Sunday, 31 May 2015

Re-read: 'Prince of Fools' by Mark Lawrence

The Red Queen is old but the kings of the Broken Empire dread her like no other. For all her reign, she has fought the long war, contested in secret, against the powers that stand behind nations, for higher stakes than land or gold. Her greatest weapon is The Silent Sister—unseen by most and unspoken of by all.

The Red Queen’s grandson, Prince Jalan Kendeth—drinker, gambler, seducer of women—is one who can see The Silent Sister. Tenth in line for the throne and content with his role as a minor royal, he pretends that the hideous crone is not there. But war is coming. Witnesses claim an undead army is on the march, and the Red Queen has called on her family to defend the realm. Jal thinks it’s all a rumor—nothing that will affect him—but he is wrong.

After escaping a death trap set by the Silent Sister, Jal finds his fate magically intertwined with a fierce Norse warrior. As the two undertake a journey across the Empire to undo the spell, encountering grave dangers, willing women, and an upstart prince named Jorg Ancrath along the way, Jalan gradually catches a glimmer of the truth: he and the Norseman are but pieces in a game, part of a series of moves in the long war—and the Red Queen controls the board.

Mark Lawrence’s Broken Empire trilogy was one of my best discoveries of 2013, largely due to its dark tone and brilliantly captivating first person narrative, and I expected big things of Prince of Fools. It delivered all of them, bigger and better than even I’d been looking forward to. Prince of Fools is the first book of Lawrence’s latest series ,The Red Queen’s War, and it follows the converging paths of two very different characters: Snorri ver Snagason, a Norse raider from Viking lands; and Jalan Kendeth, a bone idle prince from Red March.

Lawrence’s prose is poetic and flowing, easy to read and with the usual characteristic undercurrent of dry, occasionally dark humour. The tone is light even when the plot is gritty, which makes it very engaging and difficult to put down. The protagonist is witty, amusing and occasionally outrageous, and his insights and narrative voice are always entertaining (although sometimes he appears to get so caught up in his own witticisms that he forgets to tell the story). The fact that he has Snorri to bounce off (sometimes literally) helps to highlight his personality even further, and the juxtaposition of the two opposing characters works really well.

Those who found Lawrence’s Broken Empire trilogy too dark and its main character unsympathetic may have more luck here. Jalan Kendeth is certainly no Jorg Ancrath, despite the similar-sounding names. True, they’re both royal princes, they both leave their homelands to go on adventures, and neither of them care very much about anyone except themselves, at least at first. However, while Jorg is a somewhat sociopathic, homicidal teen with aspirations to rule an empire, Jalan is a self-professed coward, a twenty-something womaniser and gambler who just wants to spend his time enjoying the finer things in life. His internal monologue, in which he continually whinges and whines and ruminates on the wisdom of running away in every possible situation, is refreshingly different to Jorg’s no-nonsense goal-centred character, although I personally find both very entertaining in their own way.

One of my favourite aspects of the Broken Empire series were the references to the ‘Builders’ world, and the irony created by characters’ ignorant observations and assumptions about the things left behind from this world. I was pleased to see this continue in Prince of Fools with many more humorous comments, such as the legend of the train (which Jal thinks must have been a “fearsome beast” to have been able to plough through the side of a mountain), Skilfar’s “plasteek guardians”, and – my personal favourite – a Viking longship named Ikea.

Unlike the Broken Empire, there are no confusing time hops in Prince of Fools. Aside from the occasional memory, and Jalan’s gradual telling of Snorri’s tale, the entire story is focused solely on events occurring over several weeks, and from the perspective of one single character. This makes it easier to see how the main character develops during the course of the story, and demonstrates the author’s ability to subtly build character without resorting to flashbacks and time-jumps. I will say that I was a little disappointed with how the development seems to reverse again by the end of the novel, but hopefully more will be revealed in the second book.

If you didn’t enjoy the Broken Empire trilogy, I’d definitely recommend giving this a go instead. If you did enjoy the Broken Empire trilogy, then why haven’t you read this yet??


Review originally posted on 3rd July 2014.

