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PaulineMRoss

Pauline's Fantasy Reviews

Reviews of fantasy books, plus some mystery, sci-fi and literary works, and my random thoughts on book-related matters.

Currently reading

Dragon Queen (The Memory of Flames, #5)
Stephen Deas
The Splintered Eye (The War of Memory Cycle #2)
H. Anthe Davis, Erica Dakin

End Specialist

The End Specialist - Drew Magary Fantasy Review Barn

The best speculative fiction takes a what-if? scenario and then explores the possible consequences of that idea. This book certainly does that. It proposes that a cure for aging is found, a process which stops the body's natural senescence so that a person using it remains forever at the same physical age. They may still die of disease or violence or accident, but the body won't age.

The book attempts to follow the progress of societies post-cure by means of a journal, a time-honoured technique which can work quite well. Here, however, the author uses it to shoehorn in every little bit of speculation about the consequences that he can think of, sometimes in only a few lines, bullet-point style. To say that this makes the book disjointed would be an understatement. It would have been far better, I feel, to focus more tightly on the main character, John, and make it truly personal. Taking a chapter to describe the problems of a character in China, where the cure was banned, based tenuously on the idea that John once knew him, doesn't serve to connect the reader with those problems.

The pseudo-journal follows John's life as society gradually adapts (or rather, fails to adapt) to increasing numbers of people who don't grow old and die. The author tries to demonstrate the various approaches taken by individuals and governments, but it really covers too much ground to make an interesting story. Some aspects worked well, for instance, the changes in technology are never explained, they simply pop up in references to plug-ins and WEPS, used as if the reader is perfectly familiar with them. It became fun trying to work them out. Other aspects, like an outbreak of 'sheep flu' are described in detail, as in a news report, and this was more tedious.

For anyone who likes to watch the apocalypse unfolding, slowly, over several generations, this book might do the trick. It's been nominated for a number of awards so clearly its unusual storytelling technique is appreciated in critical quarters. For me, though, it failed at the most basic level, in not giving me any characters I could connect with, and breaking the story into dozens of disjointed chunks. Two stars.

Stonemouth

Stonemouth - Iain Banks This is one of those odd books that I found enjoyable to read at the time, but when I put it down, I lapsed into so-what? apathy. The premise is a fairly trite one. A mid-twenties man returns to his childhood home for a funeral, and spends the time reminiscing about growing up, being astonished at the changes that have taken place and equally astonished at the things that remain unchanged, and resolving a few loose ends from his departure five years before. So far, so ho-hum. The twist here is that the setting is a small town set in the northeast of Scotland, ruled in relative calm by two gangster families, and our hero was run out of town after almost marrying the daughter of one family.

The setting was one of the attractions for me. I live less than two hours' drive from the supposed location of the town of Stonemouth, and many of the descriptions of the beaches, forests and streets rang very true. Banks' descriptive prose is wonderfully lyrical, and captured the atmosphere beautifully. It was a little disconcerting that a major road bridge played a prominent role in the story; there are so few of those up here, that I kept visualising it as one of the known bridges - the Kessock bridge was my personal mental image - which pulled the book's geography out of alignment, as if the map was stretched out of true.

The childhood reminiscences worked less well. Some were funny and some were tragic but none of them really tore at my heart as perhaps they should have done. Some of main character Stewart's friends were, frankly, too stupid for words. The book interleaves the present-day events with vignettes from the past in order to keep hidden a couple of mysteries: what Stewart did to get him run out of town, and what really happened to the brother of his almost-wife? These were enough to keep me turning the pages, so they worked as intended, but frankly the revelations weren't particularly mind-blowing.

Stewart himself is rather a nothing character. He seems fairly blank, rarely expressing any emotion other than fear, although his continuing affection for almost-wife Ellie is rather touching. Of the others, Ferg the sardonic bisexual is far and away the most interesting. I'd have been happy reading an entire book about him, actually. The rest were either caricatures (Ellie's thuggish brothers, the stupid friends) or nonentities (like Ellie herself, drifting aimlessly through life), although Ellie's younger sister Grier probably rates a mention as having slightly more personality.

The final chapters are melodramatic, which seems to be obligatory these days, and the story then tailspins off into an implausible resolution for the main characters. The plot also fails one of my favourite tests: could most of the plot be resolved if the principals simply sat down and talked everything through? In this case, it was a puzzle to me why Ellie, in particular, didn't say to her family: I'll decide my own future, thank you very much. As she does, in fact, later on. The plot hinges on her being the sort of person who allows herself to be pushed around, but only until the plot requires her to push back. So that was a big fail, as far as I'm concerned. Three stars.
The Nullification Engine (The Alchemancer: Book Two) - Scott Marlowe Fantasy Review Barn

This is the second book the Alchemancer series, following on from ‘The Five Elements’. Like that one, this starts with a bang, literally, a mysterious underground explosion in the city of Brighton, just as our heroes from the first book, Aaron, Serena and Ensel Rhe, arrive there, followed almost immediately by demon houndmaster Krosus and his evil pack. In dealing with the hounds, Aaron and Serena manage to get themselves arrested and tossed into the dungeon. It has to be said, the author knows how to drop straight into the action.

