Urban fantasy review: ‘Stolen Magic’ by Marina Finlayson

October 23, 2016 Review 0

The first of a new series, and once again Finlayson offers a book that’s everything I don’t normally read (urban fantasy? Me? Um…), and has me utterly absorbed, hanging on every word. Right from the start, as heroine Lexi breaks into a house with the aid of nine cats, I loved everything about it.

The world Finlayson lays out is (to me) a little different. There are shifters – were-wolves and a whole array of other were-species. There are vampires. There are shapers — people with a power over one or more elements. And the result is a very different-looking political spectrum. There’s no pretence here that the ‘other’ species are somehow hidden from the human population, nor that they peacefully coexist. No, the shapers are immensely powerful, and as a result, they call all the shots. There are shaper-controlled areas, where shifters and other non-humans live in cautious subjection. There are separate human-controlled areas. The differences are underscored by place-names — Britain is Britannia here, and Australia assumes its 17th century name of New Holland.

So where does our heroine, Lexi, fit in? She’s neither shifter nor shaper — her peculiar talent is to connect to the minds of animals. I’ve used this ability to a limited extent in my own books, but Finlayson uses animals in some wonderfully creative ways — even cockroaches! I’d never thought of the little blighters as anything but an irritating nuisance, but here Lexi manages to make them delightfully useful.

Plot: OK, there’s a plot. Lexi is hiding out in the small seaside town of Berkley’s Bay after a powerful shaper asked her to use her unusual talents to steal a ring from an even more powerful shaper. Not a game she can win, whatever she does, so she’s lying low, running a second-hand bookstore for the vampire who runs the pub, living above the shop with her cat. But then another shaper turns up, and life starts getting difficult…

The author’s always brilliant at drawing her characters, so it goes without saying that Lexi and all the other shifters and shapers in her world feel beautifully real. However, I have to make special mention of Lexi’s cat, Syl, who is quite awesome from start to finish, and utterly catlike in every way. I adored her. There’s also a blossoming romance for Lexi, and I’m looking forward to seeing how that plays out in the rest of the series.

Another terrific book from the author. Great world-building, loads of action that kept me turning the pages when I really should have been doing other things, a wonderful main character, a hot but difficult-to-trust love interest, an awesome cat and a mysterious ring. What’s not to like? Five stars.

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Mystery review: ‘Aunt Bessie Assumes’ by Diana Xarissa

October 18, 2016 Review 0

As cozy mysteries go, this is about as cozy as it gets. Aunt Bessie is a lady of bus pass age living beside the beach in Laxey on the Isle of Man. One morning she (literally) stumbles over a body on the beach, and, since she knows everyone on the island, she’s roped in by the police and her own curiosity to help solve the crime. As always, there are plenty of suspects, and all sorts of skeletons in closets to be revealed before the murderer is brought to justice.

There’s nothing fundamentally amiss with this book, and I was never tempted to abandon it. However, the pace is glacially slow, with inordinate amounts of unnecessary dialogue and repetition, and a great deal of page time is devoted to drinking vast amounts of tea and loving descriptions of every single food item passing Aunt Bessie’s lips. When she cooks, we’re treated to a blow-by-blow account of every ingredient and cooking utensil and process involved. It’s easy to read, however, and the odd Americanism felt reasonable to me given that Aunt Bessie grew up in the States.

As a mystery, let’s just say that my first guess was the correct one, and there were no challenging puzzles to unravel. For anyone who enjoys this kind of lightweight and undemanding story, there are plenty more books in the series, and the Manx setting is charmingly different. For me, it only rates three stars.

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Fantasy review: ‘The Healers’ Home’ by S E Robertson

October 2, 2016 Review 0

Another awesome story from the author. A world you can immerse yourself in. Characters who are so real, you’re sure you must have met them some time. A story that weaves itself around you like a silk cocoon, soft and gentle and totally mesmerising. If you’re looking for action, this really isn’t the book for you, but if you want literary fantasy, where the characters matter more than anything else, this is the book for you.

