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Review: Roaring Blood

Roaring Blood
Roaring Blood by Ambrose Ibsen
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I thoroughly enjoyed this book, which is the second in the Demon-Hearted series.

Lucy (Lucian) Colt is back, and starting to learn a bit more about the side effects of his demon heart-transplant. He’s also convinced he can kick serious necromancer ass without any of that wishy-washy teamwork stuff. And you just know how that’s going to go.

If you want a main character who’s an all-round good guy, who’s nice to old ladies and upright and honest and all that, go and read a different book. Lucy reminds me of no-one so much as Flashman (a la George MacDonald Fraser), except with arrogance and recklessness instead of cowardice. What saves him as a protagonist, though, is that Lucy – like Flashman – is shatteringly honest about his own shortcomings. Lucy’s voice as the protagonist-narrator is what makes these books. He’s like that guy who you want to smack a lot of the time, but you still can’t help liking him.

Plotwise, I thought the first book in the series (Raw Power) suffered from a bit of pacing problem. Ibsen has definitely sorted that out for this one: the action starts early and doesn’t let up. There’s lots of zombies, lots of violence and mayhem, right up till the very end. Admittedly, you won’t find much in the way of complexity here, but sometimes, that’s not what you want from a book. Sometimes, you want a likeable (sort of) protagonist and lots of zombie-killing, and that is precisely what this book delivers.

I picked up this series for something to read while waiting for Jim Butcher’s Peace Talks to come out: I really needed some urban fantasy that didn’t have any hints of romance, and Roaring Blood fills that hole admirably. Not only is there no hint of romance, but poor Lucy’s love life has got to be even worse than Harry Dresden’s.

Demon-Hearted has something of the feel of the Dresden Files, which may be due to the first-person narration by a main character who is saved from being someone you want to kick in the nuts by his self-deprecating sense of humour. I like a flawed protagonist; both Harry and Lucy screw up (big time, in Lucy’s case), but they admit it, and they learn from it (slowly, in both cases). I do wonder where Ibsen will take Lucy; he needs to move on, and I think the events of Roaring Blood indicate that he is starting to do so. I also wonder whether Ibsen will do what Butcher has, and widen his world – one of the strengths of the Dresden Files is the cast of supporting characters. There is at least one character introduced in Roaring Blood that I’d like to see again.

I’ll definitely be reading the next book – Happy End of the World.

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Review: Penric’s Mission

Penric’s Mission
Penric’s Mission by Lois McMaster Bujold
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was written by Lois McMaster Bujold. To a great extent, this is all you need to know.

Penric and Desdemona are back – Penric is thirty now, and has been dispatched on a secret mission by the Duke of Adria. If everything went right, it wouldn’t be much of a story – and things go wrong almost immediately. But how? And why?

In this story, we get more information about how demon magic works, the advantages, the perils and the pitfalls, and a few tantalising hints about what Penric and Desdemona have been doing in the years since Penric and the Shaman. But really, as with all of Bujold’s work, the characters make the story – they leap off the page (not literally: even Amazon hasn’t managed that yet) and present themselves, three-dimensional and real.

The feeling I get from the Penric books is always a rather gentle amusement – I think this is greatly due to the relationship between Penric and Desdemona: somewhere between best friends, older sister/younger brother, and conjoined twins. The strong bond between them is the foundation for all of the novellas, and one has the feeling that if that endures – and it will – then they will get through anything. Together. Until finally, Desdemona has to go on alone – but only when she must.

These novellas don’t put you through the emotional wringer, but they do provide an escape into an ever-more-detailed world with fascinating, complex characters.

The ending is rather sudden – however, I rather liked it. But I hope we will have another novella; although I’m perfectly capable of making up my own after I would prefer to read Bujold’s.

And, reading this one, I realised that Desdemona sounds a lot like Lois McMaster Bujold herself. 🙂

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Review: The Restorer

The Restorer
The Restorer by Amanda Stevens
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

What I Liked
Well, I burned through this in about 24 hours. That should tell you pretty much all you need to know. However…

Amelia. Amelia is not your usual urban fantasy/horror heroine. So far, she doesn’t seem to have mad martial arts skills, she doesn’t have some amazing world-destroying power, and she isn’t drop-dead gorgeous (but insecure). Nor does she have a string of alpha-males panting after her. She’s a pretty ordinary woman running her own business – except for her ability to see ghosts.

