Sunday, 25 January 2015

Review: 'Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone' by J.K. Rowling


Harry Potter thinks he is an ordinary boy - until he is rescued by an owl, taken to Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry, learns to play Quidditch and does battle in a deadly duel. The Reason: HARRY POTTER IS A WIZARD!



NOSTALGIA WARNING: I read this book for the first time in 1998 – when I was 10! – and pretty much grew up with the series. I even got majorly upset on my 11th birthday because my Hogwarts letter never arrived (I still think the owl got lost). I re-read the earliest books in the series over and over again during my teenage years whilst waiting for each new one to be released. Needless to say, all the Harry Potter books have a special place in my heart.

Still, I’m not going to say too much about this one. I re-read it recently for the first time in several years, and am so glad it still stands the test of time. It’s much shorter than I remembered – only about 120 pages – and yet each chapter is full of exciting events without ever feeling rushed. Rowling writes with a light, gentle and humorous tone that makes the book an absolute delight to read, and the world she has created is, well, magical. Hogwarts, Quidditch, Dumbledore, Gryffindor: all of these have become bywords for fun fantasy adventure, and this is the place where it first began. As an adult I thoroughly enjoyed this return to my younger years, and can’t wait to re-read the other six books in the series.

5/5


Thursday, 22 January 2015

Tough Travels: Pets


‘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’s topic is PETS.

Everybody needs somebody to love. And the best companionship doesn’t always come from the same sentient group, does it? Be it furry or scaled, large or small, sometimes an animal companion is the best thing a person can have.


I struggled this week. I really did. I only managed four entries, and two of these are from the same series. Shame on me! In my defence, there were a few candidates that I considered but ultimately rejected – such as Nighteyes the wolf from Robin Hobb’s Farseer, and the wolf from Anthony Ryan’s Blood Song, and the wolf from John Gwynne’s The Faithful and the Fallen, and- you get the picture. It seems that, in fantasy, animals are often elevated to a status far above that of ‘pet’, and I’d like to use this as my official excuse for the following paltry list. 



Hedwig, et al.

(Harry Potter by J. K. Rowling)

Technically they’re ‘familiars’ rather than pets, but in the Potterverse you can’t call yourself a proper wizard without one. School rules limit the familiars to owls, toads or cats, which is why Harry has a snowy owl named Hedwig, Hermione has a huge ginger monstrosity of a cat named Crookshanks, Ron has a little fluffball owl called Pigwidgeon, and Neville has an escape artist toad named Trevor. However, everyone knows owls are the most useful, since they hunt their own food as well as carrying your mail.


The Scorpions

(House of Chains by Steven Erikson)

In the fourth book of my favourite series of all time (have I ever mentioned that?), Sergeant Strings and a few others in the Malazan army decide to relieve the boredom of a desert campaign by arranging a scorpion-fighting contest. Three squads participate, each squad choosing a different breed of scorpion and ‘training’ it for the fight. There’s the In-Out Scorpion, which the soldiers nickname Clawmaster; the Red-Backed Bastard, nicknamed Mangonel; and the underdog of the bunch, the tiny Birdshit scorpion named Joyful Union. Suffice to say that this doesn’t end well for any of the scorpions, nor for the animal-loving soldier named Bottle.



Slag

(Tales of the Ketty Jay by Chris Wooding)

A few people mentioned Slag a couple of weeks ago in the Snarky Sidekicks week, and so I’m glad to be able to borrow their idea and include her here. Slag is, of course, the Ketty Jay’s resident feline. She’s ruthless, independent and largely indifferent to the plight of her human shipmates . . . as most cats generally are.




Bhok’arala

(The Malazan Book of the Fallen by Steven Erikson)

Bhok’arala are small, intelligent monkey-like creatures, and largely feature in the presence of the High Priest of Shadow, Iskaral Pust, who they worship like a god. As the Malazan Encyclopaedia explains, “They follow him about, mimic his actions and leave him offerings often consisting of scrounged materials or bodily wastes. Pust is severely annoyed by the creatures and frequently is driven to bouts of madness by their attempts to please or mimic him. In a comical satire of the relationship between gods and their worshippers, the bhok'aral are, of course, unable to fathom the disdain Pust shows for them, nor understand any of the commands or insults he delivers to them.”


 That’s it for this week! Join us again next week for the topic of LAW ENFORCEMENT, and be sure to check out the Tough Travelling tab above for links to my previous posts and fellow travellers!

Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Review: 'Magician' by Raymond E. Feist




At Crydee, a frontier outpost in the tranquil Kingdom of the Isles, an orphan boy, Pug, is apprenticed to a master magician—and the destinies of two worlds are changed forever.

Suddenly the peace of the Kingdom is destroyed as mysterious alien invaders swarm the land. Pug is swept up into the conflict but for him and his warrior friend, Tomas, an odyssey into the unknown has only just begun.