After this, the pace lets up just a little, and branches out into multiple point of view threads to ensure that the plot is nicely stirred. There’s the airship which featured in the first book, newly arrived for repairs; there’s a King’s Patroller, whose function I’m not sure about, but he seems to be a good guy; there’s a disgruntled pyromancer; there’s a dwarf underworld boss with a beautiful daughter; there’s an old enemy of Ensel Rhe’s; and there’s a nest of rats-on-steroids under the city, who wear clothes and wield swords and are definitely bad guys. Well, they eat people. Oh, and there’s a machine, the Nullification Engine of the title, which is seriously cool and I can’t wait for the movie to be made to see exactly what it looks like.

Of the characters, Ensel Rhe is the most interesting, with his mysterious past and his super-ninja skills. In the first book, he was rather lightly sketched in, more plot device than rounded character, but here he gets a lot more screen-time and a chance to shine. Every scene he was in sizzled with tension. We learn quite a bit more about him here, which only serves to make him more intriguing. Aaron, the prodigy applying logic and science to largely magical artifacts, is also fun, and I loved the way he cracked the code. Serena worked less well for me. Her conventional upper-class family setting did nothing to make her interesting (to me), and there were times when she simply acted in ways that had me rolling my eyes. Speaking up at the funeral, for instance, and only realising afterwards that it might be a Bad Idea. And when her former mentor tells her to stay away from a device, what is the very first thing she does? Doh.

Of the other characters, they’re nicely drawn and work very well. I particularly liked the newly introduced Jakinda, a nice fiery character. I’m very much looking forward to seeing her in action in the next book. The dwarves were huge fun, too, although why is it dwarves are always the comic relief? I blame Peter Jackson. But the star character for me (if I can describe it this way) was the Nullification Engine itself, which stole the show in every scene it was in, and was a wonderfully unpredictable and fascinating device.

As with the first book, the plot rattles along at a breath-taking pace, with an unpredictable twist in almost every chapter. If I had a beer for every time I muttered ‘Didn’t see THAT coming’ I’d be blind drunk under the table by now. My only complaint is that I had trouble remembering everything that had happened in the first book, so I was flummoxed for a while when certain characters turned up again. A summary would have helped, although to be perfectly fair, I’m very bad at remembering plots in general, so I have the same trouble with every series. In other words, my fault, not the author’s. There’s a list of characters at the front and some good maps, too, as well as a sprinkle of reminders throughout the story, so I got past the confusion stage in the end. There was one plot-thread that I didn’t fully understand, involving Krosus the demon houndmaster and Ursool the witch; I’m still not sure just how things ended up there, but again, I suspect it’s just me not paying attention, since everything else was tied up beautifully, with neat little bows on top.

Another fun read, very entertaining, with a great ending setting everything up nicely for the next book. Highly recommended. Four stars.

The Annihilation of Foreverland

The Annihilation of Foreverland - Tony Bertauski Fantasy Review Barn

This is something I’ve had sitting on my Kindle for almost two years, it was dirt cheap and I had no expectations going in. I just decided to clear out some of the old stuff. And blow me down, it turned out to be the most entertaining read since... well, the last entertaining read. Which was quite a while back.

So here’s the premise. Thirteen year old kid wakes up with a head full of jumbled memories, possibly none of them his own. He’s on a tropical island with a bunch of other teenage boys, supervised by a bunch of rickety old men. The boys get to play games all day, if they want to, they’re well fed and looked after, the only snag (there has to be one, right?) is that every once in a while they go into a building where they are expected to insert a needle into their foreheads and enter an artificial reality where, once they get the hang of it, they can do anything – fly, shape-shift, create stuff, whatever their imaginations can invent.

It doesn’t take a genius to work out that some very sinister things are happening in the background, and it takes most of the book for the various layers of mystery to be peeled away one by one. Some of them were obvious virtually from the start, some were complete surprises and a few things I was totally wrong about, which is always good. I hate it when I can guess all the twists ahead of time.

In a lot of ways this book isn’t anything special. But that’s exactly the point: this is what a genre book should be like. It has believable characters, a plot that makes sense, and it’s well written without any pretensions to literary greatness. OK, you could, if you wanted, derive some themes about consciousness and the nature of reality and so on, but it’s not compulsory. And it’s an absolute page turner. I couldn’t put it down, I had to know what was going on and why. Yes, there were places where things fell out rather too conveniently for our hero and his pals, and one or two moments I didn’t really understand at all. There were loose ends (like all the girls, for instance; where did they come from?), but there are more books in the series so maybe they get answered later. But for anyone who wants a fun read with plenty of what-the-hell’s-going-on-ness, I can highly recommend this. Four stars.

The Huntsman's Amulet (Society of the Sword, #2)

The Huntsman's Amulet (Society of the Sword, #2) - Duncan M. Hamilton Fantasy Review Barn

That difficult middle book of the trilogy? Nope, no problem. Just send the hero off in a different direction altogether, with a bit of seafaring and... pirates! What could be better than chasing around the oceans, with a sea battle and a storm and... and... You can probably fill in some of the blanks here. Very little of this took me by surprise, but that doesn’t make it any less of an enjoyable romp.

