Category Archives: Book Reviews

The Crystal Cave by Mary Stewart

It’s late, this post, and I plead two things: my idiocy (genuinely) and the bit where I volunteered at World Fantasy Con 2013 and had a whale of a time!

review-projectThis is the third part of the Hodderscape Review Project, wherein myself and a group of other bloggers will be reviewing one book per month from the wonderful personages over at Hodderscape

Exactly what it says on the tin. Or, well, cover.

Exactly what it says on the tin. Or, well, cover.

For October, our book was The Crystal Cave by Mary Stewart, the beginning of a 1970s trilogy telling the story of Merlin and his rise to power and involvement in the Arthurian myth. A summary:

Fifth century Britain is a country of chaos and division after the Roman withdrawal. This is the world of young Merlin, the illegitimate child of a South Wales princess who will not reveal to her son his father’s true identity. Yet Merlin is an extraordinary child, aware at the earliest age that he possesses a great natural gift – the Sight. Against a background of invasion and imprisonment, wars and conquest, Merlin emerges into manhood, and accepts his dramatic role in the New Beginning – the coming of King Arthur.

It’s a bit hard to categorise The Crystal Cave. It’s based on history as much as it’s based on Arthurian myth (and you’ll get bonus references to characters and events if you’re at all familiar with Monmouth), but it’s not entirely either of those. There’s a healthy dose of fantasy added to the mix, making it a strange mixture of the familiar bits we know and the twisty surprises that come from focusing on a character who isn’t usually the focus of the stories. Stewart copies Monmouth’s method when it comes to filling in the gaps in the narrative with as much weird and wonderful as she can, and though it’s flawed, the trilogy is a good addition to the heaps and heaps of Arthurian fiction out there.

This is a good read if you enjoy beautiful writing and slow, reflective plots that go nowhere fast but give you time to savour the elegance and atmosphere. It’s somewhere between Guy Gavriel Kay and Robin Hobb – although Merlin’s got far more character than FitzChivalry in my opinion (yes, it’s okay to hate me, and yes, I still love the Robin Hobb books and look Merlin gets snarky in a way Fitz never does and that is what sways me). This is all a way of saying that, yes, it’s slow and stately and ultimately your enjoyment of this depends on whether you have a pretty plastic attention span. For me it was too slow. It also wasn’t consistently thematically elegant like GGK, or utterly absorbing like Robin Hobb, despite the occasional flashes of brilliance.

I can't find the cover that I read as a kid except for one edition on ebay. How weird is that?

I can’t find the cover that I read as a kid except for one edition on ebay. How weird is that?

And while we’re on the topic of satisfaction, everyone’s said it, but I need to chime in: isn’t it weird to read a book by a woman in which the female characters are so paper-thin they could be faxed? I wonder how much of that was Stewart and how much was editing. Reading The Crystal Cave has given me a thirst for the Marion Zimmer Bradley books again, which were so overtly woman-centric and inclusive and made me cry without, it seemed, ever really trying.

When I read it as a 12-year-old I remember being completely wrapped up in it and enjoying it from beginning to end, from the weird magic-that-wasn’t-magic (always enjoyed the Stonehenge explanation later in the trilogy) to the early attempt to poison a child (which I still think is the best scene in the book). It’s not without its flaws. It’s certainly one that – despite the old man writing about his youth framing device – works better for younger readers, despite the slow pace. There’s an elementary nature to it that works better for those who haven’t read around the field and built up certain expectations.

Overall, I’m glad I read it again. What I enjoyed about it years ago is still enjoyable and it should be required reading for any fans of the BBC TV series, for instance – but it is flawed, and needlessly so, because Stewart is clearly a skilled author. Her other works should definitely be sought out by anyone else who found this book/trilogy unsatisfying – I can’t help but wonder what could be made of this if it were updated with a modern eye.

 

The Shining by Stephen King

review-projectThis is the second part of the Hodderscape Review Project, wherein myself and a group of other bloggers will be reviewing one book per month from the wonderful personages over at Hodderscape. This month’s was awesome and triggered a mass re-read of one of my favourite authors in the entire world – The Shining by Stephen King.

Corridors are always spooky, always

Corridors are always spooky, always

Danny is only five years old, but in the words of old Mr Hallorann he is a ‘shiner’, aglow with psychic voltage. When his father becomes caretaker of the Overlook Hotel, Danny’s visions grow out of control. As winter closes in and blizzards cut them off, the hotel seems to develop a life of its own. It is meant to be empty. So who is the lady in Room 217 and who are the masked guests going up and down in the elevator? And why do the hedges shaped like animals seem so alive? Somewhere, somehow, there is an evil force in the hotel – and that, too, is beginning to shine …

I have a great skill when it comes to questionable life decisions. My favourite is probably the one I made when I was nine, when I discovered Stephen King’s It at a friend’s house and decided that I was so repulsed by the fate of Georgie in the opening pages that I clearly had to read this book in its entirety. If you doubt my commitment to clownian motion, there’s footage somewhere of me hiding under a table from a birthday party*, completely engrossed in It, accompanied only by a wilting slice of chocolate cake.

