Monthly Archives:: November 2014

Fantasy Review: ‘Among Others’ by Jo Walton

November 30, 2014 Review 0

I have no idea what to make of this. Anyone who’s read it will understand when I say that I’ve never read anything like it. It’s so far out to left field that it probably meets itself coming the other way. And yet I loved it.

Here’s the premise: Morwenna is a fifteen-year-old girl with eccentric family life, who is, after a dramatic family implosion, under the care of her long-absent father, and starting at a girls’ boarding school. Retreating into a shell of leave-me-alone-ness, she finds consolation in reading – inhaling, almost – every sci-fi and fantasy book she can get her hands on. That’s a fairly bald summary of a story that involves a witchy mother, fairies and magic (possibly), a family for whom the word weird just doesn’t come close, as well as the banal details of school life and an array of glorious asides on the books she’s reading.

The story is set in 1979, primarily, I suspect, to allow the author to describe as new some of the iconic SF works of that era. It’s always easier to toss out comments about these books from a distance of several decades. Most of the historical details rang true to me (it’s set in Britain, on the Welsh border), but there were a few issues that jumped out at me. For instance, I simply can’t believe that any doctor of the era would routinely prescribe the pill for a fifteen-year-old (ie below the age of consent). There were a few bent medics who asked no questions, but generally speaking you needed to be at least engaged, and preferably married, before you could even mention contraception to a doctor. Then there’s the casual way Morwenna deals with the idea of incest, which seemed off to me. However, she’s a strange girl in multiple ways: incest is shrugged off, but she agonises at length over the ethics of using magic for personal benefit, such as making a bus arrive just when she needs it, and the knock-on effects on scores of other individuals who might be inconvenienced by that. Which was quite funny.

The plot… well, what plot? Morwenna goes to school, Morwenna reads books, Morwenna deals with her family, Morwenna makes friends. Apart from an overly melodramatic finale, nothing terribly exciting happens, except that the reader gradually finds out what happened when Morwenna’s twin died. Oh yes, and Morwenna talks to fairies and does magicky things when they tell her to. And here the book is actually very clever, because everything is equally interpretable as the product of an over-active imagination. An imagination, moreover, steeped in fantastical worlds. Is Morwenna really seeing fairies and using magic, or does she just think she is? Since the story is told through her eyes, it’s left to the reader to decide. The whole book is equally understandable either way.

So what is the book really about? It’s about reality and fantasy, about what you see and what you believe, it’s about the blurring of the lines between worlds, and most of all it’s about magic: what is magic, after all? Is it real, if you only believe in it hard enough? Is it always there, except we’re mostly oblivious? Or is the real magic going on only in our heads, in the other worlds we inhabit there? Your guess is as good as mine.

A fine, thought-provoking book, which I don’t profess to understand beyond a superficial level, but which I loved, nevertheless. Five stars.

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Paranormal DNF: ‘Morning Star’ by Desiree Finkbeiner

November 29, 2014 Review 1

This is one of those books that I picked up yonks ago in the enthusiasm of a brand new Kindle, which has lurked forgotten ever since. And somehow my tastes have changed in the interim. What seemed like an interesting idea now doesn’t grab me at all.

Here’s the premise: Brianna (or Bree) is a normal teenage girl, albeit with an unusual interest in mushrooms, when she encounters a giant dragonfly and falls down the stairs. As anyone would. She recovers remarkably quickly, but then the dragonflies are everywhere, and Bree sees an attractive stranger, Kalen, who fascinates her. He speaks and dresses oddly, and is unfamiliar with common customs. From then onwards, things escalate, involving a specific mushroom Bree found some years earlier, and another stranger with dragonflies and evil intent.

And somehow none of it captivated me, and Bree’s insta-lust attraction towards Kalen got tedious very quickly. There’s nothing particularly wrong with this book, so if you like a story where a teenage girl gets swept up in otherworldly stuff, you’d probably enjoy this. I gave up at the 15% mark. 1* for a DNF.