This ghost-seeing thing was something else I liked about this book/world. It’s not what you might call a power – more like a problem. If the ghosts know you can see them, they’ll be able to fasten on you and suck your life energy away. Cool stuff. So Amelia spends her life avoiding ghosts, and the people they haunt – hence the job that means she can spend a lot of time on hallowed ground, where she’s safe from ghosts.

I liked Amelia for her very ordinariness; it gave the story a scarier feel, I think. There wasn’t that comfortable disconnect that comes from reading about a character who’s so gorgeous and powerful that you can’t quite believe in them.

There’s obviously some background involved that we don’t get – maybe that’s for a later book.

I also liked that Amelia has a trade, and we get a few little details about what cemetery restoration involves. What can I say? I like collecting odd little bits of knowledge.

The World. Interestingly, this is pretty much the real world, except for the existence of ghosts (and maybe some other stuff). But – at least as far as has been revealed – you’re not tripping over werewolves and vampires everywhere you go. This is also a pleasant change (not that I’ve anything against werewolves and vampires, but it’s nice to have a change of pace every now and then).

It’s pretty obvious that there are things Amelia doesn’t know about – hopefully, we’ll find out more in later books.

The feel of this book is different from most urban fantasy – it’s quieter and creepier, and I’d put it somewhere between urban fantasy and horror.

What I Could Have Done Without
That thing where someone says “I’m going to tell you there’s a secret, but I’m not going to tell you what it is, or I’m going to be interrupted before I tell you.” It’s so… done to death.

Other
I did spot who the murderer was quite early on – although not why.

Conclusion
A solid four-star read; it only doesn’t get five stars because it didn’t have that extra special sort of something. However, I’m definitely going to read the others in the series, and can recommend this unreservedly for anyone who wants UF/horror that works on the creep-factor rather than just splashing blood about.

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Review: Raw Power

Raw Power
Raw Power by Ambrose Ibsen
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Ordinary bloke gets demon heart-transplant and finds it does more than just pump blood. Plus, he now has a new job, and life has got more complicated.

What I Liked
Lucian. Lucian (who doesn’t like being called ‘Lucy’, but had probably better get used to it) rang true for me. He’s bright but lazy, making a reasonable living prodding buttock and collecting debts – and, later on, art. He’s allowed himself to drift to where he is, without thinking about any of the morality involved – and he’s so overconfident you just know he’s in for a shock. Shocks. In short, he comes off as a realistic twenty-something lad with more testosterone than brains (and since he’s a bright lad, that’s a lot of testosterone). However, he has enough self-awareness to make him someone I would actually like to spend time with.

The whole demon-heart business. This is a new idea, or at least a sufficiently new spin on an old idea that it looks new. There’s some interesting hints that we’ll see more ramifications later on in the series.

Lucian again. Lucian doesn’t go from ordinary ass-kicker to supernatural hero overnight; he does what most twenty-something lads would do in that position: he screws up. Repeatedly. It’s the testosterone thing again. It can be irritating to watch, but Ibsen made the right decision, I think. Lucian is a more interesting character for being just a bit morally ambiguous, just a bit too laddish for his own good. It’s just not realistic for an ordinary person to be given some kind of supernatural power and then to immediately think “With great power comes great responsibility; I must be sensible and mature from now on.”

The magic system. We don’t actually get much information on the magic system, but Ibsen seems to have some interesting ideas.

What could have been improved
Pacing. Apart from a few blips, everything seemed to go a bit too much according to plan. There wasn’t that sense of imminent failure and risk that heightens the tension late on in most books.

Character interactions. I’ve observed before that the best urban fantasy (at least, for me) tends to be where the main character has a team he can bounce off. Where the character is isolated, either because he has no friends, or because his colleagues aren’t sharing, it makes the story a bit two-dimensional. I’m hoping that in further books, Ibsen will lighten up and let the other characters have a bit more page time (come on, Ibsen, you’ve set up some really good stuff and I want to know!).

