Sunday, 28 December 2014

Miserere an Autumn Tale by Teresa Frohock, spoiler free review

When I was much younger I walked often in London and past a theatre proudly and forever proclaiming its production of "Les Miserables."   Literally for decades the show's title put me off until the film and my daughters' affection for it awoke me to its qualities.  I even went to see it live in celebration of a big birthday (I won't say how big).  There in the programme I found an echo of my early suspicions when the director had told the original cast words to the effect of, "We are putting on a musical about French history in England, with forty two on stage deaths and its got the word miserable in the title, how hard did we want to make it for ourselves."

In a similar vein I had seen Teresa Frohock's debut novel on book shelves and hesitated to lift it down.  The title - seemed at  a glance a little less than cheerful, the cover striking but a little too crusadery?  However, I am glad I did not wait as long to correct my error with this engrossing book as I waited with the musical adaptation of Victor Hugo's masterpiece.


I read it in three days, it would have been two but for a headache perhaps induced by too much kindle-ing - serves me right for not buying it in hard copy when I had the chance.

It was half way through the book before I found the meaning of its title (I blame a miserable experience with latin at school for my ignorance) and glimpsed a language bridging pun on misery and miserere, very different themes that chase each other through the pages of this book.

For a debut novel it reads surprisingly like a sequel.  The three principal adult characters Lucian Negru. Rachel Boucher and Catarina share a fascinating backstory, rivaling the different adventures of Persephone and Dante in straying beyond mortal boundaries.  I wondered if perhaps the author had in fact written it all in detail, and then chosen to discard the first half in order to launch us at her characters at a key point in their tumble down the slippery slope of fate.   That is not to say Miserere suffers by the missing prequel.  It is that rarity in modern Fantasy, a self-contained book that does not abandon us at a Falls of Rauros type cliffhanger, nor demand a sequel to tie off loose-ends.  Then again, there is enough life in the setting and the characters to afford another story or two, if the author could be so tempted.

Two comparisons spring to my mind in trying to give a feel for Miserere but both have only a tenuous link to Frohock's masterpiece.   The first is the Narnia books, for they too have a parallel worlds and a christian theme and the potential for people to slip from our contemporary world into somewhere fantastically different.  However, the woerld Frohock writes of is no Narnia with talking animals and an excess of turkish delight.  It is like slipping from 1916 England into 1916 Flanders, from the untainted world they fought to preserve, to the bloody frontline in the defence against hell itself.

The second comparison is with Kirstin Cashore's Graceling books, for a select few in her world were special characters (denoted by unmatched eye colours) with powers whose nature only become apparent over time.  So too people who are enabled to slip from Earth into Frohock's Woerld have special powers which can be nurtured and can aid in the fight against the denizens of hell.  For example the hero Lucian Negru has the power of exorcism and the power to open gates - doorways - into hell itself.  Other people who have crossed the divide have different powers - but all of them valuable to the righteous and a target for the damned.

The book opens with its hero crippled, imprisoned and in disgrace, and its heroine scorned and sickening, like Blake's Rose, she is sick assailed by an invisible worm,  The forces of darkness seem doomed to triumph, the forces of good are in disarray.  But faith, hope and if not charity then a little mercy will go a long way and I enjoyed going along with the ride, even if at times I had to read through splayed fingers so fearful was I for characters I had come to love.

Amazon.co.uk lists Miserere as Christian Fantasy and it is true, there is not so much a spine as a full skeleton of christian faith that supports this story.  But that does not stop it from being a rip-roaring read that can be enjoyed by people of all faiths and none.  The films Solomon Kane and Constantine both grew intoxicating and fantastic tales from the fertile soil of christian belief.  More so than that, Miserere presents a world - or rather a woerld - parallel to earth where every religious belief has forsaken their differences and worked in close allegiance to combat a far greater peril.  While Frohock's characters are overtly christian, it is clear that there are many faiths and many routes that lead to heaven, and as many ways to fall into hell.  (There is in that a lesson perhaps for our own earth and its religious leaders)

The reality of the threat that faces the leaders of Woerld, of demons made real, of possession, of gates into hell itself, of betrayals great and small, makes for a culture that is austere and unforgiving.  There is a medieval tone to the reality of religion in the setting Frohock has created and the absoluteness of both its absolution and its condemnation.

I had dipped into one review of Miserere long before I read it and I remember the reviewer expressing some disappointment with the hero Lucian who they felt had simply made a bad choice sixteen years before the book began, and in so doing had precipitated the story's central crisis.  Having now read the book I think that view does a disservice both to the character and Frohock's story telling.  This is a tale about the repercussions of a choice, an impossible choice between blood and love, between family and friendship, between an unbreakable oath and a broken heart.  Lucian made a choice in good faith (forgive the pun) and has lived with and been changed by the consequences.

Frohock makes clear the reasons for the decision Lucian made and for all the peril it brought upon his woerld I will not criticise him for it.  He is a man of faith and honour, faithfully and honourably portrayed.  He is determined to do right at any personal cost and with no hope of anything more than a fleeting opportunity for redemption.  A tale of such a man is worth following.

There is a intriguing motif in Frohock's writing that the devil does not so much steal or buy our souls entire, as have us barter away our most human emotions in exchange for power, surrendering such gifts as empathy, or compassion in order to work satanic miracles.   It is a thought that lingers with me, and one perhaps to bear in mind as I hear more tales of regions of this our world torn apart in the name of religion.  All we have to do to become monsters, is to abjure those emotions that make us human.







Thursday, 25 December 2014

The Low Town series - a dark masterpiece which I review here

I've just finished "She Who Waits" the third in Daniel Polansky's outstanding Low Town series,

There is a bit in the final book where a door handle rattles and the man on the other side seems to be having trouble opening it - I knew what that meant, I saw the significance and smiled to myself. But the author never rubbed my face in it, never went back to show explicitly how clever I'd been in my reading or how clever he'd been in his writing.  It was just something we both knew, it didn't need saying.  And in a way, that is one of the many beauties of the Low Town series, so much understated - unstated even - understanding lying between the lines of lyrical prose.

Low Town is only the second Fantasy Trilogy that I finished reading in 2014 (after Mazarkis Williams' Tower and Knife series right at the start of the year).  The genre is now so packed with good reading that I feel like a dog presented with a multiplicity of over flowing food bowls, running backwards and forwards between each wagging my tail ferociously, desperate to miss nothing.   Faced with such a bountiful smorgasbord, it takes a special quality to hold my fickle loyalty through three books when my variegated list of Goodreads, facebook and reddit recommendations is fit to bust even a kindle's capacious memory.

Daniel Polansky has that special quality and I completed his last two books as at much of a canter as Christmas and work would allow.

Tomorrow the Killing (Spoiler free review)


In some ways Low Town is an atypical trilogy in that it is not three parts to a single story - as the archetypal Lord of the Rings was -  but three stand alone stories with a common spine of core characters, setting and back story.



Tomorrow the Killing is set three years after The Sharp Razor Cure, and She Who Waits is set a further three years after that).  The events of each book are just so much history for the book(s) that follow.   Our first person point of view hero continues to be the Warden, the disgraced ex-soldier, ex-secret policeman turned one man drug dealing mafia of Low Town - the seediest quarter of the splendid capital city Rigus in a lustrous empire still aching from post-war wounds.

In Tomorrow the Killing, The Warden is engaged by an old general to help find an errant daughter on a foolish quest for truth and vengeance in his seedy hometown.  In this set-up Polansky and the Warden again remind me of Chandler and Marlowe; there is a vitality to the Warden's cynical voice that is reminscent of Marlowe's drawling best.  But the comparison quickly fails to do justice to Polansky's multi-dimensional masterpiece of character.

Threads from different pasts are woven around the present: the Warden's war - in the bitter trenches fighting the Dren; the Warden's peace as an ambitious policeman navigating a rise into the favour of the unnamed Old Man.  We learn more of what made our hero, what made his friendships, and wonder still at how and why his star fell.  It is not so much his descent from upholder of the law into crimelord that is the enigma.  After all, it is clear that - in the empire capital of Rigus - the difference between the policemen and the criminals is more a matter of clothing than character, of weaponry than motivation.  The puzzle is not what turned him to crime, but what triggered the cancerous self-hate at the core of his being - a hatred he is generous enough to share with a fare few of his fellow low-towners and former colleagues,

But it is that self-hate which makes his actions credible, when he displays a rare and grudging show of interest in another human's fate or future you see not the hardened crimelord but the man lying in the gutter glimpsing still the occasional star through Lowtown's smog of decay.

The three timelines of Tomorrow The Killing march in harmony towards the denoument, where threads cast years apart meet a logical and satisfying fruition.