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Fantasy Romance Review: ‘Beneath The Canyons’ by Kyra Halland

November 28, 2014 Review 2

What could possibly improve a good old-fashioned western? Why, a little magic, that’s what. Yes, folks, what we have here is a western/fantasy mash-up, complete with horses tied up outside the saloon, gambling and whoring inside, and gunfights in the street, but some of the people wearing the big hats are mages, and the mining going on in the hills is digging up something a lot more powerful than gold. And is it fun? You betcha.

Silas is a mage visiting the Wildings from neighbouring Granadaia, a bounty hunter looking to round up a renegade mage for profit. Lainie is a rancher’s daughter with her own untrained magical powers. Silas ought to hand her over for training, or else remove her powers altogether, leaving her a shell of her former self, but somehow he can’t quite bring himself to do either. Meanwhile, the town is being torn apart by the mining for some valuable commodity which damages the ranchers’ land and produces terrible nightmares. What is going on?

Now, the mystery isn’t terribly complex and most of the characters fall into one of the standard categories: white hats, black hats or red shirts. No shades of grey here. But the two main characters are lovely, a solidly honourable and gentlemanly hero, and a spirited, independent but smart heroine. Lainie’s determination not to be docile does get her into trouble sometimes, and yes, she does have to be rescued by our stalwart hero once or twice, but she also uses her initiative and is just as instrumental as he is in saving the day. And the romance between them is wonderful, sweet rather than hot (although magic does create certain… erm, interesting effects).

There’s some fascinating world-building in the background, and I would have liked a little more detail about some of it, particularly the blueskins living in the hills, who have the power to understand any language spoken to them. There’s the politics of Granadaia, with its Mage Council, too, and I loved the idea that a person’s magic is rooted in the land they were born on. Fortunately, there’s a whole series in the pipeline, so I’m hopeful that more of this will be revealed.

What didn’t work so well for me? There were a huge number of miners who were almost uniformly stupid and selfish and greedy. And a lot of them got shot in the numerous gunfights. They were very expendible, and I wondered how many of them had wives and families back in town, and perhaps wouldn’t have been quite so cavalier about their own safety in reality. But perhaps that’s just me with my twenty-first century sensibilities. [ETA: Apparently they were all vagrants and drifters, a point that whizzed by me as I sped through.] Another minor grumble: I found the plot just a tad predictable at times. There were one or two twists, but not quite enough for my taste.

But these are trivial complaints. I really loved this book, and tore through it in no time. I loved the blend of magic with western conventions, I loved the politeness (Silas always addresses Lainie as ‘Miss Lainie’) and I loved the gentle romance. An entertaining read. A good four stars.

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Urban Fantasy Review: ‘Killing Rites’ by M L N Hanover

November 27, 2014 Review 0

The fourth in the Black Sun’s Daughter series, written under a pseudonym by Daniel Abraham, and at last things are coming to the boil. Jayne has finally stopped shopping and randomly cataloguing dear Uncle Eric’s many houses, and started to think more carefully, both about herself and what she’s doing, but also about the people who surround her. People who give her (mostly) unconditional love and support, but are also individuals with their own hopes and dreams and murky past histories. And Jayne now knows for sure that she has a rider – a demon residing inside her, who helps her in moments of extreme stress, but who is generally regarded as a Very Bad Thing.

This book leaves behind former lover Aubrey, now trying to reconcile with his ex-wife, and, for most of the time, philosophy-man Chogyi Jake, leaving Jayne with one-time priest Ex, a man she now knows desires her. It’s a sign of how far Jayne has come that she doesn’t fall into bed with Ex, despite the two of them being thrown together in a pretty intense way for some time. But Ex’s intentions are not towards Jayne’s body, but her immortal soul; he wants to exorcise her, to rid her of the rider inside her, and at the same time lay to rest his own ghosts.

This book has a very different tone from the previous horror-fest. There are some dark moments and dramatic confrontations, it’s true, but the heart of the story is Jayne confronting (literally) her inner demon, finding out something about who or what she carries inside her. Jayne also has to come to terms with what she as an individual truly wants. In many ways this is more of a coming of age story than most that call themselves that. Jayne finally grows up.

