Posts Categorized: Review

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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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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SciFi Short Story Collection Review: ‘Echoes and Memories’ by Tristan Gregory

August 28, 2014 Review 2

This is a nice mixture of science fiction short stories, varied in both length and subject matter. I have to confess, I’m more of a fantasy reader, so I got a bit bogged down in some of the sciencey bits. However, the author’s trademark smooth writing carried me along.

The first two stories, Digital Soul and Pillar, were both awesome – beautifully crafted, immersive and with that deft little twist at the end which makes a short story so satisfying. The third story, The Last Gasp of the Dragon, was short and sweet – maybe too short to make an impact (or maybe I just didn’t get it – always possible).

The fourth story, Orphaned World, was long and filled with blow-by-blow detail which lost me somewhere along the way. The tension built and built, yet the resolution felt insufficient for all that build-up. I had the feeling there was some profound idea being conveyed which my befuddled brain wasn’t grasping properly. Over my head, I suspect.

But the final story, Too Dumb To Die/The Sea Beyond the Stars, hit the spot beautifully, with a wonderful tale that asked all the difficult questions about what it actually means to be human. Or perhaps, more subtly, about the nature of humanity. Epic stuff.

For me, this collection didn’t quite reach the glorious heights of The Wandering Tale, but for those who like their speculative fiction both thought-provoking and elegantly written, this is highly recommended. Four stars.

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Mystery Review: ‘Rough Edges’ by V J Chambers

August 16, 2014 Review 0

A lot of books are described as psychological thrillers, but very few genuinely merit the label. This one is everything a psychological thriller should be. The characters – all the characters – are in some way damaged, and therefore nothing is certain or reliable, and all their actions are questionable.

Here’s the plot: Sam, the narrator, specialises in writing biographies of women who’ve suffered major traumatic events in their lives: kidnappings, murderous boyfriends and the like. Trouble is, his approach inevitably leads him to become involved with the victims he’s writing about. When he has to abandon his latest book after an affair with the subject leads to the breakup of his marriage (to his previous subject!), he finds himself scratching round for a new project. Fortuitously, he is approached by Lola, a woman whose parents were murdered when she was twelve by a man who then kidnapped her and carried on killing until she managed to break free. Or that’s the official story…

Sam has to try to work out exactly what happened, and whether Lola was truly an innocent child victim, or something more sinister. But Sam has his own history lurking beneath the surface. And when the murderer breaks out of jail and sets off after Lola and Sam, life gets very complicated.

This is a fantastic story where nothing can be taken for granted. Everyone Sam talks to gives a different impression of Lola, and Lola herself is a curious mixture of tearful victim, sexual predator and manipulative bitch. The author brilliantly captures the sheer creepiness of Lola’s behaviour, yet she’s always perfectly believable. Sam is also incredibly well-drawn, and as we’re inside his head the whole time, he’s both a very sympathetic character and also seriously stupid, in a young, socially-inept male way.

The climax is the usual dramatic and violent confrontation, somewhat less contrived than is customary in this sort of book, and kept me guessing right to the end about who was manipulating whom, and where the truth lay in the morass of self-created fantasies in the heads of all the main characters. An excellent, well-written story with a nice little time jump at the end which is absolutely fitting for the character concerned – one of those ‘oh, of course’ moments.

And if that had been all, it would have been enough. But this book has an unusual degree of depth to it, with some thought-provoking elements that lift it well above the norm. One aspect is that many (perhaps all) of the damaged characters have been affected by a heavily religious home life. The author doesn’t make a big deal of this, so it almost slips by unnoticed, but it’s interesting, nevertheless. For instance, Sam’s mother: “It upset Sam that even though she was free of her controlling husband, she still was spending her time praying to a magic fairy invisible person somewhere in the sky.”

Then there’s the sex. Yes, this book has some graphic sex scenes, but they’re all integral to the plot and true to the characters. These are people who use sex as a manipulative tool, and the author also doesn’t shy away from the association between sex and violence. This is uncompromising stuff, and for anyone who would find these elements problematic, this is not the book for you. For everyone else, this is a cracking read, with some deeply thought-provoking aspects. Highly recommended. Five stars.

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