Twenty years changes nothing. Give me a Stephen King book and I’m lost to the world.

Pleasant family vacation spot, innit

Pleasant family vacation spot

I’m not going to mess about: I loved The Shining, I still love The Shining, and I love the movie too. I don’t need to talk about the movie; others have discussed it vs the book better than I ever could. This is a film I discovered thanks to a particular scene in Twister, by the way. Yes. There is one thing we can thank Twister for, and for a change it’s not Philip Seymour Hoffman.

Child looks terrifying here.

Child looks terrifying here.

But the book, you guys. It’s about as haunted as a book can be. It’s haunted by the author, the film, the director, and the huge impact it had on popular culture. You can’t help but feel the echoes from every reference you’ve seen, read or heard vibrate through it to the point where you’re not quite sure you’re reading alone. Every re-read you discover something familiar but unsettling, like those times you’re caught between two mirrors and you can see your reflection repeating off into infinity. It’s so, so weird. And oh my god so satisfying.

The first time I read the book I was reading as a horror fan, lapping up the oppressive atmosphere and the hints at the twisted, sordid past of the hotel. This time it’s as a King fan, enjoying how he builds each character up and whittles away at them, exposing fault lines at the same time as exposing them to the dread forces of the Overlook which infect and affect each of them differently. Danny would be an annoying, precocious little kid in another writer’s hands, but thanks to King’s skill with pacing and details, he isn’t; his own father turns on him, he faces the horror in Room 217, encounters terrifying topiary animals, and little psychic Danny is sympathetic throughout. His fear is goddamn contagious because we’ve all been a frightened child, only he’s actually got extreme dark stuff in front of him that few people face – even if you dismiss the supernatural elements, Jack Torrance’s insanity is scary enough. I can’t wait to read the sequel and see how King handles Danny’s problems in adulthood. Cannot wait.

It was a nice surprise to remember that Wendy is so much more of a person in the book than the Wendy of the film (there’s some agreement on this issue) – it lends more of a feeling of the family as a cohesive unit being destroyed than of one man’s descent into supernatural insanity. It’s the single aspect where I feel the book is stronger than the film: the tension over Jack’s madness in the book is fuller, more rounded, where in the film you always know he’s going to crack because Jack Nicholson has villain eyebrows. He totally does. But in the book, King makes everything feel close and real and warm, and Kubrick’s film about terrifying but only slightly supernatural madness feels weirdly distant from a book about dark forces in a claustrophobic space acting on a small and fragile family. The emotional core is strong enough to amplify the fear of everything from the big, dramatic events to the smaller moments that other writers would have ignored (or, say, overlooked. Heh.). It’s a perfect example of the genius of King; a simple moment when the family hears an empty elevator on the move had me put the book down so I could go downstairs for a cup of tea and a break from the oppressive Overlook atmosphere. And who the hell else can make topiary that scary?!

theshining3

The Shining isn’t my favourite Stephen King, but it doesn’t need to be. It’s Breaking Bad, The Godfather, The Hobbit, Super Mario. The thing that everyone will assume you’re familiar with, the cultural touchstone, the haunted house horror. Even for people who don’t like horror there’s a family story at the heart of this, a dark and brilliant psychological side, which any fiction reader can savour.

Reader, I loved it. And the sequel, Doctor Sleep, sounds so good:

 

An epic war between good and evil, a gory, glorious story that will thrill the millions of hyper-devoted readers of The Shining and wildly satisfy anyone new to the territory of this icon in the King canon. King says he wanted to know what happened to Danny Torrance, the boy at the heart of The Shining, after his terrible experience in the Overlook Hotel. The instantly riveting Doctor Sleep picks up the story of the now middle-aged Dan, working at a hospice in rural New Hampshire, and the very special twelve-year old girl he must save from a tribe of murderous paranormals. On highways across America, a tribe of people called The True Knot travel in search of sustenance. They look harmless – mostly old, lots of polyester, and married to their RVs. But as Dan Torrance knows, and tween Abra Stone learns, The True Knot are quasi-immortal, living off the ‘steam’ that children with the ‘shining’ produce when they are slowly tortured to death. Haunted by the inhabitants of the Overlook Hotel where he spent one horrific childhood year, Dan has been drifting for decades, desperate to shed his father’s legacy of despair, alcoholism, and violence. Finally, he settles in a New Hampshire town, an AA community that sustains him and a job at a nursing home where his remnant ‘shining’ power provides the crucial final comfort to the dying. Aided by a prescient cat, he becomes ‘Doctor Sleep.’ Then Dan meets the evanescent Abra Stone, and it is her spectacular gift, the brightest shining ever seen, that reignites Dan’s own demons and summons him to a battle for Abra’s soul and survival …

It’s out this Thursday and has a picture of a cat on it. The internet will love it.

