Tag Archives: fantasy

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.

Distracted by good things, for once

The post I promised about The Court of the Air hasn’t materialised because of three-and-a-half very good reasons.

1) I read The Painted Man and it was a tremendous read, drawing me in to the extent that I forgot about a lot of the outside world.  It’s a solid four-star book, if not five-star at times; there were plenty of issues with it but in the end I didn’t care, I loved the characters too much.  The cities sounded like they came out of online city-building games and the dialogue often felt a bit like it was lined with lead – not to mention the Exposition Free-For-All that was the rushed ending – but I cared not a whit because all the characters were marvellous and I loved them all, partially because all of them were resilient and partially because they never really stopped to pity themselves (though I’m sure most people I know would have).  Even Leesha.  It was a great change from all those books out there in which every other paragraph the MC has an emo moment.

One aspect I liked in particular was that TPM had moments of thrillingly awful horror from both demons and humans; I’ve never winced at authors doing damage to their characters or their characters’ loved ones quite like I did in TPM.  It was very finely done, as going a bit too far one way would have pushed scenes into being pure gross-out material and too far in the other direction would have been more melodrama territory.  As an added bonus the actual plot regarding the demons and the wards has a lot of potential and I can’t wait to see where Brett is taking it.

I am thrilled that there’s a sequel (The Desert Spear) and that the author’s doing a signing at Forbidden Planet on the 16th April – I am SO going to be there to get a copy!

2) My friend Elizabeth recommended me a teen vampire book – Vampire Academy by Richelle Mead.  Bearing in mind I’m not a great enthusiast of vampire fiction I actually enjoyed it a great deal.  It’s not Stoker, but it was readable and fun and at no point was I cursing at all the characters for being moronic idiots (oh hey Meyer!).  I was effectively stuck to it for the five hours it took to read and enjoyed it – there’s something compulsive about Mead’s writing style and Rose, the MC, is an interesting unreliable narrator.  It was a decent Twilight antidote; more akin to Harry Potter (if you stand back and squint a bit and allow that VA has less worldbuilding) than Meyer’s crapfest, somewhere in the same field as LJ Smith, though I think Mead is the stronger writer.  Definitely something to recommend to those tweenagers finding it hard to read beyond Twilight.

3) I’m currently reading The City & The City by China Mieville.  Everyone’s been raving about this book for months and for the first hundred pages I was only so-so about it, but it’s clicked with me without me noticing.  At first it was a bit mystifying in places – Breach? – but now I can’t read it fast enough.  I’m only about halfway through so I can’t really comment on it, but it’s recently been nominated for the Arthur C Clarke award and is shortlisted for the Hugos, and there are other awards I know I’ve mentally mislaid.  Mieville is one of those authors I’ve yet to find disappointing.

3.5) DOCTOR WHO.  Good grief, it was everything I’d hoped for and more.  Matt Smith was wonderful in showing the transition between Tennant’s Doc and his; Moffatt is a god.  I can’t wait for the rest!

So if you want that Court of the Air post from me, my Amazon review is here.

Coming up soon: Clockwork Phoenix vol.1, Fool Moon by Jim Butcher, The Demon King by Cinda Williams Chima, Yellow Blue Tibia by Adam Roberts when I can get hold of it, The Vesuvius Club by Mark Gatiss and probably a Georgette Heyer if I feel up to it.  Note: the above is not in any order, let alone reading order.  It’s just how they’re arranged by my laptop.  I have a shocking lack of organization in my life.

And because this is the sort of thing I do when I’m hungry and need cheering up after a really hard day, here’s someone tickling a slow loris called Sonya.

Catch up + Under Heaven

It’s been a while since I last posted because I’ve been knocked by a viral infection followed by something nastier which I’m on antibiotics for, so at least I’m getting better.  Three bouts of ill health in as many weeks – massive fail, immune system!

The upshot of this is the amount of reading I was planning to get through; I ended up reading Under Heaven, Willow, The Court of the Air, Temeraire and quite a lot of blogs.  Four books in ten days while I’ve been stuck at home is a pretty miserable count, but most of the time lag I blame on The Court of the Air.  I’ll explain in a bit.

Firstly, Under Heaven.  It was glorious.  I finished it over a week ago and it is still overshadowing everything I’m reading; the ending was moving and beautiful, the writing was wonderfully crafted without being overly descriptive (in earlier works Kay has at times swerved towards being over the top), and all the characters were so well-rendered it was sad to let them go.  There’s something about Kay’s women that makes them immensely pleasing to read about – Li-Mei was terrific, her scene in the cave standing out as yet another eerie and atmospheric moment like the opening beside the lake.

