Yearly Archives:: 2015

Fantasy Romance Review: ‘The Coup’ by Erica Dakin

May 14, 2015 Review 0

I positively inhaled this book – I just couldn’t read it fast enough. This is the third book in the Theft and Sorcery series. I really enjoyed the first two, but this one is the best of the lot, for me. Although each book can be read independently of the others, there are some characters from the earlier books that turn up here. Big, big warning for those who might find it problematic: there’s a heap of graphic sex in the book, bordering on erotica, and there’s also some robust language.

One of the enjoyable aspects of this series is that there’s a time-skip from one book to the next. This opens up the possibilities for interesting social changes. In the first book, half-elves were slaves, the lowest rung on the social ladder (after full-blooded elves, the aristocracy, and humans, effectively the middle classes). In the second book, the enlightened new queen had freed all the slaves, and half-elves were coming to terms with full citizenship. Another generation on, and there seems to be no social distinction at all. It’s rather nice to see this progression. However, not everything is rosy: there are still those who would divide society down the middle.

The main character this time is Miko, also known as Badger, a half-elf in training at an academy for sorcerers. He’s an unusually powerful sorcerer, and creative with his magic, so not only can he do more than most, but he invents new and ingenious spells too. Oh, and he can do all this by the power of his mind, without using the normal incantation and gesture to trigger the magic. I liked Miko very much, despite his grumpiness (I found it quite endearing) and his unusual background is very intriguing.

The love interest is Aya, also a sorcerer, although less powerful than Miko. This seems like a straightforward boy-meets-girl and away-we-go romance, but the obstacles to happiness are quite major ones, and it’s very understandable that things don’t run smoothly. Miko is naturally pretty upset about… well, many things (not wanting to give anything away). But even though it seems the romance is faltering, the two are still thrown together and the attraction is undeniable. In previous books in the series, the sex has possibly been a more significant element than the plot, but here the pacing works perfectly: the sexual tension builds beautifully and resolves itself at just the right moment. Perfectly judged.

The plot (the coup of the title) is gradually revealed, and then comes the attempt to thwart it without disrupting the delicate balance of court politics. Again, this is all perfectly believable, and I loved the way Miko’s innovation comes to the fore, creating new magical functions as needed. Everything builds to a dramatic climax, but (of course) things don’t go quite according to plan, and this part of the book was even more of a page-turner than the rest. Great stuff.

This was a terrific read, and a great finale to the series, with walk-on roles for all the favourite characters from the previous two books. Five stars for the sheer enjoyment of the read, and the inventive ways Miko finds to exploit his powers.


Coming soon! More magic, adventure and a little romance

May 10, 2015 Publishing/marketing, The Mages of Bennamore 3

It’s almost time! The Mages of Bennamore, the third book set in the Brightmoon world, will be published on Friday, May 15th. The price will be just $0.99 for a short time; the normal price will be $3.99.

You can pre-order at your local Amazon right now and have the book delivered direct to your Kindle or device of choice at midnight. Kindle Unlimited subscribers will be able to download and read for free from Friday onwards.

As always, a review after you’ve read the book would be very much appreciated, to help other readers decide whether they would like it. Reviews can be posted to Amazon, Goodreads or your own blog.

The story starts just a few months after the events of The Fire Mages, but it’s a stand-alone book, with a completely different location and a new set of characters; you don’t need to have read either The Plains of Kallanash or The Fire Mages first. However, if you have read one or both of the other books, you can have fun spotting some familiar references in the story!

I’m really excited about this tale, because the two main characters are quite unusual. Fen is a forty-year-old woman with an interesting past and some strange habits. And yes, that glowing ball she’s holding on the cover is a bit special. What’s that all about? Mal is the relentlessly flirting mage guard who fixes his sights on her. And there’s a strange tower, and a disappearing mage, and plenty of trouble afoot for our heroes, with magic at the heart of things. I hope you like it!

You can read the first four chapters here.