The plot is, in many ways, a choppier affair than in ‘The Tattered Banner’. Main character Soren starts off looking for missing girlfriend Alessandra, then gets distracted by a search to find out more about his Gift (the mysterious power that overtakes him during a fight and makes him super-fast). That thread ends abruptly, and then a storm at sea leaves his ship vulnerable to pirate slave-traders, when that is resolved he falls in with an old acquaintance and sets off after the pirate... and so on. This kind of episodic story has some advantages, and there’s never a dull moment, but it does feel sometimes as if Soren is passively being pushed around by events. He ends up bouncing around all over the place, like a glorified travelogue of his world, and while the places he visits are interesting in themselves, the speed with which he hops from one to another, and the ease with which problems are solved, dulls the impact.

The most interesting place, to my mind, was the mysterious island in the centre of the ocean where there are the remains of a great city. The place is tainted with magic, so it’s dangerous to visit, and the peculiar and foreboding atmosphere of it is conveyed very well. But then, it becomes unexpectedly easy and frankly an excuse for a big info-dump, so in the end it’s a bit of a let-down.

The rest of the book is a giant boys-own adventure, with regular outings for Soren’s talent with a sword. In the first book, the fights, and the outbreaks of magic that accompanied them, were a highlight. Here much of the awesomeness is lost and the fights become rather mundane, as Soren tries to gain full control of his power so that it doesn’t overwhelm him. And it has to be said that the sheer number of times the swords come out makes this aspect of the book repetitious.

If this makes it sounds as if I was disappointed, well, perhaps I was, just a little. I would have liked more of the magic, more of the mind-blowing Gift-infused moments like the Belek battle in the first book (which remains an unforgettable image, still vivid in my mind), more times when things went wrong and I was taken by surprise. Everything was just a tad too easy and predictable. On the other hand, this was a cracking action-adventure, elegantly written and enjoyable from first to last, with no problems picking up the threads of the story from book 1, and no sign of middle-book doldrums. Four stars.

Destiny

Destiny - S.J. Faerlind Fantasy Review Barn

This is the third in the ‘Lirieia’s Children’ trilogy, following on from ‘Prophecy’ and ‘Affirmation’. The first was a slightly wobbly beginning, but the second was much more readable, for me, with tighter writing, plenty of action, and well-drawn characters. It ended with our heroes on the brink of battle.

It’s a year since I read ‘Affirmation’, and many other books have passed through my Kindle since. While I remember the main characters and the general drift of the story, the details are gone, and life’s too short to reread everything before the next volume. Unfortunately, the author makes no concession to readers like me at all. There’s no synopsis, virtually no in-text reminders. Here’s the opening paragraph:

“Their excitement was beginning to diminish, rapidly becoming replaced by exhaustion. Surveying the battlefield from the air, they cautiously allowed the bubble of Translocation energy they held to dissipate. The enemy archers were either dead or had fled and the last of the enemy forces were rapidly retreating through the Lord Defender’s Translocation portal, harried by Jurel’s Gryffin Guard.”

Any clues as to who ‘they’ might be? Believe it or not, it’s several pages before the identity of the opening characters becomes clear, and I struggled to keep up during the early chapters. Some of it came back to me as I read, but there are still mysteries; there’s a man called Ben, described regularly as a ‘jolly smith’, who was picked up by some of the characters in a previous book. Have I any idea how they met, or why he tagged along? Not in the slightest. Does it matter? Probably not, but it still sets me on edge.

Fortunately, I was able to pick up enough as I went along, either from clues in the text, or dredged from memory, to follow along, although I daresay I lost some of the subtleties. The main characters are Anarion, the half human, half Orryn, mage, and Teryl, his telepathically linked Gryffin pal. The various races are one of the great joys of this series. They each have their own unique characteristics, and the author is brilliant at applying them, through behaviour and dialogue. It’s possible to read a piece of dialogue out of context and know exactly what race was speaking, and that sureness never faltered. The different magic systems between the Orryn (who have innate magical capability) and humans (who power their magic through stones) is fascinating, and one of the key themes of the story. I was disappointed, however, that the tiny Grovale (the Gryffins’ servants) made no appearance in this book. I would have liked to know more about them.

The minor characters are more problematic. This is the downside of including several races, in that there are vast numbers of named characters, few of whom actually stand out. There were some I knew nothing about, not even what race they were. There were some who were more than just walk-on parts. Shayla was a great character, and her dealings with the Lord Defender (the villain of the piece) were brilliantly written, entirely in keeping with the personalities of both and very moving. Kaidal was another with a stand-out part to play.

And here we come to the main problem with this volume of the trilogy. The plot comes down to the question of how to defeat the Lord Defender. Since the major battle of the series was in book 2, and Anarion and his pals have run off to hide out in the desert away from his reach, the entire book revolves around planning to tackle the Lord Defender head on, and the best means to do that. Chapter after chapter involved large groups of people simply sitting around discussing the various options, and arguing about them. There was virtually no action, apart from the odd diversion for Anarion and Teryl to frolic with their lady friends, or a couple of experimental forays.

Eventually, however, we get to the final confrontation and suddenly things become interesting again. The resolution is both entirely appropriate for the races involved and yet quite unexpected, and I applaud the author for not taking the easy way out, but following the story to its logical conclusion. There is a teeny bit of arm-waving out-of-nowhere-ness, but even that made sense in the context of the story. And there are some really deep themes buried beneath all the magical portals and illusions and 'knowings', about what it really means to be human.

