Monday, 21 July 2014

Review: 'Bitter Seeds' by Ian Tregillis



Raybould Marsh and other members of British Intelligence recently seized a damaged reel of film from enemy territory. It appears to show German troops walking through walls, bursting into flames and hurling tanks into the air from afar.

This film, along with other classified reports, confirms our worst fears: that a Nazi scientist has been endowing German troops with unnatural, unstoppable powers.

British Intelligence may be forced to resort to our own dark methods to hold the impending invasion at bay.



Bitter Seeds is the first book in Ian Tregillis’ Milkweed Triptych, and tells of an attempt to uncover and foil a covert and mysterious Nazi operation during World War II. British Intelligence operative Raybould Marsh discovers part of a film reel which seems to show Germans scientifically imbued with superhero-esque abilities, and he is determined to stop it: thus is born the ultra-secret Project Milkweed. After a series of defeats at the hands of the Germans, it appears the war is all but lost; however, the British are not without their own secret weapon . . . but using it comes with a heavy price.

I recently read The Violent Century by Lavie Tidhar, and the general premise is the same: what if there were soldiers with special powers, and how would they affect the war? However, while Tidhar’s Ubermensch are born with their powers, Tregillis’ soldiers are the result of horrific scientific experiments who are only able to utilise their abilities through having surgery to connect their brains to a special battery. The most notable of these are Reinhardt, who can harness heat; Gretel, who can see the future (but doesn’t always choose to share it with others); and Klaus, who is one of the main POV characters and can walk through walls.

The story of the German super soldiers is really interesting, particularly at the start when we don’t know very much about them apart from the hints in a damaged and creepy film reel. However, I felt that the British answer to them – the Eidolons – was a bit ridiculous, and was somewhat shoe-horned into the story. I would have preferred to see the British using their wits and strategy to overcome the scientifically superior German soldiers, rather than resorting to improbable supernatural forces. Saying that, I did like that the Eidolons came with a price, and that the author used the character of William to explore the argument of whether or not it is right to sacrifice a few for the needs of the many.

For me, one of the things that really stood out about Tregillis’ writing was the vivid descriptions. Whether the author is describing a battleground, a car journey, a pub, or just a man sitting in an office, he makes you feel as though you’re actually there: you can feel the heat of the explosions, hear the tick of the car’s engine, see the condensation on the pint glass and smell the smoke from the match used to light a cigarette. The author does a great job re-creating the wartime atmosphere, and his focus on the senses really helps bring every single scene, big or small, to life. Highly recommended.


4/5

Click here to view Bitter Seeds (Milkweed Triptych #1) on Amazon UK

Saturday, 19 July 2014

Review: 'Smiler's Fair' by Rebecca Levene



Smiler's Fair: the great moving carnival where any pleasure can be had, if you're willing to pay the price. They say all paths cross at Smiler's Fair. They say it'll change your life. For five people, Smiler's Fair will change everything.

In a land where unimaginable horror lurks in the shadows, where the very sun and moon are at war, five people - Nethmi, the orphaned daughter of a murdered nobleman, who in desperation commits an act that will haunt her forever. Dae Hyo, the skilled warrior, who discovers that a lifetime of bravery cannot make up for a single mistake. Eric, who follows his heart only to find that love exacts a terrible price. Marvan, the master swordsman, who takes more pleasure from killing than he should. And Krish, the humble goatherd, with a destiny he hardly understands and can never accept - will discover just how much Smiler's Fair changes everything.



Never judge a book by its cover. I went straight into Smiler’s Fair believing it to be a light YA fantasy. Instead I got one of the most gory and shocking beginnings I’ve ever read, followed by a series of events that rarely failed to include some form of death, sex or violence. Aside from this, book #1 in the Hollow Gods series is pretty much your quintessential run-of-the-mill fantasy fare. 