“Monsters are real, and ghosts are real too. They live inside us, and sometimes, they win.” 

Stephen King

*Someone else’s. And, brilliantly, I managed to slip away while they played It.

 

The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde – @hodderscape

review-projectThis is the first part of the Hodderscape Review Project, wherein myself and a group of other bloggers will be reviewing one book per month from the wonderful personages over at Hodderscape. This month we got a great one – The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde, an old favourite of mine, and one that I really looked forward to re-reading!

Either the idea of an alterna-England with re-engineered dodos, actual word-munching bookworms that rAndoMlY caPitAliZe wHEn NeaRby and inventors who create contraptions that can catapult you into books sounds like it could be really, really good fun, or it doesn’t. How about some shadowy Special Operatives constantly on the lookout to safeguard literary treasures from rogues and terrorists because they’re just that important? Can I tempt you with a time-travelling parent who pops up randomly to deliver (usually) pointless but entertaining comments in awfully inappropriate situations? How about we go back to that thing about the dodos. Because they go “plock”, you see.

200px-The_eyre_affair1

DODO ON A PLOCKING SCOOTER

I’m not going to rehash the plot for you. This is the plot summary. It is a good summary. I would suggest reading the book if you want more detail.

There is another 1985, somewhere in the could-have-been, where the Crimean war still rages, dodos are regenerated in home-cloning kits and everyone is deeply disappointed by the ending of ‘Jane Eyre’. In this world there are no jet-liners or computers, but there are policemen who can travel across time, a Welsh republic, a great interest in all things literary – and a woman called Thursday Next. In this utterly original and wonderfully funny first novel, Fforde has created a fiesty, loveable heroine and a plot of such richness and ingenuity that it will take your breath away.

Eyre Affair

THIS BOOK ALSO CONTAINS: A CRAZY CAR, WORDSWORTH, AND A SLIGHTLY MAD BUT NICE INVENTOR

Suspending disbelief is all very well and good until you get to books like this one and you find that you don’t need to suspend disbelief so much as bash it over the head and leave it tied up in a dark basement for a bit (but don’t do that, that’s nasty, and you don’t look nasty enough for that). This is a book about the fun inherent in reading, in how enjoyable it can be, how silly, how entertaining – the basic marrow-deep pleasure one can take in the completely illogical, totally weird and entirely fictional things that can occur within a book. I have little time for Dickens and even less for the Brontes, but there’s a love of the source material I’m entirely familiar with that underlies everything in the text, and it’s a feeling everyone with a favourite book they hug to their chest when they finish it will understand. At the same time, it finds humour in all of it, from the classics themselves to the very acts of reading, writing and enjoying a piece of literature. It’s irreverent in a way Hitch Hiker’s Guide fans would appreciate, albeit a little too cutesy to properly compare.

As for problems, it’s a bit of a YMMV matter. Thursday Next is an excellent character on paper (let’s pretend I got away with that) but she’s very dry, a bit distant, and oddly stilted at times. I love her to pieces because I feel as if her voice is a bit of a reference to big name crime whodunnits where it’s all a bit noir, a bit edgy, a bit hard-bitten, but it doesn’t help the romance or sympathy we’re supposed to feel for her character. It does allow for the wryly funny bits to be cripplingly good at times but it’s weird to read a first-person perspective yet feel like you’re observing her not through her own eyes and emotions, but through a telescope.

And Acheron Hades. Brilliant villain if you’re watching a pantomime, a Disney movie, or a 1960s tv episode of Batman. He is dark and devious and has some wonderful touches (especially when it comes to his lackeys – the Felixes are my favourite) but it’s undermined by too much melodrama and silliness to really feel threatening. I just found it all entertaining so I didn’t mind, but there’s no real threat to it, and the Dickens-by-way-of-Wodehouse names scattered throughout the book really made it all feel a bit too vaudevillian in a way that didn’t work with the type of story Fforde was writing. The tension and darkness that should be there instead just feel like shadowy references to something else and not really part of the book at all.

EyreAffair

This was the edition I had and lent to someone and never saw again. So upsetting.

But here’s the thing: in a way, it works. It’s escapist, it’s gloriously silly, and, if you want something that doesn’t take a single aspect of itself seriously, it’s enormously satisfying. I first read it when I was in between GCSE and A-Level exams; it took the piss out of high literature in a witty, chaotic, genre-bending way which I’d never read before, and has been a huge influence on my reading and approach to the weirder aspects of genre since then.

