Review: ‘Beguilement: The Sharing Knife #1’ by Lois McMaster Bujold

October 5, 2017 Review 4

This is an awesome book. As a fantasy, the setting is brilliantly evoked, so that it feels utterly real, and the magic is suitably intriguing. But don’t be fooled: this is a romance through and through. Apart from a few high-action moments, which are mostly designed to throw our hero and heroine together, the plot is pure romance – the accidental meeting, the turning away because they’re on different sides of the cultural divide, the crisis that unites them, the nursing back to health, the long-drawn-out courtship and so on and so on.

The premise of this world is that there are two kinds of people. One kind has no magic. They’re farmers, living on settled plots of land, patriarchal and with a largely pre-industrial way of life. The other kind, the ones with magic, are called Lakewalkers (because they are constantly moving around the perimeter of the massive lake that defines their world). Their task is to rid the world of malices, immortal entities that suck the life out of humans, animals and plant life, growing stronger and stronger as they do so. The relationship between the two groups is edgy tolerance. The Lakewalkers think the farmers are simple-minded primitives, and the farmers, for their part, are very afraid of the magically-empowered Lakewalkers (as they should be) but they need them for healing and a few other benign purposes, as well as to clear out the malices.

Our representatives from these two groups are Fawn, the farmer, a girl kept ignorant by her upbringing and despised by her family, but driven by a burning curiosity about – well, everything, really. A trait which has got her into some difficulties as the book opens. Dag is the world-weary, seen-it-all Lakewalker, a man with a tragic past who’s something of a renegade even amongst his own people (yes, that old chestnut). Happenstance throws the two together, and when Fawn is drawn into Dag’s battle with a malice, their lives are irrevocably intertwined.

After that battle, the action fades into everyday survival and then travelling together. Inevitably, the two end up getting it on, and the sex is fairly graphic and frequent, so if that’s not your thing, avoid. I don’t mind a certain amount, but once it stops advancing the plot or enlightening the reader about the characters, it ceases to serve any useful purpose, and I felt that was the case here.

And then we came to the culmination of the book – a wedding. The lead-up and actual event went on for chapter after chapter and frankly, if I’d liked the characters less I’d have thrown the book at the wall at this point. Fortunately, I loved both Dag and Fawn. Dag is the kind of world-weary warrior type that I adore – very gentlemanly, and tender with his lover, but a total man’s man in battle. A little too perfect, perhaps, but it worked OK for me. Fawn is a delight, too, neither too shy nor too assertive. They make a good match.

With the clear setup that they will have to secure the approval of both her family and his fellow Lakewalkers to the marriage, the stage is set for two confrontations. But no. We get the visit to the farmers in full measure, and that over-lengthy wedding, but the book ends as the two set off to travel to the Lakewalkers’ camp. With the prospect of another lengthy series of confrontations and perhaps not much forward motion on the fantasy elements, I’m not mad keen to get book 2 in the series. Nevertheless, I loved almost everything about this book. Five stars.

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Review: ‘Terms of Enlistment’ by Marko Kloos

August 26, 2017 Review 1

Oh boy. Military Sci-fi. Not something I would ever choose for myself, but I’ll try anything once. This is a mega-seller, so it must be hitting the spot for a lot of people. I have no point of comparison, but it seems to me like a well-written book of its type.The world-building is superb, and I never once doubted any aspect of it. The military stuff – well, if you like blow-by-blow battles, lots of explosions and guns and general mayhem of the blowing-stuff-up category, and a succession of we’re-all-doomed moments – this book is for you.

The characters? Not much depth, and to be honest I didn’t much care if any of them lived or died, even the hero. There was a love interest of sorts, but not a romance by any stretch of the imagination. But really, that’s not what it’s all about. It’s the set-piece battles that are the stars of the show, that and the technology, and both are very well described without ever being boring or two over-the-top melodramatic. This is a book about a vividly-created future world, every element of it utterly believable, and the dramatic shenanigans that one fairly ordinary recruit finds himself in. If you like military sci-fi, I’m guessing that you’ll love this book. It’s really not my cup of tea, but despite that, I finished it without effort. Three stars.

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Author answers 23: What is your favourite point of view and tense to write in and why?

