Tag Archives: fantasy

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)
  • 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)

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 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.

Switched by Amanda Hocking

The YA cover has purple butterflies, but I like this one more.

With her first book Switched described by Lauren Oliver in the NY Times as “The Princess Diaries” meets “Twilight”, and having sold over a million copies as a self-published author before switching to the more traditional publishing process, Amanda Hocking is a totally a hot topic now. Everyone’s talking about how the internet will change publishing as we know it – and Hocking’s name is wound up in that discussion to the extent that it’s easy to overlook the creative output that made her name. Selling a million ebooks of a work you’ve written, edited and designed the cover of yourself is no mean feat, after all. So, as I said in my earlier post, I was very interested to try her work.

I enjoyed Switched. It’s a very uncomplicated state of affairs: I read it really fast, had some issues with a few aspects, but it was enjoyable and diverting enough for me to have a positive overall view of it. It’s a book that settles into the Kelley Armstrong and Richelle Mead pantheon of authorship while being fresh enough for general teen audiences, and I recommend it heartily to anyone who liked those authors, but it does bother me a little that there’s a rather wonderful concept that isn’t developed more and better. It felt like an idea that was churned out too fast and needed more crafting before it was unleashed on the readership. It’s slightly inconsistent (more than one person’s pointed out how one moment she doesn’t like chocolate but the next loves it, which is so minor but jolts you out of the story) and a little uneven, with writing that doesn’t tell you much about the world because it’s painted in very broad strokes that leaves you to fill in the details yourself. Fancy clothes are left to your imagination, as are conversations where everything is completely glossed over. It’s not exactly wonderful writing, but I was okay with it; much as I’m the sort of person who loves gorgeous, rich, decadent writing, sometimes it’s nice to have things left vague, though it would have been better to have more detail about the larger Trylle community and Wendy’s dealings with Rhiannon, Rhys and the rest, as it would have added a lot to the world and Wendy herself.

One thing that’s divided opinion – Wendy. A few people have expressed dislike, which is entirely understandable, but it is so refreshing to have the first person perspective of a bit of a bitch in a YA book and to have her aware of it. She isn’t exactly nice, but nice is boring, and funnily enough she’s a convincing teenager-type compared to the usual. I was a bit taken by her attitude and her awareness of what her family goes through to make her happy and yet and yet she’s so ungiving and selfish, aware of being so, and feels guilt for it. She’s a perfect base level for some good, juicy character development – the sort of satisfying development full of tears and tantrums and embarrassments and little delights. It doesn’t quite happen in the book, but it’s hinted at in a slightly tangled way. I can’t say I liked her, but she was interesting, different and promising. The Anti-Bella, if you will.

On that note, one aspect that struck a hollow note was the romance. It was too swift, shallow, no real connection happened – in fact, I was more sold on the (unintended) romantic tension with another guy towards the end who had so much more texture to his character than the love interest and was in his own right an absolutely excellent creation. For readers specifically interested in it, it might be a satisfactory sort of love plot, but only satisfactory – I wasn’t reading the book for the romance though, so I wasn’t so very unhappy about it.

Despite all the issues, it’s worth reading If You Like That Kind Of Book. This book won’t bring more fans to urban fantasy/paranormal romance/teen fantasy/whatever we’re calling it this month, but it will satisfy some of the readers who are already there. Probably the most telling point is this: while it wasn’t an amazing read, and though there were niggling, bothersome problems, the world Hocking created was interesting enough for me to definitely intend to pick up the next book in the trilogy.

Laini Taylor’s Daughter of Smoke and Bone

I have a natural antipathy to Romeo & Juliet type narratives. There’s something unbearably angsty and teeny and undercooked about a lot of them, something immature about the approach and the build-up and the type of characters involved. When I studied the play at school it made so much sense when the teacher told us Juliet was supposed to be a young teenager – as a fourteen-year-old studying it, I just sat there and thought, “Yes, this is exactly the kind of stupid angsty romance people my age would think is twoo wuv”. Oh hormones, you have so much to answer for!

Twilight obviously didn’t help matters much. In fact I dislike Romeo & Juliet enough to avoid any such stories on the basis that the concept just doesn’t work for me – Twilight failed catastrophically on such a number of levels that the R&J similarities passed me by until yesterday when I picked up Laini Taylor’s new book, Daughter of Smoke and Bone, and suddenly everything was cast in a new light.