The author has created a fairly well-imagined world with some nicely original quirks, such as cities pulled by mammoths, civilisations that are constantly on the move, and the eponymous Fair itself. However, despite the book’s title, Smiler’s Fair doesn’t actually feature as prominently as you might expect; and many other features of the book are disappointingly generic, from the unimaginative fantasy tropes (gods, magic runes, giant birds) to the lacklustre title of the series itself. Although, I did like that the author had thought about how the fantastical elements would affect everyday life, such as the fact that metal is a rarity because the worm men make it almost impossible to mine properly.

The story itself is average, and is pretty much evenly paced throughout. As with most fantasy novels, it’s written from several different characters’ POVs, which unfortunately don’t really gel together all that well. Though most of them start out well, the characters don’t always go in the directions you’d expect, or even in any particular direction at all, which put me in mind of the somewhat dreary A Dance with Dragons. The characters, rather than developing perceptibly, simply each undergo a sequence of events that serves to get them from A to B, and character development is often seemingly pushed aside in favour of ‘shock value’ character turns. Indeed, the novel as a whole becomes needlessly darker as it progresses, and it feels like the author is trying to force the story into the ‘grimdark’ category, which doesn’t suit it very well at all.

As for the characters, it’s unfortunate that there just isn’t that much to like about most of them; and the ones who do start out likeable (or at least promising) end up being dislikeable or just plain dead. One particular gripe I had was that the author seems to have fallen into the trap of so many female authors who create gay male characters: that is, defining them solely by their sexuality.  Not only is Eric gay, but he is also a whore, and almost every one of his thoughts is of a sexual nature, even in extreme situations (although admittedly his situation at the end of the book does seem to imply that his character will be developed more in the future). I did like that Krish the prophesied ‘hero’ is somewhat weak and unconventional; however, he’s also fairly bland and two-dimensional, which makes him about as unsympathetic as most of the other characters. That’s not to say I disliked all the characters, though ironically the ones I found most interesting were the more peripheral ones, particularly Sang Ki and Olufemi.

To sum up: Smiler’s Fair was a pleasant surprise for the first 50 pages or so.  After its strong beginning, however, it was distinctly average, and after a while it was merely disappointing. A story that looked to have a lot of potential quickly degenerated into a collection of unsympathetic characters undergoing improbable and sometimes ridiculous events . . . most of which had nothing at all to do with Smiler’s Fair.


3/5

Click here to view Smiler's Fair (Hollow Gods #1) on Amazon UK

Sunday, 13 July 2014

Review: 'Half a King' by Joe Abercrombie


Prince Yarvi has vowed to regain a throne he never wanted. But first he must survive cruelty, chains and the bitter waters of the Shattered Sea itself. And he must do it all with only one good hand.

The deceived will become the deceiver

Born a weakling in the eyes of his father, Yarvi is alone in a world where a strong arm and a cold heart rule. He cannot grip a shield or swing an axe, so he must sharpen his mind to a deadly edge.

The betrayed will become the betrayer

Gathering a strange fellowship of the outcast and the lost, he finds they can do more to help him become the man he needs to be than any court of nobles could.

Will the usurped become the usurper?

But even with loyal friends at his side, Yarvi’s path may end as it began – in twists, and traps and tragedy...



Having read and enjoyed all of Joe Abercrombie’s other novels I had HUGE expectations of Half a King, the first book in the new Shattered Sea series. And, while I enjoyed it enough that I sailed through it in less than 24 hours, I have to admit to a tiny bit of disappointment.

I’ll start by saying that the beginning didn’t exactly blow me away. Oh, there was nothing wrong with it: the first 50 pages or so just felt a little flat, and a little bit generic and predictable. To be fair, though, the storyline actually gets going very quickly. Joe wastes no time throwing Yarvi and the reader into big events; and, after a somewhat lacklustre beginning, Half a King quickly twists into the kind of story we’ve come to expect from Joe: a group of mismatched people thrown together by circumstance, a struggle against the odds, a large dose of bloody action, and a main character struggling against a physical flaw which makes him an outcast and an object of scorn in the eyes of others.

Yarvi is the youngest son of the king of Thorlby. Crippled since birth, he has trained for years in preparation for joining the Ministers, but is instead forced to take the throne after the unexpected betrayal and death of his father and older brother. His reign is short-lived, as he too falls to betrayal; now he has to work his way back up from the dregs of humanity into which he has fallen, and take revenge on those who wronged his family.