It’s a challenge to suspend disbelief and jump right in, trusting that Fforde knows where he’s going, how he’s getting there, and that the wheels of his insane clown car aren’t going to come off when you’re doing 180mph down the Oh My God How Is That Supposed To Be A Thing highway.* It’s not everyone’s cup of tea, and it’s not the perfect book. Do you want your weird and wonderful reads to make sense and be logical the entire way through? Then it may not work for you. It is a stark raving mad literary adventure that cycles between being nearly dark and stupidly funny almost too often to work, but manages to anyway, purely due to the crazy spirit of the thing. It feels very much like an enjoyably readable first book, with a lot of authorial promise to come.

PS Thursday’s dad is THE BEST.

* It’s just past the What The Hell Junction and links the town Oh Why Not with the city You Went Too Far. Like the book. Oh, look, I tried to do a funny.

Stormdancer by Jay Kristoff

Every now and then you finish a book, close it, turn it over, look at the front cover for a while, caress the edges a little maybe, and in all likelihood give it a bit of a hug. Just a bit of one. It’s only a book, you know? Hugging a book is weird. So it’s only a bit of a hug. And then you put it down and get on with your day and find another book to read and life goes on.

Well, yeah.

All of that +10 for Stormdancer – except for the “read another book” bit because I haven’t been able to concentrate on anything else because mentally I’m still going “OH GOOD GOD I WANT A BURUU”.

The one on the left is mine and I luff it oh yes I do

Griffins are supposed to be extinct. So when Yukiko and her warrior father Masaru are sent to capture one for the Shogun, they fear that their lives are over. Everyone knows what happens to those who fail him, no matter how hopeless the task.

But the mission proves far less impossible, and far more deadly, than anyone expects – and soon Yukiko finds herself stranded: a young woman alone in her country’s last wilderness, with only a furious, crippled griffin for company. But trapped together in the forest, Yukiko and Buruu soon discover a friendship that neither of them expected.

Meanwhile, the country around them verges on the brink of collapse. A toxic fuel is slowly choking the land; the omnipotent, machine-powered Lotus Guild is publicly burning those they deem Impure; and the Shogun cares about nothing but his own dominion. Yukiko has always been uneasy in the shadow of power, when she learns the awful truth of what the Shogun has done, both to her country and to her own family she’s determined to do something about it.

Returning to the city, Yukiko and Buruu plan to make the Shogun pay for his crimes – but what can one girl and a flightless griffin do against the might of an empire?

If you’re not sure if this book for you, let me give you The Checklist Of Awesome.

  • Alternative feudal Japan. With mecha suits, and yokai, and oni, and other things that make my grounding in Inuyasha and Gundam Wing suddenly so worthwhile
  • Mythical creatures that aren’t dragons, unicorns, vampires, werewolves, mermaids or fairies AND can disembowel you as easily as look at you
  • Dieselpunk/steampunk (author says steampunk but I’d disagree) technology that makes sense in mechanical, ecological, social, historical and narrative contexts
  • A flawed main character – entirely human and sympathetic and who grows and develops and is entirely like a 16-year-old but at the same time has that potential to be more 
  • Bad-ass fight scenes that you (if you’re me) decide to read twice because the writing is exquisite and it should be ridiculous but ISN’T because I think Kristoff has CLEARLY made a deal with a writing devil
  • Speaking of making a deal with a writing devil, even the big chunks of description are so wonderfully done you can’t hate him for it (damn you sir, damn you)
  • OH HELLO FANTASY BOOK THAT HAS A YOUNG GIRL AS THE MAIN CHARACTER AND DOESN’T MAKE ROMANCE THE CENTRAL FOCUS OF THE PLOT AND TREATS SEX WITH THE FUN *AND* RESPECT IT DESERVES OH HELLO WHERE HAVE YOU BEEN ALL MY LIFE CAN I HUG YOU AGAIN OMG THE FEELS YEAH I’M GONNA HUG YOU AGAIN
  • Did I mention that romance isn’t the main focus? Even though it has a bit of a love triangle that it untangles without being incredibly patronising to the readers? YES I KNOW IT’S GREAT and don’t go looking for a clean YA resolution because Toto I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas any more
  • How about the emotional backbone being the relationship between a father and daughter? Or friendships, or families? The healthy ones (Yukiko and her twin), the broken ones (aww Masaru), the dangerous ones (OH HEY SHOGUN), the profound ones (BURUUUU) and so on? It’s all about family and it feels so much better than being all about romance for ONCE
  • This also counts as a dystopia, just FYI, and it wins at dystopias because of p.366 of my edition which was a glorious crowning world-building moment of awesome (and ick)
  • CHAINSAW KATANAS
  • LET ME REITERATE
  • CHAINSAW KATANAS

