Monday, 30 December 2013

Review: 'Good Omens' by Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman

According to ‘The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter’ – the world’s only totally reliable guide to the future – the world will end on a Saturday. Next Saturday, in fact. Just after tea . . .

 Having read several Terry Pratchett novels before I had a fairly reasonable idea of what I was getting myself into with Good Omens. I expected quirky humour, strange events, and unique and peculiar characters, along with the usual assortment of magic and bathos and hilariously terrible puns. I’m happy to say that Good Omens has all of these, as well as something that many other earlier Pratchett novels lack: coherence. I’m assuming this is the influence of Neil Gaiman, as is the inclusion of many of the more dark and gruesome elements of the story. All in all, a nicely successful combination of authors, styles and ideas.
The plot is fairly straightforward. The prophecies of the witch Agnes Nutter state when and where the world is going to end. The Antichrist will summon the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, who will ride forth and wreak havoc on humankind; this will be followed by a celestial war between Heaven and Hell, of which there can only be one ultimate victor.
That’s what is supposed to happen; but the ineffable Plan suffers from a few alterations along the way. For a start, due to a mix-up in the local hospital eleven years previously, the Antichrist is not who people think he is; and due to the incompetence of the demon Crowley (who drives a Bentley, wears sunglasses even when it’s dark, and just happens to be the original Serpent, formerly known as Crawly) and the angel Aziraphale (who had a flaming sword but lost it, and now owns a used bookstore in London) this is not discovered by either side until Armageddon is almost upon them. What follows is the tale of various characters – Aziraphale, Crowley, the witch Anathema Device, the Witchfinders Shadwell and Newt, Adam the Antichrist, and Madame Tracy the Psychic/’shameless hoor’ – as they all try to prevent the end of the world.

It’s a good story, and one of the highlights is the casual bickering friendship between the demon Crowley and the angel Aziraphale. They both recognise that neither of them are entirely good or evil, and after thousands of years have struck up a truce. They like the way things are, and as such are keen to try and save the world and maintain the natural balance of things.
The authors, as well as writing a funny story, are also trying to get a message across about humanity, namely that they are capable of much worse things than any sort of evil demon, whether real or imagined, but also of moments of goodness that would make any angel jealous. For instance, Crowley receives a commendation for the creation of the Spanish Inquisition (he happened to be on the continent at the time, and so they just assumed it was his idea), when in fact he knew nothing about it: when he looked into it, it made him feel rather ill (he’s much more proud of creating the M25, door-to-door salesmen, and answering machines).

I personally love the sense of humour – it’s typical Pratchett, dry British humour, and there are so many jokes and references that only a Brit would really understand. It’s fun to feel like you’re sharing a private joke with the author, though I imagine this may alienate readers from other parts of the world. I did enjoy the few aspects of the book that I recognised from Pratchett’s Discworld novels. An example of this is the character of Death and the other Horsemen of the Apocalypse, although they’re a bit different here: they ride motorbikes instead of horses (well, they are the original Hell’s Angels after all), and they have a new member, Pollution (Pestilence retired shortly after the discovery of penicillin in 1936).
The book does have a few flaws. Like many other Pratchett novels I’ve read it can be a little self-indulgent in places, sacrificing plot and relevance for humorous anecdotes that occasionally take over the story. However, it made me laugh – sometimes out loud, to the astonishment of those around me (luckily just the cats) – and it also made me want to read more books by both Terry Pratchett and Neil Gaiman, so I think it deserves a decent score.

My rating: 4/5
Click here to view Good Omens on Amazon UK

Friday, 27 December 2013

Review: 'Waylander' by David Gemmell

The Drenai King is dead - murdered by a ruthless assassin. Enemy troops swarm into Drenai lands. Their orders are simple - kill every man, woman and child.

But there is hope.
Stalked by men who act like beasts and beasts that walk like men, the warrior Waylander must journey into the shadow-haunted lands of the Nadir to find the legendary Armour of Bronze. With this he can turn the tide. But can he be trusted? For he is Waylander the Slayer.
The traitor who killed the King...

