It happens more often than you think. Sometimes we just don’t read certain books. It has to do with time, opportunity, cost, motivation or whatever. The end result is the same, and the book sits there in the “To Be Read” pile. It’s a shame, because we miss a lot of great novels this way. We were recently asked to review some of the various novels out there that don’t seem to get a lot of push, and this reminded us of those copies of Alan Campbell’s novels that we bought forever ago.
Alan Campbell’s SCAR NIGHT is one of those novels about which people always say, “Oh yeah, I’ve always wondered if that book was any good. I just never manage to get around to it.” We were in that group. What you need to do is follow our lead here. Stop messing around and go read this book.
SCAR NIGHT is the first book in the Deepgate Codex series. What we have is a city—the city of Deepgate—suspended by chains over a supposedly bottomless chasm. The immediate visuals of the setting are terrific, and Campbell descriptions keep the setting alive throughout the full extent of the novel. It’s original, fresh, and lends to all sort of later conflict.
But that’s not all this novel has going for it. There are some light steampunk offerings. Angels. Quasi-angels. Devils. Poisoners. Assassins. Zombie-ish things. Gods alive and kind-of alive. In other words, the novel is full. Unlike some other offerings over the past couple of years, this abundance of…uh, stuff…never feels like a laundry list. It is all developed too the level that a first novel in a series allows.
Lets talk characters. Dill is an angel who is forbidden the act of flying. He is the last descendant of on of the warrior angels of the past. His life is mostly one of boredom and longing until he meets Rachel, an assassin who is viewed as expendable by her order. Both of these characters gravitate towards each other as outcasts, and for the most part their chemistry is well done. Rachel is a tad rough in spots, and though she is regarded in scorn by her fellow assassins, she never seems less of an assassin than they are. In fact, there are things she says that makes her seem positively brutal…those are scenes we wish we could have seen. Dill is perfectly written in his role. Innocent. Naive. Honorable.
Once a moon-cycle comes Scar Night, a night on which Carnival, another angel gone mad, roams the city looking for a victim to kill and drain of blood. She is a fantastic character through which we get to see madness, sadness, torment and cruelty. And it all usually happens at the same time. In a similar vein (hehe), someone else is roaming Deepgate killing people in a similar manner. The goal of that person? To make a concoction of people’s souls that will grant immortality.
The pacing of this novel is unrelenting. There is no slow-down, though there isn’t a huge amount of action. Campbell’s writing, to us, was perfectly accessible while not falling into simplistic clichés. And this story isn’t all jelly beans and rainbows. It is grim. It is dark. In a way we were reminded of a less explicit Neil Gaiman with just a tad of Miéville thrown in.
Perhaps the only issue we had was with some of the side characters that got main character screen time. Their sections dragged a bit, all the while we wondered what was going to happen with the angels and assassins. It wasn’t major, but you’ll notice it when you start reading.
So. SCAR NIGHT. What a fun, fresh read. This is what every fantasy reader needs to read to refresh themselves. It is a true melting-pot of ideas that shouldn’t blend together, yet somehow do. Campbell’s story here ends with everything in disarray and on a medium sized cliff-hanger, but since we already bought the other novels in the series we don’t have to wait at all. Yep, we’ll be reviewing the full series as we read it. Go out and grab these novels. You won’t regret it in the least.
Recommended Age: 16 and up.
Language: There was relatively little, though when it did show up it would be in a paragraph burst followed by a hundred pages without any.
Violence: Yeah. Depending on the type of reader you are, it can mess with you.
Note: In hindsight, the covers probably aren't helping Campbell's sales in the USA. The UK covers are completely awesome, and are the versions we chose to buy. You may wanna consider doing the same if you are here in the States. Remember, Book Depository is your friend and ours.
You all know by now that James Barclay has become one of our favorite authors. Action. Character. Tragedy. Humor. Love. He somehow manages to blend all these themes perfectly. So when we got the opportunity to interview James, we jumped on it with fanboy glee.
So here you have it...
1. Hello there, James. Glad to have you here at our illustrious blog. Our tradition here at EBR is to give the authors we are interviewing a chance to brag. So let loose, James. Tell us what makes you and your novels awesome.
Hello. It’s lovely to be here and sit for a while where I normally drop in only too briefly. Brag, eh? Well, you know how we authors hate to talk about ourselves in any but the most self-deprecating ways but I’ll do my best.
It’s like this. My books are awesome (good word, that) because they’re fantastically exciting heroic action fantasy thrillers and because they are so much more than fantastically exciting heroic action fantasy thrillers. That’s (partly) because every blow in every fight lands in one of my readers’ hearts. And THAT’s because there is a moment, in every Raven reader’s journey, when it dawns on them that they really, really care. They feel like they are reading about family and that makes the wounds hurt, the tears sting and the laughter the purest of releases. And there is nothing they can do about it. (And can I just say at this point for those of you who didn’t wait until that happened, it is absolutely your loss. Absolutely.)
All this means that I am not awesome. The awesome people are the readers who get The Raven. Get the facts that while they are extraordinary individuals, they are prey to the same things as the rest of us; love, loss, grief, fear, laughter. They bicker, they moan, they fight and they would die for those they love. And in amongst all that, they struggle to save their world for the ungrateful, the unborn and the unworthy. This is what heroes do.
Ah, now that means The Raven are awesome, doesn’t it? And I created them. So that makes me awesome too, doesn’t it? Excellent. Then all is well with the world.
2. We’ll start with some easy questions before we put your feet to the branding irons. When was it that you realized you wanted to be an author?
I was eleven. A tender age indeed but it was then that I made both my career choices. Actor and/or writer. Simple really and a triumph of youthful optimism over common sense. On the other hand, since I’ve now published ten novels and two novellas plus just recently appeared in a feature film, it all makes perfect sense.
3. Give our readers a little back-story on how you got published.
You have to understand that I have always loved writing stories; right from infant school, as soon as I could write. So a back story could be a gargantuan exercise, a bit like the long form version of Marx’s ‘Capital’. So I tell you what, I’ll start when I was sixteen and began to take it all rather seriously.
It was at that time that I began to write the most horrific derivative bunch of toss. Some might say I never stopped doing so but they are few and even now, they are being hunted down. I wrote a novella length thing for an English project and I was in competition with my mates for body count. Next was a pompous fantasy/sci-fi fusion for another school-based project and following that a proper novel length piece that was really a long Star Trek episode. I mention all these because within them are the germs of the character and action-driven novels I eventually published. And to point out that, at sixteen I was an embarrassing distance from being publishable.
Happily, I can fast forward to the time it became apparent that The Raven was a proper idea, worthy of expansion and eminently publishable so long as I could imbue the story with enough quality and other writerly stuff like plot, character and a coherent narrative structure. It’s no secret that the genesis of The Raven was table-top dice-based fantasy role playing and readers of Dawnthief will no doubt sense that though it is not apparent (in my mind anyway) in Noonshade and beyond.
I remember very well, my twenties and the various iterations of Raven novel ideas and how they began as a sort of comedic entity shot through with horrible violence and ended up the grumpy but magnificent world-savers we know and love. I submitted Dawnthief all over the place, along with much other work, and have many a rejection slip to show for it.
Mine was the classic patience and belief journey and it was not until I submitted to Gollancz the first time that hope was truly kindled. Even then, the comments were not wholly positive and amounted to a rejection with an invitation to resubmit. ‘The idea is fine.’ I was told. ‘But the book is like a skeleton with no flesh on the bones. The world is incomplete and there is no notion of existence beyond the sphere of the main characters.’
That is not a direct quote but it sums up the conversation pretty well, I think. But I took it as massive encouragement and to cut a long back story slightly shorter, I worked my arse off to improve what I had and nearly did it second time around. Third time around, I got the call every aspiring author dreams of. I only filled up when I saw Dawnthief on the shelf for the first time. That’s the moment when you know it’s all for real. That was 1999.
4. Elves. We typically hate them. For whatever reason, yours don’t rub us the wrong way. Lately there seems to be a collective eye-roll when elves are mentioned in the synopsis of a novel. Why did you personally decide to go with elves in your Raven stories, and why start another series that focuses on them?
I don’t think I ever thought about not going with elves. They were present in much of the stuff I read as a youth and were always there, irritating the crap out of my characters in role playing games so to me, they’re part of the family.
I also didn’t ever think: “Hmm. Got elves here, I really need to make them different.” They just came out as they came out. Now of course, they are different from the more classical ideals of the trope and I think that has helped me a great deal because people aren’t reading about the hoppity, skippety, portentous-speaking, effeminate horse-riders they are used to.
But I think the key to writing a well-worn trope like elves is not to keep on reminding people they are elves. You have to remember that they are as unremarkable in the fantasy worlds they inhabit as are humans. So readers find out about them by degrees just like any other character. And, in the same way I don’t remind you a human doesn’t have pointed ears, I don’t remind you that an elf does. My elves are different by dint of their culture, their homeland and their religion. Just like humans, then.
