his widowed sister Nikys across the last hundred miles of hostile Cedonia to safety in the Duchy of Orbas.

Though the blurb above makes it very clear, my firm advice would be to first read Penric’s Mission before plunging into this one. While Bujold’s deft writing won’t leave you floundering, you are coming in halfway through this particular story arc and as it is a novella, it necessarily is more compressed and faster-moving than a novel so there simply isn’t the time to compensate for the inevitable gaps in the backstory.

This is another gem. I have loved the character progression Penric has undergone since becoming an accidental host to twelve demons when a young man setting out to become betrothed. But this adventure has definitely been his greatest challenge so far, though even daily life poses its own problems as a good man trying to accommodate a very powerful chaos demon. Bujold’s talent is to give us a ringside seat while Penric is constantly having to negotiate with the demons riding him, as well as react to a fast-changing and dangerous situation when his inclination is to pore through old manuscripts. I am every bit as entranced with Penric as that half-demented, adrenaline junkie, Miles Vorkosigan.

Penric is also accompanied by General Arisaydia and his sister, Nikys who are on the run from a despotic tyrant. Tension and danger tip into farce as Penric takes some extreme steps to keep the group safe – and in doing so, certainly sacrifices any trust and a fair degree of respect the General had for him. I sniggered throughout this episode, as Penric once more is dumped into the middle of a madcap situation courtesy of his demons that he couldn’t have imagined in his wildest dreams.

As with the other novellas in the series, this one has wormed its way into my head and won’t leave me alone – partly because there is no real closure on the main storyline. But the consolation is that Bujold is evidently on something of a roll with these books and I’m hoping another one is due out before the end of the year. In the meantime, if you haven’t yet had the pleasure, start at the beginning with Penric’s Demon – they are not long and reasonably priced – and if you enjoyed the Miles Vorkosigan series or appreciate intelligent, character-driven fantasy – you’ll thank me if you do.
9/10

Review of Satan’s Reach – Book 2 of the Weird Space series by Eric Brown

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I happened to be in the library, browsing the shelves when this offering beckoned. I couldn’t resist, given that I enjoy Brown’s writing – see my review of Engineman, which has some of my favourite scene setting of any sci fi novel, ever…

Telepath Den Harper did the dirty work for the authoritarian Expansion, reading the minds of criminals, spies and undesirables. Unable to take the strain, he stole a starship and headed into the unknown, a sector of lawless space known as Satan’s Reach. For five years he worked as a trader among the stars; then discovered that the Expansion had set a bounty hunter on his trail. But what does the Expansion want with a lowly telepath like Harper? Is there validity in the rumours that human space is being invaded by aliens from another realm? Harper finds out the answer to both these questions when he rescues an orphan girl from certain death.

Den is a likeable chap in a tricky situation, which gets steadily trickier as this fast-paced, enjoyable space opera progresses. This is space opera where the universe is heaving with multitudes of aliens and faster-than-light travels occurs such that zipping between planets takes a matter of weeks. That’s okay – I can happily cope with that. Brown evokes a vivid range of worlds with differing climates, customs and lifestyles in amongst the mayhem, which I thoroughly enjoyed. I also liked the very efficient and adaptable spaceship Den has managed to snag for himself.

Initially, I thought it was all a bit too good to be true, but Brown manages to nicely weave into the storyline the reason why said ship is quite so nifty and needless to say, it all ends in tears… I liked the fact that Den’s gift of telepathy comes at a terrible price – he finds it painful to mindread, particularly alien minds so spends most of his time heavily shielded. He is also rather withdrawn, preferring his own company, which I found entirely plausible.

The story development is excellent – just when I thought it couldn’t get any worse, it did so that I read far later into the night when I should have put the book down and got some sleep. Any niggles – I could have done without the romantic element as I thought it out of character for both the protagonists concerned. But as there are two more books in this series, I’m guessing it isn’t all going to run smoothly from hereon in.

Overall, a cracking read from a writer who really knows his craft and if you like your space opera with plenty of excitement and enjoyable worlds, then this one is recommended.
8/10

Review of KINDLE Ebook Amunet by Robert Harkess

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I attended the launch of this book at Bristolcon – my favourite con of the year for its sheer friendliness – back in October and had always promised myself to get hold of it. And then saw it on Netgalley…

Amunet has a unique talent; she can talk to the dead. She had been told all her life that this is the key to rescuing her mother, who has been taken by mysterious and powerful forces. To unlock her mother’s prison, all she has to do is find the Locksmith. Posing as a Medium, she scours Europe for the one person who can help her. Harry and his father are investigators, employed by the Church to hunt down Mediums and hand them over to the mercies of the Inquisition. Harry has always believed he, and the Church, were doing the right thing. Until now.