Okay. It’s awesome, but there are issues. People have pointed out the problems with the terminology before – THERE’S A GLOSSARY AT THE BACK BY THE WAY AND PEOPLE MAY NEED TO KNOW ABOUT IT – and how it’s apparently full of inaccurate Japanese. As a fantasy reader I feel like those issues can be side-stepped because it’s *fantasy* and how knows how the Japanese language may have developed in this alternative reality, but they’re valid concerns regardless, and worth the attention (excellent review there, I highly recommend reading it). I wasn’t sure about some of it during the book but it didn’t detract from my enjoyment of the story – this is an entirely YMMV topic, I reckon, but I want to bring it up because it is, after all, dealing with a real culture.

One of my issues with it concerns the tone it takes with regard to the blood lotus pollution. It’s not THAT it deals with the topic, but HOW. It’s a great thing to be writing fantasy about but those segments – ESPECIALLY when Buruu lectured Yukiko about the pollution of Shima – come off as being really quite patronising and odd. I wanted to compare it to Miyazaki but Miyazaki is subtle and clever about drawing links between films like Nausicaa and Princess Mononoke and the modern world, where this felt like being walloped over the head with relevance and significance and it was just… it was jarring. Kristoff proved he can be elegant and clever in almost every other aspect of this story, but that, the element that should linger the longest in people’s’ minds, was awkward. We weren’t being guided by his writing, we were being lectured to. Buruu is incredibly cool but using him as the author’s mouthpiece tarnished him a little. I’d love to get behind this aspect of the book but I just felt, for all the good he wants to do with this message, it suddenly switched tone from SFF to very young adult and then back, which didn’t work, and jolted me out of the story.

My most pressing concern? Lady Aisha. What was that? She was my favourite character aside from Buruu. Did that seriously happen? That was enough to knock a star off on Goodreads. Huge amounts of this book are ALL ABOUT the male gaze – from descriptions of the characters to Kaori’s face to the SODDING BATHING HOUSE SCENE THAT NEVER GETS PUNISHED oh god that annoys me – and although there are lots of aspects of this book to encourage and praise, this isn’t one of them. Lady Aisha feels like a casualty of that pervasive attitude, and it’s troubling – all the female characters are completely defined by the men around them. All of them. It could be read as an extension of the Evil Empire if you want to be kind, but it isn’t just that; I’m tired of Blokey Fantasy tropes and Stormdancer has lots of them. None of them are dealt with. They’re part of the story. I enjoyed the rest of it so much that this really troubled me, and for all I liked it, reflecting back on it there’s a lot I’m not happy with.

Aside from that I loved it, and read it slowly to savour the writing. I raced through the last third far too fast for my liking. People have criticized the beginning with its stately pace and how detailed the writing and descriptions are – I love all of that, and was sad the book wasn’t twice as long. For all I was deeply unhappy with aspects of it, I loved it so much I’d rank it up there with The Name Of The Wind for sheer enjoyment. I can’t wait for the 13th September to come so I can sell it to everyone. “READ THIS,” I shall tell them. “IT IS FUN AND GORGEOUS AND KICK-ASS. Also the cover is well pretty.”

AND I WANT A BURUU PLUSHIE GODDAMNIT

And the Stormdancer book trailer if you haven’t seen it is worth a gander because it’s hi-larious:

Unless you’re Liam who has no sense of humour.

Throne Of Glass by SJ Maas

Every now and then I like to challenge the laws of physics by testing the aerodynamic qualities of my reading materials. Today I decided to see if SJ Maas’ Throne Of Glass could fly.

Reader, I chucked it across the room, and it did not fly.

I don’t usually throw my books around. I’m a bookseller and a book lover; I hug books when they please me and lend books to friends to spread the joy and, guys, I like books. A lot. So the fact that this book caused me to throw it is no small thing. It might have been a blip, a momentary short circuit in my usually placid personality. It probably was. But for one moment I was so enraged and disappointed and annoyed by this book that I had to lash out. I’m not proud. I’m not a child. I should be above this sort of thing. But I threw it, because for a moment there I was five years old and tantruming because the book didn’t make me happy.

Before I go on, I’ll say this – a lot of people enjoyed this book and I don’t doubt there’s much in it to enjoy. Maas has a decent writing style that is readable and engaging, and she can write pacy scenes. She has a good imagination and is more than likely capable of writing some really cool stuff. I don’t want to diss her writing or abilities at all. Throne Of Glass just totally didn’t work for me and although I wasn’t a fan, people whose opinions I respect thought it was marvellous.