Karou is an art student living in Prague. She has blue hair and a beautiful, annoying ex-boyfriend and a best friend with a sense of humour and a love for puppetry. Karou has a feeling that she is somehow incomplete, but no matter; she’s a busy girl. She studies her art, charming her friends with graphic stories of animal hybrid monsters in her art books. And then she runs errands for Brimstone, one of those very animal hybrid monsters her friends think she’s made up, collecting teeth for him; why does he want teeth? She doesn’t know. His shop is accessed by doors all over the world, and she travels everywhere for him – Morocco, Paris, St Petersburg, everywhere. And then the black handprints start appearing on the doors, left by devastatingly beautiful golden strangers. And, you know, THINGS OCCUR.

I have a new daydream: I imagine a world wherein this book came first, before Twilight. Where this book got the attention of the world’s teenage girls before vampiric stalker-boys became the Big Thing. Where beautiful writing lightly spun with dramatic, heavy moments, so rich in description I’m sitting here flicking through it just slightly dizzy with delight at the prospect of picking just one quotation to show you to back this up (I can’t, there’s too much!). It’s gorgeous all the way through, you guys. Gorgeous! It’s incredibly vivid, tactile writing, something that latches on to you from the very first chapter in which Karou is walking through Prague and encounters her ex-boyfriend and instead of just recounting this in prose, Taylor throws all these subtle yet jolting descriptions at us, wrapping us up in Karou’s physical senses like you’d wrap a child up in a scarf. It’s ridiculous how tangible she makes these angelic and demonic entities sound, describing fur and horns and lips and hair with such sensuousness that it’s almost like this book’s trying to seduce us. Trying? Not trying. Did. It’s seductive. It seduced me, and I’m delighted to say so.

The last time I felt like this about writing it was either Guy Gavriel Kay or Jacqueline Carey‘s Kushiel’s Dart sequence. I can’t remember. But oh, Taylor made me fancy a man who doesn’t smile or joke, and that takes extremely good writing. It even made me like a girl with blue hair who spent the first third of the book looking like an unfortunate Mary Sue type character – but somewhere along the way I began to care, and quite liked her. She does little things that make her mean (the eyebrows) but manages not to be unlikable, nor too perfect to believe in. The vital issue with Twilight, to my mind, was the absence of humour and banter. Well, Karou and Zuzana had a lovely friendship, and even the unsmiling man tries a few jokes. There’s a levity to it which makes the central story that much more affecting – you can’t have a plot built on tragedy and not have it celebrate life and indulge in humour and humanity.

Oh guys I’m not even going to say anything more. I just loved it. It was like the best European folk tales wrapped up in angels and demons and TEETH oh god the teeth.

Apparently the next one is due out next year. You have a year to read this before I start getting shouty. You won’t like me when I’m shouty.

Douglas Hulick’s Among Thieves

Fantasy got to the stage a while ago where it’s less “Them’s the evil dodgy types, we’re the doe-eyed loveable lot” and more “Golly check out all these lovely shades of grey!” which is a bit of relief considering that fantasy is usually known for the Lord of the Rings style epic Good vs Evil chess games that totally have their place, but felt a bit stale. Along came George RR Martin with his wickedly wicked A Song of Ice and Fire series, and in his wake Scott Lynch with his fantastic Gentleman Bastard sequence as well as Joe Abercrombie with the First Law trilogy (et al) and various other authors, all of whom are doing very well painting fantasy a very fetching shade of gritty, witty grey. Seeing characters with more darkness and grime makes them seem even more engaged with their world so all the world-building the authors do becomes so much more worthwhile and believable, and leavened with the right amount of humour and thrills, the plots feel like more of a rollicking read.

And I enjoy a good rollicking read, I do. Like, for instance, Douglas Hulick’s Among Thieves, let’s say.

What we have here is a guy introduced to us while he’s torturing a guy, as you do. It’s fun, quite gory and sets a nice grim earthy tone for the rest of the book. Welcome to Drothe! He is a nice man really (persistent, intelligent and thoughtful) but he does some very mean and painful things to people. He has a social-climber sister with whom he is slightly at odds with and it’s his job to ferret things out (or Nose about, as you will) for his mob boss, Nicco. There’s an old and mystical book, which is so fantastically genre-centric and genre-savvy and yet not what you expect. It’s a nice set-up with a few little swerves and the odd satisfying twist (always nice to have twists that illustrate the world further and aren’t set up to make the reader feel like a moron). The fight scenes are nicely done with a sort of cinematic quality to them that made each one distinct and easy to visualize and in parts they’re really quite inventive, as is the magic system – there isn’t one explicitly set forth as Drothe isn’t a magic user except for being possessed of night sight, but what you see of the magic used by other characters and what we’re told about the Imperial magic is all tantalizing.

