Fantasy review: ‘The Royal Companion’ by Tanya Bird

July 2, 2017 Review 0

I have no idea what to make of this. I don’t even know what genre it is. The author says it’s a romance, and categorises it as medieval and Regency, which niggles at my tidy mind – how can it be both? Regency – no way. It has nothing in common with the historical Regency or fictional representations of it. In fact, I discovered it as an advert on the page of one of my own Regency romances, very out of place among the Pride and Prejudice fan-fiction that’s normally advertised there. But since the ad worked on me, I suppose it’s an effective strategy. But this is definitely not a Regency book.

The medieval part, on the other hand, I can just about see – there’s a king and a whole royal family, there’s a castle, the nobility indulge in boar hunting, archery and tournaments, the usual things. But it’s set in a created world, not part of the real medieval world, and to my mind it is clearly fantasy. So, fantasy romance, then? Well, no. Although this is about two people falling in love and being together despite obstacles, the equivocal ending puts it firmly outside the realm of romance. Let’s call it alternate world fantasy, or just a genre mashup. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

The premise: poor farmer’s daughter Aldara is sold by her mother to the obnoxious prince Pandarus, who gives her to his brother Tyron as a Companion. Companions are an interesting concept. On the one hand, their function as royal bed-warmers is a time-honoured and unoriginal one. But they are also trained to be beautiful, talented and adept at conversation, which makes them in some ways comparable to Geisha girls. Aldara finds the transition from independent-minded farm girl to meekly subservient courtesan a difficult one, not helped by Tyron being a reclusive and tortured soul, subject to black moods after action in one of the many border skirmishes plaguing the kingdom.

I found Aldara to be an uneven character. Sometimes she’s behaving with the utmost propriety, curtsying and remembering titles and pretending to be interested in the men’s conversations, as she’s required to do, yet at other times she’s being wildly outrageous, scandalising everyone. I’d have liked to see a little more consistency in her actions, and perhaps a steady progression towards a clearly defined goal. I’m not quite sure, looking back on it now, whether she ever truly accepted her role as Companion or not. It seemed to depend rather a lot on Tyron.

As for Tyron… well, what to say about a hero who causes his love so much grief? Would it have been so hard for him to make some effort to protect her, instead of simply ignoring her? And even when they’re lovers, he doesn’t bother to let her know that he’s safe and well. To be honest, I found his behaviour unforgivable, which is not a word I use lightly. When bad things happen to the heroine, and here the bad things are pretty harrowing, I like to think that the hero would have done everything in his power to prevent the bad things, and that if they happen anyway, it’s because his hands were tied and he was helpless to intervene or protect. But not in this case. Here the supposed hero actually creates the situation where it was almost inevitable that, sooner or later, bad things would happen. So, no, I can’t quite forgive him for that.

Some of the other characters in the book were, in many ways, far more interesting than the two main characters. The retired Companion who trains the new recruits, for instance, is a very complex creation. I’d have liked to see more of the queen and the princess, too, who I felt had more depth than portrayed here. And then there was the younger brother and his archery-champion Companion, who were simply enjoying a pleasant and amicable relationship. That would have been a bit more fun to read about than the darkness around Tyron.

I had a few issues with some of the premises. The idea of a Companion, taking a peasant girl and training her up (in just a few months!) to be a sophisticated and intelligent consort for a prince, able to hold a conversation amongst the nobility, is intriguing but inherently implausible. I couldn’t see any reason why peasant girls were preferred over (say) minor nobility. And then there’s the issue of motivation. Why, for instance, did Aldara’s mother sell her in the first place? They didn’t have so many children that a daughter would be an excessive burden. And why tell her nothing at all about what she is being sold for? That made no sense. Then there was the issue of poverty. I get that the ordinary folks were struggling to survive, but why on earth were servants within the royal estate struggling to survive, to the extent of needing to steal food? Surely the servants would be fed, and fed pretty well, too. And then there was Tyron’s behaviour, which made no sense. Even when he was supposedly falling in love with Aldara, he never cared enough for her to protect her. And why not sleep with her? That was what she was there for!

Some minor quibbles: lots of little typos, like a wide birth, pales of water, and something that was omitting noises. There were intrusive modernisms (to my ear), like sourcing food, or the need for personal space. Sometimes modern insertions like this are done for effect, but I found they just jarred me out of the pseudo-medieval setting.

This was an interesting and unusual read that would perhaps do better marketed as literary fantasy. I applaud the author’s attempt to explore a refreshingly different setting and some unusual characters. Despite all my quibbles, I found it fascinating, because I never quite knew what was going to happen. The weaknesses in the characters and the unsatisfying ending keep it to three stars for me, but I recommend it to anyone looking for something a bit different.

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Mystery review: ‘A Case of Conspiracy in Clerkenwell’ by Clara Benson

June 28, 2017 Review 0

Book 3 of the new Christie-esque murder mystery series by the author, featuring Freddy Pilkington-Soames rather than Angela Marchmont, which gives the books a very different flavour. Angela was very much a lady, so her sleuthing was conducted over cups of tea and genteel dinner parties, whereas Freddy is a man about town, and there’s a certain amount of creeping about in the middle of the night, and he gets physical from time to time. Unlike Angela, there’s no mysterious past to be gradually revealed, and Freddy’s very much London-based. I’m rather hoping he’ll escape the town setting at some stage; I miss the country house setting of so many of Angela’s stories.