Thursday, 28 May 2015

Tough Travels: Heists/Cons

‘Tough Travelling’ is a weekly feature. Every Thursday 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 HEISTS/CONS.

Smash-and-grabs are not always the best way to illicitly acquire objects in fantasyland.  Sometimes these things take planning, a loyal crew, and a little bit of luck. But a good crew can always get the job done.

A Day in the Life of Locke Lamora

(The Gentlemen Bastards by Scott Lynch)

I’m not going to name any specific examples here, because a) spoilers, and b) there are too many to choose from. Locke Lamora and his Gentlemen Bastards are accomplished thieves and con-men: they run cons within cons within cons, so that not even the reader is aware of their true objective. The Bastards learned their art from a true master of the profession: Chains, a man who carefully conned thousands of people for years on end by pretending to be a blind priest. Yep, seriously.

Drawlight’s Naughty Scam

(Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke)

Society whore and wannabe social climber Drawlight is a vile person, a parasite who uses the misfortunes of others to pave his own road to success. A man of enormous cunning but little wealth, Drawlight uses his wits and inside knowledge of English magic to set up his own lucrative con business: pretending to be Jonathan Strange and charging outlandish prices for a correspondence course in magic. Shame Jonathan finds out about the whole thing . . .

Cithrin’s Master Plan

(The Dagger and the Coin by Daniel Abraham)

Cithrin Bel Sarcour is a banker. Sounds boring, right? Truth is, she’s one of the most interesting characters in this series. Abraham makes economics and accounting Fun by demonstrating how an adept mind can use money to consolidate power and undermine their enemies. Cithrin and her loyal associates have a huge plan underway to topple the tyranny of the current rulers, and it’s this particular thread of the story that I can’t wait to see come to fruition (if the final book’s publication date stops getting pushed back – mutter, grumble.)

Tehol’s Revenge

(Midnight Tides by Steven Erikson)

Tehol Beddict lives in a grimy building, wears a blanket, and sleeps on a roof. He’s also a genius. Along with his trusty manservant Bugg, an undead thief called Shurq and a giant named Ublala, Tehol begins to establish a grand scheme to destroy the successive hegemonies of two ineffective governments using the most powerful weapon at his disposal: economics. Tehol and Bugg are without a doubt two of the best characters in this entire series.

Darian’s Disasters

(Tales of the Ketty Jay by Chris Wooding)

Darian Frey is captain of the Ketty Jay, a slightly decrepit airship with an even more dysfunctional crew. The gang frequently operate outside the law, and are always thinking of creative ways to make a little cash. Perhaps one of their finest moments is the carefully-planned robbery of an orphanage, resulting in a hilarious pursuit of the Ketty Jay by the airborne equivalent of peasants with pitchforks.

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

Sunday, 17 May 2015

Review: 'Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell' by Susanna Clarke

The year is 1806, England is beleaguered by the long war with Napoleon, and centuries have passed since practical magicians faded into the nation's past. But scholars of this glorious history discover that one remains, the reclusive Mr Norrell, whose displays of magic send a thrill through the country. Proceeding to London, he raises a beautiful woman from the dead and summons an army of ghostly ships to terrify the French.

Yet the cautious, fussy Norrell is challenged by the emergence of another magician: the brilliant novice Jonathan Strange. Young, handsome and daring, Strange is the very antithesis of Norrel. So begins a dangerous battle between these two great men which overwhelms that between England and France. And their own obsessions and secret dabblings with the dark arts are going to cause more trouble than they can imagine.

Gorgeous. Enthralling. Captivating. Mesmerising. These are all words I certainly didn’t use when I first attempted to read Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell a couple of years ago, finally abandoning it in disgust around the 600-page mark. I remembered little about the book, except that I quite enjoyed it at first but found that it soon became dry and laborious. However, I recently came to realise that I might be the only person in existence who has a problem with the book, and so resigned myself to give it another go . . . and WOW am I glad I did.

Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is, ostensibly, a tale of two magicians named Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell. But this is far too simplistic a description for what is actually a lengthy, beautiful, meandering tale of magic and ambition and rivalry and friendship, told over the span of a decade and often focusing on subplots and minor characters as much as on its two main protagonists. In Clarke’s alternative nineteenth-century England, magic is considered a lost art. Not since the disappearance of the Raven King – a legendary magician who once ruled the North – and his successors have there been any true magicians. That is, until Mr Norrell makes himself known as the only practical magician in England, and possibly the world. The fashionable people of London are delighted by such a novelty, while the government see in him an opportunity to gain advantage in the war against Napoleon. When a second magician presents himself to Mr Norrell as a pupil it seems everything is going splendidly . . . until their relationship becomes strained by professional disagreements, a series of tragedies, and the interference of a mysterious gentlemanly antagonist; and both Strange and Norrell begin to think twice about their ambition to restore magic to England.

Clarke’s story, and the alternative England in which it takes place, is incredibly detailed and ambitious, astonishingly so when considering that this is the work of a debut author. Although the plot itself is anything but focused, this is clearly an intentional quirk that only adds to the novel’s charm, and the sense of unexpectedness created by the winding series of events is just one of the things that kept me reading. Though meandering, the story is nonetheless coherent and engaging. Each chapter is titled with the month and year in which it takes place, which is particularly helpful in keeping track of events; and an abundance of footnotes alternately provides the reader with additional information, historical references and fascinating anecdotes, adding further charm and depth to an already rich and satisfying reading experience. Furthermore, the pages are filled with beautifully vivid and evocative descriptions: of magical forests and city streets in winter, of candlelit libraries and dark landscapes, of ruined castles and mysterious roads. The author doesn’t just set the scene; she dazzles the reader with striking imagery and envelops them in an atmosphere both hauntingly magical and poignantly melancholy.

Clarke bravely, and successfully, attempts to emulate nineteenth-century novelists in both subject and tone, and the result is a delightful hybrid of Austen’s droll social satire and ironic commentary, and Dickens’s comical caricatures and perceptive observations of city life. However, the dry humour suffusing the whole is, I suspect, entirely the author’s own, and it is this mocking, almost self-deprecating voice that provides entertainment at times when arguably nothing is happening plot-wise. I particularly enjoyed the satirical portrait of Mr Norrell that continues throughout the novel: Norrell is somewhat despicable what with his jealous hoarding of knowledge, rudeness to others and egotistical sense of his own superiority, not to mention his hypocrisy; and yet he is also clever and fascinating, and I found myself turning page after page just to see what he would do next. Of course both protagonists are entertaining in their own way, but Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is further brought to life by their friends and acquaintances, a brilliantly varied cast of secondary characters: Drawlight is despicable yet strangely sympathetic; Lascelles is clever and manipulative; Stephen Black is noble yet na├»ve; Childermass is wry and enigmatic; and naturally none are quite as secondary as they first appear, least of all the spectacular villain known only as the gentleman with the thistle-down hair.

Despite Mr Norrell’s ongoing attempts to categorise it in lists and trap it in books, the magic of Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is ephemeral, mutable and largely unexplained. In this day and age, where works of fantasy are too often judged by how fastidious and logical their magic rules and ‘systems’ are, I can’t stress how refreshing it is to read a work instead suffused with nebulous magic, myths and legends, where the limits and possibilities and, indeed, reasons for magic remain mostly unknown.

I’ll admit that I became a little disheartened not long after beginning the book, largely because it seemed to be taking so long to read. However I soon realised I was more than happy to linger over each page, to take the time to appreciate each word, and even to re-read lines and passages that particularly appealed. By the time I finally approached the end I deliberately slowed my pace even further, to savour the final moments of this extraordinary book that I once disliked but now utterly adore and admire. I’m running out of ways to express how much I loved this book, so I’ll end with an incoherent string of adjectives. Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell is gorgeous. It’s enthralling. It’s surprising. It’s captivating. It’s mesmerising. It’s hilarious. It’s heart-breaking.

It might even be one of the best books I’ve ever read.


Thursday, 14 May 2015

Tough Travels: The Weasel

‘Tough Travelling’ is a weekly feature. Every Thursday 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 THE WEASEL.

