Friday, September 30, 2011

Opening Atlantis

Harry Turtledove is considered the master of alternate history stories and Opening Atlantis is one of his more novel ideas.

The book is really 3 stories about the founding, settling and progression of a large, unsettled land mass called Atlantis by one of the original settlers, after the legendary civilisation. It's a rather interesting take on the Atlantis legend, and Turtledove has followed the school of thought that if the land mass were to be real it would be located in the Atlantic Ocean, rather than the Mediterranean Sea.

The first of the stories; New Hastings (they're all named after parts of Atlantis), covers the first Europeans to discover 'Atlantis, Frenchman Francois Kersauzon and English fisherman Edward Radcliffe, and their efforts to live free, and tame the strange island of Atlantis with it's unique wildlife and varied climate. While the settlers try to explore and make a living on the wild island events outside Atlantis continue on as they always have. Upheaval in England (the War of the Roses) brings the Earl of Warwick Richard 'the Kingmaker' Neville to Atlantis. He's backed the wrong horse in the battle for the English throne, and consequently decides to set himself up as the King of Atlantis. He may have soldiers, money and ambition, but the Atlanteans have tasted life free of Lords and taxes, they're not about to give it up without a fight.

The second part; Avalon, takes place roughly 200 years after New Hastings, and concerns itself with two of Edward Radcliffe's descendants. The dread pirate lord Red Rodney Radcliffe, and his prosperous and proper cousin William Radcliff (his grandmother dropped the 'e', possibly in an effort to distance himself from the other branch of the family). The cousins are at opposite ends of the spectrum, and live at opposite ends of the island. Rodney preys on his cousin's ships and threatens his livelihood. William has had enough and with assistance provided by the British navy and a wealthy Dutch merchant, who is also tired of financing Rodney's lifestyle, he aims to destroy the pirate stronghold of Avalon. This particular section was a lot of fun. It was good, old fashioned, swashbuckling adventure in the style of Captain Blood and the more recent Pirates of the Carribbean.

The final third of Opening Atlantis; Nouveau Redon, reintroduced the Kersauzon family. In the years since Edward Radcliffe had founded New Hastings, the French, under the efforts of Francois Kersauzon had also set themselves up on Atlantis and prospered as much as the English settlements had. For reasons that I never felt were adequately explained Victor Radcliff took command of a combined English Atlantean and British force in an effort to drive the French Atlantean's, led by Francois Kersazon's descendant Roland, from the island. What followed was a tedious account of forces running from one part of the island to another, having a battle and then repeating the process throughout. I felt that Turtledove was using the story to recreate a European or American conflict on Atlantis and this was more about the battles than the characters. I never warmed to either Victor, who I found rather generic or Roland, who was too morose and fatalistic for my tastes. Of the two I preferred Roland, but that may have been because I knew he was the doomed underdog from the time the story began. The final part also paves the way for the next two Atlantis books, which from what I can tell are the author's attempt replay the War of Independence and the Civil War on Atlantis, rather than the United States.

In some ways the book was very reminiscent of James Michener's and Edward Rutherford's big family sagas covering specific areas, the main difference being that Atlantis is not a real place.

I enjoyed the first two thirds of Opening Atlantis, but the final part didn't do a lot for me. As Harry Turtledove seems to love revisiting American history (I've read other works covering the War of Independence and the Civil War with a twist) and haven't much enjoyed them, and seems to be intent on doing that with his Atlantis series I won't continue with the books, but the first two stories in Opening Atlantis are well worth reading just for their sheer entertainment value.

If anyone did want to continue on the next two volumes are called The United States of Atlantis and Liberating Atlantis.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Agatha H and the Airship City

Agatha H and the Airship City is the debut novel by husband and wife team Phil and Kaja Foglio. The book is largely a novelisation of the 1st 3 volumes of the couple’s successful webcomic Agatha Heterodyne: Girl Genius (the webcomic has won the last 2 Hugo Awards and Phil and Kaja have withdrawn it from contention next year to allow another concept to win it). It’s a lovely presentation from Nightshade. Interestingly, despite being artists, the Foglio’s didn’t have anything to do with the jacket design or cover art. The art really fits with the book, it recalls old pulp publications and matinee movies, while still giving prospective readers an idea as to what resides within the book. I picked my copy up at Worldcon and was fortunate enough to have Phil Foglio sign it, he even did a little sketch of Agatha just inside the cover!

A brief prologue gives readers some background, mainly about the legendary Heterodyne Brothers and their fight against tyranny and oppression.

The first chapter introduces us to Agatha Clay, a promising, but somewhat disorganised young lady pursuing her studies at Transylvania Polygnostic University (most of the action is in and around Transylvania, which in this universe appears to be somewhat Ruritanian). Whilst on her way to school she is waylaid by two soldiers who rob her off her precious trilobite locket. Things don’t really improve for Agatha once she does arrive at university. The feared and mysterious Baron Klaus Wulfenbach kills her benefactor, and his forces proceed to take over the town. Agatha’s parents disappear, and she’s kidnapped by Wulfenbach and held on his airship city.