As for the Elves series well, for every reader who cannot bear our faerie cousins appearing in a fantasy novel, there is another who cannot get enough quality work about them. This was of course of interest to the commercial side of the Barclay/Gollancz partnership. There’s more to it than that, mind you. The elves of Calaius have been a fascination to many of The Raven’s readers, particularly the TaiGethen but for the whole elven cultural package too. And I have grown to love them and have wanted to write more about them for years.
And why not? Rain-forest dwelling, isolationist and super-religious beings liable to remove your liver and show it to you before you know you’ve been attacked are fascinating on many levels.
They have complex societal and religious structures tied to the rain forest and what it gives them. They are subdivided into ‘threads’, each of which has a different typical lifespan and this has been the seat of every inter-racial problem they have ever experienced. The protectors of their faith, the TaiGethen, are an elite fighting force like no other in fantasy and every action they take is in the name of their god.
They are an incredibly proud and ancient people who cannot quite reconcile themselves to their own internal problems. And then some idiot goes and invites humans in to shift the balance of power. And shift it they do.
Enough of that. Suffice to say that I think my elves are a genuine breath of fresh air in the genre. The first Elves book, Once Walked With Gods, is my best-selling trade paperback so far. That’s because it’s really, really bloody good, by the way.
5. How has the reception been to your release of novels here in the US? Why did it take so long for them to make their way over here?
It’s been really positive, thanks. The Chronicles trilogy sold very well and was positively reviewed by some exceptional review sites. Can’t think of any particular names off-hand… I’ve had great feedback from readers too and that is particularly gratifying. Of course we could always sell more and I firmly believe it is incumbent on every man, woman and child in your vast and magnificent country to furnish themselves with Chronicles novels. The Legends series is only just coming out now so it’s too early to say if they’ll repeat the goodness; but if the early reviews, and Raymond Swanland’s astonishingly fine covers are indicators, then we should do very nicely indeed.
Why did it take so long? I haven’t a clue. It wasn’t for lack of trying. Sometimes I think books slip between the cracks in the pavement however well they do in other countries and such it was with mine. That’s life. I know that Lou Anders at Pyr Books was surprised to find the rights still available and I’m really grateful to him for getting them on US shelves. Sure I could have wished to have been published in the US ten years ago but then I’d not be working with Lou Anders and frankly, that was worth waiting for.
6. In a similar vein, why oh why aren’t your Ascendants of Estorea novels here in the US? Can our US readers expect them anytime soon?
I think with the Ascendants the scene is a little different. I know editors in the US looked favorably on them when they were first written but the sheer size was off-putting – don’t forget they would have been my first books published in the US and would have been a tough sell. The first book is three hundred thousand words long and that would have represented a major leap of faith.
If the Raven sell well enough through Pyr then maybe they’ll want the Ascendants too but that’s in the lap of the gods and Lou Anders. Is that tautological? Probably. Anyway, I do hope US reader get the chance to see the Ascendants. I’m immensely proud of those two books – about the birth of magic in a Roman-esque empire teetering on the brink of implosion, and manifesting itself in four young people – and again they’ve garnered plenty of praise over here in the UK.
We’ll just have to wait and see.
7. How far ahead do you plan novels? Your Elves series is going strong in the UK, but have you thought past it at all?
Generally speaking, by the time I’m in the final throes of a series, I’ve got firm ideas and a proposal for new novels, series, whatever. Right now, I’ve got many notions running around in my head. Some are stand-alone and others are multi-book sequences. But I don’t spend too much time agonizing over these things when I’m bang in the middle of a series like now. Ideas suggest themselves and I write them down. There, they ferment away and some demonstrate great potential while others dissolve or are subsumed into other, better notions.
By the way, I’m diversifying slightly as well. I’ve got a young adult trilogy out on proposal at the moment and we’ll see what comes of it. I’ve many other YA ideas too right now which is a good thing. They’re all within the broad church of our magnificent genre but more contemporary in nature.
8. What do you consider your greatest weakness as an author?
I’ve always had this tendency to charge into drafting a novel before I’ve tied down enough of the direction, plot, character development and all that stuff. Once or twice it has worked spectacularly well but more often than not, the opposite is true. I’d like to tell you that I’ve eradicated it from my working life but that would be a massive lie.
The first Elves book was, I thought, going terribly well and then I read a good chunk of the draft and had to start from scratch because it just wasn’t working. The same happened with the second book. I think it stems from me being able, in the past, to hold so much more in my head in terms of the complexities of a novel and now I can’t do that nearly so well.
The positive I take from it is that, in the past, I might have tried to mould what I had into something acceptable and then have an almighty struggle come editing and revising to make the book right. These days, painful though it is, I’ll stop, file the original under ‘utter bollocks’ and start again to ensure the result is of far higher quality from the first completed draft. It saves a lot of time (and certainly a lot of hassle) in the long run but at the time, it hurts baaaad.
9. Who do you consider your main influences?
First up has to be David Gemmell. First I was a fan devouring every book and later, hugely fortunately, a very good friend of his. We spent many a fabulous hour jawing away over things like the nature of heroism, how to make fights better, ways to develop character and the state of anything and everything. His attitude to work and his fans, his methods and his sheer professionalism have affected me greatly. I will be aspiring to his heights in all of these things forever.
The other main one is not a who, it is a single book. It’s ‘The Legacy of Heorot’ by Niven, Pournelle and Barnes. Bloody hell, what a book and what an influence it had. For me, this is the only text book you need on how to write character driven action novels in probably any genre. If you want to write that sort of stuff, then once you’ve read my books (having bought a pristine set), then go get the source text. It sets the bar high, very high.
Inevitably, all my influences stem from my formative years and from before I began to write novels with a ghost of a chance of being published. I don’t feel I’m influenced by any of my contemporaries. For those I rate highly, I reserve emotions such as jealousy, awe and massive respect.
10. When you aren’t writing or planning your next novel—we know right? How dare you do anything but write!—what occupies your time?
The demands on my time are many and various. Number one is my son, Oscar, who is four in January. Watching him learn, develop and grow, and engaging in all his play and his imagination is simply joyful. For another, I’m chief cook in the house and get bored of recipes easily so I like to experiment if I get the time. Then there’s the dog. She’s sitting with her chin on my thigh at the moment and if I should misspell a word anytime, it’ll be because she’s nudged my arm for some attention.
Because I’m nearly middle aged, I do like pottering around in the garden and because we own an old house, there is an endless list of repairs and the like to keep the place upright and passably smart.
Increasingly rarely now, I play computer games. I’m a PC gamer though Oscar and I muck about on the X-Box Kinect and the Wii from time to time. Nothing beats a quality shooter and of course, the daddy of them is Call of Duty: Modern Warfare. When the elves book is done, I’ll go back and play that again, then play its slightly lesser sibling before charging into book three (see question 8 above ).
I watch TV but only either late at night or at lunchtime when I get to catch up a little bit with stuff like Stargate Universe and The Walking Dead. I hardly read at all… only for research these days.
The fact is that fatherhood is the dominating part of my life after the day’s work is done and quite frankly, I wouldn’t have it any other way.
11. You’re in a bookstore, in the SF&F section, and a customer mistakes you for an employee. He/She asks you to recommend a novel. You can’t recommend your own novels (because OBVIOUSLY the customer has read them all). What book/series do you recommend?
The Name of the Wind – Patrick Rothfuss. Beautifully written.
The Lies of Locke Lamora – Scott Lynch. Just brilliant.
The Troy Trilogy – David Gemmell. The man at his very best and written just before he died (indeed, the third book was co-written by his amazing wife, Stella after his death).
Germinal – Emile Zola. It is an utterly gripping, terribly depressing and achingly brilliant novel about the effects of a strike on a poverty-stricken mining community in northern France under the second empire. Right, not SF&F but there is more to life and this book, written in 1885, is extraordinary.
12. What do we have to do to have cameos in your next book where we die violent deaths?
You want that? You got it. All you have to do is furnish me with your ideal fantasy versions of your names in the style of those already in The Raven and I’ll do the rest. That’s you, the Elitist crew, not the earth’s population in general.
13. Again, James, thanks for taking the time to chat with us. As always, it has been a pleasure. Any last words for the readers?
Yes I have. In one way only, I want to be like JK Rowling and find it easier to create a list of those who haven’t read my books rather than the lengthier one of those who have. So go and buy my books and then make all your friends do likewise (and their friends and so on and so forth). Much appreciated.
Seriously though, this genre is full of richness and talent and variety and extraordinary people. Never walk away and, if you can, get one more person to read your favorite genre title. This is surely the true path to global enlightenment.
Thanks for inviting me in. No need to get up, I’ll close the door on the way out.
We get asked all the time who our favorite authors are. Two years ago the answers would have been absurdly simple, but we read a lot more novels these days. A WHOLE lot more. As a result, who we consider our favorites tends to shift and slide. Barely more than a year ago we hadn't yet read anything by James Barclay. Now with each novel of his that we read, he solidifies himself as one of our favorite authors.