Weasels are usually very useful, obtaining information from unlikely sources and the like. For that matter they may be fun to be around. But can they ever really be trusted? Usually about as far as they can be thrown, but no one ever knows.

This list is somewhat rushed this week, due to the fact that I’m spending all my spare time trying to finish reading Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell before the TV series starts on Sunday. So here’s my rather brief summary of all the weasels, good and bad, I could think of. (SPOILER warning, as usual.)

Jimmy the Hand

(The Riftwar Cycle by Raymond E. Feist)

Jimmy is the most talented thief in Krondor. When he betrays his guild he finds himself miraculously sworn instead to the service of the Prince of Krondor, Arutha. Jimmy henceforth serves as a Squire, but he never really leaves his old sneaking ways behind . . .


(Prince of Fools by Mark Lawrence)

When Jalan and Snorri are cursed with powerful and mysterious magic, both start hearing voices inside their heads. For Jalan it’s the voice of Baraqel, self-professed angel and servant of light; for Snorri it’s Aslaug, daughter of Loki and spider of the dark. Both provide them with information they couldn’t possibly have known otherwise . . . but whose side are they really on?


(Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell by Susanna Clarke)

I’m not quite finished with this book yet, but Childermass definitely seems a shifty sort. Though professing to be the devoted servant of Mr Norrell, he occasionally appears to not only disagree with the man but also to be subtly undermining him. But I guess I’ll find out soon enough . . .


(The Malazan Book of the Fallen by Steven Erikson)

Crone is a Great Raven, but she’s also pretty weaselly. She and her kin were born from the corrupted flesh of a fallen god, and are now spread across the lands of Genabackis, forming a perfect aerial information network. But who does Crone really serve? She’s popularly known as the companion of Anomander Rake, but she often deliberately withholds information from Rake on the orders of his ally Caladan Brood. Which other ascendants might she be working for, and do their interests coincide or conflict?


(The Powder Mage trilogy by Brian McClellan)

Okay, so physically Mihali is the least weasellish character you can imagine. He’s fat, friendly and funny. He’s also a chef (who apparently makes the most divine squash soup you’ve ever tasted), but he’s also an escapee from a madhouse. How does he know so much about the god Kresimir? Can Tamas trust him? And where does he get all his ingredients?

Bilbo Baggins

(The Hobbit by J.R.R. Tolkien)

Credit goes to my husband for suggesting this one; I never would have thought of it for myself. Looking at this from the dwarves’ point of view, Bilbo is a somewhat slippery ally: he’s a self-professed burglar. He escaped from the goblins’ cave by mysterious means. He infiltrated the elves’ stronghold and helped the dwarves escape through similarly mysterious means. He woke up the dragon which went on to destroy Laketown. He stole the Arkenstone and betrayed Thorin by abandoning the dwarves and siding with the elves. Yep, Bilbo’s a weasel alright!

Kreacher, etc.

(Harry Potter by J.K. Rowling)

I couldn’t decide on any one character so decided to list a few. Firstly there’s Kreacher, a cranky old house elf whose misplaced loyalty to his dead mistress leads to the death of a major character in the series (damn you, Kreacher!!). Then there’s Mundungus Fletcher, a notorious crook who provides the Order of the Phoenix with information – but is it reliable? And can they trust him not to give away their secret location? And of course there’s Snape, Dumbledore’s trusted double-double-double agent, who seems to switch sides as often as a tennis ball and probably can’t be trusted AT ALL. Or can he?

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

Tuesday, 12 May 2015

Review: 'Hawkwood's Voyage' by Paul Kearney


Even as cities and cathedrals are tumbling, their defenders crucified by the invading Merduks, the Faithful war among themselves, purging heretics and magical folk and adding to the flames.

For Richard Hawkwood and his crew, a desperate venture to carry refugees to the uncharted land across the Great Western Ocean offers the only chance of escape from the Inceptines' pyres. The King's cousin, Lord Murad, has an ancient log book telling of a free, unspoiled land...