It’s got great cover art, I can say that for it

The summary:

Meet Celaena Sardothien.
Beautiful. Deadly. Destined for greatness.

In the dark, filthy salt mines of Endovier, an eighteen-year-old girl is serving a life sentence. She is a trained assassin, the best of her kind, but she made a fatal mistake: she got caught.

Young Captain Westfall offers her a deal: her freedom in return for one huge sacrifice. Celaena must represent the prince in a to-the-death tournament—fighting the most gifted thieves and assassins in the land. Live or die, Celaena will be free. Win or lose, she is about to discover her true destiny. But will her assassin’s heart be melted?

A couple of months back I read Maria V. Snyder’s Poison Study which had much the same set up and didn’t impress me much either: girl on death row gets her life back in exchange for using her skills to put her life on the line for political purposes. Romance is involved. Whereas Snyder’s heroine was trained to detect poisons, developing character as she went along, Celaena appears already trained and able.

To do everything.

I don’t mean just that she can do things – she can do everything. Brilliantly. She’s good at everything from archery to playing the piano to swordfighting to climbing to detecting poison to speaking other languages. AND she loves books. This means she’s a good person, doesn’t it? NO. At the age of eighteen she’s better than everyone around her – it’s one thing to have a precocious talent but the likelihood of being more than passable at all of these skills by the age of eighteen (also taking into account a year surviving in salt mines) stretches credulity to breaking point. Older, more experienced people are nothing compared to her literally incredible skills. Celaena is SO AWESOME YOU GUYS. And Celaena KNOWS IT.

I gave the overly heroic Kvothe in Patrick Rothfuss’ The Name Of The Wind a chance even though he and his skillset are far too good to be true. He was a nice guy, just about flawed enough to keep you interested, but someone you cheered on because you could feel his decency. Celaena is nothing like that. Jessie over at Ageless Pages diagnosed Special Snowflake Syndrome which is entirely apt; I’ll go a stage further and diagnose Serious Mary Sueism. I didn’t even click all the boxes that apply and she still got a score of 113. She’s snide, rude, arrogant and so far up herself she’s become a Moebius Sue.

She glared. “I hate women like that. They’re so desperate for the attention of men that they’d willingly betray and harm members of their own sex. And we claim men cannot think with their brains! At least men are direct about it.”

I lied earlier. I threw the book twice, once before I finished it. I picked it up to continue reading. Why did I throw it? That line. That horrible, bitchy, illogical line.

Kvothe worked also because he did things that proved he was kick-ass and cool. Locke Lamora in Scott Lynch’s books proves he’s a canny conman practically every other page. Arya Stark in Game Of Thrones also kicks ass in practically every chapter. Phedre no Delaunay is awesome all the damn time without resorting to violence. Katniss proves she’s got heart and skills with every day surviving the Hunger Games. Stephanie in Skulduggery Pleasant is forever being witty and brilliant. These guys all prove that they’re ace at what they do. More than ace – fantastic. Kvothe magics, Locke tricks, Arya scraps, Phedre outwits, Katniss survives to fight back, Stephanie saves the world.

Celaena, in comparison, does sod all. This book’s supposed to be the girl’s Game of Thrones (WHICH IS THE WORST THING EVER OH GOD I CAN’T EVEN BEGIN TO TACKLE THAT STATEMENT WITHOUT CAPSLOCKING) and the fantasy Hunger Games. It isn’t. The Hunger Games had great scenes full of nerves and clever writing that dealt with death, murder, heroism and self-sacrifice. There’s none of that going on here. Celaena never really proves that she’s the amazing assassin she thinks she is beyond two pretty good fight scenes and one dangling, daring rescue – some of the few scenes where I felt like the book was doing what it was supposed to do. We have all this guff about how handsome Dorian is (OH GOD NOT THE SAPPHIRE EYES AGAIN PLEASE GOD NO) or how beautiful Celaena is (GOLDEN HAIR RIGHT) or what they’re wearing (in quite some detail) but the same almost forensic level of narration isn’t given to the test the would-be assassins are put through. We don’t see enough of it, or the tons of people who die through it. It’s basically a backdrop, an afterthought, a MacGuffin. It’s the most diluted concept of violence and barely seems to matter to anyone – even those taking part.

AND there’s only enough background to act as wallpaper. The world is formed entirely around Celaena and the characters in her orbit and there’s no depth to it whatsoever. Almost everything we learn affects Celaena  in some way. Nothing we’re told about the worldbuilding is about the world itself; it’s almost all about Celaena. I’m usually okay with thinner characters set against a strong world, or a lot of strong characters set against a thin backdrop, but not both weak characters and weak worldbuilding!