  • There is the tale of The Warden and Adolphus's accidental wartime heroism, the kind of those too fortunate to be hit by the big bombs and too stupidly stubborn to know when to run away.  
  • There is the mysterious but sordid end of the one truly heroic aristocrat from the war, A general in the tradition of Custer who ultimately and fatally failed in his bid to rally Low Town as a political power and forge a future fit for heroes. 
  • There is the present of a sister trying to uncover her brother's story and of a dark political machinations at work to maintain the status quo, otherwise known as the iron rule of Warden's mentor and nemesis the equally nameless Old Man.   

And through it all,the Warden weaves a skein of vengeful chaos not seen since Mark Antony stood by Caesar's corpse and promised an apocalypse so violent that "mothers will but smile when they behold their infants quartered by the hand of war, all pity choked with custom of fell dead."

I will not spoil the plot beyond saying that it twists and turns as tightly as a Low Town alley, throwing up plenty of surprises but more than that, a ton of vivid imagery and richly sketched characters.

However, I must spare a word for the setting.   Polansky sets out a stall of rich cultures and vibrant flavours, a melange as varied as any medieval mediterranean city - or indeed many a modern one from New York to London.  Walking at the Warden's side I sometimes struggled to keep up with the mosaic of peoples and politics that he slipped effortlessly between and through.  But that is as it should be, we see the world through his eyes in an immersive experience that is all the more pleasurable for feeling real and mysterious, rather than laid out like a text book.

I am also fascinated by the history of Polansky's world.  In my own writing I have mined real world history more systematically than anyone so far seems to have realised, and I am always keen to spot real world inspiration on which a fantasy has been founded.  GRRMartin took his inspiration from the Yorks and the Lancasters to form the Starks and the Lannisters, and turned the humble Hadrian's wall into a mountainous slab of ice, both barriers setting a northern boundary to a belagured  civilisation.  Mark Lawrence took catastrophcally shifted sea levels to generate a fantasy map at once strange and familiar.

Polansky draws still on the Great War, though whether he sees Rigus and the Empire as representing the American or the British contribution to that conflict is unclear - perhaps because it is a mixture of both.  But there are trenches and there are idiot generals and there is youthful enthusiasm shattered in the indiscriminate slaughter of industrial conflict.  Instead of the lethal trump card of machine guns we have the power of magic practitioners, but the impact is much the same.   For those who know nothing of history, the links will not disturb their enjoyment of a well written story one whit, but for others like me, it adds new resonances and links to enrich the reading experience.


She who Waits (Spoiler free review)

The final installment of the trilogy advances us another three years.  Things are unravelling in Rigus, where the Warden attends to business while also guarding and nurturing his little family of old comrade in arms, his wife and Wren their collectively adopted stray. 



As with the other stories we slip between past and present.  The two time periods are most easily telegraphed by the presence or otherwise of old friends now departed or the absence of deep scars previously inflicted, for it is not Polansky's style - or perhaps not the Warden's - to put anything so prosaic as a date stamp at the start of a chapter.  His town, his story, his rules.  That said, the time switches are smooth and logical as ever, a thought at the end of one chapter sparking a reminiscence at the start of the next. 

The plot, the cliques and the cultures are as beautifully interwoven as ever, though the micro-politics of Lowtown power struggles and informers can be a little baffling at times.  However, even when I was trying to remember whether I was supposed to recognise a character or not, I was swept along by the beauty of Polansky's prose. 

Without giving too much away, the storyline in She Who Waits moves deeper into the world of the Black House.  This was about more than policing, more than secret policing, more even than international spying, the Black House we learn is the power behind the throne, the de facto ruler of the empire and a colossal target for the Warden's destructive hatred.

The Old Man slips further out of the shadows, another character not given the dignity of a name, and all the more special because of it.  There were parts of the book that reminded me of John Le Carre's tangled webs of espionage woven around the genial George Smiley.  The kind where not so much the left hand suspected the right, as the little finger suspected the ring finger.  The Old Man is as paranoid a leader as Le Carre's paradoxically named "Control",  he is a glowering presence like the fictional soviet spy master Karla.  Just as Le Carre brought his two great adversaries, Karla and Smiley together for a final denoument, so The Warden and The Old Man do have their moment to revisit old times, though the Warden is of a very different mettle to Smiley.

But just as Karla and Smiley had a nexus at a woman, Anne Smiley the unfaithful wife whom Smiley could never let go or forget, so too we must cherchez le femme to understand the life and death of the relationship between the Warden and the Old Man.  Her name is Albertine and she is to the Warden what Irene Adler was to Sherlock Holmes, always and forever the imponderable "that woman" with a power that reaches across the years to still haunt and distract him.  

There are again other intriguing parallels with real world history and peoples.  When I read of the Dren groaning under the weight of post war reparations, with some nationalist agitator and demagogue straining for power, I was reminded of Weimar Germany and the early days of Hitler.   When I read of old Queen Bess and her servant the Old Man, I saw another parallel, Queen Elizabeth the First and her spymaster Walsingham.  

There is a great deal to read in Polansky's books.  Although I am not much given to re-reading anything in a world that is plagued by a shortage of time chasing a surfeit of good books, Polansky is a writer for whom I may yet make an exception.

As the trilogy concluded I found myself wondering what I had learned of the cussed drug dealing crimelord in whose head I had travelled through three intoxicating books.  There was the bitter cynicism of the first book, then the thinly veiled self-loathing in the second.  In this third volume I find a man who had been swept along and swept aside by the most basic of human ambitions, and yet still - in the midst of a torrent of rapids - he clings to a small rock of humanity.  For all the dark cruelty and machinations that he is capable of, the Warden is above all else a man, painted unapologetically for us by his own hand, warts and all.   He makes no request of the reader for judgment, or mercy, or pity but he earns them nonetheless,




Monday, 1 December 2014

Unravelling Wyrdes (A spoiler free review of the "Fae - The Realm of Twilight" by Graham Austin-King)

One of the great joys in blogging is when you come across that rarest of things an ARC or Advance Reader Copy of a soon to be released book - or maybe it is just rare for me and the rest of you are all buried in the things.

So far my ARC count numbers just 3, Mark Lawrence's "Prince of Fools", Joe Abercrombie's  "Half the World" and now Graham Austin-King's "Fae - the Realm of Twilight."  The first two I won fair and square in competitions, but Graham has been the first author to gift me an ARC.  In honour of that distinction I shall launch myself with even greater alacrity to be one of the first to hit the interweb with a review.  (And, just for the avoidance of doubt and in case GRRM himself might be reading this - I would afford the same impetuous courtesy should a preview of "Winds of Winter" fall into my hands).

"Fae - The Realm of Twilight" is the second in Austin-King's Riven Wyrde saga (I believe it will be a trilogy)    It is a comfortable but pacy read which I devoured in a couple of days.

I tend, when thinking of a book, to try to place it and describe it by comparison with other works.  (I hope that helps others picture the book rather than appearing too much like those irritating movie moguls hearing a unique film pitch and dismissively summarising it as a one line pastiches of other films.)

For example in reading book one "Fae - The Wild Hunt" I found myself thinking of Michael J Sullivan and the intricate plotting and anti-archetype elves of the Ryria Revelations.

In this second book another couple of authors plucked a certain resonance for me.

Peter Brett's works - the Painted Man and the Desert Spear had a similar context of warring nations who do not seem to realise the need to co-operate against a far greater common foe.  Like Brett, Austin-King gives us two sides of this war within mankind and we are moved to sympathise with both sides, the battered coastal farmers and the fierce but desperate sea warriors who would take their land.

However, Austin-King also gives us a deep insight into a well developed world of the enemy - the Fae, and in this I was reminded of The Wise Man's fear, where Kvothe strays into the world of Felurian.     Austin-King's twilight world is equally strange and dangerous filled with creatures whose charm is as lethal as their cruelty. I must confess that the scientist within me at one point lead me into trying to work out the genetics of Fae pro-creation and to what extent Fae-ness might be a recessive gene.

As with the first book, Austin-King tells his story through a handful of key points of view.  In a sightly tangential opening we are swept far over the seas away from the scene of the cliffhanger climax at the end of Book One, to the city of Hesk the raiders' home, where all is not well and young Gavin picks up a desperate tale.

Then we follow others' stories, long enough in each ones' shoes to get comfortable and see each separate story line developed in satisfying depth.  There are battles described at every level from the bone crunching eye piercing horror of hand to hand combat, through the wider tactical matters of command and control and on to higher strategy and the pursuit of political ends, all described through the eyes of a variety of intriguing characters ranging across a spectrum from the old man Obair, to the sharp witted duchess Selena.

This is fantasy, a fantasy epic. And with that comes a demand for imagination from the author.  Austin-King delivers in the tantalising details of his magic and religious and world systems, eked out through character interaction.

This was a relatively quick but still eminently satisfying read that built on and amplified the tensions delivered n the first book.  My only question is how is Mr Austin-King going to save the world he has thrown into such deep and imaginative peril?  

