Yearly Archives:: 2014

Urban Fantasy Review: ‘Vicious Grace’ by M L N Hanover

September 24, 2014 Review 0

This is the third of the ‘Black Sun’s Daughter’ series of urban fantasies, written under a pseudonym by Daniel Abraham. The first, ‘Unclean Spirits’, was a bit spotty, overfull of angst, shopping sprees and housecleaning, not to mention a certain amount of breathless sex. The second, ‘Darker Angels’, was a lot better in all respects, and this one picks up even more. The plot revolves around Jayné and sidekicks Ex, Chogyi Jake and Aubrey (yes, yes, the names are terrible, and what makes it worse is that the minor characters have perfectly normal names). Jayné has inherited a vast array of property from her nice uncle Eric, acquired during his career messing around with supernatural nasties, in particular ‘riders’, demons which inhabit human bodies. Jayné and pals have to continue his efforts, while not really knowing what he was up to.

The author expertly reprises the key events of the previous books, so even though it’s a while since I read book 2, and I usually have trouble remembering even something I read last week, I was never floundering in the slightest. That’s a skill that few authors can boast. This book involves a summons from Aubrey’s ex-wife Kim, and since he’s now Jayné’s boyfriend, a certain amount of romantic angsting ensues. There are some revelations about uncle Eric, too, who turns out to have been less than nice. Not at all nice, in fact.

For anyone who is put off by characters agonising over relationships and the distressing consequences of using magic to achieve your nefarious ends, this may not be the book for you. Personally, I found this aspect of the story compelling and emotionally charged, bringing some much-needed depth to the characters and their histories. Jayné has to face up to her situation and make some difficult decisions, and she grows up visibly during the course of the story. She’s come a long way from the shopaholic girl of book 1.

The action part of the story is a corker, too. Without giving too much away, it revolves around a vast hospital complex that conceals a dark secret in its basement, which causes some very disturbing things to happen. There’s a part where the hospital begins to change its very nature to counteract the evil within it which is trying to escape. The result is pure horror, very surreal and unearthly.

And then the ending is very dark. Anyone looking for a light, fluffy read should steer well away from this series. For anyone prepared to ponder the nature of friendship and love and sacrifice, willing or otherwise, this book is deeply rewarding. At the end, Jayné makes a decision which raises a whole otherworld of moral issues. It’s complex, very complex, and I salute the author for not shying away from the questions and not making things easy for Jayné.

This is the best yet in this series, with a compelling surface plot, some unexpected backstory, and hints about the meaning of the series title at last. The final line wasn’t too hard to predict, but it’s still an effective hook into the next book in the series. A very good four stars.

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Milestone achieved: fifty sales

September 24, 2014 Publishing/marketing 7

When I pressed the ‘publish’ button for ‘The Plains of Kallanash’ twelve days ago, my expectations were realistic (read: low). First book, no platform, no horde of fans waiting anxiously. And no plan to promote the thing beyond telling people I know: hey, look, this book I’ve been wittering about? It’s out. So being realistic (read: pessimistic), I hoped to sell 15-20 copies to online friends, and thereafter perhaps a copy or so a week to random strangers. Maybe 50 copies in the first six months.

Today when I checked my sales stats I found a nice surprise: a sale in Germany which brought the total sales up to 50. My first milestone achieved already. It isn’t much of a milestone, but it’s more than I expected at this stage, which is pleasing. So ‘Danke’, random stranger in Germany. I hope you enjoy the book.

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Fantasy Review: ‘Rebellion’ by Rachel Cotterill

September 18, 2014 Review 0

This book was an unexpected pleasure. Unexpected, because it’s something that I picked up cheaply more than two years ago, when I was less careful about my purchases than I am now, and after a few disasters I’m a bit wary of anything that’s been lurking in a dusty corner of my Kindle for any length of time. And pleasure, because this was just a hugely enjoyable read. It started slowly and built very gradually, but it never sagged or got boring. Instead it wormed its way under my skin to become one of the best reads I’ve found this year.

In many ways, it’s a conventional fantasy, a coming of age with a quest, an unusual sort of school, an Empire and exotic countries beyond it, and swords and daggers and horse-drawn carts and market squares. And pirates! Bonus points for the pirates. And the young girl fighting to make her way in a male world isn’t particularly unusual. Even her chosen path of official assassin isn’t uncommon in fantasy.

