Friday, November 30, 2012

Polterheist by Laura Resnick

2012 has been a good year for fans of Laura Resnick's whacky accidental supernatural detective Esther Diamond. The first book in the series (Disappearing Nightly) was rereleased a few months ago, and now Polterheist came out on schedule in November.

The book is seasonal and fittingly for the time of year it was released the season it deals with is Christmas. After the closure of the play Esther was working on; The Vampyre, the struggling actress couldn't get her regular casual work as a singing waitress at mob cafe Bella Stella and so was forced to take a job as a Jewish Christmas elf called Dreidel at the multi denominational Solsticeland in a large city department store.

Things are okay, well as okay as dealing with screaming children and demanding parents can be for an elf in an uncomfortable costume, until employees start going missing and Esther is attacked and threatened by a mechanical singing tree.

If you haven't read the Esther Diamond's before then that all sounds pretty weird. If you have read any of the books then it's all par for the course for Esther.

The books aren't really about the whodunnit anymore, that's certainly still part of it, but it's the comedy that keeps me coming back. This one is full of pointed and highly amusing comments regarding Christmas from the point of view of someone in retail.

Being the fifth book in the series gave Laura Resnick the chance to get a number of characters from previous adventures (the drag queen Satsy, ex boyfriend Jeff and my favourite side character Gambello family hitman Lucky Battistuzzi), as well as regulars Max and detective Connor Lopez.

There are a number of highlights in the book, but my personal favourite was Esther meeting Lopez's parents for the first time.

Esther goes from strength to strength and will no doubt win new fans with her performance in Polterheist. Very eager for the next instalment of her adventures in Misfortune Cookie.

Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Lord of Chaos by Robert Jordan

The 6th book of Robert Jordan’s immense Wheel of Time series; Lord of Chaos, made me question the wisdom of what I had decided to do in reading or rereading the entire cycle from start to finish in preparation for the release of the long awaited final volume.

Lord of Chaos is one of the biggest books in the cycle, only being topped by The Shadow Rising (book 4) in terms of length.

As with a number of other books in the Wheel of Time it could have been shortened by at least half it’s 987 pages and not suffered as a result of the pruning. It may have been considerably improved. Right from The Eye of the World (the first book in the series) Jordan has tended to write overblown description, but with book 4 he started to take the world building to ridiculous lengths, mostly concerning long, tedious passages to do with the culture, history and beliefs of his favourite; the Aiel. I’m sure there are some people that find it interesting, I’m not one of them. By Lord of Chaos he had started to repeat information that had already been covered over and over.

For the first two thirds of it’s 900+ pages Lord of Chaos meanders along and jumps from character to character: Rand, Egwene, Mat, Nynaeve and Elayne, without anyone actually doing anything or getting anywhere. They do move, albeit at a snail’s pace, physically, but the story goes nowhere.

In the last 3rd things happen and the story actually breaks out of the blocks and advances. Perrin returns for one.

I still don’t understand Rand’s attraction to women, neither does he, mind you. His regular conversations with Lews Therin at the back of his mind are tedious. Yes, I get it, he has the mind of an ancient hero in his head. I understand now. You can stop hammering that in every second paragraph. Despite my dislike of Rand, one of the least interesting heroes I can remember reading about, I didn’t like what was done to him in this book. He was captured by a group of ‘rogue’ Aes Sedai, kept in a box and taken out twice a day to be tortured. It was the torture that bothered me. It’s not particularly gruesome or gory, it’s just unnecessary. The women don’t seem to do it for any other purpose than they can. It just doesn’t make sense. We know this particular group of Aes Sedai are unpleasant, it didn’t need to be reinforced like this.

