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 na├»ve 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.

4/5

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)


Friday, 19 September 2014

epic birthday book haul!

SO, just days after celebrating this blog's first birthday, I also celebrated my own 26th birthday!



My non-book-loving friends and family, by now resigned to the fact that, no, I don't want 'something more exciting', showered me with a combination of vouchers and cold hard cash . . . and this is how I've spent it!


I've gone for a mixture of friends' recommendations, female authors (as per my recent post), and gradually expanding a couple of my existing collections. 




I'm excited to be filling out my currently hodge-podge Discworld collection, which I'm currently in the process of reading/re-reading, although I'm a little peeved at having some of the newer editions - I think the old classics look much more fun and distinctive.

And I've seen so many glowing reviews of Max Gladstone's work that I couldn't resist Three Parts Dead - even though I slightly resent forking out nearly ten quid for a paperback.




More editions to Raymond E. Feist's Riftwar cycle here. I'm just a few books off having a complete set, and look forward to reading/re-reading this entire series, probably next year when I'm done with The Malazan Book of the Fallen.

A few of these others - J.V. Jones, C.J. Cherryh, Lois McMaster Bujold - are a result of my recent research into female fantasy authors, and I look forward to delving into so many new series. The others were recommended by friends on BCF.








K.J. Parker is yet another female author (I think!) whom I've been meaning to read, forever, and I'm particularly excited to give Sharps a go. I'm also curious about The Magicians, as I recently heard it's being made into a TV series yet I've never read a review rating it more than simply average; and Alif the Unseen had me hooked after I read the preview on Amazon, despite the fact that it doesn't seem to be something I'd normally read.

So: watch this space for reviews - in about five years, given the already staggering TBR . . .

Tuesday, 16 September 2014

Review: 'The Killing Moon' by N.K. Jemisin



In the ancient city-state of Gujaareh, peace is the only law. Upon its rooftops and amongst the shadows of its cobbled streets wait the Gatherers - the keepers of this peace. Priests of the dream-goddess, their duty is to harvest the magic of the sleeping mind and use it to heal, soothe . . . and kill those judged corrupt.

But when a conspiracy blooms within Gujaareh's great temple, Ehiru - the most famous of the city's Gatherers - must question everything he knows. Someone, or something, is murdering innocent dreamers in the goddess' name, stalking its prey both in Gujaareh's alleys and the realm of dreams. Ehiru must now protect the woman he was sent to kill - or watch the city be devoured by war and forbidden magic.




The Killing Moon is a fantasy tale set in a region based loosely on ancient Egypt and Nubia. The author uses delicate prose to weave a sad, captivating tale of love, loss and loyalty against a backdrop of religious conflict and political intrigue.

The plot of The Killing Moon revolves around an innovative system of magic based on a combination of Freudian dream theory and ancient Egyptian medicine. The idea is that there are four natural by-products of dreaming: dreambile, dreamblood, dreamichor and dreamseed. Each of these can be harvested from anyone, and each has its own uses in religious healing, but the most rare and valuable is dreamblood. Dreamblood is produced at the moment of death, and can only be collected by Gatherers, who are essentially assassins completing contracts submitted to their order, the Hetawa. However, unlike most fantasy assassins, Gathering is mostly a peaceful art, and many of the victims, or ‘tithebearers’, are old or sick people who submitted the request to be Gathered on their own behalf, or that of a loved one. Jemisin uses vastly different character perspectives on the art of Gathering to explore, but not dwell on, what is essentially a moral debate about the ethics of euthanasia, and uses this as the foundation of the cultural differences between the warring states of Gujaareh and Kisua.

With a few exceptions, the story is told from the point of view of three main characters: Sunandi, a Kisuati ambassador trained in the art of negotiation and spying; Ehiru, the most revered Gatherer in Gujaareh; and Nijiri, Ehiru’s apprentice and closest friend. Each of the characters is likeable in their own way, and each hold different views, coming into conflict in a number of ways. However, I didn’t really feel much of a connection with any of them, and felt that the formal traditions and heavy focus on religion kept the characters at a distance, particularly Ehiru and Nijiri. I felt that they could perhaps have been developed more as individuals, despite the relatively short length of the book and the confines of the story.

