Posts Tagged: holder

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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Fantasy review: ‘The Fuller’s Apprentice’ by Angela Holder

September 29, 2015 Review 1

I absolutely loved the author’s previous book, ‘White Blood’, so naturally I couldn’t resist this one. Unlike the previous one, it’s the first part of a trilogy, but there are similarities, too, in particular, an interesting magic system, closely allied to the religion of the country. Wizards can only use magic in association with an animal familiar, and only in certain limited ways: for healing, for making legal judgements by examining actual events of the past, and to move things (or prevent them moving). These are interesting restrictions, and, as with all fantasy, part of the enjoyment is seeing the multitude of different ways even a limited application of magic can be used.

The two main characters are Josiah, the titular fuller’s apprentice, a young man of reckless impulsiveness, and the rather serious journeyman wizard, Elkan. The two meet when Josiah is amusing himself by running backwards and forwards through the fulling machinery (a scene that reminded me somewhat of the chompers scene in Galaxy Quest!). When things go wrong, Josiah is saved by the quick-thinking wizard, who then offers him a job as his assistant when the Master Fuller wants to fire Josiah.

The two of them, together with Elkan’s familiar, Sar (a donkey), begin a slow amble through the scenery which goes on for chapter after chapter. There’s a great deal of detail here about how the magical healing process works, how the legal system works, and also the wizard’s role as a kind of priest (he officiates at a marriage at one point). We even get a description of waulking (a precursor to fulling as a way of preparing woven materials). This is not uninteresting, but it’s very, very slow, and action moments are few and far between. It’s very tempting for an author who’s worked out all the subtleties of her invented world to the umpteenth degree to squeeze all of it into the story, but it does make the pace glacial. The problem is compounded by dialogue of greetings, detailed explanations of medical conditions, and so forth, which could easily have been condensed or skipped altogether.

Apart from the magic, the world-building is nothing earth-shattering. The population is largely agricultural, with all adults assigned to craft guilds, and trained in one or other craft, even if, in practice, they might be doing a variety of other tasks. This leads rather interestingly to the idea that children are named for their parents’ craft and their own, rather than taking a family name. Thus, Elkan is known as Elkan Farmerkin Wizard. Machinery is limited to simple mechanical devices (like the fulling mill), sailing ships, and the like.

The plot – well, there really isn’t much of a plot. Elkan and Josiah move about healing, judging and conducting religious ceremonies. There’s a sub-plot with bandits, who wander into the story from time to time causing trouble, but mainly the focus is on a variety of challenges for Elkan and his companion-in-magic, Sar the donkey. This makes the story very choppy and episodic. Every few chapters, there’s a new town or village, a new medical condition described in disconcertingly modern terms, followed by a cure, or a long discussion about why it can’t be done.

Of the characters, the conflicted and quite complex Elkan is the most interesting. At first he seems rather dull, happy in his work and disapproving of Josiah’s impulsiveness. But later, as we learn more about him, he becomes a little more nuanced. Josiah does some pretty stupid things, but he does learn to see things in less black and white terms. I’d have liked to know more about Sar the donkey, but perhaps that will come in future books. The other characters are mostly too numerous to be more than hastily-drawn sketches. Some effort is made to give the bandits some depth, but ultimately all these minor characters are either good guys or bad guys. The only character whose behaviour stretched my credulity was Meira. Her actions felt like plot-drivers, rather than something which would arise naturally. But it was a minor point.

But as the book goes on, the happy healer and fixer aspect is increasingly mired in difficult choices, and this is where the book really shines. It’s impossible not to share the grief when people die, despite the wizard’s best endeavours. How do you explain to simple folk that some things just can’t be fixed, even with magic? And when there’s a disaster, with many people needing help, how do you choose? And is it possible to give so much yet ask for nothing in return, not even personal happiness? All these questions and more are addressed by the end of the book, as well as the important one: the issue of free will. And although the characters don’t seem to be anything out of the ordinary, they still got under my skin so that I cared very much what happened to them.

The ending gave me a complete side-swipe. That was really NOT how I saw this going. But it all followed completely logically from the developments up to that point – one of those oh-of-course moments, not wait-what? And then everything is nicely set up for book 2.

A very readable book, well written and nicely thought out. It was terribly slow moving, and I often found myself muttering: yes, yes, but get on with it. Even so, I found myself thinking about aspects of the story while I was doing other things, and always picked it up again with pleasure. That’s the sign of a good book. I shall certainly be watching out for the next in the series. Recommended for the characters, the setting and the interesting magic system, rather than action. Four stars.

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Fantasy review: ‘White Blood’ by Angela Holder

September 21, 2015 Review 0

I loved this book. Completely adored it, from the first moment we meet Maryn, curled up in bed beside her husband, feeding their new baby, through the tragedies and challenges that follow, right to the end. I loved Maryn, and loved, too, reading about one of the great unsung heroines of past times, the wet nurse. It’s a fascinating profession, one that takes a lowly born woman and plonks her down right in the midst of a great and powerful family. And it’s perfect for fantasy, as here, because Maryn ends up as wet nurse to the newest heir to the kingdom, baby Barilan.

The pace is slow initially, and the world-building isn’t anything out of the ordinary, although the magic system, based on blood use, is clever. The physicality of it means that magic can be felt, like a buzzing in the bones, as well as being seen through sweeps of blue light. I liked that different cultures have hedged magic round with all sorts of rituals and superstitions, subtly different from each other, so that it blends seamlessly into religion.

The characters leap from the page, fully formed and totally real. Maryn herself is wonderful, just a lowly-born woman, humble and grateful for her new job, while never forgetting all that she’s lost. The first part of the book, as she adjusts to her changed circumstances, is a wonderful evocation of royal life, as seen by one of its most junior inhabitants. It’s fascinating, and totally believable, that the royals simply don’t see Maryn, so they talk state secrets in front of her, as well as ascribing the baby’s good health and size to his inheritance rather than her plentiful milk! At every point Maryn’s reactions felt exactly right, to me. In fact, all the characters responded in realistic ways to the difficulties facing them. Sometimes things went badly wrong, too, so that it felt as if Maryn was taking three steps forward and one back. But again, this makes it all the more believable.

At about the 40% mark, the plot dives headlong off a cliff, leaving behind the comfortable world of servant life, and thrusting Maryn into a situation that’s life-threatening both for her and for the baby. From then on, the pace is frenetic, and doesn’t let up for an instant, right up to the dramatic confrontation at the end. There were times when I could have done with a respite from the constant tension, just to catch my breath!

The ending is very elegant, and although I anticipated some elements of it (I was actually shouting ‘Use the [X]!’ at my Kindle at one stage), there were one or two twists I didn’t foresee, as well. And then some lovely moments at the end that had me sighing with pleasure.

You can tell I enjoyed this book, a lot. Books are enjoyable for any number of reasons, but just occasionally I come across one that I feel might almost have been written specially for me. This is one of those books that just resonates with me. But a word of warning: there is a lot – a whole lot – of detail about breastfeeding and babies and diapers and cracked nipples in here. I loved it all, but for anyone who’s less than enthralled by such matters, best pass on by. But for me – a perfect five stars.

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