When it comes to those characters in Celaena’s orbit obviously both Dorian, spoilt but very noble attractive princeling and Chaol, determined but very noble attractive guard (he’s a captain and he seems to be about Celaena’s age and to be training her which is INSANE because these skill levels MAKE NO SENSE and she’s awesome and he’s better but how? What? I don’t get this) are completely head over heels for her because she’s beautiful and good at everything. I spent half the book hoping Chaol would cop off with Nehemia. There’s a scene where Dorian gives our darling star a present and she’s immediately the rudest child ever in response, making demands before she deigns to accept this gift, and then there’s the line that just broke off all sympathy for Celaena that I’d been clinging to for most of this book:

He was kind – unnaturally kind, for someone of his upbringing. He had a heart, she realized, and a conscience. He was different from the others.

Oh good god no. She’s thinking things like this even though her best friend is a princess. A PRINCESS. Who is on the side of good. It’s been proved several times over that, no, not all the aristocracy are heartless fiends. So obviously Celaena as an inverse snob is a tremendous judge of character. OH WAIT. She can do EVERYTHING. Why am I doubting her? MY BAD. Everyone adores her even though there’s not much about her to like.

Nehemia would have been a far more interesting main character – she’s layered, clever, with a sense of duty and courage that Celaena seems to be missing. Her people are under threat and she’s prepared to do so much to protect them. She and her people have a proper story to tell that would fit an epic fantasy framework better – check out NK Jemisin’s Hundred Thousand Kingdoms as an example of just that.

In fact I’m trying to resist the urge to list a load of books I’d rather recommend reading than this. As I said, lots of people have enjoyed it, and though this feels young like it’s written for the lower end of the YA market, I’d rather recommend some Maureen Johnson, Garth Nix, Diana Wynne Jones, Margaret Mahy or Sarah Rees Brennan. They have worldbuilding and emotional connections and main characters who combine attitude with flaws and skills and wit.

I really don’t think SJ Maas is a bad author. From some of what I’ve seen about this book online this started out as a darker, more mature story and I’d give my eye teeth to see what could have been made of that. If it had been aged up a few years, if Celaena had been given some texture, if that sodding love triangle hadn’t been shoehorned in. If the worldbuilding had had just a bit more work. If there’d been more action. If, if, if.

This book should have been exactly – EXACTLY! – the sort of thing that appeals to me. Strong heroine, kickass action, a new fantasy world, political upheaval, a good son of an evil king, mysterious histories, secret pasages, ghosts, drama, murder, snark. The fact that it fell so far short of the mark is sad. Maas is going to write more, write better, and create good work – but this isn’t it.

Witch Crag by Kate Cann

So here’s a problem with Witch Crag – there’s not enough book for the story. It’s odd, isn’t it? It’s as if there’s a massive story and huge character development crammed into too small a space so it can’t flourish properly. It’s like those tea flowers you buy all curled up and you have to drop into hot water to make them blossom. It’s a great story that hasn’t had the space to spread out properly.

Despite that, I really enjoyed it.

The blurb:

In a tribe where basic survival is the only priority, Kita must make a choice: to accept arranged marriages and being treated with less value then sheep, or escape and journey to the place that even the strongest men fear with their lives – Witch Crag.

But a common threat is facing the witches and sheepmen alike. The tribes must somehow overcome their prejudices and join together if they’re to win a war that threatens to destroy everything they hold as good.

I was given the proof of this one in a goody bag after the Summer Scream event at Foyles (which was ace), and I have no idea why I went for it first. It was one of those “I’ll just see what the first page is like” moments that slipped away and became two hours of being engrossed in the rather compelling scene-building that Cann very ably engages in for the first quarter of the book.

It’s an easy read, unsettling moments notwithstanding; Kita is dynamic and interesting to follow, though the other characters feel half-sketched for the most part. Arc, for instance, could have done with a bit more attitude in a scene or two more. Kita’s friends could have had just a touch more presence. Geegaw could have been coloured in a bit, made more vivid. There could have been more, really – more time in each place, more described, more filled in. It felt like we were skimming over a really detailed back story. Sometimes, that’s fine. It works. Our imaginations can fill in bits and pieces and make it feel more real. Other times, however, it just feels like we’re getting the bare bones of the story and it just feels distant and vague. Witch Crag leans towards the latter. It’s the sort of book I’d love to see a bunch of teens illustrate or write a bit of fanfic about, because there’s just such a strong feeling of there being more lurking beneath the surface. So much more. I did wonder how it would have felt if it had been written as an “adult” book, or aimed for a slightly older readership.

