Posts Categorized: Review

Regency review: ‘The Lucases of Lucas Lodge’ by Clara Benson

May 6, 2016 Review 0

This is a real treat for Janeites, or anyone who read Pride and Prejudice and wondered what happened to Maria Lucas after big sister Charlotte married Mr Collins, and three of the Bennet sisters all found husbands. Clara Benson wondered, too, and this is her imagined answer. It’s a charming and light-hearted tale of muddles and misunderstandings, written in a style that any Janeite will love.

There are no Bennets in sight, just Maria Lucas, her parents, Miss King (the heiress saved from Wickham’s clutches in P&P) and some new characters renting Netherfield Park. I found all the characters (except one!) to be rather too nice, and perhaps not as quirky as genuine Austen characters, but this just made them all the more realistic. I particularly liked the way Miss King, a tiny bit-part in P&P, is given a great deal of depth here. Nicely done.

The setting is quite confined, just Lucas Lodge, Meryton, Netherfield Park and a rather puddly lane nearby, which has a starring role in a number of scenes. I was a little surprised that Maria is at home so much, when she has so many rich friends and relations now who could invite her to stay, but the author does explain this.

This is a wonderful, readable book with a delightful romance, lots of humour and all the charm of a Jane Austen novel. I couldn’t put it down! One word of warning: the book is an excellent pastiche of Regency wordiness, with no concessions to modern language, so anyone who finds Jane Austen’s phraseology tricky will have the same problem here. A very good four stars.

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Fantasy review: ‘The Strength To Serve’ by Claire Frank

May 5, 2016 Review 0

This is the third part of the Echoes of Imara series, which started with To Whatever End and An Altered Fate. It’s truly epic fantasy, with an array of characters pursuing their own agendas and plenty of world-threatening events in prospect. Our ‘heroes’, husband and wife Daro and Cecily and their friends are still dealing with the aftermath of the altered wielders (magic users). Pathius, the son of the former king, is in Imara while the Imarans help him to recover some stability. Meanwhile, the Lyceum loses a valuable artifact and asks Cecily to recover it. And across the sea in Attalon, Isley is imprisoned by the Emperor, as he plans an invasion.

One of the highlights of the second book was Daro’s stay in Imara, and this time it’s Pathius learning about the Imaran ways. The Imarans have a wonderfully ‘other’ feel to them, and everything about them and their land is strange, exotic and beautiful. There is a depth of characterisation in this section that really appealed to me, as Pathius and Ara inch towards an understanding.

Pathius is such a complex character. He’s the son of the king deposed (that is, killed) by Daro and his pals in an uprising that took place before the start of the first book. Pathius was believed to be dead too, and his reappearance is hugely awkward for the new king, Rogan, and everyone else. In book 2, he was dabbling in an uprising against Rogan, but that was defeated and in this book he has to decide whether he will continue to pursue a course as rightful heir to the throne or become a loyal subject of Rogan. He’s conflicted by his own history, and also by Cecily, with whom he shares a small part of the Imaran bond between Daro and Cecily. The book’s title, The Strength To Serve, gives a clue to which way it will go, even though the other characters are still suspicious of him. I very much want Pathius to be one of the ‘good guys’ but it’s obvious that he carries around a lot of baggage and could easily go to the bad at any time.

Daro and Cecily and their pals are (I presume) the people we’re supposed to be rooting for. I’ve always had a huge problem with that, hence the quotes round the ‘heroes’ up above. These are people who treasonably bumped off the previous king, and yes, he sounds like a pretty unpleasant guy but still — king! And here they are again in this book, behaving in very questionable ways. Callum, Daro and Cecily all do things towards the end of the book that have me questioning both their judgement and their ethics. The actions of Callum and Cecily I can just about accept as being necessary for the greater good, but Daro’s actions were completely beyond the pale, risking huge numbers of lives for a personal vendetta. I’m comfortable with grey morality, but to me this was not the action of a hero.

This is ironic, because earlier in the book, there’s an event which paints him very different colours, as a man undertaking a very difficult and dangerous task for the good of his people. His battle in Thaya is a great action set-piece, Daro at his masterful best. In fact, all the action scenes are superbly done, and anyone who enjoys mage battles or more traditional sword-and-spear work should read these books.

I suppose I should mention Isley. Poor Isley, held as both prisoner and revered favourite of the Emperor, a gloriously mixed-up situation. She has all the self-deluded pathos that should elicit sympathy, but somehow I can’t quite forget how evil she was in the previous book. She feels a little like a plot device — someone positioned so that the reader can discover just what the Emperor is up to, and (possibly) to link to some dramatic revelation in the final book.