As with all of Abercrombie’s novels there’s a great cast of supporting characters. In Yarvi’s little fellowship there’s Sumael the no-nonsense navigator, Rulf and Jaud the simple but loyal oarsmen, Ankran the corrupt storekeeper, and – my personal favourite – Nothing, a ragged slave with a big secret and an even bigger grudge. Though not quite as motley a group as we’re accustomed to with Joe’s stories, there’s still a nice mix of friendships and rivalries, and a fair amount of entertaining dialogue. Yarvi himself is a flawed and sympathetic protagonist, full of little nuggets of wisdom learned during his training; and I particularly enjoyed the character of Shadikshirram, the drunk merchant captain and nemesis of the group.

Being intended for a YA audience I’d expected Half a King to be a ‘toned down’ version of a ‘true’ Abercrombie novel, and I suppose it is, though not in the ways I’d expected. True, it’s missing all the sex, all the swearing and much of the bloodiness of his adult novels. However, I don’t think it suffered from this at all. I do think that the main difference with Half a King is the way that you never really feel like the characters are in any danger, and never really doubt that they’ll overcome the odds and achieve their goals. It’s true that not all the characters have a happy ending, but even at the characters’ lowest points the novel lacks any real sense of futility . . . which I suppose is a good thing in a YA novel, as I imagine there’s a limit to how much ‘grimdark’ younger readers are able to take.

I think Half a King suffered partly (in my eyes) from being hailed as a revenge story. Now, Joe Abercrombie has already written the best revenge story I’ve ever read: Best Served Cold. I’m not sure whether I was expecting something similar to Monza’s story from Yarvi and co., but Half a King – although revenge is certainly a key part of the story – is more of a coming-of-age tale of survival and growth. I found the revenge aspect to be surprisingly anti-climactic and unsatisfying, since I’d expected the whole Shattered Sea trilogy to build towards its conclusion.

I think the downside of having created such brilliant works as First Law, Best Served Cold, and The Heroes, is that everything written afterwards is going to be judged against them. It’s probably by holding Joe’s previous novels – especially Best Served Cold – on a pedestal that stopped me from enjoying Half a King as much as I wanted to. That said, it has all the hallmarks of a great Abercrombie novel: wit and irony, humour and bloody action, and characters who you feel like you know even though they’ve hardly said two words. Not only am I keen to try the next in the Shattered Sea series when it’s released, but I’ve also got a sudden appetite for a re-read of the First Law books . . .


4/5

Click here to view Half a King (Shattered Sea #1) on Amazon UK

Saturday, 12 July 2014

Review: 'The Daylight War' by Peter V. Brett

On the night of a new moon all shadows deepen.

Humanity has thirty days to prepare for the next demon attack, but one month is scarcely enough time to train a village to defend themselves, let alone an entire continent caught in the throes of civil war.

Arlen Bales understands the coreling threat better than anyone. Born ordinary, the demon plague has shaped him into a weapon so powerful he has been given the unwanted title of saviour, and attracted the attention of deadly enemies both above and below ground.

Unlike Arlen, Ahmann Jardir embraces the title of Deliverer. His strength resides not only in the legendary relics he carries, but also in the magic wielded by his first wife, Inevera, a cunning and powerful priestess whose allegiance even Jardir cannot be certain of.

Once Arlen and Jardir were like brothers. Now they are the bitterest of rivals. As humanity’s enemies prepare, the only two men capable of defeating them are divided against each other by the most deadly demons of all: those that lurk in the human heart.


The Daylight War, book #3 in the Demon Cycle, started out really well. In the first few chapters we’re thrown into the origin story of one of the most powerful characters of the series, and are given our first real insights into Inevera. The focus on her humble background, rigorous training and gradual rise to power made her much more sympathetic than in the previous book, and built her up as a really strong and likeable character.

