Posts Categorized: Archive

Five self-published gems of 2013

January 15, 2017 Archive, Ramblings, Review 0

Edit: This is my original post, reposted here because it got lost in a cyber-black-hole.

Self-publishing gets a bad rap. Some wit once said: the best thing about self-publishing is that anyone can do it; and the worst thing about self-publishing is that anyone can do it. Occasionally, trawling through the endless heaps of optimistic offerings on Amazon, it seems as if half the world’s population sat down at the computer, rattled off that novel they’ve always wanted to write, and without a single further thought clicked the ‘Publish’ button. Bad spelling, bad grammar, no punctuation at all, wooden characters, trite plots…

But there are authors out there who write as well as any of the big names, and better than many of them. They take the time to edit thoroughly, they add professional cover art, they take endless trouble with formatting. Their work is indistinguishable in quality from anything put out by the traditional publishers. And the great virtue of taking control of your own publishing is freedom. Self-pubbers can write what they want, in the way they want, as long or as short as the story needs to be. They’re not constrained by genre or perceived marketability or what’s hot. They can be as original as they like, and many are astonishingly imaginative.

The very best of my self-pubbed reading this year will be noted in the forthcoming Barney Awards, but here are a few others that gave me terrific reads this year.

The Wandering Tale by Tristan Gregory

This is a collection of four novellas set in a single world, and only loosely connected: a minor character from one story becomes more important in the next one. Each one is published and sold separately. Start with The Swordsman of Carn Nebeth. When a man returns to his village after nineteen years away fighting in the wars, young William is fascinated by his stories of the life of a soldier, and the battles he’s been in. But when other former soldiers start to cause trouble, he realises that bravery isn’t just for kings and soldiers. This is a cracking story of a boy growing to manhood in a small village, and learning the truth about being a hero. Great characterisation, a well judged balance between action and slower passages, a perfect ending and with more emotional resonance than I’ve seen in some well-regarded works many times its length. A beautifully crafted piece which I loved. There’s a lot of subtlety in these stories. People are honourable without being stupid or caricatures, they behave in believable ways and display both intelligence and strength of character. Even the bad guys have reasonable motivations. Below the surface are some thought-provoking themes – of war and honour and duty and bravery, the responsibility of power and the pragmatism of politics. Each episode is a little gem in its own right, but together they add up to something much more interesting.

The Five Elements by Scott Marlowe

A cracking read with elements of steampunk, alchemy, a fairly standard form of elemental magic plus there’s a fair dose of science in the mix as well. The main character, Aaron, is a sorcerer’s apprentice, but unlike the usual such character, he’’s a scientist, using logic and scientific knowledge to investigate effects related to his master’s work. He’s a terrific character, both immature yet intelligent and enterprising, perfectly aligned with his age. I absolutely loved his ability to approach any problem in a logical, scientific way, and find a rational solution. This is so refreshing in fantasy, which all too often turns to magic at such moments. The pace is rapid and there’s a dizzying array of twists and turns, to the point that I had absolutely no idea what was going to happen next, or who was a good guy and who was a villain, almost to the end. The ending is appropriately grandiose and with unexpectedly thoughtful undertones. The author is to be commended for not taking the easy way out at this point. One of those books I tore through at high speed – that just-one-more-chapter syndrome; it’s an unusual, pacy story, with an unexpected plot-twist in almost every chapter, and great fun to read.

The Tattered Banner by Duncan Hamilton

Soren is eighteen, trying to survive on the streets, when a theft gone wrong results in a street fight and a passing swordsman recognises some talent in him. He is taken to the Academy to learn to wield a rapier and be a gentleman. It’s refreshing to read a story where the rapier is the the weapon of choice, and I found it a refreshing change from the more usual broadswords and bows. The book sidesteps all the street-boy-goes-to-posh-school cliches, and quickly gets Soren out and about wielding his rapier and discovering the extent of his extraordinary gift. These early battles are beautifully described, the highpoint of the book for me, and I loved every moment of each one (especially the belek, which was one of those awesome moments that stays with you long after the book is finished). The world behind all the action has great depth, one where magic was once widespread by is now outlawed. A terrific page-turning read, and the follow-on book, ‘The Huntsman’s Amulet’, looks like reaching the same standard.