The Baron keeps a veritable army of technological whiz kids (often referred to as Sparks or madboys) on his flying city, they range anywhere in age from about 8 to their late teens, and are overseen by the formidable construct nanny/bodyguard Von Pinn. The idea of having whiz kids on a giant flying machine piloted by a mad scientist reminded me a little of the Australian children’s show Professor Poopsnagle’s Steam Zeppelin, and Von Pinn made me think of a robotic nanny in one a Michael Moorcock story I read many years ago. Agatha befriends most of the kids and annoyingly also obtains the admiration of Wulfenbach’s unfortunately named son; Gilgamesh. Agatha uncovers her hidden talent, revealing herself as a Spark and her true lineage. By the end of the book she’s accumulated her own set of allies (including an intelligent talking cat by the name of Krosp, trust me it makes perfect sense in the novel) and gained a few enemies along the way. The book gives the impression that the story is just getting started, and considering that the comics are now up to Volume 10, that’s definitely the case.

Comics don’t always make a good transition from one medium to another (Bill Willingham’s Peter & Max is one notable exception), but that’s not the case with Agatha H and the Airship City. I went into this with only the briefest of knowledge about the webcomic and was not lost at all. The happy outcome is that I now intend to bring myself up to speed with the comic and hope that the Foglio’s continue to put out Agatha’s adventures in novel form. Not having read the comics I’m not sure how deep they’ve now gone into the world that they have created, but the possibilities are absolutely huge.

Agatha H and the Airship City was lots of really silly fun. It’s one of the most flat out entertaining things I’ve read this year. The novel format allowed for a deeper exploration of the characters than the drawn comic format does and I enjoy reading well developed characters. The dialogue between Agatha and Gilgamesh, and to a lesser extent Moloch really sparkled and I enjoyed the love/hate relationship between the developing Spark and the sometimes arrogant scion of a tyrant.

The setting and the concept are very obviously steampunk, although it is sometimes referred to as Gaslamp Fantasy The reason for this is at the time the Foglios started to put Girl Genius out there was already a comic called Steampunk, so to avoid confusion Kaja coined the term Gaslamp Fantasy, because there are gaslamps and also fantasy. I quite like the term, it has a certain elegance about it that fits with what they’ve created.

A lot has been drawn on to create Agatha’s world. I’ve mentioned the almost Ruritanian setting of Translyvania and Othar Tryggvassen (Insane and Indestructible) Gentleman Adventurer could have stepped right out of the pages of Prisoner of Zenda, he’s almost like an over the top caricature of Rupert of Hentzau. The constructs have a Frankenstein Monster’s feel to them and Adam ‘Punch’ Clay put me in mind of Victor Frankenstein’s original creation (this is the one from the book by Mary Shelley, not the movie version which most people associate with the term now). I couldn’t place the Jagermonsters who were used by Wulfenbach as shock troops, but serve mostly as comic relief in the book. They were a cool idea and well described, but I found their over exaggerated Germanic accents tiresome (I’ve mentioned before that I’m not a fan of using accents in written narratives), as they often forced me out of the story to decipher what they were saying. The Clanks (mechanical soldiers) were great and at times really cute (the possibilities for these things are almost endless), and although he’s not quite a Clank, I seriously want a Zoing of my own (cutest sidekick ever!).

Like I said I had a heap of fun with Agatha H and the Airship City. I’m off to catch up with the webcomic and hope that the response to this book encourages Phil and Kaja to keep on with the project.

R.I.P Sara Douglass

Australian fantasy author Sara Douglass (The Axis trilogy and Wayfarer trilogy amongst others) has passed away after a long battle with cervical cancer. Sara was an intelligent and talented writer. Her passing will be mourned by fans and fellow authors alike.

Saturday, September 24, 2011

Warriors 3

Yes, I admit it, I am a completist. Despite being largely disappointed by Warriors 1 and 2, I still went ahead and bought Warriors 3, just so I could have the entire set. I'm probably going to wind up getting the anthology tentatively entitled at this stage Dangerous Women, also edited by George R.R Martin and Gardner Dozois, because it will contain a new Dunk and Egg story, although even at this early stage I have the feeling that it's also going to contain some real howlers, as did all 3 paperback volumes of Warriors. A little note about the cover. I know it seems rather odd to give a book called Warriors a hot pink cover. It's actually salmon in reality, but for some reason the pics that are on the internet are all that pink colour. Anyway onto the stories.

This final collection opens with George Martin's by now familiar intro and then we go into Robin Hobb's The Triumph. Hobb is best known for her Farseer and Liveship series. I've read the first Farseer trilogy and the first Liveship Traders trilogy. I'm not all that enamoured by her writing, she starts off very well, but kind of fails to deliver in the final books to me. This story was a definite change of pace. It was set in the Punic Wars and it had echoes of Steven Saylor's The Eagle and the Rabbit from Warriors 1 in that it concerned the Romans and the Carthaginians, although this time the Romans were the slaves and the Carthaginians were the victors. It wasn't a bad story, very violent and brutal, well told. I would have liked to know exactly what the 'dragon' was that brought the Romans undone, but this frustratingly was never explained and that's a hallmark of Hobb, she regularly leaves things unexplained and untied off.

Soldierin' by Joe R. Lansdale was next up. Lansdale writes across genres, including Westerns, and that's what Soldierin' is; a Western story. It's set after the Civil War and concerns the battle against the Apaches. The twist is that the narrator and his closest soldier friend are both former slaves who fought during the Civil War. It's mostly played for laughs and is passable. One irritation for me was that the author chose to use first person narration and therefore a lot of it was written using the slang of the day. I find accents in stories somewhat gimmicky and Soldierin' was no exception.