The Legends of the Raven series, though it contains many of the same characters from the Chronicles of the Raven, is extremely different from the mentioned trilogy. The emotions of the characters are more raw. Conflicts are closer to the surface. It is with SHADOWHEART that we truly are able to see how good of an author Barclay is. Our UK readers already know all of this, but his novels are completely new to us here in the US, and we are lucky to be getting them all in quick succession. The previous novels are still fresh in our minds, which makes it easy for us to look over our shoulders and say, "Man, those first three Raven novels were great, but they don't have ANYTHING on the latest few."
SHADOWHEART picks up right where ELFSORROW left off. It's hard for us to say a lot about SHADOWHEART without spoiling the ending of ELFSORROW, so we'll just say that The Raven are dealing with tragedy. Like we said before, the emotions of the characters are exposed for all to see. Perhaps our own emotions as readers were right there as well having just read ELFSORROW. We felt for the The Raven. The mark of any good writer is his or her ability to make the reader feel the emotions of the created characters. In this Barclay--to us at least--has succeeded on a level very few authors have achieved.
The war that threatened in ELFSORROW is in full swing in SHADOWHEART. The Colleges of Magic are in direct and bloody conflict. Some want balance, some want to reset the balance, and other factions--the Wesmen--want magic gone entirely. Xetesk is regaining control over dimensional magic, and have no qualms about using it against anyone who attempts to disrupt their plans. Also all the colleges have discovered the Erienne has inherited the One magic. As usual, The Raven are out to preserve Balaia at all costs.
SHADOWHEART is a full, full novel. Barclay does a fantastic job of showing how betrayed The Raven feel throughout everything. No matter what they do, or how many they save, they are still hunted for the power they hold and represent.
The Raven as we know them are coming to an end. SHADOWHEART has an underlying sense of inevitability throughout. The Raven have lost people in the past, and it is clear that they will lose people in the near future. Every novel the mercenaries get a little more beat up. A little more worn down. This novel was no exception. It's a bit like walking the plank blindfolded; at some point the fall is going to come.
A few very minor problems? Erienne's complete 180 somehow seems sudden. She goes from hatred towards the people she blames for the death of her daughter to complete reliance. It can feel a little disingenuous. It's the lack of her previous mistrust that stands out. Also, there are times when the size of armies gets a bit muddled. Like we said, minor problems, and and none of them should affect the overall enjoyment of an amazing novel.
It's worth repeating that these novels get better with each offering. Barclay's skill in foreshadowing is impeccable. His large-scale battles in this series better done than in the Chronicles trilogy. His character dialogue, and interaction is better. The up-close action is brutal and fierce. Emotions are honest and raw. SHADOWHEART, like every Raven novel that precedes it, is a must-read. If you want to write action and character driven novels, you should be devouring everything Barclay writes. Twice.
Recommended Age: 16 and up.
Language: It pops up in its strongest forms at times, but it never feels like it is swearing for swearing's sake.
Violence: Of course. It is a VERY violent novel, yet it never once seems over-done.
PS--Tune in tomorrow for an interview with James Barclay. It's one of the best we've done.
By chapter two of LORD OF THE CHANGING WINDS I began to worry that Rachel Neumeier would make me suffer through new-author syndrome: the first fifty pages stiffly sets up a predictable story, using too-formal prose, repetitive descriptions, and clumsy world building. But I kept reading, because despite a not very illustrious beginning, the prose has some delightful metaphors and turns of phrase that spoke to the author's cleverness with words.
Griffins take center stage here--this isn't another dragon story (thank heavens, no). These are not your standard mythological creatures, they have their own magic, which is tied closely to fire and the desert. But they're at odds with the humans they must share the land with, as griffin fire magic is the antithesis of human earth magic. They are a species without the sensibilities of humans, and as a result there's little possibility for living peaceably.
Enter Kes, the timid younger sister of a small town's horse breeder. The griffins, having been ousted from their desert by the cold mages in another country, have taken residence in the mountains, terraforming the landscape into a desert to better suit them. When a stranger visits the town asking for help, Kes goes with him and discovers that he's a griffin mage; she agrees to help heal the wounds of the fleeing griffins, and her life is changed forever.
In the capital, the Lord of the Delta, Bertaud, friend to the king, is sent as emissary to the griffins with the hope that they can be convinced to return to their desert. But he doesn't anticipate the antipathy between the species and risks starting a war.
Then there's the neighboring country who wants to invade and take the mountain passes and port towns for their own use--and will use the griffins' presence to their advantage. You see? Fairly predictable. Just from this description you could probably outline the entire novel. You already know how it's going to end.
Kes and Bertaud as the main characters are flat. Today Kes would be diagnosed with Asperger's, a form of autism; and while it was interesting to see her cope with the situation, her character was muddled and inconsistent, with an unsatisfying progression. Bertaud's struggle to understand what's happening is the most compelling part of the characters' development, and I enjoyed watching it play out, unfortunately he still lacked depth. King Iaor should have been more interesting than he was, but Neumeier's attempts to show his character are awkward. Most most annoying? The motivations of the enemy king/mages are so cliche they're boring. The most fascinating characters are the griffins, but the problem with them is neither of the PoV characters are griffins, which is a pity because as the 'star of the show' they could have used even more face time to give the readers a deeper understanding of their culture and they way they think.
There are other flaws. For example, the two main PoV narratives can be confusing when they speak of a non-PoV character's emotions and motivations, making it feel like the author is switching PoV characters within a scene. And I swear this is not a petty complaint because it's such an obvious no-no: using 'almost' or 'he wasn't sure how he knew that but he did' descriptions. I mean, really. Using vague 'almost' descriptions gives the writing an unnecessarily passive tone, and 'he wasn't sure' only makes the PoV characters sound indecisive and wimpy. She does it a lot, and I'd give examples but that would just make you grind your teeth. There are other problems with how Neumeier handles the armies, distances/scale, time frames, differences in countries (they almost felt like a couple of states in the U.S. in terms of proximity, homogeny of culture, etc), naming conventions. It's apparent that Neumeier is still settling into her craft, because these are mistakes experienced authors don't usually make.
Yet, LORD OF THE CHANGING WINDS is still an entertaining read...because of the griffins. If you're a fan of Anne McCaffrey, Robin McKinley, or Andre Norton you'll see their influence in Neumeier's writing. It has much the same straightforward storytelling, use of mythological creatures, and lyric writing. She integrates the magic into the culture and world: all humans have some form of earth magic, usually manifesting as an 'affinity' to a kind of animal, whereas others are strong enough to become mages; on the other end of the spectrum the nature inherent in fire affects the griffins and their behavior.
This book dipped over the edge from like into mediocre as a result of the predictable plot and other problems with characterization and style. But, despite its flaws, LORD OF THE CHANGING WINDS has a great wealth of potential. Neumeier is building a world with a good foundation on its creatures and magic with a promise of greater things to come in the sequel.
Recommended Age: 12+
Violence: Moderate, some battles and blood, but even then it's not very graphic.
We rarely read any novels from Pyr that could be deemed a “miss.” The number of stellar novels put out by Pyr since its inception is astonishing. But every now and again even they miss the mark. THE HORNS OF RUIN, by Tim Akers, is Sword & Sorcery/Steampunk hybrid. Sounds cool on the surface. In fact a lot of this story sounds fantastic on paper…unfortunately that paper doesn’t include the actual execution of the idea.
We love Sword & Sorcery. We love Steampunk even more. So this love-child of the two was something we were extremely excited about. Our PoV character is Eva Forge, the last Paladin of a betrayed, dead god. She wields a revolver and a Steampunk-looking sword. The gist of the story revolves around her looking for the abducted leader of her dying cult, and protecting a girl who belongs to the tech-centric cult of the god who betrayed Eva’s own cult. Again, in theory it all sounds great.
The story is told by Eva Forge herself in 1st Person PoV, and this is where we have our first problem. To us, 1st Person is used to give us a more immediate and deeper connection to the main character of the novel. When it works—like with Harry Dresden in Jim Butcher’s series—readers automatically root for the character. We become invested in that character’s struggle. When done poorly, it makes reading the novel a chore. In THE HORNS OF RUIN, the latter is the case. We just don’t like Eva. We found it impossible to care about her or root for her. She is a typical female “tough-girl” written from a male’s perspective. She may as well be a guy. With the exception of another character mentioning Eva’s cup size, there is nothing in this novel that says, “the main character is an awesome chick, not a dude.” On TV the other day on The Human Target, one character says to another something along the lines of, “Look, I don’t want to hear your ‘bad girl’ resume. Just show me some actual competence.” That is exactly how we felt about Eva in this story. Rather than going around like a brainless barbarian saying “Hulk smash!” how about you show some freaking intelligence as befits your position?
The problem is that this is the attitude of the character for the entire novel. No matter what other characters say to her, she does it the stupid and hard way. People save her butt, and then she turns around and hits them in the face for getting in her way. It’s the tough-girl cliché to the extreme.
