Urban fantasy review: ‘Rivers of Hell’ by Marina Finlayson

May 25, 2017 Review 0

This is the third of the Shadows of the Immortals series, and it’s another action-packed and dramatic installment. This one is, as you might suspect from the title, set in the underworld, as Lexi and friends try to remove the magical collars that restrict the powers of god Apollo and Lexi’s cat-shifter friend, Syl. As always, there are plenty of twists and turns along the way, and Lexi and hot fireshaper Jake inch a little closer towards the inevitable romance.

Now, I’m going to be honest. I’ve never read a bad book by Finlayson yet, and this one doesn’t break that winning streak. It’s the usual well-written roller-coaster ride, lurching from one crisis to the next, yet always in a way that makes total sense within this world, and with that trade-mark Aussie humour – lovely! But…

It lacks many of the elements that made the previous two books amongst my favourite reads. Lexi’s ability to communicate with animals, for instance, which produced some creative moments in the first two books, is very muted in the underworld (with one glorious exception). Then there are those delightful thought-conversations with cat-Syl, which so enchanted me. None of that here. And finally, that tantalising backstory about Lexi’s mum – where is she? Why is everything different in her home town? I really, really, really wanted to know about that, and with Lexi stuck in the underworld, that didn’t happen. All of this is perfectly understandable, but disappointing.

So this was still a very enjoyable read, and highly recommended, but for my personal choice, I’d have liked a touch less relentless action and a little more of the quirky charm. Four stars.

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Review: ‘Dark Voyage’ by Alan Furst

May 25, 2017 Review 0

My book group throws up a mixed bag of reading materials, and I never quite know what I’m going to get. This one seemed most unpromising at first glance: a war-era story of spies and secret missions aboard a Dutch freighter commandeered by British intelligence. Um… not really my thing. But after I chickened out of a few, I’m determined to have a crack at everything from now on so I settled down to read.

And (surprise!) I really enjoyed it. It’s very much a boy’s own adventure, with lots of creeping about in the dark, secretly repainting the ship to disguise it (not an easy task), and never quite knowing who is on who’s side or what the ultimate objective is. There are some truly thrilling moments steering through minefields or arriving at a neutral port to find that it’s changed allegiance overnight. There are also laugh-out-loud funny moments, as when the supposed Spanish captain (in fact a very lowly crew member) is produced for the benefit of a German U-boat, and turns out to be gloriously drunk. I didn’t follow all the wartime nuances, but it didn’t much matter.

The main character, phlegmatic Dutchman Eric DeHaan, resignedly does everything that’s asked of him, even the obviously suicide-mission final job, in the desire to do his bit for the war effort. His motley crew of many nationalities goes along with it too, in the main, with only a couple making a run for freedom. There’s a gratuitous little romance, which never really rang true, and an oddly unexplained spy who’s important enough to be ferried around Europe, but then vanishes again at the end (this is a motif of the author’s, apparently, and the character turns up in multiple books). And although I’m far from an expert, the historical and nautical details were utterly convincing to me. An enjoyable read. Four stars.

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I’m in SPFBO! Again!

May 15, 2017 SPFBO, The Dragon's Egg 2

For the third year running, Mark Lawrence (author of the Broken Empire series) is organising a contest for self-published authors. He’s rounded up 10 bloggers who read and review fantasy books, usually traditionally published, and 300 books submitted by self-published authors, and thrown the two groups together. Each blogger gets a ‘slush pile’ of 30 books to whittle down over six months to just one to go forward into the final. Then the ten bloggers read all ten finalists and score them, to come up with an overall winner.

And for the third year running, I’ve submitted one of my books. The first year, Bookworm Blues blogger Sarah Chorn looked at The Plains of Kallanash (she gave it 3/5 stars). The second year, Sarah looked at The Mages of Bennamore (she gave it 3/5 stars – I think we can see a pattern here!). This year, I’ve submitted The Dragon’s Egg, and it’s landed at The Quillery. This is a joint operation, so the books will be looked at by four different bloggers, which seems to me like a good system. Frankly, thirty books is just too much of a workload for an individual blogger to be expected to tackle.

There are some great books on the list this year (translation: the competition is very, very stiff). There’s a cover competition, too, and naturally I’m hoping my shiny new Deranged Doctor cover will rate a mention. As for the book, I’ve never expected to win, or even get to the final ten (did I mention, the competition’s very stiff?). My objective is purely to have the book read objectively by someone who normally reads only traditionally published books, who will measure my work by that standard. Nothing more or less than that. The Quillery have said they will read the first fifty pages or so of every book in their group, and decide what interests them enough to read the rest of from that, so of course I’d love to be one of those selected. But if they decide The Dragon’s Egg doesn’t interest them, so be it.

