Tuesday, 29 October 2013

Review: 'The Straight Razor Cure' by Daniel Polansky

Welcome to Low Town. Here, the criminal is king. Here, people can disappear, and the lacklustre efforts of the guard ensure that they are never found.
Warden is an ex-soldier who has seen the worst men have to offer; now a narcotics dealer with a rich, bloody past and a way of inviting danger. You’d struggle to find someone with a soul as dark and troubled as his.
But then a missing child, murdered and horribly mutilated, is discovered in an alley. And then another. With a mind as sharp as a blade and an old but powerful friend in the city, Warden’s the only man with a hope of finding the killer.
If the killer doesn’t find him first.

 Let me start by saying that The Straight Razor Cure is unlike most books I typically read. While it’s classed as fantasy, it actually comes across as more of a crime noir that just happens to be set in a secondary world – and this is by no means a bad thing. The novel combines different elements of various genres: we have a former detective investigating the crimes of a sinister serial killer, underlying messages about class division, a grimdark setting, and a few aspects of traditional high fantasy, such as magic. It’s fresh and interesting, and an additional dark undertone is provided by the numerous parallels between Polansky’s fictional universe and our own world.
The world itself is fairly vivid and well-realised: the majority of Low Town is dirty and ugly – as are many of its inhabitants – and it is rife with moral and physical corruption. It’s full of drugs, murder, organised crime and bigotry, and the author effectively uses the first person narration of the main character to implicate the reader in various kinds of casual and normalised delinquency.
The protagonist is very much an anti-hero, the sort of character that is common in this sort of ‘low’ or ‘grimdark’ (or maybe just ‘grim’) fantasy. Warden is an ex-soldier and former investigator who has fallen on hard times due to an unspecified incident, which makes him somewhat enigmatic. He is a drug dealer; he has a tough exterior, and his morals are questionable at best. But his conscience (and more often the conscience of his best friend Adolphus) generally prods him into doing the right thing, even if he can’t help but break a few heads (and arms, and legs, and ribs, and necks) along the way.

On our way through the story we learn a few things about our protagonist’s history. This is very well done, as it’s not over-emphasised; rather, the author feeds us bits of backstory that are relevant to the plot, while withholding key information about Warden’s personal history for future novels. I must admit I’m curious to learn more about his early life with the Crane and about his time as a member of the ‘frost’, particularly since he doesn’t dwell overmuch on himself and his memories.
The plot was fairly even-paced for the most part, perhaps representing the initial lethargy of Warden, though there are enough moments of surprise and gruesomeness to keep the reader sufficiently intrigued. It picks up the pace marvellously towards the end, however, and the twist ending – although not entirely unexpected – is an exciting resolution to the story. Overall this is an impressive debut novel, and I’m looking forward to seeing more of Warden in future Low Town novels.
My rating: 4/5

Click here to buy The Straight Razor Cure on Amazon.

Saturday, 26 October 2013

Review: 'The Wise Man's Fear' by Patrick Rothfuss

My name is Kvothe. You may have heard of me.

The man was lost. The myth remained.
Kvothe – the dragon-slayer, the renowned swordsman, the most feared, famed and notorious wizard the world has ever seen – vanished without warning and without trace. And even now, when he has been found, when darkness is rising in the corner of the world, he will not return.

But his story lives on and, for the first time, Kvothe is going to tell it . . .
The Wise Man’s Fear is the second instalment of The Kingkiller Chronicles, a fantasy trilogy centred on the ‘autobiographical’ tale of the protagonist, Kvothe. It picks up where The Name of the Wind left off, continuing Kvothe’s tale without much  preamble, and cleverly reminds us of key events and important information as it goes along, rather than simply dumping it all at the start.