I find this a very frustrating review to write. This is a book which is brimming with creativity. It's taken some very original ideas and developed them in a logical and thought-provoking way. It could have been a great book, something I could happily give 5* to. It's a diamond of a story, but unfortunately it's an unpolished diamond. All the elements are there: great characters, great world-building, a great plot and magnificent attention to detail. The downside of attention to detail, though, is a tendency to throw in every little conversation and tie-up every conceivable plot thread, all at excessive length. With some editorial buffing, and excision of some of that wordiness, it could have been a true gem.

For those who aren’t bothered by the often dry wordiness, I can highly recommend the whole series. I enjoyed it and was captivated by the Orryn, the Gryffin and their very well drawn racial differences, and the ending was excellent. However, the flaws in this book in particular kept it to three stars for me.

Wolf by the Ears

Wolf by the Ears - Lexi Revellian Some authors spend their whole careers writing the same book over and over. The names and plot twists and setting may vary, but readers know exactly what to expect. Lexi Revellian is not that kind of author. A new book is always a magical mystery tour. Will it be fantasy? Or maybe sci-fi? Will there be a murder or a kidnapping? But some things stay the same. There’s always a romance simmering. There’s always action and excitement and a heroine who falls into the normal range of humanity instead of being some super-badass weapon-wielding superwoman. And invariably they keep me totally hooked and put a great big smile on my face. Is it any wonder that a new Revellian book goes straight to the top of my to-read pile?

This one features wealthy Russian emigrants with secrets (the word ‘oligarch’ crops up a lot) and political tension and even spies and secret dossiers. Our heroine, Tyger, is the daughter of wandering hippies (which you could probably guess from the name) who missed out on a formal education, but is now determined to get a degree and a respectable job. So she cleans houses by day, pulls pints in a bar by night and studies for the Open University in what little spare time she has. Her latest cleaning job sees her working for Russian oligarch Grisha Markovic, but one day she arrives at work only to be held at gunpoint by a hooded man who forces her to unlock the doors and show him to Grisha’s room. And things go steadily downhill from there.

I liked Tyger very much. She’s practical and intelligent, she doesn’t take stupidly implausible risks, and she reacts to the increasingly worrying events around her in sensible and believable ways. Her not-really-a-boyfriend Kes is not quite so well-drawn, but then he doesn’t get so much screen time. The minor characters all seem very real, with distinctive personalities: Izzie the flirty barmaid, Chrissie the pernickety flatmate, Rose the hoarder, even Cherie the trapeze artist, a trivial walk-on part. It takes real writing talent to create characters that live and breathe and are still memorable when the book is finished. I did wonder how accurate the Russians’ distinctive accent was, but it sounded quite believable to me.

There was quite a lot of political backstory to squeeze in, and the author has clearly done her research; occasionally I felt I could have done with fewer details about Anglo-Russian relations or circuses or motorhome interiors, but that’s a very minor quibble. The London setting was brought vividly to life; and who would have thought there was a bathing pool for ladies only?

The plot raced along, and kept me turning the pages. However, despite the gun-in-hand cover picture, and the spies and bad-boy Russians theme, this never turned into one of those action-at-all-costs thrillers. This is a gentler, less violent (and much more realistic) version. There were plenty of dramatic moments, but in between life went on more-or-less as normal in a thoroughly British way. Some characters that I was sure were villains turned out not to be. Characters I thought might get bumped off survived. And always there was a patina of subtle humour which kept me chuckling.

Another great read from one of my favourite authors. Highly recommended for anyone looking for an entertaining mystery with a strong dollop of romance. I loved it, and yes, the ending put a great big smile on my face. A good four stars.

Seventh Night

Seventh Night - Iscah Fantasy Review Barn

The novella prequel to this book, 'The Girl With No Name', was hugely entertaining, a charming fairytale which was anything but traditional, with a nice line in humour and, for its short length, a surprising number of delightfully unexpected twists along the way. This is a full length (albeit still fairly short) novel in similar style, which somehow fell a bit flat for me. Maybe the charm of the novella just doesn't scale up, or maybe my grumpy pre-Christmas mood is at fault, but somehow the whimsy failed to enchant, the writing seemed less light and the humour was sprinkled too thinly, like a pizza with too little cheese.

Partly this is because of the rather old-fashioned writing style. Contractions (like 'can't' and 'don't') are avoided, every action is described in detail even when a character isn't doing anything interesting at all, and although there are various point of view characters, the author merrily tells us what everyone is thinking or feeling. There's nothing at all wrong with this, and I daresay for a fairy tale it's appropriate, but I much prefer a tighter writing style.

So here's the premise. There's a princess and a couple of princes and a magician's apprentice, there's an evil villain, there's a land where nobody has magic and a land where almost everybody has it. And there are winged unicorns, which (rather cutely) aren't necessarily able to fly properly, sometimes they just bounce a little as they run, like a plane on a particularly bumpy runway. There's a royal wedding and a kidnapping and an array of monsters to be faced. All good fun, although sometimes things got a little predictable. I liked that the princess was a smart cookie and able to get herself out of awkward scrapes. I disliked that too often things happened purely by chance, and she was saved by some lucky event.

The best character by far is the magician's apprentice, Phillip. Phillip? In a fairy tale? Erm, yes. The names in this story aren't really the best. Some characters have sensible fantasy-sounding names (Neithan, Kaleb, Sargon) and some have weird names (Seventh Night) and some have terrible names (the poor girl with no name from the prequel, who finally acquires a name half way through this book, and it's surely the worst name ever; and no, you'll have to read the book to find out what it is).