The other main issue we have with this novel is the lack of setting. 95% of the time, we felt like we were reading about characters in a white, formless room. This had potential to be an awesome showcase of setting much like in Alan Campbell’s SCAR NIGHT (we’ll be reviewing this shortly). Instead we rarely had any idea where we were, or why it mattered.
Dialogue is a mixed bag. Sometimes, mainly when dealing with male characters, everything goes smooth. Yet whenever it is two female characters talking, they get into constant verbal cat-fights. Since 90% of the book deals with two female running around together, you can imagine our frustration. The girl who Eva is “guarding” is Cassandra. She is some sort of super gifted tech-mage from the cult of the Betrayer. We have rarely read a character as wildly inconsistent in speech patterns as her—the other ones all had multiple personalities. Some of the stuff she says comes off as sounding like a woman-hating wife-beater. Really. Again, the problem here is another girl written by a guy as a cliché tough girl freed of her bonds.
The magic is also tedious and, to us, silly. In theory it sounds interesting. You Invoke the power of the god by Invoking its history. Yet in actual practice you get long-winded monologues that kill the pace of action sequences. You also endure the main character pausing every other page to renew her “buffs”. Yeah, we kept thinking, “WTF? Are we in the middle of a Raid in World of Warcraft? This is ridiculous.”
THE HORNS OF RUIN has so much promise that it fails to deliver on. Everything is so abstract that we felt like we were floating along in a void waiting for Eva’s next emotionally-stunted outburst. We’ll also mention here that the ending is way predictable and cliché as far as Eva’s personal journey, and it is inconsistent and disjointed for everything else. Things are seemingly added at random at the end to give half-cocked credibility to people’s intelligence. Ugh.
We didn’t HATE this novel—some of the ideas here were truly awesome—we just didn’t like it at all. So disappointing. Will anyone like it? No doubt. Probably the same people who really liked BONESHAKER. Be we aren't in that group.
Recommended Age: 15 and up.
Language: Here and there. Not over-done.
Violence: There is some, but like the storytelling it is often disjointed and abstract.
I know what you're thinking: "This is a girlie book." Your first impression of the cover/title may be justified, but at the same time it doesn't fully describe the depth of the setting and characters of PEGASUS--this is more than a fairytale.
When a member of the royal family reaches twelve years of age they are bound to their own pegasus. Princess Sylvi's birthday is coming up soon, but she's ambivalent about the event, even if it means binding herself to one of the gloriously lovely pegasi. This is because the process involves the most dreaded of people to Sylvi...magicians.
Humans and pegasi have been allies ever since the humans first came to their valley centuries ago, and the humans were allowed to settle in peace in exchange for fighting off the pegasi's enemies. But the ability of the species to communicate with each other has been spotty at best, the bound royalty relying on magicians to help them communicate with their beautiful animal counterparts.
Until Sylvi and her bound pegasus Ebon show that perfect telepathy between the species is possible. Unfortunately, this creates more enemies than rejoicing. The magician's guild warns that it's unnatural and dangerous for a bound human and pegasi to be able to speak with each other without a magician intermediary. But it's hard to imagine that the innocent Sylvi and Ebon are doing anything wrong.
Robin McKinley returns in fine form with PEGASUS, a coming-of-age story that will appeal to Middle Grade and Young Adult readers, and even adults who enjoy charming fairytales. It's not unlike her BEAUTY and DRAGONHAVEN, and fans of McKinley's lovely prose and subtle storytelling won't be disappointed.
Told from young Sylvi's PoV, we get a sense early on of the kind of girl she is, her relationship with her family, and her perceptions about the society she lives in. She's both excited and scared about the prospect of having her own pegasus, but her biggest surprise is that Ebon brings great joy and fulfillment in her life. I enjoyed the dynamic between Sylvi's family, particularly her father the king, and how he parents her like any father would, regardless of his station. Where it falls flat is the villain magician Fthoom, whose motives are more formulaic than realistic. Despite that problem, it's Sylvi and Ebon's bond and the clash of the two cultures that make this story worth reading.
PEGASUS explores the questions of why pegasi and humans cannot communicate better, and how Sylvi and Ebon's bond questions humans' acceptance of the 'way things are'. The pegasi are a species apart, and their differences from humans are emphasized, such as attitudes and their magic. The differences in magical abilities in humans and pegasi are clear and affect their respective cultures, even if the details are sketchy about how each exactly works. Particularly interesting are the pegasi 'hands' that are weak and fragile and because of this the pegasi admire human wrists and strong fingers. These pegasi aren't the usual romantic horse-like creatures from standard mythic fare; instead they're more like small winged deer, and much more intelligent. McKinley approaches the pegasi with a more 'scientific' perspective, creating a culture and magic that fit the way they live and think. We see a great deal of each culture and their history--but I get the sense that most of what we learn in PEGAGUS won't become really important to the plot until the next book.
PEGASUS is told in a mostly chronological fashion, but it's sprinkled liberally with flashbacks and expository, which is part of McKinley's usual rambling style. If you can get past the first chapter's tedious back-story, the story does finally take off. There's plenty of world-building and character development, which are McKinley's strengths, but the style and light action sets the pace, which is leisurely.
PEGASUS reminds me of DRAGONHAVEN, with the same theme of the difficulties inherent in communicating with another species, but the fearless inexperience of children will overcome hurdles. However, plenty of McKinley's usually avid readers didn't like DRAGONHAVEN because of its first person almost stream-of-consciousness narrative. PEGASUS, however, isn't written like DRAGONHAVEN; the setting is more ambitious, the prose and characters are more charming.
PEGASUS is the first in a duology, which made me curious because McKinley is an avowed standalone author; but in her words, she says PEGASUS is just one long book that had to be broken up. Series or not, the abrupt ending provides no clear resolution--not even a proper cliffhanger--instead setting the stage for the 'sequel'. But was this novel enough to get me to want the read the next novel? Oh, yes. If anything, McKinley knows how to spin a good yarn and having already spent 400 pages to get the story warmed up, I anticipate a spectacular continuation.
Recommended Age: Suitable for any age.
Violence: Mild peril.
THE KNIFE OF NEVER LETTING GO, by Patrick Ness, is one of those wonderfully deceiving Young Adult books that reminds us all of the days when there was no such thing. It’s a simple story...in a gritty, continually plot-twisted, thought provoking and emotional thrill-ride kind of way.
I could simply call it a story about a boy and his dog, or boy meets girl, or coming of age...but then I’d have to mention that the dog talks, the girl is seemingly the only one on the planet, and that being a man isn’t exactly something worth envying here.
You see, Todd Hewitt is the last boy in his town on a colonized planet where biological warfare with the alien natives killed all women and caused all men and creatures on the planet to have their thoughts projected out loud in a jumbled “noise”. It’s worse than it sounds, however, because as Todd tells us, "The first thing you find out when your dog learns to talk is that dogs don't got nothing much to say." And when Todd finally discovers the girl, it results in a race for their lives, because there’s more to this world—and Todd’s town—than meets the eye.
I was worried when I first heard of the book. The setting is nothing unique—it’s practically the same old tired European world we see in traditional fantasy, with just a hint of western thrown in (the western aspects were what kept me hopeful). The concept doesn’t sound too complicated (so thoughts aren’t private. Meh.) The main character is a young boy with a dog...nothing really new there either (I've read enough variations of 'Old Yeller', thank you). But from the very first line I was hooked. What really makes this story (the first in a series) fly, is the writing. Ness not only maintains the mystery, the conflict, the emotion, the world concepts, and the narrative voice here, he amplifies it. I can’t count the number of times I shouted out, mid-read, “that could not have just happened.”
Then there’s the depth of the concepts. The ideas of what makes a man, morality of thought, violence, and gender differences are all raked through the coals. It could have been easy--especially in yet another young adult offering--to simply let the concepts become a splash of paint on the backdrop . . . but THE KNIFE OF NEVER LETTING GO is meant to provoke you.
Even the flaws--valid though they are--can be offset. The novel isn’t a satisfactory stand alone but ends in a cliffhanger, but that’s made moot by the fact that all three novels of the Chaos Walking trilogy are all out in print. The first person present tense that usually runs rampant in YA (often a crutch to help poor writers have an easy way to share character emotion and help readers have empathy with characters) is used to its full and proper effect. Instead of the character “confiding” in his emotions, we can feel them because of the writing, not the tense--and the emotions are deep and powerful here as well. Then there’s the young adult direction of the book, which is reminiscent of Reeve’s Hungry City Chronicles. But while some revelations are revealed later than they could be, and the character's are a bit naive, Young Adult is really just a label here. It's even a more adult read than Reeve’s works. Characters in this book kill (and brutally too), but in a way that invites young adults to the adult world of literature. Conceptually, it isn't as grim as The Hunger Games, but it comes off as far more gritty due to the depth of character and emotion--which ultimately leads to a more powerful read.