Whatever happens, it’s a great idea, and I’m thrilled to be part of SPFBO once again. If you want to follow along, you can see what’s happening on Mark Lawrence’s blog or on the site of one of the bloggers taking part, Booknest.eu.

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Authors answer 21: What is your ultimate goal with your writing? Fame? Fortune? Changing the world?

May 5, 2017 AuthorsAnswer 0

This is going to sound like a cop-out, but I really don’t have a goal except to get the books out there in the world where they can be read.

Fame? No, absolutely not! {Shudder} I’m the ultimate reclusive writer. I haven’t even told most of my real life friends or family that I write. It amuses me, actually, to meet people on a regular basis who have no idea at all about it. We have the usual back and forth — how are you, what have you been up to, oh, nothing much — and I could say, well, I published my fourteenth book the other day, so bit of a celebration, and I have a promotion on the box set and then there’s the audio… But I never do.

Fortune? A little bit more money never goes amiss, but I wouldn’t want enough to need accountants and investment advisers and all that good stuff.

Changing the world? That would be presumptuous. I write to entertain people, and if my books take readers to another place for a few hours, then that’s as much as I aspire to.

Footnote: Authors Answer is the brainchild of blogger Jay Dee Archer, of I Read Encyclopedias For Fun. You can read the answers to this question by his eclectic bunch of authors here. More recently, Erica Dakin, of the Theft And Sorcery blog, has been answering the questions independently. You can read her answer to this question here.

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Special deals, a giveaway and – the next book! Free!

April 30, 2017 Findo Gask's Apprentice, Giveaway 0

Some special deals

Here’s an opportunity to pick up some of my books at a special low price. Book 1 of the series, The Plains of Kallanash, is now just 99c, and so is book 2, The Fire Mages. And if you’re a fan of trilogies (and who isn’t?), you can buy books 2, 5 and 7 at the new low price of just $6.99 (or equivalent). All the books are also free to download if you have a subscription to Kindle Unlimited or Amazon Prime. Click to buy or borrow.

I’m giving stuff away!

I have some cool swag for 6 lucky people – mousemats and drinks coasters commemorating the awesome original covers of my books. To have a chance to win, all you have to do is email me and tell me which is your favourite character from any of the Brightmoon books. Not read them yet? Can’t remember their names? No problem! Just answer ‘the dragon’ (because dragons are always the best, right?). No purchase or commitment necessary to enter, and your friends are welcome to join in the fun too.

The competition runs until the end of May, when I’ll whip out my random number generator and pick 6 winners to receive an assortment of swag. Click to enter.

Want to read the next book right away?

The next book in the Brightmoon world, Findo Gask’s Apprentice, will be released in July, all being well, but I realise I’ve made you wait a long time for it. To compensate, I’m going to post the whole book, chapter by chapter, on a blog so you can read it a bit sooner. It’s not quite the finished version – it’s a beta version, so there will be some final changes before publication. I’ll be shutting the blog down before release, so don’t delay.

The main character is new, but there are some very familiar faces putting in an appearance, both from The Magic Mines of Asharim and from The Plains of Kallanash, so for anyone who was wondering how Mia, Hurst and Dethin were getting on, or what Allandra and Zak were up to, you will soon find out!

The prologue and first few chapters are posted already, and I’ll be adding a new chapter every day. Feel free to post your thoughts or questions in the blog comments. Happy reading! Click to read.

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Fantasy romance review: ‘Source-Breaker’ by Kyra Halland

April 20, 2017 Review 0

Kyra Halland’s one of very few authors who writes proper fantasy romance, that is, stories that have a fully-formed romance at their heart, but are also well-constructed fantasies. It’s a hard trick to pull off (I know because I’ve tried and failed) but she does it superbly.

This book drew me in from the very first paragraph. I loved the idea of a man whose job it is to fix magical sources (the well-springs of magical power, each one different). Kaniev travels around the country to wherever his lodestone tells him a source needs attention, fixes it with a bit of arm-wavy business that only he is trained to do, and then goes on his way to the next job. That makes it sound very prosaic, like an old-fashioned tinker who turns up out of the blue, fixes your bucket and sharpens your knives and then vanishes until the next time. Except that Kaniev is hotter than any tinker. I did mention that it’s a romance, didn’t I?