This is a beautifully written book, with interesting characters, great action scenes, a well-thought-out plot and excellent pacing. There are some huge reveals at the end that I just didn’t see coming, including one that made me cheer and one that had me open-mouthed with shock. So why only four stars? It really comes down to personal preference. I’m not a huge fan of long-drawn-out battles. With the escalation in the war, it was inevitable that the battles would be intense, but I found there was a little too much describing who was doing what to whom. With wielders, there’s no end of Pushing and Pulling and Reaching, and sometimes I just wanted to know what the characters were feeling. In general, I wanted a stronger emotional engagement. There were times when I got it — the exhibition in Thaya, for instance, and Pathius and Ara in Imara — but there were also times when I felt detached from what was going on, and moments when I should have been affected by an event, but really wasn’t. But that’s just me, and it shouldn’t put anyone off reading an excellent book. A good four stars. I highly recommend this series.

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Mystery review: ‘Dead Wake’ by Dawn Lee McKenna

April 25, 2016 Review 0

This is the fifth book in the Forgotten Coast suspense series, and the author is nicely into her stride now. Although there’s a crime-of-the-week element, there’s also a depth of backstory developing in the history of main character Maggie and her family. Fortunately, these aspects are woven elegantly and seamlessly into the story, and never overwhelm it.

The plot is a straightforward one: a long-dead body turns up in a wall during renovations. The local crime lord is implicated, and Maggie and almost-boyfriend Wyatt are the two cops investigating, and finding themselves with differing opinions on the case. Complications ensue, and there are all sorts of murky shenanigans to dig up before the case is resolved.

The characters are a huge attraction of this series, being eccentric without veering into too much silliness, and McKenna’s deft hand with dialogue is always a joy to read. Wyatt is my favourite, but Boudreaux isn’t far behind. And then there’s the glorious atmosphere of the location (the Florida panhandle). I’ve never been there, but I feel I know the place intimately. Reading this book, I can almost smell the salt in the air, and taste the oysters as they slide down. Mmm, oysters. And I don’t even like oysters.

Another excellent chapter in the series, as Maggie and Wyatt inch towards a proper relationship. Five stars. Can’t wait for the next installment – please write faster, Ms McKenna.

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Thriller romance review: ‘Lowcountry Storm’ by Myra Scott

April 10, 2016 Review 0

This is the first in a new series, The Malone Family Saga. These are thrillers with a strong romance component, with some raunchy scenes along the way. Sarah Elliott is an insurance claims investigator, specialising in chasing down possibly fraudulent claims by wealthy rich men. When Charleston socialite Redmond Malone files a claim for a missing two-million-dollar yacht, Sarah sets her sights on uncovering the scam and earning enough of a bounty to set her up for life. But — wouldn’t you just know it — Redmond turns out to be handsome and cute and so, so hot.

Well, yes, we can see where this is going, but that doesn’t make the tale any less fun. I really enjoyed the way the romance developed between these two. It progressed slowly enough to be very believable, and I especially enjoyed the storm scene, which was quite awesomely memorable in a number of different ways.

The thriller part worked OK too. I’m not normally a big fan of high-drama thrillers, which tend to stretch credulity beyond the snapping point, as a rule, but this worked very well. I loved Sarah’s common sense under pressure, with all her actions being perfectly logical. She made a very sympathetic and understandable heroine, and Redmond was a likable hero.

There were a few sections that felt a little clunky, as the author was working to set up the family background for the later parts of the series, but that’s a minor quibble. A good debut. Four stars.

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Review: The Timeweaver’s Wager by Axel Blackwell

April 2, 2016 Review 0

An unusual book – I have no idea how to categorise it. Paranormal, yes, but with elements of thriller, too. Mystery, maybe, because the story is full of questions. But this is also a deeply character-driven story that is close to literary fiction.

The premise: Glen is a young man filled with regret. His best friend and almost-girlfriend, Connie, was murdered eight years before, and Glen feels he could have, should have saved her. Her death has haunted him ever since. More than anything in the world, he wishes he could go back in time and save her. But what if you were given the chance to do just that? Would you take it? And if you do that, would it work out the way you expect?

It’s a fascinating idea, and the author turns it into a compelling read that had me sneaking in just another chapter or three when I was supposed to be doing other things. It takes a long, long time to get to the point where Glen finally makes his decision, with perhaps a little too much agonising along the way. In some ways I would perhaps have preferred a different balance, a snappier decision and more time given to the post-decision events. That’s not a complaint about the book, by the way, just a comment that the idea is such an intriguing one, I’d have liked a longer look at the actual consequences and less mulling over potential outcomes.

Overall, a terrific read, with some neat twists along the way, and while I predicted some of them, others took me completely by surprise. A good four stars.

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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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Urban fantasy review: ‘Moonborn’ by Marina Finlayson

February 22, 2016 Review 0

Ah, Garth… my favourite werewolf. {Sigh} He was a side character in The Proving trilogy, although an important one, but here he gets to take centre stage. This is a terrific prequel to the series. A few familiar characters pop up from the later story, but it’s not necessary to have read the trilogy first. In fact, it would work very well to read this and then move straight into Twiceborn. Either way works.