The plot itself is intriguing, if fairly straightforward. A series of mysterious and horrific murders can mean only one thing: a Reaper – a monster possessing abilities that are a twisted perversion of a Gatherer’s own – is loose in the dark streets of Gujaareh. Somehow, its appearance is connected to both the royal Prince and the Hetawa, and an investigation into its origin reveals even darker plots of corruption and impending war. The characters’ journey of discovery throughout the novel is an intriguing and pleasant read, with a couple of twists and turns along the way. The pacing is steady and fluid, although the author foregoes much of the action, choosing instead to focus on the internal conflict of both Ehiru and Nijiri. For the most part this is fine, as there are plenty of beautiful moonlit cityscapes and evocative dream sequences to fill the imagination. However, there are two major conflicts towards the end, both of which happen entirely off-page, making the aftermath and epilogue somewhat anticlimactic and leaving me feeling a bit hollow.

Despite this, I look forward to reading book two in this duology, The Shadowed Sun. I enjoyed the writing style and flowing pace of The Killing Moon, and in spite of the disconnect I felt with the characters, I was thoroughly immersed in Jemisin’s world.


4/5

Click here to view The Killing Moon (Dreamblood #1) on Amazon UK

Monday, 15 September 2014

Happy First Birthday!

So . . . it’s officially been one whole year since The Half-Strung Harp was born! Looking back at my first post – which was also the first book review I ever wrote – I’d like to think I’ve come on in leaps and bounds, both in my writing and in the way I view my reading.

I don’t have a lot of time to spend interacting on social media. As such, this has always been a very modest blog, with a very small circle of regular readers among my fellow bloggers. For those of you who’ve read and commented in the past – Nathan and Pauline of Fantasy Review Barn, Mogsy and the other lovely ladies from the Bibliosanctum, Ria of Bibliotropic, Hannah the Waystone Owl, Rabindranauth of Drunken Dragon Reviews, and all the others – I just want to let you know that I appreciate you taking the time to do so, even when I don’t always have the time to do the same in return.

Looking back . . .

I’ve made some fantastic fantasy discoveries in the last twelve months: series such as Patrick Rothfuss’ Kingkiller Chronicles, Mark Lawrence’s Broken Empire, Daniel Abraham’s Dagger and Coin, and Brent Weeks’ Lightbringer; special gems such as Anthony Ryan’s Blood Song, Terry Pratchett’s Good Omens, and Brian Staveley’s The Emperor’s Blades; and some truly enjoyable re-reads, particularly Scott Lynch’s Gentlemen Bastards series and Steven Erikson’s Malazan Book of the Fallen (re-read still ongoing).

However, with the celebration of this blog’s first birthday comes a more sombre revelation: of the sixty books I’ve read and reviewed in the last twelve months, only four of these were written by female authors. Four! This struck me as a somewhat gross imbalance, and got me wondering: why?

Well, for a start, my preferred genre is fantasy fiction, which has traditionally been dominated by male writers. And I have to say that the writers whose work I’ve enjoyed reading the most – including those listed above – are, without exception, men.

However, in this day and age, one can’t simply plead the old excuse that ‘women don’t write fantasy!’ Because of course they do. So why do so many people assume they don’t? Is it because the stands and tables in Waterstones are so dominated by popular male authors that many people simply assume this is representative of the genre as a whole? Why do so many of us choose not to look any further?

What do the following books have in common?