However, I felt that the story began to flounder once it returned to the main story. The characters spend the vast majority of the novel preparing for Waning, or new moon, which is when the demon army will attack the humans in force for the first time in hundreds of years. I was really looking forward to this, expecting the build-up and conflict to be something close to epic. However, it actually involved a surprising lack of action, as the characters spend a lot of their preparation time travelling back and forth, talking a lot, and agonising over their love lives. The battle itself is not really given that much page time and is therefore a little bit anti-climactic, with entire nights just skimmed over, and not really enough emphasis on the catastrophic scale of destruction caused by the demons. In fact, much of the latter half of the book feels somewhat disjointed, as it switches from Arlen’s experience of the Waning assault to Jardir’s, and there are a few flashback scenes in the book that feel quite repetitive (there’s one particular event that we’ve now seen from no less than 3 characters’ points of view).

The Daylight War introduces several new characters, and continues to follow the old ones, with mixed results. Leesha sadly seems to have regressed from her strong persona into something more shallow, and spends much of the novel being defined by her feelings for different men; and Renna, who was actually one of my favourite characters in The Desert Spear, quickly became irritating, as did the dialect in which she and Arlen spoke. However, I did enjoy the new Rojer-Amanvah-Sikvah dynamic, and Abban’s segments are also interesting; but Inevera’s story is definitely the part I enjoyed most.

Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed reading The Daylight War. It just started to feel like a chore after a while, and I found that I didn’t really care what happened to the characters any more. I think it’s partly because the demons aren’t frightening any more. The characters can fight them easily now, and aren’t even the slightest bit worried about walking outside at night. But it was the characters’ fear of the darkness and the demons that made The Painted Man so distinctive, and kept me on edge whilst reading it. In The Desert Spear, the characters were less afraid of the demons, but there were enough other things going on to keep up the readers’ anticipation. I get that The Daylight War is supposed to be more about the conflict between the Krasians and the Thesans, but sadly I felt that, by taking away this defining aspect of the series, the book lost much of that atmosphere that made the first two books such a joy to read.


3/5

Click here to view The Daylight War (Demon Cycle #3) on Amazon UK

Click here to read my review of The Painted Man (Demon Cycle #1)
Click here to read my review of The Desert Spear (Demon Cycle #2)

Thursday, 3 July 2014

Review: 'Prince of Fools' by Mark Lawrence

The Red Queen is old but the kings of the Broken Empire dread her like no other. For all her reign, she has fought the long war, contested in secret, against the powers that stand behind nations, for higher stakes than land or gold. Her greatest weapon is The Silent Sister—unseen by most and unspoken of by all.

The Red Queen’s grandson, Prince Jalan Kendeth—drinker, gambler, seducer of women—is one who can see The Silent Sister. Tenth in line for the throne and content with his role as a minor royal, he pretends that the hideous crone is not there. But war is coming. Witnesses claim an undead army is on the march, and the Red Queen has called on her family to defend the realm. Jal thinks it’s all a rumor—nothing that will affect him—but he is wrong.

After escaping a death trap set by the Silent Sister, Jal finds his fate magically intertwined with a fierce Norse warrior. As the two undertake a journey across the Empire to undo the spell, encountering grave dangers, willing women, and an upstart prince named Jorg Ancrath along the way, Jalan gradually catches a glimmer of the truth: he and the Norseman are but pieces in a game, part of a series of moves in the long war—and the Red Queen controls the board.


I’ve been very excited about this book for a long time. I pre-ordered it several months ago, and would have been able to review it earlier had I not insisted on treating myself to a signed first edition (why, Goldsboro, why??).

Anyway. Mark Lawrence’s Broken Empire trilogy was one of my best discoveries of 2013, largely due to its dark tone and brilliantly captivating first person narrative, and I expected big things of Prince of Fools. It delivered all of them, bigger and better than even I’d been looking forward to. Prince of Fools is the first book of Lawrence’s new series ,The Red Queen’s War, and it follows the converging paths of two very different characters: Snorri ver Snagason, a Norse raider from Viking lands; and Jalan Kendeth, a bone idle prince from Red March.

