Tag Archives: Fantasy

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: 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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Shelf Love Challenge: Why do I read the books I do?

IMG_0877

My TBR pile!

This month’s question is: Why do you read the books you read? Why do you gravitate towards certain genres and/or authors. How do you pick the next book you will read?

So, why do I read the books I do?

Good question. It’s something I’ve never really thought about – my favourite genres are fantasy, science fiction, and detective stories. My least favourite is literary fiction. Or poetry. The only poetry I really like is limericks.

I suppose I graduate towards genre fiction because I tend to prioritise plot and characterisation over beautiful writing; I can see why other people go all gooey over a well turned phrase, but it’s not my thing. Plus, I like magic, and as soon as you add a wizard it’s fantasy regardless of what else is going on.

When it comes to detective stories, a line from one of Dorothy Sayers‘ Lord Peter Wimsey books comes to mind: Lord Peter says to Harriet Vane, who is his wife and a detective story writer, that detective stories are “the purest form of literature we have”. He goes on to explain that in detective stories, good (almost) always triumphs over evil. Detective stories provide a vision of justice that we all hope is true, even if we fear that it isn’t. For the duration of reading the book, we can pretend that good always triumphs, the bad guys always get caught, and karma bites.

Science fiction and fantasy, even though they might seem very different, are actually very similar: both deal with worlds that don’t exist. The difference is that science fiction often explains very carefully how the handwavium works, and fantasy just says, “it’s magic; live with it”.

Sci-fi and fantasy therefore get an undeserved bad press because it’s all made up stuff, therefore not real, therefore not relevant. This ignores the significant problem that the characters in oh-so-respectable literary fiction aren’t real either. Sci-fi and fantasy deal with exactly the same problems as any other form of fiction, just with more dragons (or spaceships). Furthermore, because the setting isn’t constrained by reality, the author can set up the world to showcase a particular problem or situation. JK Rowling did this very well with the Harry Potter books. She set up a wizarding world full of unfairness and inequality, and then made Harry and his friends face up to all of it – bullying and the realisation that you can’t always trust adults in the first book; war, sacrifice, larger issues of inequality and the power of a corrupt government in the final books. Would it even have been possible to have dealt with these themes in a non-fantasy book? Even if it were possible, what kind of book would that turn out to be?

I suppose, then, what I also love about Science Fiction and fantasy, is that they usually end with hope. Even if the good guys don’t have it all their own way, even if the outcome is decidedly ambivalent, there is still hope for the future. There is still hope that, in the end, good really will triumph.

So, how do I pick the next book I will read?

The first thing is, Is there a book by one of my favourite authors that I haven’t read yet? I do have a few authors whose books I’ll pretty much always get as soon as they’re published.  Jim Butcher, Barbara Hambly, Lois McMaster Bujold, Kim Harrison, Kelley Armstrong, to name a few. For these authors, I’ll drop everything and read their latest offering.

Beyond that? It depends. Sometimes it depends on how I’m feeling: after a hard day, I can’t cope with anything emotionally demanding. So I’ll go straight for the mind-candy – those books that are just fun to read. Otherwise, I tend to read in phases. I’ll read a run of fantasy, then a run of detective fiction. Right now, of course, I’ve joined the #ShelfLoveChallenge so another factor is When did I get this?

One thing that doesn’t factor in, or hasn’t until recently, is recommendations. Until now, the only person I know who is really into reading is my husband. Although we both read voraciously, and we both read science fiction, our taste in books doesn’t actually cross over all that much. But I’ve recently started interacting more on Goodreads and Twitter, and it’s nice to make contact with other readers.  Not only is it nice to discuss books in general, but I’ve had some good recommendations – long may it continue.

So, if you’d like to link up and talk books, I’m, on Goodreads, and on Twitter. Drop me a line and say hello!

And here’s a link to my #ShelfLoveChallenge page.

Review: Last Argument Of Kings

Last Argument Of Kings
Last Argument Of Kings by Joe Abercrombie
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This book was every bit as excellent as I expected it to be. Joe Abercrombie’s skill as an author cannot be overstated. The plot moves swiftly, the language is clean, yada yada. He’s a great author.

What I enjoyed most about Last Argument of Kings, though, was the characters. Joe Abercrombie writes “grey” characters like no-one else. Is Logen Ninefingers a good man forced into fight after fight, or is he really a homicidal maniac? Is Sand dan Glockta a good man in a bad position, or is he a sociopath? Even the minor characters are notably ambivalent. Whether this is Abercrombie deliberately playing with fantasy tropes (the wizard isn’t as benevolent as all that either), deciding that he’s tired of characters who can be neatly sorted into ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’, or just deliberately making sure that his readers never know quite what to think, I don’t know. Just as you think you’ve got it worked out, Abercrombie has his characters do something that shakes your certainty: this is not fantasy where the characters have the luxury of easy decisions, and they then have to live with the consequences.