Saturday, 29 November 2014

If you go down to the woods today (spoiler free review of Fae - The Wild Hunt by Graham Austin-King)

When I was at primary school many moons ago, the height of technology was the old record player brought out for assemblies.  If it was your birthday that day you got to pick a record to play in celebration.  Seeing as how this was the late 1960s  there were only about three records to choose from, education budgets being no more generous then than they are now. The one I remember most was the "Teddy Bear's picnic."  There was the slight frisson of the unknown in the opening line "If you go down to the woods today you're in for a big surprise"  juxtaposed with the imagined friendliness of the teddy bears.  (Mark Lawrence in his Sleeping Beauty short story also takes a sideswipe at a few other fairy tales along the way - including a foolish Goldilocks getting her due come-uppance.)

Graham Austin-King weaves an effective story around a world where fairie stories commemorate in childish song and play an older colder reality of fear and threat.  It is a story well told, which builds in pace and engagement so that I ripped through the last few pages at a rate of knots, suddenly finding myself quite intolerant of the well meaning distraction of family calling me to watch the latest installment of "I'm a celebrity - get me out of here."  Ironic really as the threat in the woods near Widdengate is enough to have even the staunchest celebrity calling immediately for the champagne helicopter home.

The disparate characters, converge on the denoument over the course of many pages like tributaries to a stream where it is only near the end that one sees how they feed a single narrative flow.  This means at first the book can seem a little jumpy.  The opening is like a long prologue as Miriam and her son flee an abusive husband and father.  Just when I thought I knew where the story was going this opening sequence breaks off and we almost start again with three main characters, a reluctant ducal bride, a fostered boy and an ambitious sea warrior, all leading different lives in different places attended each by a handful of minor supporting characters.    However, having told my own tales through multiple points of view, I was happy to relax and be lead by the author through seemingly unrelated stories confident that he would weave them together in due course, and he did.

In some ways it reminds me of Michael J Sullivan's Ryria Chronicles, there is the same sense of a flowing story with engaging characters, and of a back story to elves and the fae which is not quite Tolkien.  However, Austin-King's story is darker than Sullivan's and his style allows (without excessively embracing) the coarse variety of language that one might expect from a variety of coarse people.  For example in a frozen sea a crew of young sea-raiders are warned in no uncertain terms of what they stand to lose should they relieve themselves with anything less than alacrity.

What's too like? well it is an engaging story that leads you along with enough sub-plots and character development to keep the pages turning as the deeper darker plot gradually uncoils in the shadows ready to bind our leading characters in a terrible finale.  The author teaches us early on that no character is safe and in the best GRRM tradition, that keeps the reader on the edge of their seat knowing that all characters are mortal.

(Just as an aside, if GRRM and Enid  Blyton had been swopped at birth what would they have written?  "Game of thrones on a Treasure Island, Game of Thrones fall into trouble, Game of Thrones Get into a Fix" and from GRRM we would have got "The Famous Five"  "The Famous Four,"  "The Famous Three" etc)

There is also some lyrical writing and imagery.  The bird's eye view of the sea-raiders island fortress was a particularly evocative introduction of a new setting and main character.  One could almost imagine the camera of a film adaptation sweeping in over the landscape and landing like the bird itself on the prow of the leading boat in a fifty ship race.

If it has a downside then it maybe just that it ends with something of a cliffhanger, but then that's not a problem for me as I've just got an Advance Reader Copy of book 2 and can plunge straight on.  The rest of you will have to wait a week or so!


Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Of Nysta (Spoiler free review), of Reviews' Significance, and of Bad Ass female characters

I recently finished "Revenge of the Elf" by Lucas Thorn and as a result found myself conflicted with four different but related things that I felt the need to blog about and the most I could do to separate them was to give them each a section in this one post.

The stigma of self publishing


Revenge of the Elf is an indie book, self-published and somewhat self-effacingly promoted by its author Lucas Thorn.  I know there is a stigma associated with self-published books, indeed I should know seeing as how I've self-published two myself with a third going live in a couple of days time.  It is a stigma which has some factual underpinning. Only the other day I saw a message on a forum from another would-be writing millionaire wanting to know why his 26 page book with a hand drawn cover, launched on the market for $3.99 had not yet knocked GRRMartin off the top of the rankings.  (OK I exaggerate, but only slightly).

There is no dishonesty in admitting that the range of quality in self-published work is far wider than in traditionally published work. This is because - as I have said elsewhere - the self-published body of work is mainly made up of all the unsolicited submissions that would previously have sat patiently in a publisher's slush pile waiting to be discovered, A lot of that would, in times past, have been left there rather than being sent naked into the amazonian marketplace.  But there would also be some gems that could or would have been extracted depending on how far the publisher's lists, preferences or risk appetite for something new allowed it.

And so there is a Goldilocks zone where the quality of self-published and traditionally published work overlaps.  It is a region where a self-published book has an opportunity, in the raw energy of its author's unfiltered (sometimes unedited) enthusiasm, to contribute something that the clinical efficiency of traditional publishing might have excised

Nysta #1, Revenge of the Elf is such a book..


Review of the Elf


I should by way of disclosure admit that some months ago Lucas Thorn wrote a thoughtful and fair review of my first book on his website.  This is a fact that Lucas did not tell (share or tweet) to me and which I only discovered recently entirely by the accident of googling my own book. However, we have exchanged views about the review-starvation that can afflict indie authors and the discovery of his review gave an added impetus to put my blogpost where my tweets were (or as we might have said in older days, to put my money where my mouth was).

Revenge of the Elf is a book without pretension, it is about coarse language and bloody violence as Nysta pursues revenge across a frozen and desolate wasteland.  The titular heroine is so hard bitten and bad ass she would make iron nails look like cheese-strings.   I had read the first 10% as a sampler and been intruiged, but I held off for a while from buying it based on some middle of the road reviews on the amazon website - the kind that damned with the faint praise of few stars.  That was a bad decision on my part which I will explore in more detail in a later section of this post.

It is a shorter book than its page count might suggest, but it has a visceral quality that reads well keeping me turning the pages, or flicking the kindle.  There aren't many books that hold my attention enough to be read in a few sittings over a couple of days. The opening scene with Nysta's husband, Talek is well written, drawing you into the experience of a great soldier brought low in enforced retirement.  The writing has a terseness that keeps it tight and free of the purple extravagance of some indie prose.  Description of scene and setting appear through the characters' story rather than as a writing exercise of its own, the book is about action and dialogue and the occasional internal ruminations of a guilt ridden central character drowning her sorrows in violence rather than drink, but all of it advancing the plot.

There is a gritty style to the book. The writing, dialogue and the action all have a certain edginess, an authentic voice of fury, desperation and despair and yes that means there's swearing, shitloads of it. The wandering wizard Chukshene is a useful foil to Nysta.    Lucas said of their scenes that "they sort of wrote themselves" and you can see that in the way the constant war of words plays out between them. There is a natural rhythm to the entertaining abuse they exchange inbetween eviscerating a wide variety of foes.

Nysta is a distinctive character who I want to know better. A warrior who has so many knives she has to give them all names to tell them apart. An anti-archetype (well pretty much an anti-everything) she is not willowy or ethereal, more waspish and feral. This is indeed a very different kind of elf.

The world building is subtle, all seen through the lens of the character's viewpoints and dialogue, but there is enough to stimulate a certain curiosity.  A world of (at least) three gods who came and fought each other on the earth.  None of them seem to be particularly godly, walking amongst the living and apparently as fond of a good piss-up as the next man, but their bar-room brawls last for centuries and desolate continents. Throughout the book we get tantalising glimpses of the mythology and culture of different people is from the character's interactions rather than through any tedious infodump.

There was a moment when Nysta flung a knife at a noise in the forest that I was reminded of an entirely different fantasy book, albeit it twisted through a wormhole of distortion. Chukshene, the wizard, works well as the coarse and cowardly lion to Nysta's anything but dainty Dorothy while they follow a ragged trail about as far from the yellow brick road as it is possible to get.

The book as a whole rattles along at a brisk pace driven by its expletive fuelled dialogue and it's non-stop action and there were times when I could perhaps have wished it a little slower, a little more measured.  The opening scenes with Talek were among my favourite, perhaps because the violence was curtailed by Talek's physical impairments and so dialogue and interaction took precedence over raw action.

Of recent books that I have read it reminds me most of "Those poor, poor bastards" the first in the Dead West series.  There was the same rapid acceleration to unrelenting action and the same authenticity of voice in the f-bombed dialogue and the same relief that the breathless pace was confined to a relatively short book.  This is a sprint of a read, not a marathon.

