Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Upcoming: “Among Thieves”, by Douglas Hulick (Tor)

I wrote a post a little while back highlighting some upcoming books from Tor/Macmillan that had caught my attention, one of which was Douglas Hulick’s Among Thieves, the first in his Tales of the Kin series.

At the time, I only had the synopsis:

Among Thieves follows the morally ambiguous Drothe. He’s a Nose, an informant who finds and takes care of trouble inside the criminal organization he's a part of.

When his boss sends him to Ten Ways to track down who's been leaning on his organization's people, Drothe discovers hints of a much bigger mystery. Someone is trying to stir up trouble between the lower-level criminal gangs. And there's a book rumoured to contain forbidden Imperial magic that a lot of very dangerous people seem to be looking for - including two very powerful crime bosses known as the Gray Princes. When Drothe discovers the book, he finds himself holding a bit of swag that can bring down emperors, shatter the criminal underworld, and unlock forbidden magic…

Now, however, the artwork has been revealed! And here it is, for your viewing pleasure:


Personally, I think it’s pretty cool. Sure, it has many of the elements that have come to define almost all new fantasy novels (man in shadows, a sword, dark tones, and even – for those who’ve read and liked Stuff White People Like – a fancy, flowing scarf), but I really like it.

If the cover is not enough to whet your appetite, here’s what bestselling author Brent Weeks (a favourite of mine) had to say about the novel:

“Among Thieves is an unalloyed pleasure: a fast-moving, funny, twisting tale in an evocative setting with great characters. The kind of story that reminds you why you love to read. This book may just give you that feeling you had the first time you read Rothfuss or Abercrombie: Oh hell yeah, there’s new talent in the game. Read this book. No really, read this book.

For me, this is one of the most eagerly anticipated novels of 2011 (along with the sequel to Col Buchanan’s Farlander).

I wonder who I could bribe for an early copy…

Thursday, October 21, 2010

Books on Film: “The Runaway Jury”, by John Grisham

Can a jury be manipulated or bought? At what cost?

I’m on a bit of a Grisham kick at the moment (I’ll review his latest, The Confession, as soon as I get it read), and I recently watched The Runaway Jury, so I thought I’d add another to my recent “Books on Film” series.

Grisham-TheRunawayJury2010First, the book’s blurb:

Every jury has a leader, and the verdict belongs to him.

In Biloxi, Mississippi, a landmark trial with hundreds of millions of dollars at stake begins routinely, then swerves mysteriously off course. The jury is behaving strangely, and a least one juror is convinced he’s being watched. Soon they have to be sequestered. Then a tip from an anonymous young woman suggests she is able to predict the juror’s increasingly odd behaviour.

Is the jury somehow being manipulated, or even controlled? If so, by whom? And, more importantly, why?

Grisham-TheRunawayJuryMovie A synopsis of the movie:

Based on Grisham’s bestselling The Runaway Jury, the ultimate target has been changed: Grisham’s legal assault on the tobacco industry has been switched to the hot-button issue of gun control (no doubt to avoid comparisons with The Insider) in a riveting exposé of jury-tampering.

Gene Hackman plays the ultra-cynical, utterly unscrupulous pawn of the gun-makers, using an expert staff and advanced electronics to hand-pick a New Orleans jury that will return a favourable verdict; Dustin Hoffman (making his first screen appearance with real-life former roommate Hackman) defends the grieving widow of a gun-shooting victim with idealistic zeal, while maverick juror John Cusack and accomplice Rachel Weisz play both ends against the middle in a personal quest to hold gun-makers accountable.

Given the talents involved in the movie, it is of course great, and it would be almost impossible to expect any less from this crew and cast. Everyone involved in the movie brings their A-game, and even the lesser characters are great actors and expertly portrayed.

The Runaway Jury, the seventh Grisham to be made into a movie, focuses on the gun business in America, rather than the tobacco industry of the novel. As the synopsis suggests, this might have been a ploy to distance the movie from The Insider, which came out roughly at the same time (and is, actually, another excellent movie). Like all the movies based on Grisham novels, it’s great viewing and intelligent. The plot comes along at a fair clip, unfolding for the viewer at a perfect pace to keep us guessing and engrossed. However, given the level of detail one would expect in a Grisham novel, one can’t help feeling the plot unfolds just a tad too quickly in the movie, and as a result I’m convinced the novel would be an eminently more satisfying endeavour.

