I was seriously ill for a month with flu then pneumonia. During this time I managed to do some reading but I couldn’t string string together sentences worth a damn so a pile of books for review accumulated. Since I got better I’ve had dramas galore and I’ve been procrastinating. I hate missing a deadline, so if there isn’t anything I can do about it, I tend to bury my head in the sand by pretending the deadline didn’t exist. I know this is crazy as I’m the only person setting deadlines for Dark Matter, but I never claimed to be logical like Spock. This is why these reviews are coming in a flood now: I am officially and really catching up.
Starting at the top of the pile, so in reverse order:
The Outcast Blade by Jon Courtenay Grimwood.
A historical paranormal fantasy with Machiavellian politics, adventure, werewolves and romance, set mostly in Venice, Italy in about the 17th century or thereabouts (my history is rusty). I loved the first in this trilogy; setting werewolves in a historical setting gave them a freshness: urban fantasy with werewolves is getting a bit same old, same old. Grimwood created such a sense of place that Venice was almost a character in her own right, although I’ve been assured by friends who’ve been that the city stinks to high heaven. The smell doesn’t quite come through.
I am somewhat confused about what Tycho, the male protagonist, is. Sometimes it seems he’s a vampire and at other times he seems to be a werewolf, but he’s not the same creature as others who are definitely werewolves. It could be that Tycho’s self-discovery is made alongside the reader, which is why I haven’t Wikipedia’ed or googled it. I try to avoid spoilers where practical.
The second in the series was a really good Act II, well paced, carrying the plot forward, developing the relationships further. My only criticism is Grimwood’s habit of splitting sentences in two. So there’s a full stop between clauses. I found this quite distracting. Act I was reviewed from an ARC (Advanced Reader Copy) but Act II wasn’t an ARC so criticisms of the text are fair.
The hiatus at the end of Act II is a good one, with a partial resolution to tide the reader over until next year. I think this series will appeal to Game of Thrones fans although it’s not as hefty nor does it have as many characters. Highly recommended.
The Legacy of Lord Regret by Sam Bowring (whom I interviewed) is high fantasy with black and white characters who are almost caricatures. While I prefer characters who are shades of grey (as in Sam’s first trilogy, apparently) these characters are interesting because when they kill one another they absorb the victim’s power – and part of their personality. Thus Sam’s characters are changing, and those changes aren’t just incidental as a result of the plot, they are instrumental and will, I expect, cause shifts in the plot. This is book one of a duology (two book story arc). The second book is the Lord of Lies, which is also out, so no waiting on the conclusion to this story – unless you’re a reviewer/interviewer trying to keep up. My copy is in my TBR pile.
The nature of this novel is such that I need to read the conclusion to decide how enthusiastic I am about it: I really want surprises, twists and more greyness, but in its present form it’d make a popular comic book or movie.
If you’re trying to decide whether to give this one a go, I recommend listening to Sam’s interview. (Note: Sam had the flu so his energy levels were low.) Sam talked about how his favourite character was the guy who tortures people, and that’s played for comedic value.
The Drowned Cities by Paolo Bacigalupi is another book set in a world not unlike Windup Girl, which I loved. Drowned Cities is the story of two teenagers. Mahlia is a half-caste who had her right hand chopped off, and Mouse is an optimistic kid who rescued Mahlia before the story began. They accidentally disturb Tool, a genetically engineered soldier who is part human, part animal. The story is set in southern USA after climate change has caused seas to rise. The remnants of their world are not unlike war-torn areas in Africa or the Middle-East, creating both the setting and the plot for this story. Bacigalupi brings this culture of war to life vividly, challenging people to think, to really think, about what is going on in the world today. Highly recommended dystopian SF.
Deadlocked by Charlaine Harris is the second-last in her Sookie Stackhouse series upon which True Blood is loosely based. It’s paranormal fantasy with werewolves, vampires, shapeshifters, fairies, witches, telepaths, you name it. Sookie, her family and friends have been through lots of adventures, murders, threats, sex, drugs and rock’n'roll. As the second-last in the series, Charlaine has been wrapping up story lines, closing off characters and she’s leading in to the final story. I’m looking forward to the conclusion.
This is not a ‘jumping on’ point for the series; if you are a newcomer, I recommend you start with book one. Overall if this series was food, it’d be chocolate; it’s overall light and escapist fun.