The Fall of Ventaris by Neil McGarry and Daniel Ravipinto

The first book in this series, ‘The Duchess of the Shallows’, was a breath of fresh air, a fantasy work set in a single city, with compelling characters and a beautifully woven plot, filled with double-dealing and double meanings, where nothing and nobody can be taken quite at face value. This follow-on is more of the same, but with even more depth, showing more of the city itself, its history, and the three main religions. The authors skillfully weave the many different strands together to create a brilliantly nuanced picture of Rodaas and its people. Duchess’s many schemes take her all round the city and below it, and these adventures bring the book to vivid and dramatic life. Some of her encounters are unforgettable: the strange candlelit ceremony at one temple, the meeting with the facet (priestess) in another and the events underground, for instance. The facets are a truly spine-chilling invention, a sort of hive-mind of masked women, all identical, and there’s a moment near the end, when the hive-mind slips slightly, which is awesome. Great characters, a compelling plot and terrific world-building; this is a polished and cleverly thought out book which would repay a second read to understand all the nuances and subtexts.

And All The Stars by Andrea K Höst

A YA post-apocalypse story in the literal sense, beginning the very instant after, as main character Madeleine finds herself amidst rubble from a disintegrated underground station. And dust, vast amounts of dust which coat everything, including Madeleine herself. And as she makes her escape through the ruined station, she encounters the base of the Spire, a black spike, which has instantaneously risen into the Sydney skyline, along with numerous others all around the world. The dust is the key, for those who encounter it are irrevocably changed. Finding out about the dust and the strange Spires, as well as simple survival, creates a pacy adventure which rattles along nicely. The characters aren’t the standard issue beautiful people who leap into perfectly honed action when called upon. These are relatively ordinary people with odd combinations of talent and weakness. Problems are solved by intelligence, common sense and teamwork, rather than brute force. Nor is everyone uniformly heterosexual. And then, just when you think you’ve got the book neatly pigeon-holed, there’s a moment which changes everything, one of those magical OMG moments when your perception simply shifts sideways to open up the story in innumerable different ways. I love it when an author manages to do that to me. An interesting and thought-provoking read.

And a bonus novella: Sunbolt by Intisar Khanani

I discovered the author’s debut novel, ‘Thorn’, quite accidentally, one of those magical reads where you start on the sample and find yourself so swept up in the story you just can’t put it down. This is just as good, the first in a projected series of perhaps six novellas altogether. This has to be one of the most unpredictable stories I’ve ever read, a new twist at every turn, and as the book is incredibly fast-paced, that means a breathtaking ride. Hitomi is a lovely heroine – spirited, enterprising and imaginative, and never, ever prepared to be pushed aside. She always does exactly what she wants to do, regardless of whatever instructions she’s given. I loved the way the author managed to fudge the question of who were the good guys and who were the villains; things just aren’t that simple here. One doesn’’t expect much in the way of world-building from a novella, but there’s surely enough background here to fuel a full-sized trilogy at least. This is a wonderful book, with memorable characters, some great world-building, an action-packed plot that never lets up for a moment and a surprising twist every few pages, and beautifully written.

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Pauline’s self-published gems of 2014

January 15, 2017 Archive, Ramblings, Review 0

Edit: Reposting this which got lost in a cyber-black-hole.

I read a lot of self-published books – about half my reading, both this year and last. I don’t specifically choose that, I follow my nose where books are concerned. If I like the look of a book, from reading the first few pages, I’ll give it a go. It doesn’t always work out, but I’ll try anything that’s well written and isn’t just a zombie-fest. I’ve found I’m just as likely to be happy with a self-published book as with a traditionally published one, although I confess I’m very selective. If there’s the merest hint of a grammatical error in the first chapter, that’s a no go.

But there are some areas where the self-published books outshine the traditionally published ones. Here are a few ways:

1) The ebooks are usually cheaper. Self-pubbing authors have far more control over pricing, and also don’t have those hordes of PAs and editors and fancy New York offices to maintain. I can buy two or three self-published books for the price of one standard trad pubbed book.

2) The book can be as wild as the author wants. So if an author wants to write an all-action steampunkish affair, complete with airships, demon hounds, rats-on-steroids (wearing clothes! And wielding swords!), a pyromancer, dwarves, a geeky hero and some brilliantly weird machinery, he can do that. And Scott Marlowe did! I can’t wait for the movie version of this to see what the Nullification Engine actually looks like.

