Wednesday, October 31, 2012

Chime by Franny Billingsley

I was left with one word when I finished Chime: Brilliant.

The hard part about reviewing Franny Billingsley’s excellent tale is to explain exactly why it gave me that feeling without totally spoiling it for any prospective reader.

It’s a very hard book to classify, and also to market. Given where my wife found the book (the YA section) it fits into the ever broadening field of YA literature. The best classification I can hang on it is YA Gothic Romance. That however doesn’t really do the book justice. Although it’s marketed as a YA book I can’t see too many YA readers really warming towards it. I had the feeling a number of times throughout the book that had I read it as a teen I wouldn’t have liked it, but as a fairly widely read adult I had a greater appreciation of the skill required to write a story like Chime.

It’s told in first person most of the time, although it does occasionally switch perspective for brief periods. It’s the story of Briony, a sheltered young woman who believes she is a witch, caused the death of her beloved stepmother, is the reason her twin sister is damaged, and therefore should be hung. Meeting and befriending the young tearaway Eldric, brings Briony out of herself and eventually convinces her that what happened to her stepmother and sister was not her fault and she should not feel responsible for the events or the fates of those women.

The relationship between Eldric and Briony is handled sensitively and skilfully with a great deal of humour and believability. Briony and Eldric’s relationship often made me recall that of Laurie and Jo in Little Women. The setting is truly fascinating. It’s hard to pin down a time, but the technology and fashion mentioned suggest that it’s early 20th century. Location is another one. The town of London is described as being not all that far away, so it’s somewhere in England, but the swampy setting kept making me think of Louisiana. Briony’s belief that she sees magical creatures and events that no one else can made me think of Jo Walton’s Among Others. The heroine of that book was not dissimilar to Briony and she also saw things and had beliefs that were left deliberately ambiguous. Eldric was also reminiscent in some ways of Among Others' ‘romantic lead’.

It was an entrancing book, full of glorious dreamy imagery. It was something you savoured as you read. Billingsley’s prose and sumptuous way of describing things combined with Briony’s somewhat unique, quirky and highly amusing way of viewing her world and the people around her were a joy to encounter.

Chime is one of the best books I’ve read this year and I urge everyone to find it and lose themselves in this dream of a novel.       

Saturday, October 27, 2012

The Dead Girls' Dance by Rachel Caine

As I was impressed by Glass Houses (the first Morganville Vampires book) and it ended on a cliff, The Dead Girls' Dance was always going to be a lock for me.

The cliff that ended Glass Houses is resolved quite early, and the story continues where the last one left off. We find out some more about Eve's background, why she adopted the Goth girl style and about her younger brother. He has potential to become a villain in the future.

Most of this one centres around the death of a Morganville vampire called Brandon, the framing of Shane for the murder and the rather barbaric method of execution the vampires demand for anyone who kills one of them.

Claire, Eve and Michael have to make some hard choices, life changing in the case of Michael, and some less than desirable alliances to save their friend's life.

Claire makes a decision between Michael and Shane, although this may have been because Eve took up with Michael. It still doesn't stop her from considering nearly every boy she meets as a prospective boyfriend. I don't get the impression she was boy crazy before coming to Morganville, but living away from home certainly seems to have brought her out of herself on that front.

The dance mentioned in the title is an actual event that happens in the book. It's a dance held by the Epsilon Epsilon Kappa (EEK, very clever and amusing) fraternity. Again it shows that there are scarier things out there than vampires, and unfortunately they're very real.

The Dead Girls' Dance ties up a few loose ends from Glass Houses, but it leaves you wanting more. I have mentioned how addictive these things are, right? The excerpt from Eve's diary at the end gives hints to what may happen in Midnight Alley. It would be interesting to see a book from Eve's point of view. So far we've mainly got Claire, although interestingly for an urban fantasy the Morganville Vampires books are not done in first person.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Swift by R.J Anderson

Since reading Knife last year, then picking up the sequel Rebel, a couple of weeks ago I've shot gunned R.J Anderson's faery books. I wasn't exactly sure what she'd do with Swift, because Arrow really did wrap up the story that began in Knife.

For about the first half I thought Swift was an entirely new story about an unrelated group of faery kind. Most of Swift focusses on the piskeys (they live in a Cornish mine and she's blended them with the knockers). The story is told through the eyes of Ivy; a young piskey born without wings who has been forced to grow up quickly due to the absence of her mother.