There are some points of style one might question, A dearth of pronouns or even nouns to take the subject in a sentence for example.  Instead of "She could move...." or "Nysta couldn't breathe...." we get "Could move.... and "Couldn't breathe..."  It adds a certain sense of urgency and pace to the text, but there is simply the question of whether it is overdone.  The borrowed references to other works and the punning humour that other reviewers found distracting did not affect me in the same way - perhaps because I was forewarned, perhaps because I am an undiscovered borrower myself.

But the essential question is, is this a good book? is this a great book?  Well it is certainly good, I wanted to finish it and I'm glad I did; that isn't always true when I read indie books, in fact it it isn't always true when I read any books.  But then again, this book always had a headstart over the others, I mean look at my recent reads "Half the World," "Those Poor, Poor Bastards,"  dammit look at my books, "Lady of the Helm"  "Wrath of the Medusa" d'you see what it is yet?  The common theme?

Bad assed female heroines!  What's not to like?  But that's another section to this post.

Should Reviews Count, either to authors or to other readers


Writing can be a lonely business and writers crave the validation of sales and of feedback.  But most particularly we crave that shangri-la, that perfect synergy of sale enhancing feedback - an amazon review.   But reviewing is an inexact science and authors can feel vulnerable to the perceived crippling effect of a negative review. And should we be swayed as readers or as writers by the opinions of a reviewer, for good or ill?

When I looked up Revenge of the Elf on amazon.co.uk  I flicked through the look inside and was interested, it held me.  Then I read the reviews, just the three of them, two 3* and one 2* it's not a ringing endorsement.  I read the comments, I get what the reviewers were saying, I didn't think I'd be as bothered about the things they mentioned as they were.  Hey, swearing, I've been known to go a  bit potty mouthed myself and words I read on the page only echo in my head, not out loud.  But still I came back to those star ratings, the words didn't put me off, but the numbers did.

Now in a previous incarnation I used to teach and I once spent a whole year word processing my comments for one class and sticking slips of paper in their books.  A monumental experiment to overcome the crippling disadvantage of my atrocious handwriting.  But Cyan Blaydon (not her real name) undid all my efforts.  After she had patently ignored my carefully constructed comments for the third week in a row I called her over to ask why she was paying no attention to my carefully considered advice.  "Oh I only look at the mark," she said.  There in is the rub for many a teacher, give a child a mark and they read little else.  And the same is true of reviews, give somebody a star rating, a mark out of 5,  and we weigh that far more than the message in the comment.  That was my mistake with "Revenge of the Elf" and maybe if we want to reform the review system we should simply ban star ratings and only allow text reviews which could be up or down voted for their helpfulness.

You see, reading is an interaction not a mathematics problem. In reading a book we form an opinion which grows around the point where our experiences meet the book. Our different experiences mean we all approach and see the same book from many different angles.  Now let's be honest, all of us have got angles where we know we look like shit, hey please take the photo from my good side, don't show my double chin.  The same is true of books.  For all books there are going to be some perspectives from which they look like a croc of shit - you want happy endings? you won't enjoy most Grimdark and you won't be wrong for not enjoying it - unwise to try and read it maybe, but not wrong.

And that's where the star rating turns an opinion into a judgement.  Opinions are not right or wrong, they're opinions.  We might question the reasoning that led to an opinion, but it would be easier to do that without the distraction of this number of stars.

A book is not right or wrong like an answer in maths is.  There are books and authors I love and there are fans I know who border on the zealot, determined that anybody who does not love the book exactly as they do is "wrong."  I will defend to the death anyone's right to have a different opinion about a book than I do. (ok well maybe not quite "to the death" but I'd be prepared to get pretty stern about it - maybe even use capslock.)   The words of the reviewers tell us far more than the stars do, and certainly the sock puppet style reviews would carry a lot less weight if they relied on their words rather than their star rating to influence people.

I've been lucky in the reviews of my books, the ones who have liked it have found the strengths I hoped they would. The few who didn't have said things that I have understood.  The slow burn start that some appreciated as a comfortable settling into the story was a confusing turn off for others; the scene switching that injected pace for some was a distraction of discontinuity for others; the GRRMesque toying with the lives of characters added a thrill of uncertainty for some, but too great a sense of bleakness for others.  It is in truth the same book seen from different angles.   To a degree there are flaws that some tolerated because the positive outweighed the flaws, but for others (fortunately a small minority of reviewers) they were dealbreakers.

As an author I worry most about the reviews from people who didn't finish the book but nonetheless feel justified in making a judgement on the work as a whole.  One is always hopeful that other prospective buyers will read the words of the review and factor all those considerations into the weight they place on the star rating a sthey ponder whether to buy or not to buy.  They will, won't they?

But then I didn't with "Revenge of the Elf" and I, more than most, should have known better!

Bad-ass heroines

I was in a Waterstones book store once a while back (well to be honest I have been in several Waterstones several times but I have yet to achieve that ultimate Nirvana of an accidental lock in) when a couple walked past me towards the fantasy bookshelves.  The man declared loudly to his female companion that "any book with a female heroine was bound to be rubbish."  Even amongst sweeping generalisations this seemed to be wielding a brush of staggering width and as an author of a little self published book with several female heroines, I was perturbed by his strident prejudice

There are many successful books with female heroines, perhaps because there is something appealing about the assumed vulnerability of women being turned on its head by a character with powerful physical agency as well as femininity.  Since Eowyn first stepped out infront of fallen Theoden, pinned beneath Snowmane, and cried "begone foul dwimmerlaik, Lord of carrion, leave the dead in peace" fantasy fiction has had a soft spot for hard women.  In Lord of the Rings Eowyn seemed the only woman of agency, the only one prepared and able to take to the field of battle rather than wait at home for others to tell her if they'd won or lost (Arwen & Galadriel I'm looking at you here) and I loved her for it.

I did wonder if the hardboiled female fighter was a motif of male writers writing female roles.  I say this because the examples of bad-ass fantasy females that I know of are nearly all written by men

Nysta - Lucas Thorn
in "Revenge of the Elf"

Ferro - Joe Abercrombie
in "The Blade Itself"

Thorn Batthu - Joe Abercrombie
in "Half the World"

Dema the Medusa, Niarmit, Quintala - T.O.Munro (me)
in "Lady of the Helm" "Wrath of the Medusa, "Master of the Planes"

Red Sonja (the archetype) - Roy Thomas and Barry Windsor-Smith

Brienne of Tarth and Arya - G.R.R.Martin
in A Song of Fire and Ice

But then there is at least one exception

Grada - Mazarkis Williams in
"Knifesworn"

and others may know of more.

I worry sometimes about the depiction of women in my books - do I get it right?  am I doing more than writing as Mark Lawrence once put it "men with tits"  but then would it matter if I was?  Is it better to say any role could equally well be given to a man or a woman, because dammit they are all people and our motivations are more similar than they are different.  Or perhaps it is more accurate to say that the variation within each gender is greater than the variation between genders so that any character you could imagine could equally well fit into a female or a male role.  Or are there demonstrable differences that should appear once you put the female in the physically powerful role, should she be made to play the same role differently than if it were a man cast as the warrior/assassin.

But then, the author makes the decision who is female and who is not and the reader accepts that and then goes own to make their own decisions about how that character is presented.

Either the reader considers the suppression of traditional femininity in pursuit of aims achieved through violence, is an interesting subversion of typical female roles that offers greater empowerment and equality to the character.  Or they consider that the branding of a violent protaganist as female is a cheap attempt to add an interesting dimension to an otherwise stereotypical character.
 
As you can see I have more questions than answers, and I guess the answer is in the writing and the fact that the range of extremes of person and character within each gender makes almost any potential badass female both a credible and interesting protaganist.






Saturday, 15 November 2014

"The Broken Road" by Teresa Frohock - my spoiler free review

I like quality writing but I will confess it is plot that draws me in and on through a book, and "The Broken Road" certainly delivered in that regard.  There is conflict and rivalry, prejudice and despair as ignobility and nobility struggle for supremacy in the privileged palaces of the magically gifted chanteuse.  But the author makes some great leaps of imagination and creativity that set this setting apart from the predictable canvas of epic fantasy. This is more merely than an unexpected heir fighting decadence and disadvantage to assert the moral purpose of rulership and in so doing endeavour to avert world wide disaster.

Travys, the second son of a manipulative royal mother is crippled by his muteness, for in this world magic can only be channelled through voice and sound and Travys cannot wield his own power on his own.  There is also a parallel world that bleeds into the land of the Chanteuse through frayed borders and it is the obligation and the peril of the chanteuse that they alone can close these portals to keep their own world safe.  And as this action packed story progresses, Travys learns more of a risk his mother once took and how that blighted his birth and stole his true inheritance.

And as he travels into that past, Travys discovers that the world so dangerously twinned with theirs has already fallen to an invader, an invader that wants fresh conquests having plundered a world that is eerily familiar to the reader more so than to Travys.  And Travys must find a way to severe the link between these conjoined worlds and restore the dignity of royal power in the face of so many who would wish him anything from failure to outright harm.  

