Monthly Archives:: April 2015

Review: ‘On Canaan’s Side’ by Sebastian Barry

April 24, 2015 Review 0

This is one of those deeply worthy books where you can see exactly what the author was hoping to achieve, and it almost works, but in the end there’s just too much unlikely contrivance and too little characterisation to be effective.

Lilly is an Irish girl betrothed to Tadg when the troubles intervene. Both are put under a death sentence, and escape to America to try to make a new life away from the troubles. Of course, things don’t work out smoothly and Lilly’s life becomes a catalogue of difficulties punctuated or inflicted by major events of the twentieth century: the issue of colour, Vietnam, Martin Luther King, the Gulf War and so on. And very depressing it all is. A lot of people die or disappear.

The story is told by Lilly herself, in a long-winded rambling style that is wonderfully evocative and poetic, but becomes wearing when stretched over an entire book. And Lilly is not an active character, taking charge of her life and making decisions about her own future. She is, ultimately, extraordinarily passive, drifting where the wind blows her, running away, being rescued by saintly strangers, running away again, asking no questions and, in many ways, simply surviving. She is so passive, in fact, that her personality fades to transparency.

Nor are the other people around her much better, being mostly ciphers for a social class or group, rather than characters in their own right. Only her own family back in Ireland have hints of full personalities.

In the end, this is a book that is more about the events and social changes that shook America. Any small part of it could have made a deep and profoundly moving story. Stretched over a whole lifetime, many nuances are lost in the race to skate over the decades, and it becomes a shallow, and (to my mind) somewhat pointless exercise. Not without its moments, and beautifully written, but ultimately unsatisfying. Three stars.


Archive review: ‘Ravenmarked’ by Amy Rose Davis

April 18, 2015 Archive, Review 0

I first read and reviewed this in 2012, and it was one of the first I’d come across that successfully married epic fantasy with a credible romance, that wasn’t just bolted on as an afterthought, or where the female was more than the Arwen-reward for the Aragorn-hero. I enjoyed this so much that I waited impatiently for book 2 to arrive. And waited… Seemingly, real life got in the way, and the book was unpublished for a while. But the author is now working on the sequel again, so one day I shall find out how it all ends. Even without the rest of the series, it’s a great read.

I’ve been enjoying the author’s articles for Fantasy Faction for some time now [Edit: they’re probably still in the archives there], but never thought to check her own website. Lo and behold, here’s the first part of a traditional-style epic fantasy. I had a look at the sample, and just kept on reading. To me, this kind of story is like coming home after a horrendous long-haul flight, or falling into your own bed after a week’s camping, it just wraps itself around you like a warm duvet. There’s a strong warrior with a secret, an innocent long-lost heiress to the throne, a prophecy, a rebellious princess, a usurper with a conscience and lots of magic, and although this sounds terribly clichéd, Davis gives it all a fresh feel and a bit of romantic fairy dust.

Like most multi-book fantasies, the opening chapters feature a deluge of names and places and incomprehensible references, but things soon settle down and there are numerous excuses for explanations along the way, so that details are revealed in small, natural doses rather than in dry info-dumps. The world-building is terrific: the various cultures, the different forms of magic, the religious practitioners and the history of their interactions going back a thousand years, at least, have all been carefully thought out, together with the resultant complications and consequences. And it all feels completely and utterly real. I love the various symbolic tattoos of the tribal people, for instance, and there are tiny details, such as the fact that Connor’s lover at the start of the book signals her rank with rows of gold rings on her ears.

Sadly, the background is the default off-the-shelf pseudo-medieval fantasy world, with all the usual paraphernalia. I don’t object to the castles, dukes, and monarchy (there has to be some political system, and it’s as good as any other), and low-tech necessarily leads to swords and bows and daggers, but it’s just a pity to fall back on the tired themes of slavery, the neglected poor, mistreated whores, riotous taverns and so forth. And ho, hum, the heroine on the brink of being raped… I might have seen that scenario once or twice before.