This tells the story of how Garth became a werewolf and how he got on in his early years as a shifter (not very well, in case you were wondering). Poor Garth! You’d have to have a heart of stone not to feel sorry for the poor guy, with all his difficulties. Because the trouble is, Garth doesn’t take easily to pack life and for a werewolf, that’s a real problem. Watching Garth struggle to fit in with a pack, or to live alone, and yet fail at both, is heart-rending.

But it’s not all grief and misery. There are some awesome moments in here, too. Garth’s first full moon transformation, followed by his first hunt as a wolf, is riveting. In fact, all the wolf moments are brilliantly written. It’s not easy to convey the almost completely animal nature of a werewolf in wolf form, where even the names of the other pack members are lost, but Finlayson is terrific at getting the reader right under the wolf’s skin.

The story covers quite a lot of ground, fifteen years to be exact, taking Garth from pre-werewolf days right through to the time of the dragon queen wars, the Proving, so it’s episodic rather than a single story. It’s no less compelling for all that, and the dramatic finale is an emotional roller-coaster as each minor triumph is immediately followed by a lurch downhill towards disaster. This is a great read — highly recommended. Five stars.

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Georgette Heyer Regency Romance #5: ‘Friday’s Child’

February 20, 2016 Georgette Heyer, Regency romances, Review 0

It’s an odd thing, but whereas The Corinthian was every bit as frivolous as this, and ten times as implausible, it was still very enjoyable to read. This one, however, written in 1944, often felt tediously silly. The reason, at a guess, is in the characters. In The Corinthian, both the main characters are sharply intelligent, although muted by innocence (in the case of the heroine) and a degree of cynicism (in the hero). I can forgive characters a great deal if their actions make some kind of sense.

But Friday’s Child is based on stupidity. Both hero and heroine behave in ridiculous ways, without an ounce of common sense, and that’s really annoying. Viscount Sheringham needs to get married to release his inheritance money, and, rejected by the woman he’s been pursuing all season, he is so annoyed he swears to marry the first woman he sees. This turns out to be Hero Wantage, the ultra-naive girl-next-door. And so they marry, and she gets into scrape after scrape through ignorance (or sheer stupidity) and he carries on behaving exactly as if he were still a batchelor. Cue all sorts of tangles.

There’s a certain charm to the characters, and the collection of male friends who rally round the naive bride and make her an honorary member of their set is very amusing. But, as with The Corinthian, the bride is terribly young, only seventeen, and I disapproved violently of her behaviour in Bath, where she pretends to be single.

This was entertaining, in a frothy and fairly silly way, although I’m not a big fan of all the Regency cant, and the sheer weight of silliness keeps this one at four stars.

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Georgette Heyer Regency Romance #4: ‘The Spanish Bride’

February 7, 2016 Georgette Heyer, Regency romances, Review 0

Another one I’m going to pass on. Written in 1940, although this is classified as a Regency romance, and it probably is, it’s also based on real historical characters, and, like An Infamous Army, it’s very focused on the historical setting.

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Georgette Heyer Regency Romance #3: ‘The Corinthian’

January 9, 2016 Georgette Heyer, Regency romances, Review 0

After the history-fest of An Infamous Army, written in 1937, which I couldn’t even attempt, this one couldn’t be more different. It’s the most frivolous, silly, light-hearted confection imaginable, but then it was written in 1940, so perhaps frivolity was what was most needed.The plot begins with Sir Richard Wyndham, the Corinthian (dandy) of the title, accepting that at the age of twenty nine, he must make a loveless marriage to please his family. Neither the icily practical lady, nor her debt-riddled family, appeal much, but he feels he must do his duty. But on the evening before making the offer which will tie him, he gets very drunk and on his way home he spots someone climbing out of an upstairs window. This is seventeen-year-old Penelope (Pen) Creed, an heiress escaping the prospect of an unwanted marriage to a cousin, by dressing as a boy and running away. Richard agrees to help her escape, and thereby sets in train a glorious set of ever-more-unlikely events, involving stolen diamonds, an elopement, a Bow Street Runner, even a murder, and a whole array of wonderfully eccentric characters.

The story is delightfully silly, but the real charm is in the two main characters. Pen is a complete innocent, always coming up with outlandish schemes which go horribly wrong, and then require even more outlandish schemes to set things right. Richard is the world-weary cynic, trying very hard to protect her from the worst consequences of her actions. The writing is as light as a feather, with humour in almost every line.

This book was a delight from start to finish. The romance isn’t totally convincing, not least because Pen is so young and innocent, it’s hard to believe that she really knows her own mind. But that’s a very minor quibble. A very enjoyable five stars.

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