The pacing was a bit off in places, it felt too short and I wish there was more Christiana, but it’s a solid début – it’s a good, intriguing, exciting book. It’s “more of the same” along the lines of the authors listed above but it’s gone in a curious direction that ensures it stands on its own merit, although it isn’t quite up to the dizzying heights of an Abercrombie just yet.

What I loved most is that as it’s written in first  person the whole thing is about him, his experiences, the city of Ildrecca from his perspective, and he is a fun character to see it all through. It glances over enough details about history, magic and politics to give us a good sense of the city and the world and how things work but it’s all crying out for detail, or other complementary view points. Slightly spoilery: the ending seemed rushed and a bit haphazard.  It didn’t make sense given the other characters at play, but that said, I liked it, mainly because it gives rise to a really interesting situation.  It had the air of establishing characters and setting before getting to the real meat of the story.  There’s a lot of promise here; it’s a rollicking read with the potential to develop into a properly interesting and original series, so obviously I hope there’s more.

MD Lachlan’s ‘Wolfsangel’

I have no interest in werewolves. Most modern depictions seem to involve bad special effects, stupid love triangles and random pointless blood spatter and, weirdly, some sort of vampiric involvement for no good reason. Werewolves hold no interest for me, less even than vampires, which at least have Bram Stoker and Polidori to give them some merit (and that said I do like the Sookie Stackhouse books and Vampire Academy for being moreish and highly entertaining, but that is another matter entirely).

Now, though, I’ve seen the light. There IS a point to werewolves. They CAN be brilliantly done.

MD Lachlan’s Wolfsangel is a take on werewolves that draws in threads of Norse mythology, dank, dangerous witchcraft and brilliantly pitched mythic language to create a book that felt otherworldly and convoluted in a way I didn’t expect from what I’d heard about it beforehand. King Authun, a mighty warrior, seeks the child that a witch queen’s prophecy has told him will bring his people glory – only he finds twin boys instead. One is brought up as his son, a prince, while the other is brought up, wolf-like, in the wilderness. The witch, easily one of the most unsettling characters I’ve read, sits in her dark caves and spies through hallucinatory, mind-expanding visions on the boys as they grow and on the world around them; and there’s so much more to it, a mixture of classic fantasy coming-of-age in the prince Vali and his relationship with Adisla, a lot of horror as well, and even a little bit of political intrigue and betrayal.

It’s hard to explain exactly what this book is but it’s very much the kind of novel that crosses genre boundaries, and although I freely admit that it was hard-going at times as I’ve discovered that I’m quite squeamish when it comes to people being eaten (it was described brilliantly, I will point that out) but well worth the effort. There are gods and monsters and witches and quests and long-lost brothers and love triangles in which the emo-angst isn’t the focus (YES!) and it’s all worked together with excellent writing.

Wolfsangel is one of those rare things – a novel with an epic storyline in line with the epics of old, complete with epic language and characters drawn from mythic tropes and seemingly controlled by fate that still manage to act independently and surprise you. It feels so ancient, so steeped in age and old magics, filled throughout with a deep unease and visceral authenticity, that it was hard to pull myself out of it and enjoy the impromptu early summer we’ve been having.

It’s not a fun read, but it is a great one. I’m very interested to see how the series develops from here – it can be read as a standalone work, but I get the feeling that the internal mythology MD Lachlan is building will have some excellent pay-offs.

Solid 4/5, because I’m not as comfortable with the violence as I once might have been, and it is a harsh book, but it is very, very good.

Jim Butcher’s Codex Alera / Bronn’s The Child Thief

It’s been pointed out that I haven’t blogged in forever, and it is because of WORK. Which is SO BAD. I apologise, invisible readers, of which WordPress informs me there are some. I have been playing with bubbles and glitter and things, and that takes up a LOT more time than you’d expect.

What I’ve mainly been reading since my last update is – with a few blips – mainly Jim Butcher’s Codex Alera series. I am something close to obsessed by it; the characters are charming with distinct and varied voices, the plot turns and twists wonderfully, and it’s wonderfully funny one minute and heartbreaking the next. I have to highlight Amara as a favourite character as she’s strong (character-wise) and powerful (literally, power-wise) without being unfeminine about it; she’s smart and selfless and someone I truly feel I can relate to, or aspire to be like. Also a favourite – rather unusually for me – is the main character, Tavi, who I assumed at first would be the typical naive-young-shepherd-boy-thrust-into-dangerous-fantastical-milieu that I find very tiresome. In fact, that is totally what happens, but Butcher has given him a fine reason to be unique (in a world where everyone has powers, he, alone, does not) and it works! He’s canny and convincing and an absolute joy to read.