The premise: in the first book of the series, The Healers’ Road, Agna the healer and Keifon the Medic, with their very different backgrounds and approaches to healing, were thrown together and had to reach a working accommodation. Two years on the road and a lot of adjustments saw them become strong enough friends to consider settling in the same northern town, Wildern. Agna hopes to open an art gallery. Keifon wants to become qualified to practice medicine in his new home, and also hopes to make an arranged marriage and have a family. This second book in the series opens with Agna buying a former dry goods store to convert to an art gallery, where the two of them will also live until Keifon gets settled.

The early part of the book is rather slow. There’s a great deal of ambling around the streets and into furniture shops, with much discussion of the necessary purchases for their new home. Then the details of food items have to be gone into, and there are shifts at the hospital to be itemised and so on and so forth. As a way of introducing the world, it’s quite effective, but I did get rather impatient to get to the meat of the story. Even when things do start to get moving, everything seems to go very smoothly. Agna’s approaches to patrons for the gallery are successful. Their work at the hospital goes well. Keifon finds a new project to absorb him. Nothing terribly bad happens, even though Keifon agonises endlessly about being ‘nameless’ and about taking advantage of Agna’s hospitality.

Things do get more tense eventually, as the past comes back to bite both our main characters, and they have to make difficult decisions in situations where there are no right answers. Or perhaps I should say, no perfect answers. The conclusion leaves the pair in happier circumstances, but with a very interesting situation for Agna to deal with. I look forward to seeing how that works out, and there’s a character from her past that I’m rather hoping will turn up in the future.

Any quibbles? Well, Wildern seemed almost too pleasant place, all told, (at least until events close to the end) and a little more overt drama early on would have added some spice. There was some terminology used that struck me as being quite modern in feel: rest room, pen pal and municipal trash can, for instance. Not a big deal, however.

The second book in a series always loses a little of the bloom of freshness, but the pleasure of rejoining familiar characters more than compensates. A slow-moving, gentle and wonderful story. Five stars.

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Fantasy review: ‘For The Wildings’ by Kyra Halland

September 29, 2016 Review 0

This is the sixth and final part of the Daughter of the Wildings series. I’ve been trying to think how many series I’ve managed to keep up with for six books, and it’s not many. A couple of murder mystery series, perhaps. But in fantasy? Nope. I rarely even get beyond the first book, and only a few stand-out series keep me hooked for a trilogy. So it’s a testament to the strength of the author’s writing that I’ve read and enjoyed every word of all six books.

It was the premise that first caught my eye. Wizards and magic combined with old west cattle ranching and guns? Count me in! And the stories were just as good as I’d hoped. Leading man Silas is a true western hero, tough and determined, but a real gentleman too. His lady, Lainie, is his equal in every respect, and maybe, just maybe, has a little bit more magical power, even. There are villains and good guys and others who veer about from one side to the other. And there are horses and saloons and dried up creeks and flash floods and all the other good stuff that goes with westerns. And wizard battles! What could possibly be better?

At the end of City of Mages, Silas was ill and without his magical power, but Lainie had managed to get him back to home territory. Now she has to find a safe place for them both to hide while she tries to heal him, and help him recover his power. And wouldn’t you just know it, but the dastardly villains are still on their tail, and this time if things go wrong, the whole Wildings will be lost and its people will be slaves. So the stakes couldn’t be higher.

Once again it falls to Lainie to be resourceful and create new ways of combining her magical abilities to defeat the bad guys, but this time she’s not on her own. I love the way Lainie and Silas work together with magic and plain common sense — they make a great team! It’s probably not much of a spoiler to say that things work out pretty well in the end — I was very, very happy with the outcome.