Hawkwood’s Voyage is a book I’ve been meaning to read for a long time. Kicking off Paul Kearney’s epic Monarchies of God series, it seems to have often been both praised and criticised across the web solely on the strength of its parallels to historical events. I have to admit that my general knowledge in this area is pretty poor, however, so whilst reading it the only possible influences I was able to recognise were the Spanish Inquisition and the discovery of America. But since I picked up the book as a work of fantasy – and, admittedly, on the strength of the fact that Steven Erikson wrote the cover blurb – these historical allusions went mostly over my head, and I don’t believe that my ignorance in this regard affected my enjoyment of the book in any way.

Kearney sets the very beginning of Hawkwood’s Voyage in the aftermath of a besieged city’s destruction, throwing us into the midst of a dark, gritty, conflicted world. This totally captivated my interest, and also reminded me of the beginning of Erikson’s Gardens of the Moon, which also begins in the wake of a siege and gradually fills in previous events as it goes along. In Kearney’s novel, the kingdoms of Normannia are under attack from the Sultanates of the Eastern Merduks. The great city of Aekir has fallen, and it’s only a matter of time before the rest of Normannia’s defences are breached. However, the defence of the realm against the Merduks is hampered by the power games of the leaders of the Inceptine church, whose influence across Normannia has shackled its secular leaders and instigated brutal pogroms against all foreigners and users of magic.

Meanwhile, in an attempt to resist the Inceptines’ edicts, the King of Hebrion has commissioned a secret voyage to the legendary Western Continent, and two ships filled with arcane refugees now flee a land on the edge of civil war and journey into the unknown. The eponymous voyage is just one storyline amongst several, though it was by far my favourite. Although I didn’t particularly like Hawkwood as a character, I did thoroughly enjoy the tale of his voyage, in particular the elements of horror that suffused it: the ancient ship’s log telling of a dread beast terrorising a previous voyage is brilliantly reminiscent of Dracula, and I wish more page time had been devoted to this storyline to create a better sense of the fear and tension on board the Osprey.

Hawkwood’s Voyage boasts a range of characters, some more interesting than others. There’s Corfe the soldier, a former deserter attempting to redeem himself to his new commander; Richard Hawkwood, a ship’s captain commissioned to undertake a dangerous voyage; Abeleyn, a King made powerless in his own realm by the strictures of the Church; and Bardolin, a powerful mage and scholar. There are also other, more minor POV characters, though the main storylines revolve around these four. Unfortunately I found it difficult to sympathise with some of them: there seemed to me to be a sense of distance from the characters, occasionally heightened by the changing of POV without warning. For instance, one moment we might be viewing a scene through Corfe’s eyes, and the next moment we’ve switched to minor character General Martellus without so much as a page break to mark the change of POV. I’m not sure whether this is deliberate or just careless, but for me it detracted somewhat from any attempt to form a sympathetic bond with certain characters.

Kearney’s writing style is for the most part engaging throughout. However, he does inflict quite a few infodumps on the reader in the form of lengthy descriptions of scenery and history, particularly at the beginning of chapters and upon arriving in a new setting. Although the detail clearly demonstrates the skill and extent of the author’s worldbuilding, the way it is conveyed does tend to slow the pace a bit too much. Similarly an occasional overdose of lengthy dialogue makes Hawkwood’s Voyage a bit dry in places. On the other hand, Kearney does a more than decent job of writing large-scale conflict. His battle scenes are vivid, gritty and well-described (if a touch long-winded at times), not least because he maintains a balance between characters who are in the thick of the fighting and those who have a bird’s-eye view of the conflict. Furthermore, the author’s frequent references to the horrors of war and religious fanaticism – burning people at the stake, attacking an eyeless priest on the roadside, crucifying an enemy general – convey a pervading atmosphere of threat and tension, but not to the extent that it dominates the novel; Kearney certainly doesn’t shy away from depictions of violence, but nor does he dwell on them too much. His writing is gritty without being grimdark, and it suits the tone of the novel perfectly.

It’s obvious that Hawkwood’s Voyage is the start of something huge. Each of its disparate storylines kicks off major events, and though some seem less relevant than others it’s clear that they are all destined to eventually become important parts of the whole. Kearney’s world is geographically detailed and politically complex, and is peopled by characters both heroic and unscrupulous. I can’t wait to read more.