Ivy's mother was supposedly stolen away by the piskey's sworn enemies; the spriggans. The loss drove her father into the mines where he spends most of his time and when he's not there doesn't communicate much with his three children; Ivy, her irresponsible older brother Mica, and younger sister  Cicely.

Ivy keeps the house and looks after Cicely. One night she's approached by a spriggan and then a mishievous young piskey called Keeve goes missing. The responsible spriggan is believe caught and Ivy discovers that he's not a spriggan at all, he's a faery and he has information about Ivy's missing mother.

What then happens leads Ivy into a journey of discovery. A journey of discovery about herself, her mother, the captured faery and her own people.

It's a nice little fable and it is exciting like all the previous books have been. Anderson only seems capable of writing the one female protagonist. You could put Knife, Linden, Rhosmari and Ivy in a line up and be hard put to tell who was who. It also did tie into the other three books. The young faery, whom Ivy nicknamed Richard, was actually Martin, a faery in Rebel and Arrow.

I've liked the books, but I do think Anderson went a little far and tried to get too much out of a concept that largely ran out of steam after the second book.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

Glass Houses by Rachel Caine

To be totally honest Glass Houses (the first volume of Rachel Caine’s highly successful Morganville Vampires series) is not normally the sort of thing I’d read. I can’t remember why I actually even purchased the first of them. I know my wife ripped through the whole series and found it compulsively readable.

On the surface of it the book and the series sound like so many others that are popular amongst urban fantasy and young adult readers.

Claire Danvers is an accelerated learning student who is attending Texas Prairie University located in the sleepy town of Morganville at the age of 16 before transferring to a more respected college like MIT or Caltech . After one too many beat downs and humiliation at the hands of the mean girls in her dorm, lead by the psychopathic Monica, Claire applies for a spot in the Glass House; a gothic mansion in town, inhabited by 3 local 18 year olds who are looking for a 4th to share expenses.

Once she’s in the Glass House, Claire learns Morganville’s secret. The town is run by vampires and largely exists to provide them with a haven and a food source. Of equal and possibly greater interest are the residents of the Glass House. On the surface Shane is a video game playing, womanising slacker with more than a touch of the bad boy about him, but there are secrets in his past. Eve looks like a perky Goth girl, but readers, and Claire, don’t find out much more than that, then there’s Michael. He sleeps all day, only appears at night and seems to be unwilling or unable to actually leave the house.

In the course of the book Claire will learn about herself and her new friends as well as the town and manage to make a friend of one of the town’s leading vampires and an enemy of another.

This wasn’t the first Rachel Caine book I’d read. I read the first of her Weather Warden books some years ago, but didn’t continue with the series. She was known to me, and she’s a decent writer. I think that’s one of the things that sets the Morganville books apart from many of the others, they are very well written, and written by someone who really knows her craft. The premise is interesting. Unlike a number of other urban fantasy and paranormal romance writers, Caine has set Morganville in a world that is not aware of vampires, and would see them as a threat if they were. In some ways Claire’s human antagonists were far more dangerous than any supernatural fiend. There’s a great rapport between Claire, Shane, Michael and Eve. We learn enough about them to make them interesting, but it’s clear that their stories are far from complete.

Claire’s indecision about who out of Shane and Michael she’s more interested in does become a bit wearing, hopefully she’ll get over this as the series continues. The girl is regularly described as being quite smart, but this is occasionally inconsistent as she has gaps in her knowledge I wouldn’t expect of a 16 year old bright enough to attend college, and she also does some pretty silly things to suit the story. Eve was another one that threw me at times. I like the character, but I don’t buy her as a Goth. She has the black hair and the white face as well as the black clothes and accessories, but she’s generally bright and perky. I saw her as rather like Harley Quinn or the Goth lab tech from NCIS.

The book moved fast and was well paced, it’s also compulsively readable. I ripped through it in a day and as it ends of a cliff I’ll be strapping in for Dead Girl’s Dance in the near future. 

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Arrow by RJ Anderson

Arrow is the 3rd of R.J Anderson’s faerie books that began with Knife.