While everyone loves a good fantasy, epic, gritty, or otherwise, THE KNIFE OF NEVER LETTING GO reads like a modern SF/Fantasy CATCHER IN THE RYE, or THE ADVENTURES OF HUCKLEBERRY FINN which only enhances its flavor. No, it isn’t epic in its fullest sense. There’s only the single POV (in this first book, anyway), and the conflicts aren’t global (again, in this first book, anyway), but there’s a more personal, intimate connection for the reader here.
If you want something different as well as something enjoyable, as only the SF/Fantasy Elite do on occasion--and you can handle the smallest hint of YA--give it a try. It’s good to see that Young Adult isn’t just full of Harry Potter or Twilight retread, but can still give something along the lines of Fahrenheit 451 or Lord of the Flies (The closest thing to Young Adult some of us older Elitists got).
Recommended Age: 14 and up.
Language: Hells, Damns and occasional references to female dogs. Many “I didn’t say fudge” moments, though.
Violence: Yes. Murder and beatings—though it’s tense, it isn’t graphic.
Sex: A tiny bit of innuendo—thoughts are public knowledge, after all.
There is something oddly comforting about reading a James Barclay novel. It's like when the holidays roll around and the smells of good, home-cooked meals automatically make you relax and enjoy the day a tad more than usual. ELFSORROW fits this role perfectly.
The novel starts with a very tense scene depicting the chaos Balaia is in. We are seeing the after-effects of the events from Barclay's first trilogy, and things are dire indeed. The Colleges of Magic are at war, and it seems like the whole continent's population has been made into a contingent of refugees. And that's just the tip of the metaphorical iceberg. A plague, called Elfsorrow, is decimating the elves following the desecration of one of their temples. The Black Wings are leading a crusade of sorts against all magic. Crazy, crazy stuff.
The first thing we want to mention is that you probably shouldn't start with this novel. This is our opinion of course, and we realize every reader is different, but still. Every character in ELFSORROW has motivations that directly link back to the the Chronicles of the Raven trilogy, so without those books as a foundation you will be lost, and your enjoyment will suffer. So if you haven't read that trilogy, we suggest you get on that ASAP starting with DAWNTHIEF.
Next, we want to assure all you readers that the pacing of this novel flows effortlessly. From actions scenes to general exposition to conversations...man, it is done sooooo well. None of Barclay's novels are exactly short, but you easily get swept away and soon find that you are creeping up on the end of the novel.
But really Barclay's Raven novels are about character. Say what you want about the RPG flavor of his first two novels, or about the inclusion of traditional creatures from fantasy--we mean elves here. None of that matters when Barclay writes. In ELFSORROW, the PoVs switch frequently and every character is very distinct and fantastic. The characters you hate are fascinating to read because you can see their motivations. the characters you love are put in situations where you fear for them (you know, since Barclay will actually kill of main characters). The banter between characters was familiar and perfect, yet beneath the surface of it we could see the strain these characters are living with.
A large chunk of the novel is set on the continent of Calaius, the home of the elven race. Barclay does a terrific job of illustrating the differences between Calaius and Balaia. Such effort is put into showing how this new continent really feels alien to the characters of the story. Very well done. We always like when authors show off new portions of their world. The elves in this novel were actually great. Barclay has improbably rescued them from the depths of the cliché to make them cool again.
ELFSORROW, like any book, isn't perfect. Our main complaint about the novel deals with the Elfsorrow plague. There is a section midway through the novel (and leading into the last third of it) where everything seems to slow down. There is a lot of travel involved, and Barclay is very specific that it is taking weeks to get to places. The Elfsorrow plague is essentially lethal over the course of a few days. What happens is this sense of urgency seems to get forgotten for this small portion of the novel. Elves are dying, but we don't really get a sense of the danger and grief involved in it. Fortunately, things get back on track quickly. It's a fairly minor problem, and we doubt it will bother many readers.
The ending of ELFSORROW is crazy. It is actually very focused and personal even though the result of it is epic. It punched us in the gut. Twice. Then it picted us up and gave us a hug. Not many people, in our opinions, can write tragedy as well as Barclay. He can put just the right amount of sadness and hope into the story. You thought the ending of NIGHTCHILD was grim and heart-wrenching? ELFSORROW is more-so. We almost wept. No joke.
Somehow Barclay's novels get better and better. All of you UK readers already know this--yeah we are jealous. These novels aren't just romps through the countryside anymore. There are deeper issues involved and explored. Simply put, you need to be reading James Barclay. He is on our list of "We'll read anything by this author and probably be impressed while simultaneously jealous of his skills. We love him long time."
Recommended Age: 16 and up.
Language: A bit. Less than usual in his novels.
Violence: We've been looking forward to some Barclay-styled violence since we put down NIGHTCHILD. He doesn't disappoint. Awesome, bloody, descriptive and easily visualized.
To all those looking for my review of this book, I have two words for you:
Oh, hold on, my phone's ringing...
((beep, beep, boop, eep, eep, boop, oop))
Hey, Steve. How's it going?
Cool. So yeah, I just finished reading that Poison Throne book you guys gave me and I'm throwing a complete blank on how to write the review for it because just about nothing happened in the whole thing. I--
((wah, wah, waah?))
Yeah, really. Nothing. Well, nothing interesting anyhow. Like walking into an expensive department store and only finding second-hand clothing. Ugh. Well, it does have a few ghosts in it and some talking cats that--
Yeah. Seriously. I didn't even know people wrote fantasy novels with talking cats in them any more. Talk about an eighties flashback. Y-M-C-A, anyone? Village people? Yeah. Anyhow, I was wondering if you could give me some help with this one. I just don't know what to do about it.
((wah, wah, wah-wah))
So, it's about this fifteen year-old girl named...uh...just a sec...
((flipping pages...more flipping of pages))
Wynter Moorhawke. Spelled with a "y". Oh yeah. She's been away from the King's castle for four years with her father, studying up on how to be a carpenter. They come back to the castle and everything has changed. First off, the King has told everyone to kill all the talking cats and has forbidden anyone to talk to the leftovers. Apparently this Wynter girl was the go-to girl for all catdom before she left and so she's all sad that none of 'em will talk to her anymore. Then there's the ghosts, but no one's supposed to talk to them either...
((laugh)) Yeah, two for two. Here's a fantasy element...please don't talk about it. Oh, and here's another one...but don't mention it either. On pain of death. So, there she is with no cats and no ghosts to talk to and she meets up with this old friend, Razi, who happens to be the prince, though he really just acts like another teenager. He's picked up this friend, Christopher, since Wynter has been gone, and this kid likes to play around with all the working-girls in the keep. So Wynter and him hit it off real well. There's a lot of back and forth between the three of them and how they become friends. Then Wynter's dad gets sick (yes, she calls him dad--that was odd), and Razi's told he has to step up and be the Crown Prince now because his older half-brother decided to abdicate and raise a rebellion instead. There's nothing about why he's rebelling though. Then this bit comes up about something called a Bloody Chair, which Wynter's father made when he was seventeen, and from what I can tell, this chair has some kind of fantastical powers that have been protecting the kingdom, but it's just about impossible to figure anything out for sure because--
Bingo! They can't freaking talk about it! Aahhh!!! ((laugh of intense frustration))
((wah, wah, wah-wah-wah))
((looks at book cover)) No idea. She never even picks up a sword.
Kind of. I mean, she has to deal with the current king being uber-paranoid and doing a bunch of unfortunate stuff, but other than that I don't see much of a connection to a throne either.
You know that's funny. She doesn't sacrifice anything that I can see. Not friend. Not father. Not kingdom. Why's that stuff on the front cover? Who knows. The story as a whole kinda seems to be converging on this Bloody Chair thing, even though it's only briefly referenced a few times . But for a whole trilogy to be wrapped around one idea? Ugh. I guess I'm just used to more complicated stuff. Am I being too hard?
Okay, good. It's too bad, because the author writes really well. Great flow, distinct characters, decent progress from chapter to chapter. It just doesn't go anywhere.
Yeah. So, what do you think?
((wah, wah-wah, wah))
((chuckle)) Are you serious?
What, just type it up and--
All right. Later.
***Printed with permission of Elitist Overlords to the best of this reviewer's memory***
Recommended age: 14+, though there's lots better stuff out there to read
Language: Some, fairly frequent at places
Violence: Talked about, but very little directly experienced
Sex: Some coupling, implied in one scene and briefly overheard in another
Celine Kiernan's Website
ALL CLEAR by Connie Willis is the sequel to this year’s BLACKOUT. Although “sequel” isn’t really the proper word for it. “Sequel” makes it sound like the first book had some closure to it, a conclusion. “Sequel” makes it sound like this book, ALL CLEAR, is going to recap what happened in the previous volume and catch you up. Both of those things are not true of this duology. ALL CLEAR, better said is the second half of the story begun in BLACKOUT. The reason for the split in the story is that it’s so long. ALL CLEAR clocks in at 640 pages in hardback and BLACKOUT was about the same. I’ve seen Brandon Sanderson books that are shorter than these two put together (I kid, we love Brandon around here).
