Sunday, 19 October 2014

Review: 'Horns' by Joe Hill

 Ignatius Perrish spent the night drunk and doing terrible things. He woke up the next morning with one hell of a hangover, a raging headache . . . and a pair of horns growing from his temples.

Once, Ig lived the life of the blessed: born into privilege, the second son of a renowned American musician, and the younger brother of a rising late-night TV star, Ig had security and wealth and a place in his community. Ig had it all, and more - he had the love of Merrin Williams, a love founded on shared daydreams, mutual daring, and unlikely midsummer magic.

Then beautiful, vivacious Merrin was gone - raped and murdered, under inexplicable circumstances - with Ig the only suspect. He was never tried for the crime, but in the court of public opinion, Ig was and always would be guilty.

Now Ig is possessed with a terrible new power - with just a touch he can see peoples' darkest desires - to go with his terrible new look, and he means to use it to find the man who killed Merrin and destroyed his life. Being good and praying for the best got him nowhere. It's time for a little revenge; it's time the devil had his due.

As its October, I fancied dipping into a horror novel. Aside from a few teenage forays into King and Herbert, I’m something of a stranger to the genre, but Joe Hill’s work has appealed to me for a while now. I own both Horns and Heart-Shaped Box, but decided to go with Horns as it’s the subject of the group read on a forum I participate in.

The main impression I had of the majority of the book was “meh”, which is as close as I can get to a verbal shrug of indifference.

It’s unfortunate: Horns actually starts off very promisingly. Hill throws us right in at the deep end by having the protagonist, Ig, discover his new predicament – that a nice sharp pair of horns have begun growing out of his forehead – on the very first page. He then proceeds with the story logically and rapidly, with Ig taking a visit to the walk-in centre and accidentally discovering the side-effects of his new pointy accessories: that people he talks to now confess their darkest desires to him without prompting. Worse still, when he makes physical contact with a person, he can see every dark secret and every nasty thing they’ve ever done. However, this quickly becomes repetitive, with every single person he meets wanting to either hurt or have sex with someone they know.

After learning that Ig’s girlfriend was murdered a year ago, we’re then treated to long sequences of flashbacks from the early days of their relationship. I have to admit that much of this had me sighing and flicking forward to see when each chapter would end. However, much later on in the book, the flashbacks do become quite poignant, as they reveal just how tragic and probably avoidable many of the events really are. I wasn’t overly-enamoured with Ig as a protagonist, but began to like him more towards the end of the book, when the pace picked up and he began to embrace his new knowledge.

I’m a bit disappointed that Horns wasn’t actually scary in any way –after all, I only really picked it up because I fancied a good scare – but it makes up for a lot of that in dark imagery and even blacker humour. It’s not spectacular – in fact, I think it’s one of the weaker books I’ve read this year – but it’s a fairly short, easy-to-read novel with a solid story and a great ending.


Click here to view Horns on Amazon UK.

Thursday, 16 October 2014

Tough Travels: Desert Nomads

‘Tough Travelling’ is a weekly feature: every Thursday (hopefully!) I’ll be rummaging around in my memory to come up with various examples of commonly used fantasy tropes. Full credit goes to Nathan of Fantasy Review Barn for hosting the idea: be sure to check out his blog!

This week’s topic is DESERT NOMADS.

DESERT NOMADS occupy the hot parts to the south, which is either desert or rather parched grass. For some reason this is ideal terrain for breeding horses, of which nomad clans have in large numbers.

I had a bit of a dry (heh heh) spell when trying to think of some examples: some of the following therefore fit only the loosest possible definition of ‘desert nomads’.

The Dothraki 

(A Song of Ice and Fire by George R. R. Martin)

They tend to roam the plains rather than the desert, but the Dothraki are famous for their horses, and all male Dothraki are trained from birth as horse warriors. With their dark skin, long braided hair and penchant for violence, the Dothraki are perhaps the archetypal desert nomads. Needless to say, it’s a bit of a culture shock for Daenerys when she marries into them.

The Rhivi 

(Steven Erikson’s The Malazan Book of the Fallen)

Since I can’t seem to let a week go by without mentioning Erikson, why not talk about the Rhivi? These small, hardy travellers roam the aptly-named Rhivi Plain, and drive their thousands-strong herds of bhederin along with them. They wear skins and furs, live in yurts made from bhederin hide, and play a crucial part in much of the conflict early on in the Malazan series.

