Saturday, July 30, 2011

Liberator



Earlier this year I read a YA steampunk affair by Australian author Richard Harland called Worldshaker. As these things go it wasn't bad at all, it told the story of an alternate future where the bulk of the great civilisations of Europe had been forced onto world travelling ships called juggernauts and how a young man from the Upper Deck ruling class; Col Porpentine, had teemed with a determined Lower Deck member of the working class, commonly known as Filthies, to overthrow the order of things and turn Worldshaker into a democratic society with equal rights for all.

Liberator picks up a few months after the end of Worldshaker. The juggernaut has been renamed with something more fitting to its new status and all are adjusting to the new society. Unfortunately generations of mistreatment and poor behaviour from both sides have created divisions that may never be healed. The Filthies call the Upper Decks people Swanks and relish their new position of power...some of them relish it a little too much.

Col is trying to help his family adjust to the change, without a lot of success in some cases, and at the same time come to terms with his feelings for his friend and fellow revolutionary the Filthie known as Riff. That's when a saboteur strikes and threatens to unsettle everything.

As things come unglued on the Liberator, Riff fades into the background, Col finds himself fighting for his life and the zealot Lye takes over.

There's a very clear message in the book that you can't simply unsettle an old order without something viable to take it's place. There are echoes of the Russian Revolution, the French Revolution and in some cases Hitler's rise to power and the formation of the Third Reich.

Liberator is attacked by juggernauts from other Imperial powers and eventually does to a Russian juggernaut what happened on Liberator, freeing the Russian Filthies and giving them the power to decide their own destiny. Col has to also sort out things with Riff, not easy when your former wife is still alive and largely insane.

It ends up happily enough, with scope for more should the author go on, although I'd advise against it. The idea has legs, but not enough to support another book. He has learned from Worldshaker and given things time to happen, I felt they were a little rushed in the first one. He also let violent situations play out that way, many YA authors don't like to cross certain boundaries. It's a good followup and deserves an audience, if only for Col's amazing baby brother Antrobus.

Friday, July 29, 2011

The Stepsister Scheme



The title sounds like it’s making fun of a Robert Ludlum thriller and Scott Fischer’s cover art looks like the Disney Princesses ™ meet Charlie’s Angels. That last one is a fairly apt description. It’s another riff on introducing of fairy tales to a modern audience without insulting their intelligence. Although I hadn’t been particularly impressed with the one other Jim C. Hines book I read (Goblin Hero) this one sounded a little like Fables. I’m an immense Fables fan (like I’ve made a secret of that here) so thought The Stepsister Scheme would be worth a try.

At the heart of it the book is what happens following the words ‘and they lived happily ever after’. It appears that’s not actually the case. The book’s heroines are Danielle Whiteshore (nee De Glas), who most of the world knows better as Cinderella, the grumpy, cynical Talia who is a martial arts mistress and better known by the name Sleeping Beauty and Snow generally known to the world at large as Snow White, she’s very pretty, flirtatious and no mean sorceress.

The plot revolves around Cinderella (generally referred to in the book by her real name of Danielle) and how she’s coming to terms with her married life as Princess Danielle of Lorindar when one of her unpleasant step sisters; Charlotte reenters her world, attempts to kill Danielle and then makes off with her husband Prince Armand, under a sorcerous compulsion.

All of a sudden Danielle finds out that serving girl Talia is a princess in her own right and a bodyguard, along with Snow she makes up Queen Bea’s (Danielle’s mother-in-law Queen Beatrice) crack task force of butt kicking princesses. The girls go after Cinders’ husband. Talia doesn’t want Danielle coming along, as far she’s concerned the glass blower’s daughter is dead weight, but the new princess is determined, they’ve stolen her hunky husband after all, and that thing she has of getting small animals to do what she wants can come in mighty handy when you’re dealing with the fairy folk.

As the girls go on their quest they find themselves in all sorts of crazy and often dangerous situations where all their talents will be needed to keep themselves alive and complete their mission objective. The back stories come out along the way. The author decided to adopt Basile’s story of Sleeping Beauty, which is how she got her name of Talia, not Perrault’s or Grimm’s or thank God Disney’s, he also gave her a distinctly middle easterm flavour, which I quite liked. Both Snow and Cinderella were the Grimm stories, but the ones before they were cleaned up. The decision was appreciated by this reader.

Despite all the action in the first 2 thirds of the book it doesn’t really take off until the final third, which is edge of the seat stuff and has the reader wondering, now how exactly are they going to get out of this? I believe Hines has studied martial arts (I think I read about him doing karate on his Livejournal one time) and it shows in the choreography of the book’s many fight scenes. Despite the proliferance of the action sequences I found them a little confusing. There were also one or two unnecessary ones.

Essentially the 3 leads are front and centre most of the time so it’s good that they are appealing, varied and multi layered characters, who I feel the audience has only just scratched the surface of. There were a couple of fun cameos by the formidable power behind the throne of Lorindar; Queen Bea and the lecherous gnome Arlorran. The villains were rather well done, if a little under utilised. I think there was more to the step sisters Charlotte and Stacia than we got to see and I liked the cowardly troll Brahkop.