August 13, 2017 AuthorsAnswer, Writing musings 0

This is a fun question, because until not so long ago, my answer would have been: you what? Point of view? Tense? Errrr… It was only when I’d finished my first novel and introduced it to the harsh and unforgiving glare of an online critique group that I discovered just how little I knew about writing. That book, I discovered, was written in third person limited, past tense. With my second book, I moved on to first person past tense, and there I stayed for several more books.

What’s the difference? With third person (’she climbed the stairs’), there’s an immediate distance between the reader and the character. The reader is on the outside, observing the character’s actions. With first person (’I climbed the stairs’), the reader is right inside the character’s head. Now, it’s perfectly possible to convey a character’s inner thoughts and feelings in a vivid and visceral way, even in third person, but I found that much easier to do in first person. I tend to write with some distance anyway, and a first person narrative enabled me to get under the skin of my character much better.

There’s also a simplicity to a first person story. It (usually) restricts the narrative to just one point of view character, so for some genres (urban fantasy, for instance, or books requiring a memoir-like approach) it works much better. It’s not so good for the sort of sprawling, multi-point-of-view tale such as epic fantasy. It can work in romance, with two alternating points of view, heroine and hero.

But then along came book 6, which called for multiple points of view, but with one which was more important than the others, the only one which would last for the whole book. I chose to make him a first person POV, to give him greater importance, while the lesser characters were all third person. That was a difficult book to write, for me, because it didn’t come naturally to me to switch from character to character in that way. But still, it worked, sort of. Or at least I thought so (my readers may disagree!).

Book 7 was a sequel to book 5, so back I went to first person, but book 8 was more problematic. My main character was male, and I always find it trickier to get under the skin of a bloke, somehow. Plus, he was a bit of an enigma, and I didn’t want to reveal too much of his inner thought processes by being in his head. Third person gives some possibilities to retain a character’s secrets, so that was where I chose to go. Book 9 has two main characters, so that will alternate third person POVs, and book 10 will be a multi-character POV, so will be all third person too.

So ultimately, it all depends on the needs of the particular story, as always, but I do have a soft spot for a first person POV.

Footnote: Authors Answer is the brainchild of blogger Jay Dee Archer, of I Read Encyclopedias For Fun. You can read the answers to this question by his eclectic bunch of authors here. More recently, Erica Dakin, of the Theft And Sorcery blog, has been answering the questions independently. You can read her answer to this question here.

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Author answers 22: Barring a zombie apocalypse, is there anything that could make you stop writing?

August 11, 2017 AuthorsAnswer, Writing musings 0

Wow, it’s more than a month since I posted anything here! No, I’m not dead, folks, just embroiled in summer holidays. So lots of catching up to do. On to a long-delayed authors answer question: could anything make you stop writing?

Of course. Death, serious illness, a whole swathe of troubles affecting me or my family would do it. Writing is an indulgence, for me, but it’s not something I regard as an inseparable part of my life. Making up stories in my head, yes, that’s me, it’s something I’ve done all my life and it will probably be the last thing to go when senility overtakes me. But writing those stories down? Fun to do, and even more fun to publish, but not essential to my well-being.

Footnote: Authors Answer is the brainchild of blogger Jay Dee Archer, of I Read Encyclopedias For Fun. You can read the answers to this question by his eclectic bunch of authors here. More recently, Erica Dakin, of the Theft And Sorcery blog, has been answering the questions independently. You can read her answer to this question here.

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Sci-fi mystery review: ‘Gingerbread Man’ by Lee Strauss

July 3, 2017 Review 0

This one took me by surprise. Because I’d downloaded it for free some time back (more than a year ago, in fact), I had no idea why I’d been attracted to it or even what sort of book it was. I simply opened it and began to read, and at first it seemed like fairly standard fare: a college campus, some geeky students doing typical geeky student things, a rape, a murder, bla bla. And then things veered sharply off in a very different direction and I got interested.

It’s not surprising I was confused. The full title is “Gingerbread Man: A Marlow and Sage Mystery Thriller (A Nursery Rhyme Suspense Book 1)”, and the Amazon categories are the expected mystery and thriller variants. But buried in the book’s description is the truth: this is Science Fiction Mystery Romantic Suspense, and it uses the conceit of alternate (or parallel) worlds to drive the plot.