The book is full of intruiging motifs, introducing but not labouring new concepts of magic and of aliens and enemies.  The writing immerses the reader in the experience of a place and people, rather than lecturing them in its geography and culture, and for a book that is in so many ways so different to the norm that is no mean achievement.

Tuesday, 11 November 2014

The making of Engaland - Spoiler free review of the Empty Throne by Bernard Cornwell

When I was young there was a book in my parents house called "The making of England" It was a slim volume about the history of one of the most exciting periods in the British Isles.  Not to be confused with many similar titled volumes, this history book targeted at young historians began with a description of how in 870 AD no-one walking from Dover to Durham would have known what England was or could be, for the island was just a collection of fractured kingdoms.

I don't know how that book went on because after that intriguing opening it faded into worthy dullness despite several attempts on my part to probe its leaden depths.  It padded the void of sparse dark ages facts with a filling so bland not one scrap of it has troubled my memory.

Bernard Cornwell has taken that same context and period, the reigns of Alfred and his offspring and turned, it into a glorious multi-volumed pageant of action and excitement grafted onto the bare bones of known historical facts.  It may not be history, but it bloody well should have been.  The tale of Uhtred, part witness, part mover and shaker in the greatest period in the formation of England is a story of intricate plotting, compelling characterisation and beautiful writing.

When I reviewed his last book in this series (#7 The Pagan Lord) I worried that the tale was becoming stretched with the resolution of Uhtred's life's ambition always slipping beyond his reach like the end of a rainbow.  But that was to perhaps do a disservice to Cornwell's vision.  Throughout this book there are references to Alfred's ambition for a single country of Engaland and that is the real tale in this series. I suspect that resolution for Uhtred will come with resolution for England and we shall at last see how the gnarled warrior we have lived with became the ancient but crabby narrator we met briefly in the early books.

So, I am content to sit back and enjoy the ride through however many volumes it takes in eh hands of an absolute master storyteller in complete command of his material.

But what of this story what does it bring that is new?

Well Uhtred's children - his son Uhtred and his daughter Stiorra take a more central role - with the son even stepping up for a first person appearance in the prologue.   We see Uhtred still weakened by the wound he sustained at the end of The Pagan Lord, suddenly feeling his years,  And his search for a cure winds alongside the usual context of saxon politics and treachery and marauding danes and norsemen.  It is a story of sustained pace turning many corners where you are almost scared to see what lurks in wait.  But this one is seasoned by an Uhtred not just showing his age, but forced to admit weakness, plagued by a physical frailty that, with characteristic guile he consistently turns to his advantage.

Cornwell works well with the names of genuine history and there perhaps is the reason why it takes a writer of his class to bring this world to life.  For the saxons were so unimaginably confusing with their names Aethelflaed, Aethelred, Aethelhelm, two Aethelwolds, Aethelstan, Aelfwynn, and then for variety Eardwulf and Eadith.  It is surely this more than the blank dark age record which had history teachers of yesteryear scampering for the certainties of 1066 onwards and its easily reconciled Williams and Henries and Richards and John as they sought something that might lodge in a recalcitrant pupils' head.

Still Cornwell slips lightly but faithfully through the phonetic confusion to give us a tale that begins to hint at the series' glorious conclusion.

I have found other history books of the dark ages which have salved the wound of boredom that "the making of England" inflicted and that adds an extra dimension to my reading of his books.  More so than the characters, when the place name Brunanburh appears I know we have our first sight of the scene where in time the series' final segment must play out. Cornwell's placement of Brunanburh is a piece of foreshadowing, like knowing the sex of a baby before it is born.  It echoes through the ages like Camlann does from his trilogy of Arthur.

For those who want to know more, well google the name (and Camlann come to that), for those who like surprises, just wait - I am sure Cornwell will deliver.

Sunday, 2 November 2014

The First Fifteen Lives of Harry August - my Spoiler Free Review

I loved this book, I love this book.  It is the kind of book I wish I had written and that is more than mere hyperbolic praise.  I once had a half-formed idea for a novel, a tale of a man who endlessly repeats the same decade of his life, beginning with his facing up to a terminal diagnosis with an intention to walk off a cliff in fog and finding instead he stumbles ten years into his own past and repeats his life again seeking by some means to relive those vital years, it was in concept a kind of Groundhog Decade if you like.

Claire North has gone that one step further to write a book about a Groundhog Life, the eponymous hero cycling through an endless loop of existence and, like Tom Hanks's character in the film, struggling to make some sense of the opportunity of this unique curse.

However, this book is so much more than a clever core idea. Its narrator leads us through the story of his lives with assurance and aplomb as you would expect from a man who draws on hundreds of years of experiences and retains the knowledge of all of his past lives.  The fantastical premise is delivered with such credible precision and consistency that I was not just drawn in but engulfed by the story.  I mean this is a book I read in two sittings over the course of one weekend, and have risen from my reading desk only to launch straight into my writing desk.

Harry is not the only one of his kind. Though exceptionally rare there are others like him a community of the endlessly looping who live alongside the terminally mortal "linears" and the book asks reasonable questions about what it must be like to be one of these cursed or blessed people, not so much "tomorrow" people as "today" people.  

The book toys entertainingly with ideas of what it is "to be" that we are all of us little more than the sum of our memories, the experiences that shaped us and to be immortal but within the same span of seventy years or so.

It shakes the tree of conventional chronology, with Harry's lives often described in the same parallel lines that they are lived.  Harry zig-zags along and between potentially endless layers of parallel universes, like different versions of the same world's history lined up side by side on a book shelf.

To live so long one needs must become some kind of polymath and the author conveys well the sense of a man who has become knowledgeable in many fields of science, medicine and history and the book, like its hero strides sure-footedly across the panorama of discovery and conflict that was the twentieth century,   But, as all time travellers know, knowledge of the future is a dangerous power and Harry August is sensible, but others of his kind are not.

And therein lies the crux of this story a threat to the future, a crime that stretches sideways across parallel timelines, albeit ones that are experienced sequentially by Harry.  It turns out that even the deathless can be destroyed and that gives the book a visceral tension that kept me flicking through the screens on my kindle, relying on the screen's built in brightness rather than taking a few seconds to break off to turn on the light as a Sunday afternoon turned dark.

This book appealed to me on many levels.  Beautifully written, tightly plotted, toying with history, physics and dabbling with conceptual conundrums of spiraling timelines. How would any of us mere humans live such an alien lifestyle, how would we cope? what meaning would death have beyond the trauma of a repeated opportunity to stuff up adolescence?

Claire North introduces us to many of Harry's kind grappling with those questions, and they are all believable responses to their not quite so unique situation, as is Harry's response to each of those individuals.

I first picked this book of a shelf in Waterstones in Cambridge in the summer, appropriate since some of Harry's lives is set in Cambridge, another mark in its favour for me.   I bought it on kindle this weekend (forgive me bricks and mortar bookshop, but I have this weekend bought four other conventional books to set against the sin of physical window shopping for electronic purchases).

It may not fit others tastes so closely as it fitted mine, but for me this was a very easy five star winner.    

Saturday, 11 October 2014

Half the World - a spoiler free review

A book's quality cannot be judged in isolation but must stand or fall by the effect it has on the reader.  On that score this is, for me, the best of the three Abercrombie books that I've so far read and a damn good book at that. Having won an Advance Reader Copy, I read it at speed.  However, the simple fact is that as the book drew to its climax I had to keep stepping away, daring only to read a few pages at a time,  so tense was the fearful fascination with which it gripped me.  The closest analogy I can think of is watching a horror movie through splayed fingers, ready at any instant to snap everything shut.

Did I care about the characters? - yes.
Did I enjoy the story in all its rich context? - yes
Did the twists and turns surprise me?  not always but often enough and particularly at the end where a book's surprises must always lurk in wait to mug or caress you, and don't expect me to say which.

I had read reviews of the first book in the trilogy "Half a King" from disappointed Abercrombie loyalists. They complained of missing the multiple point of view narrative, the grimly adult plotting and possibly are still in mourning for the character they view as Abercrombie's greatest creation and whose resurrection they constantly pray for.

Though I doubt Abercrombie would have intentionally set out to address those points, this book does in some ways answer those questions.

Half a King had a single point of view; Half the World has two.

Half a King, told from the perspective of a cripple, was more about brain triumphing where brawn could not be made to serve;  Half the World has characters made for war and glorying in it as much as Abercrombie glories in rendering every blood spattered detail, every grunt and gurgle of hand to hand combat.

Half a King opened and closed with a man of peace and  ministry in conference with his tutor.  Half the World opens and closes on the training ground where the would be warriors strive for the master of arms' approval.

