Wednesday, May 20, 2009

“Nights of Villjamur”, by Mark Charan Newton (Tor)


Political intrigue, mysterious murders, and genocide… Book one of the Legends of the Red Sun kicks off with a bang

An ice age has descended on a chain of islands, and citizens from all over have congregated at the city of Villjamur to seek solace and sanctuary within its walls and among its ancient spires and bridges. Times are dark, with forgotten technology and banshees in the city, and further afield the dead are seen walking across the frozen tundra.

A number of storylines are woven together in this first installment of Newton’s new series. When the Emperor commits suicide, his closest confident and captain of his bodyguard, Brynd, is tasked with bringing the heir to the throne, Rika, home to rule in his place. Unfortunately, the sinister and Machiavellian Chancellor Urtica has his sights set on securing the throne for himself. A senior investigator in the city inquisition, Jeryd, must solve the savage, high-profile murder of a prominent city politician, while simultaneously battling with his own demons, his broken personal life. Randur, a serial womanizer manipulates his way into the imperial residence with a hidden agenda…

Not content to leave the intrigue and suspense within Villjamur’s walls, tens of thousands of citizens on the northern islands of the Empire are dying in a strange, inexplicable genocide.

Villjamur is a dark, hard place, populated by a cast of characters so varied and colourful it is almost impossible not to be drawn in. Newton is adept at conveying his characters’ emotions and states-of-mind through his prose. Battle or action scenes (particularly in the beginning) are written in a way to convey the chaos and confusion his characters are likely to feel, making the novel all the more immersive. His characters are equally strong and flawed, and one finds oneself caring about their plight and struggles, rooting for them throughout. There are plenty of surprises along the way, as the author slowly reveals more and more about his characters – some true shocks, and some pleasant or interesting surprises.

The prominence of political intrigue and suspense within the plot seems to be a growing tradition within the fantasy genre, and one that can be welcomed wholeheartedly. Nights of Villjamur is filled with the machinations and plotting of a political thriller, set in a world so very different from our own. Set to a backdrop of an upcoming ice-age that will leave the Empire weakened and struggling, it makes for a very interesting premise and read.

Filled with strange and bizarre creatures (the “garudas”, for example), Nights of Villjamur is an excellent book indeed, standing out with the author’s considerable imagination and inventiveness and attention to detail.

A recommended, very good start to a new series.

By the same author: The Reef (2008)

For Fans of: China Mieville, Joe Abercrombie, Brian Ruckley, Alan Campbell, Adrian Tchaikovsky, Nick Harkaway

Monday, May 18, 2009

“Nation”, by Terry Pratchett (Corgi)


Terry Pratchett takes a break from his Discworld series to bring us something a little different

On the way back from his coming-of-age ritual, islander Mau’s Nation is wiped out by a tsunami. Brought with it, the schooner Sweet Judy is dragged through and over the island’s rainforest. Only one person is left alive.

Mau, who doesn’t wear a whole lot, comes across a woman who wears far too much and talks incessantly. The result is lots of misunderstandings. But, with the Nation gone, the two of them have to forge a whole new Nation, from scratch.

Nation is not your typical Pratchett novel. Like the Discworld, it is set in an alternate universe, only this one is still largely based on our own.

We still have Pratchett’s trademark wit and humour, his quick style, and good plotting. His wonderful inventiveness remains intact, also – even small things like the octopus arbori (tree octopus) are brilliant, especially given their inability to differentiate between coconuts and a person’s head.

My one criticism of Nation is that it takes just a little while to really get going – after the excellent introduction, and even though there are plenty of jokes and asides that will at least raise a smile, I found that it took some time for me to care much about the characters.

I can’t believe I’m writing this, given the unassailable position Pratchett usually has in my opinion, but I would only give this a cautionary recommendation. I laughed often, and was amused frequently, but for some reason this book didn’t hook me as his others do. Usually, I get through a Pratchett novel in about a day, maybe two if I have a lot of other things going on, but this one took me a long time to get through (hence the considerable gap between reviews on the site). Maybe, having read and reviewed quite a few thrillers in a row, I had difficulty making the transition back to fantasy.

It's also marketed as a children's book, which is quite surprising, given its very dark subject matter. Pratchett's children's books do often deal with very adult subjects, but compared to other “children’s” material out there, this is closer to Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book than anything else. Perhaps the subject matter is why I struggled to get into it: it has to be lighter on laughs. Also, I think that Pratchett is so at home in his Discworld that his occasional forays further afield can lack some of the obvious pleasure he takes in his creation, and perhaps that is why Nation failed to sparkle for me.

Still, even a slightly-below-par Pratchett is worth ten lesser writers, so don't be put off: Nation is worth a read.

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

“Iron Angel”, by Alan Campbell (Tor)


A dark, brooding and thoroughly haunting sequel to Scar Night

In the aftermath of the destruction of the chained city of Deepgate, the Spine militia struggle to halt the exodus of panicking citizens with brutal force. Rachel and the young angel Dill are captured and taken to the Temple torture chambers, but they are in greater danger from what lurks in the shadows outside the Temple stronghold.