Marlow is the headline geeky student, who befriends fellow student Teagan online. But when they set up a date to meet up, both claim that the other never showed up. And when Marlow bumps into Teagan on campus, she claims not to recognise him. Now this is nicely intriguing stuff, but when there’s a rape, then a murder, and then Teagan disappears, Marlow sets out to find her, and that’s when things get really interesting, and the alternate world business really kicks off.

The problem with alternate worlds is twofold. Firstly, each time there’s a jump, there’s a new setting and new characters to get to know, and although the characters are technically the same, there are enough changes in their backgrounds and upbringing to make them feel very different. The differences are nicely done here, but it still feels like starting all over again. It’s disjointed, jumping directly from an exciting part in a now-familiar setting, and suddenly we’re somewhere else altogether.

The second problem is that the alternate worlds are not always equally interesting. The third world (which it would be spoilerish to describe) is quite interesting, but by that point I just wanted to get back to the action and resolve the Teagan crisis, so any time elsewhere felt like treading water.

There were aspects of the book that I enjoyed very much. The early chapters, where Marlow and Teagan were communicating fine online, but some odd things were happening (like the photos that wouldn’t transmit, and the missed date at the coffee shop), were nicely intriguing, and drew me in beautifully. Once it became obvious what was happening, I lost interest slightly. The sciencey bits were a little clunky, and, as mentioned, not all the alternate worlds were equally interesting.

The characters – well, none of them really grabbed me. I appreciate that the romantic pairing for Marlow is Sage (it’s in the title, for goodness sake), but it seemed to me that he spent almost as much time thinking about and worrying about Teagan. The minor characters never really jumped off the page for me.

And here’s a really trivial detail that tripped me up a lot — the writing style is rather pedestrian. There’s a lot of ‘I did…’ and ‘I went…’ and ‘I ran…’, one after the other, and it got distracting. I really wanted to get in there and reword a few sentences, just for variety. Now, this is partly me being an author myself, so I notice the rhythms of the writing more than someone who’s reading solely for fun, and partly because I’m a nitpicky so-and-so, but it got between me and the story a lot, so I mention it. Ninety nine percent of the population wouldn’t be bothered by it, I’m sure.

I enjoyed this quite a lot, even though it wasn’t what I was expecting. The world-jumping was easy to follow (thank you, author!), the story was eminently readable and the early mysteries were intriguing. However none of the characters stood out, and the pedestrian writing style keep it to three stars for me, but I recommend it as a good read for anyone looking for a not-too-complex sci-fi themed mystery.

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Fantasy review: ‘The Royal Companion’ by Tanya Bird

July 2, 2017 Review 0

I have no idea what to make of this. I don’t even know what genre it is. The author says it’s a romance, and categorises it as medieval and Regency, which niggles at my tidy mind – how can it be both? Regency – no way. It has nothing in common with the historical Regency or fictional representations of it. In fact, I discovered it as an advert on the page of one of my own Regency romances, very out of place among the Pride and Prejudice fan-fiction that’s normally advertised there. But since the ad worked on me, I suppose it’s an effective strategy. But this is definitely not a Regency book.

The medieval part, on the other hand, I can just about see – there’s a king and a whole royal family, there’s a castle, the nobility indulge in boar hunting, archery and tournaments, the usual things. But it’s set in a created world, not part of the real medieval world, and to my mind it is clearly fantasy. So, fantasy romance, then? Well, no. Although this is about two people falling in love and being together despite obstacles, the equivocal ending puts it firmly outside the realm of romance. Let’s call it alternate world fantasy, or just a genre mashup. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

The premise: poor farmer’s daughter Aldara is sold by her mother to the obnoxious prince Pandarus, who gives her to his brother Tyron as a Companion. Companions are an interesting concept. On the one hand, their function as royal bed-warmers is a time-honoured and unoriginal one. But they are also trained to be beautiful, talented and adept at conversation, which makes them in some ways comparable to Geisha girls. Aldara finds the transition from independent-minded farm girl to meekly subservient courtesan a difficult one, not helped by Tyron being a reclusive and tortured soul, subject to black moods after action in one of the many border skirmishes plaguing the kingdom.