Egwene being made Amyrlin Seat was a nice touch. The politics of the Aes Sedai are always so much more interesting than that of the Forsaken, Rand and the various ruling factions. It’s rather obvious that Egwene was raised to the position because they felt she’d be controllable. Interesting that they’re considered so smart, yet they selected the one person who was the least likely to become a puppet and raised her to a position of great power. Egwene and Nynaeve got sent off to Ebou Dar on their own request to seek an item of power that they’d managed to uncover. I saw this with trepidation, while I know this mission has some interesting events attached to it in future books, it was also from memory host to some of the later books most boring passages.

I liked seeing Mat finally adopt the war orphan Olver and not realise why he was doing it. Olver, despite his ugliness, is like a junior Mat. He provides the book with some of it’s funnier and more touching moments. It was also pleasant to see Mat asserting himself with Nynaeve, Elayne and Egwene and refusing to let any of them push him around anymore. Nynaeve is the one that realises Mat is no longer the mischievous little boy she was forever having to discipline, but is a large and slightly dangerous fully grown man and not someone she can bully anymore.  

Although I know book 7 doesn’t pick up the pace, in fact I think it slows down even more, I’m bound and determined and will soldier on next month.       

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Flowers for Algernon by Daniel Keyes

I’d heard of Flowers for Algernon before, but didn’t know much about it other than it was a respected and highly regarded work of classic science fiction. I’m not really a science fiction person, so the book didn’t appear on my radar overall. Two things brought it to my attention as something to read. One was JJ Abrams action/drama Person of Interest which featured Flowers for Algernon as the inspiration for one of the show’s more intriguing villains. I wanted to see what about the book inspired the character. Then Fantasy Faction chose it as their science fiction book for November.

Even when I cracked Flowers for Algernon open I didn’t know much more about it than the information on the back cover blurb. I was not at all prepared for the powerful emotional response that it provoked within me.

The book is presented as a diary or journal of a mentally disabled man called Charlie Gordon. Charlie has an IQ of 68, and he works sweeping the floors of a bakery near Beekman university. Despite his low IQ and difficulties retaining even simple concepts, Charlie wants to be smart, and to that end he enrols in a class taught by Alice Kinnian for mentally disabled adults to learn how to read and write at a higher level than he can currently achieve.

Miss Kinnian brings Charlie to the attention of a research group at the university, who are working on a way of increasing human intelligence, and see Charlie as a possible human ‘guinea pig’. They’ve had some success with mice. The Algernon of the title is their star subject, having undergone an operation to increase his intelligence and had it succeed for longer than any other subject they’ve used. In fact the point is made early on by having Charlie and Algernon run the same maze (Charlie does it with an electronic pointer) and Algernon beating Charlie every time that the mouse is actually smarter than the man.   

Charlie undergoes the operation, and initially doesn’t seem all that much smarter, but in a relatively short space of time his intelligence increases dramatically and the genius level that he attains also unlocks his memory, giving him access to traumatic childhood events that he had mercifully buried in the recesses of his mind.

Charlie is astoundingly intelligent. He can speak multiple languages, solve complex mathematical theorems in seconds and outstrips nearly every mind on the planet. Despite how smart he is, he hasn’t had personal growth or experience and he’s not equipped to handle the emotional responses he is now receiving from his interactions with other people. He’s grown mentally, but as a person he is still a young child who has difficulty dealing with the world as an adult. He’s also incredibly lonely. When he had a low IQ he was cut off from others because they couldn’t come down to his level, now no one can associate with him as an equal, because he is so much more intelligent than they are.

The reader has to feel for Charlie. All he wanted was to be like others. He didn’t want to be a genius. He just wanted to be smart enough to read and write at an acceptable level, maybe rise above sweeping the floors of the bakery to actually become an apprentice baker or even a master baker. Instead he became an unapproachable genius and effectively walled himself off from everyone around him. The only creature he feels really understands him is Algernon, possibly because they share an experience.

Not long after the operation Charlie proclaims that as long as Algernon is okay, so is he, so when the mouse begins to behave erratically and it’s clear that the effects of the surgery are wearing off and even becoming harmful, readers get a sick feeling that the same will happen to Charlie.