One thing that speaks volumes about Kay’s skill is his shift in tenses when things are occurring from a woman’s perspective – the female perspective is in the present tense.  In the hands of a lesser writer it wouldn’t work, but here it does; not just because it works to highlight the fact that we’re seeing a woman’s point of view in a masculine world, and certainly not because their tales need that undercurrent of tension the present tense often affords, but because it gives the reader a sense of fluidity.  Nothing is quite set in stone, she is mutable, she can still affect the course of events.  Or that’s how I read it, at any rate, especially considering the characters of Rain and Wen Zhou.

While Li-Mei was my favourite character of the book I was delighted that in the protagonist, Tai, there was the perfect balance of the naive avatar for the reader and actual easy-to-get character.  So many fantasy books make the massive, clanging error of having a central character completely devoid of any ability to decide or stand up for themselves, wandering through the plot as passive entities just to show off worldbuilding and plot, but Tai’s personality is clear.  I actually liked him and didn’t feel like I was being manipulated into doing so.

Kay’s main theme is war, the men who go to war and the many casualties; after all, the reason for Tai’s work by the lake is a tribute to his late father, who suffered the memory of the battle that took place there years before.  The lake is haunted by the ghosts of the unburied.  As the book goes on there are other casualties of war, from all walks of life, in all manner of ways.  Kay’s inclusion of a few snapshots of life from some of the “normal” characters, the ones who get caught up in the massive machine of empire and history without making the pages of the history books, adds another layer to the narrative.  So much is easily forgotten when these moments of immensity occur.

The whole work is bittersweet and tremendous.  I am annoyed I won’t be able to read it for the first time ever again.  It was that sort of experience.

After, I wanted something lighter.  I read Willow, the book of the film featuring Val Kilmer, little people and very little sense or logic.  See the next post for that I thought (although I bet you can guess).

“Under Heaven”, Glee and my unfortunate tea habit

I’ve been wrong before.  It’s the sort of thing I need to get out of the way when I begin something new, like this blog; I’ve been wrong before, nowhere near as much as I’ve been right, but no one notices that sort of thing.  This is a blog about a lot of things (pretty things, fantasy/sci fi things, things in general) that I’m going to comment on and someone, somewhere, is going to say I’m wrong.  Which is great.  Everyone gets to be wrong sometimes.

So, moving on!

Recently I won a load of books (fifteen, to be precise) from Voyager, HarperCollins’ fantasy imprint, and it’s been giving me a lot of joy as free books are wont to do.  One of the books is Guy Gavriel Kay’s Under Heaven and everyone who knows me is aware of my massive burning adoration for GGK.  Tigana, one of my favourite books, changed my understanding of what fantasy could be; the depth and breadth of his research make his world(s) so vivid I forget they’re fantasy, or even fiction at that.  His recent work has been a bit patchy (Ysabel was lacklustre and Last Light of the Sun just seemed like a shadow of an effort in comparison to his previous work) but Under Heaven is a brilliant read after only four chapters and looks set to get even better.

You gave a man one of the famed Sardian horses to reward him greatly. You gave him four or five to exalt him above his fellows, propel him towards rank, and earn him jealousy, possibly mortal jealousy. Two hundred and fifty is an unthinkable gift, a gift to overwhelm an emperor.

GGK is a poet as much as an author.  His work moves at a stately place, giving us a really eerie and beautiful introduction to his world through Tai’s work digging gaves at the side of a great lake, the site of a battle his recently deceased father fought at many years before.  At night he hears the cries of the unburied dead.  It sent shivers down my spine, not because it was scary, but because it had atmosphere.  Sometimes you really crave a book that’s short and sharp and sweet and simple, other times you want something you have to sit and ponder and revel in.  GGK writes that sort of book; the big glossy knots of plotlines and characters with blindingly good writing.  Tai is given two hundred and fifty horses and steps into a world of danger and intrigue, becomes a target for assassins, and everything changes.  GGK’s classic ability to write about people on a personal level at the same time as the warp and weft of history is already evident and I’ve barely started the damn book.  I’m four chapters in, really enjoying it and hoping it maintains this pace!

On a completely different note, I’ve found it.  I’ve found that point when I knew Glee was going to be immense.  I think I even posted about it on Facebook when I saw it, but I’ve rediscovered it, and this is why Glee is awesome:

Catching that one scene again completely cured the irritation I felt over the most recent episode of Gossip Girl.  And on the subject of tv – the final season of Ashes to Ashes begins on the 2nd April, same day as Stargate: Universe starts airing again in the US after that EXTREMELY trying hiatus.  Bones comes back on the 1st as well, I believe.  I am excited.  Sad, because Ashes to Ashes has been one of the best tv series I’ve seen in recent times, but excited, because, well – Stargate: Universe!

Time to have some more tea; peppermint, today. I’ve drunk all the green tea & lemon. I quite literally have the worst tea addiction since records began. I should just mainline it, might save time and washing up.