I've never read Lawrence Block before and if Clean Slate is representative of his work, then I never want to again. The story is called Clean Slate, an alternative title would be How Not To Write A Piece Of Short Fiction. Terrible is being too kind. Firstly the collection is called Warriors, pretty much everyone else who contributed to this collection managed to write a story about someone or something that fit that definition, even Peter S. Beagle's confusing mess Dirae in Warriors 2 fit that brief sort of, but not this abomination. The main character was a serial killer. The story had no real point, it was written confusingly and unrealistically, the dialogue was truly awful and there was no sympathy for any of the characters. Ugh! How this bit of unpleasant dreck even made it into the collection I will never know.

After that pretty nasty experience about the best story from this or any of the other two collections popped up. The Girls from Avenger by Urban Fantasy author Carrie Vaughan. As well as being the author of the successful Kitty Urban Fantasy series Carrie Vaughan is also a regular contributor to George Martin's baby Wild Cards. I haven't previously read any of her work. I can't come at Wild Cards (I tried with the first volume years ago, but just could not get into it) and I don't want to get involved in another Urban Fantasy series at this point. However The Girls from Avenger was great. It's about the WASPs (Women Airforce Service Pilots), these criminally unrecognised ladies, while not in combat roles, performed an invaluable service for the US war effort and it has even to this day gone largely unrecognised and unrewarded. The story is about the search by one girl to uncover the truth about the death of a friend. Everything that Clean Slate wasn't, this was. It was well written, it fit the brief of the collection, the dialogue sparkled and was believable and the reader genuinely felt for the characters. Top notch stuff. Carrie Vaughan does have some standalone novels in print, and I may have to look at one of them. She can write.

The Pit by James Rollins was an unusual one. Rollins is a vet by profession when he's not writing, and it showed in this story. It's about a pit bull terrier forced to fight for survival in illegal dog fights. What makes the story so different is that it's told from the dog's point of view. I once saw a film, I think it was called 'It's a Dog's Life' which was similar, but that was made years ago, and this is current day. Dog lovers may find it hard to stomach, because the animals are treated very brutally, but again I felt that was close to reality, and it's likely that in his chosen profession James Rollin has come in contact with some of these dogs. It was let down a little by the ending, which, while happy, was totally unrealistic.

Next up was My Name Is Legion by David Morrell. Morrell would be one of the better credentialled highest selling authors in the collection. He's best known as the author of First Blood, which was the first Sylvester Stallone Rambo film, he also wrote the sequel for the film. I read some of Morrell (the original First Blood, before he rewrote the ending to tie in with the film, and some of his other militaristic fiction), so was comfortable with his style and his interest in military organisations. My Name is Legion is about the French Foreign Legion, so ties in with this. It's well done from a historical view point and he's done his research, however he got a bit too wrapped up in this and didn't leave enough room for character development, which made the actual story component fall a little flat.

As in the previous two volumes the final story was a novella length contribution by one of the collection's heavy hitters. A Lord John Grey story from Diana Gabaldon. I haven't read any Gabaldon and if this one is representative I don't think I will in the future. It's not bad, it's just uninteresting to me anyway. The setting and the main character were of interest and she does relatively good battle scenes, but it was just very blah. I did have to laugh when I read that a peripheral character was called Brigadier Lethbridge-Stewart. The character of James Fraser in her highly successful time travel, historical fiction romance Outlander series is based on one of Doctor Who's early companions; a young Scotsman by the name of Jamie MacCrimmon, and she's also stolen the name of her Brigadier from the long running British sci-fi series. This is the lady who last year ranted very strongly against fan fiction! Pot meet kettle. There may be something to her writing, but this novella didn't really display it.

There was a lot of hype about Warriors when it came out in hardcover form last year, and I have to say that overall it was not justified. About two thirds of the stories were duds by largely unknown authors, some of the better known authors also turned in some pretty uninspiring work. To be blunt this collection would have been unlikely to see the light of day without the name George R.R Martin attached to it as an editor and his contribution. It's basically a grab for money by the publishers and an attempt to cash in on George Martin's current popularity and name.

Friday, September 23, 2011

The Snow Queen's Shadow

The Snow Queen’s Shadow is the fourth and final (for now) book in Jim C. Hines Princess series.

The book opens with two thirds of Lorindar’s crack Princess task force; Talia (Sleeping Beauty) and Snow (White), facing off against rogue witch hunters Hansel and Gretel. It’s a real action packed opener, both Talia and Snow are in great form, bouncing one liners off one another as they face down danger from the brother and sister team. In the first of the Princess books (The Stepsister Scheme) I felt that Hines’ action and fight scenes were a little confusing and clunky, that’s no longer the case. This scene has the feel of a slickly shot action film. It actually reminded me of one of the Bond franchise’s elaborate pre credit sequences.

Talia and Snow barely have time to put Hansel and Gretel in custody, before they’re racing off to be at the side of their dying mentor and benefactor; Queen Beatrice of Lorindar. In an effort to prolong Bea’s life, Snow attempts to capture the Queen’s soul. This goes badly wrong, and the magically adept princess falls under the control of the demon that controls her magic mirrors.