It goes without saying that it all ends happily ever after. The book is totally self contained, but Jim C. Hines has done 3 sequels. I’ve got The Mermaid’s Madness ready to go and will be reviewing that here soon as well, so yes I’m a definite fan.

A few things that I wanted to mention. Two concern the book and one doesn’t, but it’s always bugged me so I may as well drop it in here. Talia and Snow have talent. Talia is the muscle, while Snow handles the magic. Danielle’s resourceful and plucky, she can talk to animals and she’s got an enchanted glass sword, but as Talia said she’s not much use in a tight situation. She may develop an offensive talent in the future books.

I did like the character traits Hines gave his heroines. Talia would much prefer to fight than ask questions, she put me in mind of Michael Weston’s trigger happy girlfriend Fiona in TV’s Burn Notice. Snow covers up her tortured past and her genuine power with a fa├žade of flirtatiousness. Despite now being a princess Danielle finds it difficult to leave her life of drudgery behind and often finds herself thinking of how to clean surfaces in the most incongruous of situations.

Finally I have always wondered about Cinderella’s father. Every legend says he was a pretty decent, smart kind of guy and devoted to his daughter. Why then did he marry this harridan of a woman with her two demon children and allow them to turn his only daughter into a virtual slave? That’s always made me scratch my head and no one ever seems to address it. Maybe Jim C. Hines will put me out of my misery in one of the 3 sequels to The Stepsister Scheme.

In closing: buy it, read it, you won’t regret it.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

The Atrocity Archives



The Atrocity Archives is a mixture of horror, science fiction, fantasy and espionage thriller. If Len Deighton and H.P Lovecraft had ever collaborated they may have produced something like The Atrocity Archives, and author Charles Stross does admit in his afterword that he was influenced by both writers.

As the title may indicate it's actually two stories: The Atrocity Archive and the shorter novella length The Concrete Jungle, are contained in my copy.

Bob Howard is an IT professional who works for The Laundry. The Laundry is a never spoken about branch of the British government responsible for looking after all the things that go bump in the night. Bob basically does the sort of work any public service employee does, but he longs to be an operative. When he finally gets his chance he finds it both far more dangerous and more tedious than he could have ever possibly imagined, although he does manage to get a decent girlfriend out of it. The Concrete Jungle is largely about the Medusa (hence the novella's name) and while it features the same setting and some of the same characters as the novel it is definitely a separate and unrelated story. There's indications that The Laundry has been around for over a century, which tended to remind me of the British sci-fi Doctor Who spin off Torchwood.

It was definitely entertaining and Stross is an intelligent writer with some great ideas, but ultimately it's not for me. I've never been able to really understand work that tries to apply scientific principals to fantastical concepts, which is something that is at the core of this work. I found Bob a little generic and he's also a depressing sort of character, who somehow seems to bungle through things without any hope of his life ever actually improving. I liked the idea of a supernatural spy, but this is more Le Carre or Deighton than it is Ian Fleming.

The series has been very successful for Charles Stross having spawned 2 other full length novels, and 2 novelettes, with a 4th novel installment due to be published in 2012.

Friday, July 22, 2011

A Dance with Dragons



It’s real, I’ve read it, I’ve had a bit time to think about it and now I’m going to try and review it.

‘It’ is of course the long awaited 5th novel in George R.R Martin’s epic A Song of Ice and Fire series; A Dance with Dragons.

I know that a lot of people haven’t yet had the chance to read this book or are still reading, so I’ll try and be as spoiler free as possible, but you have been warned, you’re entering into spoiler territory beyond this point.

A Dance with Dragons is, for the first half, running concurrently with the timeline established in A Feast for Crows. The 3 most keenly missed PoV characters absent from A Feast for Crows; Jon, Dany and Tyrion get the lion’s share of the chapters in A Dance with Dragons, and that’s even after it catches up to A Feast for Crows. The 3 characters have many fans, so that should please the majority of the readership.

The central hub of most of this is the Essos city of Meereen. The bulk of the book is taken up with getting a handful of characters to the city and there’s not a lot of action until the book’s second half. There’s been a lot of criticism about this, but I personally didn’t mind it. All action, all the time doesn’t necessarily equal a great book. The other thing to remember is, that this is a middle book and they often make the situation as bad as it can get, and set the scene for the conclusion.