The god Ulcis’ death has left the gates to hell unguarded, and all manner of foul things are rising from the abyss below the ruined city. In the skies above, the god of brine and fog is coming to join forces with his remaining brothers to avenge Ulcis, and Rachel and Dill will find themselves caught between two opposing forces, as men and gods, archons and slaves are forced into desperate alliances in a battle they cannot hope to win.

Scar Night was a magnificent debut, and Campbell doesn’t disappoint with the sequel. Iron Angel is an utterly spellbinding, richly Gothic tale of angels, gods and demons. We catch up with Rachel and Dill, fleeing for their lives, and are introduced to a host of new characters: Cospinol, the decaying god of brine and fog, and John Anchor, the giant who hauls his skyship across the land; handsome Rys, the god of flowers and knives; Silister Trench, the dead archon; Alice Harper, dead engineer and reluctant servant of King Menoa, lord of hell (and easily the most terrifying creature yet encountered); and the mysterious Mina Greene.

Campbell’s characters are dark, sinister, frequently grotesque, and always complex. For example, Alice Harper would seem to be nothing more than Menoa’s faithful, if reluctant servant, but the author shows us that Alice’s reasons for obeying Menoa are multi-layered and completely human, no matter what monstrous form he has currently forced her into. Cospinol is a very human god: capable of human emotions, such as fear. Ultimately, everyone in Campbell’s world is flawed.

The plot tears along, teeming with infernal machines, grotesque experimental creatures, warped humans and tattered angels. The author brings his world vividly to life; at once squalid and magnificent in its decay.

Despite the undoubted darkness and repellent nature of much of his creation, he succeeds in making us really care about what happens to his characters: from Dill, the young and damaged angel; to Carnival, the scarred angel who is just as much a victim of others’ machinations as Dill is. No one in Campbell’s world can ever really be labeled absolutely good or utterly evil, and that is, in part, what keeps his writing so gripping: it is almost impossible to predict what will happen next, or how a character will evolve.

A beautifully written, darkly realized, mesmerising read. The wait for God of Clocks will be unbearable!

Very highly recommended. Not a typical fantasy, Iron Angel is a must-read for absolutely everyone.

Series Chronology: Scar Night, Iron Angel, God of Clocks (Already available in the US, it is released July 3rd, 2009 in the UK)

For Fans of: Scott Lynch, Joe Abercrombie, Patrick Rothfuss, Mark Charan Newton, Nick Harkaway, China Mieville

Reviewed by Emma

“Turn Coat”, by Jim Butcher (Orbit)


Wise-cracking wizard detective + seriously scary monsters = rollicking good read

Harry Dresden, Chicago-based professional wizard, has done his best to keep his head down and out of trouble where the White Council of Wizards is concerned. The problem is, trouble keeps following him around. Now Harry finds himself faced with a typically nightmarish dilemma: Donald Morgan, formerly his chief persecutor among the Council’s Wardens, has been falsely accused of treason – and he has now come to Harry for help. With Morgan caught literally red-handed, Harry certainly has his work cut out to clear Morgan’s name (while also hiding him from other Wardens and the supernatural bounty hunters sent to find him), discover the identity of the true turncoat, and avoid suspicion himself. A single mistake could leave lives at stake. And one of them could be Harry’s…

The latest installment in the popular Dresden Files is another excellent page-turner from Jim Butcher. Harry is an intensely appealing character: streetwise, powerful, but ultimately flawed. Unlike many other fantasy writers, Butcher takes pains to emphasize magic’s limitations. His characters are not all-powerful, and magic is not a series of bangs and flashes capable of solving any problem. In fact, Harry tends to find that magic gets him into difficult situations far more than it gets him out of them.

Even Butcher’s monsters are human: Thomas, Harry’s vampire half-brother, is a fascinatingly complex take on the usual tortured stereotype, while even Morgan, who until now has seemed more like a machine than a human, turns out to have a heart after all. Throw in some clever detecting, Harry’s trigger-happy apprentice Molly, some seriously scary adversaries, good guys that are just as scary as the bad guys, and a finale that sidesteps the happy ending for one that is both moving and real, and you have another winner in an already strong series.

Butcher reworks traditional folklore and fairy-tale creatures, such as Titania and Queen Mab, and stock characters like vampires and werewolves, and makes them all his own. The dialogue is earthy and witty, the action fast-paced and the writing atmospheric and gripping.

This fantasy is not for the faint-hearted, but if you like genuine crime thrillers with supernatural chills, wisecracking wizards and a real sense of darkness, Turn Coat comes highly recommended.

Also try: Holly Black’s Valiant, Tithe and Ironside; Marie Brennan’s Midnight Never Come; Jennifer Rardin; Supernatural

Series Chronology: Storm Front, Fool Moon, Grave Peril, Summer Knight, Death Masks, Blood Rites, Dead Beat, Proven Guilty, White Night, Small Favour, Turn Coat

Reviewed by Emma

“The Magician’s Apprentice”, by Trudi Canavan (Orbit)


The Epic Prequel to Canavan’s acclaimed Black Magician Trilogy

In a remote village in Kyralia, Tessia is assistant to her father, the village healer. Despite knowing that women aren’t accepted by the Guild of Healers, Tessia is determined to follow in her father’s footsteps, until her life takes an unexpected turn.