Lawrence’s prose is poetic and flowing, easy to read and with the usual characteristic undercurrent of dry, occasionally dark humour. The tone is light even when the plot is gritty, which makes it very engaging and difficult to put down. The protagonist is witty, amusing and occasionally outrageous, and his insights and narrative voice are always entertaining (although sometimes he appears to get so caught up in his own witticisms that he forgets to tell the story). The fact that he has Snorri to bounce off (sometimes literally) helps to highlight his personality even further, and the juxtaposition of the two opposing characters works really well.

Those who found Lawrence’s Broken Empire trilogy too dark and its main character unsympathetic may have more luck here. Jalan Kendeth is certainly no Jorg Ancrath, despite the similar-sounding names. True, they’re both royal princes, they both leave their homelands to go on adventures, and neither of them care very much about anyone except themselves, at least at first. However, while Jorg is a somewhat sociopathic, homicidal teen with aspirations to rule an empire, Jalan is a self-professed coward, a twenty-something womaniser and gambler who just wants to spend his time enjoying the finer things in life. His internal monologue, in which he continually whinges and whines and ruminates on the wisdom of running away in every possible situation, is refreshingly different to Jorg’s no-nonsense goal-centred character, although I personally find both very entertaining in their own way.

One of my favourite aspects of the Broken Empire series were the references to the ‘Builders’ world, and the irony created by characters’ ignorant observations and assumptions about the things left behind from this world. I was pleased to see this continue in Prince of Fools with many more humorous comments, such as the legend of the train (which Jal thinks must have been a “fearsome beast” to have been able to plough through the side of a mountain), Skilfar’s “plasteek guardians”, and – my personal favourite – a Viking longship named Ikea.

Unlike the Broken Empire, there are no confusing time hops in Prince of Fools. Aside from the occasional memory, and Jalan’s gradual telling of Snorri’s tale, the entire story is focused solely on events occurring over several weeks, and from the perspective of one single character. This makes it easier to see how the main character develops during the course of the story, and demonstrates the author’s ability to subtly build character without resorting to flashbacks and time-jumps. I will say that I was a little disappointed with how the development seems to reverse again by the end of the novel, but hopefully more will be revealed in the second book.

If you didn’t enjoy the Broken Empire trilogy, I’d definitely recommend giving this a go instead. If you did enjoy the Broken Empire trilogy, then why haven’t you read this yet??


5/5

Click here to view Prince of Fools (The Red Queen's War #1) on Amazon UK
Click here to read my review of Prince of Thorns (Broken Empire #1)

Tuesday, 1 July 2014

Review: 'The Desert Spear' by Peter V. Brett



The sun is setting on humanity. The night now belongs to voracious demons that arise as the sun sets, preying upon a dwindling population forced to cower behind ancient and half-forgotten symbols of power. These wards alone can keep the demons at bay, but legends tell of a Deliverer: a general-some would say prophet-who once bound all mankind into a single force that defeated the demons. Those times, if they ever existed, are long past. The demons are back, and the return of the Deliverer is just another myth . . . or is it?



I was a little bit apprehensive going into The Desert Spear. I thoroughly enjoyed The Painted Man (book 1 of Brett’s Demon Cycle series), but I’ve heard quite a lot of negative things about the sequels from various people, and at first I really wasn’t sure what to make of it. I initially felt that the complete focus on Jardir’s backstory at the beginning of the book (I think he gets almost 1/3 of the book entirely to himself) stole some of the momentum from the exciting ending built up by the first book, perhaps because I read this so soon after finishing it. I was disappointed not to be reading about Arlen and Leesha, and didn’t like the amount of focus on a character I didn’t really care about and who, until this point, had featured only in a relatively minor fashion.

However, once I’d got over myself and stopped sulking, I really started to enjoy learning about Jardir and the Krasians. Some of the Krasian words were a little confusing at first, particularly similar-sounding titles like dama’ting and damaji’ting, but the fact that this part of the story is all one long segment really kept me immersed in the new world, and it all started to make sense very quickly. These origin chapters really help us understand why Jardir does the things he does, and even to sympathise with him (if only a tiny bit), particularly when he is faced with the obstacles of tradition, or being manipulated by the holy women. The author creates a very deep, harsh culture that is both believable and immersive, and does a nice job of portraying lots of different elements of this culture, including marriage, hierarchy and conflict, in an interesting way.