The Fremen 

(Dune by Frank Herbert)

Much as I disliked the majority of this novel, one of my favourite aspects of it was the Fremen. They’re not romanticised in any way: they’re described as being very practical, and are able to survive in the hostile wastes of a desert planet only through the use of stillsuits, a rather gross-sounding device that allows them to recycle their own bodily fluids. They don’t have horses, but they do have massive sandworms (that’s NOT a euphemism), and you’d want to be very wary before challenging any of them to single combat.

The Thuril 

(Mistress of the Empire by Raymond E. Feist and Janny Wurts)

The Thuril Confederacy, an alliance of nomadic peoples, is a name cursed by almost all Tsuranni, since they have always resisted assimilation into the Tsurani Empire. In hilarious contrast to the stoic Tsurani, for whom a public display of emotion is a hugely shameful thing, the coarse-mouthed Thuril delight in infuriating one another with personal insults, usually involving the words “your mother”. One of my favourite moments in this book is seeing how Lady Mara deals with their humiliating treatment of her.

The Krasians 

(The Demon Cycle by Peter V. Brett)

Do the Krasians really count as nomads? Many of them dwell behind the walls of a desert city, but there are many of them who live in small villages in the desert itself. Not desert nomads precisely, then, but desert dwellers nonetheless. They generally ride camels rather than horses, as you’d expect in the desert, and a warrior’s path is considered the highest honour. Krasian society is fiercely hierarchical, and they may come to realise that their strict traditions have actually done nothing but hamper their ongoing efforts in Alagai’sharak: holy war against demonkind.

That’s all for this week. Next week’s topic is ELVES, and I have a feeling it’s going to be a lot tougher than it sounds . . .

Monday, 13 October 2014

Review: 'Memories of Ice' by Steven Erikson

The ravaged continent of Genabackis has given birth to a terrifying new empire: the Pannion Domin. Like a fanatical tide of corrupted blood, it seethes across the land, devouring all who fail to heed the Word of its elusive prophet, the Pannion Seer. In its path stands an uneasy alliance: Dujek Onearm's Host and the Bridgeburners ­ each now outlawed by the Empress ­ alongside their enemies of old including the grim forces of Warlord Caladan Brood, Anomander Rake, Son of Darkness, and his Tiste Andii, and the Rhivi people of the Plains.

But more ancient clans are gathering. As if in answer to some primal summons, the massed ranks of the undead T'lan Imass have risen. For it would seem something altogether darker and more malign threatens the very substance of this world. The Warrens are poisoned and rumours abound of the Crippled God, now unchained and intent on a terrible revenge...

Memories of Ice, the third book in Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen, leaves the events of the previous book behind and returns instead to the continent of Genabackis, which was the location of Gardens of the Moon. Many characters from the first book re-appear here, such as notable favourites Anomander Rake, Quick Ben, Kruppe, Tool, Toc the Younger, and Whiskeyjack and the rest of the Bridgeburners. Mixed in with these are several new additions: there’s Hetan the randy Barghast, Gruntle the grumpy caravan guard captain, Kallor the immortal grudge-holding warrior, Itkovian the tragic servant of a lost god, the mysterious and unflappable Lady Envy, and of course the sinister pair of necromancers known as Bauchelain and Korbal Broach. All of these characters are thrown together as a result of a dubious alliance against a malign empire known as the Pannion Domin.

The characters, both new and old, are incredible, and many of the novel’s best moments are character-centred rather than action-driven. Quick Ben’s casual confrontation with the necromancers, Rake’s late-night conversations with Whiskeyjack, Lady Envy’s continuing attempts to exact obedience from her companions, and just about anything involving Kruppe – all contribute to make Memories of Ice feel like a living, breathing part of the Malazan world, rather than just the next step of the story. That’s not to say that the action falls flat, of course: Erikson gives us a plentiful share of the usual fast-paced battles, awesome warrens, explosive weaponry and bickering gods. He also introduces many new elements: some of these are simply brilliant, while others are downright terrifying (we now have K’Chain Che’Malle stalking the world, lightning-fast dinosaur-like undead beings with blades for arms. Yikes!).