Kaniev’s suffered some mysterious failures recently, but his next job is at Source Chaitrasse, where Fransisa is the Priestess in charge, nursing resentments of her own, and not at all pleased to have her work disrupted by this hot bloke who thinks rather too well of himself. She ought to send him on his way, but maybe the source does need a bit of fixing. And then he’s so hot… I think I may have mentioned that’s it’s a romance. But when a ceremony goes wrong and Fransisa is torn away from her everyday world into the grasp of a dangerous rogue sorcerer, she and Kaniev must overcome their mutual dislike and past failures to defeat the sorcerer before there’s a catastrophe.

Now the fantasy element of the story isn’t the most complicated one ever in the history of fantasy, but it works fine and the depth of world-building more than makes up for it. The author is brilliant at creating worlds which appear simple on the surface but are endlessly complex and fascinating underneath. The idea of different sources of magic, each subtly different, each affecting the people using them in different ways, is beautiful but also powerful, and the concept of the time source blew me away. I didn’t see that coming, but that’s the sign of great world-building, when a basic idea can be applied in a multitude of ingenious ways.

The romance element was charming and delightful and tear-inducing and heart-warming and utterly wonderful. I loved, loved, loved that these two are not in the first flush of youth (the author says they’re facing mid-life crises!), and Fransisa isn’t your average skinny beauty, either – she’s a nicely rounded lady, which Kaniev likes a lot. Kaniev? Well, he’s the conventional hot hero, with the muscular arms which he shows off with a sleeveless leather vest and silver jewelry. He might be just a little vain. But definitely hot. Their final coming together made me go all mushy inside, and if the epilogue was just a tad sentimental, these two earned their right to it.

Would I recommend this? Only if you like delicious romances wrapped up in terrific fantasy. And hot blokes. Five stars.

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Urban fantasy review: ‘Nothing But The Truth’ by Angela Holder

April 20, 2017 Review 0

I’ve had some mixed experiences with Angela Holder’s writing in the past. White Blood was a wonderful 5* read for me, a quirky and original story based around an unusual heroine, a wet-nurse. But the first part of her Tevenar series, The Fuller’s Apprentice, was a less resonant read. I enjoyed the intriguing magic system, the detailed world-building and the philosophical points raised. I was less enamoured of the glacially slow pace, the info-dumping and the lack of plot development, so much so that I never managed to get round to reading the rest of the series. The writing was uniformly excellent, however, so when I saw this new book out with its intriguing premise, I had to give it a go.

Nothing But The Truth depends upon the conceit that Allison, the main character, has a physical reaction to lies. If someone lies in her vicinity, she’ll either throw up or get violent pains in her head. The stronger the lie, and the nearer she is to it, the worse the reaction. Now this is a neat idea with all sorts of possibilities, and the book opens with Allison struggling to manage in a typical high school, full of the sort of small and large lies that teenagers tell every day. She leaves school to start homeschooling (a sensible idea), and meets a group of somewhat eccentric other homeschoolers, among them Asperger’s boy Charlie and cautious, sensible Lindsey. This part of the book is excellent, and when a former school friend is murdered, Allison and her new friends set out to put her lie detection ability to good use.

So far so good. However, as the friends progress with their investigations and become increasingly involved with shady goings on, the story starts to go off the rails a little. There were several times when, despite Lindsey’s hand-wringing over how dangerous a thing was, they did it anyway, got into deep trouble and had to be rescued by the cavalry (grown-ups, mostly – the main characters are all mid-teens). And the resolution of the murder and the teacher’s behaviour were both too simple for my taste – I’d have liked something a bit deeper, or just more subtle. And after rather a nicely-done showdown with the Big Bad, the ending, almost an epilogue, was positively glib, and (frankly) a bit dull.

Despite all that, I enjoyed the read, and raced through it to find out if it turned out the way I thought it would (it did). There was a moralistic tone to the story, which, while being appropriate for the situation and the age of the presumed audience, felt a touch heavy-handed to me, but the writing was up to the author’s usual standard, and I enjoyed the mixture of characters. I would have liked more detail about some of the minor characters – Allison’s mother for instance, who was constantly off meeting clients. I wondered what sort of work she did, and a part of me hoped it would be something magic-related, but we never find out. And Charlie’s parents don’t show up at all until the end. But these are very minor quibbles. The intriguing premise, great characters and terrific readability make it a four star read for me.

