Posts Tagged: frank

Fantasy review: ‘Assassin’s Charge’ by Claire Frank

November 14, 2016 Review 0

It’s a novelty these days to find an assassin character who visibly fulfils that role, both in practice and in temperament. Rhisia Sen is a paid killer for the Attalon Empire, so well-paid for her work that she can almost afford to retire. But when she’s offered an outrageous amount of money for a kill, she can’t resist just one more job. But if something seems too good to be true, it usually is, and this is the job where Rhis finds out just how far she will go to fulfil a contract, and where she’ll draw the line.

This book drew me in right from the first chapter, where we see Rhis on a mission, and realise how skilled she is, and how cold-blooded an assassin needs to be. But her next job is a little different, and when she finds out that she has to kill a child, she goes on the run with him rather than comply, and finds herself the target of a contract in her turn. From then on, it’s a race to escape the various assassins sent to hunt them down, to find out why the boy, Asher, is so special and to reach a place of safety for the boy and Rhis herself.

The first part of the book works really well. The initial kill, the glimpse of Rhis’s luxurious lifestyle, the long trek through the backlands of the Empire and then the confrontation with Asher and his family — all these elements are utterly absorbing.

However, once Rhis commits herself to saving Asher, the story becomes more episodic. There’s a lot of hopping about here and there — to find a ship to escape on, to rescue the boy after he runs away, a visit to the Atheneum (a giant library) for information, a side trek into the mountains to find out more about Asher’s history, and so on. And at each stage, there was someone or other leaping out of the scenery trying to kill our heroes, and Rhis has to find ingenious ways to defeat them. This isn’t uninteresting in itself, and the author is superb at describing fights, but it did become a little repetitive after a while. And the love interest felt rather perfunctory to me.

More concerningly, both Rhis and the boy behaved stupidly at times. The boy’s antics were perhaps understandable, given his age and sheltered upbringing, but several times Rhis, the supremely skilled assassin, was taken by surprise and found herself at a disadvantage, which had me shaking my head in disbelief.

On the positive side, I loved the way both the boy and Rhis changed over the course of the story. Asher learned some harsh lessons about life and death and protecting your friends. Rhis softened considerably and learned to trust someone other than herself. And the ending took me by surprise, and finally showed Rhis’s intelligence and creativity.

For those who’ve read the Echoes of Imara series, this book offers a fascinating glimpse of another part of the same world, but it’s not at all necessary to have read those books first. A good, action-packed read, with some excellent characterisation in Rhis and the boy, and the mysteriously creepy Athon. Recommended, and you don’t just have to take my word for it, since this book is a finalist in Mark Lawrence’s competition for indie books, the Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off 2016. 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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Fantasy review: ‘An Altered Fate’ by Claire Frank

June 27, 2015 Review 1

The second part of a series is always a difficult trick to pull off: have all the clever ideas been used up in the first part? Is the plot reduced to dull filler to bridge the gap before the finale? Do the nuances get lost in the rush to ramp up the action a notch? Well, all the answers here are a resounding no: this book is just as absorbing as the first.

In the first book, the villain, Nihil, was defeated, but the results of his experiments are still roaming the kingdom of Halthas. A number of Wielders (magic users) have been altered, rendering them very powerful but also unstable. Some of them have surrendered to the lure of that power, and have become wildly destructive. Others seem to be under better control. The focus of the story is how to manage the altered Wielders: should they be killed? Kept under lock and key for safety? Or helped to manage their powers?

Daro, one of the two main characters, is struggling to come to terms with his own altered powers, and not succeeding very well. But Daro is half Imaran, and the Imarans take him back to Imara to see if they can help him. Meanwhile, his wife Cecily is sympathetic to the plight of other altered Wielders, amongst them Pathius, the missing son of the previous king.

I loved Daro’s excursion to Imara. The first book stayed very much within the confines of Halthas, and much of the story took place in and around the city of Halthas itself, which wasn’t uninteresting but felt like a fairly standard fantasy city and kingdom. But Imara and its inhabitants are indubitably different, with a nicely conveyed sense of ‘otherness’ that I thoroughly enjoyed. There was no real tension to this part of the story, despite some initial hostility towards Daro and some interesting excursions, because I always felt that Daro would survive, but it was fascinating anyway. The Imaran’s home and way of life and the strange, but dangerous, forest they live in, were all equally delightful, but I especially loved their magic, the way they connect with the energy of the world around them.

Poor Cecily has a less interesting time. As in the first book, she seems to spend a disproportionate amount of time sitting chatting over cups of tea, explaining and planning and being terribly ladylike. Cecily is a very powerful Wielder, with some unusual abilities, and I love seeing her using them, but she rarely got the chance to shine. What she did do was to make some dubious decisions, trusting people more on ideological grounds rather than from any logical process. In fact, numerous other characters try to dissuade her, but she manages to convince them all. I’ll be honest, this makes her look soft and not as politically astute as I’d expect for someone of her rank.

Of all the characters, Pathius is the one who resonates the most with me. Cecily and Daro are almost too ‘good’, with few inner conflicts. But Pathius is a man who is truly conflicted, and that makes him interesting. As the heir of the previous king, deposed (in fact, murdered!) by Cecily, Daro and friends, he has the option to pursue the throne. Honestly, I wish he would. It seems to me he has every reason to follow that course. Or he could take the opportunity to reshape his life in a different way.

At the end of the first book, it was revealed that events during their captivity had left Daro and Pathius with a unique connection. Because of Daro’s Imaran bond with Cecily, Pathius is drawn to her, too. I found this a fascinating concept, with many possible plot ramifications. In the end, it didn’t have quite the dramatic effect I’d hoped for, but it still complicated the relationship between Cecily and Pathius, who spend much of the story travelling together, and it may be there are still aspects of this connection yet to be worked out.