I’ve enjoyed all the books in the series, but if I had to choose a favourite, it would be Book 5, City of Mages. Partly it was because it took us to a different part of the world quite unlike the cattle-ranching Wildings, which was an exciting change. Partly also because Silas was out of commission for most of the book, so Lainie had to step up and show just what she could do single-handed, which was pretty spectacular. And partly, of course, because of that awesome wizard battle — Lainie against nine powered-up mages. Brilliant stuff.

But, as with all the best series, the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. Like all the author’s books, the world-building is exceptional, and each book reveals a little more of the complexities of the various cultures, and the several different forms of magic, which all make perfect sense. The characters change and grow, book by book, as Lainie learns to use her abilities and gains confidence, and Silas learns to trust her and not over-protect her. Their romance is gentle and rather sweet. It’s a terrific read — highly recommended. Five stars for this book and the series.

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Now out! ‘The Second God’

September 24, 2016 Publishing/marketing, The Fire Mages, The Fire Mages' Daughter, The Second God 0

Yes, folks, the story that started in The Fire Mages and continued a generation later in The Fire Mages’ Daughter now reaches its dramatic conclusion, as Drina and the two men in her life, Ly-haam and Arran, are forced to make difficult and dangerous choices to defend their country from new threats.

The Second God is currently just $2.99 for a short time, and The Fire Mages’ Daughter is just $0.99. If you’d like to pick up a copy of The Fire Mages too, hold off until 3rd October, when it will be FREE. All these discounts are available worldwide for the Kindle. If you have a subscription to Kindle Unlimited or Amazon Prime, you can borrow all three books free. You can also buy the books in paperback, and download the ebook free of charge. Click the cover image to be taken to your local Amazon.

Here’s the blurb for The Second God:

Rival gods at war. Mind-bonded giant beasts. A fanatical golden army. Dangerous blood magic.

secondgodcover2500After The Fire Mages and The Fire Mages’ Daughter, the dramatic conclusion to the story…

It’s been five years since the war with the fearsome Blood Clans, whose giant bonded beasts almost destroyed Bennamore. Now the tenuous peace is being put to the test.

Drina’s prisoner-husband and Blood Clan god, Ly-haam, is challenged by the emergence of a second living god.

Drina’s lover, Arran, is vulnerable to flattery from the ambitious fringes of the ruler’s court, but his weakness could endanger many lives.

Meanwhile, on the southern Plains of Kallanash, a new force is arising from the chaos of the Karningplain — a vast golden army, raised in ferocious discipline, and fanatical followers of another kind of god, who is determined to spread his power into an empire, and will let nothing stand in his way.

To combat the threat to Bennamore and its allies, Drina, Arran and Ly-haam must set aside their personal differences and combine their talents in a uniquely dangerous way which will test their heroism to its limits. How much will they have to sacrifice to save their country?

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Mystery review: ‘A Case of Blackmail in Belgravia’ by Clara Benson

September 11, 2016 Review 0

For anyone who read all ten of the Angela Marchmont series of murder mysteries set in the 1920s, this spin-off series is an absolute must. Featuring the gloriously insouciant Freddy Pilkington-Soames, this first book in the new series has all the author’s trademark elegant phrasing and delightful humour, combined with twenties glamour and a gentle murder mystery to be solved. I was a little concerned that Freddy, a comedic bit part in the Angela series, might be too lightweight to carry an entire series on his own, but I needn’t have worried. Freddy turns out to have a very deft hand in managing affairs so that the murderer is brought to justice without his society cronies missing the cocktail hour.

Here’s the plot: the magnificently named Ticky Maltravers is the toast of London high society, adored by everyone—or so it seems, until somebody poisons him over dinner. Now it turns out that numerous people with secrets to hide had every reason to wish him dead. But which of them murdered him? It’s not a spoiler (because it’s in the title) that a number of society figures are being blackmailed by Ticky, so the trick becomes one of keeping all those secrets out of the hands of the police and the newspapers, while also ensuring that the killer doesn’t get away with murder.