3) The book can be a retread of a tired idea, with a fresh spin. Trad pubs would likely tell you that YA post-apocalypse is s-o-o last year. Saturated market, ducks. But Fallen Down World by K E Douglas has a brilliant opening, a clever array of breathless car-chases and dramatic escapes, intermingled with more introspective passages, very appropriate for the end-of-the-world scenario. And the author doesn’t shy away from the desperation and loneliness in the situation.

4) The book can blend genres with impunity.

A) What could be better than a good old-fashioned western? A western with magic, that’s what! Gun fights and a spunky rancher’s daughter, plus mages and some intriguingly fantastical non-humans. And a nicely understated romance, to boot. No bookstore or library would have a clue where to shelve Beneath The Canyons by Kyra Halland, but for self-pubbers – no problem.

B) Or how about a fantasy romance? Mostly this comes with compulsory werewolves these days, but Bound by Kate Sparkes is well-written and well-plotted, with a nice balance between the romance and fantasy elements, and isn’t that a gorgeous cover?

C) Or maybe you’d prefer a glorious mash-up of sci-fi and fantasy, which starts in present day Australia and ends up… well, somewhere quite different, with humanoids with tails, and mind-bending stuff, and some steampunkish elements and… well, you just have to read it. Watcher’s Web by Patty Jansen

5) Self-pubbers can step away from fashionable grimdark and gloomy realism, into the almost obsolete literate high fantasy style of Tolkien. Silvana The Greening by Belinda Mellor is set in a world where tree spirits, Silvanii, reside in trees in the wildwood, living in harmony with men. Occasionally, a Silvana will choose to take a human husband, leaving her tree to take human form and live a different life. A charming story.

6) A self-published book can take the time to tell a quiet story about people. The Healers Road by S E Robertson can only be described as literary fantasy, a real treat to read.

7) Finally, self-pubbers can, if they want to, write the epic fantasy trilogy (or pentology or whatever-ology-they-like) to end all epic fantasies, with a completely worked out history of the universe and mythology, any number of weird creatures, hordes of shapeshifters and ogres who count in base 6. Oh, and wraiths. Gotta love the wraiths. I don’t need to say much more about The Splintered Eye by H Anthe Davis, since you all bought it the last time I raved about it, right? Right? Sigh. Just buy it, it’s piking awesome.

PS I’m not trying to persuade anyone to give up traditionally published books, because, you know, some of them are pretty good, too. But if you do come across a self-published book, don’t dismiss it on sight, because it just might be an undiscovered gem.

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Archive review: ‘The Silence of Medair’ by Andrea K Höst

March 21, 2016 Archive, Review 0

I first read this in December 2011, when I was only just discovering self-published books, and finding most of them to be a bit ho-hum. Back in those early days of the Kindle, a lot of previously unpublished authors were dusting off long-abandoned manuscripts, kept in a drawer for years, maybe, and tossing them up on Amazon without much thought. The quality was variable, to put it mildly. There was a huge amount of dross, as is inevitable in a system with no quality control whatsoever, a lot that could have been better with a bit of polishing, and a few that just blew me away. This was the first I came across that made me say: wow, that was amazing! I’ve since gone on to read many more of the author’s works, and I highly recommend her for excellent reading that will shatter all your preconceived ideas of fantasy.


For those who say all self-published works are dross – this book is a stunning counter example. The manuscript spent an unbelievable ten years – I’ll say that again, TEN years! – languishing with a single publisher before the author withdrew it in disgust and self-published. You can see why they might have had a problem with it, because it’s very different from the average. It’s intelligent, thought-provoking and well written. It avoids cliches. It’s character-driven fantasy at its best. It’s also a cracking story. I loved it.

The opening is, surely, how all fantasy novels should begin: not by parachuting the reader into the middle of a battle, or some gruesome moment intended purely to shock, but quietly, with the main character in her setting, then adding in the mysterious background, some magic and a threat, to draw you in. But then this is an unusual book in a number of different ways. Many of the events which other writers would turn into a whole trilogy – a massive magic-induced disaster, an empire threatened by invasion, an escalating, seemingly unwinnable, war, a desperate race to find a magic gizmo to turn the tide, and then, miraculously, actually finding said gizmo – all happened five hundred years in the past, and are revealed only briefly in passing. The author even resists the temptation to put them into a prologue. Instead, the story starts some months after the primary character, Medair, has returned with the gizmo, only to find that centuries have passed, the invaders have become the establishment and she herself is the outsider. Her sense of dislocation, and how she adjusts to the new regime, form the substance of the book.