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Review: ‘Water For Elephants’ by Sara Gruen

April 5, 2017 Review 0

The framing story here is that of an old man looking back on his life with a third-rate circus in the thirties. Is it a romance? An action story? Making a point about circuses? Not a clue. It was an easy read, and I was never tempted to abandon it, but frankly I have no idea what to make of it. Parts of it were wonderful, parts were ho-hum and a few parts were downright stupid, a real curate’s egg of a book.

Let’s start with the good bits, which was basically everything involving elderly Jacob (who’s 90 or possibly 93) in the care home. The descriptions of the other residents brought them to vivid life, Jacob himself was utterly believable as a curmudgeonly old man falling out with another the same, and the daily frustrations of age and an institutionalised existence were filled with pathos.

The ho-hum bits were most of the middle. Circus life ought to be filled with colour and movement and life, but somehow it all faded to nondescript lifelessness. The early parts, where Jacob leaves his comfortable middle-class existence behind and joins the circus, working his way swiftly from hired low-paid muscle to circus vet, had the air of an author showing off her research. We get a quick guided tour around some of the seedier elements – there’s a graphic description of what goes on in the stripper’s tent, for instance, which has no particular relevance to the plot.

Once we get past the exposition phase and our hero falls for the wife of the animal director, the action hots up and veers off into stupid. I lost track of the number of times the hero was beaten up, only to be back to normal almost instantly. In one scene, he’s beaten so badly that he ends up concussed, but he then does the whole running-along-the-top-of-the-moving-train thing, with a knife in his mouth. And then back again. The whole romance is basically unbelievable. What did he see in her? I suppose she was hot in pink sequins, but she didn’t seem to have much between the ears (but to be fair, nor did he).

There were some more complex characters, like Walter the dwarf, who would have made a more interesting hero, frankly. But the star of the book was Rosie the elephant, who had more character than most of the humans. Poor Rosie suffers a lot, in fact a number of the animals suffer, for one reason or another, but the humans don’t do much better. At one end of the circus train, the owner and his acolytes live in luxury, with the best food and plenty of booze (the book is set in the prohibition era), and are able to go to expensive nightclubs. At the other end, the grunts who do all the work don’t get paid at all, and get tossed off the (moving) train whenever they outlive their usefulness.

And then we come to the end. Both the thirties-era ending and the present-day ending were beyond silly, but everything got tied up with a neat little bow, I suppose. The unevenness of the two eras and the stupid endings keep it to no more than three stars.

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One to watch out for: ‘Rivers of Hell’ by Marina Finlayson

April 1, 2017 Books that caught my eye 0

Anyone who’s been following this blog for any length of time knows how much I love Marina Finlayson’s writing. I don’t normally get along with urban fantasy, but something about Finlayson’s style is a perfect fit for my reading needs. Maybe it’s that the characters feel so real I’d love to have a drink with them, maybe it’s that the stories are convoluted yet easy to follow, or maybe it’s the quirky Aussie humour, but I’ve loved everything she’s written to date.

It’s no great surprise, then, that I’m excited to see that the third part of Shadows of the Immortals is out. I can’t wait to find out what Lexi and Syl and friends get up to this time round.

And look at that cover – awesome or what?

You can find it on Amazon.com.

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FREE today! Great urban fantasy from Jen Rasmussen

March 28, 2017 Archive, General, News 0

I just spotted that there’s some great urban fantasy free today. Grim Haven was a 4* read for me (high praise when I’m not even an urban fantasy fan!) – I found it great fun, with some truly atmospheric moments (the word ‘Hitchcockian’ was used). Highly recommended, so hie thee to Amazon and pick up a copy free, gratis and for nothing. I’ve no idea how long it will be free, so don’t hang about.

Here’s the blurb:

Years ago, Verity Thane turned her back on a hometown teeming with dangers and consumed by dark magic, swearing to herself she would never return. Now, she has no place else to go.

When she’s cornered into using her magic to save mysterious Cooper Blackwood from a chilling supernatural attack, Verity is unwittingly drawn into a war with a clan of lethal monsters. Hunted and burned out of her home, she’s forced to flee to the last place she’s ever felt safe.

But when Cooper’s deadly secrets collide with Verity’s dark past, new enemies meet old in an unholy alliance that could destroy everything each of them holds dear. Verity will have to protect the home she never thought she wanted… or lose it to a gruesome fate she never could have imagined.

You can read my review here.

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