Conclusion
This is a solid three-star read for me; I can’t quite justify giving it four stars, not when I compare it to such authors as Kim Harrison, Faith Hunter, Jim Butcher et al. However, I think Ibsen definitely has the potential to get there. Technical things like pacing can always be sorted out with practice; what Ibsen has is the ability to write an engaging character whom you’re actually interested in reading about – and I think that’s more difficult to learn.

So, Ibsen is a new author I’m going to read more of. I love it when that happens. 🙂

I’ve already bought Book 2, Roaring Blood, which has zombies.

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Review: The Fervor, by X. Kovak

The Fervor, by X. Kovak

The Fervor, by X. Kovak

This short story introduces both Claire (who has recently discovered she is part-succubus, which explains a lot but is basically Bad News for her), and Lucas, who is an alpha werewolf (Bad News for other people).

Being a succubus means that there’s a risk that you may flip out and cause an orgy by pumping pheromones into the air around you. Being a werewolf means you can flip out and rip people into little pieces.

Pay attention, because these people are going to reappear in later books, I think.

What I Liked

Claire. I liked Claire immediately; her life has just been turned upside down by the news that she’s now classified as Supernatural, and Kovak gets a nice balance between too much complaining about the unfairness of it all (whiny and annoying) and too brave and calm (not believable). She comes off as real, and someone that I wouldn’t mind spending time with in real life.

Lucas. Now, this came as a real shock. Generally, I hate alpha male characters because they tend to be a) interchangeable and b) a$$holes who need to die. Lucas actually has a personality, and his role in the story is more than just object-of-heroine’s-lust. Kovak has put in some other things that made him different from the usual run of interchangeable alphas, which you will discover when you read the story.

The situation. Honestly, I don’t think that the blurb does this justice, because the blurb implies that we’re going to get a sort of standard unpopular-girl-does-something-embarrassing-in-class situation, and the alpha will feel sorry for her, mop up her tears, and they’ll get together…. Not happening. This is not one of those nasty, preachy books where the author tries to beat you over the head with Issues – but, really, people, the potential to accidentally cause a pheromone-induced orgy amongst a bunch of people who might be strangers (or, worse, family!) isn’t amusing. Who is to blame when people end up having sex with people they wouldn’t normally choose to? What might the consequences of removing everybody’s inhibitions be? Kovak has thought through the implications for the people involved; it’s not played for laughs, and we end up with a far more satisfying read for it.

The background world. This is a short story; we don’t find out much about the background because there just isn’t the space, but Kovak has set up something interesting. Reminds of me of some parallels in American history, which you will discover when you read the story.

What I Didn’t Like

Honestly, there wasn’t anything, and I can usually find something to bitch about.

Conclusion

  • The characters are young-adult, but the “feel” is more mature, so don’t be put off by that.
  • The sex is part of the plot, thanks for that, Kovak. Also, not overdone.
  • Thoroughly recommended; I’ll be keeping an eye out for the rest. Kovak’s got a fan here, I think. 🙂

Review: To Have and to Hold

To Have and to Hold
To Have and to Hold by Lauren Layne
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I used to say, I don’t ever read contemporary romance. Since this is the second I’ve read, I shan’t be able to say that any more!

I heard about this on the
Caffeinated Book Reviewer
blog and liked the idea. So I got a copy. Then I read it.

So, here we go. This is your traditional formula romance, so I wasn’t expecting Great Literature. I wasn’t even expecting the complexities of plotting and characterisation that I’d expect from Great Fantasy, or Great Sci Fi, which are the genres I usually read. This is formula romance: it’s supposed to be mind candy; it’s supposed to be a fast, fun read that gives you a happy pink feeling. And sometimes, that’s what you want out of a book. My star rating reflects what I expect from the book.

So, four stars.

Brooke is a wedding-planner, who’s just had the embarrassment of her professional and personal life when her fiance got arrested by the FBI at the altar. Upon which, she discovers he’s a con man – and she didn’t even know his real name.