I’m about to start the last book, but I’m holding back, merely because I don’t want to finish and leave this utterly wonderful world behind. I’d recommend it to anyone who’s read The Dresden Files and enjoyed them, anyone new to fantasy in general as it’s a spirited, quick read with easily discernable plot arcs, and anyone who’s bridging the gap between YA fiction and the general Sci Fi/Fantasy bookshelves in their local shop.

In fact, I’d recommend it to everyone with a pulse. It is just that awesome.

Another book that I’ve read and loved was Bronn’s The Child Thief; a wonderfully disturbing revision of JM Barrie’s Peter Pan, with murder and darkness all over it. There are gorgeous illustrations inside that really bring the atmosphere of a dying Neverland (Avalon in the book) to life, with trees that bleed and tiny, mischeivous fairies and zombie-like “pirates”. I won’t give too much away, aside from the fact that Nick, who at the start is brought to Avalon by the anarchic Peter Pan to escape a horrible real world situation, is a fantastic character. We see him grow up in one, terrible way, and then we see him mature in quite another. The book pulls no punches. There is a lot of death and dismemberment and there was one scene in particular that made me put the book down because it was just horrible – not just because of the violence (make no mistake, this is absolutely full of violence) but because of the ramifications of it. The accusation and blame.

I would recommend this book to horror readers and those who love dark re-imaginings of popular fairy tales and myths. It’s a great book, but definitely not fun or light-hearted; it is difficult to get through in places but certainly worth the effort. I’m not sure I’d recommend it to devoted fans of the original JM Barrie or Disney movie though, unless you want to give yourselves a sleepless night, watching the shadows.

I really have to blog more. I have read several books since I last posted but I can’t remember what; I am currently on Tim Powers‘ The Anubis Gates, but having gone on a bit of a shopping spree with some lively book bloggers from Twitter recently, I have lots of new YA books to be getting into. Also, Lankhmar. 😀

Meanwhile, I must direct everyone over to a fantastic giveaway of one of my favourite YA titles this year – My Favourite Books are running a competition to win copies of Rebecca Maizel’s Infinite Days! Go! Go! For it is the fabulousness!

The Strange Affair of Spring-Heeled Jack / The Strain / Furies of Calderon (3 for 1!)

Mark Hodder’s The Strange Affair of Spring-Heeled Jack should have been a brilliant, rollicking read.  The plot has such promise; a Victorian era of technological advancement of the sort that has led to coal-powered penny farthings, talking orang-utans and the development of anti-tech groups such as the Libertines.  I was all ready to read it and love it; Sir Richard Burton (he of Kama Sutra fame, a brilliant Victorian figure), tons of steampunk finery, Spring-Heeled Jack and a good dose of action funtimes.

Well, it was a fun read.  It’s a solid 3* effort.  I did enjoy it, even though at certain times when it became cumbersome I’d put the book down and wonder why I was reading it at all.  Any section featuring Burton felt laboured and unconvincing – a big problem I find in works in which the author is too much in awe of his main character is that people “feel” how great a man he is, and it happens in The Strange Affair of Spring-Heeled Jack several times.  It’s trying.  Burton was a wonderful figure in history but he doesn’t feel as real as most of the lesser characters in the book simply because he’s Too Awesome.  We get to read about his past exploits, he gets to do a bit of Victorian James Bond-ing, but it feels hollow.  Even Swinburne, who is mostly identified by being eager, red-headed and a persistent giggler, feels more realistic than Burton.

I kept reading mostly because I was interested in Hodder’s Spring-Heeled Jack, and in that I was not let down.  It was a thoroughly over-the-top story in the final third, but for all the silliness of the villains (which was really quite ridiculous), I did enjoy it and I did not regret finishing it.  I was relieved that I had nothing else to work my way through – we don’t need to know how everything in a steampunk universe is built! – but it was fun, and I wish I’d had it with me on holiday because it’s a perfectly pitched holiday read.  Snow Books, the publishers, need to double-check their editing though as there were several typos and grammatical errors.