Songs of the Earth by Elspeth Cooper is epic escapist high fantasy based on Nordic mythology about the Wild Hunt. The protagonist, Gair, is a young man of mysterious origins with extraordinary magical powers. Narrowly escaping a death sentence due to political machinations by people he’s never met, Gair travels to an academy for students of magic where he makes friends for the first time and aggravates new enemies.
The hero with obscure origins finding himself, a forbidden romance, betrayal from within, destiny: these are common tropes reflecting influences from a variety of beloved authors. Elspeth weaves these threads together well, appealing to fans of iconic authors who’ve been waiting for another high fantasy ‘fix’ and to fans of fantasy who haven’t read those who’ve gone before. Children who enjoyed Alan Garner’s The Weirdstone of Brisingamen and Ursula le Guin’s Earthsea series (the books, not the Anime nor the TV series) will enjoy Elspeth’s Wild Hunt as adults.
Songs of the Earth is so popular it was shortlisted for a Morningstar Award in 2012, which is a ‘best fantasy’ award for a new author. Book two, Trinity Rising, is out already. I think book three is due out next year.
Metro Winds by Isobelle Carmody is a series of fairy tales for a YA or adult market (not for children), presented as short stories and one novella in one volume. Most of these are original stories with one notable retelling of a classic tale, reimagined in the most creative way I’ve read to date. It’s very difficult to talk about short stories without giving away spoilers so I recommend listening to Isobelle’s author talk and reading for more information: she presents Metro Winds beautifully, better than I, plus – added bonus – she explains why it’s been so hard for her to finish the Obernewtyn Chronicles.
I thoroughly enjoyed these tales even though I’m usually dissatisfied with the brevity of short stories. My only reservation was one of the later stories with a male protagonist, which somewhat repulsed me, but others will rave about it. Highly recommended.
Shadow of Night by Deborah Harkness is the sequel to the best-selling Discovery of Witches. Discovery is fantasy set in contemporary times with vampires, witches, daemons and all sorts of other supernatural folk. Discovery ensnared me in the beginning with Diana Bishop, an academic, researching in the Bodlean Library in Oxford.
By the end of Discovery I had a few reservations due to what I felt was excessive introduction of magic: Diana’s house was sentient and had ghosts. Although Diana was supposed to have grown up ignorant of the supernatural, she apparently had a relationship with this house knowing about its magical abilities and habitually magically disposed of her hair and nail clippings to prevent people finding her DNA. Nonetheless, Discovery captured me and carried me through its romance and wild ride.
In Shadow the protagonists, Diana Bishop (a witch) and her husband Matthew Clairmont (a vampire) travel back in time to Elizabethan England so that Diana can find a mentor to teach her to control her budding powers. Instead of staying focused, Diana and Matthew hare off after a missing text with the intention of securing it and taking it forward in time. Although they’re intelligent people, Diana and Matthew ignored all the problems and potential paradoxes inherent in what they were doing.
I love time travel stories and I’m happy for them to engage with paradoxes or to circumnavigate paradoxes, so I’m very forgiving. The problem with Shadow is the puppet master feel of so many events. Mary, Diana’s new friend, shows up in the nick of time unexpectedly and does exactly the right thing without legitimate foreknowledge or a reasonable explanation afterwards. Phillipe, Matthew’s father, gives Diana a really hard time then suddenly does a backflip without justification for the contrasting behaviour. I felt that Diana and Matthew lingered too long in historical Europe just to place them in a parade of historical events and European courts, winking at the reader all the while.
A year ago I would have read Shadow of Night, recognised some of its flaws and still loved it unashamedly. This year I enjoyed it but that critical faculty switched on during reading made me almost feel guilty for enjoying it, puppet masters and all.
If you enjoy full on magical fantasy populated with a myriad of supernatural folk plus a generous dollop of historical fiction thrown in, and you’re happy not overly analysing the story, then Shadow of Night is a highly recommended read. Just throw yourself in and enjoy the ride.
Artemis Fowl and the Last Guardian by Eoin Colfer is the final in the comedy adventure Artemis Fowl series that my son grew up with, reading and rereading since primary school. Of all the books my son read growing up, this series stands out as a series he still loves without reservation, aged 19. I’ve read the full series as well, although not nearly as many times.