Tomas will inherit a legacy of savage power from an ancient civilization. Pug’s destiny is to lead him through a rift in the fabric of space and time to the mastery of the unimaginable powers of a strange new magic.





I first discovered ‘grown up’ fantasy fiction at the age of twelve, when I first read Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings. However, it wasn’t until I was seventeen that I realised – shock horror! – that there were authors other than Tolkien writing for this genre; this is when a friend introduced me to the works of Raymond E. Feist. For several months I proceeded to chain-read most of the then-published novels in his Riftwar cycle – beginning, of course, with Magician – before moving on to discover other authors. Since then I seem to have more or less left Feist behind me.

It’s now been more than eight years since I first read Magician, and with the entire Riftwar cycle finally coming to an end I’ve decided it’s time for me to revisit the worlds of Midkemia and Kelewan, and to embark on – drumroll, please – The Big Feist Read/Re-Read. As with my ongoing Malazan re-read, I’m really keen to revisit a series of which I have so many fond memories, and which captivated my imagination at a time when elves and dwarves and magic were still relatively new to me. So, without further ado, here are my thoughts on Magician, book one of the Riftwar Saga.

Magician is ultimately a tale of two boys, Pug and Tomas, as the war in their kingdom forces them to leave their humble beginnings and embark on adventures that will change them both forever.  Tomas follows a dark path in an attempt to become a warrior of legend, while Pug is, of course, the eponymous magician. As the title would suggest, there is a much heftier focus on Pug, with Tomas’ storyline relegated to more of a side quest. Pug is a likeable and sympathetic protagonist – despite the distractingly ridiculous name – and his journey is full of twists and turns and is a lot of fun to follow. We see him grow from orphaned keep boy to court squire, and from there to a dedicated student of magic, if only an average one; we then follow him in his misfortunes as he is made a slave in an alien land, and finally have the satisfaction of seeing him rise and embrace the role of master magician.

But the story is not entirely about Pug; the narrative follows many other characters in order to explore the physical and political impact of the war on both the societies involved, and the plot is as much driven by events as it is by characters. Magician rather ambitiously spans a timeline of just over a decade, and the author smoothly segues between time frames of months and sometimes years. However, there are times when it can feel as though those months have been spent reading the book in real time: many minor or inconsequential parts of the story are narrated in great detail when they could have been omitted altogether, and there are a great many scenes involving travelling – either by boat or horse – that become something of a chore to read. The prose is frequently laborious and somewhat repetitive, particularly in the early stages of the book, and the narrative favours a ‘tell’ rather than ‘show’ type of storytelling that occasionally had me muttering, Monty Python-style, “get on with it!!!”.

Despite this, there are more than enough redeeming features to make Magician worth toiling through. As I’ve already mentioned, most of the characters are likeable (I myself am particularly fond of Arutha and Laurie), and the world is immersive and three-dimensional. I particularly enjoyed all the references to nuances of the Tsurani homeworld, which Feist later covered in much greater detail in the sequel trilogy titled Empire. Amidst all the rambling lies a story that is hopeful and compelling, and which contains one of my favourite scenes ever (two words: arena destruction); and although I’m a little disappointed that Magician’s narrative is slower and denser than I remember, I’m excited to have delved back into the series. Oh, Pug, I’ve missed you!


4/5

Sunday, 18 January 2015

Review: 'Those Above' by Daniel Polansky




They enslaved humanity three thousand years ago. Tall, strong, perfect, superhuman and near immortal they rule from their glittering palaces in the eternal city in the centre of the world. They are called Those Above by their subjects. They enforce their will with fire and sword.

Twenty five years ago mankind mustered an army and rose up against them, only to be slaughtered in a terrible battle. Hope died that day, but hatred survived. Whispers of another revolt are beginning to stir in the hearts of the oppressed: a woman, widowed in the war, who has dedicated her life to revenge; the general, the only man to ever defeat one of Those Above in single combat, summoned forth to raise a new legion; and a boy killer who rises from the gutter to lead an uprising in the capital.




Those Above is the first instalment of Daniel Polansky’s new epic fantasy series The Empty Throne. Set in a world dominated by ‘Those Above’ – immortal four-fingered beings who are mentally and physically superior to the human race – the story introduces those who live beneath their eternal overlords in varying states of both poverty and privilege. Although somewhat slow to get going, Those Above does an admirable job of establishing both world and character, and of artfully weaving together a series of events to set the ball rolling for the inevitable conflict to come.