Arc was a particular highlight and lowlight. Towards the end everyone just seemed to stop being a character and started to become mouthpieces – little speeches sounding the same from every quarter about uniting against a common foe, doing what’s right. It got a bit preachy and Arc suffered in particular, seeming to become a completely different character in the last third of the book – not in a good-character-development kind of way, but in a way in which he became unrecognizable. It’s sort of lampshaded by Raff in a random comment, but it doesn’t feel like his arc (yes I know) makes much sense. It’s a shame, because he was one of the strongest elements of the tale. I would have loved to read it from his perspective. His character only really unravelled right at the end in the most rushed chapter – a shame, racing to a conclusion that didn’t need to be hurried and could have been open-ended in a way that tied in with the atmosphere of the book as a whole, but I get that a lot of readers want that kind of ending. I’m just annoying.

Otherwise, I loved it. I gave it four stars on Goodreads – it’s a good-hearted story which lets people change and mature and grow up, lets the main character be a girl but also strong, lets her rage and mope and whine and still be a hero, lets the love interest be a complete boy and yet seek comfort, and lets people both redeem themselves and strive to redeem others. It’s a book with an overly obvious message, which usually pisses me off in YA, but it’s done with charm and Kita is a bit of a marvel when it comes to YA main characters. It’s a great story to visualize and has a wonderful sinister undercurrent the entire way through that did make me fear for what Cann was building towards. When it’s out I know I’m going to be giving it to a couple of teenagers I know.

So yes, I’d recommend it whole-heartedly. There’s a tantalizing sense of what else could be revealed about that post-“Great Havoc” land and the people in it, and I wish Cann could have gone into more depth about the world and the history and the people and the characters and everything, but it’s a really good addition to the Dystopian YA genre, perfectly pitched to appeal to boys as much as girls. It’s one notch below The Hunger Games in my personal rankings, and two above Divergent, and I reckon it’s closer to The Knife Of Never Letting Go in tone than anything else I’ve read. So yes. I liked it.

Boneshaker by Cherie Priest

I recently found a folder of half-written book reviews I’d forgotten about on my machine. In the spirit of spring-cleaning I’ve spruced them up and ironed things out and I shall proceed to post them, for your delectation.

The cover art for the whole series is tremendous stuff

If you’re going to have an absent character become the star of a story alongside a hulking great mechanical behemoth and a zombification-inducing gas, you really have to call him something like Leviticus Blue. At the start of the US Civil War, he’s the one who wins a contract from the Russians to build a tunnelling machine to quench the growing thirst for gold buried deep beneath Alaskan ice; the machine that, on its first run, causes a massive catastrophe that destroys most of Seattle, ripping apart the ground beneath the city and causing a mysterious, deadly gas to rise. A gas which kills everyone it affects – and some of those it kills don’t stay dead.

And it’s all down to Leviticus Blue. The name that potential villains all around the world wish they’d come up with first, no doubt.

Let’s put aside the fact that this book has airships, pirates, goggle-wearing heroes, zombies, steam-powered technologies galore and a gloriously deserted, dilapidated, dystopic setting. The first thing that struck me about this book wasn’t just the great cover art or that it’s about some of my favourite things in the entire world save cheesecake, tea and llamas – it was that the main character is a mother, and she’s the widow of the man whose machine destroyed Seattle. I can’t remember the last time the main character/protagonist in a fantasy adventure was a mother, let alone one so closely connected with the apparent villain of the piece, and it was a refreshing perspective to read. And let’s face it, her story’s going to be awesome, because her husband’s machine destroyed a city and caused the Blight. It’s obvious straight away that she’s going to have an interesting story behind her – and it takes some coaxing plus one hell of an adventure to find out what that story is.

Briar is a great heroine, focused on rescuing her son from the remnants of Seattle when he storms off trying to clear his father’s name, with just enough secrets to keep reeling the reader in but just enough flashes of character to keep us on her side. She is really not dull. Her simple and uncomplicated purpose – to save her son – masks a complex character that I enjoyed following, moreso than Zeke, whose chapters don’t have the same flair, drive or spark that Briar’s perspective grants.

I loved above all else that this is a steampunk setting that hasn’t defaulted to the usual London or some other Ye Olde Englande perspective; it’s fresh and different and excellent, though the science behind it all is a bit suspect. Though if that bothers you then I don’t know why you’re reading steampunk or zombie fiction or anything in between, the science always ends up a bit suspect. It’s not enough to derail what is a fine adventure, elegantly drawn and shot through with excitement and ingenuity.

Having read the next two books Dreadnought and Ganymede (oh I wish I could read Clementine too!) I strong recommend the series to everyone, whether you’re fans of steampunk and zombies or not. The latter two are straight-up adventure stories that run lighter than Boneshaker for the simple reason that they build on the world Priest created with this first book, so it’s more like reading a fast-moving action film. So much fun, and not even remotely in the guilty pleasure region either.

If you’re not reading these then you and I, we should have words.