Another book with a similar pacing problem is Guillermo del Toro and Chuck Hogan’s The Strain.  I almost put it down twice in the first forty or so pages because it was another book that linterrupted its flow with descriptions of technology where the reader didn’t need to know; too much detail, putting paid to some much-needed tension.  I got a little bit bored.  I was very glad I kept going with it though!
A plane lands dark at JFK airport.  Sinister things occur, linking a Holocaust survivor with the doctor who inspects those aboard the curiously silent plane, and pretty soon it’s clear things will not be ending well for anyone – least of all, the passengers.  The beginning is a clear homage to Dracula, one of my all-time favourite books, and were it not for the pacing problems I would have been delighted.  A tale of a horror deep in the woods of central Europe is brought to NYC, to the new world, and it is good to see some more modern vampire tales based on some of the older vampiric traditions.  One thing I must add is that it’s a strange mix of science and superstition, but although it does stretch one’s suspension of disbelief, it’s not too much of a weirdness.

At one stage about halfway through, at 1am, I tried putting it down so I could sleep.  I tossed and turned, but I couldn’t sleep because it had freaked me out far too much –  so I picked it up and kept reading.  The last time I was so freaked out, I was 13 and reading Stephen King’s IT.  Guys, it unsettled me.  I love that.

I liked The Strain more than I expected I would – like The Passage it provides a unique take on the vampire myth while also dealing out some classic old-time scares and delicious shudder-horror moments.  Del Toro’s cinematic style is evident throughout and I hope a film version comes soon.  I can’t wait for the next book!

Thirdly, Jim Butcher.  The Harry Dresden man.  I love Harry Dresden a great deal – a wonderful character, wonderful books, excellent plots.  I was surprised to see he’d written a fantasy series – Codex Alera, in five volumes – since I hadn’t heard a thing about it from anyone.  I checked it out on Amazon, where it has great reviews.  I bought a copy of the first, Furies of Calderon.  Finished it this morning.

Oh my god.  It’s brilliant.

I’m struggling to think of something to balance out this response to it – I can’t think of any criticism at all, which is almost annoying.  I loved it.  The characters felt real to the point where I was actually torn between supporting the good guys and cheering on the bad guys; I don’t doubt that’s a very black-and-white view of proceedings, since Butcher seems to have taken a GRRM-type approach by making even the “main” bad guy pretty sympathetic.  No relationships felt forced or weird.  The action was exciting, the world felt real, I am annoyed I don’t have book 2 – Academ’s Fury – with me right now.  I want to see what else happens to the characters and I want more of the world – I read it in less than a day and could kick myself for racing through it too fast.  If you like epic fantasy, this will excite you.

Also – the fact that it’s a fantasy based on Ancient Rome held me back for a bit as I was entirely unconvinced that I’d find such a setting interesting.  Hell, when I was 14 I told the school librarian that John Wyndham wasn’t for me because I didn’t like science fiction.  She handed me a copy of The Day of the Triffids and smirked as I reassured her that sci fi really wasn’t my thing: two days later, I brought the book back having read it, adored it, and feeling incredibly sheepish.  That’s how I feel now.  Only without the librarian.  I do think the blurb on the back makes it sound much less interesting than it is, but bear in mind I’m trying to be critical, and completely failing.

I think I might actually like it more than the Dresden Files, which is… big.

Best Served Cold by Joe Abercrombie

Too much of a good thing can be absolutely wonderful, but it can also get incredibly wearing.

I had this pegged as an easy review because I love Joe Abercrombie’s writing a great deal; his characters are tremendously well-crafted, his plots and story arcs are fascinatingly done and he has a wonderful way with words that allows for humour both subtle and unsubtle to share the page with some incredibly violent and brutal scenes.  His First Law trilogy was an immense read and I absolutely loved it; Best Served Cold, a tale of revenge set in the same world, tells the story of Monza Murcatto and her band of not-so-merry men (and a couple of women).

Amazon summarizes it better than I can:

Mercenaries are a wonderful thing: they fight as you tell them, whom you tell them, and when you tell them, for nothing more precious or complicated than money. And Monzcarro Mercatto, and her brother Benna Mercatto, are the two most successful, most popular, and most wealthy mercenaries in Styria. . . . but wealthy, popular mercenaries are not such a good thing. In fact they’re a downright dangerous thing. Which is why Grand Duke Orso of Styria arranges to have them dealt with. Permanently. With hindsight, he may come to consider this a tactical error. Through sheer good luck – which her brother doesn’t share – Monzcarro survives the long and fatal drop Orso arranged for her, and staggers away from her encounter with a ruined right hand, [a husk] addiction . . . and a plan to come back with a fortune, plently of bladed weapons, and a single-minded determination to kill the seven men in the room when her brother was murdered. Preferably in as gruesome a manner as she can . . .