Those Above utilises the popular narrative method of having each chapter written in third person and from the point of view of a different character than the previous chapter. This can occasionally make the story lose impetus, as this style forces the reader to pause for breath at the end of each chapter before re-acclimatising themselves with the next character. Although used to good effect the third person narrative and multiple POVs do lack some of the distinctive voice and character of Polansky’s Low Town novels, which were written in first person. However, this style better suits the epic scope of his new series; and instead of following in the footsteps of George R. R. Martin and creating a sprawling cast of characters Polansky has instead wisely opted to focus on just four, in a similar style to Daniel Abraham’s fantastic Dagger and Coin series. In this way the author manages to keep the story tightly focused, and minimises the disorientation usually caused by shifting POVs.

 Like Abraham, Polansky’s four characters are diverse and interesting, and each has their own unique perspective on the upcoming conflict due to their different situations. There’s Bas, a veteran army commander whose name and past deeds are legendary; Eudokia, a powerful noble and religious leader who schemes from behind the scenes of her Roman-esque society; Thistle, an impoverished and angry slum boy forced into crime to feed his family; and Calla, the privileged Seneschal to Those Above, unaware that she lives in a gilded cage and harbouring a dangerous secret. Each of the four characters are entertaining to read about in their own way – I particularly enjoyed Eudokia’s chapters – and though none of them actually do very much it’s clear that all four of them will have a huge part to play in the events of the rest of the series.

To sum up, then: Those Above, while not exactly action-packed, does a masterful job of establishing character and setting events in motion for the rest of the series. It’s entertaining and clever, and best of all contains Polansky’s trademark dry humour, albeit subtly hidden beneath the surface. Polansky’s first foray into epic fantasy doesn’t disappoint, and this is definitely a series I look forward to reading more of in the future.

4/5


Those Above is published by Hodder & Stoughton. It will be available in hardback and ebook format on 26th February 2015.

Click here to view Those Above (Empty Throne #1) on Amazon UK
Click here to read my review of The Straight Razor Cure (Low Town #1)

Saturday, 17 January 2015

Review: 'The Slow Regard of Silent Things' by Patrick Rothfuss



Deep below the University, there is a dark place. Few people know of it: a broken web of ancient passageways and abandoned rooms. A young woman lives there, tucked among the sprawling tunnels of the Underthing, snug in the heart of this forgotten place.

Her name is Auri, and she is full of mysteries.




I’m not usually someone who enjoys novellas and short stories and the like, and would never normally consider purchasing either in any format, let alone hardback. However, Rothfuss’ first novel, The Name of the Wind, is somewhere near the top of my hypothetical ‘Best Books Ever Read’ list, and its sequel, The Wise Man’s Fear, was also thoroughly enjoyable. There are very few authors whose work I’d willingly buy simply because it has their name on the front cover, but Rothfuss is definitely one of them.

The Slow Regard of Silent Things is really a 150-page exploration of Auri, a minor character from the ongoing Kingkiller Chronicles. We’ve learned relatively little about her so far in the main series, aside from the fact that she’s been lurking in the tunnels beneath the university (which she refers to as the ‘Underthing’) for years and that she refuses to speak to anyone, or even let them approach her. However, from what little we see of her it’s clear that she is fragile and broken and ephemeral and unique. She is one of the series’ greatest mysteries, and it’s exciting to finally get to know a little bit more about her.

At its heart, The Slow Regard of Silent Things is a sweet narrative that gives great insight into the way in which Auri’s mind works. To Auri, everything is alive, and throughout the novella we see how she personifies her entire world. For instance, there’s Foxen, the tiny brave alchemical light who is her oldest friend; Fulcrum, a newly-acquired brass gear that is brazen yet full of love; the ungrateful blanket, who is afraid of the floor; and too many others to name. I found this, along with Auri’s half-invented names for the places she visits – such as Tumbrel, Ninewise, Mantle, Crumbledon, Annulet, Billows and Tenance – thoroughly enchanting. As an added bonus the sketchy illustrations complement the story nicely, and despite their simplicity their black silhouette-ish style really conveys a sense of the darkness and claustrophobia of the Underthing.

 The Slow Regard of Silent Things is a strange one, however, in that there isn’t really a plot: it’s essentially a week in the life of Auri as she wanders the Underthing, picking things up and putting them down again in different places. I have to admit that this did get just the tiniest bit tedious towards the end, but the book is short enough and the writing beautiful enough that I poured through most of the story before I even began to think, “Wait - what story?” Rothfuss is one of those rare authors whose prose flows like poetry, and his ability to make even the most trivial of things sound magical and exciting is probably the only reason this novella works as well as it does. It’s easy to see why the book has so many one-star ratings on Goodreads, but it’s also just as easy to see why it has so many five-star reviews from others. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s ‘love it or hate it’, but it’s certainly one of the strangest, most exquisite and oddly hypnotizing stories I’ve ever read.

It’s lovely.


4/5

Thursday, 15 January 2015

Tough Travels: Messiahs

‘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’s topic is MESSIAHS.