Like I said this book doesn’t pander to the fact that you haven’t read the first one in a few months. It jumps right in and gets going with the story as if there was no break at all. I believe that Willis wrote the entire book, BLACKOUT and ALL CLEAR, in one large manuscript and the publisher picked up the first half, much like a Vegas dealer cutting a deck of cards, and said, “There, that’s book one.” And really that’s my only complaint about the book. I wish I could have had it all at once.
Let’s be clear, this is Connie Willis' finest work to date, and this is a woman who has won more Hugo awards and Nebulas than anyone alive. I reviewed BLACKOUT earlier this year, and in it I said that this duology had the potential to be everything DOOMSDAY BOOK and TO SAY NOTHING OF THE DOG were rolled into one package. Willis delivers in ALL CLEAR giving us a heartwarming story with real, believable characters that you love. She also gives us humor, intrigue, tragedy, and a well-researched look into WWII England all in one story. This book was fabulous.
I don’t want to say anything more about this book. Because it is a direct follow up to BLACKOUT, anything I tell you about the story of ALL CLEAR will tell you how BLACKOUT ended. I know, quite the predicament. Let’s just say that the story, as a whole, deals with three time travelers from the future, historians bent on learning what life was really like in the past, who have found themselves stuck in England in 1940 and 1941. That’s all you’re going to get out of me. If you want the rest you should go read the books. HA!
And you REALLY SHOULD GO READ THESE BOOKS! They are beautiful and subtle and witty and charming. They are everything Willis’ previous works were and more. I would be remiss if I didn’t spend a bit of time talking about the characters. Over the course of 1200 pages I grew to love these characters. And not in that “Wow that character was so cool because she can jump off of a building with a machine gun…” type of love. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But these characters are real people. While reading the book you’ve laughed with them, seen them go through heartache and struggled with them. At the end of the book I even cried with them (interesting fact: I’ve only ever cried reading two books, WHERE THE RED FERN GROWS, and another of Willis’ books the DOOMSDAY BOOK). This book and these characters will stick with you. The only reason these books won’t be nominated for the Hugo and then win it next year is if they don’t let it stand as one complete story, which it is.
Go, read these books right now.
Recommended Age: 14+ Nothing really wrong here for anyone younger, it just feels like an adult would like it more. Kind of dry for kids.
Language: None really.
Violence: War violence, nothing too grotesque or frightening.
Is there a worse feeling than when you've just finished a novel, and the time you spent reading feels completely wasted? You sit back, your face becoming red with hatred for a book that just kept you from reading something else that was potentially awesome. You vilify the "novel" you hold in an ever tightening grip. This so-called novel is the cause of all your problems, and is the evil force reason for war, world hunger, American Idol, and your failing Fantasy Football team (The Aints).
Take a deep breath. Everything will be fine (except your Fantasy team).
THE FALL is Guillermo Del Toro and Chuck Hogan's follow-up to last year's, THE STRAIN. This story is about the ongoing vampire apocalypse (including a newly thrown-in almost-prophesy...*cough*lame*cough*), and the cover of THE FALL has a little blurb pimping it out as a "High-Tech Vampire Epic." This couldn't possibly be further from the truth, as last time we checked silver swords and mirrors weren't high-tech. Yeah. This is a terrible, terrible novel.
We'll start with what it does right...
OK, now that we are done with that, what is wrong with this novel? In short, everything. The first chapters consist of attempts to explain issues pretty much everyone had with the first novel, THE STRAIN. While it is nice to see that there are some real (if eye-roll-inducing) explanations behind many of the problems, they should have been included in book 1. Beyond that, no other effort is made to explain anything else. Look, if you are going to set a precedent for scientifically explaining away vampire myths, then you better be able to do it to all of them. Additionally, this is one of the worst novels we have ever read in terms of PoV problems. The PoV will often switch mid-paragraph. Twice. Inexcusable.
THE FALL reads a lot like a novel based on a movie. Everything is bare-minimum. Details. Character. Plot. Setting. We couldn't picture the city at all. Telling us the city looks destroyed and smokey isn't enough. It was like our characters were floating in a blank white void. When THE FALL isn't reading like a bad novel, it reads like a bad TV script. One of the characters--an ex-lucha libre and Mexican Cinema star who goes as far as to wear the typical mask that all the stars wear--even says as much towards the end by comparing the current story to one of his ridiculous movies. We aren't making this up.
Let's talk about the characters for a bit. They are all awful. THIS is the group that is supposed to save humanity? We are so screwed. Hardened military types are getting killed in mere seconds, yet the old man, the pest control guy, and two CDC members are like Spartacus in the arena. Riiiiight. All the characters expertly use silver swords and knives (they are high-tech like that) to cut a path to...uh...something yet introduced. They are all now professional sword and knife fighters (who never freeze in the face of horror) against vampires that are at least twice as fast as they are. And twice as strong. Even the kid, Zack. He cleans house with his spontaneous knife skills. In the dark. That sound you hear is us banging our heads against the wall.
The first half of the novel essentially boils down to the main characters saying, "We need to get out of here, this city is falling apart." Instead they sit around doing absolutely nothing while they wait for a magical solution to appear. And it does. Suddenly there is a book for auction that has the history, name, weakness and origin of the Master Vampire. How convenient. But it will have an enormous price associated with it! How will our heroes afford this 30+ million-dollar book? Coincidence and convenience come into play to save the day.
Eph, the main PoV, is terribly written. He says he (and everyone) needs to fight, and how this isn't about him, it's about everyone else. Yet his actions prove the direct opposite. This IS all about him. His sections can be summarized by him saying, "I hate everything. I'm going to save the world." Look, if a character is written in a way that makes the reader want to skip over his entire PoV, its a bad character. Don't tell us the "Oh, the author(s) made you FEEL, so it was done perfectly. You're just ignorant." If it looks like crap, and smells like crap, do we really need to do a taste-test to make sure?
Interspersed between sparse sections of story are flashbacks to Setrakian's days as a spry vampire hunter. They essentially repeat themselves and the ones from the prior novel. We get it, he hates vampires for all the harm they have done him. We also get blog entries (seriously) from the Fet, the pest control guy. It's all pointless filler. The novel barely clocks-in at 300 pages, 100 of which could have been cut for their pointlessness.
The writing just doesn't lend any sense of believability to these characters. For example, the gang aspect with Gus is just stupid. Man, if all gangs were completely brain-dead like the ones in this novel, the USA would have been cleaned up a long time ago. Again, THESE are the people we are relying on?
However, it was the ending itself that really ruined this novel for us. You know things are bad when you want to throw the book away, unfinished, only 30 pages from the end. We have considerable willpower--remember, we read Terry Goodkind--but THE FALL nearly killed us. It had an ending full of cliché, coincidence, predictability and soap-opera dialogue/scenarios.
If you want a good monster novel, read Larry Correia's MONSTER HUNTER INTERNATIONAL. His monsters are scarier, his science better (we know right?), his fighting more realistic, and his characters act in believable ways.
THE STRAIN and THE FALL set themselves on a pedestal as a new evolution in the vampire mythology, yet there is nothing new here. These are not the droids you are looking for, move along.
Recommended Age: Give this to teenagers as punishment. They'll never disobey you again.
Language: Swearing for the sake of swearing. Swearing without any real force behind the words.
Violence: Poorly described when the characters actually get off their butts and quit whining.
Sex: Alluded to.
Gavin Guile is the Prism, the most powerful 'drafter' alive in a world where color is magic and power. His role is to keep the magic balanced or else the world will erupt into chaos. Unfortunately most of the problems he has to deal with are the result of the False Prism War against his brother sixteen years ago.
If you're familiar with his hugely popular The Night Angel Trilogy, Brent Weeks' storytelling continues consistently, albeit with more polish. The first book in his new Lightbringer Series THE BLACK PRISM Weeks builds an exciting world, plunging into the story right from the get-go.
There are four main PoV characters: Gavin Guile the ultra-rich, handsome, and powerful man who probably only has five years left to live; Kip, supposed bastard of Gavin, spent his childhood living with a negligent mother and is now thrown into a world of intrigue and power; Liv, child of a military general who had been on the wrong side of the war; and Karris, drafter ninja-babe. The PoV switches are frequent and cliffhangery, but keeps the pace rapid-fire. The characters are well drawn and are what make the story worth reading, with the magic and storyline a juicy cherry on top.
Weeks likes mucking about with the standard fantasy tropes, and that gives PRISM a distinct flavor. He writes characters who are at the core good people, but even good intentions can have disastrous consequences. He also likes to create tension using a blind reveal, creating twists in the plot just when you think you have a handle on the story--he did this a lot in the Night Angel Trilogy, as well, to great effect. The main characters have big secrets, which they don't tell the others for good reason, but will cause readers to writhe in anticipation of when the problem will blow up in their faces. Fortunately this tactic doesn't create forced or unrealistic tension (mostly).