This one immediately pulled me in – the writing style is punchy and readable and I really enjoyed Amunet. She is at once entitled and vulnerable, clever and very unworldly with an upbringing you wouldn’t wish on a dog, along with a burning drive to track down her mother, thanks to the person in her head guiding her. Harry has a parallel life in many ways, given he also lost his mother early in his life, but whereas Amunet’s guide and mentor is a voice in her head, Harry’s role model is his own father.

But what Harkess manages to do is depict two detailed, interesting characters while it is busy kicking off around them – because this book hits the ground running and wherever Amunet goes, violence and mayhem follows. But this book really bounces to life when she reaches London – a Victorian-type setting but with some important differences. There are all sorts of nice steampunk touches that garnish this adventure action novel.

Alongside Amunet and Harry, there is also a rich cast of characters who weave through the story – some of them unexpectedly popping up again when I had thought we’d seen the last of them. Harkess is clearly an experienced, able writer who manages to keep the momentum for this interesting alternate historical genre mash-up plunging forward without losing character focus or skimping on the vivid backdrop – which is a whole lot harder to achieve than Harkess makes it look.

While the book is concluded entirely satisfactorily, I got to the end and immediately looked around to see if there is likely to be a sequel as I would welcome the chance to revisit this beguiling world. This one comes recommended, particularly for steampunk/alternate history fans.
8/10

Review of KINDLE Ebook After Atlas – Book 2 of the Planetfall series by Emma Newman

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This was the post I had planned for International Woman’s Day – trouble is… I had it down in my diary as today!

Last year, I loved reading Planetfall – this space opera, colony science fiction adventure has stayed with me far longer than I’d expected. It didn’t hurt that the ending was something of a shock – so it made sense to get hold of the sequel with some of my Christmas book tokens. But whatever I was expecting – it wasn’t this…

Govcorp detective Carlos Moreno was only a baby when Atlas left Earth to seek truth among the stars. But in that moment, the course of Carlos’s entire life changed. Atlas is what took his mother away; what made his father lose hope; what led Alejandro Casales, leader of the religious cult known as the Circle, to his door. And now, on the eve of the fortieth anniversary of Atlas’s departure, it’s got something to with a brutal murder in a hotel room—and why Carlos is the man in charge of the investigation.

Those of you who know the first book in this series will realise that while set within the same world, this book does not immediately follow on from the events in Planetfall so you can enjoy this one without having read the first book. And enjoy it I did. This murder mystery absolutely gripped me in a near future world where most eat food provided by 3D printers and in England slavery is permitted for those unlucky enough to be stateless, such as Carlos Moreno. He is indentured to the Ministry of Justice as a top-grade investigator after a brutal hot-housing course and is one of their top investigators, having never failed in solving a crime. I was completely beguiled by Carlos and his heart-breaking story of neglect with a parent who didn’t bother overmuch with him. Unfortunately, I’m not the only one. After being characterised as the sad orphan who was deserted by his uncaring mother who left him on Earth while she headed for the stars in Atlas, he regularly finds himself pestered by journalists, whom he hates with a passion.

When he arrives at the hotel where a terrible murder has taken place, nothing goes quite right – but Carlos is under enormous pressure to solve this crime in the shortest possible time. I loved the twists and turns of the murder mystery – and then, just as it all seemed to be wrapped up, Newman flings a complete gamechanger into the story. I couldn’t believe it. I was horrified at what befell Carlos – but oh my word… what a way to change the whole tenor and pace of the story! It is a masterful stroke by a skilful, experienced writer at the top of her game.

From then on, it proved very difficult to put this book down – though I’ll admit to feeling a tad apprehensive that Newman wouldn’t be able to adequately pull together these two major strands she had set running alongside each other. I needn’t have worried. Once more, there was another change – more of a deus ex machina – but I’ll take that, given what Newman manages to do with it. The ending is, once more, completely unexpected. I look forward to reading the next slice of this amazing series next year.
9/10

Review of KINDLE Ebook Twelve Kings – Book 1 of The Song of the Shattered Sands by Bradley Beaulieu

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I’ve absolutely loved the Rebel of the Sands series – see my review of The Rebel of the Sands and after the thrilling ending to Traitor to the Throne, I became a bit desperate for some more desert fantasy to whisk me away from cold, dreary old February, so turned to this likely looking candidate for more sand and heat…