In a book like this, the plot isn’t really the point. I guessed the murderer’s identity very early on, so I was able to feel pleasantly smug when I was proved right, but that just means the author dropped enough clues and didn’t cheat by pulling out a long-lost identical twin at the end. The real joy in these books is the authentic writing style, which cleverly evokes the era. The slightly Bertie-Wooster-esque humour had me laughing out loud on almost every page. The danger with this style is that it can veer perilously close to slapstick at times, but for me it never went over the top and worked perfectly to leaven the sometimes lengthy sentence structure.

This book was a joy to read from the very first word, and I loved seeing Freddy taking charge and behaving responsibly, yet without losing his ineffable Freddiness. There was a mild romantic interest, too, which was a nice touch, and I applaud the author for not making the police into idiots or buffoons. Highly recommended. Five stars.

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New release round-up: books I’m looking forward to reading

September 10, 2016 Books that caught my eye 0

Once again, my backlog of books to be read is growing and, with two new releases of my own this month, the time for reading has shrunk alarmingly. I hope to catch up a bit next month when I’ll be off to Australia for three weeks, with my trusty Kindle fully charged. Until then, here are some recently released books that I’m really excited about reading.

Finally, finally a sequel to the amazing The Healers’ Road by S E Robertson, which was a five star read for me back in 2014. I described it as literary fantasy, a beautifully written story of two very different people thrown together and gradually inching towards an accommodation as they travelled about offering their opposing styles of healing skills as needed. In The Healers’ Home, the two have a settled place to live for the first time. I can’t wait to find out how they adjust to a very different way of life. You can read my review of the previous book here.

Here’s one that I should have mentioned before, because it’s been out for a while. For The Wildings is the final installment of Kyra Halland’s six-part Daughter of the Wildings series, a western/fantasy/romance mash-up that I’ve absolutely loved. The mixture of magical fireworks with cowboy-style shoot-em-ups is something that really shouldn’t work, but absolutely does. Combine that with Halland’s customary elegant world-building and a gentle romance, and this whole series is a winner. I’m looking forward to finding out how it ends. You can read my review of Beneath The Canyons, the first part of the series,  here.

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Urban fantasy review: ‘Gathering Black’ by Jen Rasmussen

September 7, 2016 Review 0

Oh, that difficult second book of the series. The first is always full of surprises, every quirk of the author’s created world new and fresh. The final part is the big battle where evil is defeated, all the wrongs are set right and everything ends on a happy note. And then there are those middle books (this is the second in a planned five-book series). It’s very easy to drop the ball at this point, but here the author distracts with plenty of action and a whole heap of mysteries. Where are these precious sapwood seeds that both sides want so badly? Who is the traitor in the clan that’s supposed to be protecting them? And most of all, who can be trusted and who’s following their own agenda?

The most delightful aspect of this series, for me, is the concept of place magic, something that our heroine, Verity, has been using in a small way all her life, but began to realise in the first book of the series, Grim Haven, was far more powerful than she’d realised. I loved the way she protected herself and those around her by writing little magical notes stating that nothing will happen, everything will be fine, no one gets hurt. And she found an ingenious way to protect the whole of the hotel she’d inherited. But now she has to step up and find even more powerful ways to develop her magic, and this whole book is a series of lurches and missteps in that direction. The author makes it a real struggle for her to progress and that felt very realistic.

As for the characters, Verity’s a truly likable heroine, not in any way the typical kick ass female so beloved of this genre, although she’s obviously incredibly powerful in her own way. She feels, mostly, like a regular person doing the best she can, facing up to the inevitable but cleverly and never, ever giving up. New introduction Arabella is far more the conventional kick ass type, and gorgeous with it. Cue all sorts of female uncertainties, because there’s also Cooper, Verity’s boyfriend. I really liked Cooper in book 1. This book? Not quite so much. There was far too much all-round grumpiness for my liking, and not enough be-nice-to-Verity moments. Come on, Cooper, appreciate her a little more openly, please. We readers want a good quota of heartwarming lovey-doviness.