The created world is not outrageously original, just the standard-issue pseudo-medieval arrangement, with a few little touches to make it different, and happily no hackneyed taverns, assassins, thieves, whores and the like, and no gratuitous violence or sex. So this is a relatively civilised and orderly world, where the complications are political rather than societal. And unlike many low-technology worlds, there’s a relaxed gender-neutrality in operation. Women can, and do, become soldiers, heralds, mages, whatever they have an aptitude for. They can inherit empires, too. I get tired of the patriarchy thoughtlessly assumed in most fantasy.

And there’s magic, of course. Oodles of magic. There are mages and adepts (which may be the same thing, I’m not clear about that) who have quite powerful abilities, and there are also magical artifacts. There is also ‘wild magic’, which is hugely, earth-shatteringly powerful (literally) and very unpredictable. I liked the way that magic can be sensed in some physical way, some kind of feeling that allows a character attuned to it to know that magic is being used, and sometimes what kind, and where, and how powerful it is. That was neat.

But it has to be said that sometimes the magic borders on being deus ex machina. The heroine gets into a tricky situation and has only to reach into her dimensionally flexible satchel and pull out some magic gizmo or other to effect her escape. Or else another character waves his or her hands around and – pow, she is magically constrained to do something or other. Is it really deus ex machina if we know ahead of time that the satchel contains magical gizmos, or that the character is a mage? Not sure, but it certainly made a very convenient plot device. On the other hand, it allowed the heroine to use her own self-reliance and not be dependent on a bloke turning up with a sword or a spell to rescue her. In fact, she was usually the one rescuing the blokes.

The heart of the book is the nature of the Ibisians, the invaders of five hundred years earlier, now the establishment. Medair’s hatred and mistrust of them is still fresh, and the scenes between them crackle with tension, as she tries to adjust her strong and perhaps legitimate feelings to this new world order. The issue is complicated, too, by the other countries and factions still fighting against the new rulers. Where exactly do her loyalties lie? She has the magic gizmo which will destroy the invaders, but are these people still her enemies five centuries later? These themes – of loyalty and oppression and enforced compliance and the nature of colonialism – weave throughout the story.

This part of the book is beautifully done. The subtle and not so subtle differences between the world Medair remembers and the current one are neatly drawn – the architecture, clothing, food, mannerisms and customs – so that we first see the invaders through Medair’s eyes as strangely alien beings, and only gradually begin to soften towards them as we get to know them better. It becomes apparent that five hundred years of assimilation has worked both ways, and these Ibisians are not the same as the enemy of Medair’s own time.

The plot revolves around Medair’s struggles with her own antipathies and growing respect for the Ibisians, so there is a great deal of introspection and (it has to be said) downright angsting going on. There were a few moments when I wished she would stop agonising and just get on with it. But fortunately there was enough action interspersed with the angst to keep things rattling along. There were a few places where I wasn’t too sure what was going on, where a little more explanation or description would have helped. Occasionally the complex hierarchy of the Ibisians caught me out (all the ranks begin with a ‘k’, so they begin to blur together), and sometimes I wasn’t even sure which character Medair was talking to. But these are minor issues, which never seriously affected my enjoyment. This is a great read, a story with an intriguing premise, unexpected twists and plenty of action. It’s also that rare beast, a fantasy novel with a truly strong female lead character who’s not remotely a stereotype. I recommend it. Four stars.

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Archive review: ‘The Folding Knife’ by K J Parker

June 27, 2015 Archive, Review 0

I read this book in January 2011, when I was only just finding my feet with reviewing. I mention below that it’s unlike anything else I’ve read, and four years later that’s still true. A strange but (for me) compelling book. As fantasy, it has no magic at all – or has it? I gave it four stars, and I still think that’s the right rating for me.


 

I loved this book. I had no expectations going in, and had never read anything by this author before, but it was mentioned as a good fantasy book, I sampled it on the Kindle, and liked it, although it’s totally unlike anything I’ve ever read before. It is a slow book to get into, but there came a point about a third of the way in where I stopped trying to follow the details of the plot (they’re not relevant) and simply sat back and enjoyed the ride.

The protagonist, Basso, is essentially a businessman who ends up running his country on business principles – everything is about commodities and loans and making sure everyone makes a profit. If this sounds dull, it isn’t at all, so long as you don’t agonise over the minutiae. This is actually the funniest book I’ve read in ages. How Basso contrives his deals, and turns even potentially disastrous situations into winning moves is where all the entertainment comes from.