But then, just when I was preparing my oh-dear summary in my head, things took off, became charmingly unpredictable and ended with one of those wonderful moments that brighter people than I probably saw coming a mile away, but for me it came out of nowhere and just blew me away. So three stars for the slightly pedestrian air of the first three quarters, five stars for the brilliant ending, so an average of four stars.

Major Pettigrew's Last Stand: A Novel

Major Pettigrew's Last Stand - Helen Simonson This is one of those pleasantly sweet little books that could have been something really good, profound even, but instead is as delicately insubstantial as a soap bubble. Major Pettigrew is a widower living in a small English village of the type familiar to readers of Agatha Christie’s ‘Miss Marple’, and just as unrealistic. There’s the usual array of gossiping, interfering women, led (almost inevitably) by the vicar’s wife, the men huddled in the bar of the golf club, trying to avoid the women, and the implausibly nice local bigwig, Lord Dagenham. All of this could have been written any time from the fifties onwards. The one modern note is the village shop, run by a Pakistani lady.

And thereby hangs the tale, because (after a series of fortuitous meetings) Major Pettigrew discovers Mrs Ali to be an educated and articulate lady, sharing with him a love of classic literature. Since she is a widow... well, you can see where this is going, can’t you? It isn’t an insult to call this book predictable, because I imagine the market it’s aimed at wouldn’t want it any other way. So it follows the expected path to the expected ending, via a series of increasingly farcical and downright melodramatic set pieces, and diverting for a quite charming interlude in Wales, which for me was a high point.

The problem for me lay in the writing. The first half was filled with cardboard characters behaving implausibly, and a vague air of having been written by someone not familiar with the setting. There are odd outbreaks of Americanisms, and the vicar is referred to as ‘Father Christopher’, for instance. The old-fashioned air of the characters, particularly Major Pettigrew himself, seems to have seeped out of a novel from decades ago. This makes sense, however, when you discover that, although the author was born and raised in Sussex, she has lived in America for the last twenty years. I suppose she’s viewing her English home with a fond, if not quite accurate, memory.

The second half perks up a bit, so that some of the minor characters gain a bit of realism, and thankfully the vicar is more properly referred to as ‘Vicar’. The book is also lavished endowed with true British humour (that is, very dry and subtle), which I loved. There were many places where I laughed out loud. However, the melodrama of the dance and the episode on the cliffs was quite ridiculous, and I lost patience with it rather. The biggest failure, though, was in addressing the issues raised. The book is absolutely founded on the question of colour, religion and cultural differences, yet it never properly gets to grips with them, merely skating round the edges and using them for dramatic impetus without ever shining a light on them. The character of Ahmed Wahid was a missed opportunity to say something meaningful, but unfortunately the author chose to keep things light and fluffy. An enjoyable read, if you don’t expect too much depth. Three stars.

The Rook

The Rook  - Daniel O'Malley Fantasy Review Barn

I started 2014 with a determination to reduce my backlog of books to be read, books I've already bought and paid for that are just sitting waiting on my Kindle. Here's one way of doing it: read a third of a book, say 'Nah, not doing it for me' and toss it.

Now, there's nothing much wrong with this book. It's nicely written, it's won the Aurealis Award for goodness' sake, so lots of people think it's a cracker. And it has a terrific premise, which is what drew me to it in the first place: a woman wakes up seemingly in another body, with no memory of who or what she is, surrounded by dead people wearing rubber gloves. And inside the pocket of her jacket, a letter from her (former) self, telling her that she's some kind of supernatural spy secretly working for the British Government, but – oh no! – there’s a traitor in the camp. Sounds great, doesn't it? A tad clichéd, but fun, perhaps.

So what went wrong for me? First off, the main character tells herself in the letter that her name is Myfanwy, but not pronounced the Welsh way, but to rhyme with 'Tiffany'. Erm... what? Well, OK, let's roll with that. Then there are the two aristocrats, Lady Linda Farrier and Sir Henry Wattleman. The lady is mostly called Lady Farrier, which is probably correct, and once is Lady Linda, which probably isn’t, but the gentleman is variously called Sir Henry (fine) or Sir Wattleman (which is so not fine that I found myself tensing up at every scene he was in, or likely to be in, just in case). This is not the kind of tension an author wishes to inspire in a reader.

So, fine, Mr O'Malley is Australian with some American, and I don't expect colonials to get the nuances of the British aristocracy, which take at least five hundred years to master. But then Myfanwy calls a cab in London, and the driver has to look the address up, and I’m immediately distracted. London is possibly the only city in the world where cabbies spend years doing 'The Knowledge', learning their way to every little back jigger, every obscure hotel, every dodgy nightclub in the capital. Now, it could have been a mini-cab that she called, whose drivers don’t do ‘The Knowledge’, but a British author would have made that clear. Small point? Very, but it brought me to a crashing halt for a while.

Then Myfanwy is invited out for lunch (or dinner, not sure which) by Lady Farrers. They go to a very famous restaurant, and there they sit, surrounded by hordes of hovering waiters, talking about their organisation. The one which is so secret that absolutely no one outside a select few heads of government and the armed forces is supposed to know about it. So the author lost me right there. And let's not mention the school for supernatural spooks which is on Kirrin Island (if you don’t get the reference, look up the Famous Five).