Forced to fight off the attentions of a visiting Sachakan mage, Tessia instinctively uses magic and ends up contemplating a very different future as Lord Dakon’s apprentice. However, things in her new life don’t run smoothly either: Dakon already has an apprentice who isn’t exactly thrilled at having to share his master with another, especially a woman who foolishly persists with her healing. Meanwhile, Tessia is about to discover that her magical gifts bring not only privilege but also responsibility. War is brewing; a war that will change the nature of magic forever…

The Magician’s Apprentice is certainly epic, both in size and scope. At just short of 600 pages, it deals with the build-up to the war and the war itself from the viewpoints of Tessia in Kyralia, and Stara, a woman who also has an unexpected gift for magic and must find her feet in an unfamiliar world, this time in Sachaka. The author also dips in and out of several other viewpoints, including Dakon, Hanara the slave, and Jayan, Dakon’s jealous other apprentice. Although this adds other dimensions to the plot, it can make things confusing, and it can be frustrating when Canavan leaves Tessia in the middle of an exciting situation and then shifts to Stara learning about Sachakan customs, or vice versa. This happens far too often unfortunately, and made me want to skip ahead in places because I was impatient to get back to the action. Also, knowing Jayan’s true intentions lessens the impact of Tessia finding out what he is really like: it sometimes seems as though Canavan spells out too much for the reader when it comes to their relationship.

That being said, the parallels between Stara and Tessia are intriguing, and when the action does get going, the story certainly becomes gripping. She is largely successful at ranging across the two countries and really brings the land and characters to life. In particular, Canavan manages to create two strong and appealing female characters in Tessia and Stara, which is no mean feat considering they more or less share the book, and usually I would expect to like one viewpoint significantly more than the other.

The author also presents an in-depth exploration of war and the moral dilemma faced by the Kyralian magicians, without over-simplifying matters or really favouring one side over the other.

The book might have benefited from some more fearless editing: both plot and pace suffered from the sheer length of The Magician's Apprentice, and some of the detail could have been tightened up or eliminated altogether.

The Magician’s Apprentice is still a good read though, certainly for those who have read the bestselling Black Magician trilogy. Covering events several hundred years before that trilogy, the novel sets the scene for the formation of the Guild.

In general, Canavan’s writing is assured, her characters are well-rounded and varied, and she holds the story together over such a large canvas with reasonable success.

A recommended read.

Followed by: The Magician’s Guild, Novice, The High Lord

Also try: Maria Snyder’s Poison Study, Magic Study, Fire Study; Trudi Canavan’s Age of The Five series (Priestess of the White, Last of the Wilds, Voice of the Gods)

Reviewed by Emma

Monday, May 04, 2009

“The Perk”, by Mark Gimenez (Sphere)


Yet another cracking thriller from the author many hail as “the next Grisham”

Beck Hardin has recently lost his wife to cancer. With two young children to look after, his life as a top-billing Chicago lawyer is almost impossible, and a change needs to be made. Having fled small-town Texas long ago, swearing never to go back, Hardin reneges on this promise, and moves his family to Fredericksburg.

Years ago, sixteen-year-old Heidi was murdered. Beloved daughter of a friend of Beck’s father, Beck is asked to look into the case and attempt to find out who the killer is, before the statute of limitations runs out. Given his experience as a lawyer, he is also pushed into becoming the town judge, only to find himself at odds with the wealthy white landowners who take a few too many liberties when “taking care” of their Mexican workers.

Mark Gimenez’s books just keep getting better and better. He is particularly fond of evocative and (mostly) long tracts of description – be it atmospheric or of a particular location, and is able to convey to the reader perfectly what his protagonists are witnessing or experiencing. While some might find his taste for exposition infuriating or long-winded, with each novel the author has been able to tighten things up. This is especially true for The Common Lawyer, in which Gimenez has managed to achieve the maximum mix of plot and exposition. In The Perk, there’s a slight dip to the pacing of the novel, but overall it still rattles along, Gimenez’s expertly-composed prose drawing you on until the very last page.

As with all of his novels, Gimenez uses his story to comment on certain aspects of American culture. In The Perk, it is about (as the name suggests) the “perks” enjoyed by the rich and famous. Not only that, but also the culture of celebrity and the lengths to which people will go to achieve it for themselves.

His novels are gripping, intense thrillers. Guaranteed to keep you up well into the night, The Perk is an exceptionally well crafted novel, populated by a cast of characters that are realistically-drawn and appealing. For example, the actor/killer (he remains unnamed for most of the novel), comes across as blissfully narcissistic and self-involved, his internal monologue always about him and what things mean for him, how he can retain his glitzy life, while never taking into account anyone else or the costs of his actions.

As always, thought-provoking, intelligent, and addictive. Highly recommended.

Also try: Stuart Woods, John Grisham, Scott Turow, James Sheehan