It’s typical of the author that when he writes urban fantasy, he isn’t content to wheel on the evil beasties and leave it at that. Nothing in this book falls neatly into good and bad. Sometimes the best of intentions lead to terrible outcomes. Sometimes all you can hope for is a least worst option. Sometimes you have to hurt the people you love to do the right thing. Sometimes good things are destroyed along the way. And sometimes you need to join forces with a lesser evil to defeat a greater one.

This book is about trust and faith and doing the best you can and being able to bend when the wind blows. And love. That too. A fine book, and much deeper than urban fantasy has any right to be. Five stars.

Footnote: and that’s it for me. I won’t be reading any more about Jayne Heller and friends. Not because this is the end of the series – it isn’t, there’s a fifth book out. The series was projected to be ten books long, but I believe it was terminated after five. No, the reason why I won’t be reading on is because book five, ‘Graveyard Child’, isn’t out in ebook form. Can you believe, in this day and age, that it’s not possible to get an ebook version of any book still in print? But I don’t read dead tree books any more, so I’ll never know how the series ends. Which makes me sad.

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Fantasy Review: ‘Watcher’s Web’ by Patty Jansen

November 26, 2014 Review 0

I’m a sucker for a portal story, where the main character falls through some sort of access point into – well, whatever the author cares to imagine (past, future, parallel world, some other planet altogether). It’s always fun to watch the character work out what’s happened, and trying to deal with the new setting. It can be trite, but there’s always room for a fresh take on the idea.

Jessica has always been an outsider. She’s taller than average, for one thing, not very womanly in shape, has some odd birthmarks, and then there’s the whole web of light thing she does with her mind. Useful for dealing with truculent bulls, but it can kill, too, and she’s still not sure how to cope with it. And then one day, something odd happens and the small plane she’s in crashes somewhere weird. As in very weird.

Straight away I like that the inhabitants of this weird place don’t automatically speak English. And they have tails! Yay for humanoids with tails. Although some of their customs do seem to be very, very odd… But they’re not the only people around. This is, in fact, a very complex place, with a number of different species (or sub-species or races, not sure exactly how it works), and some complicated political arrangements. And Jessica is thrust into the middle of it all, seen as a saviour by more than one faction, but not necessarily for good reasons.

I’ll confess I didn’t always know exactly what was going on. Some aspects were deliberately mysterious, like Jessica’s strange mental connection to the man called Daya, and sometimes characters were keeping information from her or outright lying, which made it difficult to follow. Then there was Jessica’s web-like power, which I never fully understood. But the story swept me along and I never worried too much about the details.

Jessica herself is a gloriously independent-minded, spiky individual, the ideal focus for a story like this because she constantly asks the obvious questions that also spring to the reader’s mind. She doesn’t always get a straight answer, but at least she asks, and she keeps on asking. She also makes efforts to avoid being manipulated too much by the people around her, but it’s difficult to know who to trust in this strange new world. She also has to come to terms with her powers and the revelations of her heritage, and that’s a lot to take in.

It was disappointing that such an otherwise intelligent, sensible and together character ended up drawn into sexual relationships which only served to complicate everything. I wasn’t sufficiently drawn to either of the men to be rooting for either of them. Really I was only rooting for Jessica, and longing for her to stand up to both of them and tell them to ^&*% off and leave her alone until she’s sorted out which way is up in this strange new world.

The ending was the usual dramatic high-action affair, with a few things sorted out but plenty of scope for further developments in the series. Overall an enjoyable read, with bonus points for the originality of the setting. Four stars.

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Fiction Review: ‘My Memories of a Future Life’ by Roz Morris

November 24, 2014 Review 0

I have no idea what to make of this. I don’t even know how to characterise it: literary paranormal fiction, maybe? Or a psychological… hmm, not thriller, exactly, but mystery, perhaps. And although it was interesting, in an oddball sort of way, it never quite flowed for me. It felt just a bit out of kilter like a slightly convex mirror, everything coming across as distorted. Maybe that’s appropriate for the story, I don’t know. Certainly the future parts were much more interesting and vivid to read about.