The plot — well, it’s pretty much what you’d expect. Our heroes step up to the plate and try to do what needs to be done without getting killed. Or worse. There are some pretty horrifying moments in this book, so the overall tone is kind of downbeat at times. Still, there are some delicious punch-the-air moments, too, unexpected outbreaks of humour and the setpiece battles are very well done. Overall, I found it a somewhat darker book than the last one, but the battle for the sapwood seeds is building up nicely. Looking forward to the next installment. Four stars.

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The Brightmoon world has a map!

September 4, 2016 The Second God 2

In less than three weeks, on 23rd September, The Second God will be released, my seventh epic fantasy, yet up to now there’s never been a map of any part of the Brightmoon world. But this book is a little different, it covers a wide area of the southern Plains of Kallanash, and with multiple plot strands taking place simultaneously at different locations, it was time to bite the bullet and become a proper, grown-up fantasy author. I have a map! It was drawn for me by Write.Dream.Repeat Book Design, using map elements by Ignacio Portilla M.

And here it is:


Most of the Brightmoon books so far take place within this map. Here’s how they fit in:

The Plains of Kallanash: in the Karningplain.

The Fire Mages: in Bennamore.

The Mages of Bennamore: in the Port Holdings.

The Magic Mines of Asharim: at the top of the Sky Mountains (but mostly off the map).

The Fire Mages’ Daughter: in Bennamore and the Blood Clans’ land.

The Dragon’s Egg: mostly off the map.

The Second God: everywhere south and west of Greenstone Ford.

I hope this will be useful while you read the book.

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Authors Answer 17: What authors, styles or intellectual movements have most influenced your writing?

August 19, 2016 AuthorsAnswer, Regency romances, Writing musings 0

For the fantasy, I can’t honestly say that anything has really influenced my writing. I haven’t read a vast amount in the genre, and what I have read is mostly of a type I wouldn’t wish to emulate. Game of Thrones is too dark and nihilistic. Robin Hobb is downright depressing — beautifully written work that I hated. The authors whose work I most admire — Mark Lawrence, Daniel Abraham, Glenda Larke, Guy Gavriel Kay — are so brilliant I feel embarrassed to call myself a writer. My own work is such a mishmash of genre tropes that if someone asks me: “What other books are like yours?” I genuinely can’t answer. This isn’t a boast, by the way — it’s a Very Bad Thing not to be able to place your own books in the pantheon of genres. It’s embarrassing, and the result of ignorance of the genres rather than the genius of my creative mind.

For the Regency romances, I can actually answer this question! Phew! Jane Austen is the ultimate and original Regency romance writer, and although I could never aspire to her glorious wit or brilliance with words, the general principle of the story being the courtship, peppered with obstacles and misunderstandings and a slow realisation of love, is the ideal I try to follow. The books end with the accepted proposal, the presumed happy married life is never seen, and that, too, is my policy, although I do allow my couple a passionate kiss or two, so that modern readers will understand how well-suited they are.

The other shining light of traditional Regency romances is Georgette Heyer, a twentieth-century author whose books are convincingly of the era, with plots which are light and frivolous. These are the original Regency romps, with beautifully witty dialogue peppered with slang. I have some issues with Heyer, finding the romances too minimal sometimes, and the plots too silly for words. She also allows her very deep research to overwhelm the story occasionally. But the fluffy style is very much one I try to emulate.

Modern Regency authors? Not so much. I find most of them impossible to read, with heroines who behave in most unladylike ways, a metric ton of sex, and a very liberal interpretation of historical accuracy. I’m not a stickler for historic detail, but five minutes on Wikipedia surely wouldn’t hurt, would it? Then there are all the big frocks on the cover, the random forms of address (Lady Penelope and Lady Smith are NOT interchangeable terms!) and an England seemingly populated entirely by Dukes (hint: there are and always were very, very few of them).

As for intellectual movements… ha ha ha! No. I can safely say that no aspect of my writing has been influenced by anything resembling an intellectual movement.

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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