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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Let’s go camping!

May 2, 2016 Writing musings 1

I’ve never joined in a NaNoWriMo (National Novel Writing Month) before — it just never fitted it with what I was working on, and I didn’t feel I could manage to write 50,000 words in a month. So each November the good ship NaNoWriMo went sailing past without me. But this year the moons aligned sufficiently for me to give Camp NaNoWriMo a go.

What changed? The first difference was that I actually planned to start a new book anyway last month. I know some people just carry on with whatever project they’re already working on, but I’ve always liked the idea of having a NaNo project – something written from scratch in NaNo month. I finished my last epic fantasy at the end of March, and April was pencilled in for the second of my Regency romance series. It was planned to be 50,000 words, a perfect NaNo length.

The other difference was that I’m now writing fast enough to be confident of getting through that amount of writing in a month. Camp NaNo doesn’t set a fixed writing target, but 50K seemed about right. At the moment, I’m managing to write pretty much every day, and I’m getting 2,000+ words down each day, so a 50K month seemed very doable.

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And… I made it! After starting on the 3rd April, I still managed to get 50,000 words down by the 27th. In fact, I wrote on, and the book is now finished, weighing in at 61K words, and written in just 28 days (an average of 2,200 words per day).

So what’s next? On to the next book, that’s what. Regency 3, here we go…

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One to watch out for: ‘Six Celestial Swords’ by T A Miles

May 1, 2016 Books that caught my eye 0

I haven’t read this one but wow, look at that cover! And for everyone who grumbles that all fantasy is set in a pseudo-medieval European world, this one is very definitely not! You can find it on Amazon.

Here’s the blurb:

Inspired by the rising chaos in Sheng Fan, Xu Liang, mystic and officer of the Imperial Court, leaves his homeland for the barbarian outer lands in search of four magical blades to unite with two sacred weapons already in the possession of the Empire. His plan is to bring all of the blades together and return them to Sheng Fan’s Empress as a symbol of unity that will bolster the people’s faith in the Imperial family and assist against the surge of dark forces.

Complicating his plan is not the finding of the blades, but finding them with bearers; foreigners who have no intention of parting with them and less intention of serving an Empire they’ve scarcely heard of. It becomes Xu Liang’s task to ally himself with these barbarians of the outer realms and unite them with his cause, as well as with one another. Only the complete reunion of all six blades and their fated bearers can stand against chaos, rising like a dragon from slumber beneath the foundation of a nation unprepared.

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One to watch out for: ‘The Fairytale Curse’ by Marina Finlayson

April 27, 2016 Books that caught my eye 0

The Fairytale CurseI don’t normally post about books I haven’t read, but sometimes I just have to tell the world about something that’s coming soon. I’m a huge fan of Marina Finlayson’s writing, I loved The Proving series, which started with Twiceborn, and even her short story, The Family Business, was terrific. So you can believe me when I say I’m really excited about her next book, due out May 8th. And isn’t that the most awesome cover? You can pre-order the book now at Amazon. Here’s the blurb:

Most people only wake up with hangovers after parties. Seventeen-year-old Violet wakes up with frogs falling out of her mouth whenever she speaks, and her twin sister CJ’s dripping diamonds with every word. As if starting at a new high school wasn’t hellish enough, they’ve been hit with a curse straight out of a fairy tale, with not a handsome prince in sight.

Apparently Mum and Dad don’t work for the military after all, but for a secret organisation dedicated to keeping the magical denizens of the world safely locked away. These are not the harmless fairies of children’s tales, but powerful beings with a score to settle for their long years of imprisonment. Now the barriers are failing, and if Vi can’t find answers fast the world will be overrun with vengeful fairies. And then there’ll be no happily ever after for anyone.

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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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Authors Answer 12: What books did you read as a child?

April 16, 2016 AuthorsAnswer 0

Enid Blyton. And really, to be honest, I don’t remember reading anything else. Even though I read voraciously, and steamed through the library’s children’s section as soon as I was allowed to join, and then the school library, the books that stand out in my mind are the Enid Blyton ones.