But in other ways this is very different. There’s no magic, for one thing, and no fantastical animals or races. And main character Eleanor is both smart and independent, thinking her way out of trouble rather than resorting to fights. But she isn’t sickly sweet, either. She is, in many ways, quite an unlikeable character, ambitious and totally focused on her career, to the detriment, perhaps, of other elements of her life. She’s quite prepared to do what it takes to get to the top, and doesn’t hesitate to take advantage of other people. Her ruthlessness is what makes her so outstanding as a trainee assassin. So much fantasy tries to square the circle: to make the heroine the best at whatever she does, without ever losing her femininity and innocence. Here the author has addressed this issue head on, and doesn’t shy from the obvious truth: to be the best, you have to do a little trampling of rivals along the way.

One aspect I particularly liked was the world the story was set in. The Empire has some unusual policies. In particular, children are removed from their parents at birth and placed into single-sex schools. At seventeen, they are assigned a role in the Empire’s administration, their suitability determined by some obscure means. They will occupy that role for their whole lives, and there is no right of appeal. The idea of a society without families is an interesting one, and the author touches on the implications only lightly, but it’s refreshing to see a work of fantasy which doesn’t subscribe to the conventional social structures. Unfortunately, very little was done with the idea. Perhaps it becomes more significant in later books.

The book falls naturally into two halves, and the first part is, to my mind, a more cohesive story. Eleanor is offered a derisory position on graduation, which she chooses to reject, instead seeking out the almost legendary Academy where assassins are trained. Her journey becomes a classical quest, seeking clues both to the location of the Academy itself and also the secret of entering it. It’s not a place where applicants simply open a door and walk in. Along the way, Eleanor is forced to take work on a ship, is attacked by pirates, pursued by a vengeful victim of an early theft, and eventually is captured by foreign agents and tortured. This is rather a gruesome section of the book, which made me wonder about the age of intended readers. In many ways this is a classic YA coming of age story, but I wouldn’t recommend it for early teens. However, the puzzles she has to solve to gain admittance to the Academy are rather good, and I enjoyed these greatly.

The second part of the book is spottier. Some elements are drawn out to great length – Eleanor’s choosing of designs for her weapons, for instance, which seems to have no significance and could have been summarised in a sentence or two – while some of the challenges she undertakes were skipped over quite quickly, and I would have preferred a bit more detail. This section also focuses less on Eleanor’s individual problem-solving, and more on her interactions with others and this was (for me) the weakest aspect of the book. The budding romance from the first part is never addressed in any depth, and I found some implausibility in this. Eleanor is the only girl in the establishment, yet there’s no mention at all of sex, which would surely have been an issue, and the putative boyfriend is remarkably low-key throughout. Their given ages were late teens/early twenties, yet they both acted like early teenagers, happy with a platonic relationship. I don’t even recall a proper kiss. This may be the result of separating the sexes at birth and the lack of a family upbringing, but I would have thought that sex was enough of a biological imperative to overcome that handicap.

Another problem I had was with the rather vague sense of ethics. At one point, a contest is won in a way that I, at least, regarded as outright cheating, and although this is discussed, nothing ever comes of it. And then in the climactic challenge, there’s the opposite: an accusation of cheating that I couldn’t understand at all. It would have helped if the rules were made clearer: either contestants are allowed to do whatever it takes to win, or there need to be clearly defined limitations.

The ending, after all the build-up, felt oddly rushed, despite the great length of the book, and then it was straight into the setup for the second book. I would have liked a more resonant finale and some emotional resolution, especially with the boyfriend and the rivals in the contests. Nevertheless, this was an enjoyable book which kept me turning the pages, with only a few jarring moments along the way and Eleanor is an unusual and intriguing character. A good four stars.

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A fangirl moment…

September 17, 2014 General 2

Excuse me while I squeeee for a while… Michael J Sullivan is one of my favourite fantasy authors, and he’s currently hosting a giveaway for advance printings of his new series. You can sign up at Goodreads and a couple of other places. Full details here.

But that’s not really what got me all excited. Take a look at this…

Isn’t that just the most amazing artwork? It’s by Andres Rocha.

One day, when I’m rich and famous (ha!), I’m going to get cover art for ‘The Plains of Kallanash’ that looks as awesome as this: the sweeping vista, with maybe the Ring of Bonnegar and the spires and domes of Kashinor. Sigh. One day…

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First review of ‘The Plains of Kallanash’

September 16, 2014 Uncategorized 2

The first Amazon review for ‘The Plains of Kallanash’ is up, and it’s a positive one.

“This is a grand, ambitious tale full of thought-provoking ideas and surreal circumstances that somehow manage to strike a balance between the real and the fantastical. I was hooked from the start…”

Read the rest at Amazon.co.uk.