The format of the story follows the same pattern as the previous novel: Kvothe narrates the chronological events of his younger years, and the tale is occasionally interrupted by interludes focusing on the present day. Kvothe is one of the Edema Ruh, renowned travelling performers and famed for their storytelling skills; however, the narrative is somewhat stale and rambling when compared with the previous novel, perhaps because it covers a much shorter period of his life and strings it out over a thousand pages. Roughly half the novel is an account of Kvothe’s continued shenanigans at the university: most of these are highly amusing, though others seemed tediously similar to those in the previous book.

It’s clear that the author is playing with the concept of the unreliable narrator, and Kvothe is doubly unreliable: he’s narrating his story for an audience, and it is also being set down for posterity. As such it becomes something of a fun game for the reader to question some of his assertions: for example, he claims to have learned an entire language in a day in order to successfully be acquitted at a public trial; however, he deliberately skips over this part of his story, refusing to supply details of the trial because his readers will find it boring. He later proceeds to give a long and detailed account of his time in the Fae with Felurian, during which he spends several dull chapters doing a whole lot of nothing. Kvothe’s egotistic determination to focus on the parts that he finds most interesting is no doubt a deliberate part of the author’s message about the misleading nature of stories, and the dangers of becoming a legend in your own lifetime; unfortunately, this also makes the novel significantly less compelling than its predecessor.

The Wise Man’s Fear isn’t without its strong points, though. One of Rothfuss’ biggest strengths is the ease with which he creates characters that are not only likeable, but also complex and memorable.  The Name of the Wind was almost solely focused on Kvothe; it was introspective and very much self-indulgent. In The Wise Man’s Fear, there is still plenty of this trademark self-indulgence to be found (Kvothe’s ego is not something to be easily pushed aside) but there is also a much wider awareness of the world and its inhabitants. The reader is given a distinct impression of each character no matter how infrequently that character appears in the story. We have Kilvin, the gruff yet somehow fatherly Master Artificer; Tempi, the quiet but deadly Adem mercenary; Denna, the flirtatious yet insecure con-artist-turned-musician; Bast, Kvothe’s loveable apprentice with a dark secret; Auri, the frail and flighty girl who lives beneath the university; and lots more.  Kvothe’s mentor, the enigmatic Master Elodin, has a relatively small amount of page space devoted to him, yet he is undoubtedly many readers’ favourite character, myself included. He is one of the nine Masters of the university and is more powerful in the magic of naming than most men alive; he is mischievous, brilliant, and ever-so-slightly insane; he walks on roofs, engages in petty crimes against other Masters who have offended him, and encourages his students to stand naked in thunderstorms.

My point is, it’s characters such as Elodin that make this story dance off the page, and I think this, along with the beautifully poetic narrative voice, is definitely one of the stronger aspects of The Wise Man’s Fear. Though some of the setting and events feel a little stale, and despite the fact that the plot is occasionally lacking, well, plot, The Wise Man’s Fear is an entertaining and passionate novel, and I would recommend it to those who thoroughly enjoyed The Name of the Wind.

My rating: 4/5

Click here to buy The Wise Man’s Fear on Amazon.
Click here to read my review of The Name of the Wind (Kingkiller Chronicle #1).