But this is another thing one notices about many fantasy novels: after all the dust has settled, the good guys retire to live a life of peace and prosperity, and everything is pretty much OK. Abercrombie, again, doesn’t have much truck with that. We’re talking war, people. We’ve all watched the news. When it’s all over, do we really think everything goes back to normal immediately? War is not glorious: it is messy and tragic. Good people die along with the bad. Nobody, as Glockta says, gets what they deserve in life. And everybody has to live with what happened, with the gaps in their lives and their property. And, of course, in their morals. What happens to your own personal morality if you have to do appalling things to survive, and to achieve your goals? What if you’re threatened and blackmailed? Yes, we’d all like to believe that we’d willingly die before compromising our most basic morality, but would we really? When it gets down to it, how many of us would choose someone else’s pain rather than ours?

Abercrombie also has a master’s touch when it comes to poisoning chalices. I don’t think anybody ends up with an untainted chalice, although some of the poisons are pretty subtle. (The closest, though, is Glockta himself. I was really, really happy about the way that turned out.) There is one instance, done very subtly, where you think… wow. A combination of perceptiveness and ruthlessness on the part of one character, obliviousness on the part of another, and a species of living hell on the part of a third. You’ll know it when you get to it, but, really, what Abercrombie giveth with one hand he taketh away with the other. And vice versa.

This book could be adequately subtitled: Be careful what you ask for: you might just get it.

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Review: Shadow Rites

Shadow Rites
Shadow Rites by Faith Hunter
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

With Shadow Rites Faith Hunter has done it again. The book starts with immediate action – a magical attack on Jane’s house. Who is responsible, and why? What did they hope to achieve? Jane has other problems, too, with the Witch Council coming to New Orleans, and Yellowrock Securities being responsible for security at the event. She’s pretty sure that it isn’t going to be straightforward, and indeed, she proves to be right.

There’s a mad master vampire in a pit, eyes on people’s hands, and other mysterious magics that are doubtless going to come back to bite Jane later. If Faith Hunter had this planned all along (and I think she probably did), I’m going to have to go back and read the earlier books to see what I missed! This kind of thing is, for me, the mark of an excellent author – one who lays plans years in advance, waiting to ambush her readers with something amazing that they didn’t see coming (but should have, except that the author sneakily distracted them). I love reading book #10 and thinking “So that’s why X happened in book #1.”

Since witches are involved, Molly, Angie, Evan and little Evan are featured in this book. Molly is becoming less irritating as a character, and less inclined to screw up, expect Jane to sort out the problem, and then blame Jane for the results. Angie, too, is coming into her own. I’m starting to like Angie – she’s growing out of the cutesy-little-girl phase and showing hints of being a young lady to be reckoned with.

And Edmund. I do like Edmund. Once again, one gets the distinct impression that Edmund is playing his own game – a long, deep one. The stakes (ha!) must be high, because he’s taking some big risks. He’s also got a sly sense of humour that most people don’t notice.

Jane, too, is developing. At the beginning of the series, she was working on her own. Now she’s got partners and family. She’s building a life in New Orleans, and I’m wondering when she’ll realise it.

I’m thoroughly looking forward Cold Reign, which is the next in the series.

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Review: Burned, by Benedict Jacka

Burned
Burned by Benedict Jacka
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Once again, Alex Verus is up against it. He’s been sentenced to death, and has only a week in which to get the sentence reversed. And the sentence also applies to his “dependants” – Luna, Variam and Anne.

The book consists mostly of Alex trying to win votes to get the sentence reversed, and to remove the three young people from the list of his dependants so that they escape being collateral damage.
This was a quick read, and quite enjoyable. I do like the way Jacka has written Alex as someone who is not traditionally powerful, in the sense of being able to blow things up, but can still be very dangerous simply because of his ability to know what comes next. It’s an interesting demonstration of how power isn’t always synonymous with physical strength or force.

I also enjoyed the bits of book where Anne appeared – she’s my favourite character; she tries hard to be ethical and do the right thing – even when all she gets is hatred and suspicion. In some ways, I think she’s a more complex character than Alex. For me, she certainly more sympathetic. I could imagine going out for the evening with Anne and enjoying it.

On the other hand…

As another reviewer has pointed out, this whole book could have been condensed into a couple of chapters stuck on the front of the next book.

There are some substantial changes all around, so I do wonder if this book functions as a hiatus in the overarching plot to allow Jacka to move all his characters around into new positions for the next phase. It would certainly explain a lot.

Overall, although I think this is the weakest book in the series so far, there is still enough in it to make an enjoyable read, provided you are already invested in the series. Hopefully, the next book will see the plot back on track.

And the reason why I think Burned is the weakest in the series follows, but it’s spoilery so don’t scroll down if you don’t like spoilers.

I am also getting rather tired of everybody lining up to kill Alex. I mean, why? The guy just runs a magic shop. He’s hardly creating his own power bloc, so why are all these people – Light and Dark alike – so obsessed with him? The amount of time and resources being thrown at the Kill Alex Verus project is getting hard to believe without some indication of why all of these people feel it’s so important to either kill him or recruit him, rather than just ignore him. And where are the decent mages? Statistically speaking, Alex should have come across a few more of them who are not psychotic and/or amoral. The longer this series goes on, the more it becomes difficult to believe that Alex hasn’t managed to acquire more allies/friends.

 

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