Artemis Fowl is a boy genius who grew up in a crime family. After kidnapping a fairy, Captain Holly Short of Leprecon – the fairy police – the following adventures build an uneasy truce and later friendship between Artemis and the fae. In this, the final instalment of the series, Artemis is on the cusp of adulthood. As with Harry Potter, Artemis and his adventures have ‘grown up’ over the course of the series, aiming at a little higher age group, but I think the later books are still suitable for advanced primary school readers. I think the entire Artemis Fowl series is suitable to be read to children too young to read themselves as stories like these will inspire a love of books.
Every Artemis Fowl book looks at current issues in the world, often from a a conservationist perspective without being preachy. This final book explores the idea of obsolete conflict – like the Japanese soldiers stranded after World War II, still fighting the war because no-one told them it was over. Eoin discusses this in our interview. As always, Mulch Diggums (a very original dwarf) farts his way through adventures, slap-stick comedy routines abound like parts falling off zombie minions at inconvenient moments, camaraderie and high jinks abound.
I’ve enjoyed this series so much so that I recommend it to adults even if you don’t have children to whom you read. If you read stories to children, this series is a must have.
Blood Storm by Rhiannon Hart is a YA paranormal romance starring Zeraphina, a princess whose older sister married the crown prince of another country, and Rodden, a commoner who rose to a position of power very young. Both Zeraphina and Rodden have been infected with the blood of Lharmellians, the precursor to turning them into Harmings (human vampires). As Zeraphina and Rodden struggle with side effects and struggle to remain human, retaining their will, they are intent on opposing Lharmellians and Harmings, whose politics may be more complex than they first appeared in Blood Song, the first in this trilogy.
In this, the second novel in the trilogy, Zeraphina and Rodden do a Cook’s tour of the countryside, learning more about each other and the Lharmellian conflict. Blood Storm has an episodic feel as if written for TV and the different locations are the ‘location of the week’. I particularly enjoyed the trip into the desert, which wasn’t just an excuse to feature belly dancing. ;)
Zeraphina is pursued by a prince of another country to be his bride. This courtship is my least favourite portion of the book as the prince is a bit of a caricature villain, missing only twirling black mustachios, but it’s a small portion of the story.
Revelations of Rodden’s past confirm that he’s not some mysterious prince in disguise, a somewhat time-worn trope. Rhiannon has more revelations planned for book three, which she discusses, at least in part, when she talked to me just before Blood Storm‘s launch in August.
Blood Song is an original, captivating YA paranormal romance. Blood Storm is not quite up to the same standard, but it’s still a solid second book for a new author. I look forward to reading the conclusion.
Whispers Underground by Ben Aaronovitch is an urban fantasy comedy with Harry Potter-esque Peter Grant working as a policeman in contemporary London. I started this review when I only had the flu, before it developed into full-blown pneumonia, but I didn’t quite manage to finish it. Here goes:
Peter Grant works in The Folly, which is a special branch of London Metropolitan Police dealing with the supernatural in present-day London so everyone else can live in denial. Lesley May, his cop-buddy and erst-while lust-interest, had her face ripped off in a previous novel. Although Lesley is still intelligent, more capable than Peter and physically attractive apart from her lack of face, Peter has issues about Lesley’s looks. Peter is shallow and somewhat slow on the uptake, as evidenced by Lesley overtaking Peter in magical studies as well as always having been the better police officer. Although technically on medical leave, Lesley is actively involved in this novel to some extent.
Whispers Underground is a detective policing story told from Peter’s point of view; Peter is summoned to investigate a murder with a hint of magic. Peter meanders around, furthering the investigation partly through luck, partly through his increasing skill and partly with the help of old friends.
Peter, like Aaronovitch, is a bit of a geek fanboi, so his detailed knowledge of architecture and the intricacies of London are woven into the story alongside countless one-liners spoofing geek culture with an emphasis on Lord of the Rings. This is Big Bang Theory without making a mockery of the geeks, although a little more respect for Lesley – and, by default, for all women – would be appreciated. At times Peter has the maturity of a teenager while at other times he’s considerate and thoughtful: I hope that this minor story thread is part of Peter growing up.
The humour ranges from dry one-liners to somewhat slap-stick physical comedy to intricate social comment like the reporting about Asylum seekers eating a snow plow (you have to read it!); thus Aaronovitch successfully casts a net for a wide audience. I’m really enjoying this series. Highly recommended as urban fantasy comedy adventure thriller.
I also expect romance to come later, when Peter gets his head out of that very dark place upon which he sits. Although it’d probably have to be initiated by Lesley.