The Magician’s Guild by Trudi Canavan
The Magician’s Apprentice by Trudi Canavan
Songs of the Earth by Elspeth Cooper
The Lion of Senet by Jennifer Fallon
The Deed of Paksenarrion by Elizabeth Moon
The Heir of Night by Helen Lowe
The Killing Moon by N.K. Jemisin
Betrayal by Fiona McIntosh
Revenge by Fiona McIntosh
Destiny by Fiona McIntosh
Royal Exile by Fiona McIntosh
Ice Forged by Gail Z. Martin
The Innocent Mage by Karen Miller
Blight of Mages by Karen Miller
Range of Ghosts by Elizabeth Bear
Curse of the Mistwraith by Janny Wurts
The Ships of Merior by Janny Wurts
The Merchant of Dreams by Anne Lyle

The answer is, I own them all, and some of the oldest have been sitting on my shelf for over six years now. And yet many of the books I read this past year were purchased much more recently, yet didn’t have to suffer the same neglect as those listed above.

Looking forward . . .

Much as I dislike the concept of forced diversity, I’ve come to the conclusion that I’d like to try and read more fantasy written by female authors; not only to address the imbalance of my prior reading, but also because I’ve heard such good things from other bloggers that I feel I’m missing out. So, starting with those I own, and then hopefully moving on to those authors on my wishlist – K.J. Parker, C.J. Cherryh, Lois McMaster Bujold, Kate Elliott, and others – my goal for the next year is to balance my reading, and try and discover some great female fantasy authors. Here’s to another year of reviewing, and hoping the blog’s second birthday will contain a much better showing from the fairer sex!

And of course, any recommendations in the comments would be welcome. :)

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Review: 'The Broken Eye' by Brent Weeks



As the old gods awaken and satrapies splinter, the Chromeria races to find its lost Prism, the only man who may be able to stop catastrophe. But Gavin Guile is enslaved on a pirate galley. Worse, Gavin no longer has the one thing that defined him -- the ability to draft.

Without the protection of his father, Kip Guile will have to face a master of shadows alone as his grandfather moves to choose a new Prism and put himself in power. With Teia and Karris, Kip will have to use all his wits to survive a secret war between noble houses, religious factions, rebels, and an ascendant order of hidden assassins, The Broken Eye.



Brent Weeks’ Lightbringer series was one of my favourite discoveries of 2013. The second book in the series, The Blinding Knife, won last year’s Legend award, and for very good reason: it was fast-paced, full of great characters, and continued to develop the unique and fascinating magic system on which the entire series is based. This high standard, then, might be why The Broken Eye Lightbringer #3 – left me feeling a little flat.

Don’t get me wrong: I enjoyed The Broken Eye, quite a lot actually. The pacing is still fast, the characters are still great, and the magic system – light spectrum-based ‘drafting’ – is still creative and fun. However, despite the fast pace – which is accelerated rather than stunted by the alternating points of view – there were some sections of the book which felt kind of aimless and/or disjointed (Blackguard training exercises, I’m looking at you!). There were some parts that had me skipping back to previous chapters to see if I’d missed something, such as Kip appearing at the Chromeria despite the fact that he was lost in the wilderness the last time we saw him.

Another gripe I have about The Broken Eye is the language. There are quite a few Americanisms used, particularly during Kip’s chapters; perhaps these are simply more noticeable to a non-American reader, but personally I found that some of the modern phrasing felt somewhat jarring. Some of Kip’s internal monologues, most of which worked well in conveying his youth and social awkwardness, sometimes felt a little too forced and child-like, and ended up feeling kind of patronising, making me cringe internally for all the wrong reasons. Again, though, that may just be me.

As for the rest of the book, it made a valiant attempt to live up to the high standard set by its predecessor. The chapters alternate between several characters with whom we’re now very familiar – Kip, Karris, Gavin, Teia and the rest – and often focuses on one character for a long period of time, which gives us the opportunity to really get involved in the different storylines. Gavin in particular has a great storyline in this book, partly because of his involvement with the brilliant character Gunner, and Teia has also become a very prominent player. There are also several one-off POVs slotted into the story at intervals, some of which are more entertaining than others: most are written in first person (in contrast to the third person narrative forming the bulk of the novel) and are intended to be disorienting, but happen so infrequently that they serve to disrupt the story rather than embellish it. Others are so enjoyable to read that it’s a disappointment to realise they’re only a one-off, such as the chapter focusing on Arys Greenveil.