The premise is that a talented London pianist, Carol, finds herself unable to play because of repetitive strain injury. Her flatmate, Jerry, is pursuing his personal demons by way of regressive hypnotherapy; he feels he’s been a victim of Jack the Ripper in a previous life. Carol tries it too, but finds herself in the future, a soothesayer called Andreq, someone who is trained to soothe people using some technique called xech. Everyone is able to xech, apparently, but not future-Carole, although no one seems to know that, at least not officially. She seems to be able to wing it when required, though. Present-day Carole takes herself off to some coastal backwater to recuperate, where her hypnotherapist, Gene, is also now working.

The London scenes were fine, but the stay in small town Vellonoweth (is that an anagram?) is treated with big-city contempt. It must be very amusing to be so scathing about such quaint customs as half-day closing and quirky local radio, and part of me was entertained by all this vitriol, while the other part was outraged on behalf of the inhabitants of Vellonoweth and small towns everywhere. To be honest, it was hard to believe in this very small place which is apparently stuffed to the rafters with aspiring singers for Carol to attempt to teach. Not to mention wall-to-wall clairvoyants and the like.

Of the main characters, Gene, the enigmatic hypnotherapist, is easily the most interesting. Every scene with him is unexpected, and I never felt I had a handle on him at all. Just too enigmatic altogether. His relationship with Carol was a fascinating mix of professional distance, suppressed sexual tension and an edge of something much, much darker. A compelling character. Jerry, the London friend, is fun, if not particularly original. Carole herself is a curious mixture of upper-class haughtiness and arrogant disdain for lesser mortals, at least in musical terms.

The ending was a little too contrived for my taste, and the author would have done better, in my view, to cut short the post-drama ruminations and leave the reader to take from it whatever he or she will. The writing style is sharp, although I occasionally found the use of metaphor too intrusive. But that’s a matter of personal taste.

A quirky and thought-provoking read. Four stars.

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I’m back!

November 24, 2014 Current writings, Publishing/marketing 2

Did anyone even notice I was gone? No? Oh well. I’ve just spent three very pleasant weeks in Australia, first in Adelaide, then crossing the Nullarbor desert by train to Perth, then back to Adelaide to catch the plane home. Great weather, great food, great wine, great people – so friendly and just all-round nice people. And an astonishing number of them from my original stamping ground of Merseyside. Very weird to fly half-way round the world and hear so many Scouse accents.

I got plenty of reading done on the long flights to and from the UK, and on the train. Thank goodness for a well-stuffed Kindle. I have eight reviews ready to post, and several other books partly read. Lovely to be able to catch up on my reading, and not to have twenty other things vying for my attention.

I got some writing done, too, although I find travelling less conducive to creative thought. Still, I got a couple more chapters written of the current work in progress (book 4 in the Brightmoon world). I also did a full read-through on book 3, so progress is being made.

Current state of play:

Here’s a quick rundown on where the various books are at:

‘The Plains of Kallanash’: published, sold/lent around 80 paid copies, plus around 800 free copies.

‘The Fire Mages’: currently awaiting final beta reports, then one more edit and proofreading, ready for a January publication date.

‘The Mages of Bennamore’: complete and ready for editing. Cover art booked. Publication (I hope!) around May 2015.

‘The Mines of Asharim’: about 70,000 words written, probably about half-way.

Coming up:

I have another set of free days planned for Kallanash for early December – 3rd/4th/5th – and a little light promotion to help things along. So if you know of anyone who might like a free read, let them know.

I’m also beginning to plan for the release of ‘The Fire Mages’ in January. Beta readers have been very positive about it, and not found too many glaring plot holes so I’m going to give it a modest promotional push – a blog tour and a few not too expensive email lists. It will be quite fun to have two books out! I’m beginning to feel like a proper author. 🙂

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