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Urban Fantasy DNF: ‘Fated’ by Benedict Jacka

September 14, 2014 Review 2

So there’s this guy who lives in London and has a magic shop, and he’s not really a mage but he has a really cool magely power: he can see into the future. Not the future, but all possible futures, which gives him a bit of a clue sometimes, not just that stuff is going to happen, but what makes it happen and therefore how to facilitate it or evade it. So whenever he gets into a tight spot (which seems to happen quite often), all he has to do to get out of trouble is to peek into some of those many possible futures and see which ones have him escaping, and work out how that comes about. And for a while I just thought: that’s a neat idea.

But when he’s able to use that ability over and over, it becomes both repetitive and, frankly, too easy. I like magic that has costs and rules and isn’t just a get-out-of-jail-free card for any slightly sticky occasion. And given that he also has a sort-of invisibility cloak and a helpful air elemental who whisks him about at great speed as needed – sorry, but that’s just not an interesting use of magic, to me. The worst moment, I felt, was where he had to evade a a warded door, and the author says cheerily: well, when you know what will trigger it, you also know how to avoid it, adding smugly: think about it. And it never is explained, because the next thing, our hero is on the other side of the untriggered alarm. To my mind, that’s just lazy writing. [Caveat: maybe it gets explained later in the book, who knows.]

So I gave up quite quickly. It’s a shame, because to be honest there’s nothing wrong with the book at all in other ways: it’s well written, with some good action scenes (mage battles!), interesting characters with potential and some nice humour. And it’s probably my fault for being way too serious about this and it’s all intended as jolly, light-hearted fun, which maybe those less critical or grumpy than me will appreciate. Plus, it’s said to be similar to the Dresden Files. Now, I may be the only person left on the planet who hasn’t read the Dresden Files, so odd references in this book to wizards in Chicago just whizzed right over my head. But if you like The Dresden Files, this book might be just your cup of tea (or possibly the similarities might irritate the hell out of you). But this wasn’t for me. I got to the 19% point before giving up. One star for a DNF.

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Fantasy Romance Review: ‘Bound’ by Kate Sparkes

September 13, 2014 Review 1

This is a cracking story. Fantasy romance is a tricky format. It can veer from straight fantasy with a little romance on the side, through to outright romance with a little arm-wavy magic or the occasional dragon thrown in for light relief. This book leans more to the relationship side of the equation, but there’s some solid world-building underpinning it.

Many elements of the story are quite conventional. Rowan is the teenage girl expected to do her duty and marry well, producing the babies in unexpectedly short supply in her country, Darmid. But she’s fascinated by magic, even though it’s illegal, and why does she have strange headaches? Aren is the royal from the neighbouring country, Tyrea, a powerful sorcerer whose even more powerful older brother now rules. When Aren is sent to capture a sorcerer from magic-less Darmid for experimentation, he meets Rowan and… Well, we can see where this is going, can’t we?

Despite the well-worn plotlines, the opening chapters draw the world and characters with deft brushwork, and if Rowan is a little too quick to help the injured Aren, and Aren is a little too easily drawn to Rowan, I can let that go for the depth of world-building below the surface. There are some nice details here: like the idea that eliminating magic in Darmid acts to weaken the magic in next door Tyrea, too. And women in Darmid are only fertile once a year. No wonder they have so much trouble producing babies. The author cleverly follows this through in logical ways: sex before marriage is positively encouraged, because it just might result in a successful pregnancy.

The middle part of the book sags somewhat, becoming a slightly dull travelogue, with various threats leaping out of the scenery to liven things up. In between dealing with these events, the two main characters angst about what they’re doing, and each other, and the future. The story is told from both Rowan’s and Aren’s point of view, in first person. Occasionally I found this confusing, but it did help to get under the skin of both characters. Both of them are smart and behaved sensibly, but Aren I found particularly fascinating. His background and history, his suppressed anger, his status as a loner and outsider despite his family connections – all made him far more interesting to me than Rowan, whose life was far more settled.

Aren’s history also made the romance difficulties work well. It’s a convention in a romance story that although the main characters are irresistibly drawn to each other, something prevents them from being together. And when one of them is a professional assassin and ruthless fixer-upper? Yes, I can see why Rowan might have second thoughts about a man like that.