I found Aldara to be an uneven character. Sometimes she’s behaving with the utmost propriety, curtsying and remembering titles and pretending to be interested in the men’s conversations, as she’s required to do, yet at other times she’s being wildly outrageous, scandalising everyone. I’d have liked to see a little more consistency in her actions, and perhaps a steady progression towards a clearly defined goal. I’m not quite sure, looking back on it now, whether she ever truly accepted her role as Companion or not. It seemed to depend rather a lot on Tyron.

As for Tyron… well, what to say about a hero who causes his love so much grief? Would it have been so hard for him to make some effort to protect her, instead of simply ignoring her? And even when they’re lovers, he doesn’t bother to let her know that he’s safe and well. To be honest, I found his behaviour unforgivable, which is not a word I use lightly. When bad things happen to the heroine, and here the bad things are pretty harrowing, I like to think that the hero would have done everything in his power to prevent the bad things, and that if they happen anyway, it’s because his hands were tied and he was helpless to intervene or protect. But not in this case. Here the supposed hero actually creates the situation where it was almost inevitable that, sooner or later, bad things would happen. So, no, I can’t quite forgive him for that.

Some of the other characters in the book were, in many ways, far more interesting than the two main characters. The retired Companion who trains the new recruits, for instance, is a very complex creation. I’d have liked to see more of the queen and the princess, too, who I felt had more depth than portrayed here. And then there was the younger brother and his archery-champion Companion, who were simply enjoying a pleasant and amicable relationship. That would have been a bit more fun to read about than the darkness around Tyron.

I had a few issues with some of the premises. The idea of a Companion, taking a peasant girl and training her up (in just a few months!) to be a sophisticated and intelligent consort for a prince, able to hold a conversation amongst the nobility, is intriguing but inherently implausible. I couldn’t see any reason why peasant girls were preferred over (say) minor nobility. And then there’s the issue of motivation. Why, for instance, did Aldara’s mother sell her in the first place? They didn’t have so many children that a daughter would be an excessive burden. And why tell her nothing at all about what she is being sold for? That made no sense. Then there was the issue of poverty. I get that the ordinary folks were struggling to survive, but why on earth were servants within the royal estate struggling to survive, to the extent of needing to steal food? Surely the servants would be fed, and fed pretty well, too. And then there was Tyron’s behaviour, which made no sense. Even when he was supposedly falling in love with Aldara, he never cared enough for her to protect her. And why not sleep with her? That was what she was there for!

Some minor quibbles: lots of little typos, like a wide birth, pales of water, and something that was omitting noises. There were intrusive modernisms (to my ear), like sourcing food, or the need for personal space. Sometimes modern insertions like this are done for effect, but I found they just jarred me out of the pseudo-medieval setting.

This was an interesting and unusual read that would perhaps do better marketed as literary fantasy. I applaud the author’s attempt to explore a refreshingly different setting and some unusual characters. Despite all my quibbles, I found it fascinating, because I never quite knew what was going to happen. The weaknesses in the characters and the unsatisfying ending keep it to three stars for me, but I recommend it to anyone looking for something a bit different.

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Mystery review: ‘A Case of Conspiracy in Clerkenwell’ by Clara Benson

June 28, 2017 Review 0

Book 3 of the new Christie-esque murder mystery series by the author, featuring Freddy Pilkington-Soames rather than Angela Marchmont, which gives the books a very different flavour. Angela was very much a lady, so her sleuthing was conducted over cups of tea and genteel dinner parties, whereas Freddy is a man about town, and there’s a certain amount of creeping about in the middle of the night, and he gets physical from time to time. Unlike Angela, there’s no mysterious past to be gradually revealed, and Freddy’s very much London-based. I’m rather hoping he’ll escape the town setting at some stage; I miss the country house setting of so many of Angela’s stories.

However, this outing for Freddy has a good array of eccentric characters in the ladies of the Temperance Society and the (mostly) gentlemen of the Communist Alliance, who share the same local community hall. When one of the ladies is stabbed with a paper knife, Freddy is roped in by British Intelligence to investigate both the murder and a revolutionary plot.

I never quite got the communists straight in my head, so I had very little clue what was going on there, but it didn’t matter much. The plot unfolds in the regular way, with a great deal of dry humour, Freddy’s usual willing but bumbling style and some implausible drama at the end, before all is revealed, plots are foiled and the day is saved. I’m not a big fan of the spies-and-revolutions theme of this series, and I’d much rather return to the body-in-the-library country house style, but this is still a totally enjoyable read. Four stars.