But Memories of Ice isn’t all action and horror. Erikson’s capacity for beautiful tragedy, honed to a fine art in Deadhouse Gates, is also deftly applied here: he has a real knack for twisting the knife in your heart before you even realised you’ve been stabbed with it. There are so many small moments which left me blurry-eyed, more so because I wasn’t expecting them. And then there’s the humour, just as deftly placed, a welcome complement to the pathos seeping through the whole tale. The segments following Lady Envy and her motley companions are a delight to read, as are Kruppe’s befuddling monologues and Picker’s interactions with her disparate squad of soldiers, particularly Antsy.

However, a lot of the book is spent following an army on the march, and as such many of the locations (campfires, command tents, hilltops) become quite repetitive. Erikson also seems to have suddenly acquired the desire to explain things in detail, and to re-cap or clarify things that have already happened. While this isn’t necessarily a bad thing – in fact, I reckon Gardens of the Moon might have benefited from this in places – it does occasionally feel as though a huge chunk of the book is taken up with conversations between characters regarding something that has just been described, and it sometimes feels as though we’re having to experience some events several times before moving on. It’s as though, upon proof-reading the book, the author slotted in an “exposition inside a command tent” scene wherever he thought his characters’ motives weren’t 100% clear.

I think it’s this repetition that contributes to the relatively slow pace of the novel. Despite the fact that Memories of Ice contains two major – no, epic – battles, along with several exciting skirmishes and powerful displays of magic, I think it suffers from being just a little bit too long. Erikson takes almost 1200 pages to do what he could probably have accomplished in 900, and while I would usually disagree with the concept of “too much” Malazan, I have to observe that this is the first time so far during my re-read of the series that I’ve felt a tiny bit disappointed. I always remembered Memories of Ice as my favourite of the series, full of undead monsters, creepy necromancers, gritty warriors and epic conflict. What I didn’t remember was the sheer volume of command tents, hilltop parleys, and Ganoes Paran’s stomach pain.

It really says something about Erikson’s writing that, despite all of these gripes, Memories of Ice still remains one of the best books I’ve (re-)read this year. The last 200 pages or so more than make up for the slow patches scattered throughout, and I doubt anyone familiar with the series would be able to read them without blurry eyes and a wobbly bottom lip. Contrary to my own recollection, Memories of Ice is not quite as enthralling as Deadhouse Gates . . . but, as with the other books in the series, it touched me in a way no other series has ever quite managed to.


Click here to view Memories of Ice (Malazan Book of the Fallen #3) on Amazon UK

Click here to read my review of Gardens of the Moon (Malazan Book of the Fallen #1)
Click here to read my review of Deadhouse Gates (Malazan Book of the Fallen #2)

Thursday, 9 October 2014

Tough Travels: Dark Ladies

‘Tough Travelling’ is a weekly feature: every Thursday (hopefully!) I’ll be rummaging around in my memory to come up with various examples of commonly used fantasy tropes. Full credit goes to Nathan of Fantasy Review Barn for coming up with the idea: be sure to check out his blog!

This week the theme is ‘Dark Ladies’, which is a bit tricky. In fantasy fiction you can’t swing a cat without hitting a famous Dark Lord: Voldemort, Sauron, Saruman, Dracula, Darth Vader, Rumpelstiltskin, and even Satan. Dark ladies, however, are not quite as prevalent throughout the genre as Dark Lords, although they do seem to have begun appearing more widely in the last decade or so.

I’ve taken ‘Dark Ladies’ to embody female characters who hatch ‘wicked’ plots, possess some sort of dark magical power, and/or whose actions deliberately cause harm to others. With that in mind, the list begins with:


(The Broken Empire trilogy by Mark Lawrence) 

Chella is a necromancer, and one of the main antagonists in Mark Lawrence’s Broken Empire trilogy. She’s beautiful, seductive and cruel, and has the ability to raise entire armies from the dead: an ability she uses to terrifying effect in all three books.