So, in those senses at least, this veers back towards the centre of gravity of Abercrombie's style.

But it is still not The Blade Itself.  It is a tale full of death and angst but not a single f-word to be seen as Abercrombie not so much pitches for the Young Adult audience, as tries to tempt them into the dark recesses of fantasy fiction through a little taster.

To that end we have two young adult leading characters who make their debut in a bloody bout by the sea shore.  A girl and a boy.

The girl, Thorn Bathu, is a stubborn feisty child trying to carve her way to acceptance in a male dominated world in honour of the memory of a much loved dead father. (Hmm, those who know my own book, Lady of the Helm will see why such a central character would tick my boxes!).  The kick-ass female heroine - the Eowyn taking centre stage - is a trope of its own, but this is not Conan with boobs.  Abercrombie paints Thorn well,  the insecurities and desperation as she seeks a validation through the battlefield and wonders if the prize was worth it.  As one character observes "there's no disappointment like getting what you want."

The boy, Brand, struck a resonant note with GRR Martin's work for me, in that Brand is the boy who wants to do good, who wants to do the right thing, to be more moral than his drunkard father.  And as Martin proved to so many of his characters, the moral high ground is a dangerous place to perch, making you all the more of an easy target for others to fire it.  Just as there were "consequences" that Martin imposed on a number of Starks, so too Yarvi tells Brand  "A man who gives all thought to doing good but no thought to the consequence... that is a dangerous man."

And what of Yarvi? We rode, or rowed a long path with him through Half-a King and I hope it is no spoiler to say he survived that ordeal.  However, it is curious to see so central a character through the eyes of others.  We know his past as Thorn and Brand do not, and we know the forces that shaped him. He is become the puppet master, the pragmatist, tugging at what strings he can reach with his half a hand.  Is he a good man?  Is he a bad man?  Neither really, he is the man he has to be, a man driven by need more than right or might and that dark motivation surfaces occasionally, breaking through placid waters with the menace of a shark's fin.

What of their story?  Well the tale is hung on political intrigue and diplomacy.  Just as the British Empire practised gunboat diplomacy, sending a warship up a river to settle a disagreement with overwhelming force, so Yarvi is driven at times to swordpoint diplomacy, sailing up and down rivers to win alliances against a threat to his beloved Gettland.  There are little adult hints at the economics of statecraft, the desire of the strong to subjugate the wealthy, to use military muscle to appropriate the riches of a well run state, power always envies gold. There are also a couple of passing references to the smelting of good steel, in honest descriptions that pleased the scientist in me without disturbing the story.

There are places where the hat tipping to young adult fiction seems a little more obvious than in others.  The trials and tribulations of adolescence, the insecurities, the mis-communications, the simple physical facts of growing up or out, all put in an appearance.  But their appearances drive the plot as Abercrombie entwines his story around the endless theme of implacable foes who do not realise they should be friends.

This book is not The Blade Itself, nor should it be, and those who would want Abercrombie to stay penned in one pocket of a genre do him a disservice. But the visceral battle scenes in Half the World made me at last see what others have long claimed for Abercrombie and the power of his battle writing.  And the fights in this book entrapped me more than in The Blade Itself, for this time I cared more about the characters, cared too much at times to dare to read on.

But then, I have a fondness for bad ass kick ass female heroines who find their every effort to do right seems to go wrong.  To be fair he had me from that opening scene of injustice on a  bloody beach by the Shattered Sea.  

Saturday, 4 October 2014

Half a King by Joe Abercrombie - my (Spoiler Free) Review

Young Adult ? Grimdark? Straddling a divide, or falling between?



I have read just two of Lord Grimdark's books, his first and his latest published works.  I reviewed The Blade Itself (First Law) in a previous post and had already started Half a King and was looking for and seeing some differences in style and substance.  An author's books are like their children, indeed in some cases it would appear more precious than their offspring, and as with children one hesitates to draw direct comparisons between them.  However, no book can stand entirely separate from its context as authors strive to stretch the envelope of their achievement or to exorcise (or even exercise) some inner demons, and comparisons can cast a little light on literature.

The first thing I understood about Half a King was that Joe was setting out to explicitly write for the Young Adult audience, to extend his reach into another genre, to break free of the carapace of Lordgrimdark and maybe show a glimmer of Lordyoungadult. My first thought was that this book more straddled the two genres than broke wholly through from one to the other, and that is a good thing in that it can appeal to both audiences, rather than leave his many fantasy fans wailing in despair as he goes in pursuit of John Green's legions of admirers.

So what might make this Young Adult?  Well the first thing I noticed was the absence of swearing, not an f-word in sight (believe me I even did a kindle search to check) which is a big drop in the gritty darkness of the first-law peppered with a realistic use of coarse language (which even so fell someway short of the potty-mouths I have known at work, my own included).  But then while this is a difference between Joe's two books, it is not necessarily a key feature for distinguishing the genres.  Mazarkis Williams and Robin Hobb have both written glorious fantasy trilogies with not a single f---  between them, while many a YA book will be sprinkled with the versimilitudinous expletives of modern youth.

The second thing that might denote YA is the age of the protaganist. Yarvi is a boy, a teenager whose never been kissed, and there is in the midst of his many trials, a longing to see again the girl who kissed him first and promised him a better kiss when he returned.  And then against that promise he has the bright eyed young woman with whom he has established bonds deeper than love, bonds of life itself in a shared fight for survival.  That shifts this work away from the First Law where Logen was a hard bitten warrior with scars of life as well as war, and Bayaz was older than all of them.  Also, like many a young adult, Yarvi's thoughts and fate are bound up with his parents far more than the mature and cynical badass heroes of The Blade Itself.  He worries about his parents and he pines when he is parted, even though the approval he so yearned for from them has never been truly or freely given.  There are, therefore, those echoes of ordinary teenage angst, a fearfulness of what being an adult might involve and whether he is capable of it.  To be fair Mark Lawrence too had a teenage protaganist in a book which would indubitably be in the grimdark tradition if only someone would give an unequivocal definition of what grimdark is.  As teenage boys Jorg and Yarvi could not be more different, though Jorg too has debts he owes his parents which he fears cannot, or will not be paid.  In short, a youthful hero (or anti-hero) does not a young adult book make.

So this book stands not so much athwart the divide between YA and grimdark fantasy as rooted in its grimdark heritage but reaching out for a younger audience. But does that really matter?  What counts is whether or not it is a good story and labels are just that. J.K.Rowling showed how a good story can transcend the arbitrary type-setting of age.  To paraphrase Bill Clinton, "it's the story, stupid" and the story is the thing.

But what about the story?


So what of Yarvi's story and, setting aside the YA/grimdark division, how does it compare to Logen's and Glotka's?

Well there is a resonance of Glotka, in my view Joe's finest creation in the Blade Itself.  For Yarvi is a cripple and that fact dominates his every waking moment.  He was born with half a hand (well strictly speaking one and a half hands but you know what I mean) and this makes him unfit for war and unworthy of his father's love or approbation.  There is, more resignation than bitterness in how Yarvi deals with his deformity, but it sets out the story's stall at the outset.  This cannot be a Luke Skywalker tale of the farm boy who makes good and becomes the warrior god that makes others run in incontinent fear.  Yarvi's victories must be won by cunning and it is here perhaps more than in his YA ambitions that Joe most throws over the traces of traditional fantasy tropes.   Despite his many difficulties, Yarvi finds many subtle ways to control the ebbs and flows of his most troubled life, to show that the pen is mightier than the sword, that brain can move more than brawn can.

It is a good story with colourful characters and twists enough to surprise you and an ending entirely unlooked for but in keeping with Yarvi's character and journey.  Just as he is no typical hero, his triumph is no typical triumph. There is Joe's love of battle with combat described in fast paced detail.  At times the plot might have looked a little holey as impossible hardships were endured in a way that made me think Scott of the Antarctic was a bit of a wuss for giving in so easily. People die, as people do, sliding off swords with sorrowful; expressions, but you know enough about each one to care about the dreams they won't fulfill, or to rejoice at an overdue end so richly deserved.

So, is it Young Adult - not noticeably, but is it a good story - yes, and sufficiently different to its archetype to be worth pursuing into the sequels.





Friday, 3 October 2014

Pretty Little Dead Girls - my spoiler free review

There are books born of a single premise, a key idea.  Some find their ambition has overreached the grasp of their central theme, that the concept is incapable of sustaining the story and is either stretched too thin or bloated with a weight of distraction and fluff masquerading as subplots.  

Others find a perfect blend of imagination and style to take one sentence and turn it into a story you literally cannot put down;  "Pretty Little Dead Girls: A Novel of Murder and Whimsy" is such a book.