If the world needs saving who are you going to call?  Perhaps there is someone out there destined to save everything?  It sounds like you need…a Messiah.

I've gone with the easy option this week, and have once again fallen back onto my usual safety net of using the same authors I always use. Sorry for being so predictable!


Frodo Baggins

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

After inheriting the One Ring from his uncle Bilbo, Frodo demonstrates an astonishing resistance to its corrupting influence. The Council of Elrond determines that Frodo is therefore the only person qualified to carry the deadliest weapon ever created across thousands of miles of hostile territory right into the heart of the enemy, despite his small stature, insular world experience and complete absence of weapons training. But he used to go on long walks with Bilbo when he was a kid, so hey, I guess that makes him perfect for the job. Right? Right?



Harry Potter

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

Ever since Voldemort murdered his parents and then attempted to kill him, Harry Potter has been destined to keep facing his nemesis until he is defeated. Due to a mysterious magical connection forged during his attempted murder, Harry is the only wizard capable of locating Voldemort’s weaknesses and ultimately saving the wizarding world. There’s a prophecy and everything.



Kip Guile

(The Lightbringer series by Brent Weeks)

A crazy rainbow tyrant is terrorising the land and threatening to destroy much of the known order. In this troubled time, people are turning in desperation to an ancient prophecy about a ‘chosen one’ with the power to slay gods and kings. Meanwhile, Kip is a clumsy bastard-born boy who one day discovers that he has inherited awesome magic. Is Kip the Lightbringer? Probably. He certainly fits the bill.



Jardir/Arlen

(The Demon Cycle by Peter V. Brett)

World infested with demons? Check. Said demons seemingly immune to all kinds of weapons? Check. Boy from a humble background embarking on an adventure to become the only one capable of saving mankind from this threat of extinction? Check. The Demon Cycle has it all, only here the twist is that there is not one messiah, but two, and a large portion of the story’s conflict arises from differing beliefs over who is the true Deliverer of humanity.



That's it for this week! Join us again next week for the topic of PETS, and be sure to check out the Tough Travelling tab above for links to my previous posts and fellow travellers!

Sunday, 11 January 2015

Review: 'Equal Rites' by Terry Pratchett


The last thing the wizard Drum Billet did, before Death laid a bony hand on his shoulder, was to pass on his staff of power to the eighth son of an eighth son. Unfortunately for his colleagues in the chauvinistic (not to say misogynistic) world of magic, he failed to check on the new-born baby's sex...



The third Discworld novel waves farewell to Rincewind and Twoflower, and introduces us instead to one of the most popular recurring characters of the series: Granny Weatherwax. Granny is a witch, dwells in a remote mountain village named Bad Ass, and is an expert in the field of headology; she is allergic to cats, despises ‘jommetry’, and is wary of people originating from ‘forn parts’. Granny raises goats, grows mysterious herbs, and can inhabit, or ‘borrow’, the minds of animals. She can stare down the toughest of men, engage in shapeshifting duels, cure sick people and deliver babies; but when suddenly faced with a curious little girl who is much more than she seems, Granny is at a bit of a loss.

Esk is the eighth child of an eighth son, and, due to a mix-up when she was born, has inherited a staff of power formerly belonging to a wizard. When she begins to show signs of magic, Granny Weatherwax takes it upon herself to train Esk in the ways of Witchcraft (herb-growing, medicine making, distilling alcohol, cleaning the kitchen table); but she soon comes to realise that Esk was never meant to be a witch. No, her power is a Wizard’s power, and the only way she can learn how to control it is by travelling to the Unseen University to train amongst wizards. And this is a problem, because there has never been a female wizard in the history of the Discworld: it’s against the lore.

The novel follows Esk’s eventful journey to Ankh-Morpork and fraught introduction to the Unseen University. However, while the story is ostensibly about Esk, the majority of page time is given over to Granny, one of my favourite characters of the Discworld series. It’s full of comic moments, such as when Granny falls into a bear pit whilst trying to jump-start her broomstick; and in some ways Equal Rites is more about the journey of a very old woman learning lots of new things about a world she’s never really visited. As Granny would say derisively, ‘most people have never set foot outside their own head’, and we come to realise that this actually also applies to Granny herself.

Equal Rites is short, light and a lot of fun. The pacing isn’t rushed, but nor does it meander too much, and while it lingers a little on Esk’s first forays into magic this feels necessary for the development of both Esk and Granny’s characters. One thing I will say – something I feel applies to many of Pratchett’s books – is that he’s great at beginning stories, but I sometimes get the sense he doesn’t always know how he plans on ending them. The beginnings of most of his books are excellent, but as he’s dragging us along through the twists and turns it can feel as though he’s inventing the plot as he goes along. That’s the case here with Equal Rites, or so it seems to me.

That said, it’s a nice refreshing read, and would be a great starting point for those unfamiliar with the series.


4/5