While I am mostly against the gun culture and trade in the US (at least, and admittedly, the politicised element of it), I find the idea of suing a gun company over the death of a family member a little strange. The case is attempting to show that the Vicksburg Gun Company has a “deliberate and negligent” distribution policy/process. Surely this is a different issue? Sure, they made the gun – but that’s legal (even if it does have a “print-resistant finish”). Sure, a lot of their policies and business strategies are predatory and completely mercantilist – could we expect different from any other company? (Certainly not US banks, as we’ve discovered in the past couple of years...) It’s a question of responsibility, and who has the ultimate responsibility of what is done with a company’s products, specifically firearms. That is the central focus of the movie. I agree that in the case of controlled products like firearms, tobacco, alcohol, the vendor has a responsibility and, depending on reward schemes offered by the manufacturer, they also have a responsibility. The scenario offered in the movie is one so patently dishonest that a monkey should have been able to argue a win, and yet the case offered by Hoffman’s character seems a bit limp. In fact, the character isn’t written with much depth as far more focus goes to Hackman’s ‘bad-guy’. Fair enough, but Hoffman is a superb actor and it’s a pity his character wasn’t written more convincingly.

“Never before has a jury found the gun industry liable for murder.”

The sentiment of the movie is right: with entrenched and powerful gun interests in Washington, there’s no hope of changing the gun industry without a huge, sensational case like this. Congress won’t change anything, because of the clout of the NRA. A court case can start the ball rolling, it can send it through to the Supreme Court. But even then, there’s no guarantee – it’s far more politicised than one hopes or would prefer.

I must admit, I’ve not read the novel (yet), and after watching the movie, I find myself unsatisfied with the conclusions it comes to. Not necessarily because I disagree with the conclusions, but because the medium doesn’t allow for as much depth as a novel. True, the ultimate target in the novel is different, so it would be interesting to see how the case against the tobacco industry unravels, and how the jury tampering fits in.

The stats are well known, the arguments against (certainly when compared to non-gun nations) are logical and clear. It’s an emotional issue that is argued too much by the Gut.

The movie as a whole is entertaining, as I’ve mentioned. But, even given its near-two-hour length, it feels a little too much like it is only skimming the surface of the issues. Naturally, one can expect this from a big-budget Hollywood movie, but it does raise questions on the viability of transitioning these types of novels into the film medium. It works as visual entertainment, but I imagine the novel has so much more to offer someone interested in the subject – or, at least, the subject of jury selection and tampering, rather than the gun trade (for which I would recommend Richard North Patterson’s The Balance of Power).

Well worth watching (Hackman, Hoffman, Cusak and Weisz are all brilliant), but don’t equate it too closely with Grisham’s novel or other written output.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Ten Years On: “The Brethren”, by John Grisham (Arrow/Doubleday)


A prison-based extortion scam hooks an unexpected, powerful fish

Trumble is a minimum-security federal prison, a “camp,” home to the usual assortment of relatively harmless criminals – drug dealers, bank robbers, swindlers, embezzlers, tax evaders, two Wall Street crooks, one doctor, at least five lawyers.

And three former judges who call themselves “the Brethren”: one from Texas, one from California, and one from Mississippi. They meet each day in the law library, their turf at Trumble, where they write briefs, handle cases for other inmates, practice law without a license, and sometimes dispense jailhouse justice. And they spend hours writing letters. They are fine-tuning a mail scam, and it’s starting to really work. The money is pouring in.

Then their little scam goes awry. It ensnares the wrong victim, a powerful man on the outside, a man with dangerous friends, and the Brethren’s days of quietly marking time are over.

I first read this novel when it was published in 2000. It was the first novel by Grisham that I ever read, and it set me on a two-month-long Grisham-marathon. Ten years after it first appeared, I thought it would be a good candidate for the first instalment of my ‘Ten Years On’ series.

There are basically two main storylines that run concurrently: that of the Brethren at Trumble, and Aaron Lake’s presidential primary campaign. It’s not stated how they connect, but one quickly figures it out (otherwise, there would clearly be no point in having them both in the same novel).

It’s pre-9/11, and the Cold War is still on people’s minds, not to mention the fear of a renewed war – cold or otherwise – with a frustrated Russia. This is the nightmare scenario CIA chief Teddy Maynard is trying to push into the American consciousness. Maynard wants a pliable president, one with the CIA and defence department’s interests at heart. Aaron Lake is the perfect candidate – squeaky clean, respected but not flashy, and a work horse on Congressional defence committees. The political side of this novel could be characterised as the military-industrial-complex meets Wag the Dog – a distillation of everything conspiracy theorists (and, increasingly, more-sane citizens) worry about the American democratic process – that is, secret moneyed interests in the defence industry buying the election for a candidate who sells his soul for cash and political fame. Only, it’s also as if the conspiracies about the military-industrial-complex are not only real, but they’re not big enough – the CIA is trying to pick a president, and they’ll engineer international events to prove him a foreign policy visionary, and in the end scare the American public into voting for him, in return getting their increased defence budgets and an eternal state of readiness.