If I'd been enjoying the story, this stuff wouldn't have bothered me nearly so much. Maybe not at all. These are teeny tiny details, flea bites of irritation. Trouble is, the story just didn’t grab me, the characters, despite their supernatural quirks, were flat, and the humour likewise. And the worst of it was that despite a nice premise, the style of the story requires that mind-wiped Myfanwy learns everything she needs to know from letters presciently written by her former self. So there's a page or two of Myfanwy winging it through this or that meeting, followed by umpteen pages of what's essentially info-dump. That gets tedious very fast.

The whole secret supernatural spy thing felt like a poor imitation of Ben Aaronovitch's secret supernatural policeman series, and that at least has the advantage of a real feel for London, plus his wonderful dry British humour. It didn't work for me, but lots of people seem to like it, so there you go. Not a great start to 2014. One star for a DNF.

Hunting

Hunting - Andrea K. Höst Fantasy Review Barn

Now here’s a thing: a book by Andrea K Höst that doesn’t set me on fire. It’s a perfectly fine, entertaining read, you understand, a solid YA fantasy with a little romance, but it just doesn’t quite have that extra something that normally lifts the author’s writing out of the ‘good’ column and into the ‘awesome’. That makes me sad.

It starts badly. The first few chapters are a blizzard of names and titles and nicknames and throwaway references to customs and ideas that the average reader can’t possibly understand. And is that an orphaned heroine of mysterious background I see before me? (Well, not quite but close enough.) And - surely not? - that can’t be a girl masquerading as a boy? But it is. Can we say ‘overused tropes’ here? Naturally the author is far too creative not to put her own twist on all this, but it’s still a slightly underwhelming start.

The magic of this world is quite intriguing. The rulers are chosen by the gods, rather than simply inheriting their power, and the gods give them a direct connection with their land. Their job is to maintain the balance of the land, so that it’s not overused or neglected, and they have powers to enable them to do that. The gods also intervene at death, choosing whether a soul is worthy to go to the sun god (a heaven equivalent), or goes to a different god to be cleaned up first. A very few are rejected outright, if they’ve been very evil, or are reborn, if they have some task to finish.

The plot involves someone going round bumping off herbalists. The heroine, Ash, the one pretending to be a boy, is a friend of one of those murdered, and is taken up by outsider Thornaster to help him investigate the murders, since she has some knowledge of herbs. So there’s a lot of sneaking around, and improbable mingling with the nobility, and dramatic rescues of various characters from attempted murders and the like. And it’s all great fun and a nice, easy read, so long as you switch off all logical thought.

The whole girl pretending to be a boy thing is the biggest obstacle for me. Is it really possible to do this convincingly? The author has considered some of the difficulties, like breasts and periods and ways of walking, but I always wonder quite how you’d get away with not being able to pee standing up. And here Ash is mingling with an entirely masculine crowd, yet nobody wonders why she always sneaks away to pee?

But if you can get past that, the story rolls along very nicely, in the usual crisis-resolution, crisis-resolution way, and I suppose the final explanations and tidying up of loose ends made some sense. It just all seemed a bit less surprising and a bit more ordinary than I’d anticipated. The romance, such as it was, started too easily and resolved itself without very many difficulties. There were some nice moments along the way, though, and I rattled through this at a fair pace, without ever losing interest. This is, by any standards, an enjoyable read. It’s only by comparison with some of the author’s other work that it falls a little short. Three stars.
Keepers of Arden (Brothers, #1) - L.K. Evans Fantasy Review Barn

This is one of those books with loads of interesting ideas where the execution falls a little flat. The concept of the human mother being forced to bear the child of a demon is not at all an original one (Rosemary's Baby, for instance), but there's always room for a novel twist on the idea. In this case, the demon is prevented from taking the child, and the child himself is prevented from total evil, by the unconditional love of his older brother. The mother, on the other hand, sees the child as nothing but a monstrosity and treats him very badly. We're so used to the idea of mothers loving their children no matter what that this is quite a difficult idea to read about, and made me wonder: just how would a mother react to such a child? I'm not convinced that Ashra would be quite so proud of her eldest son and loving towards him, while hating her youngest quite so strongly. And why doesn't Wilhelm, the eldest, notice the difference and lose respect for his mother?

The author has created a wonderfully detailed world as background for this story of two very different brothers. There is a mythology involving a god-love-triangle, and there are throwaway lines about drunken gods and the like which I found very intriguing. Then the Big Bad is referred to as ‘God’ by his head minion, which is interesting too. However, despite some nice little snippets of history, I never quite got a clear picture of how these gods fitted into the current picture, whether they were real or even whether they were good or evil. The rest of the world is obviously just as carefully thought out, but without a map or a little more detail it was hard to see quite what was what. Sometimes as our heroes travelled around the scenery, a character would say: ‘Well, I’ll just pop back to Falar for...’, which always took me by surprise. It’s that close and I never knew? The various towns are nicely differentiated from one another, it’s just me that needs some kind of a visual aid to help me understand the setting. Like a map. [Edit: there's actually rather a nice map provided, which I stupidly missed. Doh!]

