Wednesday, 27 November 2013

Review: 'The Light and the Glass' by Michael Diack

The elves and humans know that their fate is intertwined as they seek to survive the threat of enemies known and new. The seven stones of light, hidden by the wicked Mayer, hold the key to victory. The renegade dragon brothers, Gorlyx and Brelyx, offer their only hope of recovering the lost stones – but can they be trusted?

The Light and the Glass is the second instalment of the self-published fantasy volume Empyria, and provides a satisfying conclusion to the tale of Nimerians’ desperate plight.
Mary, Faria, Jax and the rest have suffered through the destruction of their home city, and The Light and the Glass tells of their struggle to cross the perilous desert with their people and relocate their city to a place called Dunein, not without perils of its own. But there’s more than one civilisation under threat, and the stakes are raised with the introduction of the elf kingdom, ancient and precious and sublimely beautiful. Athmane and Bayoud, two of our heroes from the first book, must assist the elf prince Viro in reclaiming the artefacts of his people in order to gain the elves as allies in the defence of their own society. As one threat is ended, another emerges. A demon from another world raises a monstrous army from the depths of a dread lake, and all the while the deadly Sanghouls work ceaselessly to bring death and destruction to mankind and bury civilisation beneath the endless sand.

The Light and the Glass has a much wider scope than Shadows in the Sand as the conflict escalates and the stakes increase. The addition of the dragon brothers Gorlyx and Brelyx allows the characters to travel far and wide in their quest, as well as creating an interesting new dynamic regarding the relationships between races. This book has more of an epic feel than the first, perhaps because of the scale of the conflict and the number and variation of the participants, but also because it pays homage to many of the great traditional elements of high fantasy: sorcery, magical weapons, evil beasts, war and battle, dragons, magic stones, elves, and more.
I think one of the author’s strongest areas is his ability to create vivid and varied settings. The Light and the Glass takes us to a whole range of different places during the course of the characters’ various quests: from the Rainbow Kingdom of the elves to the eerie danger-filled underwater lake at Dunein; from the sinister mountain lair of the dragon brothers to the dark abyssal depths of the mysterious Lake Wenlock. Not to mention the continual backdrop of the desert itself, the descriptions of which are so vivid and detailed as to be obviously drawn from real-life experience.

Another strong point of this series for me has been the structure. The story shifts smoothly between each of the various characters and scenarios in order to maintain tension and excitement; the alternating viewpoints work well to ensure that the reader never forgets what is happening to any one character, although I would have liked to see some of the viewpoints given a more distinctive voice.  The pacing of the story is great: lots of short but action-packed sequences with a minimum of fuss in getting from one exciting situation to another.
The Light in the Glass is full of magic, monsters and action: a pleasant and easy read for fans of the genre.

My rating: 4/5
Click here to buy The Light and the Glass (Empyria #2) on Amazon Kindle
Click here to read my review of Shadows in the Sand (Empyria #1)

Thursday, 7 November 2013

Review: 'She Who Waits' by Daniel Polansky

Low Town: The worst ghetto in the worst city in the Thirteen Lands. Good only for depravity and death. And Warden, long ago a respected agent in the formidable Black House, is now the most depraved Low Town denizen of them all.

As a younger man, Warden carried out more than his fair share of terrible deeds, and never as many as when he worked for the Black House. But Warden’s growing older, and the vultures are circling. Low Town is changing, faster than even he can control, and Warden knows that if he doesn’t get out soon, he may never get out at all.

But Warden must finally reckon with his terrible past if he can ever hope to escape it. A hospital full of lunatics, a conspiracy against the corrupt new king and a ghetto full of thieves and murderers stand between him and his slim hope for the future. And behind them all is the one person whose betrayal Warden never expected. The one person who left him, broken and bitter, to become the man he is today.
The one woman he ever loved.
She who waits behind all things.

She Who Waits is the third instalment in Daniel Polansky’s Low Town series, and seemingly rounds off this particular trilogy about the life of Warden. It’s a thrilling and thoroughly enjoyable read that takes all the elements we’ve come to love about the series – grimy settings, disreputable characters, casual vice, fascinating flashbacks and wicked schemes – and multiplies them by ten to create a convoluted but fast-paced plot leading to an explosive and heart-stopping conclusion.
As with the author’s previous novels (The Straight Razor Cure and Tomorrow the Killing) the story follows the character of Warden, a disgraced former soldier and Black House operative who is now a drug dealer. Not only does he practically run Low Town, but he also secretly manoeuvres critical events within politics, not to his own advantage, but to the disadvantage of those who have previously caused him harm. Most of the characters he encounters are despicable in varying ways, their negative attributes brilliantly exaggerated to the point of grotesqueness. Low Town and its denizens are ugly, inside and out, and this makes those rare moments of goodness or peace experienced by Warden all the more striking.