There are heartbreaking encounters with his long absent father, his abusive mother, now herself suffering debilitating senility (it’s never referred to as Alzheimers, but that’s clearly what it is) and his younger sister, who never understood before Charlie was sent away what she had inadvertently done to him.

Inevitably Charlie’s mind begins to fail him. Bit by bit everything is taken away from him. He can’t understand other languages, he can’t do anything than the most simple mathematical problems, he even forgets where he lives in more than one occasion. Algernon has by this stage passed away from the effects of the experiment. although Charlie always remembers to put flowers on his friend’s little grave.

When Charlie forgets and turns up at Miss Kinnian’s class as a student again not long after making the heartfelt plea in his Progress Report to not let him forget how to read and write I was in tears.

What Daniel Keyes did with Flowers for Algernon was, at the time, revolutionary. He refused to give it a happy ending where Charlie regains his intelligence, marries Alice and lives happily ever after, and he had problems finding a publisher because of it. I’m glad he stuck to his guns. Despite how heartbreaking the end is I would have felt ripped off if it had been given a happily ever after ending. The style is unusual too. It’s told by Charlie in the form of Progress Reports that he’s asked to write by the two scientists (Dr Strauss and Professor Nemur) in charge of the project. The early reports are littered with spelling errors and a lack of punctuation as befits someone of Charlie’s low IQ, they gradually change to become quite scientifically and emotionally complex as Charlie’s intelligence and personal experience increase. Then as his new found intelligence starts to fail the style reverts back and by the end Charlie seems less intelligent than he was when he began his journey.

Although the book is classified as science fiction, the science fiction (the operation that is trialled on Charlie) is a minimal part of it. It explores themes of bullying and child abuse, the way that intellectually disabled members of society are frequently misunderstood, marginalised and mistreated. There’s also a commentary on the ethics of science and the use of experimental techniques on animals and people. It’s not a long book and it’s not hard to read or understand, but it will give you something to think about long after you’ve closed it. Brilliant, brilliant book and I urge everyone who has never read it to do so.   

Monday, November 19, 2012

John Dies at the End by David Wong

The story of how I happened to pick up John Dies at the End isn’t anywhere near as epic as the book, but it’s almost as random as the plot. I first saw the book a year or so ago, but the cover did nothing for me, so I left it on the shelf. Then I saw the sequel This Book is Full of Spiders. I have serious arachnophobia, so any book that proudly proclaims it is full of spiders is going to naturally attract my attention, even if it’s just to shudder at the thought. I now have a fear of opening a book and having a bloody great huntsman jump out at me. Anyway I had a look at This Book is Full of Spiders and was informed that it is the sequel to John Dies at the End. The author (David Wong, not his real name) did say it wasn’t necessary to read the previous book, but I’m odd like that. So I bought John Dies at the End. It was an odd decision reached in an equally unusual way, but I am so glad I did it.

In the afterword the actual author of John Dies at the End and the real person behind David Wong (Jason Pargin, humor editor of  explains how the book came to be, and like the book itself, there was nothing normal about it, and it probably broke a number of rules about how to get published.

John Dies at the End breaks all sorts of rules about writing. Giving away the ending in the book’s title is just one of them. Continuity is often ignored, only to be retconned later on, and it’s not uncommon for the first person narrator to simply deviate away from the point and go on a long verbal ramble which may or may not have anything to do with the story being told.

Despite the failings it somehow works and manages to be highly amusing. The story follows two high school dropouts who work at a local video store (ala Kevin Smith’s Clerks) and one night accidentally discover a drug they name ‘soy sauce’ because of it’s appearance. Soy sauce actually opens up a gateway to another dimension and allows creatures from that dimension to enter our own. Unless John and Dave can stop it this dimension will totally take over ours. How they go about doing this is a fun filled romp through the unnamed town of Undisclosed complete with blowing stuff up, various random encounters with aliens and the use of folding chairs as weapons of mass destruction where other dimensional insectoid monsters are concerned.