Its simple theme is that the central character Bryony Adams is doomed to die, but not in the sense that we are all making a journey from birth to death.  Bryony will die young and she will be murdered.  She knows it and everyone around her knows it, from her kindergarten teacher to the guitarist who looks into her eyes and runs away from the fate that awaits her.  The book is then about how do you live life, a life of short but indeterminate length in the shadow of such a fate, and how do those about you who care for you manage the burden of their own knowledge.

But more importantly than that, how do you write a story that has such a grim, albeit surealist spine to its tale.  

I have read many books that have death as a theme or even a character.  "The BookThief" by Marcus Zuzak and "Before I Die" by Jenny Downham and those works of John Green’s that I’ve read also have a certain commonality of more or less doomed central characters.  But there is a difference there.  To know you have a terminal disease, to be snatched unawares by some accident, to live in the shadow of war with Death your constant companion, these are more credible ends that are served by a more orthodox treatment.   But a story about living in the certain knowledge that your life will be taken by some as yet unknown murderer is, literally, incredible and it requires a special kind of style and skill to deliver such a tale.

Mercedes M. Yardley delivers through a light conversational narration that reminded me of the snippets of Lemony Snicket that I had read.  The omniscient narrator who delivers their tale with many an ooh and an ahh and a sharp intake of breath at the vicissitudes of life.  This is a narrator who does not so much tell you the story, or even read it to you, they stand over your shoulder and add a commentary as you devour Bryony Adams’ short bright life through the words on the page.  But whereas The Series of Unfortunate events had the palpable if multiply disguised figure of Count Olaf as its ever present villain, the growling hissing antagonist for Bryony Adams is fate itself, a fortune set at her birth that will not be denied.  Determination, the love of friends who want to buy her time in any way they can, and the spectacular inaccuracy of fate’s blunderbuss all combine to postpone what everybody in the book, including Bryony herself, has known is inevitable.  She can run, but she cannot hide, but my how she runs.

And for all the certainty laid out in its opening premise of a dark and unavoidable ending, this is a book that is joyful and life affirming.  What would any of us do in Bryony’s situation?  Seize what life offers? Fear for her friends who must be left behind to mourn.  Treasure each moment of now.

But, death stalks the book’s pages too, not just any death, but murder.  People die around Bryony Adams as the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune are loosed with devastating force but little precision.  There is no great titillation in each murderous act, merely a tiny detail here or there, a glimpse into each victim’s life or death that reaffirms the darkness of the shadow fate casts over Bryony, and by implication, over the many who love and care for her. The people who are determined to do all they can to give fate a damn good kicking and so buy Bryony whatever time they can.

There is a point in the book where one character reflects that he could cope with Bryony dying through some accident, through choosing just the wrong day to take up hangliding, or tripping and stumbling into a pit of rattlesnakes.  But it is the nature of her fate, rehearsed for us in advance by a variety of unfortunate victims of fortune’s inaccurate aim, which takes the theme of anticipated death and loss and gives it a sharp twist – well actually in a plot that wriggles as evasively as Bryony herself, it delivers quite a few heartstopping twists up to its long foretold heartstopping moment, and through those twists and turns the reader learns to love Bryony Adams just as much as the author did.

A book can be judged by many things and, incidentally, this book has an excellent cover. But like all art, a book is about interactions not absolutes.  Its quality is known, not by the mere words on the pages but by the response it engenders in the reader.  This is a book I read in just two sittings, its length, its pace and its story line sufficient to draw me in and on when sleep should have long since claimed me.  It is a book too, that left its mark on my mind, echoes of the story and the characters filling my thoughts the morning after so much so that I could not wait to try and capture some sense of the impression it had made through the medium of a review.  The last book to enthral me in the same way and linger on so powerfully after the last page was closed was “The Girl WithAll the Gifts” by M.R.Carey another enthralling heroine facing an impossible situation.

Why would anyone read such a book – a book haunted at every turn by murder and death, and again not just any murder but the vicious and sadistic theft of young women’s lives by a variety of persons unknown. And this is where Mercedes M Yardley strays beyond the reassuringly fantastic world of Lemony Snicket style writing and perches her tale right on the border of our own world, our real world, peopled by dark deeds and vulnerability.  The lyrical writing floats like a butterfly around dark realities of life and death and it is the style that saves both the story and the reader from engaging in a wholly macabre flirtation with darkness.

There may be others who will not warm to it as I did, who will not be swept along by its surrealist theme, its whimsical narration, or its captivating heroine.  There will be people who struggle to suspend their disbelief, or are uncomfortable with a book that flirts so lightly with murder and murderers.  But it is a unique story well told and I commend it.


Thursday, 25 September 2014

For a Fistfull of (Spoiler free) Reviews

The rush to finish Master of the Planes has slowed down my reading and completely stalled my reviewing, but now I have a chance to catch up with a look back at Scott Lynch's "The Lies of Locke Lamora," Joe Abercrombie's "The Blade Itself"  and the trio from Ragnorak Publications opening Dead West volume, "Those poor, poor bastards."

The Lies of Locke Lamora (by Scott Lynch)

The writing like the setting is opulent and atmospheric.  The world a skilful weave of historical influences.

Where food is concerned I am no gourmet, the top chiefs may talk of a inspired combinations of flavours, Heston Blumenthal may throw liquid nitrogen over everything and call it genius but me, I just want burger and chips - eaten separately.  However, when it comes to books I love to see how a writer might draw on different aspects of our culture and our past and throw them together with a dash of inspiration to create a whole new taste sorry I meant "reading" sensation.

That is what Scott Lynch has achieved and it is perhaps no accident that I am drawn to an analogy with food to describe my feelings about the book.  You see food features prominently in the book, the compact but perfectly formed gang of thieves at the book's heart must be both connoisseurs  and expert chefs in order to trick and gull their way through the hearts, minds, pockets and bank accounts of their target victims - the quite literally elevated and protected aristocracy.

Lynch paints a world with a rich palette, clothing, food, culture and history described in loving detail so that the book is a truly immersive experience.  It is a different style of writing where the one of the principle characters bestriding the story's stage is the city of Camorr itself rendered in more loving detail even than the anonymous eponymous hero Mr Lamora himself.  For Locke's trade mark is to be unremarkable, disguisable, able to paint upon his own blank canvas any character from a blundering northern merchant to an agent of an almost mythical secret service.

For Locke is a thief of a particular kind, he is a con-man.  His band are out to rob from the rich and... er... no, that's actually, just rob from the rich.  They don't even spend it save to invest in the expensive accoutrements of  wealth and power necessary to gull even more from victims too embarrassed to over admit  to their loss.

It is a game, but a deadly game, for Camorr is a town where life is cheap and often short and Locke and his friends dance a dangerous jig on a dizzying highwire, dicing with death as only the supremely cconfident young ever can.

In my mind's eye I saw Camorr as some unholy cross between

  • the geography of Venice, with its waterways and bridges, 
  • the entertainment and religions of ancient Rome with death being not so much an occupational hazard as an expected conclusion to the various bizarre sporting extravanganzas.
  • the ordered lawlessness of prohibition chicago
  • the desperate poverty of 18th Century London as set out in John Gay's the Beggar's Opera, with perhaps a nod towards Dickensian London.


Lynch adds much more to that - the mysterious elder race who built the place and left haunting monuments of architecture and a use of magic that is as magic should be - frighteningly incomprehensibly powerful.  The quirks such as wraithstone which oil the business of the city by producing "gentled" beasts of burden who are untroubled by any uproar -and there is plenty of that.

It is an atmospheric story that builds slowly, and then accelerates so that I consumed the last half of the book in just a couple of days.  The structure seasons a short period of desperate present times, with reflections on different parts of the past to help you understand how the characters have got here.

There is in Locke a hero who relies on his quick wits far more than his strong arms, for his skill in combat is so slight his mentor quickly dismisses him as unlikely to be much more than a bloodstain on the street in any serious fight.  Still he holds his own in a way which at times almost unslung my suspension of disbelief, for I doubt that the genuinely crap at fighting could spin out a fight much beyond the first fatal blow from an expert opponent.

Still it is a rich tale with an intricate plot which invites the reader to be a tourist in the most wonderfully developed city I have read of in a long time.  Just be wary of which dark alleys you stray down.


The Blade Itself (By Joe Abercrombie)

I returned to the fantasy genre through the Thorns Trilogy of Mark Lawrence, but once inducted into twitter and facebook the omnipresence of Lord Grimdark quickly made itself felt by reputation and the recommendations of friends.  The opportunity to get the whole first law trilogy as an omnibus download was too good an opportunity to miss and I settled down to read Mr Abercrombie's first book.  I will confess, it did not grow on me immediately. I did not get the wow factor that others had experienced and described.

At the moment I am reading Joe's latest book "Half a King" with a ARC of "Half a War" queued up to follow it and I will review those in good time.  It is interesting because I think I can already see a maturing of his style between the two works.  There were moments in the first book where I found the writing a little clunky.