This is my first outing with David Gemmell, and I have to say I’m ashamed I waited this long to read his work. Gemmell is one of the legendary forerunners of modern fantasy, and has influenced many of my favourite authors, particularly those who write gritty ‘grimdark’ fantasy such as Joe Abercrombie. I expected big things from David Gemmell, and for the most part Waylander delivered them.
My first impression of Waylander was that there wasn’t much detail. Gemmell wasn’t telling me much about the characters – how they were feeling, what they’d been doing, why they were there – and I felt somewhat disconnected from them, particularly as we’re thrown into the action without being introduced to any of the characters involved. However, about 50 pages into the novel I realised how clever this was: we don’t necessarily need to know everything about the characters in order to empathise with them. It’s very much a case of judging characters by their actions during the current and ongoing events. Gemmell shows us how his characters act, providing limited or no information about their background; it’s up to the reader to witness their actions and decide for themselves how they feel about each character.
This makes it particularly interesting, since there are characters whose reputation or situation would make them appear to be villains, yet whose actions define them otherwise, and vice versa. The characters are not blank slates, created by the author to be gradually filled in for us through the course of the story; rather, we get the feeling that they exist independently of the reader, and we just happen to catch glimpses of them at certain points in their lives. We are unaware of each character’s ‘normal’ behaviour: we simply see them as they are, and this makes our connection with them feel natural and unforced, our own choice rather than the author’s manipulation.
Events in the novel are presented in a similar way. Gemmell shows rather than tells, and has a way of writing that is fairly minimal. His narrative is somewhat brisk in tone, and yet the action is vivid and the characters are well-drawn.  His understated yet captivating style is surprisingly hard-hitting, and his ability to create moments of emotion and tragedy in just a page or two is astounding. An example of this is the tale of the old general Gan Degas. We only meet this character once – his entire character arc spans about four or five pages at the most – yet his sad story completely choked me up (and stuck in my memory so much that I remembered his name without having to look it up).
The book isn’t perfect. I felt that Waylander’s shift from ‘Slayer’ to ‘hero’ would have been a lot more effective if it hadn’t happened right at the beginning (literally during the first couple of pages). We aren’t really shown much of him as the ruthless Slayer; as such I felt that his inner conflict – the pitiless man he was vs. the compassionate man he now is – isn’t quite as powerful as it could be. I also felt that some of the events – particularly the various battles – felt a bit disconnected from the rest of the story, and that the side-plot with the armour (and its importance in the grand scheme of things) was a little bit tenuous and contrived. However, there are many, many books in the overall series aside from this one, and it’s highly likely that I’m not seeing the full picture yet; and despite these minor complaints, I really was blown away by this writer.
Although I am ashamed not to have read his work sooner, I’m excited to know that it’s all laid out before me now, waiting to be read.

My rating: 4/5
Click here to buy Waylander on Amazon UK

Sunday, 22 December 2013

Review: 'Suldrun's Garden' by Jack Vance

Lyonesse is one of the ten kingdoms of the Elder Isles and Casmir, its ruthless and ambitious king, is at the centre of intrigue as their rulers contend for control. Casmir’s beautiful but otherworldly daughter, Suldrun, is a key element in his plans: he intends to cement alliances by arranging a marriage. But Suldrun defies him. She is confined to her beloved garden, where she meets her love, and her tragedy unfolds.

I’ve had a very mixed experience with this book, which wasn’t entirely unexpected given that I’d heard glowing reviews about it from some people and less-than-glowing ones from others. When I was around a hundred pages into the story I was very tempted to put the book down: I felt that the plot was all over the place, the characters were shallow and uninteresting, and the prose was very dry. But I stuck with it, and thankfully ended up enjoying the final third of the book almost enough to make up for the weak (or so I felt) beginning.
Suldrun’s Garden is an interesting historical fantasy mash-up, set in the fictional realm of the Elder Isles (now sunk beneath the sea, but once located near France and Britain). At the beginning the story is mainly concerned with establishing the conflict between the lands of Lyonesse and Troicinet, but this eventually becomes more of a backdrop to the main events of the story. As well as the overall war we have long-lost princes, rebellious princesses, talking mirrors, magicians, Arthurian references, curses, ogres, torture, rape, torture-rape, curse-rape-torture, ogre-rape, and fairies.  