The style of the book is sort of like a collaboration between Stephen King, Douglas Adams, Kevin Smith and Ben Edlund. It is every bit as weird and strange as what may have occurred had these four individuals gotten drunk together one night and decided to write a book.

The concept has been very popular and has even spawned a movie (due for release in 2013). I can’t wait.

I found it by accident, but it proved to be one of the funniest and most entertaining reads I’ve been privileged to enjoy this year.   

Saturday, November 17, 2012

An Evening with Rachel Caine

My first encounter with Rachel Caine was many years ago when I read the first of her Weather Warden books. I never continued with that particular series, but then not all that long ago I started seeing the Morganville Vampires books pop up. The premise intrigued me and I bought the first one. I got my wife hooked on them, and she read them all. I’m only getting around to them now and have read the first five of the thirteen that are currently out.

I’ve never been to an author signing. The closest I came was getting George Martin to sign a copy of A Dance with Dragons at Worldcon in 2011, but Worldcon, while it has signings, is about a lot more than getting copies of books signed by the author.

When the Rachel Caine signing was announced my wife and I decided to meet up after work and attend. My wife had been to a signing before (Terry Pratchett), but this one was a little different because it featured a Q & A with the author.

It’s always an interesting experience seeing and hearing an author live. You tend to build up an image of how they look and sound from reading their work, and they’re often very different in person. I had seen what Rachel Caine looked like, and she didn’t resemble my mental image, so that wasn’t a surprise, but when she opened her mouth and a broad Texas accent flowed out that did throw me. It shouldn’t have, considering that the Morganville books are set in Texas, but when I read, unless I have another frame of reference, everyone sounds like an Australian to me.

One thing I was worried about with the Q & A was being spoiled. I’m only five books into a thirteen book series (there are at least fifteen planned), and a lot of the other attendees, judging by the piles of books they brought with them, were a lot further on than me.

The first part of the session was Rachel telling us the story of how she came to be called that and how she was published eventually leading to someone suggesting she write YA. The idea for Morganville was inspired by a rather mundane observation that the streetlights in one town were spaced wide apart.

Rachel has done the really BIG conventions, like San Diego and New York comic cons, and she came to Australia this time for SuperNova, but she said she prefers smaller gatherings like this bookstore one, largely because she can interact with the readers better.

After the Q & A which included questions such as the music she listens to when writing and how the bunny slippers worn by a character came about, she settled down to do the signing.

As I said I’d never been to a signing, but I’ve heard plenty of stories about how authors will only do book limits and won’t do dedications, personalized messages, etc… They had said Rachel would sign anything, but she has over 20 books out, what if someone brought their entire collection?

As it turned out they were telling the truth. Rachel was happy to sign everything, no one brought the whole twenty plus books, but there were a few complete Morganville collections there, and I was pleased to see that not everyone confined themselves to Morganville as well. Not only was she happy to sign books, she did dedications and would do personalisations as well. If anyone wanted a photograph she was more than accommodating there too. She also wanted to chat to people, which was great.

If all authors are like Rachel I’ll be going to more signings, and hopefully she’ll also tour Australia next year by which time all the Morganvilles will be out and I’ll have read them all and understand the bunny slippers reference.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Feast of Fools & Lord of Misrule by Rachel Caine

I think this review may actually be a first for the blog. I don't think I've ever done two books in the one review before. Feast of Fools and Lord of Misrule are the 4th and 5th volumes of Rachel Caine's Morganville Vampires series. Although they are two separate books and were published months apart they're really one continuing story. Feast of Fools ends on a major cliffhanger and I had to run to our library to pull out Lord of Misrule and start it right away (when I'm reading a series, I usually take a break in between books).