It’s not instantly apparent exactly what has happened until Princess Danielle’s (Cinderella) husband and her son’s nurse are affected by cuts from shards of the mirror. Before Talia and Danielle can stop her, Snow has taken off for her home of Allesandria to make them pay for exiling her after she killed her psychotic mother; Rose Curtana. To make a bad situation worse she’s kidnapped Danielle’s son; Jakob. Possibly due to the circumstances of his birth (Danielle’s pregnancy was accelerated by the Duchess of Fairytown’s darklings in The Stepsister Scheme) and his bloodlines through his mother (it’s never been stated that she has magical blood, but no normal person can call animals the way Danielle can and her mother did manage to transplant her spirit into a tree and the glass sword that Danielle carries), Jakob is unaffected by the mirror shards, and may even be a conduit for the demonic power that resides within them. Getting him back will not only reunite mother and son, it may also save the world.

Because they work better as a trio, and without Snow they’re virtually magicless, the author introduces the character of Gerta. Gerta is Snow’s ‘sister’. The story is in part based on Hans Christian Andersen’s The Snow Queen, but Gerta seems to come from Grimm’s Snow White and Rose Red legend. As well as giving Talia and Danielle magic, Gerta also has access to Snow’s memories and provides readers, and Talia, with a sort of surrogate Snow.

A couple of old favourites: dryad ship’s captain Hephyra and her three legged cat Stub, return and play a fairly vital role in helping Talia, Danielle and Gerta accomplish their goal. The new character of the darkling was also introduced, and I think it’s a testament to Jim Hines’ skill as a writer that he made me have feelings for a character that never spoke, and was essentially an animated independent thinking shadow.

In the other books you never really felt like Danielle, Talia and Snow could miss. The reader was secure in the knowledge that the story would end happily, if not ever after. This was not the case with The Snow Queen’s Shadow, one of the heroines was not going to have a happy ending, which one would it be? I’m not going to spoil the end for people, but it was tragic and heartbreaking, it ended on a bit of an upbeat note, but it was definitely bittersweet.

Scott Fischer knocked it out of the park again with his cover art. There’s a feeling of foreboding about it, with the poses of the principals, especially Talia, and Snow’s face with an imperious look, dominating the whole thing.

Sometimes series like this one, limp rather than sprint to the finish line. Not The Snow Queen’s Shadow. Jim C. Hines saved the best for last. I have to admit that I was a little disappointed by Red Hood’s Revenge. This was odd, I’d thought with it’s Arabian Nights setting and an exploration of my favourite of the three Princesses (Talia) that I would love that instalment, but for some reason it just fell a little flat for me. The Wild Hunt also seemed strangely out of place in it. The Snow Queen’s Shadow was Hines’ A game. You sometimes get a book in a series where everything just works. That’s what happened with The Snow Queen’s Shadow. It had the right amounts of action, comedy and tragedy. It’s characters never struck a bum note and everything just fell into place wonderfully. You do need to read the other three to get the full impact, but they’re all high quality (even Red Hood’s Revenge) and finish with a real bang. Although The Snow Queen’s Shadow is the final in the series, Hines does not rule out returning to the concept in the future in his author’s note at the back of the book, and he’s given himself the opportunity to do so with an open ending.

If you want to read more from Jim C. Hines he is currently at work on a new concept called Libriomancer, which is due out sometime in 2012. It’s on my wish list for next year.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Samiha's Song

Last year I read an interesting and light YA romp called Tymon’s Flight by New Zealand based author Mary Victoria. One of the most remarkable and interesting things about Tymon’s Flight was that the world the author had chosen to set it in was a giant tree.

Samiha’s Song is the sequel (I believe it’s a trilogy, although it is called Chronicles of the Tree, so it could very well go on endlessly). The Samiha in the title is one of the main characters, the other was Tymon, and interestingly he’s the main protagonist in this one, too, although Samiha is the second most important character in the book.

A lot of what went right in Tymon’s Flight unfortunately goes badly wrong in Samiha’s Song.

The recently come of age Tymon (he’s 15, but regularly acts a good deal older or younger, depending on what the narrative seems to require at the time) has to leave his beloved Samiha and travel to a dangerous part of the Tree. A place called Cherk Harbour. There Tymon will continue his studies in the mysterious magic known as Grafting with the legendary Oracle. Meanwhile Samiha will stay behind and try to spread the word about the truth that is hidden from most of the populace by the Church.

Because Mary Victoria has created such a unique setting I had hoped that we’d get to see other parts of the Tree and see how they differed from Argos City (the setting for Tymon’s Flight). Readers did get to see Cherk Harbour, but it really came across as a dirtier, rougher Argos City. Tymon met the Oracle and most of that part of the story was lifted directly from Star Wars, just substitute the word Force for Sap and Yoda for Oracle and you’re right there. The Oracle for most of the story was using the body of a young girl, so I’ll refer to it as she (the Oracle, despite being a benevolent type seems to use others bodies for it’s own ends and to keep itself alive and doesn’t see anything wrong with that…interesting). Although the Oracle’s vessel was described I kept seeing her as small and green with pointed ears. Tymon even spends a good deal of his time with her ferrying her about on his back while she bleats treelike philosophy in his ear. After the Oracle’s host passes away Tymon joins up with another rebel called Pallas (who judging by his accent of broken English must be from a far off part of the Tree) and goes to rescue Samiha, who has been imprisoned in Argos City and is scheduled for execution.