The magic based on the light spectrum is not only interesting in and of itself, but its use affects the world, politics, and culture. A magic user, or drafter, uses the characteristics inherent in color in order to create luxin, a plastic-like material. The Chromeria, which is where they learn magic, is built around the greatest possible exposure to light--and you're reminded that drafters can use magic in the dark, which makes for interesting dynamics. Drafters are sponsored by their home countries to be trained, and then are expected to work for the good of the people. Unfortunately, the use of magic shortens a drafter's life span, and eventually they go mad or die from over-use.
But while Weeks' writing has improved from the last series, he's still settling into his skills as an author, so there are bumps and missteps with the flow. Some of the emotion-related characterization lacks subtlety. Kip is whiny and annoyingly glib; Gavin, while a character in interesting shades of gray, is hard to decipher; and although Weeks does a good job of writing his PoV women, we unfortunately don't see as much of the them as we do the men. The religion that the magic revolves around feels too much like a re-vamped copy of Catholicism. And all the different countries and races got confusing, the continual referencing of unique characteristics is pointless filler in an attempt to create a multi-racial setting.
The biggest problem I had was visualizing some of the magic. For example, Gavin drafts luxin to create boats and propel them across oceans, but I just couldn't get a complete enough grasp on what Weeks was describing. The magic is interesting but some details left me wondering--they'll hopefully be explored in the next novel. And the action can get gimmicky, especially when drafters do magic not mentioned before in the book, only to bring out their fancy skills for the sake of a flashy action scene.
While imperfect, THE BLACK PRISM is fun to read, witty and imaginative, and left me wanting the next installment to see what Weeks will come up with next.
Recommended Age: 14+
Language: Not much.
Violence: Yes and the gore can be graphic.
Sex: Innuendo throughout and one mild scene.
Teenage Therez lives a life of luxury, her father a successful merchant. But business has its own politics and her father must 'sell' her in marriage to further his ambitions. Rather than marry a cruel older man Therez runs away, but is she running away to a worse fate?
PASSION PLAY starts out cliche enough, but readers will learn quickly that Beth Bernobich doesn't pull any punches. Therez is a girl with no knowledge of the world, and as a result is too trusting. She purchases a seat on a caravan traveling to the capital where she hopes to earn her own living. However, everything does wrong en route and she very quickly she turns from innocent girl into distrusting woman.
She escapes, and after much hardship arrives at a city and lands a position in a brothel--but as a scullery maid. This opportunity will further change her life more than she can guess.
Told from Therez's refined PoV, the prose is smooth and crisply descriptive, while also moving the story steadily forward. Therez's growth from girl to woman is painful and disturbing, but she faces her problems and refuses to run away from them again--she's already learned that running away isn't necessarily the best solution. She makes new friends, including the common sense Kathe, and discovers an advocate in her employer Lord Kosenmark, a lord exiled from court. But Therez is too clever for her own good and becomes involved in Kosenmark's intrigues--which are dangerous, even if they are for a just cause.
Therez starts the story at fifteen years old, and this short book covers two years of her life. But what starts as a coming-of-age romance turns into a political story. The turnabout wouldn't have bothered me if the political aspects had been more immediate instead of referencing people we never see and countries that mean little other than a foreign language I have to learn. Because of intrigue via letters and couriers and secret meetings, not a whole lot actually happens and by the abrupt ending I wondered what I was supposed to have learned. I really hope I don't have to retain all that for the sequel...
Remember how Therez starts out the book at fifteen? And only gets to seventeen? Strangely enough, Lord Kosenmark relies on her cleverness and honesty, and uses her advice more than once. I wasn't really clear on how old he was (in his thirties?), but seeing this hardened courtier listen seriously to a teenage girl--a girl half his age, whose sole 'experience' in life was to read books and pick out dresses--is what really makes this book a fantasy.
PASSION is set in a kind of Renaissance Europe, where magic plays a small role, and isn't used for much other than as a convenience; Bernobich only scratches the surface, hinting that we'll learn more later in the series. Religion is referenced but there's little depth to it. Many questions are raised during the book yet by the end remain unanswered. And while the main characters are intriguing, other than Therez they don't experience much growth. All of these problems are the result of a too-short book and limited PoV for an ambitious world and large cast. Oh and I can't forget my petty complaint: the love story aspect got pretty sappy by the end.
Bernobich wins points for beginning a realistic story and creating an interesting group of characters beyond the usual stereotypes. However, the political intrigue grows burdensome and by the end it feels like she's running out of steam, simply moving the story along to set up for the books that follow. These problems, however, can be repaired in the sequels, all the elements are there if Bernobich will use them--and if she does there's potential here for a compelling series.
Recommended Age: 16+ for sexual content.
Language: A handful of instances early in the book, as well as crude language.
Sex: Yes, and it's detailed. Don't forget, either, that Therez ends up working in a brothel.
PASSION PLAY is the first of a projected five-book series.
Sometimes it is difficult to review a novel. In fact, this isn't even the original review we had written for TOWERS OF MIDNIGHT. There are so many variables that come into play that we have to take an accounting of, that we wonder where we should even begin. ToM, obviously, is one of these types of novels. There is the matter of the book itself; the story, the characters and the progression in the novel have to be considered. But then so does the rest of the series in one as large as The Wheel of Time. And to be objective when you all know we like our fantasy in the non-Jordan fashion. Yeah. It's all sorts of difficult to put a review of this type of novel together in a way that makes sense to you lovely readers.
ToM has all the markings of a Wheel of Time novel. For us, that means that it is very frustrating, punctuated by points of awesomeness. Many of you that know us have come to realize that we aren't real fond of the WoT as a whole. We feel the first chunk of the series is OK, but we also feel that the latter half is mostly absurd.
When Brandon Sanderson stepped on-board in THE GATHERING STORM, we noticed a distinct change in the narration style of that novel within the scope of the series. ToM follows that voice, and in fact is much more "Brandon" than "Jordan". It is mostly free of the garrulous exposition, and repetitive descriptions that plagued the other bloated novels of the series. Don't get us wrong, we love good description, and require it to give our thumbs up to a book, but not at the expense of plot progress. ToM doesn't have this issue. It doesn't have time for it.
Enough about our history on the WoT series. What about the novel itself? Here is essentially how our text messages to each other went while reading:
Nick: Steve, I've got good news and bad news.
Steve: Bad news first.
N: ToM is about Perrin.
S: You're not funny. What's the real bad news.
N: ToM is about Perrin....and Elayne.
S: I'm taking your birthday present back to the store.
N: Good news is that Jamiroquai has a new album out in the UK.
S: ...I know about Jamiroquai...I told YOU that in the first place. What does that have to do with ToM?
N: Nothing. I'm just reminding you, so that there was some good news. Remember, ToM is about Perrin.
S: Oh hey, look. Our cameos.
N: I'm a drunk!
S: Yeah, so is your cameo.
N: Well yours is dead.
N: How far are you now?
S: zzzzzzzz...wha? huh? Sorry, Perrin was lamenting how he is a poor leader again. I must have fallen asleep.
N: Isn't Rand great in this book?
S: This is the guy we've been waiting for for, like, 15 years. Awesometastic.
N: Too bad he shows up in the book about as much as Lindsey Lohan shows up in the news sober.
S: The White Tower storyline... Seriously? WTF?
N: Yeah. I just dyed my hair black, put on skinny jeans, and started wearing trendy bracelets and band t-shirts.
N: ...you there?
S: Sorry, my wife had to talk me out of burning my Jordan collection. That emo idea sounds pretty good though.
We realize we said it before but we reiterate, ToM = periods of extreme frustration interspersed with moments of complete greatness. This isn't a dig on this book in particular or on Brandon's writing of it. That's the Jordan way, after all, and we have seen it time and time again in his books. And it leads us into our next points and the multi-faceted reason it can be so frustrating.
Number one. We have seen all of this before. Perrin whines about being a leader and a lord? Check. Perrin worries about losing himself to the wolves? Check. Elayne acts hypocritical and spoiled? Check. People don't communicate, leading to unnecessary problems and forced conflict? Check. These are all things that have been part of the character arcs since extremely early on.
To the point of repetition. Now we have to see Perrin really learning the wolf dream? Nifty, except he progresses the same way as when Egwene learned to be a dreamer. And when she trained everyone else, and we had to watch. Again, this should have been done novels ago. Oh wait, but we get to see Nyneave's trial to become Aes Sedai. And thematically it is the same as all the other tests we have seen. Remember when we had to watch all the Accepted tests that were extremely repetitive? Yeah. Same thing.
Number two. So much of the book is filled with all the mundane (Perrin/Elayne), and not enough of the amazing(Taim/Logain/Rand/Min). For example. We get loads, and loads, of Perrin chatting with Faile, usually about how much he sucks. Despite all the blatant evidence to the contrary, when everything he tries ends in the most spectacular success. Though we are inclined to agree with you Perrin. You haven't been cool, fun, or interesting to read since The Shadows Rising. Please go die at the Last Battle already. Take your annoying wife with you.