The 3rd book in the series (Midnight Alley) ended with new arrivals into the sleepy little vampire controlled town of Morganville, Texas. One were main character's Claire Danvers' protective parents moving into the town to keep an eye on their daughter and the other was an old, imperious vampire who went by the name of Bishop and claimed to be the father of Morganville's head vampire; Amelie.

I'm heading into SPOILERLAND here, so if you haven't read at least Feast of Fools and don't want to be spoiled you may want to quit right now. As it turned out Bishop actually is Amelie's father, both biologically and as a vampire, which is seriously icky.

Bishop wants control of the town, exactly why is never made clear, although it may be in later books. The vampires do have a good deal in Morganville, they own the town and the people in it, and they're protected. They are however suffering from a mysterious disease which seems to affect their sanity and they're not creating many new members. Claire's friend Michael Glass is the first newly created vampire in nearly 70 years, the one before that was his grandfather Sam.

Claire and her friends; Shane Collins and Eve Rosser, along with Michael aren't about to let their town go without a fight, and a fight of huge proportions in what ensues throughout the two books. Lord of Misrule never lets up for a second, that one is all action, all the time.

Claire's parents moving in (clueless as they are) creates two problems for Claire. One is that they want her to move in with them, and while they're in town she has no reason not to, the other is that they give Claire's enemies leverage against her. Although it looks like Claire is protected and favoured by Amelie, she can turn depending on what the situation demands and if she requires the lives of Claire's parents to bend Claire to her will then so be it.

It's a fast moving, engaging series with heroes to cheer for and villains to hiss at. It also has shades of grey characters. Amelie is one. Myrnin is another. Myrnin is a fan favourite, because of how quirky he is. Rachel Caine said she likes writing him too, because he's unpredictable, but this unpredictability makes him dangerous. He's very old, even by vampire terms, he has a fairly tenuous grip on sanity, and he does often regard humans as 'pets'.

Lord of Misrule also introduced another character I grew to like; former marine and current mechanic Hannah Moses. I hope we see more of her.

While mean girl Monica Morrell is hateful, I do admit to feeling sorry for her for the way she was treated in Lord of Misrule. She deserved most of it, but it was brutal. Rachel Caine writes the teenage bullying scenes so well that it makes me wonder if she herself wasn't the victim of it growing up. They do serve to remind that there are things in this world more dangerous than vampires, largely because they're real and they do exist.

I've really come to like Monica's brother Richard. He's a genuine good guy, not sure how he managed it growing up in that family, but there you have it. I'm conflicted about Shane. He has issues with Michael being a vampire, and still a friend. It's understandable, but it's becoming a bit tedious and we don't need to be battered over the head with it in every book.

While Lord of Misrule doesn't end on the same sort of cliffhanger as Feast of Fools it does also lead into the next book; Carpe Corpus. I'm going to make some inroads on the ever growing TBR pile, but as soon as I have I'll be pulling Carpe Corpus off the shelf and heading back to Morganville.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

The Forgotten Beasts of Eld by Patricia McKillip

I'd heard of The Forgotten Beasts of Eld before I saw it on the list. It was one of those things I always wanted to read, but never really got around to.

The idea behind it is definitely appealing. A menagerie of fantastical beasts (a wise talking boar, a loyal and powerful lion, a dragon. etc...) is collected by a feisty independent thinking woman raised in a wilderness.

Sybel; the heroine, is happy amongst her extraordinary creatures and calling new ones, and wants for nothing else, until she is brought a child to look after and bonds with him as if he were her own.

Sybel falls in love not once, not twice, but three times and will also know heartbreak. It's a lyrically written tale and it's rather timeless. There's more to this story than what is on the face of it, although it's quite enjoyable if you simply read it that way, but you can think about it and find more in it's words than what they say at first look.

It's a rather haunting story that stays with the reader long after they finish it.