Cue the end of Brooke’s business, and she flees up to New York to join a firm of wedding planners who’ve just lost a member to marriage. Her first wedding to plan is for Maya, a hotel heiress – and it’s being paid for by Maya’s brother, Seth, who suspects the groom is a wrong ‘un.

Insta-lust between Brooke and Seth, and the bone of contention is obviously Maya’s wedding.

Sooo…..

What I Liked
Brooke
The failure of Brooke’s business wasn’t her fault, and she’s trying to make a new start. The story did not require her to do something unutterably stupid and then get rescued from the consequences by a man.

Brooke wasn’t perfect – she was capable of saying, and doing, mean things in a fit of temper. Then she would apologise. Brooke might have been a bit too determined to look on the bright side, but she wasn’t so nicey-nicey that I wanted to smack her.

To be strictly fair, she’s not the kind of woman I’d probably spend much time with, but I could see that she was a decent person, and I wanted her to be happy.

Seth
Seth, I really liked. He had drive, commitment, and control; I do like a rational man. He wasn’t your typical chest-beating alpha male, so lots of extra points there. There was a certain amount of Mr Darcy to him – he’s the responsible, hard-working, control-freaky one who could do with learning to lighten up a bit.

Relationship: Brooke and Seth
This is make-or-break for me. I’ve read romances where I’ve just thought, “This is going to last, like, six months after the end of the book. The sex might be great, but you’ll bore each other to death.” Not so with Brooke and Seth. They’ve each got enough spine to stand up to each other, and their differences are complementary. Brooke tends to look on the bright side too much; Seth tends to be rather more of a cynic. They can each learn from each other, smooth each others’ rough edges, and have the kind of give-and-take that makes a relationship work. I think they’ll make it. 🙂

Also, this is not one of those books where you think, “If this were real, he’d be arrested for harassment or sexual assault.” You get insta-lust, but at least it’s mutual.

Maya
I loved that bit right at the end. You’ll know it when you get to it.

The Plot
This is a romance; it’s about the characters and their relationship, not about the actual plot, which is kind of fortunate because there wasn’t much of a one. But it worked.

The Writing
Layne can write. The book whizzes along, with cute banter between the characters. The editing could have been a bit better – tell me once, you don’t have to tell me again a few pages later – but it wasn’t enough to spoil the enjoyment of the story.

What I Didn’t Like
Brooke
Given what had happened to Brooke, I thought she’d be rather more suspicious of Maya’s fiance. Maybe the author was trying to get across that Brooke’s method of dealing with the issue was basically to ignore it and try to pretend it not only never happened but could never happen, but if so, that didn’t come through quite strongly enough to work properly. I was more like, WTF? Hello? Pollyanna.

Seth
There wasn’t anything I didn’t like about Seth. Apart from his name.

The Plot
The big thing that triggers the “boy loses girl” part of the book, I was left thinking, WTF? (again) Why is this such a big deal? Sounds like a sensible course of action to me. Then I thought, maybe it’s me? But no, it’s me and a bunch of other reviewers.

Overall
I really enjoyed this – hence the four stars. It’s like candy-floss: sweet and sugary and insubstantial, but great fun while it lasts. It does what it’s supposed to do: give you a nice, happy pink feeling. The world needs books that just give you a happy pink feeling without demanding much in the way of intellectual effort or being put through the emotional wringer.

Will I read another book by Lauren Layne? Quite possibly. There are two more in this series, apparently – the next one doesn’t attract me quite as much as the third.

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Review: Sovereign

Sovereign
Sovereign by C.J. Sansom
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

It’s taken me years to get around to reading this, and having finished, I’m left with one inescapable thought: Why did it take me so long?

Matthew Shardlake and his trusty sidekick Jack Barak are off to York with the Royal Progress. King Henry is intending to to prod some serious Yorkshire buttock, and Shardlake is along to help with the legal petitions. He has also been given the task of ensuring the health and welfare of an accused traitor, who is being brought back to London for “questioning”.