However, this outing for Freddy has a good array of eccentric characters in the ladies of the Temperance Society and the (mostly) gentlemen of the Communist Alliance, who share the same local community hall. When one of the ladies is stabbed with a paper knife, Freddy is roped in by British Intelligence to investigate both the murder and a revolutionary plot.

I never quite got the communists straight in my head, so I had very little clue what was going on there, but it didn’t matter much. The plot unfolds in the regular way, with a great deal of dry humour, Freddy’s usual willing but bumbling style and some implausible drama at the end, before all is revealed, plots are foiled and the day is saved. I’m not a big fan of the spies-and-revolutions theme of this series, and I’d much rather return to the body-in-the-library country house style, but this is still a totally enjoyable read. Four stars.

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New release (and other Brightmoon news)

June 22, 2017 Findo Gask's Apprentice, News, Publishing/marketing 0

I’m delighted to tell you that the 8th book in the Brightmoon world, Findo Gask’s Apprentice, is now available. You can buy it at the special new-release price of just 99c, or borrow for FREE with your subscription to Kindle Unlimited or Prime. Click the Buy! button above to buy or borrow from your local Amazon, or click here for more information about the story.

I had so much fun writing this book (dragons at last!), and I’m thrilled to share it with you. I hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it. Watch out for The Dragon Caller in the autumn (and yes, there’ll be even more dragons!).

Other deals coming up soon…

To celebrate the release of Findo Gask’s Apprentice, I’ve got discounts on some of the other books in the series coming up, too. Here’s a list, so make a note in your diary if there are any Brightmoon books you haven’t read yet:

The Fire Mages: FREE NOW until Sun 25 June

The Dragon’s Egg: 99c on Sat 1- Sun 2 July

The Fire Mages: FREE again Sun 16-Wed 19 July

And don’t forget that The Plains of Kallanash is always just 99c.

And in other news…

The May giveaway is over – thank you for all your entries. I’ve loved finding out who your favourite characters are. Most popular was… the dragon! No surprise there, but votes were also received for Garrett, Kyra, Drina, Ly-haam, Allandra and Drusinaar. Congratulations to winners Jane Woods, Suzanne Swift, Maria Janney, Renee Mergott, N Carroll and Anne Monteith.

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Fiction review: ‘Don’t Let’s Go To The Dogs Tonight’ by Alexandra Fuller

June 12, 2017 Review 0

Another book group read that I would never, ever have chosen for myself, but I enjoyed it, on the whole. It’s a memoir, describing the author’s life growing up in Africa in the 70’s and 80’s, a time of great transition, including civil war, land seizures and the gradual erosion of white dominance. It’s an unflinching look at the realities of daily life for one extraordinary family, for whom the word disfunctional was probably invented. For me, it was uncomfortably too unflinching, but one has to admire the author’s clear vision of the reality of the times – the casual racism, the poverty, and dear lord, the many and various horrible ways to die or (if you were very, very lucky) merely be extremely ill, repeatedly.

The greatest triumph of the book is the glorious evocation of Africa in all its physicality. To say you felt as if you were there doesn’t quite do it justice. The lyrical passages describing the scenery, the wildlife, the plants and smells and sounds of the continent are exquisite, but towards the end of the book I did begin to tire of them just a little. The people are described more by their actions than anything else (and very odd they were too, sometimes).

The story-telling is episodic, and reads as though the author simply made a list of all the most memorable events of her childhood, and then fleshed each one out to a greater or lesser degree. Some are very short indeed, and it makes the book feel quite jerky and choppy. There are some pretty tragic events, too, so be warned.

There was a lot more I would have liked to know, especially about the family – what sort of background did they come from? Why were they in Africa at all? And why did they think the children were better off living with all the dangers of driving through mine-fields to go to school, for instance, when they could have been safe at boarding school in Britain? Nevertheless, this was a fascinating read. Four stars.

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#SPFBO news: brackets!

June 1, 2017 SPFBO, The Dragon's Egg 0

The #SPFBO competition hasn’t officially started yet, but there’s already quite a buzz about it, and a number of bloggers are getting into the spirit by looking at the entrants for themselves and trying to guess what might make the final cut of 10 books from the starting grid of 300.

Blogger M D presley is one who’s been trying to pick likely winners, and he’s started a ‘brackets’ contest to run alongside the main competition. The idea is to come up with your own selection of three books from each blogger’s batch of 30. The winner is, presumably, the one whose choices are closest to the actual picks.

Now obviously there’s no way of predicting how the individual bloggers will react, so the game becomes an exercise in how to approach the problem Just how do you pick? By covers? Blurbs? First chapters? Throw darts at a list? You can see M D Presley’s thought processes and choices on his blog here (and yes, he did include The Dragon’s Egg in his list!).

 

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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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