I did find some similarities with The Forgotten Beasts of Eld and Charles G. Finney's The Circus of Dr Lao, which had an equally interesting and amazing menagerie. Well worth seeking out if you haven't encountered Patricia McKillip before.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Red Country by Joe Abercrombie

When I first heard that Joe Abercrombie's 2012 Circle of the World standalone novel was going to be a western I wondered exactly how the author could accomplish that in a pre industrial world which had not yet developed the hand gun.

The more I heard about Red Country in the lead up to it's release, the more it seemed that Joe Abercrombie had not only done that, he'd accomplished it with his usual style and wit.

Right from the opening page of Red Country it's very obvious that this book is very much a western. It doesn't have guns or steam trains, but everything else is right from the western playbook. There are elements of everything from the early dime store novels telling action packed stories of hard fighting frontiersmen to more recent warts and all TV shows like Deadwood.

There's a dedication to Clint Eastwood at the start of the book, and you could really see the grizzled old actor playing a character in the story. There's bits of True Grit, The Searchers, The Unforgiven and the aforementioned Deadwood, as well as any other western film or TV show you'd care to name. Despite all this the book fits in well with the previous five Circle of the World novels (The First Law trilogy and the two standalones Best Served Cold and The Heroes).

It's a fairly simple tale of search and revenge. Shy South and her seemingly mild mannered, confrontation averse step father Lamb, return to their small holding to find it burned and their hired hand killed. There is no sign of Shy's younger brother and sister. Shy's not a lady to cross and she loves her siblings. Whoever took them is going to give them back and pay for the doing of it with their blood.

Shy and Lamb will meet up with infamous mercenary captains, discredited actors, slippery lawyers, legendary frontiersmen and hunted rebels. They'll lose some of their own, they'll fight the local natives (called Ghosts), the mercenary company of Nicomo Cosca and each other. They'll also confront their own pasts. That's the thing about the west in this world, everyone seems to go there to outrun their past. In one surprising case they'll even find love out there amongst, the dirt, mud, blood and death.

It's a sprawling novel that is an immense amount of fun, despite the genuinely epic feel of Red Country it is one of Abercrombie's shortest books, my copy weighed in at 451 pages, and they flew by.

It is a genuine standalone, but having as characters from the previous 5 books pop in and out of the story it gives some extra context to have read some of the earlier work in the same setting. A question that has been haunting readers since the end of The Last Argument of Kings is also answered, so if you don't want to be spoiled for the opening trilogy, it's an idea to at least read that first.

Joe Abercrombie always hits the mark for me and Red Country is no exception. The Heroes remains my favourite of his books, but Red Country is definitely going to make my top reads of 2012.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Lilith by George MacDonald

When George MacDonald's name appeared on the list I just naturally assumed it would be his best known work The Princess and the Goblin. I haven't read The Princess and the Goblin, but from what I'd heard it just seemed to fit as a Must-Read Fantasy work. However the writers of the list chose Lilith.

Lilith isn't that bad overall. George MacDonald's idea of fairyland is quite clever and very different. The hero; Mr Vanes, wanders through them after accidentally falling through a portal in his library. He befriends a group of young children, who if they grow up will become the unpleasant, brutish giant Bags. The 'little ones' eventually mobilise and go to war against the Princess of the land, taking control and delivering her to the seeming overall ruler of the land; Mr Raven.

There's an entertaining story in there, but it's hidden under endless theological discussions. The book is also hampered by a passive, badly drawn protagonist. It's readable, but two of the men MacDonald influenced; C. S Lewis and Lewis Carroll, did far better.

While reading the book elements of it brought to mind Carroll's Wonderland and Lewis' Narnia. I was also reminded of David Lindsay's A Voyage to Arcturus, which also features a passive protagonist who exists to conduct philosophical discussions with the other characters in the book. Interestingly enough another book I recalled while reading Lilith was Catherynne M. Valente's The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland In A Ship Of Her Own Making.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

In Defence of Urban Fantasy

When Bastard Books did a series of guest posts discussing urban fantasy I was interested. However i was a little surprised by what was actually written. The guest posters by their own admission are for the most part not urban fantasy readers.