There are four main characters. Connor is the rather roguish warrior, who makes a casual if profitable living as a hired sword protecting travellers. Mairead is the rightful heiress to the throne, an innocent who has led a sheltered life in a religious order. Braedan is the usurper of the throne, who is being manipulated but still hopes to be a benevolent king. Igraine is the feisty daughter of a foreign king, who wants a proper job, not a husband and babies. Then there are a few other characters who get their own point of view at times when there’s none of the main characters around. None of these are outstandingly original types, but the author makes them very believable and likeable (even Braedan, who ought to be the villain). And there’s just that touch of romance fizzing below the surface right from the start. I’m not mad keen on too much love interest in fantasy as a rule, because the afflicted characters are sometimes inclined to stupidity on account of it, but here there are only occasional outbreaks of plot-driven stupidity, and the two pairings are actually great fun – both the verbal sparring of one pair, and the sexual tension of the other.

Some minor grumbles. Braedan has overturned a thousand-year regency and declared himself king, yet he’s swanning around court as if he has every right to be there and no one seems to be objecting very much. Why no major rebellions in the land? The names – OK, they’re vaguely Celtic, but it’s kind of a mish-mash of influences (Sean Mac Rian, Igraine, Bronwyn – sort of Irish and Welsh with a bit of King Arthur thrown in). And the dialects – the ‘dinna ye’ stuff, is kind of Scottish, but every time Igraine said ‘lass’ or ‘lad’, I heard it in broad Yorkshire, so I half expected her to say ‘ee bah gum, trouble a’t mill’. But maybe that’s just me. As for the romance – there are just a tad too many meaningful glances and tingling touches and weak-kneed moments for my liking, and a lot of should-we, shouldn’t-we angsting. And everyone’s so beautiful. And terribly noble and restrained and self-sacrificing and implausibly chaste. Not that I object to these ideals in principle, you understand, but some of the characters are quite astonishingly virtuous.

The good points. When people are hurt, they bleed, they bruise, bones get broken, and it takes time to heal. It isn’t always the bloke who saves the woman, sometimes she does the saving (hurray!). In fact, this is one of those rare books where the female characters really are strong, independent people, acting on their own initiative, not just there as love interest and motivation for the blokes. They can be just as handy with the weaponry or magic, too. I liked, too, that minor characters along the way are generally helpful and decent; so much fantasy these days seems to have a default position that everyone is irredeemably evil, just because.

I rather liked the various magic systems and the different races with their different powers. It seems at first sight like a bit of a muddle, but it’s been very carefully thought through and everything seems to work nicely. Of course, it suffers from the usual problem with magic – sometimes it’s just a get-out-of-jail-free card. A character gets into a mess and lo, there’s a magical thingummy to hand or a magic-imbued creature appears from nowhere. And unlimited healing power is a bit of a fudge (although to be fair, it doesn’t always work, which is rather cool).

The ending is a nice page-turning climax to events, with a bit of a battle, some neat twists and turns, and some very satisfactory resolutions while also setting things up beautifully for the next book. This was a totally enjoyable reading experience, pure pleasure, and the few minor niggles never affected that, although the romance level probably makes it one for the ladies. Very much looking forward to the next episode. Four stars.


Out visiting

April 17, 2015 General 0

I’m out visiting today: guest posting over at Anela’s blog, Amid The Imaginary, on the subject of what makes for a compelling read. It’s an interesting question, which will have a different answer for everyone. You can read my answer here.

Have a wander round the blog while you’re there. Anela is a great reviewer, and she focuses solely on self-published fantasy and sci-fi.


YA horror review: ‘Sleepless’ by Michael Omer

April 16, 2015 Review 0

This is one of those books that I would never, ever have read if I hadn’t bumped into the author online in an author’s forum and got to know him. YA? Horror? Eek! No way… and blow me down, if it wasn’t a whole heap of fun. Who’d a thunk it?

Here’s the premise: Amy is fourteen when her parents uproot her from LA and move to dull, small-town Narrowdale. She thinks her worst problem is going to be boredom. Ha! Not a chance. Because first there are the strange dreams, where she’s being followed and there’s this odd whistling. And then… well, let’s just say that it gets a whole lot weirder after that.

Amy herself is a big part of the fun, because she’s your actual spunky heroine. Strange noises at night? Should I sneak out of the house and wander around deserted streets on my own to see what’s going on? Hell, yes! And she has an easy-come easy-go attitude to school – like, it’s boring, so why don’t I bunk off and go talk to the weird homeless guy who knows stuff? So this is bound to appeal to a certain age group who finds school somewhat less than riveting. Does anyone find school riveting? This book is probably not for you.