There’s an awful lot wrong with Samiha’s Song. The above only scratches the surface. The real problem is that there simply isn’t enough there to make more than one book. At over 500 pages Samiha’s Song suffers dreadfully from padding. A decent editor could have cut about 200 pages out, and possibly made it into a tighter and thoroughly more readable book. It seems to have been afflicted with a severe case of ‘middle book syndrome’, and that means there’s a lot of aimless wandering around (as an aside: somewhere along the line authors seem to have been given the idea that readers really enjoy seeing vast sections of the plot devoted to pointless journeying. We don’t, so stop it!) and in Samiha’s Song the extra pages aren’t devoted to flowery descriptions, but endless descriptions of the Tree’s religion. The book is almost entirely devoid of anything approaching humour, it has a couple of tries, but falls very flat. It relies heavily on it’s two leads and the problem there is that they simply aren’t very interesting. In my review of Tymon’s Flight I felt Tymon was a doormat and very passive for a male lead, nothing has changed, the plot moves him about, not the other way around. Once you work out that Samiha has a huge martyr complex there’s not a lot else to her. There’s an awful lot of tell, but not much show in Samiha’s Song, I suspect this is largely because there’s also a lack of tension in the action scenes and nothing much to admire in the description ones, so let’s just fill it up with some more exposition, or talk about the Tree’s religion some more.

I got this really strong feeling of déjà vu part way through, and I finally worked out that Samiha’s Song, and to a lesser extent Tymon’s Flight, read like book versions of some of the SFF themed stuff I used to watch on the ABC as a kid and young teen. It’s no surprise to find out that the author used to work in film and TV, she seems to have drawn a good deal of her inspiration from this sort of stuff.

There’s apparently at least one more book due to come out soon: Oracle’s Fire, but Samiha’s Song has killed any enthusiasm I had for this series. I’ve got better things to read, so I think I’ll give it a miss.

Saturday, September 17, 2011


Back to Cerebus. Although I know Minds is not the final instalment in the graphic novel (we're a long way from 300) it could be. It answers many of the questions that have been posed throughout the run of the series, and it also gives the reader more revelations than any previous collection has. In his introduction Dave states that he revealed some things about the character that he'd kept secret for nearly 20 years, and even wondered part way through where did he go now?

It opens where Reads finished, with Cirin and Cerebus still hurtling through space on the platform with the throne on it. Cirin finds out that Cerebus believes George is Tarim. According to Cirin he isn't. His real name is Belinus Two Tongues, and he was banished to the rock on which he resides for attempting usurp Terim's throne.

Every time Cerebus attempts to one up Cirin with his view of Tarim, she shouts him down. Cerebus himself knows he isn't Most Holy and his theological knowledge is no match for Cirin's, so this is an argument he's never going to win, and besides Cirin will twist every point he makes around to fit her own view of things.

They struggle over the throne, and it is smashed by a rock. They try to attack each other, but are prevented from doing so by an unbreakable invisible wall between them. Then the platform they are standing on splits down the middle. Cirin shouts at Cerebus that this is his punishment to float aimlessly through space. I'm not really sure how she worked out that it was Cerebus' punishment, because she's in the same boat.

Cerebus relives episodes through his life, an encounter with a bully, how he found out he was a hermaphrodite, stealing his mother's kitchen knife, his father finding him in the market square saying he was the son of Tarim and preaching, taking him to the wizard. There are also parallels made here between Cerebus and Jesus Christ. Cerebus' father is a carpenter and doesn't understand his son. He also doesn't seem to have noticed that he's an aardvark, the only unusual thing he sees about Cerebus is that he's got big ears. So this was how he came to be a magician's apprentice. I still think 'little' Cerebus is drawn as incredibly cute, too.

Cerebus then has a circular conversation with Tarim. He alternately praises, insults, argues and renounces the god. This continues until a pie hits him in the side of the head and a new voice enters the conversation. This newcomer says his name is Dave and he created Cerebus.

So Dave Sim breaks through the fourth wall and has a long conversation with his creation. Throughout the course of this conversation readers find out about Cirin's origins and how her legions took over. The aardvark who calls herself Cirin is in fact Cirin's lieutenant; Serna, and took over from Cirin, imprisoning her old mentor. Cirin's unusualness is also behind the enveloping, face covering garb that the Cirinist's wear. It covers most of the face and hides her true appearance from people.

Dave also goes through Cerebus' story. He goes into the cult of aardvark worship that the Pigts practiced and says that had Cerebus' altered the course of his own life. He created Elrod and the Roach himself. They are manifestations of parts of his own being.

Dave is the reason Cerebus can never be with Jaka. Actually he's not, but Cerebus' very nature won't allow him to be with Jaka, not successfully. Dave shows Cerebus a number of possible futures with Jaka and they all end badly.

Cerebus accepts what Dave is saying, that he's a manifestation of Dave's mind, and therefore Dave will do what he wants with him. However he refused to acknowledge that he can't influence the outcome, and believes that he can change and therefore make Dave change his future. Dave agrees to let Cerebus try and drops him back into Estarcion for the next book; Guys.

Minds is one book where I think the format of having it all contained within the one volume works better than it's original form. It really needs to be read as the one book for it to have a proper impact. I can't remember reading this in the comic form, but I did, because I know was still collecting them as they came out at this point, but reading Minds that way would have made for an extremely disjointed experience.