Best Served Cold I loved for three-quarters of its length and then, suddenly, when I realised there was more bloodshed and brutality and smashing people’s faces in, I felt… tired.  There’s too much of it.  It’s well-written, each and every scene, but it definitely crossed the line to the “excessive” stage.

I liked the characters, although I’m aware I probably wasn’t supposed to.  Monza, Shivers, Morveer, Day, Friendly – and especially the returning Costa, who is absolutely wonderful.  They’re all seriously flawed people.  Monza is a difficult character to understand for most of the book but she gradually grows more human, whereas Shivers, another recurring character from the First Law books, does the opposite.  Shiver’s character was both the best and the worst aspect of the book.  He was the one person the reader could identify with the most, which makes his arc all the more brutal.  The whole plot is about cynicism and optimism and good vs. bad; as we see one character rebuild and strengthen, we see another torn down.

What really makes Best Served Cold worth reading – despite how uncomfortable and, at times, unrelenting it can be – is that all the characters feel the effects of their course of action.  They all kill, murder, betray, lie, and it all has an impact.  All too often characters can get away with hacking through hundreds of bodies in a book and it doesn’t prey on their minds one bit, but here, mixed with the hefty amount of revenge being doled out, there are ramifications for it all.

This isn’t the best Abercrombie can do.  It’s not a terrible book and it’s not a tremendous book; it’s diverting, it’s bloodthirsty, it’s a great examination of some moral issues linked in with small-scale and large-scale slaughter that a lot of fantasy overlooks.  If I hadn’t read the First Law trilogy I’d have loved it more, and although I knew I was getting into a gruesome, chaotic tale of revenge and betrayal and bloody warfare, at times it just got too much.

For all this wasn’t a book for me, I’m very excited about Abercombie’s next book, The Heroes – an excerpt of which can be found at the Gollancz blog.

Chris Wooding’s The Weavers of Saramyr

The Weavers are invaluable to the political landscape of Saramyr, linked to every noble family (indeed, to be without one is a serious drawback) as they pass instantaneous information through their magic, allowing for orders to be immediately fulfilled and news to be spread in the blink of an eye.  They eradicate the Aberrants, those born with weird powers and skills beyond the abilities of normal people, as they are evil and corrupt beings – or, well, that’s what the people are taught, so by and large, that’s what the people believe.

Firstly, I enjoyed The Weavers of Saramyr (first in the Braided Path trilogy) a great deal.  It was fast-paced and entertaining and the world was beautifully rendered – I loved all the world myths and facets of Saramyr’s history.  I cared about the characters, even though Kaiku and Tane fell a little flat for me.  I feel a little guilty about that; Kaiku became a more interesting character the more I read on, where Tane’s scene with his father was one of my favourites of the entire book.  Tane was almost the only male PoV character who wasn’t a completely insane child-murdering drug-smoking villain – Vyrrch, the Weaver.  It felt a bit strange.  I’m not sure if I’m conditioned from years of reading male heroes and male sidekicks and so on, but it did feel a bit like something was lacking.  There are no shortage of good strong female characters but when it comes to good strong male characters there’s only Tane, and he spent most of the time being slightly tedious in comparison to characters like Asara and Mishani.

Not only were the villains too easy to hate (I was getting flashbacks to the Baron in Dune every time Vyrrch even appeared in the book) but there’s a reveal towards the end that has bothered me in the day or two since I finished reading it.  It’s fairly spoilerific so I won’t recount it here, and I think most people who read the book won’t know what I’m on about, but suffice to say that this is a book with villains who are all male and heroines who are all female.  It doesn’t sit right, and although I was willing to suspend disbelief while I was reading it, in hindsight I find it quite niggling.

What the Weavers of Saramyr is, though, apart from the first in a trilogy, is a wonderful fantasy set in an oriental world, subtly built and wonderfully written.  Very few fantasy tropes got included in this one and as a result it was refreshing and fascinating.  At times it felt as if Wooding was spending more time explaining the world to us than animating his characters, which was a little weary after a while, but he still managed to maintain the pace and the characters still felt full and real.  The plot was enthralling enough to keep me up into the early hours twice in a row – for all I had issues with it, if you want a fantasy more in the Guy Gavriel Kay vein than the George RR Martin, the Braided Path series will be a breath of fresh air.