Tyrion serves a slightly different purpose in this book, and he’s not quite the Tyrion we knew from the first three books. His wisecracks are still there here and now, his mouth still gets him into and out of a lot of trouble, he’s still consistently jumping from one dangerous situation into an even worse one, but his experiences and his reduced station in life have changed him. He’s no longer Tyrion ‘The Imp’ Lannister, backed by the gold of Casterly Rock and Tywin Lannister. He’s a hunted fugitive, wanted for killing his odious nephew King Joffrey and his father Tywin Lannister (curiously he freely admits to being responsible for both deaths, but readers know he only committed one of them). There’s been complaints about this as well, although again you have to remember that although it’s been 11 years since some readers saw The Imp, only a handful of days have passed for the character, and what he’s been through changes a person. To a certain extent Tyrion is the Brienne of this book. It is through his eyes that readers see Essos, he wanders around a lot and even picks up another stray (ala Brienne and Pod). However, where I found Brienne’s travelogue in Feast largely unnecessary, I was entranced by Tyrion’s. Readers haven’t seen a lot of Essos and it is fascinating. It appears as if George spent a lot of the time between books creating an entirely new world in Essos, it has it’s detractors, but I’m glad he did it. I loved it. I like world building and character development more than I do plot. I know he’s going to get there, but he won’t do it in a middle book.

I found Dany’s story to be the most tedious. I’ve never been a big Dany fan as such. I find the characters and situations around her to be of more interest than she herself is. She spends most of Dance being a 16 year old, albeit with a lot of power, and a 16 year old girl trying to run a kingdom by herself is always going to have it’s problems. Add to that her propensity for not listening to her wisest advisor in Barristan Selmy (seriously, I wanted him to spank her on more than one occasion) and her infatuation with the extremely untrustworthy mercenary (the name was invented for him) Daario Nahaaris and you’ve got a frustrating storyline. It is worth it though for something that happens late in the book.

The Essos part of the book also contained one of George Martin’s more pointless character arcs. It may become important in a later book, but I just couldn’t see the character’s function in Dance.

The rest of the action takes place in Westeros, mostly in the north. Bran finally reaches what seems to have been his ultimate destination when he set out on his endless trek with the Reeds and Hodor. Bran only gets 3 chapters, but they are all delight, with the 2nd of them being one of the book’s highlights.

Jon is trying to adapt to his role as the 998th Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch. Like Dany, Jon is a teenager whom fate has thrust into a position of leadership for which he is ill prepared. Unlike Dany, Jon is willing to take advice from others and will bend his views to suit the situation. Early on in his story Jon makes the decision to ‘kill’ the boy within himself and be the man. He also comes to realise that there are times when the needs of the many outweigh those of the few and acts accordingly. This is a lesson that Dany has yet to learn. Jon has never been a character I’ve warmed to, but I found myself firmly on his side this time and really riding the bumps along with him.

In another part of the north readers discover that Theon Greyjoy, the young man raised by the Starks, who later turned on them has survived the sack of Winterfell and is very much a changed man. It’s hard not to feel sorry for Theon and his chapters are in many parts truly stomach churning (George R.R Martin excels at this sort of thing), they will also send Ramsay Bolton rocketing up the ‘most hated’ character lists of fans.

Readers discover the true fate of Davos Seaworth and the answer to the question posed in A Feast for Crows of what did happen to the man who would be king; Stannis Baratheon’s most trusted and loyal friend, his Onion Knight.

There are other PoV’s that take readers beyond the scope of AFfC, mostly one offs, the most interesting of these are Jaime, Cersei and Arya (Arya is now the only PoV to appear in all 5 books), because they answer some of the cliffhangers in A Feast for Crows.

On more than one occasion, whilst reading this book I found myself wishing that I could just follow one character from start to finish. If a writer attempted to tell the story of one of A Song of Ice and Fire’s principals and did that successfully, then they would have created an excellent book, maybe even a series. George R.R Martin is trying to do this for in excess of 10 characters all at once. It’s a huge ambition and one that should be encouraged and admired, if he can pull this off successfully then he truly deserves the ‘American Tolkien’ tag Time’s Lev Grossman awarded him some years ago. I could read entire books about the likes of Jon Connington and Barristan Selmy.

While questions are answered and there is some resolution, many more cliffs are hung (damn you George Martin for writing such compelling books, and then taking years to write the next volume!) and questions posed. There was a lot of talk about the so called Meereenese Knot and whether or not it could be undone in this book. Personally I don’t think it was, although the lightest touch in The Winds of Winter will do so.

If I had to rank this book in the 5 published, I’d put it 3rd, behind A Storm of Swords and A Game of Thrones, but ahead of A Clash of Kings and A Feast for Crows. At times it’s hard going, but there’s pay off in the latter 3rd of it, and plenty of jaw dropping OMG moments along the way. It was well worth the price, not so sure about the near 6 year wait and the angst during it, but that’s a whole other story, it sets up what promises to be one of the best conclusions to a series that many of us are likely to see.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Starting the Dance

A Dance with Dragons came out today. I bought a copy. I've been waiting to read this book for nearly 6 years. I intend to review it here once I'm done. However for the next week or so I'm going to be doing some intensive reading, so I'll be out of action until I'm done. Need to put my dancing shoes on.

Tongues of Serpents



Tongues of Serpents is the 6th of Naomi Novik’s Temeraire books, featuring the urbane Chinese dragon enlisted to help the British in their struggle against the forces of Napoleon.