I found the fairy-story aspects of the novel interesting, but over-used and occasionally irrelevant. Sometimes the descriptions felt very Tolkien-esque and twee, while at other times they were as gleefully violent as a Grimm fairy tale; the inclusion of the latter do help to give the novel its pervasive undertone of dark threat (which was sometimes a bit heavy-handed, particularly with regard to the continual misfortunes that befell many of the characters). I felt that the semi-historical element of the setting was also interesting, and nicely balanced out the inclusion of the fae world, but was used so minimally that it may as well have not been mentioned at all. I don’t know if it becomes more prominent in future novels, though.

I realise that my criticisms might be a bit controversial, as it seems Vance is revered as one of the forerunners of modern fantasy. Speaking personally, though, I didn’t enjoy his writing style very much, at least not at first. I found the way he related events to be very dry and dull, and felt that the characters were not developed as thoroughly as they might have been. Since this is very much a plot-driven story, I felt disconnected from events in a way that I don’t when I’m reading more modern, character-based fantasy. Modern fantasy authors I’ve enjoyed recently (particularly the likes of Joe Abercrombie, George RR Martin, Mark Lawrence, John Gwynne, Brent Weeks, Patrick Rothfuss, Steven Erikson, etc., etc.) engage the reader by persuading us to invest in their characters just as much as in their stories, which is something I felt was lacking in Suldrun’s Garden. For instance, we’re often told that a character is doing something, but we’re not always shown their thoughts and motivations for doing so; similarly, we may be told that a character is angry, or sad, but are shown very little of their behaviour or their reasoning. In this way it reminded me a little of Mary Stewart’s Merlin trilogy, with a lot of unnecessary elements and prolific use of narration rather than storytelling. (Yes, there’s a difference. In my mind at least.) It’s this sense of distance from the characters that kept me distanced from the book, at least for the most part.
The other issue I had was with the writer’s use of language. Characters don’t seem to have distinguished voices – the adults speak in mostly the same way as the children, and vice-versa: for example, when insulting and threatening the press-ganged/enslaved Aillas, the overseer uses the word ‘fiddity-didjet’ to describe his behaviour. For me this jarred with both the situation and the other events in the book: a lot of it is quite dark and tragic, yet the language in no way reflects this.

One more minor criticism I have is plot-related. I found that characters were doing elaborate and irrelevant things simply for the sake of doing them. An example of this would be when the magician Shimrod is coerced into entering a dangerous magical realm and having to complete an arbitrary set of tasks, all as part of a ruse so that someone else could go to his house and steal his “magical stuff”. This style of writing put me in mind of Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, which also tends to slot in events simply because the author wants to. This works for a lot of people, but not for me.
Criticisms aside, I found myself enjoying the book quite a lot towards the end. Once the author focused on two or three main characters and gave each one a clear sense of purpose the story became very engaging. If the majority of the book had been like this I would have given it 4 out of 5; as it is, I’ll be giving it 3, but may look into the rest of the Lyonesse series in the future to see what it’s like.

My rating: 3/5
Click here to buy Suldrun's Garden on Amazon UK.

Monday, 16 December 2013

Review: 'Malice' by John Gwynne

The Banished Lands have a violent past where armies of men and giants clashed in battle. An uneasy peace reigns, but now giants stir once more, the very stones weep blood and there are sightings of gigantic wyrms. Those who can still read the signs see a prophecy realized: sorrow will darken the world, as angels and demons make it their battlefield.
Young Corban watches enviously as boys become warriors and yearns to join them, determined to make his family proud. It is only when everything he knows is threatened that he discovers the true cost of becoming a man.

As the kings look to their borders, and priests beg answers from the Gods, only a chosen few know that the fate of the world will be decided between two champions, the Black Sun and the Bright Star. And with their coming will be a war to end all wars.

 Malice is the debut novel of fantasy writer John Gwynne, and is the first book in his new series The Faithful and the Fallen. Despite being fantasy, the book has a Celtic, almost historical feel, with character and place names such as Dun Carreg, Cywen, Gwenith, Mordwyr, Dath etc., and with its use of dialect, such as ‘aye’ and ‘bairn’. I actually really liked this: it creates atmosphere and helps when imagining both the setting and the character accents, and also makes the story feel more real. At the same time, however, the book also has a strangely dystopian feel, being set in desolate lands in an era following an apocalyptic event known as the Gods-War. It’s an interesting combination.
I found Malice to be a little slow to begin with: there are times when it felt like I was reading every little detail of everything that happens, particularly to the children, and I felt that this made it a little bit repetitive. However, it picks up after a while, and by the end I wanted to start straight away on the next book (which unfortunately isn’t available until next year). The characters are interesting as well as ambiguous, and the way the author switches between different points of viewcreates tension and pace very effectively, often reminding me of A Song of Ice and Fire in this respect.