The Silent Sister 

(Prince of Fools by Mark Lawrence) 

I had to mention Lawrence again here. We know virtually nothing about the Silent Sister, other than that she is a creepy, mysterious and powerful crone. We know that she is probably directly responsible for the horrific deaths of hundreds, if not thousands, of people, and that she changed the lives of protagonists Jalan and Snorri with one single curse.


(the Shadow Ops trilogy by Myke Cole) 

I’ve only read the first book in this series (Control Point) and so don’t know much about Scylla, other than that she is merciless and possesses a destructive power which has thoroughly corrupted her. Her power is terrifying, and she is made even more fearful by the fact that she is kept in confinement: the first couple of times we meet her are through the bars of her prison, and her guards are afraid of her even when she is fully incarcerated. Furthermore, she has big plans for the world, and though her ideals are somewhat admirable, her methods are utterly reprehensible.

The Emerald Queen 

(the Serpentwar Saga by Raymond E. Feist) 

I haven’t read this series for a very long time, but from what I remember the Emerald Queen was very much a Dark Lady. Mysterious and powerful, she is seeking a magical artefact that has the potential to destroy worlds. She is ruthless and cunning, commands huge armies and is bent on the destruction of Midkemia.

The Lady 

(The Black Company by Glen Cook) 

Again, it’s a very long time since I read anything by Glen Cook, but I remember enough to know that the Lady is about as dark as they come. She was the head of a tyrannical empire before being imprisoned, and is later released to unleash her darkness once more. She betrays her husband and fellow tyrant by leaving him buried, murders her own sister, and rules a dark army led by ten foul generals known as the Taken. The ultimate Dark Lady? Perhaps.

Others who deserve a mention are:

  • Bethod’s nameless witch (Joe Abercrombie’s First Law trilogy)
  • Inevera (The Demon Cycle by Peter V. Brett)
  • Poliel, ascendant goddess of disease (Steven Erikson’s The Malazan Book of the Fallen)
  • Catarina (Miserere by Teresa Frohock)
  • Bellatrix Lestrange (the Harry Potter series by J. K. Rowling)

That’s it for this week! Happy travelling!

Thursday, 2 October 2014

Tough Travels: Curses

‘Tough Travelling’ is a weekly feature: every Thursday (hopefully!) I’ll be rummaging around in my memory to come up with various examples of commonly used fantasy tropes. Credit goes to Nathan of Fantasy Review Barn for coming up with the idea: be sure to check out his blog!

The topic of this week’s Tough Travelling is curses. The word ‘curse’ is often used to describe magic that has a negative or detrimental effect on a person or place. Curses are frequently used as a plot point in horror movies, but also appear in abundance in fantasy, particularly games: I don’t think I’ve ever played an RPG that didn’t feature a werewolf curse, cursed artefact, or family curse.

That said, I had a bit of trouble trying to think of examples from fantasy literature, and only managed to come up with three . . . [Warning: possible spoilers below.]

The Unforgivable Curses

(The Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling)

The Harry Potter series abounds with magic designed to harm or irritate others. These are interchangeably referred to as spells, jinxes, hexes and curses. There are spells to make people’s teeth grow, hexes that cause acne, and even jinxes to make your enemy vomit slugs. However, these are minor when compared with the big curses, the worst of which are known as the Unforgiveable Curses. The Imperius Curse allows a witch or wizard to manipulate the actions of other people; the Cruciatus curse causes pain and is usually used to torture others; and the Killing Curse pretty much speaks for itself. All three curses are illegal in the wizarding world and will earn anyone who performs them a life sentence in Azkaban prison, yet we see their effects more times than you can count in the books succeeding Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.

High King Kallor

(Memories of Ice by Steven Erikson)

Book three of The Malazan Book of the Fallen has one of the best prologues I’ve read. In the first few pages of Memories of Ice we witness an event occurring hundreds of thousands of years before
the main story, involving three Elder gods and a tyrant king. The gods curse the king three times: he will never ascend to godhood, will be doomed to lose all that he achieves, and will live forever yet continue to age. He in turn curses each of the gods: one will be betrayed and torn apart by demons, another will be forgotten, and the other will be destroyed by something he has created. It’s all pretty epic.