Arrow is a little different from it’s two predecessors in that it doesn’t concern itself solely with the trials of the Oakenfolk, and the protagonist; Rhosmari, isn’t of the Oak herself. She’s a member of the reclusive, but powerful Children of Rhys, a group of Welsh faeries introduced in Rebel, the previous book in the series.

I have to admit to not really taking to Arrow the way I did to Knife and Rebel. I’m not sure why this was. It is a direct sequel to Rebel, picking up not long after the events of Rebel, unlike Rebel which took place years after Knife. It could be Rhosmari as protagonist, her not being Oakenfolk somehow seemed off to me. She leaves her home in defiance of her mother and soon finds herself caught up in the free faery battle against Jasmine, the former Oakenfolk faery, who wants to make herself the Empress of all English faeries.

Initially Rhosmari thinks she’s being assisted by Martin, the rather hip young faery with the Shakespeare fascination, but he turns out to be working for the Empress and turns her over to Jasmine. Rhosmari escapes and makes her way to the Oakenfolk and is a key component in their struggle to eventually free themselves off Jasmine’s influence and that of her protégé; Veronica. This also forges great understanding and cooperation between the various groups of English fae, who hadn’t previously worked together. Rhosmari also seems to find love with the faery’s human ally Timothy.

Arrow, to me, had the air of been there, done that. There did need to be a 3rd book to tie off the loose ends from Rebel, and Arrow did do that, but it seemed to lack the spark and creativity that had been present in Knife and Rebel. I found it hard to distinguish Rhosmari from Knife and Linden (the heroine of Rebel, who was very much in the background in Arrow). Her abilities were also strangely inconsistent, she discovered hidden powers or abilities just when she needed them. The fae’s weaknesses and strengths are really only observed when it suits the story, that’s been consistent throughout all 3 books.

With how bland Rhosmari was I would have appreciated a different view point. Maybe seeing more about Martin, who wasn’t really working for either Jasmine or the Oakenfolk, but rather himself, or even Veronica, who was a great bad girl, but never explored beyond being a rather one dimensional portrayal of that.

It does tie everything up neatly, but the ending is a little rushed and the pairing of Timothy and Rhosmari seemed far too convenient and wasn’t really built up enough throughout the narrative to make it totally believable.      

Friday, October 19, 2012

The Fires of Heaven by Robert Jordan

The Fires of Heaven is actually a pretty good entry in The Wheel of Time sequence, but the story has well and truly gotten away from it's author by now.

Three stories take up the bulk of the action, with the occasional interlude from the White Tower, now controlled by the Black Ajah, and the Andoran halls of power.

The three main stories concern Rand, and with him are Mat, Egwene, Aviendha, Moiraine and Lan. That of former Amyrlin Seat; Suian Sanche, her friend Leane and the prophetess Min. The third story follows Elayne, Nynaeve, Thom Merrilin and the thief catcher Juilin.

Wait...there's someone missing. What about Perrin, Faile and Loial? The electronic copy of The Fires Of Heaven that I read was 866 pages, including the ever expanding glossary, and there was no Perrin. The former blacksmith's apprentice was barely mentioned. He was back in the story when I bailed on the series, so he must have returned. To write over 800 pages and hardly even reference one of your main characters is a pretty impressive achievement. I'm sure Perrin had some fans (I'm not one of them), and they must have been pretty hacked off when he was largely forgotten about in this book.

It's an illustration just how out of control The Wheel of Time was becoming and an indication that Robert Jordan had pretty much lost his way. The story of Suian and Co being hunted, powerless fugitives was interesting and had some excitement, although Min did turn into a bit of doormat the longer the story went, and of course we never found out what it is about Rand that fascinates her so much.

The Elayne and Nynaeve story was a delight for nearly all of it's length. Have I mentioned how much I love Nynaeve, braid tugging and all. I don't really know why they're wandering around the wilds of Randland. I think Suian sent them off on some fools errand to track down Black Ajah, but I actually don't care, because they're so entertaining. They join a circus! It's really cool. It is blighted a little by Elayne's control freak tendencies surfacing. Rand has the power of a god, why does she think she can bind him to her as a Warder? She seems to regard him as some sort of adolescent crush. I just wonder if Rand's powers are some sort of aphrodisiac, because there isn't any other reason for the women who fall for him to do so.