There’s magic in this world, but it’s fairly limited in scope. There are just fourteen spells available to mages, they’re difficult to learn and to perform and they bite back if you get them wrong, killing the mage. Even if you get them right, you have to rest for a long time before you can perform them again. The mages actually forget each spell after it’s been used, and have to have a spell-book to remind themselves, which is a cool idea. As if that wasn’t tricky enough, mages are bound by restrictive laws and almost universally despised, so they can be attacked and even killed for no reason other than being mages.

The story follows the lives of two brothers, Wilhelm and Salvarias, the sons of a female mage struggling to make a living. Wilhelm’s father is a mystery, having disappeared shortly after getting Ashra pregnant. Nice guy (not), but he’s supposedly doing something important in the world, and I have no doubt he’ll turn up in a future book. I'm actually quite interested to meet dad, because Wilhelm has inherited some interesting genes. Enormous height and strength, for instance, as well as charm and (it seems) supernatural skills with the ladies (well, I've never heard of a fifteen year old who can perform such prodigious feats).

Salvarias is the demon-child, who inherits his mother’s mage abilities at an unusually early age. This book takes the story from Salvarias’s conception through to his late teens, and there are necessarily big gaps where several years pass between action episodes. The plot is very uneven, depending to a large extent on coincidence and, frankly, deus ex machina at times. The brothers find themselves out on the streets trying to survive, and almost the first person they meet is a friend not seen for many years who turns up out of the blue and looks after them. Other characters who might be expected to help are unaccountably missing when needed. A mage turns up in the nick of time to heal Salvarias, and then vanishes. All of this is very convenient. If there are plot-related reasons for these fortuitous events, they aren’t made clear.

The other characters, who pop up as needed and vanish the rest of the time, are not terribly realistic. They all tend to the handsome/beautiful end of the spectrum, and fall neatly into good or evil categories, without much blurring of the lines. Despite a running theme of who could be trusted, which had me on the watch for a traitor in their midst, there were no dramatic reveals (at least not in this book). The female characters (with the notable exception of Ashra, the mother) are frequently madonna types, sweet and maternal and in need of protection, with the occasional warrior-babe or raunchy type for variety. There's a very odd attitude to the romance element of the book. Wilhelm is much in demand with the ladies (with unlimited stamina, it appears), but as soon as love looms on the horizon, somehow sex is off the agenda. The old madonna/whore dichotomy.

The writing style is oddly awkward at times, with a few characteristic quirks. For instance, characters routinely 'accept' food or hugs, which sounds odd to my ears. Then there's the cloying closeness of the two brothers, where sometimes it seems as if every scene ends with them saying how much they love each other and hugging. There was way too much repetition of phrases, like Wilhelm's tree-like stature. There are numerous small typos scattered throughout, but nothing so egregious as to interfere with readability for me.

I've listed a lot of grumbles with this book, yet I was never tempted to give up on it, and the reason for that was very simple: the deeply compelling character of Salvarias. It's not easy to draw a character which is inherently evil, yet who struggles to overcome that evil every day. His dreams, his internal conversations with his (almost paternal-sounding!) father, his unique approach to life, and even his magic (anthropomorphised here, so that he has long conversations with it), make for a fascinating portrayal. I liked the way that different characters saw him in different ways, so as we moved from one point of view to another, we saw him as essentially evil or deeply charismatic. I was intrigued, too, with the mother, who could be so normally maternal with one son, while hating the other relentlessly. This is an uneven book, which would have benefited from tighter editing and (perhaps) losing some of its bulk. I found it frustratingly flawed, yet still a rewarding read. Three stars.

Child Inside

The Child Inside - Suzanne Bugler I'm not sure what to make of this book. It's not the sort of thing I normally read - it's contemporary, and might perhaps fit the literary genre. I'm not even sure why I bought it now. The premise is a straightforward one: Rachel, a married woman with a son, gives birth to a stillborn baby daughter, and this event colours her family's life for years afterwards. She retreats into herself, her husband does the same, and the surviving child becomes the focus of all their attentions. There's also an event in Rachel's past, a childhood friend from a higher level of society, who died of a brain tumour, and that too becomes something which defines Rachel.

The problems with this book are the typical ones for the genre. Because the setting is very ordinary, there's an element of over-writing the descriptive passages to make them more evocative. Sometimes this works quite well, as the author is quite perceptive, but sometimes it just feels like... well, over-writing. Then there's the plot. Given the premise above, what would be the tritest, least original plot-line you could think up? Yep, that's exactly how it goes. I won't reveal it, in case there are two people left on the planet who might be surprised by any of it, but it's a total cliche-a-thon.

The biggest problem, for me, is that the story fails one of my standard tests for plots: if the entire plot would collapse if the characters simply talk to each other, then that's an epic fail. Romances typically depend on the author finding ingenious ways for the main characters to misunderstand each other, and fantasy depends on wizards or dwarves who talk in cryptic riddles, but in modern settings it all has to be done by character. Is Rachel believable as the sort of person who simply doesn't talk to her husband? Is the husband believable as a man who quietly accepts his miserable life for nine years? Is it really credible that Rachel's sister is such a cow, or that the man she confides in is a total jerk? Some people would probably let such issues slide by, but for me it just didn't work.

Ultimately, this is the sort of story a reader might well enjoy by simply accepting the characters as they are, and empathising with their tragedy. I was never tempted to abandon it, even when it descended from contrived plot devices into a farcical level of melodrama at the end. Up to a point, I even enjoyed it, but other people's miserable lives aren't that interesting to me, and there were just too many obstacles to full enjoyment so that for me it never rose above three stars.