As a fantasy novel, the book is unconventional, to say the least. There is no magic in evidence at all, unless you count Basso’s exceptional (and unexplained) degree of luck, there are no heroes or demons, and the wars are mostly a matter of logistics. But the world in the background, while sketchily described and not wholly convincing, is certainly not any known historical backdrop, despite its superficial resemblance to classical Roman times.

One point which still puzzles me is the title. The folding knife, an artifact which arrived in Basso’s life the day he was born, and has a role in the defining event of his life, does not appear to be significant in any other way. I’m not sure whether it’s meant to be symbolic of his weathy, upper class life, or represents the baggage from his family, or whether it’s no more than a convenient hook on which to hang the plot. Either way, it seems a flimsy construct.

The ending is slightly ambiguous. It seems like Basso’s extraordinary luck has finally run out, and everything comes crashing down around his ears. On the other hand, in the midst of catastrophe, he manages to escape the city without incident. Given that he is the most famous man around (his head is on the coins, after all), and half the city wants his head on a pike, this is nothing short of miraculous. Only two people recognise him, and the second offers him an anonymous job in a neighbouring country – a perfect escape.

So I’m inclined to believe that his luck is holding, and in fact the whole disaster is actually the best possible outcome for Basso, by releasing him from his past, the ties of family and always doing what was expected of him. Perhaps this is a necessary step for him to be truly free. There is possibly another book in this – after Basso the Magnificent, Basso the clerk. But until the author writes it, the reader is left to choose his or her own ending – Basso lived out his days blamelessly as a clerk, Basso became head of the Auxentine Empire… Either would work.

This book wouldn’t suit everyone, both the writing style and plot are unconventional, to put it mildly, but I enjoyed it hugely.

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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.

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Five Star Archives: ‘Ready Player One’ by Ernest Cline

March 5, 2015 Archive, Review 3

I read this back in November 2011. I’d expected the author to have a whole string of other books out by now, but no. The follow-up, Armada, is due out this year. That’s a long wait between books. I wonder what he’s been doing in the meantime? Enjoying himself with the royalties, I hope. Anyway, I still think this is a great book. Flawed, but great fun.

PS I’ve only just noticed the tiny pixelly person on the cover. 🙂


I loved every single word of this book. I actually read most of it with a silly grin on my face, even the seemingly boring info-dump bits that started off ‘X was born in…’ – it was just pure pleasure, especially the parts set in the OASIS (the avatar-populated artificial universe where most of the action takes place). I’m not even much of a geeky technophile – OK, I love computers, I’m a programmer by trade, and I confess to being one of the first people in the UK to own a Commodore 64, and I had a smartphone before the term was even invented, but I’m not a gamer in any way, shape or form. I recognised a few of the 80s games, hardware, music and film references, but most of them went right over my head. Didn’t matter at all. The book is well enough written that anyone can play along. All the jargon and retro technology is explained along the way.

Plot? Well, there’s a quest and a team of underdogs and an evil cheating group of corporate bastards and… well, that’s about it, really. It just rolls along beautifully, and although there are no wildly unpredictable twists and turns, it never feels cliched. The lead characters are charmingly geeky and (initially) quite juvenile, and OK, they do seem to be incredibly good at everything game-related, but then that’s the basic premise of the story, so it’s hard to grumble about it. The author makes good use of the avatar vs real world persona problem – you just don’t know anything about the people you meet inside the OASIS-verse, not gender, age, location, appearance – absolutely nothing beyond what they choose to show, and the reveals at the end are nicely done. Only one quibble here – the first person protagonist is initially the stereotypical geek, pasty-faced and overweight, but about halfway through he suddenly decides to get fit and ends up with a perfectly honed physique. I found it disappointing that the author didn’t have the courage to leave him as he was. But it’s a minor point.

The book would make a great movie. I actually wished I had a soundtrack to listen to (on 8-track tape, naturally) whenever a piece of music was mentioned, and it would be so much fun to actually see some of the OASIS-verse worlds. The final gate battle would be just awesome to watch on the big screen. But as a book – terrific. Five stars.