Unfortunately for my reading pleasure Jordan focussed on the third story most. Mat gets pretty awesome later in the book, but Rand remains as drippy as always. I can kind of understand him a bit. All Rand ever wanted to do was inherit Tam's farm, marry Egwene, have a bunch of kids and live and die an anonymous Two Rivers farmer. Instead he's got a power that may drive him mad, he's battling godlike beings, fighting off demons and has been adopted as the leader of a homicidal bunch of tribesmen. Plus he has all these women throwing themselves at him, and he really only wants Min, who he thinks believes he's a wool headed farmer. The problem with that is that it took me a paragraph to explain that, in The Wheel of Time, Jordan has taken 1,000's of pages to say the same thing. The other thing is that the Aiel storyline moves at a glacial pace, because it delves into the intricacies of Aiel life, which is about as interesting as watching grass grow. It may work in a source book for the series, but as the bulk of a narrative it's tedious.

Rand's story aside, I did like the book, I just wish Elayne, Nynaeve, Thom and Juilin had stayed with the circus. They could have gotten an entire other series out of that storyline alone.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Darkling by Yasmine Galenorn

Darkling is the third of Yasmine Galenorn's Otherworld novels featuring the D'Artigo sisters; Camille, Delilah and Menolly, following Witchling and Changeling. She follows the convention established in the first two by having the third of the sisters act as the narrator. Camille; a witch, narrated Witchling and the story in Changeling was told by middle sister, the shapeshifter Delilah. Darkling is Menolly's turn. The title refers to the fact that Menolly is a vampire.

The stories told in the books tend to reflect the personalities of the girl telling it. Camille is the big sister and a little more serious than her siblings, and Witchling as the opener had a lot to acquaint readers with so was related in that way. Delilah is lighter and more fun than her sisters, plus the fact that when she gets stressed she defaults to the form of a highly strung tabby cat provides for some amusing moments. Delilah, despite being the middle sister and taller than the other two is still seen by them as the baby, something that frustrates her, but she doesn't seem to be able to shake it. Menolly, partly because of her nature, she was made into a vampire against her will, has a darker, edgier style and voice to her.

The story in Darkling was definitely the darkest of the three so far. The war in Otherworld has ramped up and despite the girls being Earthside, they're right in the middle of it, and it doesn't help when Menolly finds out that her hated sire; the depraved and sadistic Dredge is a major player, plus she's tied to him because of what he did to her. When he and his minions start targeting humans as foot soldiers in the war he and his allies are waging both on Otherworld and Earthside the D'Artigo's and their friends go in all guns blazing, it only gets worse when one of the girls' friends; a full blood human dress shop owner gets pulled into the mess. Menolly needs to find a way to get free of Dredge once and for all, and take him down in the process.

Yasmine Galenorn really lifted everything up a notch in Darkling. Not only was there a darker, edgier style to this one, some heavy hitters also appeared (Morgana Le Fay and Loki to name two). That the author seems to be comfortable when writing about vampires shouldn't surprise, they're a staple of urban fantasy, and her other series; Indigo Court, largely focusses on them.

Readers got their first real look at Otherworld, it was very completely realised and wonderfully written. I hope the girls can visit again, so we can see more of it in the future. Maggie, the orphaned gargoyle baby, took her first steps, and I still have the belief she'll surprise the girls before she's fully grown. My favourite character remains Iris; the girl's protective Finnish house sprite (she's a type referred to as a Talon-haltija). Although I felt Darkling was the best book of the three I've read, Delilah remains my favoured narrator. From what I've found out about book 4; Dragon Wytch is narrated by Camille, so they may be cycled around like that now each girl has had a go. Be interesting to see more than one narrator in a future volume, or maybe even someone other than one of the sisters. I'm putting in a vote for Iris right now.

Rebel by R.J Anderson

Quite some time ago, I actually think it was more than two years ago now (seriously where does the time go? I need a Tardis) I read a fluffy little YA thing called Knife. I liked it and had always intended to read the sequel, I only now got to it in the TBR pile.

Rebel and Knife are two fairly different books, despite being part of the same series. I would have hesitated to call Knife YA urban fantasy, but that's exactly what Rebel is. Knife was gentler and more about the relationship between Knife; a faery and Paul; a crippled human. Knife and Paul are both in Rebel, although Knife now calls herself Peri, and they're both grown up.  There's a relationship in Rebel, but I found it more incidental than it was in Knife.