Sunday, 10 May 2015

Review: 'Wyrd Sisters' by Terry Pratchett

Witches are not by nature gregarious, and they certainly don't have leaders. Granny Weatherwax was the most highly-regarded of the leaders they didn't have. But even she found that meddling in royal politics was a lot more difficult than certain playwrights would have you believe...

When the King of Lancre dies of natural causes (a dagger in the back is, for a king, natural causes), the evil Duke Felmet takes the throne after the king’s rightful heir mysteriously disappears into the night. But the kingdom isn’t happy about this . . . and neither are the local witches who, against all tradition, decide to take it upon themselves to meddle.

In a hilarious parody/tribute to Shakespeare, here you have the main stories of Macbeth, Hamlet and King Lear mashed together, sprinkled with awesome Discworld characters and seasoned with an enormous measure of Pratchett humour. There’s a vengeful ghost, a ‘play within a play’, a dramatic death and a wicked tyrant who just can’t seem to scrub the blood from his hands no matter how hard he tries, a la Shakespeare. Throw in three bickering witches, a group of travelling players led by a dwarf, an evil cat named Greebo, and a Fool who has been taught that humour is in fact not a laughing matter, and you have all the essential ingredients of Wyrd Sisters. Oh, add to this a bunch of famous quotes taken directly from Shakespeare, but thrown into a context where no one responds appropriately. The Duke’s desperate queries of “Is this a dagger I see before me?” are met with confused responses by those around him, and the witches’ mantra of “When shall we three meet again?” sparks somewhat un-eldritch replies along the lines of, “well, I can do next Tuesday.”

Wyrd Sisters boasts the most coherent plot of the series so far, despite being crammed with typically bizarre yet hilarious Pratchett moments, such as the old witches experiencing the theatre for the first time, a mad duke wearing a white sheet and insisting he’s a ghost, and Death getting stage fright. It’s fast-paced and focused and funny, and I whizzed through it in less than a day. Best of all, it stars Granny Weatherwax in her first appearance in the Discworld series since Equal Rites, and she’s on mighty fine form. Along with her fellow coven members Nanny Ogg and Magrat, it’s up to Granny to use her wits, her defunct broomstick and her skills in Headology to save the kingdom from tyranny – but not before she’s learned a few things about the world, such as the meaning of ‘acting’ and how not to interfere with a live theatre performance (“He done it! We all seed ‘im! He done it with a dagger!”)

As is often the case with Discworld novels, one of the things that brings Wyrd Sisters to life is the cast of supporting characters, most notably in this case Nanny Ogg. Nanny is ancient, runs her own little empire of sons, daughters-in-law and grandchildren, and thinks that actors come from a faraway country called Thespia. When locked in a dungeon and threatened with torture she passes the time by playing 'I-Spy' with a ghost. She has no teeth at all, is fond of a drink or three, and is known to burst into cackling song whenever she’s had one too many apple brandies, some of her favourite ditties being ‘A Wizard’s Staff has a Knob on the End’ as well as the old classic ‘The Hedgehog can Never be Buggered at all’.

Wyrd Sisters is a rare diamond in that I thoroughly enjoyed it from start to finish, and is by far the strongest Discworld instalment so far.


Thursday, 7 May 2015

Tough Travels: Mums

‘Tough Travelling’ is a weekly feature. Every Thursday 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 MUMS.

I headed over to Westeros for most of this week’s inspiration. Once again, George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire did not disappoint, providing fertile ground as usual for a loving send-up of another brilliant trope.


So, mums of Westeros. Let’s start with . . .

Catelyn Stark

Oh, Catelyn. Catelyn, Catelyn, Catelyn. First, you allowed your beloved daughter to be whisked away to the capital to be betrothed to a psychopath. You then spent weeks uselessly moping by your unconscious son’s bedside, totally neglecting your other kids, before irresponsibly abandoning them all to trek across country with a message you could have just entrusted to the bodyguard you dragged along with you. Later, you tagged along with your eldest son and his battle entourage, undermining his authority, releasing his prisoners, and totally ruining his street cred by marrying him off in exchange for a goddamn bridge (no wonder your not-so-well-laid plans went completely tits-up). And let’s not forget that you were a complete and utter BITCH to Jon Snow for his entire life, shutting him out of your family as though it’s his fault he’s a bastard and knows nothing.