 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: ‘Dragon’s Debt’ by H L Burke

May 6, 2015 Review 1

This is the second in the Dragon and the Scholar quartet, and follows on with the story of Ewan (the dragon) and Shannon (the scholar). The first book ended with the two of them flying off into the sunset, but it was a long way from being a happy ending, what with him being a dragon and all.

So naturally, after a pleasant interlude together, things start to go downhill. There’s trouble afoot in the Kingdom of Westshire, which borders our heroes’ own kingdom of Regone. Strange beasties have been snatching young girls from their homes, and Ryan, the heir to the Westshire throne, is set on putting an end to it. Into the midst of this comes Ewan’s brother Edmond, now King of Regone, bent on wooing Ryan’s sister Brighid. Her father, King Riley, isn’t at all happy about it. When things come to a duel, Ewan and Shannon are summoned to help sort things out.

You’ll have guessed from this that the setting is very much the standard pseudo-medieval affair, where men run kingdoms, save maidens from monsters and wave swords around, while women wear pretty frocks and strive to be beautiful. Shannon, fortunately, is the exception to the rule, a trouser-wearing, intelligent, oh-I’ll-do-it-myself competent female, and hooray for that. It’s a pity that Brighid is much more the conventional princess-figure, behaving emotionally and being kidnapped so that the men (and Shannon) can rescue her.

So this is no trope-busting feminist treatise, but it’s a very enjoyable, light read for those moments when you just can’t face another heavyweight grimdark monster of a book. The plot isn’t complex but there’s enough action to keep things bubbling along nicely. And the ending sees a rather neat solution to the political problem by Edmond, which I liked very much.

There’s also a darker, more tragic tone beneath the froth. Ewan and Shannon love each other, but they have the slight problem that Ewan is a dragon. A human under a dragon enchantment, sure, but still a dragon. Ewan’s dilemma is that he wants Shannon to stay with him, but he feels it’s morally wrong to ask, since he can’t offer her any of the sort of things a woman might expect from a lover. He won’t even tell her how he feels, because it might sway her. This is a very real tragedy for both of them, and Ewan’s handling of the situation is truly heroic. A large part of the attraction in this series, for me, is finding out how this situation gets resolved. If indeed it does. My money at the moment is on a happy ending, but it would be brave indeed to take a different route.

An entertaining, light read. Recommended for those in the mood for a traditional-style fantasy, with plenty of humour. Bonus points for the strong ending, and not shying away from the dragon/human problem. Four stars.


Western Fantasy Review: ‘The Rancher’s Daughter’ by Kyra Halland

May 3, 2015 Review 0

The Daughter of the Wildings series is possibly my favourite reading at the moment. This is book 3, and the author’s getting into her stride now. The characters are charming and heroic, the villains are exceedingly villainous (or just plain stupid), the setting is wonderfully detailed with a bit more revealed with every book, and the stories are just out and out good, rollicking fun.

The two main characters, Silas and Lainie, are (unusually for fantasy, but not for this author) a married couple. Theirs isn’t a straightforward relationship, which allows for a bit of angsting along the way, but they still get along fine. I’m usually critical of books where the characters fall headlong into stereotypical gender roles, but here it works really well. Silas has a gentlemanly desire to protect Lainie from… well, everything, basically. She still blushes at any mention of sex.

Yet they still have total respect for each other’s capabilities. So when they come to do business with a rich rancher, Lainie stands back and lets the more experienced Silas deal with it. And when they encounter the strange blue-skinned A’ayimat, he leaves it to Lainie, who has an affinity with their kind of magic. This kind of character detail is lovely.

The plot this time centres on the disappearance of the daughter of a the aforementioned rich rancher, kidnapped by the A’ayimat. Even though Silas and Lainie are manipulated into taking on the search, and even though they’re quite sure that the rancher isn’t telling them some important details, they need the money too much to refuse. And off we go into another fast-paced adventure, and it’s not much of a spoiler to say that the rancher was hiding a lot. But then, he’s not the only one. Knowing who to trust and who’s telling the truth is a big part of the plot.