Monday, 21 October 2013

Review: 'Beyond the Shadows' by Brent Weeks

A new queen has usurped the throne and is leading Cenaria into disaster. The country has become a broken realm with a threadbare army, little food, and no hope. So Kylar Stern plans to reinstate his closest friend Logan as King, but can he really get away with murder?
In the north, the Godking’s death has thrown Khalidor into civil war. To gain the upper hand, one faction attempts to raise the goddess Khali herself. But they are playing with volatile powers, and trigger conflict on a vast scale. Seven armies will converge to save – or destroy – an entire continent.
Kylar has finally learnt the bitter cost of immortality, and is faced with a task only he can complete. To save his friends, and perhaps his enemies, he must assassinate a goddess. Failure will doom the south. Success will cost him everything he’s ever loved.
Beyond the Shadows is the third and final instalment in Brent Weeks’ Night Angel trilogy. The trilogy so far has followed the life of Kylar Stern, a young man who has developed since childhood from an orphan thief to a trainee assassin (or ‘wetboy’), and who has now finally taken on the role of the immortal Night Angel, the embodiment of justice.
The most entertaining parts of Kylar’s tale are his interactions with both Durzo Blint (his mentor) and the black ka’kari (the magical item that is the source of his special powers), which are full of easy humour and sarcasm. However, these conversations don’t happen very often, and Kylar’s chapter are mainly focused on his complicated relationships with Elene and Vi. This book also has a wider scope than the others: we see more of the world and its inhabitants. While this gives the book something of a grander scale, I actually miss the focus of the first two books, which were mostly set within the streets of cities. The first book particularly focused more on character development within the confines of the city’s underworld, and I think that approach was actually stronger than that of this book, which mostly seems to be ‘send the characters to loads of different places on loads of flimsy pretexts’.

One of the things I do really like about the plot is that there is always something happening:  lots of little events occur within the tales of most characters, which helps to make the novel a fairly fast-paced read (although some of the events are a bit contrived). The way the various plotlines finally entwined was fairly well-conceived, and the final battle definitely had a feel of the epic about it. The sacrifice involved in the defeat of evil is somewhat glossed-over, but adds a nice sense of loss and emotion. However, I feel that the payoff was somewhat unsatisfactory, mainly because [spoiler] it revolved around the man characters gathering around an artefact, Power Rangers-style, and using previously unmentioned magic to end the epic battle and instantly transform the battlefield into a place of beauty.
For me, some of the strongest plotlines were those of the ‘supporting’ characters. I particularly enjoyed the portrayal of Dorian’s descent into darkness and subsequent redemption; and Vi Sovari’s search for friendship and acceptance was my favourite storyline in the whole trilogy. The characters of Sister Ariel, Solon Tofusin and Feir Cousat were also fun to read about, but unfortunately they are very minor and don’t feature as much as I would have liked. On the other hand, there were many characters I simply could not engage with, and whose chapters I found a little slow and dull, which meant that I didn’t sympathise with them enough to feel the appropriate emotional impact of their various fates. I think this is one aspect that detracted from my enjoyment of the book: the fact that Weeks has so many good characters yet does not seem to develop them as strongly as he perhaps could have, while placing too much focus on characters who are a little two-dimensional.

There are plenty of aspects within the book that make it gripping – such as the torture of Kylar, the fate of the usurper queen Terah Graesin, the mystery of the Dark Hunter and the continual revelations about Durzo Blint – but there is also plenty of stuff in between that makes it, well, less-than gripping. I did enjoy reading it, but as the conclusion of a trilogy? It goes out with more of a whimper than a bang.
My rating: 3/5

Click here to buy Beyond the Shadows on Amazon.

Thursday, 17 October 2013

Review: 'The Republic of Thieves' by Scott Lynch

Locke and Jean barely escaped with their lives from what should have been the greatest heist of their career, in the port city of Tal Verarr. Now they head north, looking for sanctuary and an alchemist who can cure the poison that is slowly killing Locke. They find neither, but with their luck, money and hope exhausted, they receive an offer from a power that has never had their best interests at heart: The Bondsmagi of Karthain.

In exchange for the chance that Locke might be saved, the Bondsmagi expect the two Gentlemen Bastards to rig an election in their home city of Karthain. They will be opposed. The other side has already hired the services of Sabetha Belacoros, the one person in the world who might match Locke’s criminal skill, and the one person in the world who absolutely rules his heart.
Now it will be con artist against con artist in an election that couldn’t be more crooked, all for the benefit of the mysterious Bondsmagi, who have plans within plans and secrets they’re not telling . . .