Maynard is wonderfully Machiavellian. He embodies much of the contents and suggestions in The Prince, yet Grisham manages to keep him from becoming a cartoon. Lake comes across as the genuinely well-intentioned candidate who quickly becomes enamoured with the status and trappings of a political rising-star. The money is pouring into his campaign coffers in amounts as-yet unheard of (although, reading it now, the numbers are quite small compared to the 2008 election figures), and Lake is making the most of the political machine Maynard and company assemble for him. Everything is planned out – the ups and downs of Lake’s campaign, even the forthcoming general election. Everything will goes as planned. As long as there are no surprises, of course…

Meanwhile, the three judges at Trumble are working away at their mail scam, hoping to spend their remaining years of incarceration blackmailing older homosexuals still in the closet. Their scam is certainly cruel, and highlights the continued stigma attached to homosexuality in the US – even though things may have moved forward a little over the past decade, much of the sentiment described in the novel is the same as what one might hear coming out of Sarah Palin’s mouth. (Well, actually, what’s in The Brethren is far more tame than that.) When Grisham turns our attention to the judges’ victims, he deals with them in a very sympathetic way, as they struggle with the fear of their secrets being revealed.

The judges are angry at the world, and the idea for scam came from another prison and another time, when it was successfully carried out for years. There are times when the judges’ inherent concern for others does come through – particularly in the case of Buster, an extremely young prisoner sentenced to 48 years for a crime he not only didn’t commit, but had no way of committing. There is some balance between the judges – who have all the time in the world to scheme, and are surprisingly similar characters given their broad geographic origins – and their drunk attorney, who acts as their outside courier and money-man, a quite damaged character whose legal career has far from taken off.

Some things don’t change. In his announcement speech, Lake “became wonderfully angry at the Chinese”, and also “blistered the Chinese for their looting [of nuclear secrets] and their unprecedented military buildup. The strategy was Teddy’s. Use the Chinese to scare the American voters”, just as candidates on both sides of the aisle are doing today during the 2010 midterms. True, in the novel’s case, it's to distract from the activities of rogue Russian elements. Today, on the other hand, it’s to distract from US domestic problems.

The all-powerful forces of money behind politics are, as mentioned, a significant feature of the novel. Considering the recent Supreme Court ruling that officially opened up elections to seemingly endless amounts of corporate money, The Brethren was in many ways a prescient novel. The ability for corporations and special interests to buy elements of elections is frightening, and Grisham fully evokes the ease with which money can swing the course of American elections, and therefore politics as a whole.

I often forget how much social and political commentary Grisham can seamlessly cram into a novel (in just one chapter, for example, we get indictment of politics and the sorry state of daytime TV, for example). When I first read this, I missed a lot of the political commentary, not having had much exposure to US politics at the time (although, it was only a year before my professional interest in/obsession with it began). Second time around, and I know I got more out of this than before.

Despite my disappointment with The Associate, which I felt was based on a sloppy, shaky premise (and a little too transparent an attempt to recreate the feel of The Firm), Grisham remains one of the best authors writing today. Some may sneer, because he’s not producing “literature”, but his novels are original, intelligent, and exceptionally well-written and plotted thrillers.

All of Grisham’s characters are well-drawn and realistic – whether prominent in his novels or peripheral. The dialogue is natural, and the author’s prose flow perfectly. It was extremely difficult to put this novel down. Can one ask for anything more from a thriller? With a satisfying ending, The Brethren remains, for me, one of Grisham’s finest novels.

Highly recommended.

The Best of Grisham: A Time To Kill (1989), The Firm (1991), The Pelican Brief (1992), The Runaway Jury (1996), The Partner (1997), The Summons (2002), The King of Torts (2003), The Broker (2005), The Appeal (2008)

Artwork for the American 2000-edition, which I read first:


“Soulless”, by Gail Carriger (Orbit)

Reviewed by Alyssa Mackenzie

Print Introducing The Parasol Protectorate

Alexia Tarabotti is labouring under a great many social tribulations.

First, she has no soul. Second, she’s a spinster whose father is both Italian and dead. Third, she was rudely attacked by a vampire, breaking all standards of social etiquette.

Where to go from there? From bad to worse apparently, for Alexia accidentally kills the vampire – and then the appalling Lord Maccon (loud, messy, gorgeous and werewolf) is sent by Queen Victoria to investigate.

With unexpected vampires appearing and expected vampires disappearing, everyone seems to believe Alexia is responsible. Can she figure out what is actually happening to London’s high society? Will her soulless ability to negate supernatural powers prove useful or just plain embarrassing? Finally, who is the real enemy, and do they have treacle tart?