Pretty soon, it’s clear that something is rotten in the county of Yorkshire (other than the King’s ulcerated leg, and the bits of traitor still nailed up over the gates), and before the tale is done, there are murders, attempted murders, lies, betrayals, seductions, narrow escapes, and celebrity gossip.

Shardlake and Barak make a good team, even though they don’t always see eye to eye, and Sansom is obviously moving their story on: this is a good thing, as it’s always vaguely unsatisfactory when the main characters’ lives never change, despite what’s happening around them.

Sansom also manages to get the paranoid atmosphere of Tudor England under the latter part of Henry VIII’s reign: an increasingly tyrannical and unstable king with nearly absolute power. Religion and politics inextricably linked. The danger that a wrong word or look to the wrong person in the wrong place, and someone might end up in the Tower of London however innocent they might be.

This series is going from strength to strength, and I will definitely be reading the rest of it.

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Review: Guns of the Dawn

Guns of the Dawn
Guns of the Dawn by Adrian Tchaikovsky
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This was nothing like the book I expected from the blurb. I had expected a fast-moving adventure, featuring a young woman who discovers that she isn’t fighting the war she thought she was, and then having to do something about it. Although that description technically fits, it really doesn’t convey the right impression.

Emily Marshwic is a young woman of a slightly-impoverished gentry family. She does the usual young-women things, including keeping alive a long-running feud with her father’s enemy, who is unfortunately now the mayor of the local town. When neighbouring Denland kills its king and invades, the usual thing happens. First the volunteers go to the war, then the conscripts – first, male, and, finally, one woman from each household is required to go to war.

And so Emily ends up in the first tranche of female recruits, is given fairly minimal training, promoted to ensign, and arrives on the front equipped with musket, sabre, and her father’s pistol.

It takes quite a long time for the book to get this far. Even more time is spent on Emily learning her business as a soldier and a junior officer. I found myself thinking that the story wasn’t really about Emily – she was just the focus for it. The story is about the war, its progress, and what war does to those left at home and those involved in the fighting.

It also has much in common with a coming-of-age tale – Emily starts out as a fairly typical (though rather outspoken) young woman of good family; she ends up as a competent soldier and officer in the army. We get to watch the change in slow-time, as she grows into a new person with a different place in society.

So far, so good. However, nothing special. If you want to read about war from the soldier’s perspective, try All Quiet on the Western Front. If you want to read about a woman soldier, read The Cavalry Maiden: Journals of a Russian Officer in the Napoleonic Wars.

For me, what took this book from a solid four-star tale – competent, entertaining, well-written and so on, but without that special something – to five stars, was the very end. I saw the events of the final scene coming, but that did not make them any more satisfying, or any less what the book needed to acquire that special something.

And I wonder how much the author has read of the English Civil War – King Luthrian reminded me very much of Charles I, particularly at the end.

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Review: Bellwether

Bellwether
Bellwether by Connie Willis
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I first read this years ago, and it became one of my favourites. I read, and enjoy, a lot of books – but only very few get filed on the “favourites” shelf.

On re-reading, a number of years later, the story hasn’t lost anything. In fact, I probably enjoy it even more now than I did then, being older and more cynical.

Sandra works for Hi-Tek, researching trends. She wants to find the origin of hair-bobbing. She also wants her mail correctly delivered, her photocopying done, and her stapler returned.

Bennett also works for Hi-Tek, under the impression that he has moved away from studying chaos. He wants some macaques so he can study information diffusion.

Flip attends at Hi-Tek, in the sense of: “Do you work here?” “No, I just attend.” She is the cause of chaos in other people.

It’s quite difficult to describe this book, because there actually isn’t a great deal in the way of plot. In some ways, it almost operates like the nineteenth century roman a clef in which ninety percent of the fun is that you know who the characters are supposed to represent. In the case of Bellwether Willis takes the whole book to poke fun at people who mindlessly follow trends without even known that they’re doing it, and at corporate-management-jargon.