One example in particular, a character used a gesture, the same gesture described the same way three times in as many pages and just as I was thinking "he's doing that a lot,"  the character expressed the thought "I'm doing this a lot" and I felt I was listening to the author retro-editing more than hearing the character.

It is a complex story and some of the characters were a little difficult to like.  However, I salute Sand Glotka as an inspired invention.  Impossible to pigeon hole, perhaps a consequence of his tortured past which left him bent out of any kind of normal shape, both mentally and physically. But he was enetrtaining, the curmudgeonly cripple with nothing left to live for, but living on anyway and making damn sure the rest of the world wished he didn't.

The dowsnside of reading an omnibus on a Kindle is that you can't tell how near you are to the end apart from guessing it would be around the 33% mark.  In fact it came up at 31% and surprised me in a kind of "oh, is that it?" kind of way.  And I guess that is just because it is a trilogy and like the end of "Fellowship of the Ring" they had only really just got started.

There is a visceral grittiness to the descriptions of combat scenes.  Actions covered so quickly you need to re-read it slowly to just work out the body count.  A genre defining book maybe, more by its timing than by its writing.  I am enjoying Half-a-King and suspect I will finish that trilogy before I finish the first law trilogy..

Those poor, poor bastards. (by Tim Marquitz, J.M.Martin and Kenny Soward)

This is an easily digested book, a bit like many of the unfortunate characters in it when the flesh eating zombies get at them.  It is not too long and rattles along at a furious pace as, with little preamble, a western town is overrun by the risen dead - well overwalked is probably a better description than overran which is why the heroine can escape at a pace little faster than a well oiled wheelbarrow could roll.

It has three authors and I am not sure that I could tell and I would not like to try and claim any particular narrative element for any one of the authors.

For me, the exquisite pleasure of the book was in the powerfully rendered narrative voice.    I can't say if it was accurate, but idioms of phrase and behaviour as well as the many many different ways of saying "gun" gave the book a sense of authenticity that was like the remake of "True Grit"

The story struggled a little because when you have established a group of ill matched and querulous survivors and a hoard of untiring zombies it can become a case of waiting to see who will die next and how.  The writers have tried to develop the zombie menace into something a little more specific and personal and made good use of the writer's fall back, if in doubt inject some conflict.  There was plenty of that as the heroine and her embattled pa found almost as many living enemies within their refuge as there were dead ones outside it. That certainly kept the pace up, though at times maybe I saw the influence of a change of authorial hand as villains from one scene were gifted an unlikely sympathetic treatment later on.

This is a jolly romp, but I am not at sure where it is going and I would hope the authors avoid the fate of a pair of roman consuls once given joint command of an army.  They took command on alternate days and spent ages marching the army in opposite directions one day after the other until an enemy found and overwhelmed them.  Perhaps the rigidity of a pair of train tracks will ensure a consistent and coherent direction as the story unfolds.    

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

My Very First Competition - win a Master of the Planes ARC - simples


  • More complete than "A Song of Fire and Ice"
  • Longer than "Lord of the Rings"
  • Fewer authors than the "Wheel of Time"
  • More accurately numbered than the five book "Hitchhiker's guide to the Galaxy" trilogy
  • More female leading characters than "The Long the Short and the Tall"

Now is your chance to read the final part of my very first trilogy

a) before anyone else does and
b) in hard copy!



I'm getting 5 rather simple Advance Reader Copies made up (A4 printed comb bound) and I will send them to the five winners of my first competition.  So what are you waiting for?

Oh yes, the rules.

Well it's really quite simple. The winners will be drawn by random lot from all those who have
a) read both "Lady of the Helm" and "Wrath of the Medusa"
b) posted a review or blog post about either/both of them
c) claimed ownership of their review(s)

To claim a review as your own, paste a relevant link either

  • as a comment (below) or 
  • by tweet to @tomunro or 
  • by a facebook message to T.o.Munro or 
  • by email to TOMunro1759@gmail.com

Each review and location gets one "ticket" in the draw,
so posting the same review on goodreads and amazon for example gets two tickets

There are bonus tickets up for grabs for

  • A blog post review gets two tickets
  • the first review on a particular amazon site gets two tickets (I'm looking here at amazon.ca and amazon.de and amazon.com.au and amazon.fr)

So somebody who has read and reviewed both books on both amazon.com and goodreads and then put up a blog post of one of them would get 6 tickets.

I expect to run this for about a week but I will post again to give you a couple of days before the exact deadline.

Saturday, 20 September 2014

The Trilogy Complete?

Well it is 20th September 2014 and the first draft of Master of the Planes, final book in the bloodline trilogy  is complete all 255,712 words of it.  Not far short of the length of the other two added together.

Now comes the effin editing, not least of which is checking the occurrences of f words to make sure that all profanity is fully justified by character and context!

I have pasted below a first draft of the blurb for Master of the Planes.  Let me now if it piques your interest.

Master of the Planes Blurb

The traitor has been unmasked and Niarmit at last can hope;
to untangle the web of evil which has enmeshed her,
to take the attack to the salved people’s oldest enemy,
to savour a chance of personal happiness.

But Maelgrum has many allies, new and old.

And secrets buried deep can surface still to shake the young Queen’s spirit and shatter her plans.

And Niarmit must ask again who she was and is and who she must become in pursuit of victory and the answer to the question

“How do you kill that which is already dead?”

***

Torsden, like Kimbolt, wore full armour.  The shield was painted blue with a gold stallion rampant upon it, a slightly larger copy of the one Pietrsen carried.

“It doesn’t look like he’s accepted his dismissal from your post, Master of the Horse,” Kimbolt said.

“He’s an arrogant bastard,” Pietrsen muttered,

The arrogant bastard drew a bastard sword from his belt.  It was a blade that most men would have wielded two handed, but Torsden swung it in one giant paw, his wrist flexing effortlessly to snap the weapon to left or right.

“Remember, Pietrsen, whatever happens, everything is carried out as we agreed.”  Suddenly Kimbolt needed the reassurance, the promise.

“His strength is as mighty as his ego,” the Master of Horse mumbled on.

“Pietrsen, your promise, your word of honour whatever happens.”

“You have it, Seneschal.” Kimbolt’s second blew out a soft whistling breath. “You’re a braver man than I, Kimbolt.  I just want you to know…”

“Save it,” Kimbolt spat.  He wasn’t interested in good-byes, at least not from him.  “You know what they say about big musclebound men, Pietrsen? Big means slow.”

There was a flutter of movement.  A thrush darted from the wall of the steading, either disturbed by the creak of the gate closing or drawn to the noise and smells of cooking in the cavalry camp.  It flew low, swooping across the ground.  Torsden’s sword flashed, a tiny spray of red and two halves of the bird fell to the snowy ground.

“Shit, that was fast,” Pietrsen said.

Saturday, 6 September 2014

Happy Birthday to Bloody Cake News

With apologies to Tolkien and to Gimli and especially to Agnes, I butchered one of my favourite Lord of the Rings excerpts to craft this birthday tribute to Bloody Cake News for tomorrow, Sunday 7th September.

The Song of BCN


The web was young, the trees were green
And bloody cakes were all unseen
No blog was laid on page or site
When Agnes woke and wrote so bright.
She claimed the shameless books and hacks
She heard unnumbered audiotracks
She rode by train to Cambridge here
And there saw three new stars appear
As friends upon a web based wire
A group to raise the bar much higher

The web was fair, the cakes were tall
In summer days, before the fall
With mighty scribes from blessed lands
And western towns who raised their hands
And called out, "Agnes you can stay,
We have some books to give away."
A queen she was in oaken chair
And authors turned to stop and stare
With golden hair and silver pen
And reviews of power often when
The light of Peat and Joe and Mark
With shining copies of their ARCS
Undimmed by night or pint of beer
There chatted freely, oh so near.

There finger on the keyboard smote,
There books were read and blogs were wrote
There baked was cake and piped was glaze
The plotters wrote, the agents crazed
There princes, kings and viking sail
And lyric prose like fishes’ mail
Writing and story, plot and word,
And poignant quotes were often heard.
Unwearied then were bloody cake folk,
Even with two ankles broke
The authors tweeted, facebook glowed
And at the cakes, the saliva flowed

The wifi’s down, the web is gone
My favourite links are now all wrong
No book is planned, no chapters writ
Distraction snares me in its pit
The cover waits for one more part
Justice due for Darko’s art
But still the chosen pics appear
A facebook status oh so clear
There likes their crown in pages deep
Till birthday girls awake from sleep.

For those who want to cleanse their literary palate with a shot of the original, here's a link to Durin's Song, as sung by Gimli son of Gloin in the mines of Moria..

(Edited slightly on 7th September to improve the scanning in the first verse and the sense elsewhere)