Artistically Dave pulled out every trick in his bag of them. The style switches from page to page, bit by bit. Nearly everything he'd done in previous volumes appears in some form in Minds. It's an extraordinary achievement, very hard to do and totally revolutionary. Even as an independent without the strictures imposed on him by one of the bigger companies putting Minds together would have been a huge ask, and I think everyone involved from Dave and Gerhard, right down to the printer deserves accolades for what they produced with Minds. As a comic book or graphic novel (I think the term was in pretty popular use by this stage) it is a genuine experience and should be admired.

Friday, September 16, 2011

One Salt Sea

The arrival of a new Seanan Mcguire book, specifically a Toby Daye book, has become a very big deal for me. Because Seanan McGuire has set the bar so high with the 4 previous Toby books, you expect a lot when a new instalment arrives. So far the author has delivered on that count and One Salt Sea does not spoil her perfect record.

For once things are going in Toby’s favour. She’s adjusting to being the Countess of Goldengreen, and providing a useful fae social service at the same time (her county is kind of like a drop in house for disaffected fae of all kinds), she’s started to date (no properly, and I was very approving of her choice of partner, and I know I’m in a minority with my like of the character) and she even takes on Quentin as a squire. This is of course all too good to last. Sure enough, before long the children of Dionda; a fae Duchess in service to the Queen of Mist (hiss!), have been kidnapped and unless they’re located alive and kicking quickly then the fae of the Undersea and the fae of the Land will go to war. This is a war that according to Toby’s uneasy ally; the Luideag, the fae of the Land, of which Toby is one, have no hope of winning. So it’s up to Toby to find the boys and avert war. To make matters worse it becomes personal when the kidnapper also takes Toby’s daughter; Gilly, hostage.

I don’t know how Seanan does it, but she keeps making these books better and better. To help her complete her task Toby is joined by her ‘posse’, this includes crowd favourites like her squire Quentin, the selkie Connor, Toby’s fetch May Daye, Tybalt the King of Cats (and leading the hit parade of exactly who Toby should date), Bridge Troll cum cab driver Danny, Tybalt’s protégé Raj, the Luidaeg, and there’s even a cameo from cyber dryad April O’Leary. Although there’s little doubt that Toby will successfully find the missing boys and rescue her daughter, thus averting a tragic war, this is a Seanan McGuire book, so there has to be tragedy and tragedy there is, heartbreaking deaths and separations…I cried.

There are so many great touches along the way. The exploration of the Undersea kingdom was awesome. I love the way folklorist McGuire has taken creatures of myth and legend, then tweaked them to fit in her world and delight her readers, her imagination was given full reign with Undersea. Considering that Toby spent 14 years of her life as a fish (see the prologue to Rosemary and Rue) I felt making her half fish (it’s on the cover, it can’t be a spoiler!) to allow her to explore Undersea was just a tad cruel, although at the same time it was rather cool. The revelation that Danny can speak to rocks was also highly amusing. The exploration of Rayseline Torquill’s room was devastating and made this reader feel sympathy for one of the series’ uber villains (what exactly was done to her during her captivity? No, on second thought don’t answer that. I don’t want to know!). Another highlight was the interaction between the two teenage boys Quentin and Raj. Toby’s exchange with them in the car ('I swear I will turn this car around!') was priceless and is a hallmark of Seanan McGuire’s easy to read and relate to style.

Although the driving force behind the book is the mystery at the heart of each of them, readers get other little nuggets about the characters and their histories. I’m quite taken with May Daye, she was relegated to the backseat for most of One Salt Sea (actually with her lack of driving skills the backseat may be the best place for her), but there was still a revelation about the character and her origins that left me gobsmacked.

I haven’t spoke much about the covers of the books, cover artist Chris McGrath always does a good job, but he outdid himself with One Salt Sea, it is a thing of beauty. You could frame this one and hang it proudly on your wall. I’m not recommending this, although it would be a good way for the author to make more money, you buy one copy to read and one copy to frame.

There are still some issues to be resolved at the end of One Salt Sea (I guess we need to give Toby something to do in Ashes of Honor, although I’d be quite happy reading about her hanging out with Tybalt, May and Quentin), and I’m really looking forward to seeing how the twin issues of Rayselline (she’s going to be a problem as long as she draws breath) and the Queen of Mist, who is only a few twists of the crazy meter away from the Torquill’s certifiable daughter, are dealt with. The second one is actually a bigger problem, because of her position, and could very well send all of faery straight to hell on a whim.

Seanan McGuire keeps upping the ante with each successive Toby adventure, and One Salt Sea is no exception. I’d say it’s the best yet, at least until Ashes of Honor comes along some time in 2012 and tops it. With One Salt Sea, Toby has climbed to the top of the heap and is seriously challenging Jim Butcher’s wise cracking wizard Harry Dresden for the title of best Urban Fantasy protagonist ever!

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Red Hood's Revenge

Red Hood’s Revenge is the 3rd of Jim C. Hines Princess books. As the title implies this time the fairytale that Hines has elected to explore is that of Little Red Riding Hood. In the style of the series the author has altered the character from the story. Her name is Roudette and she goes by the professional name of Red Hood, so called because of the magical cape she wears. She’s no innocent child either, Roudette is a cold blooded assassin. The only one of her marks who ever got away was the Princess Talia Malak el-Dahshat (better known as Sleeping Beauty),and she is now one of Princess Danielle Whiteshore (Cinderella) of Lorindar’s best friends.