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Five-star archives: ‘The Lions of al-Rassan’ by Guy Gavriel Kay

February 8, 2015 Archive, Review 2

I read this is 2011, as a follow-on to ‘Tigana’, and while it avoids the flaws of that work, it has a few all its own. I went on to read ‘A Song For Arbonne’, which I gave 4 stars, and haven’t read any Kay since. I do enjoy his work, but it is terribly over-wrought, and I have to get myself in the right frame of mind for it. My tastes nowadays veer more towards smaller, less ambitious tomes. Or perhaps just writing that doesn’t take itself quite so seriously.

Well, this was a three Kleenex book and no mistake. That’s three boxes of Kleenex, of course. Not a book to read on public transport, unless you have no embarrassment gene. No one does grand tragedy quite like Kay. But I’m not totally sure what genre this is. It’s more fantasy than anything else, but the world-building is lifted more or less wholesale from the real world, and to say the magic is minimal would be to overstate the case. One individual with sporadic visions does not a magic system make. Not that it makes the book any better or worse to have a neat pigeon-hole for it, of course, but still….I regard myself as a Kay fan, but I was surprisingly reluctant to start reading this. My only previous encounter with the author was ‘Tigana’ which I consider a brilliant book, but deeply flawed. Unfortunately, the problems with that book – an over-wrought writing style, too much introspection, a few plot holes, unconvincing last-minute romances – are quite likely to be repeated here. This book is problematic in another way for me, too – it is apparently based on medieval Spain, and the religions are closely modelled on those of the era, only thinly disguised. I find it very disconnecting in a fantasy world to come across anything that reminds me directly of real-world matters. But happily I know nothing at all about that time and place, and ‘Tigana’ was modelled on medieval Italy and that didn’t impinge at all. Altogether, Kay’s writing is (mostly) so good that I absolutely have to read this, albeit with concerns.

Typically, having laid out all these reservations, I was under Kay’s spell again almost instantly. This is partly the old trick of dangling a mystery under the reader’s nose – you have to read on to find out more. What happened to Jehane’s father? Whatever catastrophe befell Alvar? But partly it was just the wonderful evocative prose that drew me in. The prologue couldn’t quite match the tragedy of the ‘Tigana’ equivalent, but it was still hugely immersive. Then it was immediately into the middle of a whirlwind of names and places and sly references to events which the reader can’t possibly understand (but this is standard fantasy strategy). Despite this, the opening chapters are very readable, with events and settings and characters all interesting in their different ways, culminating in the very moving disclosure of what happened to Jehane’s father.

And then somehow, as things move on and the story gets into its stride, everything becomes inexplicably camp and joky and almost silly. Everyone is beautiful and clever and immaculately dressed and three steps ahead of the game. Enemies are easily out-manoeuvred and made to look stupid. The men are super-skilled warriors (or want to be) and/or terribly clever strategists, the women are feisty and opinionated, even the doctor of the low-ranking sect, who should be appropriately subservient, and instead of having her head chopped off for her insubordination, is treated with a chivalrous respect bordering on deference. And everyone has amazing sex, even the religious one who really feels she shouldn’t but somehow just can’t help herself. There’s a certain amount of climbing around on balconies, and writing magnificent poetry, and masquerading unnoticed as a slave, and being tied up by your own wife (one of the feisty women, naturally) leading to more amazing sex. There’s a moment where the two leading male protagonists’ eyes meet across a crowded room which would be in slow motion if it were a film. It could almost be a parody. And for some completely unknown reason, every time one bloke’s pearl ear-ring was mentioned, I had a sudden mental image of Captain Jack Sparrow. And the one with the moustache – Tom Selleck. Very disconcerting.

Fortunately, Kay is a skilled writer who never quite lets things slip out of his grasp into the ridiculous. There’s a lot of introspection and people standing around analysing and explaining things to each other, but just at the point where you start thinking – that’s enough, get on with it – things start happening again. And all that analysing does make it easy to follow the intricacies of the political situation. There’s a lot of jumping about from one perspective to another, and some of the jumping is in time, too, so you hear about an event from one character and later (sometimes much later) see it happen from a different perspective. This is confusing at first, but quickly becomes easy to follow.

The characters are all larger than life, but then sometimes, even in real life, people really are that talented, that charismatic, that brilliant, that far-sighted. The story is about sweeping changes and epic battles and extraordinary times, and maybe that demands extraordinary characters to match. Kay’s skill is in also making them human and believable, which he does much better here than in ‘Tigana’, although a few frailties wouldn’t have gone amiss either. Sometimes one tires of perfection.