The Republic of Thieves is the long-awaited third instalment in the Gentlemen Bastard Sequence, and takes place several weeks after the ending of Red Seas under Red Skies. Locke Lamora is suffering from the effects of poison, and he and Jean Tannen must do the unthinkable – work with their worst enemies – in exchange for a cure.
I have to start by saying that it’s inevitable that The Republic of Thieves is going to be held up against the standards of the first two books in the series; and I’m very sad to say that it fell somewhat short of my expectations. The first two books – particularly Red Seas under Red Skies – were tense, fast-paced and exhilarating; The Republic of Thieves is fairly slow, plodding and uneventful. It doesn’t have the sense of urgency that characterised the other books, and the characters don’t really seem to have much to lose (or gain). Since the stakes aren’t as high, neither are Locke’s grand schemes as complex and exciting as those that filled his previous adventures in abundance.

The Republic of Thieves follows the same format as Lynch’s previous books, with interludes from the past (mainly focusing on the gang’s performance of the play ‘The Republic of Thieves’) dispersed throughout the main story (the election in Karthain). However, the other books had a few short interludes that added to the main story; fully half of The Republic of Thieves is comprised of ‘interludes’, so much so that it’s like reading two separate books alongside one another. While both the past and present tales are good, the parallel tale of the Gentlemen Bastards’ performance of the eponymous ‘Republic of Thieves’ is, for me, the strongest aspect of the story. I would have preferred to see it as a separate novella – it was basically the main focus of this story, but both plotlines suffered (or so I felt) from the constant (and sometimes frustrating) switching back and forth. Both tales are enjoyable, but to have them interwoven in such a way meant that the main plot lost momentum at every turn.
I didn’t really appreciate the revelation about Locke’s ‘true’ identity. I thought it came out of nowhere, and felt that it was unnecessary to reveal it in such a manner. I’m also not too keen on how the book ended – I would have liked some closure on the flashbacks (Was Chains pleased with their achievements? What did he do about Moncraine?), but I’m guessing this will be continued in the next books.

One other minor thing that really bothered me was the misspelling of ‘stories’ as ‘storeys’ – it really started to grate on me since it’s used quite frequently, although I guess that’s a fault with the editor and not the author.
Despite these criticisms, I did enjoy reading The Republic of Thieves. One aspect of the book that I felt did live up to my expectations was the character of Sabetha. She’s very well-written: as cunning and intelligent as Locke, yet much more ruthless, while at the same time possessing a certain charming femininity. She is very likeable, and the gradual unveiling of the history of the tentative relationship between her and Locke is very well done. The fact that she also has a special friendship with Jean is a nice touch, and her devious strategies to try and beat him and Locke are pitiless but amusing. It’s also brilliant to finally see the full complement of the Gentlemen Bastards – Sabetha has always been absent from the flashbacks in previous novels, and her presence changes the dynamics of the group in a fun and interesting way.

To sum up, then, I liked the book, but I think it suffered for having such a high standard to try and meet. I’d say the main plotline deserves 3/5, but I enjoyed the flashback tale so much that I’m bumping the overall rating up to 4.

My rating: 4/5 (for ‘The Republic of Thieves’ sections rather than the ‘5-year election’ chapters)

Click here to buy The Republic of Thieves on Amazon.
Click here to read my review of The Lies of Locke Lamora (Gentlemen Bastard #1)
Click here to read my review of Red Seas under Red Skies (Gentlemen Bastard #2)

Sunday, 13 October 2013

Review: 'Red Seas Under Red Skies' by Scott Lynch

Thief and con-man extraordinaire, Locke Lamora, and the ever lethal Jean Tannen have fled their home city and the wreckage of their lives. But they can’t run forever and when they stop they decide to head for the richest, and most difficult, target on the horizon. The city state of Tal Verarr. And the Sinspire.

The Sinspire is the ultimate gambling house. No-one has stolen so much as a single coin from it and lived. It’s the sort of challenge Locke simply can’t resist . . .
 . . . but Locke’s perfect crime is going to have to wait. Someone else in Tal Verarr wants the Gentlemen Bastards’ expertise and is quite prepared to kill them to get it. Before long, Locke and Jean find themselves engaged in piracy. Fine work for thieves who don’t know one end of a galley from another.