One thing I will point out is that there’s not really that much emphasis on Albertine, the woman who betrayed him years ago and is therefore partly responsible for the way his life has turned out since. However, I don’t think the novel suffers from this, since the focus of the series has always been on Warden’s decisions in the present rather than his dwelling on the past; and, of course, the title is clever, referring not just to his lost love but to the goddess of death, commonly known as ‘She who Waits Behind All Things’. And that’s a pretty apt title, since the novel’s events are set against the usual Low Town backdrop of frequent violence and murder.

In a nutshell: the dialogue is gritty and facetious, the protagonists are tough and easy to root for, the plot is clever and brilliantly executed, and the final awesome culmination of events leaves us feeling wretched yet satisfied.

My rating: 5/5
Click here to buy She Who Waits (Low Town #3) on Amazon.co.uk
Click here to read my review of The Straight Razor Cure (Low Town #1)
Click here to read my review of Tomorrow the Killing (Low Town #2)

Friday, 1 November 2013

Review: 'Tomorrow the Killing' by Daniel Polansky

The Dren War ended fifteen years ago. Some soldiers came home heroes, while others came back bitter, broken and without a future. Many didn’t make it back at all.

Roland Montgomery, hero of the war, was brutally murdered and his body dumped behind a brothel. Years later, his death still haunts Warden, once Montgomery’s soldier and friend.
 
Now Montgomery’s sister Rhaine has disappeared, after asking one too many awkward questions about his death. But Warden knows whose hand is lifted against whom, where the blood flows and where the bodies fall. He’ll find Rhaine.
 
But he’ll also find the returning past to be a bloody, vengeful and unforgiving mistress.
 
The Straight Razor Cure was Polansky’s debut novel, and was a gritty and gripping introduction to the Low Town series. Tomorrow the Killing is even more impressive than its predecessor: it is dark and compelling and delves more deeply into Warden’s past, focusing particularly on his service during the Great War. This second instalment in the Low Town novels is set three years after the events of the first, and places a much greater emphasis on Warden’s attitude to the war: his voice comes across a lot more strongly and the overriding tone is one of grim cynicism, which is perfect for the purposes of the story.

The characters – new and recurring – feel a lot more developed here, and I found myself liking (and hating) them a lot more than the characters in Razor. I felt revulsion towards the drug-addled crime lord Adisu the Damned, a mixture of anger and sympathy for war ‘hero’ Adolphus, derision and amusement at every appearance of the goons Roussel and Rabbit. The dialogue is sharp and witty, and Warden’s dry one-liners are a frequent source of humour. Most importantly, I began to understand the protagonist a little better. Tomorrow the Killing gives us a lot more to chew over in our attempts to understand Warden’s motives and attitudes, and it’s at this point where we start to experience an interesting mixture of sympathy and antipathy towards our anti-hero: antipathy, because the way he mishandles his relationships and deals with his problems is so different from how we imagine we would behave in his situation; sympathy, because we can totally understand why someone would react in such a way and how easy it would be to set foot on Warden’s downward spiral.

One of the shining aspects of Tomorrow the Killing is the way in which it deals with the impact of history upon the present day. Polansky draws on an issue that will always be relevant in any world, real or fictional, and presents several layers of conflict very cleverly. He has the Warden’s regret-tinged struggle to come to terms with his own participation in the war; Adolphus’ desperate attempts to regain glory for the veterans in spite of Warden’s opposing attitude; both men fighting to instil their respective attitudes on young Wren; and of course the general impossibility of reconciling the glorified speeches and broadsheet stories with the horrific experiences actually lived through by the soldiers. This is all done so well that we’re never sure whether either side is entirely right or wrong.
The plot is fast-paced and clever; Warden has stepped up his game in the time since the events of The Straight Razor Cure - perhaps because the new events are so close to home - and he tirelessly orchestrates schemes within plots within ideas, running circles around his adversaries (and other people who just happen to get in the way). Warden is revealed to be ruthless and more cunning than suggested by the previous novel, and the way Polansky manipulates events to their inevitable fiery yet poignant conclusion is tense, exciting and masterfully done.

My rating: 4.5/5
Click here to buy Tomorrow the Killing on Amazon.
Click here to read my review of The Straight Razor Cure (Low Town #1)