After such a strong focus on Krasia and its alien culture, it was nice to see a return to some of the places I liked best from the first book, such as Miln, Cutter’s Hollow and Tibbet’s Brook. Similarly, returning to the characters of Leesha, Arlen and Rojer was like meeting old friends, and the characters we know and love have developed a little in the time that has passed between the two books. Leesha in particular is much more powerful here, both in regards to her skills and her maturity.

Unlike its predecessors, The Desert Spear does not just centre around three central protagonists. As I’ve already mentioned, there is quite a hefty focus on Ahmann Jardir, as well several additional POV characters: these are introduced well, all of them are relevant and fun to read about, and they also bring even more variety to the existing POVs by giving us a wider view of both conflicts. In addition to the others mentioned, we now see parts of the story through the eyes of the Krasian merchant Abban, Arlen’s childhood sweetheart Renna, and even a mind demon prince from the Core. The POVs are also alternated in a way that keeps our interest, builds tension and compliments the pacing: the character focus tends to change in segments rather than whole chapters (with the exception of Jardir at the beginning), and the occasional rapidly alternating POVs work well to build momentum and work towards interesting convergences.

There are plenty of other things to like about The Desert Spear, but one of my favourites was the introduction of some new species of demon. In addition to flame, rock, wood and sand demons, we now have the terrifying mind demons, who can read thoughts and control people like puppets, and the even more frightening mimic demons, who can assume the physical shape of anything – including humans. I was also gratified to see that some of the things that niggled at me about the first book were actually addressed here, such as what would happen if the demons – who can’t bodily cross the protective wards – realised they were able to throw rocks or other objects at the people hiding behind the wards, and why they don’t do it all the time.

So: having previously heard quite a few negative comments, I was prepared to be disappointed with The Desert Spear . . . but actually, I ended up enjoying it even more than the first book. Bring on The Daylight War!

5/5


Click here to view The Desert Spear (Demon Cycle #2) on Amazon UK

Click here to read my review of The Painted Man (Demon Cycle #1)

Sunday, 29 June 2014

Review: 'The Dragon Masters' by Jack Vance



Coralyne is close . . . the Basics are coming . . .



(I reviewed this book quite a while ago, but didn't post anything to the blog as I was having technical issues at the time). 

I was a bit unsure going into this one, since my first brush with Jack Vance (Suldrun's Garden: reviewed here) didn’t exactly win me over. But a friend was kind enough to send me this out of the blue, and since it’s so tiny, I thought I’d give it a go.

It turned out to be just what I needed. I’d been struggling a little bit with my reading mojo, and being able to read something so quick and easy really helped, and made me eager to read more of the same – that is, fantasy with a hint of SF. I’d been wanting to try SF for a while, and I think The Dragon Masters was a nice way of easing me into it.

The story itself is fairly simple: far into the future, on a distant planet named Aerlith, the last of humankind live on a world where dragons and monsters are commonplace and are used in warfare, either as mounts or as soldiers. Every few generations, a star called Coralyne burns brighter than usual, and this always coincides with the arrival of the Basics, an alien race who turn up in spaceships and kill and capture hundreds of humans before leaving again. The leaders of men must find a way of defeating the Basics, and of appropriating their technology in order to seek out any other remaining colonies of humans in the universe.

I liked the story, and I liked the setting and fantasy elements, especially the Sacerdotes and the different types of dragons. I also liked how it posed questions, such as who is really the more barbaric out of the humans and the aliens. I did struggle to empathise with the main character – as I did in Suldrun’s Garden – but with a story as short as this one it feels pointless to gripe about such things.

All in all, I had fun with this one - although I'm not sure I would have enjoyed it quite as much had it been any longer . . .


4/5

Click here to view The Dragon Masters on Amazon UK