The books are relatively self contained, and it is possible to read Tongues of Serpents without having read the preceding 5 volumes, although I’d recommend that you do as not only do they introduce the main characters and set up the world, but they’re a lot of fun.

To get an idea of what the Temeraire series is like imagine if Jane Austen had written Patrick O’Brian’s books and included dragons.

I enjoy Naomi Novik’s writing, she’s elegant and accessible, as well as being quite amusing. She nails the Austenesque tone she tries to give the books. Temeraire himself is quite engaging, he’s extremely intelligent, although the reader is often reminded that, despite his prodigious intellect and physical size, he is actually very young. I find much of Temeraire’s speech entertaining, he’s given to airing his thoughts openly and doesn’t much care what other people think, unless it’s the opinion of best friend and captain Will Laurence (the series other principal character).

I was quite looking forward to Tongues of Serpents because it was set in Australia. Unfortunately it’s an inferior entry. It doesn’t really tie in with the rest of the books in the series until fairly late in the piece and even then it’s a bit of a stretch. It meanders around a lot and seemed to lose it’s focus partway through. The new dragon characters of Caesar, Kulingile and Tharunka were relatively two dimensional, with Tharunka getting only the briefest of introductions. I also picked the plot twist involving Kulingile’s nature almost as soon as his egg was described as being rather small and shrivelled.

Due to having been convicted of treason and having his sentence commuted from execution to transportation the start of Tongues of Serpents finds Laurence and Temeraire cooling their heels in Sydney. The ambitious and financially intelligent former British officer John Macarthur makes Laurence and his dragon an offer to find a path through the Blue Mountains for him to transport his goods quicker. Believing that the two dragon eggs they have in their possession will soon hatch Temeraire and his companions take them along. One is stolen and this leads the young dragon and his friends on a wild and dangerous chase across the uncharted expanse of Australia in pursuit of the precious egg.

I would have preferred that the book remain in Sydney, Novik’s portraits of historical Australian figures such as Macarthur and Bligh were interesting and worth reading about. The exploration of the interior added very little for me and her realisation of bunyips (Australian mythology’s answer to the dragon) were a little disappointing. If you’ve enjoyed and read the other books you’ll like this one for the inclusion of Temeraire and the feisty Iskierka, but ultimately Tongues of Serpents gives the impression that the series is ‘spinning it’s wheels’ a little. I hope the next book, details about still to be finalised, can get it back on track again.

A Feast for Crows



Of all the 4 released books of George RR Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire none is more hotly debated amongst fans than the 4th instalment. The first 3 seem to be universally acknowledged as a quality product. Opinion is widely varied on the merits of A Feast for Crows. To fully understand this and even my own view of the book a history lesson is required.

A Game of Thrones came out in 1996, A Clash of Kings in 1998 and A Storm of Swords in 2000. A Feast for Crows in 2005. Why the long break between books 3 and 4? Even this is argued. As I understand it the author had initially intended that there be a 5 year gap between the end of A Storm of Swords and the start of A Feast for Crows (which at the time was still called A Dance with Dragons), Martin had never been totally comfortable with the relative youth of some of his principals and he now acknowledges that he made them too young to begin with, however hindsight is a wonderful thing, and Martin’s preferred style of working with a rough outline lends itself to this type of problem. To solve the problem he introduced the now infamous 5 year gap, he was going to fill in the blanks with ‘flashbacks. Around 18 months into the process he realised it wasn’t working, scrapped what he’d done and went back to the drawing board. This approach was not without it’s own set of problems and seriously altered how the author viewed his own work.

4 years after the release of A Storm of Swords the natives were getting restless, and Martin decided that half a book was better than no book at all and released A Feast for Crows. Not necessarily a bad idea and may have worked, except that he decided to leave out Jon Snow, Dany and Tyrion, 3 of the series most popular characters. (Note: Jon does appear in the book. It’s briefly early on and it isn’t in his own PoV chapter). To make up for their absence he introduced 2 new PoV (Point of View) characters; Brienne and Cersei. There were also a whole bunch of ‘one-shot’ PoV’s.

Feast isn’t actually a bad book, well not in my opinion. However compared to the 3 that came before it, it doesn’t stack up that well. There’s far too much filler. Did we really need Brienne’s travelogue? It’s been said this was to illustrate the state of the country and the small folk from the wars that had been raging. I seem to remember much of Arya’s storyline in A Clash of Kings doing this. I personally like Brienne, but a lot of other readers don’t seem to, and giving her a PoV may have been stretching the friendship a bit too far. It didn’t help that the readers were aware that she was on a fool’s errand. Readers knew that Sansa was in the Eyrie, masquerading as Littlefinger’s ‘natural’ daughter; Alayne, and that Arya was in Braavos training as a Faceless Man. The Cersei chapters didn’t really work either. Readers knew that she was a poor ruler and had been crazy and paranoid ever since Joffrey’s death, the loss of her father was only going to make her leadership worse and make her loonier. It didn’t need to be spelled out and seeing her lurch from one mistake to the next became rather tedious.