Kresimir’s Promise

(Promise of Blood by Brian McClellan)

Field Marshall Tamas orchestrates a coup against the king and his royal cabal of mages. Each and every one of the mages uses their dying breath to utter the exact same phrase: “You can’t break Kresimir’s promise.” Tamas hires an inspector to try and uncover the meaning of this, and it’s revealed that the royal cabal are magically compelled by a geas, which forces them to take revenge on whoever destroyed the monarchy. I don’t know if this really counts as a curse, but my mind is something of a creative wasteland this week.

So that's all for today! I’d have loved to be able to talk about Lois McMaster Bujold’s The Curse of Chalion and Janny Wurts’ Curse of the Mistwraith, but unfortunately I haven’t read either. I imagine they would have given me something more to talk about . . .

Thursday, 25 September 2014

Tough Travels: Companions

‘Tough Travelling’ is a weekly feature: every Thursday (hopefully!) I’ll be rummaging around in my memory to come up with various examples of commonly used fantasy tropes. Full credit goes to Nathan of Fantasy Review Barn for coming up with the idea: be sure to check out his blog!

This week the theme is COMPANIONS. Everyone knows that a hero is nothing without his or her friends to help them along the way, and therefore wise old mentors, snarky sidekicks and BFF bromances have become a staple of fantasy literature.

Here are some of my favourite examples of companions in fantasy . . .

Ron Weasley 
(The Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling)

I feel like Ron doesn’t get as much love from Potter fans as he deserves, possibly because the film franchise has permanently seared the image of Rupert Grint’s dozy mug onto our collective consciousness. However, in the books he’s the most steadfast, loyal and – dare I say – simple of friends Harry could wish for. A bit like a loveable basset hound, but with the adventuresome attitude of a Jack Russell terrier. Just as importantly, he comes with a huge close-knit family, and a doting mother who takes Harry under her wing at a time when he really needs someone to look after his best interests. What more could you ask for in a companion?

Sam Gamgee
(The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien)

Like Ron, Sam is fiercely loyal and solid, a steady rock constantly supporting the increasingly fragile Frodo. In some ways their companionship is more heartwarming to read about because over the course of the trilogy the divide between them gradually dissolves, as Sam goes from ‘serving’ Frodo and calling him ‘Mister Frodo’ to finally considering him as an equal. In times of crisis Sam’s always there by Frodo’s side, always helping to “share the load” and even following him to the very precipice of Mount Doom itself. He’s a loyal Labrador who acts as Frodo’s guide dog in times of need.

Jean Tannen
(The Gentlemen Bastards series by Scott Lynch)

Locke Lamora is one of my favourite fictional creations ever, but he’d be nothing without his partner in crime (literally), Jean Tannen. Not only does Jean act as the brawn to Locke’s brains with his brutal use of a pair of hatchets – nicknamed the Wicked Sisters – but he’s also got a fair amount of brains himself, and does most of the Gentlemen Bastards’ accounting. When Locke suffers a crippling mental breakdown, Jean is there to bulldoze him out of it; and even when suffering from grief of his own, he still puts his own problems on the back seat in order to take care of Locke. He’s strong, selfless and talented: if I ever found myself in a fantasy universe and had to choose a companion, it would probably be Jean Tannen.

Telorast and Curdle
(The Malazan Book of the Fallen by Steven Erikson)

In a series with hundreds of characters, most of whom are constantly on the move and changing their company on a day-to-day basis, I have to say that I’ve always adored Telorast and Curdle. They’re all the more entertaining for being somewhat unwelcome companions – they’re really more like stalkers, who follow in the shadow of the deadly assassin Apsalar as she goes about her business. On her own, Apsalar is something of a ‘meh’ character, a bit dull and not all that sympathetic. But with Telorast and Curdle following her around, making inappropriate observations, sniping at one another and taking bets on when she might die, she becomes a lot more interesting. Oh, and did I mention that Telorast and Curdle are mysterious shadowy spirits inhabiting the bodies of two tiny bird-like skeletons?

Kevin of Zun
(the Empire trilogy by Raymond E. Feist & Janny Wurts)

A some-time companion of the series’ protagonist Mara, Kevin is a soldier from another planet, captured during a battle and subsequently sold into slavery to the Acoma household. From his very first introduction to Mara he shocks her, outrages her, intrigues her, and forces her to question everything she has ever known. He teaches her love in a world of political marriages, fairness in a society of strict hierarchy and injustice, and it’s partly because of Kevin that Mara develops into such a forward-thinking character determined to change her own world for the better.