This book was first published in 1996, and so certain aspects are rather dated (e.g. one character’s cellphone, which keeps going out of range, and the computer equipment) but the story as a whole has stood the test of 20 years. Given the subject matter, that’s rather depressing – but not surprising.

Anyone who has worked for a large company will immediately recognise Management (who is never named!) who comes up with a new acronym every week and is incapable of telling the difference between people who sound good and those who can actually do their jobs.

But the main portion of the book is about trends – good ones and bad ones. Why do people flock to a particular pursuit, or thing, in droves – and then abandon it a short while after? Everyone can probably think of a few (e.g., Pokemon Go, at the moment – with people getting mugged, or crashing their cars, because they’re playing the game and not paying attention to their surroundings. Or even wandering into landmines). But to some extent, these trends are (mostly) harmless, if rather irritating for those not caught up in them. But Willis also points out that other things are also trends: intolerance of a particular group being one. It used to be Jews. Now it’s Muslims.

Ultimately, I think Bellwether is one long (amusing!) rant by Willis about the ridiculousness of people who blindly follow what’s “in” – and about the very real damage that people can do by simply following the crowd. What would society be like if people stopped just following, and actually stopped to think?

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Review: Bushido, the Soul of Japan

Bushido, the Soul of Japan
Bushido, the Soul of Japan by Inazo Nitobe
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book is short, and accessibly written (provided you view ordinary late nineteenth-century writing as accessible).

When reading this book, it is important to remember two things:

1. It was written in 1900. The approach and the ethics therefore reflect the attitudes and society of the nineteenth century, not the twenty-first.
2. It was written by a Japanese man who had seen the fall of the feudal system, to explain Japanese and, particularly, samurai culture to Westerners. In fact, it was originally written in English and only later translated into Japanese.

Some people have criticised this book for its ethics in general – but I think this is unjust, as it’s a book of its time. Although there are parts which do more than merely raise eyebrows, it is only fair to the book, and to the author, to acknowledge that our ethics are a century away from Nitobe’s. It is unfair to expect a nineteenth-century Japanese man to have exactly the same moral values as twenty-first century Westerners.

Others have criticised the book for its very intent: to explain Japanese culture in terms that Westerners could understand. Again, it’s very easy to criticise from our twenty-first century internet-enabled Western point of view. If we want to know about Japan, or any other country, we can look it up on the internet in a few moments. In fact, nowadays, it’s very hard not to know at least a little about other cultures unless you deliberately shut yourself off.

It was different at the end of the nineteenth century: Japan had only just emerged from its isolation, and not only was its culture strange to the Western world, but most societies were much less multicultural than they are now, so people were less likely to have encountered a culture other than their own.

Thus, Nitobe discusses Bushido with lots of Western and Christian comparisons and examples, because these are what will make sense to his chosen audience.

The result is a very interesting book.

Nitobe himself was born in 1862, so he was eight years old when feudalism was abolished, and ten when the carrying of swords was forbidden. This not only gives Nitobe a unique perspective, but also means that when the book was written, many Japanese people would have remembered the feudal system. To them, it was not some foreign (or even barbaric) practice – it was their own culture. It was normal.

So with this book, there is a strange mix of explanation and defence. Nowadays, it’s shocking to read the story of an eight-year-old samurai boy being order to commit seppuku (ceremonial suicide by disembowelment) and actually doing it. But under bushido – and to Nitobe, who seems to have been of the samurai class himself, or close to it – the story emphasises the strength of devotion to duty, and courage, of even samurai children.

The attitude to women, too, is shocking nowadays. However, it’s important to remember that since this was written in 1900, the attitude to women in the West wasn’t much different. Admittedly, young girls in the West weren’t given daggers in case they needed to commit suicide to protect their honour – but then, neither were boys. If you read much about the life of women in the West during the late 19th century, you do wonder who had the better deal: the samurai girl in feudal Japan, or the middle-class young woman in London.

All in all, this is a very interesting and thought-provoking book – and not the least because it’s not written as a scholarly study by an outsider, but by a man trying to explain (and, in some senses, justify) his own culture. It therefore has the result of telling the reader perhaps more about feudal Japanese society and culture than even the author intended.

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