The one-shot PoV’s were odd, filled with unlikeable characters about whom readers didn’t really seem to care. They could have easily been condensed into two chapters; one for Dorne and the other for the Iron Islands. They reeked off filler to me. Feast was definitely in need of a ruthless editor, it reads like it was author edited.

It does have good points and it’s better on a reread. By this stage you know it’s not the full story, you can skip over Brienne asking about a maiden of 3 and 10 every time she encounters a new person, you can gloss over Cersei’s nuttiness.
I also liked two of the returning PoV’s. One was Arya. George has sometimes said that he has difficulty writing the juvenile PoV’s. I believe this mostly refers to Bran, but as Arya is only 11 years old at the end of A Feast for Crows it must also apply to her. Bran’s chapters sometimes lag, but Arya’s never do. Her chapters always hit me hardest and this is no exception. One of them in this book has made me cry every single time I’ve read it. Arya also has the advantage of operating in Braavos and this lets the author introduce a fascinating new Venicesque city to his readers, something he does brilliantly.

Then there’s Sansa (I can hear the groans from here). I like Sansa, I’ve never understood the dislike to hatred for her. I enjoy her chapters in A Feast for Crows, as she slowly starts to learn the ‘game’ from Littlefinger and her love hate relationship with young Robert 'Sweetrobin' Arryn. Many people say that the Sansa chapters are deadly boring (in fact I’ve seen someone refer to them as ‘Sansa’s Adventures in Babysitting), I’ve never seen them that way. The Vale is like a country all on it’s own and I find it interesting to explore that society, plus I loved Lady Myranda (call me ‘Randa) and hope that readers get to see more of her in The Winds of Winter, when Sansa will return (her chapters were moved from A Dance with Dragons for reasons of length and the fact that she didn’t have any real cliffhanger endings to resolve).

In conclusion A Feast for Crows is definitely a flawed entry, but it’s not as bad as many make it out to be. I’d suggest reading it as part of the ongoing series to see the stories through, but reread it when you have time in order to fully appreciate it and it’s place in the series as a whole.

Saturday, July 9, 2011

A Storm of Swords



The best words to describe the 3rd volume of A Song of Ice and Fire; A Storm of Swords, are tour de force. It’s as close to a perfect instalment of an epic that I’ve ever read. It can’t stand alone as it is very obviously an instalment in something ongoing, but it’s one of the best books I’ve read in this or any other genre.

I knew I was in for something different when the first actual Point of View (PoV) chapter (I don’t regard the one off prologues as genuine PoV characters) was entitled Jaime. That refers to Jaime ‘The Kingslayer’ Lannister. In A Game of Thrones and A Clash of Kings to a lesser extent Jaime was a total black hat. One of his actions annoyed me so much in A Game of Thrones that I very nearly ripped the page out of the book in a fit of anger. If he was a PoV character then that meant the readers were going to see more layers to him, that in itself was a mouth watering prospect, whether or not he altered his character much. I regard what George Martin did with Jaime Lannister in ASoS as one of his greatest achievements as a writer. I hated the character with a passion in A Game of Thrones, but midway through A Storm of Swords I was cheering him on, as I suspect were many other readers. It takes rare talent to turn a character around like that, make it believable and inspire passion in the readers. Martin succeeded admirably on this front in A Storm of Swords and the redemption of Jaime Lannister.

It wasn’t just shiny new PoV characters like Jaime that were kicking goals for the author in A Storm of Swords, it was established fan favourites like Dany, Jon, Arya and Tyrion. They were all at the top of their game and right in the thick of the action. There were so many jaw dropping moments from this book. The infamous Red Wedding. The marriage of Sansa to Tyrion and that of Joffrey to Margaery Tyrell and the shocking, but satisfying conclusion to that particular union. The fight between Oberyn ‘The Red Viper’ Martell and Gregor ‘The Mountain’ Clegane. Tyrion’s confrontation with his father. They just kept on coming.

Despite the size of the book (it had to be split into two volumes in mmpb in the UK editions) there’s hardly a dull moment. It’s not all beer and skittles though, although there isn’t anything I could term as a flat spot, the author’s increasing interest in minor details became more apparent, I think a more ruthless editor could have cut some things out without letting the narrative suffer, because most, if not all, of it seemed pertinent at the time readers let it slide.

If Jaime was an unqualified success as a PoV character then his 2nd new one; Samwell Tarly, was less so. The author likes Sam and I know he’s got his fans out there in readerland, but I find him a pretty colourless, two dimensional character. He’s a fat coward who occasionally gets lucky and barely manages to survive, once you’ve read that once it just continues to repeat itself. I also wasn’t particularly enamoured of Bran’s seemingly endless journey northward to discover exactly what we don’t know. However I can forgive even those less than thrilling sections for the inclusion of Meera Reed’s delightful story of Lord Whent’s Tourney at Harrenhal as a fairytale. That was masterful stuff and hints at the truth behind some accepted facts.