Sharakhai, the great city of the desert, center of commerce and culture, has been ruled from time immemorial by twelve kings—cruel, ruthless, powerful, and immortal. With their army of Silver Spears, their elite company of Blade Maidens, and their holy defenders, the terrifying asirim, the Kings uphold their positions as undisputed, invincible lords of the desert. There is no hope of freedom for any under their rule. Or so it seems, until Çeda, a brave young woman from the west end slums, defies the Kings’ laws by going outside on the holy night of Beht Zha’ir. What she learns that night sets her on a path that winds through both the terrible truths of the Kings’ mysterious history and the hidden riddles of her own heritage. Together, these secrets could finally break the iron grip of the Kings’ power…if the nigh-omnipotent Kings don’t find her first.

Bradley is clearly an experienced and capable writer. He introduces his main protagonist – an orphan with a terrible backstory – and little by little, we understand exactly who she is and why she is so driven. Çeda is a really interesting character – initially, she seems yet another sword-waving heroine, who manages to somehow overcome normal female behaviour to give us an unlikely-yet-equally-badass-protag that is rapidly becoming the norm in fantasy novels. I do get a tad exasperated at times by the ease with which these girls get access to expensive weaponry and the training to go with it – but, hey, this is fantasy, right?

However, Bradley then devotes a large chunk of this long novel – nearly 600 pages long, though it doesn’t feel like it – to showing us exactly how she has got to where she is. And a hard old road it’s been… Alongside Çeda’s amazing journey, we also follow the fortunes of the young street kid who befriended her and was her partner in mischief for most of their childhood. Emre doesn’t have Çeda’s reckless streak and often feels inadequate that his instinct is to back off just when she surges forward to get stuck in. Though as far as I can see, his is the more intelligent move… He is also on a journey throughout the book, which is mostly dual narrative, charting the different paths these young people take in a brutal society forged by the demands of the desert.

Bradley’s world is intricate, vivid and engrossing. I love the layers of society and power he has built against this unforgiving backdrop – and the magical elements are woven in with skill to provide plenty of impact when we finally get to learn what exactly is going on during the holy night of Beht Zha’ir. While there are frequent flashbacks, I didn’t find them jarring, as they helped us to understand the motivation of our two main protagonists, who I became very fond of throughout the book and am looking forward to getting reacquainted with in With Blood upon the Sand. If you enjoy quality epic fantasy set in the heat and drama of a desert backdrop, then this one comes highly recommended.
9/10

*NEW RELEASE SPECIAL* Review of Windwitch – Book 2 of The Witchlands series by Susan Dennard

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I really enjoyed reading the first YA, epic fantasy series, Truthwitch, last year and was delighted when Himself ordered the sequel from the library.

After an explosion destroys his ship, the world believes Prince Merik, Windwitch, is dead. Scarred yet alive, Merik is determined to prove his sister’s treachery. Upon reaching the royal capital, crowded with refugees, he haunts the streets, fighting for the weak—which leads to whispers of a disfigured demigod, the Fury, who brings justice to the oppressed.

When the Bloodwitch Aeduan discovers a bounty on Iseult, he makes sure to be the first to find her—yet in a surprise twist, Iseult offers him a deal. She will return money stolen from him, if he locates Safi. Now they must work together to cross the Witchlands, while constantly wondering, who will betray whom first?

After a surprise attack and shipwreck, Safi and the Empress of Mwindwitcharstok barely escape with their lives. Alone in a land of pirates, every moment balances on a knife’s edge—especially when the pirates’ next move could unleash war upon the Witchlands.

I would recommend that if you haven’t had the pleasure, go and track down Truthwitch and read it first. The above blurb gives the starting point of the main characters at the beginning of Windwitch, but as you can see each one is right in the middle of a major situation so you really are missing out on a chunk of the ongoing storyline if you try to start with this one.

As the title suggests, this book concentrates mostly on Prince Merik’s efforts to track down his murderous sister and gather evidence to prove her involvement in his attempted assassination. However the two witches, Safi and Iseult still feature as they are caught up in their own adventures and Dennard manages to keep their storylines plunging forward. I particularly liked the fact that each of them badly misses the other and part of each of their character progression is that Iseult tries to emulate Safi’s headlong impulsiveness when she needs to react swiftly. While Safi continually envisages what Iseult would say or do in a particular situation.