The first in Gail Carriger’s Parasol Protectorate series, Soulless is at once paranormal romance, mystery novel, and alternate history, written as a comedy of manners. In the world Carriger has created, supernatural beings have been integrated into British society since the Renaissance. By the reign of Queen Victoria, when Carriger’s novels take place, vampires, ghosts, and werewolves have attained a wary acceptance in human society. They sit in parliament, attend their own gentlemen’s clubs, even teach at Oxford.

Carriger introduces us to this world through the frivolous atmosphere of London high society – where the greatest insult for supernaturals and humans alike is to be called a boor, and wearing a sub-par shirt or a badly-tied cravat is a social crime – and the eyes of Alexia Tarabotti, soulless, perpetually in want of a snack, and armed with a parasol tipped with silver and weighted with buckshot. Throughout the novel, the narration is sharp and witty (a blurb on the cover suggests Austen and Wodehouse as influences; I would add Wilde to the list). I found myself giggling aloud frequently, often even at throwaway lines and minor details. Alexia’s family is amusingly flighty, from her attention-hungry half-sisters, to her mother, “prone to wearing yellow and engaging in bouts of hysteria.” Carriger’s lively tone and the novelty of her world keep the pace of the novel fast-moving (although I was a little surprised at how quickly Soulless reached its crisis – the climactic events of the novel begin around the halfway point).

Carriger’s version of supernatural beings is new and interesting. In Soulless, ‘soul’ is believed to be a quantifiable property. Vampires, ghosts, and werewolves have more soul than the average human, which enables them to survive the change from mortal to immortal. Alexia’s lack of soul creates a kind of vacuum – when she comes into physical contact with supernatural creatures, they become human. Carriger uses Alexia’s power to great effect throughout the novel, creating scenes at times comical and incredibly poignant. The question of how exactly ‘soul’ functions, and how supernatural qualities are transmitted, underlies much of the conflict of the novel, and will clearly continue to play a role throughout the series.

Alexia is a very appealing character. She joins determination, intelligence, and a quick wit with natural and entirely understandable frustrations and insecurities. Carriger does a commendable job of allowing her heroine depth without disrupting the dryly humorous tone of her novel. Alexia begins the novel feeling isolated and adrift: she is a self-proclaimed spinster in a world where marriage is her only escape from her family home. Much of the plot of the novel focuses on Alexia’s changing romantic situation. However, equally important is Alexia’s desire for an occupation, to use her intelligence and preternatural abilities to become something beyond the scope of her conventional world. Alexia’s friendship with Ivy Hisselpenny is particularly well-drawn – glibly described as a relationship of convenience, what emerges from their interactions is one of mutual trust and acceptance.

I must admit to finding the romance between Alexia and Lord Maccon a little unsatisfying at times. As is the case with many an Austen pairing, their verbal sparring only obscures their mutual attraction, with the constant battle of wits merely indicating intellectual equality. With Alexia and Lord Maccon, I think I would have preferred to have their initial antagonism drawn out a bit more – to have inferred their chemistry (sexual and otherwise) before it became more explicit. In some ways it felt like I was coming in near the end of their courtship, and I enjoyed their interactions so much that I would have liked to have seen it from earlier on.

Soulless combines a fascinating take on the supernatural with engaging characters; it is also very funny. With her first novel, Carriger has done that elusive thing: she has, in the currently over-saturated publishing world, created a truly fresh version of vampires and werewolves.


Parasol Protectorate series: Soulless, Changeless, Blameless (all out now), Heartless (July 2011), Timeless (2012)

Friday, October 15, 2010

Upcoming: “Book of Transformations”, by Mark Charan Newton (Tor)

Mr Newton revealed on his website today the latest version of the artwork for the third novel in his Legends of the Red Sun series: The Book of Transformations. There was some… uh, disagreement over the quality of the previous two designs (which I’ve included below, as well).

I can say that the latest design is much better, and generally a very eye-catching piece of artwork. Here it is in its entirety (including blurbs from other author types), and it should en-biggen when you click on it:


And now a cropped version of what would be the front cover:


For those interested in seeing the, uh, less admired proposals, here they are:


As I’m sure most people would agree, these aren’t quite so good. We’re just not sure what the chick’s actually up to. Bit of an awkward pose, not sure who she is, or what she’s… doing there. The city in the background is still awesome, so I’m glad they made that more the focus of the (latest) proposed cover.

Finally, here’s the blurb for The Book of Transformations:

A new and corrupt Emperor seeks to rebuild the ancient structures of Villjamur to give the people of the city hope in the face of great upheaval and an oppressing ice age. But when a stranger called Shalev arrives, empowering a militant underground movement, crime and terror becomes rampant.

The Inquisition is always one step behind, and military resources are spread thinly across the Empire. So Emperor Urtica calls upon cultists to help construct a group to eliminate those involved with the uprising, and calm the populace – the Villjamur Knights. But there’s more to Knights than just phenomenal skills and abilities – each have a secret that, if exposed, could destroy everything they represent.