For a book of it’s size I read it in double quick time and was left breathless at the end. I’ve read it a number of times since and I always find something new to appreciate in it.

Friday, July 8, 2011

Warriors 2



Yes, I admit it. I got sucked in. Although I wasn't all that impressed with the quality of most of the fiction in offer in Warriors 1 (the first paperback volume of the massive hardback anthology edited by George R.R Martin and Gardner Dozois; Warriors) I still went ahead and bought Warriors 2, because it did have a few authors I was interested in.

The introduction is the same George R.R Martin introduction from the first volume. The collection did open promisingly with a contribution from Naomi Novik. Naomi Novik is best known for her Temeraire series (think Patrick O'Brien with dragons if it was written by Jane Austen and you'll get the idea), which I have liked from the first book (I'm currently reading the 6th Temeraire book: Tongues of Serpents), she has recently begun to spread her wings (sorry, couldn't resist the dragon metaphor) and write outside of that concept. Seven Years From Home is an Avatarish science fiction tale. It's quite clever and well executed. I find Novik's elegant style very accessible and although she abandons the nineteenth century speech and sensibilities in this it is still unimistakably her. I enjoyed it and would not be adverse to seeing more of this from her.

Peter S. Beagle (best known for his classic The Last Unicorn) provides the second contribution. It's distinguishable for it's style, which is to put it bluntly bizarre. The story is called Dirae and it is to be avoided at all costs. It was remarkably bad and if this is the best Beagle can do then he's fallen a long way in a fairly short period of time.

Ancient Ways by S.M Stirling was a step up. I've read a couple of Stirling's (Peshawar Lancers and Conquistador) and thoroughly enjoyed them both. This particular story is set in his post Change world (all modern technology fails worldwide) and was thoroughly enjoyable, it had likeable, if somewhat stereotypical protagonists and was good old fashioned swashbuckling adventure. Knowledge of the world was not required and it would have worked equally as well as historical adventure. It's prompted me to be put the Change work on my to be read list at some point, and I'd like to see further adventures with the heroes of Ancient Ways if Stirling ever wants to write them.

David Ball is best known for historical fiction. I've never encountered it. This is probably a happy circumstance. There's very little to recommend The Scroll. It's a brutal, blood soaked pointless exercise. Yes, it's probably historically accurate, although I've seen better research and writing. I found myself asking why. I wouldn't be picking up anything with his name on it.

The co editor Gardner Dozois chimes in with Recidivist. Set in a post AI future, where the technology has taken over from the people. In some ways it was a little reminiscent of Syfy's ill fated Battlestar Galactica prequel Caprica, but overall it was an excuse for Dozois to take a trip down memory lane and recall things from earlier days. If this is representative of Dozois' work then he's better sticking to editing.

The first time I ever heard of Howard Waldrop was as part of one of GRRM's infamous April Fool's jokes on his Not a Blog. He's best known for short fiction, and he's a regular contributor to Martin's beloved Wild Cards concept. Ninieslando is set in the First World War, it's saving grace is that it's most likely set in an alternate world. Some of his descriptions aren't bad, although I've read better, and if you're going to use British servicemen as your main characters at least do some research to get their slang right and give them believable backgrounds.

The final story was a novella by David Weber called Out of the Dark. Weber is best known for his military SF. I haven't read him because I'm not really a fan of the genre, but judging by this novella he's a pretty good writer. It's about an invasion of Earth by doglike aliens and their surprise when the local populace fight back. It's a well done invasion guerilla resistance piece and it has a horror ending that I didn't see coming. As with the first collection the novella length final story was the best piece in it.

I'll pick up the 3rd book when it comes out, because I'm a completist, but I will remain wary of anything edited by George R.R Martin where he gets to pick the contributors.

A Clash of Kings



The big question I found myself asking after reading A Game of Thrones was could George Martin back it up? I’m not the first person to read a series enjoy the opening book, but feel badly let down by the subsequent volumes.

A Clash of Kings answered my question with a resounding yes.

A Clash of Kings concentrates, as the title may imply, on the war that erupts in Westeros for the Iron Throne following the death of King Robert Baratheon in A Game of Thrones. There are five claimants for the throne on Westeros; the boy king Joffrey Baratheon. Robert’s two younger brothers; Stannis and Renly, who both contend that Joffrey is the result of an incestuous relationship between Cersei and her twin brother Jaime Lannister, and therefore has no claim to the throne. Robb Stark, the King in the North, and Balon Greyjoy, the King of the Iron Islands. There’s also Danaerys ‘Stormborn’ Targaryen across the sea, you could contend that even the leader of the wildlings; Mance Rayder considers himself a king of sorts.