In addition to all the Perrin crap, we get so much Elayne nonsense that we both were tempted to keep an AED handy in case our heart stopped of stress while reading her sections. Elayne, Elayne, Elayne. You need to die. Now. Twice--it's possible in Rand-land. Much like Perrin, Brandon's Elayne's segments are actually spot-on as far as "voice". The problem is that the character's, as Jordan created them, are bad. They just suck as characters, and are impossible to like. In the full series, we can think of no character as hypocritical as Elayne. She is who she is, and we hate her. Quote: "We can't afford to be short-sighted right now." Right, Elayne. We can't. So how about you put on your big-girl panties and think about the last battle instead of selfishly seeing what you can take. Right now, Elayne is acting exactly like those idiots that go looting during riots and disasters. "I'm going to expand all my borders, and squish Perrin for being rebellious! I'll take more and more kingdoms! What? Tarmon-what-cha-callit has started?"
Number three. With all this mundane tom-foolery filling up the book, the pacing feels off. The REALLY important things, take about half of a chapter to resolve and come together so cleanly and easily that any climactic feel they could have had, was completely lost. This right here is the single greatest failing in ToM.
There are numerous plot threads resolved in ToM--more than a few,in fact--which was very refreshing. The problem is that they were either wrapped up in a very unsatisfying way, or they were largely irrelevant. In fact, one of the plot threads ends in one of the most blatant maid and butler scenes in recent SFF history. You'll know it when you see it, and it involves, of course, Perrin amidst a scene brimming with repetition. There is also a major event that rivals Winter's Heart in magnitude but it is handled in a paragraph or two, and with a shrug of shoulders. Nynaeve does something really cool, and it takes her absolutely no effort or time to figure it out. It was like pulling a rabbit out of a hat and yelling TA-DAH!
Everything is robbed of intensity when it all comes together so cleanly and seemingly without effort.
Let's talk about a few of the other characters that had lesser parts in the book.
Rand. This is the Rand that we have been waiting for. A character worth reading about. He has a full range of emotions that are used to great effect. Every time he shows up, he is utterly incredible. He owns up to his mistakes the way a general/leader/king/warrior/farmer/messiah should. How we wish that we could have had more of Rand, and less of everything else. With Rand, as it stands, this novel was redeemed by a large amount. Again though, why can't he just communicate? It would solve so many problems. His justification, now, is that there isn't time. But so much time would be saved if he would just take some of it to communicate, and talk.
Mat doesn't feel as "off" as the last novel. There are parts where he is funny again, and parts where he genuinely warms the heart. There are also a couple sections where he feels a tad forced. Maybe a knee-jerk reaction to TGS where he didn't seem like himself at all. But it was a major improvement and a very welcome addition to ToM. We were pleased with most of Mat's presence here. The problem is that his portion of the novel (and something that fans have been clamoring for, for years) is resolved so quickly and cleanly (well mostly) and we are left with more of Perrin sulking.
And, finally, Lan feels wrong. All wrong. He comes across as a petty whiner. Luckily he's hardly in the novel.
Speaking of hardly being in the novel. There are some extremely important things and people that should have been here, but were AWOL. Things that need more time than a final novel in a series. We can't really talk about what's not in the book without heavy spoilers, but when you finish the book we guarantee you will agree.
Ok...Here comes something new for EBR.
Yes, we are breaking our rule here. Reader's find out this information in the prologue, and it is obviously expected, and a huge gripe of ours. So here we go.
Graendal? Really? "To get to Rand, I'll go after Perrin! I'll bring the D.O. his head! It will RUIN Rand! HA!" Really? Hi Graendal. Welcome to the plot of The Wheel of Time. Look around you and maybe you'll see that this isn't a new idea. You must have watched Spider-Man 3 in your cave between books. The very fact that Graendal is even ABLE to say these things ruins some of the awesome from TGS. It's like ToM pulled an Alien 3 on us. Thankfully she is resolved also.
Again, a lot is resolved. A lot of answers are given. This is really what ToM has going for it. A very large chunk of plot threads are tied off. Yeah, lots of them feel extraneous, but there are a few big ones finished up. Yeah...a lot is tied off. Finally. You see, ToM is a checklist novel. It's taking care of all the stuff that has been stagnant for the past...uh...forever. If these last three novels are looked at as one full piece of work, ToM is the, usually, boring middle section of the novel. It just is. Now, that said it has more movement in it than we are used to from a WoT book. A LOT MORE. It moves at breakneck speed compared to many of the others, but the repetition and unimportance of so much of what is moving makes it much less awesome. It was good, but not awesome.
It's all housekeeping.
In THE TOWERS OF MIDNIGHT, Brandon Sanderson is tasked with cleaning up a huge number of loose ends that should have been taken care of forever ago. His no-nonsense narrative helps overcome this portion of the story that feels like a laundry list. Brandon is working with the deck that was given to him, and he is doing amazing. Are there problems in this novel? Heavens yes. Does it have some awesome stuff? Oh yeah. Battles are great as usual. Rand is amazing. The secondary characters are better than the main characters in many cases. It is a Wheel of Time novel. There is going to be lots of frustrations, and lots of different stuff that will appeal to a variety of fans.
We have spent a lot of time, more than usual, on the characters and our reactions to them. Perhaps the fact we have such a violent reaction to them is that Brandon is doing a great job of writing them. As usual B's writing is top-notch. He is our friend, but we definitely don't pander to him. There are things we wish he would do differently, but what he does, he does in an incredible fashion. In a time in the industry when the gritty, dark, and gray are ruling supreme, Brandon writes Black and White and fantasy that is reminiscent of the good old days, and it is good. We can't stress enough how much we liked most of how ToM was written (with the previous items mentioned excluded from the list). The "When" of the novel is cloudy sometimes, but it is mostly free of confusion in that regard. The PoV's, transitions, etc., are all crystal clear. Kudos B.
Did we like ToM? Yes. The more we reflected on the book though, we realized how so many important things that should have been on the checklist were left off, and how minor the checklist seemed afterward. We liked this book, but juuuuuuuuust barely.
Recommended Age: There's no real age rec. for WoT.
Violence: Yes. Action has always been handled pretty well in this series, and ToM is no exception.
A not-so-funny thing happened. We confused the release of this novel with that of another. We feel pretty awful, because Jonathan Maberry is one of our favorite authors. So, we offer our sincere apologies to one of the greats in the Horror genre. With that said, we feel we should mention how completely awesome ROT & RUIN is. It is...uh...completely awesome!
ROT & RUIN is an expansion of the short story "The Family Business" that was found in the anthology THE NEW DEAD. It ranks as one of our absolute favorite anthologies of the year, and we said so in the review we wrote. In that anthology, Maberry's YA zombie story was one of our favorites. Maberry then dropped the bomb on us that he was expanding that short story into a full novel. We were hesitantly excited. After all, how much could we enjoy a novel where we already knew most of the story?
YA zombies. YA with no TWILIGHT-esque romances involved. YA with all sorts of awesome violence and a solid coming-of-age story. Hmm. Yeah. Sounds like a recipe for a winner. In case you don't know, this story is about young Benny Imura. His parents were killed on First Night, the day that started the unstoppable zombie apocalypse. Benny's older brother Tom Imura escaped with Benny, and they all now live in a small settlement with other people. Tom Imura is famous as a zombie hunter, but Benny doesn't want to be a part of that legacy. As it turns out, Tom is far more than just a zombie hunter, and he wants Benny to be a part of "the Family Business." The first part of the novel follows pretty closely with the short story, after which it deviates into a huge, detailed and horrific adventure. Then the story goes back to its short story roots to end the way that short story did. Mostly.
As good as the short story was, the novel ROT & RUIN is the definitive edition of the story. Enjoying the short story did absolutely nothing to diminish our enjoyment of the novel. This novel had all the details we felt were missing from the short story. The characters were better, and easier to root for/hate. The emotional impact of what the Family Business really is has been bumped up tremendously in importance.
As most zombie stories go, the idea is the exploration of what it means to be human. ROT & RUIN is one of the strongest examples of this them that we have read. The understanding that Benny comes to is directly linked to his coming-of-age. It seems like people are beginning to tire of zombies, and we don't blame them. But this story succeeds at becoming more than "just" a zombie story due to the focus on characters and and the themes of what it means to lose your history, and perhaps your humanity in the process.
ROT & RUIN is terrific. Maberry has proven again that he is one of the best Horror authors out there. His YA Horror is just as solid as his adult Horror, and each are perfectly pitched to their respective age groups. By now everyone who knows us, or who reads our reviews should know we have a very low level of tolerance for YA. For us to say a YA novel is not only good, but exceptional, is pretty much as good of a compliment as possible from us. ROT & RUIN might very well be our favorite YA novel so far.
Recommended Age: 14 and up.
Language: A little.
Violence: Zombies. Duh. But it isn't anywhere near as gratuitously awesome as Maberry's Joe Ledger novels.
Sex: Some disturbing situations are alluded to, but noting is ever shown.