Another aspect of the novel that I felt was reminiscent of GRRM was the characters themselves, several of whom are morally ambiguous. Yet most of them are likeable, or at the very least sympathetic, and it’s really interesting to see them change, particularly those who are being subtly manipulated. The characters are all very different – we have the blacksmith’s son Corban (my personal favourite PoV), his fiery knife-throwing sister Cywen, the skilled archer and former brigand Camlin, the gentle giant-hunter (and unwilling noble heir) Kastell, and finally Veradis, the first-sword and blood-brother to an unwitting servant of Asroth. All these characters are very different in their own ways, and it’s not immediately clear how they relate to one another, but as the plot unfolds we begin to see how they each might be involved in the grand scheme of things.
The Faithful and the Fallen is clearly intended to be a sweeping epic series, with conflict spreading across the entire world and involving gods and monsters. However, there are some nice personal moments that stand out in my memory, namely involving Corban, such as the naming of his horse (Shield) and his defence of the wolven cub Storm. It would be nice to see more of these, and perhaps more character-driven scenes within battles, which are often described in ways that give more of an overview than a one-to-one account.

Malice won the Gemmell Morningstar Award for best debut novel earlier this year, and although I haven’t read any of the other books that were shortlisted for this one, I can understand why this one made the list. Slow to start with, but intriguing, and improving in pace and intensity with every chapter. As Conn Iggulden announces on the cover: it’s a ‘hell of a debut’. I look forward to reading the rest of the series.
My rating: 4/5

Click here to buy Malice on Amazon UK

Monday, 9 December 2013

Review: 'The Blinding Knife' by Brent Weeks

Gavin Guile is dying.

He thought he had five years left – now he’s got less than one. With fifty thousand refugees, a bastard son and an ex-fiancĂ©e who may have learned his darkest secret, Gavin’s got problems on every side.
As he loses control, the world’s magic runs wild, threatening to destroy the Seven Satrapies. The old gods are being reborn and their army of colour wights is unstoppable.

The only salvation may be the brother whose freedom and life Gavin stole sixteen years ago.

 Earlier this year The Blinding Knife beat King of Thorns and Red Country to win the Gemmell Legend award. Since Joe Abercrombie is one of my favourite authors and Mark Lawrence’s King of Thorns is one of the best books I’ve read in 2013, I expected big things from Brent Weeks’ fifth novel. And I’m pleased to say that he totally delivered them.
The Blinding Knife is the second book in the Lightbringer series. It picks up where the first book, The Black Prism, left off, and seamlessly continues the story of Kip and company. Unlike a lot of second books, this one doesn’t use info-dumps to convey information from the first book, and it doesn’t feel like it’s stalling or just filling in the gap before the big finale. Just like the first book, it’s full of action and great characters, and there is always something happening that is both exciting and relevant to the plot.

What I liked most about The Blinding Knife is that the characters continue to develop in interesting ways. My favourite character from the first books was Kip, and this book focuses a lot more on him, continuing what is essentially his coming-of-age story. Despite being the son of the most powerful man in the world, Kip has to constantly overcome obstacles: he’s fat, he’s illegitimate, he has little experience with using his magical talents, and he has enemies who are constantly working to use him to undermine his father. Weeks writes Kip’s character in a way that makes him likeable and strong and yet also very human, the end result being that we spend most of the book hissing at his enemies and cheering him on.
The other characters are just as interesting. The Blinding Knife introduces us properly to the Prism’s father, Andross Guile, who harbours a mysterious secret and whose schemes run much deeper than anyone suspected. His slave Grinwoody is almost as villainous as he is (despite only featuring as a very marginal character), and the main ‘antagonist’ – The Colour Prince – is actually quite sympathetic, his reasons for what he does being quite logical. Other characters from the first book feature again as PoV characters, and undergo very interesting character arcs: the main one here is Liv, who is struggling with the conflict between what she has learned and what she had previously spent her whole life believing. I was a bit disappointed that Karris was somewhat side-lined in this book, but I suppose you can’t have everything.