They give the impression that they don’t really like the genre, and they have their reasons. One was due to lack of ‘epicness’ in urban fantasy books, and I’ll cover that later. The other reasons tend to be the proliferation of sexually explicit storylines and lurid covers. The issue of highly traditional relationships to the exclusion of non-traditional pairings was also highlighted.

I was initially going to let the cover thing pass, because it’s something the genre tends to be known for, and I’ve even made jokes about it myself. I have looked at some covers and wondered if the books themselves are set in temperate climes, which is why the people on the covers wear so little clothing. Then I actually began to think about it and realized that it’s a myth. Urban fantasy by and large doesn’t favour those sort of covers, paranormal romance does.

People don’t seem to make a distinction between the two, and it needs to be made. Paranormal romance, and romance in this context generally stands for sex, is an offshoot of the romance genre itself. The main difference being that it features vampires and werewolves. It is true that booksellers do shelve the two; paranormal romance and urban fantasy together and there are examples of crossover, but they are definitely separate genres with their own readerships and marketing channels.

I first discovered what is recognized as urban fantasy these days the same way as many others via Laurell K Hamilton’s Anita Blake. I liked the Anita Blake books to begin with. Anita was a tough talking, hard-edged necromancer who was hell bent on vengeance against vampires and she didn’t care about the laws that protected them in the world Hamilton created for her heroine to operate in. At some point the sex became more important than the story and I gave up the series; it’s still going. The Anita Blake series created their own subgenre; vampire porn.

I stayed away from the genre for some time after that, but picked up a book by Simon Green called Nightside. It was okay, but not outstanding. While reading reviews for it I noticed people referencing the Dresden Files by Jim Butcher, so sought out the first book in the series; Storm Front.

I began an ongoing love affair with the Dresdens, and I still enjoy them immensely. Butcher doesn’t shy away from sex, but he doesn’t highlight it. It isn’t the focus of the books, the story arc and Harry Dresden’s interpersonal relationships are.

It wasn’t until I saw Seanan McGuire win the John W. Campbell award at Worldcon 2010, the first urban fantasy author to do so, that I investigated the genre seriously. Rosemary and Rue, the first of Seanan’s Toby Daye books was a revelation. No vampires or werewolves and a really interesting heroine and world. From that point on I’ve sought out concepts within the genre that are different. Faeries, like those in the Toby Dayes, are becoming more and more popular.

Now comes the cover criticism. Once I read it I initially agreed with it, then thought hang on, that’s not right. Chris McGrath’s Dresden and Toby covers never have what is thought of as a typical urban fantasy cover. They’re always fully clothed and often in fairly dark settings, the one possible exception was One Salt Sea and as Toby was a mermaid at the time I think we can let that one pass.

There’s Ben Aaronovitch’s Folly books on which the UK covers display road maps, and what’s in between them isn’t what people think of as urban fantasy either. With a bi racial protagonist and African river goddesses.

I started really looking at the covers after this and thinking about them and I was hard put to find the ones with a hard bodied woman wearing a midriff bearing tank top, posing in such a way that she shows off both her toned body and her collection of tattoos. They exist, and some of them are what I term as urban fantasy, but most are for paranormal romances.

Even a series that straddles the line between urban fantasy and paranormal romance like Charlotte Harris’ Sookie Stackhouses has never used a cover of that sort. The original US covers, which are still in circulation, are bright and almost cartoony in execution. The UK covers are generally a solid cover with a blood splash.

The issue of urban fantasy not being epic, well that perplexes me too. I’m yet to find an epic fantasy where the hero rides an animated dinosaur through a city scape, it happened in a Harry Dresden book, and Harry regularly saves the world, plus the actual scope of the books (it looks at tagging out around 20) is truly epic. Tanya Huff’s Enchantment Emporium had a dragon in it, and some very interesting non-traditional relationships. Atticus O’Sullivan, the 2,000 year old druid from Kevin Hearne’s Iron Druid series took on Norse Gods in one book of that. Laura Resnick’s fabulous Esther Diamond series is about a struggling actress who just happens to get herself into supernatural situations, they’re more comedic than anything and the covers are wonderfully whacky.