With regards to the story, The Broken Eye is sadly nowhere near as full of twists and turns as the first two books seemed to be, although it does contain one HUGE twist at the end which almost rivals the one in The Black Prism. We also don’t seem to learn as much about the magic system as we did in previous books, especially as Kip is no longer attending magic classes. However, the author compensates for this by expanding Teia’s role in the story, and chooses to focus on the creative and sometimes sinister ways in which she is finally able to explore her own special drafting ability.

In the end, I found The Broken Eye a lot more enjoyable and entertaining than the bulk of this review suggests. Personally I think the Lightbringer series may have peaked too soon with The Blinding Knife; however, I still look forward to the release of The Blood Mirror (book 4) in 2016. I’ve been through too much with these characters to not want to know how it ends!


4/5

Click here to view The Broken Eye (Lightbringer #3) on Amazon UK

Click here to read my review of The Black Prism (Lightbringer #1)
Click here to read my review of The Blinding Knife (Lightbringer #2)

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

Review: 'Miserere' by Teresa Frohock




Exiled exorcist Lucian Negru deserted his lover in Hell in exchange for saving his sister Catarina’s soul, but Catarina doesn’t want salvation. She wants Lucian to help her fulfil her dark covenant with the Fallen by using his power to open the Hell Gates. Catarina intends to lead the Fallen’s hordes out of Hell and into the parallel dimension of Woerld, Heaven’s front-line of defense between Earth and Hell.

When Lucian refuses to help his sister, she imprisons and cripples him, but Lucian learns that Rachael, the lover he betrayed and abandoned in Hell, is dying from a demonic possession. Determined to rescue Rachael from the demon he unleashed on her soul, Lucian flees his sister, but Catarina’s wrath isn’t so easy to escape.

In the end, she will force him once more to choose between losing Rachael or opening the Hell Gates so the Fallen’s hordes may overrun Earth, their last obstacle before reaching Heaven’s Gates.



As someone whose reading generally consists only of ‘traditional’ fantasy, I have to say that, for me, Miserere is a strange one. The premise is interesting: instead of just having Heaven, Hell and Earth, there is also a fictional dimension called Woerld, which acts as a sort of barrier between Hell and Earth. In Woerld, all of Earth’s established religions work together in harmony to prevent the rise of the Fallen, and Templar-esque holy warriors known as Katharoi help in the ongoing fight against evil.
 
Woerld exists outside of space and time: Miserere is set on Woerld in the year 5873, yet a portal opens up and Lindsay, a girl from our present day America, is dragged through into Woerld. In Miserere, this is how many of the Katharoi are brought into being: worthy individuals, always children, are chosen to make the one-way trip to world to become Katharoi, leaving their own lives behind forever. It’s revealed that Lindsay is to be the ‘Foundling’ (basically the Padawan) of Lucian, one of the main protagonists, and a large part of Miserere is centred around their relationship.

 Rather than write the story from Lindsay’s point of view in the manner of so many other ‘fish out of water’ or ‘farmboy’ tales, Frohock more or less chooses to maintain the adult PoVs throughout; I think this was the right decision, as it still gives opportunity for explaining the world to someone who is unfamiliar, but it’s less patronising since we’re sharing the PoV of the person who knows rather than the person who is ignorant. A lot of the things Lindsay is forced to witness and experience are fairly dark and unpleasant, and as such the chapters from the child’s PoV can be a little jarring and uncomfortable – which I’m guessing is the intended effect.

I found the mish-mash of genres to be a bit disorienting at first, especially the way the author casually tosses around references to the world we live in, such as the way mobile phones can be used on Woerld for a short time before being corrupted by demons and used as Hell portals. Miserere combines elements of urban and traditional fantasy, as well as SF; the presence of holy warriors and Inquisitors give it the feel of historical fiction, while the time in which it’s set implies that it’s actually a dystopian novel; and the sheer amount of religious imagery (not to mention to plot and the setting) give it a distinctly biblical feel.