Investigator Fulcrom of the Villjamur Inquisition is given the unenviable task of managing the Knights, but his own skills are tested when a mysterious priest, who has travelled from beyond the fringes of the Empire, seeks his help. The priest’s existence threatens the church, and his quest promises to unravel the fabric of the world. And in a distant corner of the Empire, the enigmatic cultist Dartun Súr steps back into this world, having witnessed horrors beyond his imagination. Broken, altered, he and the remnants of his order are heading back to Villjamur.

And all eyes turn to the Sanctuary City, for Villjamur’s ancient legends are about to be shattered…

Now, if I could only make time to read City of Ruin, I’d be fully prepared for book three. I’ll read and review it soon. I promise.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

“The First Heretic”, by Aaron Dembski-Bowden (Black Library)

DembskiBowden-TheFirstHereticA Legion falls from grace, and the roots of Heresy are sown

Amidst the galaxy-wide war of the Great Crusade, the Emperor castigates the Word Bearers for their worship. Distraught at this judgement, Lorgar and his Legion seek another path while devastating world after world, venting their fury and fervour on the battlefield.

Their search for a new purpose leads them to the edge of the material universe, where they meet ancient forces far more powerful than they could have imagined. Having set out to illuminate the Imperium, the corruption of Chaos takes hold and their path to damnation begins.

Unbeknownst to the Word Bearers, their quest for truth contains the very roots of heresy…

The First Heretic is a novel of three parts – first, the Word Bearers are fully rendered through their actions and the legacy they leave behind on worlds they bring into “compliance” with the expanding Imperium. This first part also chronicles the legion’s reprimand from the Emperor (who ever more in these novels comes across as remote and aloof, not to mention slightly fickle). Thus begins Lorgar and his legion’s quest to discover the truth about divinity, gods, faith and worship in the universe – and, ultimately, the beginning of their fall to Chaos and the Horus Heresy.

The jump to the second part of the novel (merely three years) was done well, and the author offers some jarring action to suck you in once again – it was to be the point I stopped reading for the night, but it ended up hooking me until I had to stop at 5am. In the second part of the novel, a small selection of the Word Bearers and their Primarch come face-to-face with the Chaos powers and the ‘truth’ of the gods and the old faiths. It is the beginning of the end, and what Lorgar discovers will forever shape the future of the Imperium and the galaxy it hoped to shape and control. It also fundamentally changes the lives and futures of Argel Tal and his chapter of the Legion, as they become the first Space Marines touched by Chaos.

The final part of the novel jumps forward again in time, forty years to the Isstvan V betrayal (which has already featured in a handful of other Horus Heresy novels). This is the first time the novel features the huge battle scenes many will be familiar with from Warhammer 40,000 fiction, and the author has a gift for putting the reader right in the centre of the action. It will also please many readers that there is a high compliment of Primarchs featured in the novel.

All the elements of the novel – the author’s prose, description, characterisation, pacing and plot – mesh perfectly, creating a brilliant, engaging 40k novel with a difference. This isn’t a novel of carnage or endless gun-play. Rather, Dembski-Bowden has gone deeper, investigating the raison d’etre of the Astartes, the Crusade, and the nature of faith in this era. Like Graham McNeill’s A Thousand Sons, it’s a more thoughtful novel than others of the 40k setting, and is all the better for it. Even Argel Tal, the primary protagonist of the novel, ferociously loyal to his Primarch and the Emperor, is allowed doubts as he battles with the new knowledge he learns in the Eye of Terror, so at odds with everything he has spent two centuries protecting, believing, and killing for.

After reading two of Dembski-Bowden’s short stories (in here and here) and listening to his audiobook, it was gratifying to finally get to try out a full-length novel: here is evidence that the author can write superbly at length, and definitely belongs among the upper-echelons of Black Library writers. The author’s the least-tested to be given a crack at the Horus Heresy series, but damn was that a superb decision by the Black Library powers-that-be. The novel benefits from the familiar setting, of course, but the author’s obvious gift for writing brings the universe and characters evocatively to life on the page. I can’t help wondering what the author would be able to accomplish outside of the confines of the Warhammer 40,000 setting.

The Word Bearers are quite a mysterious legion – they’ve featured throughout the Horus Heresy series (though often represented by only Erebus – who, strangely, is not a considerable presence in this novel), so it was certainly nice to get a novel based predominantly around them and their fall from favour and grace. It’s ironic and tragic that the Word Bearers were persecuted for worshipping the Emperor: in the ‘current’ 40k timeline, he is worshipped by all loyal Space Marines, the entire Imperium, and especially the fanatical Ecclesiarchy. This makes the Word Bearers a rather tragic legion, with a tale of betrayal and loss, not to mention ultimate vindication (not dissimilar to the Thousand Sons, whose story is told in Graham McNeil’s superb A Thousand Sons).