The plot rolls along quite nicely, until… Look, I’m going to rant for a minute here, so you can skip ahead to the next paragraph if you want. So we have our plucky hero and heroine racing to escape a fate worse than death, chased by evil villains here, there and everywhere, things getting fraught, building nicely to a climax, and then what happens? There’s a ball, that’s what. Well, a party, anyway, with fancy frocks, and dancing, and general merriment. Guys, there are people out there wanting to kill you, probably painfully and very, very slowly – get a sense of urgency, for goodness sake. No, I get it, I really do, the two main characters have to have their Big Romantic Moment, but I do struggle with credibility here. As it happens, it was a particularly good BRM, so that’s fine, but please, authors, skip the frocks and dancing, OK?

The climax is a suitably dramatic confrontation with a fairly long-drawn-out post-dust-up scenario, which managed to bring some emotional resonance to bear without sacrificing common sense or betraying the characters of the principals involved. And needless to say, there are enough loose threads to continue the story into the next book. This is a particularly well written and well plotted fantasy romance, which finds a good balance between the two elements and has unusually strong characterisation. A good four stars.

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Published!

September 13, 2014 Publishing/marketing 8

Yes, ‘The Plains of Kallanash’ is finally published. Hurray!

Since it’s been on pre-order for a week or two, my daughter and stayed up until midnight to watch it go live on Amazon.co.uk. Eight hours later, it went live in the US. If I’d planned things better, I could have watched the roll-out around the world, starting in Australia. Then there was the paperback version to get up and running, which took a few hours for all the kinks to work out. Mid-afternoon, the ‘look-inside’ feature was activated. And then there were sales reports to watch and rankings to track and royalties to check. And hey, I’ve made around $5.00 already. Better get that Ferrari ordered… Oh, wait, there are refunds… 🙁

Last night I threw myself a launch party, with champagne and nibbles and a cake with ‘The Plains of Kallanash’ inscribed on the top in icing. And I’ve had a whale of a time. This publishing business is fun. 🙂

You can buy ‘The Plains of Kallanash’ at a special introductory price at:

Big Amazon

UK Amazon

Australian Amazon

Canadian Amazon

And all other regional Amazons. Also on Kindle Unlimited.

‘The Plains of Kallanash’ is an epic fantasy adventure with a strong romantic element. Here’s the blurb:

Thousands of years after a magical catastrophe reshaped the world and pulled the moons out of alignment, the secret of magic has seemingly been lost. At the centre of the vast, forbidding Plains of Kallanash lies a land ruled by a secretive religion, whose people fight a never-ending war against the barbarians in the wilderness beyond the border.

Amongst the nobility, double marriages are the norm. Junior wife Mia always dreamed of attracting the attention of the dashing lead husband, but never dared to compete against her lively older sister. Hurst has spent ten frustrating years as junior husband, longing to test his skill with a sword in battle, longing for his beloved Mia to turn to him.

The mysterious death of Mia’s sister thrusts the marriage into turmoil. As Mia and Hurst struggle to adjust and find out what happened, they uncover sinister truths about the ruling religion. But the gods are unforgiving; even Mia’s innocent questions carry a terrible punishment. Hurst is prepared to risk everything to save her, even if it means taking up his sword against the barbarians, his own people, and the gods themselves.

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Romance Review: ‘The Duke And I’ by Julia Quinn

September 11, 2014 Review 0

I love a good Regency romance, but all too often the ones I find are disappointing: too silly, too inaccurate historically, too inept with the language of the era. So finding an example which ticks all the right boxes, and also manages to portray realistic and well-rounded characters is almost too good to be true. But so it is here.

Daphne is the eldest daughter of the Bridgerton family, a lady of remarkable common sense, intelligence and humour. She wants to get married, but not merely because it’s the thing to do, or to be something grand in society, but because, having grown up in a big, happy family herself, she can’t conceive of any more fulfilling ambition than being a mother of many children. I liked Daphne very much; she’s a down-to-earth person that I’d be very happy to have as a friend.

The male main character, Simon, has had a very different family life, having been rejected by his father at a very early age because he was slow to talk, and when he did, he had a very bad stutter. His father believed him to be stupid and an unworthy inheritor of the family title, but Simon has carved out his own path to a high-flying career at Eton and later at Oxford. When his father makes overtures towards him, however, he takes off for the continent, only returning home when his father is dead. This is the point at which the story proper opens, but Simon’s history is told in what is effectively a long prologue. I’m not usually a fan of prologues, but in this case it was very necessary, so that the reader fully understands Simon’s state of mind.