To give readers an insight into the plans of Stannis Baratheon and Balon Greyjoy, Martin had to add two new PoV (Point of View) characters. Davos Seaworth, the former smuggler known as the Onion Knight, was Stannis’ right hand man and provided readers with a warts and all look at Robert Baratheon’s younger brother, who had grown up in the older one’s shadow and was none too happy about it. The other new PoV was a character that was familiar to readers from A Game of Thrones; Ned Stark’s ward Theon Greyjoy. Theon was not a particularly well liked character in the first book and no opportunity to describe him as sly or cunning was ever missed. In an effort to gain his father’s admiration it is Theon who attacks and takes control of Winterfell in Robb’s absence.

The game that George Martin set in motion in his first book continues in the second and it grows ever more deadly as it unfolds. Readers know that not everyone will get out of this alive. His willingness to kill off key characters allows Martin to create shocks for the readers. In A Clash of Kings there are two characters who are believed to be dead and because George isn’t afraid to do this everyone believes that they are only to have the rug pulled out from under them when they are presented as still alive.

The characters started to move apart in A Clash of Kings even more so than they had in A Game of Thrones. Catelyn is travelling between her son’s camp at her family’s home of Riverrun to the Frey’s stronghold and Renly’s moving court of followers. Jon has gone ranging with his brothers from the Wall in an effort to find out what became of his uncle Benjen. Sansa is being held as a prisoner at Joffrey’s court and going through her own personal hell at the hands of her psychopathic betrothed. Arya has left Kings Landing and is travelling across a war torn countryside trying to make her way back home. Bran is still at Winterfell attempting to hold what is left of his family together. Tyrion has come to Kings Landing and is given the task of preparing the city for attack from either one or both of the Baratheon brothers’ forces. Dany is leading her khal through the east trying to find a way onto the continent.

The narrative skilfully builds to a slam bang finale with the spectacular Battle of the Blackwater and leaves readers desperately waiting for the 3rd instalment of this awesome epic.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

Fairy Bad Day



There seems to be a connection between Australian authors and quirky YA romances featuring fairies. First there was Justine Labelestier’s How to Ditch Your Fairy and now Amanda Ashby’s Fairy Bad Day. Forget the awful pun title, the book is actually quite amusing.

Emma Jones is a star pupil at Burtonwood Academy (a school specially set up for sight gifted teens who can see the supernatural creatures such as dragons, goblins and fairies that they refer to as elementals) and is a shoe in to be given the title of dragon slayer, just like her mother, a renowned dragon slayer. To her surprise Emma gets the humiliating assignment of fairy slayer (there’s a lot of debate about whether fairies even need a slayer, they’re annoying and mischievous, but not deadly) and the prize of dragon slayer (Emma’s job) goes to Curtis Green, Emma’s mysterious, good natured and frustratingly handsome classmate.

Adding to Emma’s frustration and confusion is her pregnant stepmother Olivia, a trio of obnoxious and effortlessly fashionable fairies (Rupert, Gilbert and Trevor) who find Emma not at all threatening, and persist in taunting her at every opportunity, and the Darkhel; a huge malevolent dangerous presence that only Emma can see.

Somehow Emma has to sort out her life, her feelings for Curtis and Olivia, regain the title she believes is rightfully hers and save the world in time for Induction.

Because of the type of book Fairy Bad Day is the outcome is never really in doubt, but there’s a lot of fun in seeing Emma and her friends Loni, Tyler and Curtis get there. This is largely achieved with some snappy Joss Whedonesque dialog (it was not at all surprising that the author is a fan), some interesting characters (Loni is obsessed with astrology and Tyler has a five legged cockroach as a pet) and Skittles. I know I’ll never look at the multicoloured candy the same way again. Who knew they could be deadly given the right circumstances?

Fairy Bad Day is a huge amount of fun and a quick easy read. If anyone was prepared to do it right it would make a really good teen TV series. One thing I found unusual was that the back cover blurb was written in first person, yet the book itself was done in 3rd person. Given that most Urban Fantasy and Paranomal Romance is written from first person it’s an easy mistake to think that Fairy Bad Day would have worked well done that way.

It won’t change the world, but it may give you a laugh or two.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

A Game of Thrones



Before posting the actual review I need to say a few words. I've been following George R.R Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire since I first saw A Game of Thrones in a bookstore in 1996. It was on my 100 Must-Read Fantasy Novels list and I did intend to wait until I got to the M's, read what was out and post the reviews, however you know what they say about the best laid plans of mice (do mice really plan?) men. GRRM, as his legion of fans call him, finished the long awaited (nearly 6 years) 5th book in the series; A Dance with Dragons, a little bit back and it's coming out on July 12 (hopefully I'll get my hot little hands on it within a week of publication. The biggest remaining chain down here; Dymocks, have it listed as being in store on July 14), so I had to break the schedule and reread the first 4 books now. I'll post the reviews in the lead up over the next week or so. Sit back and have a read of my contribution to the two million or so reviews of this book that are already out there.

Ever since being published in 1996 George R.R Martin’s first volume of his epic A Song of Ice and Fire series has been reviewed countless times (usually glowing reviews I might add), has been the subject of a number of ongoing reread projects, a lavish HBO mini series and a comic book. I’m not sure that I can really add a lot to all that, but I’ll give it a try.