Better than all of this, though, is that this book made me laugh out loud more times than I could count. It’s just plain funny, and I love a book that can give me the shivers one moment and crack me up the next. A great combination. Just one warning: the punctuation is somewhat haphazard. Now my own punctuation is pretty wayward, so I’m tolerant of that and the book was enjoyable enough that it never became a hindrance. The author is getting some more editing done to improve things, so if this is a deal-breaker, hold off until things are tidied up.

A light, fun read that would work fine for middle-grade and upwards. I’m not sure where on the horror-spooky-supernatural spectrum it falls, but I didn’t find it too scary or gory. Four stars for sheer entertainment value.


ARCs for ‘The Mages of Bennamore’

April 13, 2015 Publishing/marketing, The Mages of Bennamore 0

Hi everyone! I’m looking for people to read and review my latest epic fantasy, ‘The Mages of Bennamore’, due out May 15th. It features a woman with secrets, two very different men and a fragile political alliance that rapidly unravels. And plenty of magic, naturally!

One beta reader said: “There was a good balance of action, adventure, drama, and comedy, and of course romance. Fen is a refreshing character. Her sass and her no-nonsense attitude make her appealing and funny.”

It’s 443 pages long. If you’re interested, email me with your preferred format: mobi, epub or pdf.

Here’s the blurb:

A fragile peace. A clash of magic. A woman with secrets.

The war between Bennamore and the coastal region was over almost before it began. But the uniquely powerful mage who forged the alliance is dead, and the coastal folk are restless. Now the victors are bringing their spellcraft to the Port Holdings, unaware that the locals have their own less conspicuous magical ability.

Fen’s new job with the mages of Bennamore seems pleasant enough, but their powers threaten to expose her shady little habits. And then she can’t shake off the attentions of the flirtatious and uneducated guard, Mal. Nothing, it seems, will deter him.     

The mysterious disappearance of a mage uncovers a dragon’s nest of deceit. Mal needs Fen’s help to figure it out, but she has divided loyalties and her past drags everyone into the middle of a violent conspiracy. Yet she may be the only one who can stand between the two countries, and stop them plunging back into a war which, this time, would destroy all of them.


Fantasy Review: ‘Bad Hunting’ by Kyra Halland

April 3, 2015 Review 0

This is the second book in the ‘Daughter of the Wildings’ series, and I loved the first, ‘Beneath The Canyons’, when I read it last year. What do you know, this one is even better. Part of the fun is the genre mash-up – if you’ve ever wondered what a western would look like if you threw wizards and magic into the mix, wonder no longer. This has all the traditional elements of a western – desert badlands, saloons with swinging doors, gun-slinging bad guys, dust storms, horses and big hats. But it also has two or three different kinds of magic, some strange blue-skinned creatures who are probably not human and a whole heap of conflict between the different magic users.

The world-building is a strength of the series, and although each story seems to be no more than a simple adventure, each book pulls back the curtain a little to reveal more of the politics going on behind the scenes. There are enough factions and hidden agendas to fuel a far more epic work, but the author weaves the detail seamlessly into these rattling good yarns so it never feels heavy.

The two main characters, Silas and Lainie, have a wonderful old-fashioned charm about them. Silas is a gentleman who worries about Lainie and wants to protect her, while also respecting her. I loved that he was constantly thinking about her welfare, and worrying whether he was doing the right thing. Lainie is a perfectly capable woman with her own magic, but the author resists the temptation to turn her into a kick-ass warrior-babe. Instead, she only intervenes when absolutely necessary. And both of them take their turns at being rescued from disaster, or, sometimes, rescuing themselves.

The plot – well, there’s not much to it. Silas is summoned to help out a fellow mage, only to find him dead, along with a third mage. Then the hunt is on to find the killer and deal with him before Silas ends up as the next one to die. Along the way, Silas and Lainie work out a few wrinkles in their still-new marriage. But really, the pleasure of this series is the wonderful western-with-magic setting. My only complaint – it’s very short, only 120-odd pages, and the last 10% of the book is a teaser chapter of book 3 and other advertising.

For anyone starting with this book, there’s enough backstory dribbled out along the way to explain everything, but I recommend you start from the beginning for maximum enjoyment. This is one of the most entertaining fantasy series around, and I loved every moment of it. I wouldn’t normally hand out five stars for something this light and easy-to-read, but dammit, it was just so much fun! Five dusty, bullet-riddled stars.