The build-up and conclusion were appropriately nail-biting, although I got a bit cross with Daro for constantly trying to protect Cecily from harm and rushing off to tackle this or that problem single-handed. She’s perfectly capable, you know, and the two of you work better as a team. But I have to agree that Daro is quite awesome in full-on combat mode, and his final meeting with Pathius is spectacular, both the visual imagery and the ideas. Very enjoyable.

I do have a few logic issues with the story. For one thing, the altered Wielders now on the loose in Halthas. Some of them have gone to the bad, and have to be destroyed. Some (like Daro) are clearly unstable, but efforts are made to find a way to deal with that. And some are like Pathius and his pals, who appear to be perfectly rational and functional, but common sense suggests that things could change at any moment. Given all this, I found it hard to believe that Cecily would be allowed to wander round the countryside with them, and that no one stepped in to prevent it. It stretched credulity to the limits.

My other big issue concerns history. Much was made in this story of Pathius’ claim to the throne, and whether the nobles would rise up to support him. But this is treason, various characters declared in ringing tones. Well, yes, plotting to depose the current king is indeed treason. Yet this is exactly what Cecily, Daro and pals did a few years back, desposing Pathius’ father, and putting Rogan on the throne instead. It makes me uneasy that I’m rooting for the guys who are traitors themselves (and I am rooting for them, make no mistake). I know the victors write the history books, but still, I hope this issue is dealt with more fully in the next book. In fact, I can’t help secretly wishing that Rogan would fall under a metaphorical bus, and Pathius would end up taking back the throne. Not very likely, I know, but there would be a certain symmetry to it.

And this is the proof of a good story: that I end up wondering where the author will take it next, and what will become of these characters I’ve grown so attached to (yes, even Isley!). And as with book 1, there’s a perfect lead-in to the next part of the story. I can’t wait! A well-written book with a great magic system and some tense combat scenes. The minor issues knock a little off the rating, for me, but it’s still a very good four stars. I highly recommend the series.

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Fantasy Review: ‘To Whatever End’ by Claire Frank

January 20, 2015 Review 2

This is an unusual book in a couple of ways. For one thing, the main protagonists are a happily married couple. When Daro is kidnapped, Cecily sets out to find and rescue him. No, no, that’s not the other unusual thing. Surely it’s not unusual for a woman to rescue a man?

The second unusual thing is that this story is set some years after a major upheaval in the kingdom. The old king was overthrown and his son and heir killed in a bloody war which Daro, Cecily and their friends helped to orchestrate. The first section of the book, where we meet the companions in ones and twos, and they mull over the previous events and remind each other of this or that close shave or dramatic moment, made me wonder if I’d strayed into the second part of a trilogy. Actually, no, this is the first part. But dammit, that sounds like an interesting adventure they had. I’d really like to read about that. It’s not until this story starts to take off that I stopped yearning to hear about the war.

The plot, as already mentioned, revolves around the kidnapping of Daro by people who appear to have almost impossibly powerful abilities. It took a while to get to this point, but the getting there was not uninteresting. The contrast between Daro and Cecily’s present rustic retreat and the grand city of Halthus, where Cecily is part of the nobility, makes for an interesting introduction, and there are plenty of neat little details along the way that made me smile with pleasure. This is an author who knows how to get the world-building right and drip-feed snippets of information at just the right moment.

But then Daro is whisked away, and the section of the book that deals with what happens to him was, for me, a highlight. His interactions while in captivity came to life and crackled with tension in a way that the more routine city-based scenes never quite did. Partly this is (perhaps) because civilised cities, even magical ones, don’t quite have that fantastical allure for me. And partly this is because Cecily spends a great deal of time sitting around unable to act because – well, reasons. It makes her seem quite passive at times, although when she does get a chance to act, and she and the gang sally forth for an encounter, she more than makes up for all the waiting.

A very small niggle: when Cecily and pals do get an idea of what to try next, it seems to come out of the blue. Sometimes it’s more a chance piece of information, or pure instinct, that drives things forwards. I would have liked a little more deduction, and less randomness, but it wasn’t a problem.

One aspect I really liked about this book is the beautifully worked out magic system. I can’t profess to understand all the nuances, but there’s a lot of subtlety to it. Magic users are called Wielders or Shapers, depending on whether they can manipulate energy or matter. There are various different types. Cecily is an unusually strong Wielder, trained at the powerful Lyceum to enhance her capabilities even more than normal. I loved the way she could Push or Pull – making someone fall over by Pushing their knees, for example – and she also has Awareness, so she can feel where rooms and people are in a building, for instance. Such a useful ability to have.

The other main characters have Wielder abilities too, and sometimes it felt as if they were only there to conveniently make guards run away (by filling their minds with fear, another cool ability) or pick a lock. The rest of the time the companions were mostly cannon fodder, or foils to sit round a table discussing The Situation with Cecily (there was a lot of discussing went on). I confess that I got them muddled up a great deal, but that’s just me.

Eventually the plot blossoms into the expected big confrontation. The battle scenes in the book are done superbly. I’m not a big fan of magical battles, as a rule, but here I always knew exactly what was going on, and who was doing what to whom.

The ending – I’m not going to say anything about the ending, except that the author has set up one of the cleverest lead-ins to the next book that I’ve ever come across. Can’t wait to find out how this one gets worked out. Recommended for fans of traditional epic fantasy who like an intriguing magic system. A good four stars.

Footnote: the author’s husband is a Lego enthusiast, so he made some models of locations in the book, which you can see here.

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