But for me, the character who really leaps off the page is Vivia, Merik’s sister who is in effect ruling as her father continues to decline from a mysterious wasting illness no one can cure. Haunted by her mother’s madness and subsequent suicide, Vivia struggles to cope with the ongoing crisis of food shortages and incipient warfare. We get a ringside seat at her continued resentment against her dead brother, who’d had such a easy life in comparison, which contrasts nicely with Merik’s gritted fury at her perfidy. This lethal sibling rivalry is in strong contrast to Safi and Iseult’s continuing bond, for despite being equally magically talented they manage to complement each other, where Merik and Vivia became increasingly distrustful of each other’s growing powers.

All in all, this entertaining, foot-to-the-floor adventure scooped me up and held me, even though this isn’t my favourite genre. While Dennard nicely wraps up this particular storyline in a series of twists – some I saw coming and some I didn’t – there are a host of ongoing plotlines that need a satisfactory outcome and I’ll be waiting not-so-patiently for the next slice of Witchlands goodness.
8/10

Review of How To Train Your Parents by Pete Johnson

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I acquired this one after seeing a recommendation from one of my book blogging buddies (sorry I cannot recall exactly who…) and this week tucked into it, thoroughly enjoying the humour.

howtotrainyourparentsMoving to a new area and a new school, Louis is horrified to discover his parents changing into ultra-competitive parents, wanting him and his younger brother to get straight As at school and join all sorts of after-school clubs and activities like the other kids in the area. Suddenly Louis’s life is no longer his own…

As you can see from the blurb, under Louis’ s jokey asides is an unfolding situation that is anything but funny. His parents are steadily being sucked into the competitive atmosphere around them, so both boys are being strongly encouraged to perform better at school and shine at extra-curricula activities. Which is fine if either of them are academic high-flyers – however Louis clearly isn’t, hating his new school where results and academic standards seem to matter far more than any pastoral concerns. You won’t be surprised to learn the situation doesn’t end well. However, what I really enjoyed was Johnson’s refusal to turn Louis’s parents into villains. As the relationship between them and Louis worsens, they are also clearly suffering and trying to find solutions to the problem.

The cast of supporting characters are well depicted through Johnson’s snappy, amusing descriptions via Louis’ first person point of view. I particularly liked Maddy who he befriends at a talent competition. One of the related plotlines does spiral off into something of a fantasy, providing a slightly unnecessarily idealised ending in my opinion. However, I’ll forgive that because without being remotely preachy, Johnson manages to impart some useful messages for pushy parents and their children.

I’m going to be introducing this one to my granddaughter to see if the humour works on her, too. In the meantime, if you are looking for an amusing book for the ten to twelve-year-olds in your life, this one is worth considering.
8/10

Friday Faceoff – Hell is Empty and all the Devils Are Here…

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This meme was started by Books by Proxy, whose fabulous idea was to compare UK and US book covers and decide which is we prefer. This week we are looking at covers featuring demons. I have chosen The Amulet of Samarkand – Book 1 of the Bartimaeus Sequence by Jonathan Stroud. Though strictly speaking Bartimaeus is a djinni, not a demon…

 

theamuletofsamarkandThis offering was published by Disney-Hyperion in 2003. You get a sense of the creature’s age (he is 5,000 years old) and his sharp, sly humour that pings off the page. I love the fact he is sideways on and evidently taunting us with the precious amulet. Pity about the lettering.

 

theamuletofsamarkand1This version was produced by Corgi Children’s in 2004. Again, Bartimaeus dominates, this time looking very much like a gargoyle. I’m not sure I like the sepia look, but I do love the lettering on this cover.

 

theamuletofsamarkand2This edition was published in 2004 by cbj Verlag. The overall design is the same as the previous version, but I far prefer the dark colour palette, which I think gives the cover more eye appeal, though this time around I think the font is disappointing.

 

theamuletofsamarkand3This edition was published in 2007 by Le Livre de Poche. This is the runner-up for me. I love the drama of the backlighting and the backdrop of the library as Bartimaus appears in Nathaniel’s circle for the first time. My favourite is the first cover – it’s the wicked grin that sells this one for me. A suitably memorable cover for a wonderfully memorable series. Do you agree?