And so the two main characters bump into each other at a ball, both bent on escaping the matchmaking of various ambitious mothers, and she pursued by her one sole suitor, a spectacularly unpromising specimen. Over a long-drawn-out discussion (implausibly lacking any interruptions despite the number of people attending the ball) about what to do with said suitor, the two principals are, in the well-worn tradition of such romances, instantly drawn to each other, while neither knows who the other is. We know this because the author jumps merrily from one point of view to the other, another romance tradition which I don’t much like even though I do see the necessity for it.

Thereafter, the plot continues through the typical array of misunderstandings and entanglements, with the usual resolution at the end. What lifts this above the usual level of such romances is the quality of the dialogue, which was always funny even in moments of high stress, and the depth of characterisation. Simon, in particular, is a hugely tragic yet sympathetic character. It’s impossible not to feel for him, and his decisions are therefore totally understandable. But Daphne too is very much her own person, not constrained by the conventions of society but trying to do the best for everyone involved.

For those who are averse to such things, there are some fairly graphic (and long drawn out) sex scenes, but in this case it’s not in the least gratuitous – the sex between the couple is a very significant part of the plot. There is one scene late on in the story which a number of readers objected to, on the grounds that Daphne behaves very badly. To be honest, it didn’t bother me at all, since by that point both the main characters have behaved quite badly already, and have got themselves into a huge emotional mess. In addition, I felt that Daphne was acting very much in character. She was presented with an opportunity to (possibly) take what she wanted, and it wasn’t a great surprise that she went for it. In fiction, I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect characters to make the right decision on every occasion. Misjudgements make them human. But understandably some readers feel that there is a line which a sympathetic heroine must not cross.

The scene that really bothered me was much earlier in the story. Now, I get that modern Regency romance heroines are not timid little misses, fluttering their eyelashes behind their fans. They tend to be far more forthright about – well, everything really. When introduced to sex, they’re liable to get the idea pretty quickly. But at this point in the tale, Daphne is an innocent, in sexual terms (which becomes a significant plot point subsequently), and the idea that she would happily drag her reluctant suitor into the bushes at a ball and seduce him to the point where clothing is removed and breasts are bared, is, for me, just not credible. That he might do it, I could possibly buy into, or that they might take advantage of a private situation, but not that both would be so carried away by passion in such a public place. Yet the whole second half of the book hinged on that moment.

That aside, I enjoyed this book thoroughly. It’s not the most complicated plot in the world, but the characters have real depth, there’s humour and not much silliness, and there’s also a fine ending with oodles of emotional resonance (translation: I cried). Recommended for fans of Regency romance who don’t mind the main characters having a bedtime romp or three. Four stars.

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‘The Plains of Kallanash’ now available for pre-order

August 30, 2014 Publishing/marketing, The Plains of Kallanash 5

The book is written, the final edits are done, the cover artwork is finished, formatting is complete and the files are uploaded to KDP. So now I just have to wait until the publication date I’ve decided on before pushing the button.

But hang on a minute – Amazon now has a cool new toy for self-publishers. We can set a book up for pre-orders, just like the big boys. Even a complete newbie like me. I dithered a bit about it – once the date gets close, I can’t change anything! And what if I’ve made a mistake! It’s a bit like those did-I-leave-the-gas-on moments when you’re on the way to the airport.

But my daughter assured me it would be cool to have pre-ordering available, so I went for it. And – hey presto! ‘Tis done.

‘The Plains of Kallanash’ is now available for pre-ordering, at special introductory prices.

Here’s the page at various Amazons:

Big Amazon $0.99

UK Amazon £0.77

Australian Amazon $1.07

Canadian Amazon $1.09

‘The Plains of Kallanash’ is an epic fantasy adventure with a strong romantic element. Here’s the blurb:

Thousands of years after a magical catastrophe reshaped the world and pulled the moons out of alignment, the secret of magic has seemingly been lost. At the centre of the vast, forbidding Plains of Kallanash lies a land ruled by a secretive religion, whose people fight a never-ending war against the barbarians in the wilderness beyond the border.

Amongst the nobility, double marriages are the norm. Junior wife Mia always dreamed of attracting the attention of the dashing lead husband, but never dared to compete against her lively older sister. Hurst has spent ten frustrating years as junior husband, longing to test his skill with a sword in battle, longing for his beloved Mia to turn to him.

The mysterious death of Mia’s sister thrusts the marriage into turmoil. As Mia and Hurst struggle to adjust and find out what happened, they uncover sinister truths about the ruling religion. But the gods are unforgiving; even Mia’s innocent questions carry a terrible punishment. Hurst is prepared to risk everything to save her, even if it means taking up his sword against the barbarians, his own people, and the gods themselves.

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