 So you’ve just finished reading The Lies of Locke Lamora. You loved the devilish characters, witty dialogue and clever plotting. You can’t wait to read the next instalment in the series, yet at the same time you’re thinking to yourself: it can’t be as good as Lies. Can it?
It can indeed. And it’s not only just as good: it’s better.

Red Seas under Red Skies, the second instalment in the Gentlemen Bastard Sequence, is everything that the first book is and more. The central characters are much more fleshed-out and complex, their interaction with each other is more diverse and entertaining, and the plot – involving the usual schemes within schemes within schemes – is unbelievably elaborate, and yet somehow never confusing. Lynch has an incredible knack for keeping details from the reader, feeding us just enough information to make us feel complicit with the grand plans of our favourite thieves, yet at the same time keeping us ignorant of their final twists of genius until the time comes for the great unveiling.
The book has a much closer focus than its predecessor on the relationship between Locke and Jean, which is being sorely tested by the fallout of the events from Lies. Their loyalty is heart-warming, their banter is (as always) natural and funny, and their disagreements, while hurtful, seem to make their friendship that much more realistic. Their schemes are also much more ambitious, this time involving card tricks, pirates, unbreakable vaults and the most powerful figures in the city of Tal Verarr, as well as a few hidden players to complicate matters. The plotting is nothing short of brilliant.

As with Lies, though, the payoff comes at an enormous cost. Lynch never lets our heroes simply walk off into the sunset unscathed, and there’s pain and heartbreak here that somehow feels more personal than the characters’ losses in Lies. The characters – all of them – are so well-written that it’s difficult not to empathise with them (or hate them).

Red Seas contains many of the same elements as Lies – daring cons, gallows humour, loveable rogues and complex opponents – and yet has a very different feel. This is largely to do with its setting. Choosing to set a large amount of the book at sea creates a completely new atmosphere and works as a brilliant mechanism to illustrate that our two thieves are perhaps, figuratively and literally, out of their depth. It allows for a novel source of humour, particularly Locke and Jean’s sea-training and the shambles of their fraudulent ‘captaincy’, and also endows the story with a fresh new feel rather than simply recycling the ideas of the first book and placing them in a different city.

I also take pleasure in noting that the author is very skilled at including certain ghoulish elements to his stories, elements that work to create an amazingly macabre backdrop for otherwise ordinary events. Some of these grim little touches are the Midden Deep (a bottomless hole into which prisoners are thrown, possibly to fall forever), the death-lanterns (boat-sized jellyfish that absorb your blood through your skin), and of course the eerie Ghostwind Isles (a pirates’ haven consisting of volcanoes, jungles, suicide-inducing fog and mysterious forces that can cause entire villages to disappear).
I first read this book around six years ago and remembered it as being very good; I’ve read it again now and realised that it’s actually brilliant. Now, onto the newly-released book #3 . . .

My rating: 5/5

Click here to buy Red Seas under Red Skies on Amazon.
Click here to read my review of The Lies of Locke Lamora (Gentlemen Bastard Sequence #1)


Monday, 7 October 2013

Review: 'The Lies of Locke Lamora' by Scott Lynch

The Thorn of Camorr is said to be an unbeatable swordsman, a master thief, a friend to the poor, a ghost that walks through walls.
Slightly built and barely competent with a sword, Locke Lamora is, much to his annoyance, the fabled Thorn. And while Locke does indeed steal from the rich (who else would be worth stealing from?), the poor never see a penny. All of Locke’s gains are strictly for himself and his tight-knit band of thieves: The Gentlemen Bastards.
The capricious, colourful underworld of the ancient city of Camorr is the only home they’ve ever known. But now a clandestine war is threatening to tear it apart. Caught up in a murderous game, Locke and his friends are suddenly struggling just to stay alive . . .
 The Lies of Locke Lamora – the first instalment in the Gentlemen Bastard Sequence – belongs to that brilliant breed of fantasy that relies more on clever plotting, suspense and characterisation than on spectacular magic and obsessive world-building. It’s full to bursting with thieves and murderers, gangs and torturers, cons and disguises, swearing and revenge.
And sharks. Plenty of sharks.