The Whole Truth

The Whole Truth - Jody Wallace Fantasy Review Barn

I don't read a lot of urban fantasy, but this one has a great premise: Cleo has an unusual talent. She can see when people lie, by way of a shadow mask that covers their face to a greater or lesser extent, depending how big the lie is. Sometimes the mask comments, too, betraying the person's real feelings. This is such a cool idea, but there's a dark side too. What must it be like to know, beyond any possibility of doubt, when someone lies to you? Your best friend? No, of course your bum doesn't look big in that. No, of course I’m not trying to steal your bloke. Yes, I'd love to see you tonight but I've really got to work. Your boyfriend? I love you. You're the only one. You're the best ever in bed. Eek.

So when Cleo is recruited by other 'supras' (people with similar talents), part of her is thrilled to be amongst people who understand, with whom she doesn't have to pretend. Sadly, Cleo is immediately sent undercover to winkle out a traitor amongst the supras, which involves a lot of hanging around people to watch for lies, and asking leading questions, so she's still on her own.

Cleo isn't the usual self-confident assertive female lead character so common in urban fantasy. Instead she's a much more realistic person, damaged to some extent by the lies she's been exposed to by everyone around her. However, her slightly chirpy voice and her constant mistakes get very wearing after a while. Another big problem: way too many characters to keep up with. I could possibly remember names, but trying to keep track of everyone's supra abilities (which they often hid, even from other supras) was impossible. And the plot fell over because it depended on Cleo being kept in the dark about crucial information. As she herself pointed out, if she'd been told everything right from the start, the problem could have been solved in five minutes.

Somewhere in the middle of the book things begin to pick up, and there's a secret about one character that I just didn't see coming. And at about the three quarters point, there's possibly the best sex-with-subtext scene I've ever read. Quite brilliant. But after that, things crater spectacularly. Firstly, after all the undercover work, the bad guys reveal themselves to Cleo after she makes an unbelievably stupid decision and puts herself into their power. Then things degenerate into a long-drawn-out and totally farcical melee of a finale. Authors really have to decide whether they're going for the serious, oh-no-everyone-might-die line, or whether it's going to be lighthearted fluff. Once characters start dying (well, one character, anyway), you're fairly well committed to serious, and fluff seems distasteful (to me, anyway).

There are a few loose endings left dangling, like the oft-mentioned but never seen step-father, and why did Beau conceal his true nature? But I guess there's a series in the pipeline, so there has to be fodder for future books. There were too many flaws and saggy moments for me to enjoy this completely, but even for a non-fan of urban fantasy like me, there were still plenty of fun moments, a few nice characterisations and that amazing sex scene. Recommended for fans of the genre, and it is a brilliant premise. Three stars.

Old Filth

Old Filth - Jane Gardam I think I must be losing my tolerance for books written to a theme, rather than the author’s burning desire to tell a story. This one is about Raj orphans, those children of parents busily engaged on the work of the British Empire in India or various parts of the Far East. While their parents swanned around the British Clubs and drank their gins and tonics and suffered from repeated bouts of malaria, the children were brought up by local ayahs or nannies, shipped home to relatives or foster parents at school age and shunted through boarding schools and Oxbridge until they, too, were old enough to be useful to the establishment.

And I’m sure it’s all deeply worthy and symbolic and all the rest of it. Parts of it are unexpectedly glorious, like little stars of perceptiveness in a velvet-black sky of nothingness. Trouble is, the whole wobbly edifice rests on the characters, and, frankly, I never cared about any of them. I like my fiction to tell a story, not be a collection of vignettes of eccentricity. Then there are outbreaks of unforgiveably pretentious writing: "...the train swayed insolently through Clapham Junction." I mean, good grief. I got through fifty percent before giving up. But it’s sold by the shed-load, and the most popular shelf on Goodreads is ‘book club’ so clearly it works for a lot of people. Just not for me. One star for a DNF.

Hit and Run

Hit and Run - Doug Johnstone You’d think it would be hard to mess up a book like this. Three kids are driving home from a night out, off their heads on booze and pills, when their car hits a pedestrian on a quiet road. They drag the body into the undergrowth and drive home. Great premise, right? Will they get caught? The twist is that the car driver is the cub reporter for the local paper, assigned to report on the death of what turns out to be a notorious local gang leader. Exciting stuff. Or maybe it would be if said cub reporter wasn’t the stupidest person on the planet, stuffing himself with every drug known to man (or his doctor brother, in this case), behaving in insane ways and taking ludicrous amounts of physical damage yet still going out and single-handedly... No, I can’t even write it. And of course the widow gets the hots for him, and don’t even mention the ending.

This is one of those oddities that had me rolling my eyes so fast I couldn’t see straight. I simply can’t summon the enthusiasm to write a proper review. I suppose it appeals to a certain type of reader. However, for me, a book needs to have characters who a) actually share some passing resemblance to, you know, actual people, not just wish-fulfilment; and b) behave in realistic, or at least believable, ways. And no, saying the guy’s had a bump on the head isn’t sufficient explanation for the dumbass things he does. If you like pseudo-noir set in Edinburgh and you can overlook the beyond-incredible plot, you might like this. I finished it, skimming the last quarter, so two stars for that. And the dog was sorta cute (in a pointless way).