This is about the 5th or 6th time I’ve read A Game of Thrones (apparently the wonderfully tolerant and accepting people over at SFFWorld seem to think I know nothing about the book, so read on at your own peril) and each time I find myself struck by the sheer brilliance of the writing. George R.R Martin had already created a detailed history for his world of Westeros by the time he had the vision that led to him writing the books and it shows here. His marvellous descriptions of what has gone before in Westeros recent and ancient history are worth the purchase price alone. Add to that the game of political intrigue, a slightly stylised depiction of medieval life and some of the most detailed shades of grey characters I’ve ever been privileged to read and you have an almost flawless piece of writing.

For those few who haven’t read the book, or aren’t aware of it’s plot here goes. The story is set on the giant continent of Westeros where seasons last for years, not months. The current summer has lasted nearly a decade, but winter will come and when it does it will be long and hard. After a period of relative political stability Westeros is about to be plunged into a deadly conflict for the crown, the game of thrones is about to begin.

The story is told from the point of view of 8 of it’s major characters: Eddard Stark, the Lord of Winterfell, stiff necked and honourable to a fault, Ned is in no way equipped for the dangerous political intrigues he’s about to step into. Lady Catelyn Stark, Ned’s faithful wife, who will be tested to her very limits as she desperately tries to protect her children from those who would use them as pawns to further their own ends. Jon Snow, Ned Stark’s baseborn son, who elects a life of hardship and struggle as a Sworn Brother of the Night’s Watch, manning the Wall to Westeros’ far north and keeping the kingdom safe from the wildlings and Others that live in the frozen wastes beyond the Wall. Sansa Stark, Ned and Catelyn’s oldest daughter, who goes south with dreams of valiant and chivalrous knights only to find out that the stories are not real. Arya Stark, Ned and Catelyn’s rebellious tomboyish younger daughter, who will have to learn how to survive without any help, if she is to survive at all. Bran Stark, middle child of Ned and Cat, suffers a severe injury early on in the book, and becomes far more responsible than any child of his age should ever have to be. Tyrion Lannister, the dwarf son of powerful Lord Tywin Lannister, Tyrion relies on his wits and silver tongue to keep himself alive and propel him upward in the game of thrones. Daenerys Targaryen, the last surviving heir to the Targaryen Dynasty is far away to the east, married to the feared Dothraki horselord Khal Drogo, Dany is much more than a pawn, she’s a major player, she may be young, but she wants what she believes is rightly hers; the throne of Westeros.

It’s not just these PoV (Point of View) characters that make the story come alive, it’s the others that Martin peoples his narrative with. Characters like the scheming Petyr ‘Littlefinger’ Baelish, the dangerous and mysterious sellsword Bronn, former first sword of Braavos, turned sword teacher; Syrio Forel, the less than honourable knight of the Kingsguard Ser Jaime Lannister and his vicious twin sister Queen Cersei, the scarred vengeance seeking Sandor ‘The Hound’ Clegane, Ned’s oldest son Robb Stark, the heir to Winterfell, the list goes on and on.

The book is heavy on the political intrigue and the action along with all the pomp and ceremony of the age and light on the magic. Magic does exist in the world, but it’s not the driving force that it is in many other epic fantasy's of the time. Martin doesn’t pull punches and there are shocks galore throughout the book’s 600+ pages. Key characters do die and others do things that you wouldn’t expect of them. Many of Martin’s characters are shades of grey, rather than black or white, and it makes for interesting and absorbing reading. I’m left breathless every time I finish this book and never regret a single minute of the time spent reading it.

I can’t recommend it too highly and the only warning I have is that since the 3rd volume (A Storm of Swords) Martin has slowed down considerably (the 4th book; AA Feast for Crows took 5 years to come out and the 5th; A Dance with Dragons almost 6), the books are frustratingly addictive, so savour them and be prepared to wait for the next instalment.

Joe Abercrombie’s gritty trilogy and subsequent standalone volumes have been influenced by A Song of Ice and Fire, although he also owes a lot to Glen Cook’s Black Company series, and Martin himself has said that Tad William’s Tolkien homage Memory, Sorrow and Thorn inspired him and made him see that there was a viable market for BFF (Big Fat Fantasy) if anyone was minded to try and write one.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Before Dancing

As nearly everyone in the world knows by now A Dance with Dragons (the 5th volume in George R.R Martin's best selling fantasy epic A Song of Ice and Fire) will be released on July 12. If you can't remember where George last left his heroes, and as it's been 11 years since readers last heard from some of them, this could be the case, and don't want to do a complete reread of the series or don't have time never fear. One of George R.R Martin's most devoted and knowledgeable fans; Adam 'Werthead' Whitehead has produced a comprehensive recap in 4 posts on his blog; The Wertzone. The Song of Ice and Fire posts can be found here, here, here and here.
This was a huge undertaking and Adam has done great work and performed a valuable service for a lot of readers. Even if you don't need a recap this series of posts is well worth reading if you have any interest in the series.