I’m in no way religious, and so I imagine there’s a huge amount of religious nuance that was completely lost on me. I’m also unsure of how much of the imagery in the story is taken from the bible and how much has sprung from the author’s imagination; whichever it is, the vivid imagery is one of the novel’s strongest points. The Sacra Rosa, a rose bush that circles an entire city and wreaks Triffid-style destruction on the Fallen, was one of my favourite images; I also particularly enjoyed the brief flashes we’re given of the Hellscape, and the Simulacrum is also a pretty creepy image. The author skilfully draws on religions and legends from all over the world and brings them all together, and I recognised enough for it to give the book a sense of authenticity.

One thing that did disappoint me was the ending, which was far less climactic than I expected. A large proportion of the books feels like it’s setting up for the ‘good vs evil’ battle implied in the blurb: there are long sections where not much actually happens, and the payoff for going through this wasn’t all that that rewarding. I did get the sense (I hope) that there will be another book about Catarina’s retribution, so perhaps that will have the epic conclusion I was expecting from this one.
Regardless of the book’s flat moments and slightly weak ending, the characters were strong enough to keep me interested throughout. Rachael in particular is an awesome character: she is a holy warrior and a Judge who was abandoned in Hell by the man she loved, and returned possessed by a Wyrm. She’s a strong, believable character who has her own important role in the story, rather than just functioning as the ‘main’ character’s love interest.

 Although the blurb of Miserere makes it sound like a love story in a fantasy setting, it’s far from conventional. I was very unsure when I first began to read it – and it probably didn’t help that I read it in fits and starts over the course of a week – but it grew on me, and once I reached the end I actually wanted to read more.


 4/5

Click here to view Miserere: An Autumn Tale Amazon UK

Wednesday, 3 September 2014

Review: 'The Colour of Magic' by Terry Pratchett

On a world supported on the back of a giant turtle (sex unknown), a gleeful, explosive, wickedly eccentric expedition sets out. There's an avaricious but inept wizard, a naive tourist whose luggage moves on hundreds of dear little legs, dragons who only exist if you believe in them, and of course THE EDGE of the planet...




The Colour of Magic is the first book in Terry Pratchett’s Discworld, a series currently comprised of around 40 novels and still going strong. The series is fantastic and well worth looking into for any fans of fantasy; however, I’d recommend starting somewhere other than the beginning, as The Colour of Magic is unfortunately not one of its strongest instalments.

The book introduces two of the most important recurring characters of the series: Rincewind, the Discworld’s worst wizard; and Death, a tall, skeletal, black-robed figure . . . who rides a horse named Binky. The book’s mad events are set in motion by the arrival of Twoflower, the Discworld’s first ever tourist (or ‘looker’), to the city of Ankh-Morpork, where Rincewind is coerced into being his guide for the duration of his stay in the city. Of course, things don’t go to plan, and the pair are forced to flee Ankh-Morpork under disastrous circumstances. After this they travel far and wide, encountering numerous perils and fantasy stereotypes under entirely arbitrary conditions.

I have to say that, for a book that is over 30 years old, The Colour of Magic stands the test of time fairly well. Pratchett wrote this loving mockery of fantasy stereotypes decades before such tropes were even considered well-worn, and much of his ironic commentary on dragonriders, magic, gods and the like is still relevant to a huge chunk of so-called ‘modern’ fantasy today. However, much of the plot is nonsensical (and not in a good way), there’s no real sense of direction, and the characters are somewhat two-dimensional; it feels almost as though Pratchett is more preoccupied with cramming in as many caricatures as possible, and less bothered about building or developing the characters of our heroes in any way.

I think, if I were a newcomer to the series and had started with The Colour of Magic, I might not bother with the rest. However, having read several of the series’ stronger instalments and hidden gems makes it a little easier to overlook the less-than-brilliant outings into the Discworld. The Discworld series is, I’ve always found, spectacularly hit-and-miss; and while The Colour of Magic is a lot more ‘miss’ than ‘hit’, you have to remember that it was the first of its kind to really use fantasy satire to create an original story. It’s not fantastic, but it’s a short, fun read, and is absolutely, undeniably unique.


3/5