Rebel is the story of Linden, a young faery a generation on from Knife. The Queen is dying and Linden is tasked with going out into the world and enlisting other fae kind to help the Oakenfolk and continue their way of life.

It's also the story of Timothy, a troubled fifteen year old, who is Paul's cousin and has been suspended from his boarding school for fighting.

Linden stows away in Timothy's rucksack, and the two of them wind up in London, meeting some very different and dangerous fae. Both their lives have been turned upside down and their actions will determine the roads that the Oakenfolk and faery kind in general will take.

I quite liked Linden and her pluck, although she seemed to go from being fairly helpless to being quite powerful very quickly, and it was all a little too easy for her. Timothy was frustrating, but then again he's a teenage boy and they often are annoying. I liked Rob, or Robin, readers were kept guessing about his intentions and whose side he was on right to the end. I'm still not entirely sure myself.

To be totally honest Rebel is probably a little young for me, I think it's out of place in the YA section and maybe should be dropped down in the age expected to read it, but it's still quite enjoyable, and has hooked me enough to get to give the third book in the series; Arrow, a go.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Watchtower by Elizabeth A. Lynn

I’d never heard of Elizabeth A. Lynn when I saw her name on the list, and it was a surprise to me that Watchtower, the first book in her Chronicles of Tornor had won the World Fantasy Award in 1980.

When I looked for some information on her I discovered that she was notable for being an early author to focus on lesbian and gay relationships in speculative fiction. There is actually a lesbian couple in Watchtower, but they’re not the main characters and their relationship is simply part of the story and not played up or sensationalised in any way, which I thought was very well done.

On the face of it Watchtower is a pretty standard tale of conquest and revenge, but it’s really more about a clash of cultures and the challenging of long held beliefs.

The story is quite simple. The small kingdom of Tornor is conquered by a brutal warlord called Col Istor, and the main character is a loyal captain or Tornor’s guard; Ryke. Ryke remains in Tornor to try and ensure that the prince Errel remains alive and possibly ascend to his father’s throne. Ryke and Errel flee Tornor and seek assistance from another kingdom. They learn that kingdom’s style of fighting and eventually return with an army to overthrow Istor and take back what is rightfully theirs.

It fit quite neatly into what people call ‘gritty’ fantasy these days, popularised by writers such as George R.R Martin, Joe Abercrombie and Glenn Cook to name three. It’s very low on magic, dealing more with the different cultures that make up the world and often examining Ryke’s reasons and motives. The brevity of the book (it’s not much over 200 pages) don’t allow for a lot of world building or even much character development. I found the characters very black and white and rather bland. It’s an easy enough read and rather predictable. It’s sequel (The Dancers of Arun), published in the same year was also nominated for a World Fantasy Award, and the final book (Northern Girl) came out in 1980. Despite the two sequels Watchtower is quite self contained and wraps all it’s storylines up, so there’s no need to read on.

A series that I did enjoy which also dealt with the issues of gay relationships in a fantasy setting was Mercedes Lackey’s Last Herald Mage trilogy, beginning with Magic’s Pawn. The theme of the hidden prince trying to regain his birthright was something that I saw pop up in Guy Gavriel Kay’s Tigana, and I also kept being reminded of Mark Lawrence’s Prince of Thorns with the bleakness of the book’s setting and situation.

Monday, October 8, 2012

Changeling by Yasmine Galenorn

After reading the excerpt of Changeling in the back of the first of Yasmine Galenorn’s Otherworld books (Witchling) was rather intrigued to read the whole book. The series is largely about the D’Artigo sisters, 3 half fae girls from Otherworld who work Earthside for the fae/human organisation OIA. All of the sisters have specific qualities that make them valuable assets for OIA. The oldest girl Camille, is a witch. The youngest; Menolly, is a vampire and middle sister Delilah can change into a cat. The first book was told from Camille’s point of view and interestingly Galenorn decided to change that for the sequel and use Delilah as the narrator.

I haven’t actually seen a writer do this before, and it interested me to see how differently it would read with a new narrator and an alternative point of view. I have to report that I prefer Delilah as a narrator to Camille. I found Camille a little dry at times, but Delilah’s a delight and has a lighter touch. Although it’s nor imperative to have read Witchling to enjoy Changeling, it does help, because Delilah assumes knowledge of the reader from the first book without totally explaining everything.