The novel touches on a lot of the history of the Horus Heresy, and I found Dembski-Bowden’s treatment of the material deft and engaging. If you are unfamiliar with the series, or the setting, then you might be a little lost, as the author delves quite deeply into the era’s lore and history, without giving away too much detail (as always, there’s a level of assumed knowledge with Black Library novels that might not always allow for casual discovery). If you’re a fan of the series, however, then this is an absolute must-read.

One thing is clear: if the Horus Heresy series continues to improve as it has over the last few volumes, the series will only go from strength-to-strength in the future.

Utterly brilliant, I loved this novel.

Saturday, October 09, 2010

“The Spirit Thief”, by Rachel Aaron (Orbit Books)

Aaron-1-TheSpiritThiefIntroducing The Legend of Eli Monpress

Eli Monpress is talented. He’s charming. And he’s a thief.

But not just any thief. He’s the greatest thief of the age – and he’s also a wizard. And with the help of his partners – a swordsman with the most powerful magic sword in the world but no magical ability of his own, and a demonseed who can step through shadows and punch through walls – he’s going to put his plan into effect.

The first step is to increase the size of the bounty on his head, so he’ll need to steal some big things. But he’ll start small for now. He’ll just steal something that no one will miss – at least for a while.

Like a king…

The encomiums on the cover of this novel, from a notable selection of authors had me intrigued from the get-go. Ordinarily, I think blurbs of praise should always to be taken with a pinch of salt, but in the case of The Spirit Thief, I think they are spot on. I had hoped this novel would be something to entertain and engage my attention for a short while in between larger reading projects, and I was far from disappointed.

The events described in the synopsis happen in quick (wryly humorous) order, and a wider conspiracy opens up in the wake of Monpress’s unorthodox theft. It turns out that the kingdom in which he decided to operate is anti-magic, and with the disappearance of the king, a forgotten magically-gifted elder brother moves in to usurp the throne he believes rightfully his. Monpress and his gang of thieves – along with two unlikely and hesitant allies – must right what they have caused, which (thankfully) leads to more hijinks and intrigue.

Aaron’s novel is, in a word, fun. Far from being a world-building extravaganza, filled with exposition or slow events as we are given a detailed introduction to some vast, new, fantastical world, the author has taken a more direct route. It is a familiar-feeling fantasy setting, and Aaron has allowed the events of the story fill in the overall picture of the world, and the same with the characters, all of whom are interesting and well-rounded. Eli Monpress, the titular hero, is a rather cocky prankster, an anti-hero who likes to thumb his nose to all authorities, but most of all the Spirit Council. Miranda, the agent of the Spirit Council sent to hunt Monpress, finds him endlessly exasperating and difficult to pin down and capture. Monpress’s companions – Nico the mysterious demonseed, and Josef the highly gifted swordsman – add balance to Eli’s seemingly limitless (not to mention unique) magical abilities. Renaud, the usurping brother, along with Coriano (another swordsman hunting Josef), provide excellent foils for our heroes. The author does an excellent job of slowly revealing ever-more detail about Renaud’s ultimate agenda, too.

The novel has an intriguing new magic system – everything in the world has a spirit, from pebbles to trees, swords, and even sand (not to mention sandstorms, which are a whole other proposition). Spiritualists can communicate with these spirits and offer a sharing of power for help and mutual service. Eli’s powers, however, seem to be different to your average spiritualist’s, but only slowly are they explained to us, with hints of something far larger going on behind the scenes – beyond the scope of Eli’s plots and plans. Mostly, he seems to be able to convince spirits to do what he wants just by charming them. (For example, Eli spends the first four pages talking to a suspicious door, convincing it to open up for him. This is only one example of the many quirky events of the novel, all of which endeared the series to me even more.)

I am very eager to see how the series develops, as reading The Spirit Thief was a real pleasure (The Spirit Rebellion and The Spirit Eater are published in November and December, respectively). There’s more going on behind-the-scenes and on a larger scale than is fully revealed in this first novel, and I’m hoping each novel adds more detail and depth to the characters and their motivations, and also the world Aaron has created.

As it’s only 300 pages long, it’s a quicker read than almost all fantasy debuts released these days, but its brevity does not detract from the quality of the story or the author’s inventiveness. Aaron’s prose style is fluid and stripped-down, allowing the action to drive the story and develop the characters. It’s a very natural style, and it never feels like we’ve stumbled into a passage of clunky exposition – the author informs us of what we need to know when we need to know it. No info-dumps, no surprisingly-well-informed dialogues between minor characters.