Seven Hells, Catelyn. You’re nearly as bad as . . .

Lysa Arryn

Lysa, your son is clearly far too old to breastfeed, so just STOP IT. Also, throwing people to their deaths on a regular basis right in front of him seems to have psychologically damaged him in some way. Stop doing that, too.

Still, you could be worse. You could be . . .

Cersei Lannister

When it comes to protecting your children, Cersei, you’re totally ruthless. I get why you do some of the things you do – such as murdering your dead husband’s bastard babies in order to protect your own son’s inheritance – and really, the fierceness of your love for your three golden-haired offspring is admirable. However, it has to be said – and please don’t have me killed for this – that somewhat less admirable is the fact that your children’s father is actually your brother, Jaime, not to mention that your eldest son, Joffrey, was a cruel tyrant who was eventually murdered right under your very nose. Also, you and your brother then had sex next to your son’s corpse. NOT cool.

But at least you love your daughter, which is more than can be said for . . .

Selyse Baratheon

Selyse, I really need to tell you something: keeping the preserved bodies of your stillborn sons in glass jars, Devil’s Backbone-style, is downright creepy. Try paying some attention to your only living child, Shireen, for a change. What’s that? Shireen is disfigured by a disease known as grayscale, and you’re ashamed of her? Well, that’s stupid, it’s hardly her fault if- eh? You actually think the grayscale is punishment from the Red God for your daughter’s heretical nature? Are you kidding? Let me get this straight: you believe your daughter is completely worthless, and you continually try not only to leave her behind but also to prevent your husband Stannis from ‘wasting his time’ on the poor girl? Gah, may the Lord of Light pass judgment on your soul, you heartless bitch.

Perhaps a better role model can be found in . . .

Daenerys Targaryen

Daenerys, you’re an unusual example of a mother because technically you have no kids. And no one can blame you for that: I mean, it’s hardly your fault that you traded away the life of your unborn son in exchange for saving your zombiefied warlord husband in a failed dodgy black magic ritual. But just because you have no children of your own doesn’t mean that you can’t be a surrogate mother to others: after all, thousands of the common folk of Slaver’s Bay affectionately refer to you as ‘Mhysa’, which means ‘mother’, after you demonstrated your maternal instincts by crucifying their masters and leaving their cities in a state of anarchy. And let’s not forget you are the Mother of Dragons – though perhaps we should forget that when your wayward ‘children’ got out of hand you chained them up inside a dark cave where even the R.S.P.C.A couldn’t find them. Perhaps you should have tried teaching them the Valyrian equivalent of ‘sit’ and ‘stay’ and ‘stop eating people’ before you taught them ‘dracarys’.

All you Westerosi mums should have taken advice from . . .

Clara Kalliam

(The Dagger and the Coin series by Daniel Abraham)

Clara, you’re a total darling. When your poor husband was executed as a traitor, you elected to live in poverty and shame in order to protect your sons. Not only did you ostracise yourself from society so that your sons could keep their positions of safety, but you also overcame your own ingrained social prejudices in order to fully welcome your new daughter-in-law to your family.

Clara, you’re lovely. But the Mum of the Week award has to go to . . .

Molly Weasley

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

Ah, good old Molly. There is nothing you won’t do for your seven children – except, you know, get a job and actually help your husband to financially support your struggling family. Still, you always have your children’s best interests at heart, whether you’re feeding them up with extra dinner portions, knitting them awesome jumpers, bollocking them for their mischievousness, or spending your last sickle to buy them their school supplies. You’re the solid rock at the heart of the Weasley family, and you act like a mother to everyone, whether they’re your own kids or not. Congratulations, Molly, you’re the best mum in fantasy fiction and I love you.