After Danielle, Talia and Snow (White) manage to bust Rumpelstiltlskin, break up his kidnapping racket, free the kids and send the nasty little creature, under heavy guard, to Fairytown to face trial for his actions, they receive a message from Roudette. She’s intercepted the prisoner, killed him, his human accomplice and his guard and sent a message to Danielle with her one remaining step sister’s Charlotte’s toes. The assassin knows that Danielle’s nature won’t allow her to harm anyone, even someone who was as nasty to her as Charlotte, and offers to deal with her alone for the return of the step sister. Naturally Talia and Snow aren’t about to let that happen, so go along with her. Roudette is taken into custody, but activates the spell she’s placed on Charlotte before she can be charged with anything, and the girls end up being transported with her to the eastern kingdom of Arathea.

Arathea is Talia’s home. She was meant to be it’s ruler, but then the spell that was placed on her plunged the kingdom into a long civil war. Rather than be used as a pawn by the new rulers, who had allied with the fairies that cursed Talia in the first place, and then ‘rescued’ Talia and forced her into a union with their prince, using her sons as insurance, Talia killed her husband and took off. She’s still wanted for that murder in Arathea.

Readers find out Roudette’s story, what made her into a killer and about the revenge she hungers for, she does a 180 from villain to hero. There is also the struggle for the kingdom of Arathea, and how the girls are determined to put things right. Someone from Talia’s past alters the relationship between she and Snow. This is likely to carry over into Book 4 (The Snow Queen’s Shadow).

I liked Jim Hines’ take on the Red Riding Hood legend, he gave it some more depth, she also carried a very interesting weapon. Talia has her zaraq whip and Roudette favoured a hammer. I love Arabian Nights flavoured tales and I’ve always hoped that Hines would use the girls to visit one of them, given Talia’s eastern origins. Arathea was right out of 1001 Nights with it’s deevs and peris and desert dwelling nomads. I was a little disappointed that we didn’t get at least one djinn or flying carpet.

It’s a fitting addition to what is a fun series and I have to confess a bit of a guilty pleasure. The only misgiving I have with the books is the overwhelming female bias. I know that the author is male and the books are all about girl power, but I think at times it’s a little heavy handed and has been taken to extremes. All the major villains and heroes are female, most of the societys are matriarchal, while Lorindar is ruled by Theodore, and his reign will go to his son; Armand, everyone is aware that Queen Beatrice is the power behind Theodore’s throne, and I’ve rarely seen a prospective ruler as hen pecked as Armand. As a male reader I occasionally get the feeling that nearly all the male characters (good or bad) are either inconvenient or incompetent, quite often both. The only exception I can think of is the fairy ambassador; Trittibar, and he plays a fairly minor role. It doesn’t spoil my enjoyment of the books overall, but it does occasionally make me pause. You can write about strong female characters without having to marginalise or belittle the male ones.

Tuesday, September 6, 2011

City of Ruin

Earlier this year when recovering from surgery I had a bit of time on my hands and read a few books. One of those books was Mark Charan Newton’s Nights of Villjamur. I had actually wanted to read Nights of Villjamur for a while before getting my hands on it, but found it difficult to obtain down here. After having read it I kind of resented the book’s scarcity as I thought it was a cracking great read.

It took me a while to get a copy of the sequel; City of Ruin, but I did and it lived up to the heights reached by it’s predecessor, in some cases superceded them.

I liked the world Newton built in Nights of Villjamur, but felt that it needed more to make it truly come to life and in City of Ruin he adds some flesh to the bones. The world still has the people, the rumels and the garudas, but the mysteries of the dawnir and the okun are better explained in City of Ruin. I was able to make much greater sense of the cultists as well. I never really understood them in Nights of Villjamur. In City of Ruin they’re presented as a combination of priest, magician and scientist, and they appear to have much greater function in the lawless frontier city of Villiren than they did in the capital; Villjamur.

City of Ruin reacquaints readers not only with the strange, and often terrifying world of the Boreal Archipelago, but also with some of the main characters from Nights of Villjamur. After the events in that book; the albino Night Guard Commander Brynd Lathraea, and the rumel Investigator Jeryd have relocated to Villiren. Lathraea has orders to hold that city at all costs against the advancing okun. The theory being that if Villiren is lost then so is the Empire. Jeryd had to leave Villjamur, and having mended his relationship with his beloved Marysa, is trying to establish himself in Villiren. The other principals from Nights of Villjamur: smooth talking swordsman Randur, rightful heir to the throne; Rika, and her naïve younger sister Eir, are elsewhere, trying to get to Villiren so Rika can attempt to take her birthright back from the usurper Urtica. City of Ruin also introduces Malum; a brutal gang leader making a play for control of Villiren.

I felt Villiren was better drawn and had greater depth than Villjamur. Villiren is outwardly controlled by the Portreeve and forces loyal to him. The reality is that the criminal gangs, like the one Malum has working for him, are the real rulers of Villiren, they also control the most powerful of the cultists, and often use them and their creations to exert their control over the general, mostly down trodden, populace.

The story is, strangely enough, split into three parts. One is the investigation undertaken by Jeryd at Brynd’s behest to track down exactly what is making members of his guard disappear. Another story is the journey taken by Randur and the two royal ladies to Villiren. The third story, which brings everyone together, is the desperate battle for Villiren.