I’m not a huge fan of cliff-hanger endings, and The Blinding Knife leaves us on one hell of a cliff-hanger, but since the next book comes out next year I’m not too frustrated. I suppose. 
The writing is smooth and captivating, the action scenes are brilliant and well-written, the main characters are three-dimensional, and the unique magic system is becoming more and more interesting the more we learn about it. I was originally annoyed at this book for being voted as better than King of Thorns: I’ll now grudgingly admit that maybe, just maybe, it is.

My rating: 5/5

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

Sunday, 1 December 2013

Review: 'The Black Prism' by Brent Weeks

Guile is the Prism, the most powerful man in the world. His strength, wit, and charm are all that preserve a tenuous peace. Yet Prisms never last, and Guile knows exactly how long he has left to live.

When Guile discovers he has a son, born in a far kingdom after the war that put him in power, he must decide how much he’s willing to pay to protect a secret that could tear his world apart.

I read the final book in Brent Weeks’ Night Angel trilogy a few weeks ago, and was left a little bit underwhelmed with the way things were concluded, and with the trilogy in general. Some of the characters were great, while others were underdeveloped or just plain annoying. There were things in the final book that should have been epic, but hadn’t been set up properly, or even mentioned in the first two books at all. Aside from a few memorable moments/characters, the whole trilogy just seemed kind of average: nothing terrible, but nothing really special either.
The Black Prism is the first book in a different series – the Lightbringer series– and I only decided to give it a go because the second book (The Blinding Knife) recently beat Mark Lawrence’s King of Thorns AND Joe Abercrombie’s Red Country to win the 2013 David Gemmell Legend Award. And so I thought I’d give Weeks another try.

To be honest, I wasn’t blown away at the beginning. I found it similar to the Night Angel books: fairly interesting, but not exactly gripping. I stuck with it, though, and after a brilliant twist about a third of the way in I was pretty much hooked. Stuff started happening, characters became much more interesting, and the somewhat complex histories of both the world and the characters started to unfold in unexpected ways.
The Black Prism is told from the alternating points of view of four main characters: Guile, the Prism and ‘Emperor’; Kip, his illegitimate son; Liv Danavis, the daughter of a disgraced general; and Karris, one of the Prism’s elite Blackguards. All four characters are very different, and it’s interesting to see how each of them regard different situations and people. I particularly like reading Kip’s PoV: he’s fat, he’s clumsy, and his life has just been turned upside down, but he’s determined, he’s talented, and he’s funny. It’s also great to read Guile’s PoV chapters, as we learn a lot of his secrets from him. This leaves us in conflict regarding how we feel about him: do we admire him, or do we hate him?

The one thing all the main characters have in common is that they are magic-users, and the magic is one of the things that almost made me put the book down with a snort and a shake of the head. It’s based on light and colour, hence the ‘Prism’ is the most powerful of all as he can control all the colours of the spectrum. Using colour magic is referred to as ‘drafting’, which creates a magical substance called luxin, which can be moulded to whatever purposes the drafter requires depending on their skill and will, and the properties of the luxin itself. This magic is called Chromaturgy. Each person (drafter) capable of using it has an affinity to one colour (monochromes), two colours (bichromes), or even more (polychromes).
 It sounds ridiculous, I know. It’s basically ‘Rainbow Magic’. But the thing is, what starts off as the most ridiculous-sounding thing ever actually becomes one of the more interesting parts of the book. The scenes involving the use of Chromaturgy (and there aren’t many that don’t) are really fun to imagine, especially after you have an idea of the different uses/properties of each colour. Some of the things it’s used for are spectacular; although importantly (for those who like their magic with rules and restrictions) it’s not without its drawbacks and limitations.

There’s lots of action in The Black Prism, and even when there’s no fighting or drafting there’s almost always something happening. Lots of different plot strands have been introduced in this book, and it left me wanting to know not only what will happen next, but also the full details of the events that happened before the main plot of the book. I’ve been pleasantly surprised by The Black Prism, and I’m glad I have the second book at hand to start straight away!
My rating: 4/5

Click here to buy The Black Prism (Lightbringer #1) on Amazon

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