Noddy_Goes_To_Toyland_1949_coverI may have had some of her fairy books, gifted by well-meaning relatives, but the first series I got into was Noddy, and I had the entire collection at one time, golliwogs, Mr Plod the policeman and all. They aren’t remotely politically correct these days, but they were very much the norm in the mid-twentieth century, when they were first published. They were popular for years, too. Everybody read them.

FiveOnATreasureIslandThen there were the Famous Five books, with Julian, Dick, George, Anne and Timmy the dog. Again, not at all politically correct, with hindsight. Julian and Dick, the two boys, were the leaders and brains, George (Georgina) was the tomboyish wanna-be boy, and Anne, the girly-girl was terribly wet. But they did all the sorts of things that I would have loved to do but wasn’t allowed to, like going off camping alone and using their initiative and managing perfectly well without any adults to oversee them. And, naturally, they solved the mystery and presented the case, neatly tied up with a ribbon, to the flat-footed local police.

TheMysteryOfTheBurntCottageThere was a Secret Seven series, too, but I never liked that as much. The other series I remember well was the Five Find-Outers, starting with The Mystery of the Burnt Cottage. I loved these because the fat character was the smart one, and not just comic relief. I remember him doing all sorts of clever things with invisible ink, and escaping from a locked room. I liked the Barney series, too, which started with The Rockingham Mystery. There were some ingenious solutions to the mysteries — in one, a theft was accomplished by a trained monkey who could break in through a tiny window. But in all of them, the children were thinking, observing, weighing evidence and generally being smart and independent. I loved them.

Then, when I was sixteen, someone suggested I read Lord of the Rings, and I discovered fantasy… My reading was never the same after that.

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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‘The Dragon’s Egg’: cover reveal

April 11, 2016 The Dragon's Egg 0

With The Dragon’s Egg winging its way to my trusty proofreader for a final check before publication, I thought it might be time to show you what the cover looks like. Once again, I’ve called on the services of Glendon Haddix of Streetlight Graphics, who’s done an awesome job taking my vague arm-waving and turning it into wonderful covers with strong fantasy branding.

Here’s his latest – enjoy!

 

 

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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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Authors answer 11: If you were going to write in another genre, what would it be?

March 25, 2016 AuthorsAnswer 4

In a sense, I’ve already answered that question, since my current side project, apart from the fantasy, is a venture into Regency romance. I’ve always been a big fan of Jane Austen and Georgette Heyer – very different styles, but both endlessly rereadable – and my very first attempt at novel writing, many moons ago, was a full-on Regency. That effort was banged out on an old manual typewriter, and I got maybe three-quarters of the way through before life overtook me. It now lurks, unloved, in a bottom drawer, and I haven’t dared to read it again. I’m quite sure it must be execrable.

Fantasy and Regency might seem to be very different creatures. One is a made-up world, with the only limitation being the author’s imagination, focusing on battles and monsters and world-threatening peril, not to mention magic, of course. A Regency focuses on a much narrower field of action, which may be just a few towns or villages in England, with one not-very-earth-shattering objective — to marry off hero and heroine. There may be adventures and high jinks, but generally a Regency is light-hearted fluff.

But in both cases, the characters are tip-toeing through the same minefield — the rules of their world. In a fantasy, the rules are made up by the author (you can use magic, but only if you’re carrying a certain gizmo, or use the right words). In a Regency romance, the rules are those in effect in the real world at the time — the social rules that constrain well-to-to families, with dire consequences if breached. So young women must be accomplished and knowledgeable, but also demure. They are brought up to run large households, yet must always defer to their father, brother or husband. They may speak several languages, but must never express a political opinion. Woe betide the young lady who dares to waltz in public before being approved by the patronesses of Almacks.

For those who still think that fantasy and nineteenth century manners have nothing at all in common, I refer you to a couple of examples of books which gloriously mash together the two genres. Tooth and Claw by Jo Walton is an only partially successful attempt to blend the Victorian social culture with dragons. Temeraire by Naomi Novik thrusts dragons into the middle of the Napoleonic wars, and although there are certain logistical issues (nations can call on fighting dragons, but somehow history has turned out pretty much the same? Really?), the first few in the series are quite glorious, entirely dominated by the rather bookish dragon, Temeraire himself.

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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