I was about a third of the way through the book before I realised that not an awful lot was happening, but I truly didn’t care. I had been so caught up in the world building and the characters themselves that the inertia didn’t matter, about then it also picked up considerably. In Nights of Villjamur I liked Randur, and I still do, but with City of Ruin Jeryd became my favourite character. Throughout most of the book he insisted he was on a diet, yet every time readers saw him he seemed to be either eating or thinking about food. His slightly unusual hit and miss method of investigation reminded me of 70’s TV detective Columbo.

One criticism I have relates to Mark Newton’s habit of giving characters modern speech patterns, leaving out certain key words (such as ‘the’) at the start of sentences. It’s not enough to ruin the book, but it does alter the flow and pull me out of it from time to time.

Whilst I know the author has written a 3rd book in the series and I believe that there is a 4th due out in 2012, City of Ruin would work quite well as the final book in a duology. There’s more story, but it does wrap some storylines up quite neatly.

This is a series that has it’s hooks into me and City of Ruin is, in some ways, even better than Nights of Villjamur, which was already one of my favourite reads in 2011.

Friday, September 2, 2011

Handling Edna

Before I get into the actual review I need to say a thing or three. Handling Edna is not my usual sort of review (well the review will probably be similar, because that's how I do things, but it's not the usual sort of book I review here), it's not fantasy or sci-fi. It's sort of a mixture of biography and fiction, I'll explain that in the review. It's also about an Australian icon, so may not be of interest to those from elsewhere, although I'm sure a lot of people in the UK are aware of Dame Edna.

Dame Edna Everage is an icon of Australian stage and screen. The character has conquered the UK, but never quite managed to capture audiences in the USA the same way she did in her homeland and the motherland.

It's hard to know exactly how to classify Handling Edna. It's part auto biography, as the author Barry Humphries does cover a lot of his own life in it's pages, but it's also part fictional biography as the book details Barry's life with Housewife Megastar Dame Edna Everage. Edna's not real, she's a character Barry has played for the last 50 plus years, but the book presents itself as if Edna is very real and Barry does not in fact dress up in drag to portray here, but has managed her for most of her long career.

Before 'discovering' Mrs Edna Everage (before then Australian Prime Minister Gough Whitlam called her an Australian dame she was Mrs Edna Everage of Moonee Ponds. Barry actually admits that he doesn't even know if she's ever had the damehood ratified by the Royal Family, although as she's on good terms with them it's entirely possible) Barry Humphries was a modestly successful comedian/satirist. His material wasn't bad, one example 'Snow Complications' still survives to this day and holds up tolerably well. However Edna has always been his crowning achievement.

The book details how he originally met with and was strangely drawn into managing her career. I felt the early part of the book really shone. Barry's eagle eye and great descriptions of Melbourne; the city itself, the suburb he grew up in Camberwell and Edna's own Moonee Ponds (which Humphries claims is the only place in Australia to have named itself using a mixture of aboriginal and english words), are both uproariously funny and uncomfortably accurate. Humphries is a satirist first and foremost, even Edna is his way of poking fun at Australia and Melbourne suburbanites in particular, and while he's funny, he is also bluntly honest, occasionally cruel.

I felt as Edna's career and possibly Barry's life spiralled out of control that the book lost a bit of focus and while he still sprinkled in pop culture references and skewered suburban beliefs and cliches, he occasionally got things wrong. He was deliberately vague about dates, but even then he mentioned a few people and celebrities out of time. The ending was a little weak, in that the story went from satire to high farce, but then again it's hard to end a story that is still very much underway. Humphries doesn't appear as much as he used to, but neither or Edna have actually retired as far as I am aware.

One of the most fascinating parts of Handling Edna for me, was the obvious love hate relationship between Barry Humphries and Edna Everage. In some ways I think Barry chose to write this book as a pseudo biography because he finds the character of Edna easier to handle if he believes she's real and not him in drag. At times he seems to resent Edna for having to build his success on her and not be recognised as himself. Humphries is known for two other characters (both are mentioned in the book); Sandy Stone, a retired gentleman from the suburb of Glen Iris, who sets out to bore people with his endless monologues about life in the 1950's in suburban Melbourne and Sir Les Patterson, the minister for the Yartz, a boorish, drunken, offensive Australian politician. At one time Les' profile actually threatened to exceed that of Edna's. He only admits to being Sandy. He seems to share Edna's distastes of Les, and even in this no one can actually be sure of how Les and Edna came to share a stage.

It's a real fun read, especially recommended if you're from Melbourne or Australia and want a trip down memory lane or if you're a fan of Edna and her over the top stage spectaculars.

Toodles possums!

Thursday, September 1, 2011

Back to Fairyland

If anyone has read my review of Catherynne M. Valente's The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland In A Ship Of Her Own Making they would be well aware that I am head over heels in love with the book and the concept behind it.

For that reason I was overjoyed when I found out that had a new free Fairyland story by Cat The Girl Who Ruled Fairyland For A Little Whileavailable.

The story is a prequel of sorts to The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland In A Ship Of Her Own Making, and is a delight from beginning to end. If you have visited Fairyland with September then I know like me you will be happy to make a return trip and if you have not experienced it then this is a good starting point that will not spoil the book, but should only serve to whet your appetite.