Ultimately, I think Aaron has written a fantasy series with entertainment at its heart, rather than some grand, cerebral fantasy. And it works on every level.

With wry humour, interesting characters, realistic dialogue and a fast-moving and fun plot, The Spirit Thief was exactly what I needed, and I recommend it to all fans of fantasy who’d like something a little lighter.

[As with many Orbit titles, The Spirit Thief also comes with an author interview and a couple of preview chapters of the next book in the series.]

Wednesday, October 06, 2010

“The Chronicles of King Rolen’s Kin”, by Rowena Corey Daniels (Solaris)

Reviewed by Shevaun Fergus

Daniels-TheKingsBastard The King’s Bastard

Cloaked in silent winter snow the Kingdom of Rolencia sleeps as rumours spread of new Affinity Seeps, places where untamed power wells up. Meanwhile, King Rolen plans his jubilee unaware of the growing threat to those he loves.

By royal decree, all those afflicted with Affinity must serve the Abbey or face death. Sent to the Abbey because of his innate Affinity, the King’s youngest son, Fyn, trains to become a warrior monk. Unfortunately, he’s a gentle dreamer and the other acolytes bully him. The only way he can escape them is to serve the Abbey Mystic, but his Affinity is weak.

Fiercely loyal, thirteen year-old Piro is horrified to discover she is also cursed with unwanted Affinity. It broke their mother’s heart to send Fyn away, so she hides her affliction. But, when Fyn confesses his troubles, Piro risks exposure to help him.

Even though Byren Kingson is only seven minutes younger than his twin, Lence, who is the king’s heir, Byren has never hungered for the Rolencian throne. When a Seer predicts that he will kill Lence, he laughs. But Lence Kingsheir sees Byren’s growing popularity and resents it. Enduring loyalty could be Byren’s greatest failing.

Daniels-TheUncrownedKing The Uncrowned King

Rolencia’s ancestral enemy, Merofynia, has invaded and marches on King Rolen’s castle. Powerless to help, thirteen year old Piro watches as her father, King Rolen, listens to poisoned whispers concerning his son Byren. How could the King doubt his second son?

Determined to prove his loyalty, Byren races across the path of the advancing army to ask the Abbot to send the warrior monks in defence of the castle.

Daniels-TheUsurperThe Usurper

Now a slave, Piro finds herself in the Merofynian Palace where, if her real identity is discovered, she will be executed.

Meanwhile, Fyn is desperate to help his brother, Byren, who is now the uncrowned King. Byren never sought power but now he finds himself at the centre of a dangerous resistance movement as the people of Rolencia flee vicious invaders. How can Byren defeat the invaders, when half his warriors are women and children, and the other half are untrained boys and old men?

In the kingdom of Rolencia, magic is illegal and if you have it you must go to one of the great Abbeys, or face and banishment and death if you return.  The story follows three of King Rolen’s four children, Byren, twin to the Kingsheir Lence, Kingsdaughter Piro and youngest, Kingson Fyn, sent away to Halcyon Abbey at six years old for having magical ability. Invaders from the neighbouring kingdom of Merofynia have invaded, and the king’s children are scattered across the world by war.

The trilogy follows their adventures across their world, and their efforts to regain the kingdom, and each other.  The reader is transported into a blaze of magic, monsters, pirates and peasants in a sweeping epic of high fantasy escapism.

Highly enjoyable, the characters are easy to identify with and the three intertwined stories move at breakneck pace.  At times, the characterisation is very intimate, but before things start to slow down the plot picks up and they are moving again.

I didn’t want to put the books down, and that they ended with potential for more was a pleasant surprise. The three novels feel more like a single novel in three parts, and I think they would work brilliantly as an omnibus edition, if the publisher ever decided to release one.

Tuesday, October 05, 2010

“The Fort”, by Bernard Cornwell (HarperCollins)

Cornwell-TheFortCornwell returns his attention to the United States

Summer 1779, a British force of fewer than one thousand Scottish infantry were sent to build a garrison in the State of Maine. The war of Independence was in its third year and no other British troops stood between Canada and New York.

The State of Massachusetts was determined to expel the British, but when they sent a fleet of forty vessels to ‘captivate, kill and destroy’ they underestimated their enemies, calm in battle and ready for victory.

Told from both sides of the battle, the main characters are all real figures from history. Based on diaries, letters and court transcripts, we meet many of the war’s greatest heroes, including Paul Revere and John Moore, each of whom become famous subjects of war poetry.