Of course, there are plenty of other fantasy companions who also deserve a mention, such as:
  •       Taniel’s silent sidekick Ka-Poel in Brian McClellan’s Powder Mage trilogy
  •         Kvothe’s enigmatic protégé Bast in Pat Rothfuss’ Kingkiller Chronicles
  •         Snorri the Viking in Mark Lawrence’s Prince of Fools.

. . . but that’s it for this week!

Sunday, 21 September 2014

Review: 'The Light Fantastic' by Terry Pratchett

As it moves towards a seemingly inevitable collision with a malevolent red star, the Discworld has only one possible saviour.  Unfortunately, this happens to be the singularly inept and cowardly wizard called Rincewind, who was last seen falling off the edge of the world...

It’s difficult to talk about the second Discworld novel without comparing it to the first, which I recently re-read and which left me somewhat disappointed. It’s been a long time since I read either book and so I had somewhat low expectations of this one too; but I have to say, I found The Light Fantastic to be a whole lot more enjoyable than The Colour of Magic. For one thing, there’s an actual plot. For another, the main character actually develops as the story progresses. And for another, the secondary characters are a lot more fleshed out and a lot more likeable. The world is also a lot better realised and I found it much easier to follow the characters’ journey in my mind’s eye, unlike the first book in which they were jumping about here there and everywhere.

I’ll start with the story. As we learned in The Colour of Magic, Rincewind is a failed wizard who, as a result of an unfortunate series of events, is stuck at the wrong end of the Discworld with a naïve tourist named Twoflower, a sentient luggage case, and one of the Eight Great Spells lodged in his brain. Now, the entire Discworld is in danger from a rapidly approaching Red Star, and Rincewind must return to Ankh-Morpork with the eighth spell in order to avert the end of the world. Along the way he and Twoflower acquire several companions: Cohen the Barbarian, who is eighty-seven (or “eighty-sheven”) and has no teeth; Bethan, the beautiful former druid sacrifice; and Lackjaw, a dwarven jeweller. They must overcome obstacles and defeat rivals such as Herrena, the female Hero; and the main antagonist of the story, Trymon the wizard, who, thanks to the TV adaptation, I now can’t help but picture as the delightfully villainous Tim Curry.

As with the previous novel, the author’s dry humour and satiric tone saturates every page, but is toned down quite a lot here. Whereas The Colour of Magic used a sledgehammer to poke fun at the genre, The Light Fantastic is more of a toffee hammer, and Pratchett’s affectionate mockery of fantasy is a lot less ‘in your face’. I also found that there are a lot more snort-out-loud moments, usually at the author’s hilarious and sometimes outrageous use of puns, something which is now a characteristic staple of his writing. I can’t help but include an example:

‘Rincewind, all the shops have been smashed open. There was a whole bunch of people across the street helping themselves to musical instruments, can you believe that?’
‘Yeah,’ said Rincewind, picking up a knife and testing its blade thoughtfully. ‘Luters, I expect.’

Another feature of Pratchett’s writing which begins to really come to life in The Light Fantastic is his use of humorous personification, and not only relating to characters such as Death and the Luggage. Here’s how he describes Rincewind’s reaction when he finds out that another character might be dead:

‘Dead?’ said Rincewind. In the debating chamber of his mind a dozen emotions got to their feet and started shouting. Relief was in full spate when Shock cut in on a point of order and then Bewilderment, Terror and Loss started a fight which was ended only when Shame slunk in from next door to see what all the row was about.

It’s bits like this throughout the book that enable the author to explore how Rincewind has developed as a result of his relationship with Twoflower without losing any levity or detracting from the events at hand. In this way he also keeps the pace of the novel flowing quickly and smoothly, and as a result The Light Fantastic makes for a relatively fast and pleasant read. I’d probably recommend this as a starting point for the series, as it’s far superior to The Colour of Magic, and there really isn’t that much from the first novel that couldn’t be picked up from reading this.


Click here to view The Light Fantastic (Discworld #2) on Amazon UK
Click here to read my review of The Colour of Magic (Discworld #1)