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New release (and other Brightmoon news)

June 22, 2017 Findo Gask's Apprentice, News, Publishing/marketing 0

I’m delighted to tell you that the 8th book in the Brightmoon world, Findo Gask’s Apprentice, is now available. You can buy it at the special new-release price of just 99c, or borrow for FREE with your subscription to Kindle Unlimited or Prime. Click the Buy! button above to buy or borrow from your local Amazon, or click here for more information about the story.

I had so much fun writing this book (dragons at last!), and I’m thrilled to share it with you. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it. Watch out for The Dragon Caller in the autumn (and yes, there’ll be even more dragons!).

Other deals coming up soon…

To celebrate the release of Findo Gask’s Apprentice, I’ve got discounts on some of the other books in the series coming up, too. Here’s a list, so make a note in your diary if there are any Brightmoon books you haven’t read yet:

The Fire Mages: FREE NOW until Sun 25 June

The Dragon’s Egg: 99c on Sat 1- Sun 2 July

The Fire Mages: FREE again Sun 16-Wed 19 July

And don’t forget that The Plains of Kallanash is always just 99c.

And in other news…

The May giveaway is over – thank you for all your entries. I’ve loved finding out who your favourite characters are. Most popular was… the dragon! No surprise there, but votes were also received for Garrett, Kyra, Drina, Ly-haam, Allandra and Drusinaar. Congratulations to winners Jane Woods, Suzanne Swift, Maria Janney, Renee Mergott, N Carroll and Anne Monteith.

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Fiction review: ‘Don’t Let’s Go To The Dogs Tonight’ by Alexandra Fuller

June 12, 2017 Review 0

Another book group read that I would never, ever have chosen for myself, but I enjoyed it, on the whole. It’s a memoir, describing the author’s life growing up in Africa in the 70’s and 80’s, a time of great transition, including civil war, land seizures and the gradual erosion of white dominance. It’s an unflinching look at the realities of daily life for one extraordinary family, for whom the word disfunctional was probably invented. For me, it was uncomfortably too unflinching, but one has to admire the author’s clear vision of the reality of the times – the casual racism, the poverty, and dear lord, the many and various horrible ways to die or (if you were very, very lucky) merely be extremely ill, repeatedly.

The greatest triumph of the book is the glorious evocation of Africa in all its physicality. To say you felt as if you were there doesn’t quite do it justice. The lyrical passages describing the scenery, the wildlife, the plants and smells and sounds of the continent are exquisite, but towards the end of the book I did begin to tire of them just a little. The people are described more by their actions than anything else (and very odd they were too, sometimes).

The story-telling is episodic, and reads as though the author simply made a list of all the most memorable events of her childhood, and then fleshed each one out to a greater or lesser degree. Some are very short indeed, and it makes the book feel quite jerky and choppy. There are some pretty tragic events, too, so be warned.

There was a lot more I would have liked to know, especially about the family – what sort of background did they come from? Why were they in Africa at all? And why did they think the children were better off living with all the dangers of driving through mine-fields to go to school, for instance, when they could have been safe at boarding school in Britain? Nevertheless, this was a fascinating read. Four stars.

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#SPFBO news: brackets!

June 1, 2017 SPFBO, The Dragon's Egg 0

The #SPFBO competition hasn’t officially started yet, but there’s already quite a buzz about it, and a number of bloggers are getting into the spirit by looking at the entrants for themselves and trying to guess what might make the final cut of 10 books from the starting grid of 300.

Blogger M D presley is one who’s been trying to pick likely winners, and he’s started a ‘brackets’ contest to run alongside the main competition. The idea is to come up with your own selection of three books from each blogger’s batch of 30. The winner is, presumably, the one whose choices are closest to the actual picks.

Now obviously there’s no way of predicting how the individual bloggers will react, so the game becomes an exercise in how to approach the problem Just how do you pick? By covers? Blurbs? First chapters? Throw darts at a list? You can see M D Presley’s thought processes and choices on his blog here (and yes, he did include The Dragon’s Egg in his list!).

 

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