As a long-time fan of the author’s Sharpe series, I was eager to see what Cornwell would come up with when he turned his attention, once again, to American history. When I tried the Starbuck books (set during the Civil War), I couldn’t really get into them, but this was more an issue with me rather than Cornwell’s novels. I just wasn’t that interested at the time. Now, however, I am a little better versed in the time and setting, and so The Fort seems to have been perfectly timed to pique my interest. It’s also a great idea, and one I was eager to read. The novel is based on extensive documentary evidence from the period and of the events, so Cornwell has really delved deeply into the historical facts to construct his novel. However, this has a double-edged quality to it, and it is a very different novel to what I expected.

First, the good: the historical detail – from the mundane to the grander commentary on American life and society at the time – is brilliant, and meticulously researched. We get a great sense of both the righteousness and worry of the newly-free Colonials, and Cornwell delves into the factionalism that was already on the rise at this time (including the class struggle and the anti-Ivy League sentiments that would not be entirely out of place in today’s political discourse). The grand ideals that formed the basis of the Revolution are laid bare, frequent victims of simple human nature. For example, the American expedition sent to repel the Scottish forces, was seriously hampered by squabbling between Commodore Saltonstall and General Lovell over who should have command. Including characters such as Paul Revere (who was not quite the great patriot and warrior as American myth would have us believe) is a great draw for the novel, and Cornwell renders all of his characters well.

The novel includes a lot of detail of the lives of both loyalists and the rebels – religion remains a strong dictator of daily life for both, but the colonies need to contend with chronis under-supply of weapons, food, and almost everything else. There’s the occasional amusing aside or comment regarding military contractors – clearly, inflating costs for government contracts is nothing new… Cornwell also portrays the difference in quality of the American and British troops, and how that effected the outcome of the Expedition. The British were simply superior in almost every way, and so the outcome of this Expedition could perhaps have been considered a foregone conclusion. Then, however, you have to consider that the Americans ultimately won…

One could also not review a Cornwell novel without tipping one’s hat to the author’s considerable gift for writing action sequences – he remains one of the few authors who can write long battle scenes that keep my attention throughout, and convey the chaos and tension one might feel in such situations – not to mention delve convincingly into the psyches of those who will have to unwillingly face battle against an enemy so like themselves.

Unfortunately, the author’s apparent loyalty to the texts in existence has had a couple of negative effects on the novel. First, it is uneven – at times the dialogue feels natural and flows, the same for the narrative as a whole; then there are passages that are clearly influenced from written accounts, where the style changes (sometimes slightly, sometimes very noticeably), and changes the pace of the novel. There were a number of times when dialogue suddenly became extremely formal, rather than natural, and I can only suppose that it’s taken from written accounts of conversations or diaries of those present. While interesting on an intellectual level, it didn’t really work as fictional entertainment. The author has apparently been “fascinated” for a very long time with this period, and while this allows for a faithful reconstruction of the time, it also comes through as over-attention to detail to the apparent detriment to storytelling.

As always, Cornwell has done an incredible job of making sure his writing is accurate and deviates minimally for the purposes of his story. Unfortunately, the execution was uneven, and (in my humble opinion) not up to Cornwell’s usual standard. As an example in historical fiction writing, this is exceptional. But as an example of historical entertainment, it does not live up to the author’s previous writing. I may, of course, be entirely misunderstanding the point of the novel – as someone who has read all-but-one of the Sharpe novels, and was introduced to the author through his Archer series, I was perhaps expecting something a little more swashbuckling and adventurous, and a little more entertaining.

While this is an interesting novel, based on an interesting premise, and written by a very gifted author, I can’t help thinking that only Revolutionary-era historians will get the full benefit and experience of it. That being said, if you are interested in reading a novel about the Revolutionary War, by an author who is loyal to the actual historical events, and come to it not expecting Sharpe in America, then I believe you will probably enjoy The Fort.

Therefore, I offer a cautious recommendation.

*     *     *

Comments on the Kindle Edition

As the first novel I’ve read on the Kindle, I thought I would make a couple of comments on both the eBook itself and also the reading experience. First off, it’s still a pleasure to read on the device – the page turns are quick, and the device is comfortable to hold.

That being said, the quality of the eBook – like many I have bought for my Sony Reader – is not at all high. There were too many typos, punctuation substitutions, and other errors to be acceptable (particularly opening speech-marks, which are all-too-frequently missing). It remains clear that publishers don’t treat eBooks as carefully as printed and bound volumes. If they don’t allow these typos in printed books (especially for bestsellers like Cornwell), then they really shouldn’t be appearing here.

Considering that prices for eBooks tend to be pretty close to those of printed books (at least on Amazon and near publication date), I find this unfair to customers and extremely irritating as a reader. I don’t see an excuse for it – unless it is a fault of the conversion software. While I am willing to accept that this may account for some of the errors, there is one glaring error in The Fort that cannot easily be blamed on this. Specifically, when the titular fort is built, and the British leader christens it “Tort George”. Twice.