The story follows a small band of thieves known as the Gentlemen Bastards as they initiate an elaborate confidence scheme on a wealthy couple. Despite months of planning, the scheme is soon jeopardised by a new crime boss known only as the Grey King. His arrival in the city – along with that of the powerful Bondsmage working for him – brings terror, blackmail and murder, and heralds the beginning of disaster for the Gentlemen Bastards.
One of my favourite aspects of The Lies of Locke Lamora is the characters, who are morally grey yet somehow sympathetic. Locke, our main protagonist, is a thief, and yet at no point do we think of him as a ‘bad’ person: it’s a lifestyle he’s forced into at a very young age. The fact that he turns thieving into a fine art as he gets older is the novel’s main source of entertainment, and the author completely draws us into Locke’s elaborately clever and outrageous schemes. The rest of the Gentlemen Bastards are very likeable too – Bug is endearingly young, brave and desperate to prove himself, while the mischievous twins Calo and Galdo provide some amusing banter and friendly insults – but Jean Tannen is the only member of the group aside from Locke who is really fleshed out as an individual, mainly through the use of flashbacks.

The author makes use of flashbacks and interludes very effectively, using them to reveal important parts of the mythology of Camorr, as well as to illustrate how the relationship between the central characters developed over the years. These interludes are interposed very frequently throughout the entire novel, and are used effectively to build tension and reveal certain things about the plot at strategic moments. They do occasionally meander in ways that diminish rather than heighten the suspense, but are mainly very relevant and interesting.
The characters are complex and fascinating (Jean is as well-read and good at maths as he is deadly with his hatchets, while Locke himself alternates between the roles of Thorn, common thief and saviour of the city), the action is bloody and gripping, and the plot has more twists and turns than the tunnels under Shades Hill. What more can you ask for in a debut novel?

My rating: 4.5/5
Click here to buy The Lies of Locke Lamora on Amazon.

Thursday, 3 October 2013

Laura's Latest Fantasy Finds

The Darkness That Comes Before - R Scott Bakker
I've never read anything written by this author, but if it's good enough for Steven Erikson it's good enough for me.

The Innocent Mage - Karen Miller
Sarah at Bookworm Blues pointed out recently that she didn't seem to have seen/read much by female authors that wasn't specifically urban fantasy. I realised that the same can be said for me. With the exception of Robin Hobb's Farseer Trilogy and Janny Wurts' Empire collaboration with Feist, the fantasy I read is almost exclusively written by men. While I don't think of this as a problem, it did factor into my decision to buy this book, as well as . . .

The Deed of Paksenarrion - Elizabeth Moon
The idea of a strong female protagonist appealed to me here, and I'm looking forward to reading it.

Empire in Black and Gold/Empire Falling - Adrian Tchaikovsky
Here's a testimony to the power of social networking: I'd never heard of this author before joining Twitter. Shadows of the Apt  seems to have a bit of a unique take on fantasy and 'special powers', and I'm interested to see how the author pulls this off since it appears slightly ridiculous at first glance. (I'm expecting to enjoy it, though - why else would I have bought book 2 as well as book 1?)

The Elder Gods - David and Leigh Eddings
As a huge fan of the fantasy genre I felt a little ashamed at not having read anything by Eddings. I don't know if this was the best book to choose - I've read mixed reviews since buying it - but I guess I'll just have to wait and see.

So there you have it: my latest fantasy finds. The great thing about being a relatively young person is that the fantasy genre has reached new heights of popularity. There's so much to choose from, and there's so much I haven't read yet; a lot of books that are new to me are actually old to other people.

The best part is: I'll never run out of things to read!