Review of KINDLE Edition Nice Dragons Finish Last – Book 1 of the Heartstriker series by Rachel Aaron

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For those of you who are interested in such things (and who isn’t?) Rachel Aaron has also written the very enjoyable Eli Monpress series – see my review of The Spirit Rebellion and as Rachel Bach is author of the cracking space opera Paradox series – see my review of Fortune’s Pawn. So given that so far her stock in trade are gutsy badass protagonists who veer regularly onto the wrong side, how does she fare with quite a different type of hero?

nicedragonsfinishlastAs the smallest dragon in the Heartstriker clan, Julius survives by a simple code: keep quiet, don’t cause trouble, and stay out of the way of bigger dragons. But this meek behavior doesn’t fly in a family of ambitious magical predators, and his mother, Bethesda the Heartstriker, has finally reached the end of her patience. Now, sealed in human form and banished to the DFZ–a vertical metropolis built on the ruins of Old Detroit–Julius has one month to prove that he can be a ruthless dragon or kiss his true shape goodbye forever. But in a city of modern mages and vengeful spirits where dragons are considered monsters to be exterminated, he’s going to need some serious help to survive this test. He only hopes humans are more trustworthy than dragons…

This is great fun. A science fiction/fantasy mash-up in a near future world where a huge meteor strike has released magic, complete with magical creatures, back into our world after it was sealed away, also setting free some vengeful spirits who don’t like what humans have done to the world. Julius isn’t just the runt of the clutch – he’s the runt of the whole clan, and hates the draconic way of doing things. But sealed into his human form, he doesn’t have much choice but to use the circumstances around him and reason his way out of his dilemma. There is a lovely slice of power politics that Aaron is nifty about slipping into the ongoing action, along with an engaging human heroine who is also on the run from a powerful enemy.

Himself recommended this one to me and it didn’t disappoint. The world is engaging and well depicted, the characters ping off the page with plenty of energy and the situations Julius finds himself dealing with grabbed me and wouldn’t let go. To the extent that I was reading this while watching Wimbledon…

Aaron’s writing is always infused with a manic energy that scoops me up, sucks me into her plots and dumps me at the end of the book feeling a tad winded, but with a grin on my face. And this one didn’t disappoint. I’ll be definitely tracking down the next one in the series – and soon.
9/10

*NEW RELEASE SPECIAL* Review of KINDLE Ebook The Nightmare Stacks – Book 7 of The Laundry Files by Charles Stross

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I was delighted when I realised last month after reading the awesome The Annihilation Score – see my review here – that the next book in this outstanding series was due for release. And even more delighted when I managed to get hold of a NetGalley arc…

thenightmarestacksAlex Schwartz had a promising future – until he contracted an unfortunate bout of vampirism, and agreed (on pain of death) to join the Laundry, Britain’s only counter-occult secret agency. His first assignment is in Leeds – his old hometown. The thought of telling his parents that he’s lost his old job, let alone them finding out about his ‘condition’, is causing Alex more anxiety than learning how to live as a vampire secret agent preparing to confront multiple apocalypses. His only saving grace is Cassie Brewer, a student appearing in the local Goth Festival, who flirts with him despite his awkward personality and massive amounts of sunblock. But Cassie has secrets of her own – secrets that make Alex’s night life seem positively normal . . .

First, a warning. For fans of Bob and Mo Howard, who are keen to catch up on them after their roller-coaster journey during the last two books – you’ll have to wait a bit longer to discover how they’re doing. This instalment is all about Alex, who we first met in The Rhesus Chart – see my review here. While Alex doesn’t have the dry wit of Bob, the storyline soon whisked me up and held me as we have the Charles Stross version of elves making a dramatic appearance and like his version of vampires, they are far more lethally compelling and unpleasant than Tolkien suggests.

I really enjoyed this break with the normal London setting, as Leeds is where Alex finds himself entangled in the latest incursion from another dimension in this smart fantasy/science fiction mash-up. Although I did miss Bob’s dry, world-weary commentary, there are still some lovely touches of humour – particularly enjoyable is Alex’s meal with his parents as they reel under the combined onslaught of his apparent demotion, Cassie’s oddness and his sister’s bombshell.

But the tone is a lot darker and those odd splashes of humour were very welcome in the final act, where there is chaos and mayhem in full measure. The battle scenes are full of drama and I found myself unable to put the book down as I needed to know what would happen next – I wasn’t sure that Alex would survive, for starters, as Stross is perfectly capable of mowing down a major character.
I thoroughly enjoyed this one, though for me, it didn’t have the emotional punch of The Annihilation Score which is my all-time favourite in this series, so far. However, there is plenty of compelling action and those elven warriors rampaging across the English countryside on lethal battle steeds, wielding magical weaponry will stay with me for a while.
9/10