This time around Delilah is approached by the attractive representative of a were puma clan in her capacity as a PI and a were to find out who or what is picking off members of his tribe. A little investigation points to the Hunter Moon Clan; a tribe of were spiders, as the culprits, but they’re in league with a dangerous Otherworld faction who are actively involved with trying to destablise the Otherworld political scene, plunging Otherworld into a war and causing ructions that if they spill Earthside could be catastrophic for all involved.

The D’Artigo girls, along with their own talents, can call on some more than useful allies; Delilah’s boyfriend the dashing and determined OIA FBH (full blooded human) Chase, Camille’s dual love interests; the Svartan Trillian and the kitsune Morio, as well as the sisters’ friend Smoky the dragon. It’s a wild and fun ride. Full of action, thrills, laughs and s. Be warned the Otherworld books are labelled as paranormal romance, but they’re definitely urban fantasy. There is some romance and sex, but it’s part of the story, not the driver.

I tended to prefer Delilah’s narration, her stuff as a cat is priceless, and from my brief observations of cat behaviour, very accurate. The dynamics and interaction between the siblings also seemed very real and was interesting to read, it added depth to the story. I also have to mention the inclusion of the orphaned gargoyle baby that Camille rescued in Witchling; Maggie. She was a part of the story and not just forgotten about or aged up quickly to make her easier to write. She behaves just like a baby would be expected to, although I think she’s going to turn out to be far more powerful and important than any of the girls imagine. The girl’s home help and surrogate ‘aunt’; the Finnish house sprite Iris, played a larger part in Changeling than in Witchling and this was a good move on the author’s part, because I really took to Iris, and I don’t think I’m alone in that.

Very much looking forward to Darkling which will be narrated by Menolly, the sister as yet that we know the least about.

Friday, October 5, 2012

The Shadow Rising by Robert Jordan

The Shadow Rising is the fourth book of Robert Jordan's epic Wheel of Time series. I've seen some rate this as one of their favourites of the sequence. I can remember really liking the fifth book, but this one not so much. It's necessary and it has some great bits, but overall it's quite uneven.

Most of the Wheel of Time books seemed to go for about 1,000 pages, but whilst reading The Shadow Rising I kept wondering what Jordan's editor was doing, other than checking spelling and punctuation. There really is a huge amount of padding that could be easily cut without affecting the final outcome. At the end because it really doesn't go anywhere and cliffs are hung left right and centre you really wonder why this wasn't broken up and added onto the 3rd and 5th books.

Possibly some of my dissatisfaction could stem from the fact that Jordan seems to be interested in Rand's story with the Aiel, and I find that particular section fairly boring. Egwene and Moiraine liven it up a little, as does Mat, but most of the time it's yawn inducing for me.

Three of the other stories had far more potential and one of them, despite being the most exciting part of the book, was really given rather short shrift.

It could also be the females Jordan writes. I've heard it that he based most of his female characters on his wife; Harriet. If I were Harriet I don't know if I'd be flattered or horrified, I lean towards the latter. I'll just go through a few of them and how I see them.

I like Nynaeve, yes, she's a bad tempered shrew, and I personally wouldn't like her if I met her, but she's very honest about what she is and she's comfortable with it. The same cannot be said for some of her companions. Elayne is a bit of an airhead, the scene where Nynaeve sobers the Daughter Heir of Andor up in her usual no nonsense way is one of the book's highlights. Egwene is very controlling and manipulative, and I have no doubt she'd sell her own family down the river if it came down to a choice between them and her precious Aes Sedai. Then there's Aviendha, I didn't mind Aviendha in The Dragon Reborn, but I came to really loathe her in The Shadow Rising. She's homicidal and her behaviour doesn't even make sense. I kept hoping she'd get killed in one of the many fights the Aiel get themselves into during the book, but alas it was not to be.

The parts of the book that took place in the Two Rivers, Tanchico and the Tower were excellent. They could have cut Rand's entire section and got a far better book out of it. I'm reading on for what happens in those stories, not Rand. He could walk off a cliff into a bottomless pit and take Aviendha with him and immediately improve the story.