You’ve even got books like A. Lee Martinez’s Gil’s All-Fright Diner and Catherine Jinks’ Reformed Vampire Support Group which take the tropes of urban fantasy and turn them on their heads.

I haven’t yet even covered Gail Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate which took steam punk added vampires and werewolves, a wonderfully strong heroine and gave us what Jane Austen might have produced if she’d ever decided to dabble in urban fantasy.

Have a look around with eyes and mind wide open and you may find yourself pleasantly surprised.

Saturday, November 3, 2012

Graceling by Kristin Cashore

I thought I'd like Kristin Cashore's Graceling. It had done very well and been positively reviewed. It had two sequels out, so if it was good no problems going on with it, and I really was intrigued by the idea behind it. The main character; Katsa, is 'Graced'. Graced in the books means a talent, Katsa's 'Grace' is killing people. Graceling is very definitely a YA book, but they don't come much darker than that. I didn't like Graceling, though. I can see why it's been successful, but I can also see why it didn't work for me.

The plot's fairly basic. The first part of the book sets the scene and introduces readers to the main characters. In the second part Katsa and Prince Greening (although he prefers be known as Po) get themselves a mission, and they fall in love and carry out their mission for the rest of it, while protecting a young girl by the name of Bitterblue. Although there are two sequels, Graceling is fairly self contained.

I had a number of problems with the book. I had difficulty suspending belief with Katsa, she was unkillable, that didn't work for me. The mechanics of the fight scenes were totally off. I'm no martial arts expert, but I do like watching or reading a well choreographed fight. I didn't get that from Graceling.

The names didn't grab me. Katsa just sounded wrong for the character. And Po? He wants to be called Po? What the? Why would anyone prefer being called Po? Anyway. I did like Bitterblue as a name, though, that one works. The third book is called Bitterblue, so I kind of knew she'd never be in any genuine danger, although I could be wrong. She was a little wrong at times, she spoke far too well for a child of her age.

The love story between Katsa and Po bored me. I'm not averse to romance, but when it's telegraphed as badly as it was in Graceling I have issues with it. Almost from the time Po appeared you knew what was going to happen, then they spent all this time examining Katsa's feelings for him....yawn. Maybe it was because I'd just come off reading the joy that was Chime, and it was handled so deftly in that book.

If anyone asked me whether or not to read Graceling I'd probably tell them to read Robin Hobb's Farseer trilogy instead. The theme (talented teenage assassin) is also present in Hobb's celebrated series, and it's a lot better written.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Midnight Alley by Rachel Caine

Not a lot seems to happen in Midnight Alley (the 3rd of Rachel Caine's Morganville Vampires series), but that doesn't mean it's at all boring or doesn't move the story forward.

There is a really cool party at the house of series bad girl Monica Morrell, which gets totally out of hand, and results in one of the book's main characters being stabbed, but for the most part more about Morganville is slowly revealed and the series gets a new villain in the person of Jason, delinquent brother of Eve. This book also introduces a character that will no doubt be a favourite with readers. I know I like him.

This is where Myrnin makes his entrance. Myrnin is an old Welsh vampire, and as well as possessing a great deal of knowledge he's also dangerously unstable. There's a definite connection between he and the series' main character; Claire Danvers. There is a lot of Myrnin's story to be told, and given his origins and age it's hard not to connect him with the character of Merlin from Arthurian legend.

Because of Myrnin's instability and the fact that he can turn on people, even those like Claire who are helping him out, Claire becomes aware that her 'patron'; Amelie, is not as nice as she seems and sees her as a possession, rather than a person.

The books are strangely addictive, and I know that I'll be reading 4 in very short order.