The various cities, or the parts we see, are created with a nice eye for detail, although the world beyond is only sketched in with a word or two here and there. The author brilliantly conveys the nuances of the different societies and religions in his world, and the uneasy tensions between them – the pious and unrefined Jaddites in the north, the relaxed and cultured Asharites in al-Rassan, and the fanatical desert-dwelling Muwardis to the south. And caught in the middle, the quiet and learned Kindath, despised by everyone.

Eventually, the story builds to the point where Our Heroes are no longer three steps ahead of everyone else, and start having to react to events, and this is where things really become tense. I do find it a little odd that, just as the continent-wide war is coming to the boil, some of the top warriors start careering all over the place on purely personal business, to rescue two specific individuals, the parents of a friend. I know that Kay is making a point about friendship and loyalty (regardless of faith) here, so I let it pass, but it still seems a little suspect for contracted warriors to just take off like that.

And so the point arrives that has been unavoidable almost from the start, and the reason for all the Kleenex. And even though I guessed it had to come, I still wanted, deep inside, someone to see sense and call a halt to it all. There has to be a better way to settle differences than having the prime of your manhood slaughtering each other on the battlefield. Football, maybe. Going off to the pub and getting plastered and singing maudlin songs together. Pretty much anything, really. The ending actually feels slightly rushed – a quick summary of the war so far, leading to the inevitable confrontation, where Kay totally cheats – he doesn’t tell us the outcome, moving instead to an epilogue twenty years later, with at least two clear pieces of deliberate misdirection before we finally find out what happened. Naughty.

This is one of those books that stays with you. Despite the sometimes overwrought writing style, despite the oddly camp moments, the story has both breadth and depth. The themes it touches on are timeless – duty and honour and the glory of war, as well as the personal tragedy of it. Friendship and loyalty and love and family. The nature of civilisation. Why good men who share love and trust and respect can still kill each other for abstractions like god and country. How honourable and pious people can do unspeakable things to their fellow humans. It’s all very depressing, but then it’s about war and religion so common sense doesn’t come into it. I would have liked a more upbeat ending, but this is Kay’s story and it certainly carries great emotional resonance.

My initial reservations were not entirely without foundation. The setting was too close to historical reality for my taste, and the three religions were too easily equated with Christianity, Islam and Judaism. Kay’s writing style is still highly emotional, but, compared with ‘Tigana’, I felt it was under better control here, and the love affairs were much better integrated – entirely integral to the story and given some depth, instead of feeling like an afterthought. I enjoyed this one even more, and see it as a very worthy five stars.

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Five-Star Archives: ‘The Name of the Wind’ by Patrick Rothfuss

January 27, 2015 Archive, Review 0

I thought it might be amusing to dig out some of my old reviews from the mists of time. This is one I read and reviewed in February 2011, and despite the glowing five star review, I haven’t yet got round to reading the follow-on. Hmm. Maybe I’m just less interested in wordy, doorstopper books these days.


This is a debut book, and inevitably the first in a trilogy (‘The Kingkiller Chronicles’), by this author, and it is quite stunning. It is focused quite tightly on just one character, for it is his story, told largely in autobiographical form, from the perspective of a point in his life when he is still relatively young but has already become something of a legend.
Unlike many fantasy books, the reader is not dropped headfirst into a morass of names and places and customs. Rather it builds very gently and precisely, a step at a time, as Kvothe tells his story, and the other countries, languages and beliefs are simply there, an occasional reference tossed out to whet the appetite. Because of this, the book seems quite slow to get going, and there are places where it almost begins to drag.
But about halfway through, when Kvothe reaches the University, the pace picks up and the book becomes totally absorbing and hard to put down. There are a couple of passages which are totally breathtaking, and even the slowest parts have a wonderful eloquence. There is a quite brilliant clarity in the writing, which is unusually poetic in nature, comparable to the best Tolkein passages, and infinitely better than the average for this type of work.
This is not a swords and sorcery all-action story, but nevertheless there is enough excitement to keep things bubbling along. The magic is a feature, of course, but it never acts as a deus ex machina. In fact, when it is used, it is possible to see the carefully placed trail of clues which led to it, so that we always understand exactly what has happened.
The story is complete enough to read on its own, but inevitably there are mysteries and hints about the events of the subsequent books. The author has achieved such a high standard with this first book, however, that it is hard to see how he can possibly repeat the feat twice more. If he can, the series will be quite outstanding.

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