Posts Categorized: Review

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 Back in those early days of the Kindle, a lot of previously unpublished authors were dusting off long-abandoned manuscripts, kept in a drawer for years, maybe, and tossing them up on Amazon without much thought.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 #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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Georgette Heyer Regency Romance #2: ‘An Infamous Army’

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

I set out to read all of Georgette Heyer’s Regency romances in publication order, and here I am at the second book, written in 1937, and already I’m refusing to jump. The opening is a whole confusion of characters, so, naturally, I turned to the Goodreads reviews for advice. And find that this book is more of a historical treatise on the Battle of Waterloo than fiction. It is, apparently, still required reading for the officer training school at Sandhurst.

Well, it may be picky of me, but I read for entertainment, not to be hit over the head with the author’s depth of research. I’ll take a raincheck on this one, and maybe come back to it later, when I feel stronger. Pass.

Nice cover, though.

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Regency romance review: ‘The Impostor Debutante’ by May Burnett

January 6, 2016 Review 0

I enjoyed this one a lot. Too many Regency romances these days have plots that are too silly for words, requiring hero or heroine or both to behave in quite incredible ways. This one felt quite sane, and both main characters behaved like sensible people. Very refreshing.

The plot revolves around the neglected niece of a London socialite mother, who decides to do her duty by bringing the girl down from Yorkshire to be suitably introduced into society and married off. But the niece is almost blind, recently married and pregnant, and has no desire to enter London society. She does, however, want to recover her inheritance money, so she sends her half-sister to London in her place to find out why the solicitor isn’t responding to letters. All this is slightly pedestrian, but there is another, more interesting, sub-plot, focused on the half-sister’s background.

The romance features the hitherto rather useless second son of the socialite mother, who is a pleasant enough chap but doesn’t have much to make him stand out from the crowd. Despite the obstacles seemingly keeping the two apart, they fall in love rather easily, and start lusting after each other in no time. I’m not a big fan of Regencies with added sex, but that’s a matter of personal preference and it was all rather tastefully done.

This isn’t the most historically accurate portrayal of the Regency era I’ve ever seen – the dialogue is more modern colloquial than Jane Austen, and the heroine enjoys afternoon tea at one point (not invented until 1840). But the characters and the leisurely plot have a charm which overcomes such minor quibbles. The ending felt rather awkward, with way too much time taken tying up loose ends, but overall this was a pleasant read. I wavered between three and four stars, but as it’s the first of the series I’ll be generous. Four stars.

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Mystery review: The Shadow at Greystone Chase by Clara Benson

December 31, 2015 Review 0

The tenth and final outing in the Angela Marchmont series of murder mysteries set in the twenties. Most of the books of this series can be read independently of each other, but this one is the exception: it follows on almost directly from The Scandal at 23 Mount Street and has many spoilers for that story, so if you haven’t read the ninth book yet, read on at your peril.

After the sombre courtroom drama of the previous book, things are almost back to normal here, with ladylike amateur sleuth Angela and her aristocratic reporter sidekick Freddy investigating a murder from several years ago. But it isn’t quite normal, because the murder in question is the wife of Angela’s love interest, jewel thief Edgar Valencourt. And because she feels guilty about the events of book nine, she agrees to try.

The mystery isn’t particularly complicated. I guessed the identity of the murderer, and most of the reasons, within about five minutes. I also spotted some important clues along the way. That doesn’t make it any less interesting or enjoyable to watch the story unfold, and see Angela and Freddy circle closer and closer to the truth. This is, in many ways, a classic country-house murder mystery, with all sorts of family secrets lurking behind the wealthy exterior.

But to be honest, the murder isn’t the focus of this one, so much as the ramifications of the previous book, the weight of guilt and decisions made and actions taken which can never be undone. So there is a heavier tone than in some of the earlier books, and an all-pervading sadness. So can the author wrap things up and bring not just this mystery but the whole series to a satisfying conclusion? Of course she can!

This was another wonderful read, and although (like the previous book) it suffered a little from the backstory-heavy plot, I can’t in all conscience give it less than five stars. And for anyone wondering about the creator of the Angela Marchmont mysteries, you will find a little more information about the reclusive Clara Benson at the end of the book.

A brief word about the series as a whole. They say that many series take several books to establish themselves, and so it is here. The first book, The Murder at Sissingham Hall, is quite slow, and features Angela only as a side character, an odd stylistic choice. The second book, The Mystery of Underwood House, is much more readable, and I’d almost say you could start the series here without losing anything. By book 3, The Treasure at Poldarrow Point, things are beginning to pick up and the humour is finally showing through. By book 5, The Imbroglio at Villa Pozzi, the writing reaches glorious heights of charm, and this and book 6, The Problem at Two Tithes, are among my favourite reads of the year. The rest of the series is magnificent. Highly recommended for fans of cozies and Agatha Christie-style country-house murders.

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Mystery review: The Scandal at 23 Mount Street by Clara Benson

December 31, 2015 Review 0

The ninth and penultimate outing in the Angela Marchmont series of murder mysteries set in the twenties is a complete change of pace. After the light-hearted, almost flippant, tone of the last few books, suddenly life takes a very grave turn for Angela, when her past comes back to haunt her and she has a fight for her very life on her hands.

The mystery this time isn’t so much in whodunit, which is almost incidental, but how on earth Angela is going to get out of the mess she’s in. I don’t think it’s much of a spoiler if I say that I never doubted that she would get out of it, but even though I guessed something of how it would go, there was a surprise in store at the end. In fact, there were a lot of revelations about the past, although one of them I’d guessed a while back.

This wasn’t the riotous entertainment of some of the previous books – the tone was too sombre for that. Angela makes some difficult choices in this book, and the very different plot meant that the writing style felt a little denser than usual. However, the courtroom scenes were very well done, Angela’s friends rose to the occasion splendidly, and the biggest reveal of the lot was suitably dramatic. I can’t honestly say I enjoyed this as much as the earlier books – it was too traumatic for that – but the constant tension kept me on the edge of my seat, I tore through it in record time and I very much liked the way it ended [*], so that’s another five stars and straight on to the tenth and final book in the series.

[*] The reported tragedy near the end? Nope. Don’t believe that for one second.

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