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

Sunday, 3 May 2015

Review: 'Caliban's War' by James S.A. Corey

On Jupiter’s largest moon, a Martian marine watches as her platoon is slaughtered by a monstrous supersoldier.

On Earth, a high-level politician struggles to prevent interplanetary war from reigniting.

And on Venus, an alien protomolecule has overrun the planet, wreaking massive, mysterious changes and threatening to spread out into the solar system.

Once again, Jim Holden and the crew of the Rocinante find themselves in the eye of the storm. A missing child may hold the key to humanity’s survival – but only if they can find her first.

The protomolecule, a mysterious and dangerous alien entity, has landed on Venus and is doing god-knows-what on the surface of the planet. Earth, Mars and the Belt are continuing to ignore this threat and are instead concentrating on their own petty conflicts. Captain Jim Holden is engaged in policing the depths of space against pirates on behalf of the Outer Planets Alliance, until the war between Earth and Mars suddenly escalates and he finds himself caught in the middle once more. Caliban’s War is set about a year after the events of Leviathan Wakes, and once again follows the unlikely yet exciting adventures of Jim Holden and his rag-tag crew. Oh, and don’t forget the vomit zombies.

Caliban’s War is structured in the same way as its predecessor, with each chapter told from alternating characters’ points of view. However, while the first book only had two POV characters, this one has four, including one returning character and three new ones. I was a bit leery when I realised there were so many new characters – especially as the first book felt so intimate and focused with just two – but it quickly became apparent that there was nothing for me to worry about, as I actually found all three of the new characters to be even more engaging that the ‘main’ character Holden. Whereas Holden and Miller were kind of quite similar, the new cast are wonderfully varied. Chrisjen Avasarala is an elderly, foul-mouthed, no-nonsense politician and grandmother; Bobbie Draper is a Martian Marine torn between loyalty to her planet and her own conscience; Prax Meng is a scientist hellbent on rescuing his missing daughter; and of course Holden is the self-righteous yet brave pilot of the Rocinante and star of the first Expanse novel Leviathan Wakes.

Out of all the characters, I found Bobbie in particular to be very sympathetic and likeable (think Brienne of Tarth in a spacesuit), and Avasarala’s chapters are also thoroughly entertaining to read (I can’t wait to see Shohreh Aghdashloo playing the role in the TV series  - she’s perfect).  One surprising upside of having so many new characters is that it allows us get to know the supporting cast a lot better too: the crew of the Rocinante seem to get more page time in Caliban’s War, largely because some of the new characters spend a lot of time with members of the crew who were somewhat sidelined in the first book. So, while Holden spent a lot of time with Naomi in Leviathan Wakes, here we learn a lot more about Amos (who was just engineer-slash-muscle in the first book) through his growing friendship with Prax. Similarly the underdeveloped character of Alex the pilot is given a bit more personality (albeit only a tiny bit) as we see him develop a tentative relationship with his fellow Martian Bobbie, who is seemingly out of his league in every way.

In terms of plot, I think that the reason the shifting POVs work so well is because the actual story is so tightly focused. Despite the fact that they are occasionally separated by thousands of kilometres of empty space, the characters are all ultimately working on the same page and towards the same goal. After a certain point they all become threads of the main story, and this gives the book focus and coherence – especially when compared to other series that use the same method to switch between disparate and sometimes unrelated storylines, which is not only jarring but also totally kills the momentum (yeah, GRRM, I’ve got my eye on you). Caliban’s War also manages to weave in half-forgotten threads from the first novel, which I found both unexpected and delightful; and the main plot is wrapped up nicely whilst also paving the way for the continuation of the underlying protomolecule saga, ensuring that Jim Holden and his crew will have plenty to occupy them for a few more books at least.

Even more so than its predecessor, Caliban’s War is a fun, fast-paced and accessible SF adventure. It’s exciting and occasionally silly, and it’s not ashamed of being a bit over-the-top, which is probably what makes it so enjoyable. That’s also probably why I wasn’t ashamed at gasping out loud at a shocking revelation on the very last page, and why I’m exceedingly glad that I have the sequel, Abaddon’s Gate, immediately to hand.