I’ve been looking forward to meeting the A’ayimat up close, and here we get right into the midst of them and their magic, which isn’t quite like either Silas’s or Lainie’s. The subtle variation in magics is a big attraction for me in this world. Once again matters are resolved with both guns and magic, with heroism and luck, and a big dose of love to keep the evil at bay. And if perhaps our heroes manage to survive an improbable amount of beating up, gunshot wounds and arrows (sometimes all at once!), it would be churlish to complain (this is fantasy, after all).

Another charming and entertaining adventure in this series of good old-fashioned western fantasy tales. It’s so much fun I can’t give it less than five stars.


Fantasy Review: ‘All The Paths of Shadow’ by Frank Tuttle

May 1, 2015 Review 0

This is one of those books that ticks all the right boxes for me. Spunky female lead – check. Detailed world building – check. Interesting magic system – check. Humour – check. A bit of a romance – check. Talking plant – check. Wait, what? A talking plant? OK, whatever. And yet, somehow… it doesn’t quite work.

The premise is a good one. The kingdom’s first female royal sorcerer (called a thaumaturge here) is given an unusual challenge by the king: ensure that his speech to the coming Accords (a sort of international summit meeting) is not shadowed by the massive bulk of the centuries-old tower looming nearby. It’s a bit of a tricky one: can Meralda either move the tower (no) or move the sun (no again) or bend light to shift the shadow (possibly…). She sets to work with her calculations and research to come up with a way in the impossibly short time she has.

And here’s the first problem. Why is there only one royal thaumaturge? Why can’t the king call upon the combined skills of all his kingdom’s thaumaturges? Because it wouldn’t be nearly so interesting a story if he could, that’s why. So already I’m seeing contrivance at work.

The world-building is hugely detailed. As Meralda walks through the capital in the opening chapter, every street and shop and type of transportation and occupation is name-checked in an endless stream of trivia that a) I’ll never, ever remember, and b) probably won’t even need. This smacks of an author trying too hard, or possibly just showing off. Look at me! I know all the shops at every intersection! It’s all a little too over-the-top for my taste, but it would win every world-building contest hands down.

And another niggle. The out-of-the-blue foreigners who seem so mysterious and alien when they first arrive, turn out to be very familiar indeed. In fact, they place this otherwise interesting setting right here on mother earth, and frankly that’s far less appealing to me than a fully realised secondary world. Bah humbug.

The magic system is another aspect that ought to appeal to me, but in reality falls a bit flat. I loved the idea of working out the principles of a spell mathematically first, then setting it up in situ (a process known as ‘latching’) and only releasing it later, as needed. There’s so much potential to that, and I really enjoyed how it was used. Unfortunately, when things get tricky towards the end, all pretence at a rational magic system is thrown away, and a variety of magical objects are dredged up out of nowhere to provide a solution. At times, it seemed that Meralda had only to walk down her laboratory to find another device which was just what was needed. Gah. Can we say deus ex machina?

So what did work well? The talking plant, believe it or not. Mug was both cute and smart at the same time, providing most of the humour and a lot of the common sense. For instance, the love interest is handsome and charming, and Meralda trusts him implicitly from the start. Mug’s the one who voiced the note of caution that the oh-so-intelligent Meralda was too weak at the knees swooning over her new love to think of. And the tower was completely awesome, right from the start, when it’s just a creepy tower, and later, as all its little secrets are gradually revealed. I do love a magical building.

This sounds like a fairly critical evaluation, but actually this is pretty good book. My issues are nitpicky, rather than substantive, and the plot rolls along merrily to its dramatic climax. It’s not mind-blowingly awesome stuff, the author tries too hard and crams in too many melodramatic and humorous touches, and there are way too many moments that are perilously close to deus ex machina. But it’s funny and readable and I can recommend it to anyone less picky than me (which is almost everyone). Three stars, and a merit award for the talking plant (I adore sentient greenery – there should be far more of it in fantasy).


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.