Archive for the ‘Category: Fantasy’ Category

 

Railhead-Philip-Reeve

This is a delightfully fun and engaging tale with all the confidence you’d expect of Phillip Reeve, returning to the steampunk genre, if in a very different world, of Mortal Engines.

Here, rather than walking cities, we have sentient trains and K-gates – wormholes or portals, taking trains and their passengers instantly to different worlds and different planets – androids who may or may not be sentient, AIs who may or may not be divine, street urchins and renegade consciousnesses and hive monks. It is a richly imagined and realised world, only a brief fragment of which we see but with enough detail and verve to make the rest imaginable. A word which exists but which ever impedes the cracking pace Reeve creates.

The story follows Zen Starling, the aforementioned street urchin, fulfilling every child’s fantasy role: a meagre existence, relying on his hard working sister and occasional thefts, is transformed when he meets Nova and her employer Raven who reveal that he is actually a lost scion of the ruling Noon family and employ him to infiltrate their train to steal a valuable item. As is not-unexpected, an item whose value is more than financial: a powerful and dangerous artefact within the world created by Reeve.

On the surface, this is a fairly traditional heist tale: various exploits by Zen and Nova lead to them infiltrating the train and they steal the artefact; when abandoned by Raven and learning more about it, they cobble together a revenge heist to steal it back.

There is however, a real humanity in this book and sympathy, albeit generally directed at the non-human characters: the beautiful and  tender trains bearing tags and art with pride and the motoriks, robots and droids with ore soul than R2-D2 or C3PO. And Phillip Reeve is not scared to give the reader shocks: the fate of the sentient trains destroyed (killed?) in the heist and the fate of Nova and, even more so, the tagger Flex were genuinely shocking and moving in a young adult book. 

Reeves gives a nod to a number of classic and popular examples of the science fiction genre from  Blade Runner to Dune to Stargate with touches of Arthur C. Clarke. 

I hear rumours that this is the first of a trilogy and I hope that’s true because it’s a thoroughly enjoyable and thrilling ride 

The-Plague-Charmer

As the image above shows, this book is another historical fiction novel by the author of Company of Liars, which I read and enjoyed a while ago. It wasn’t a great book but it was an enjoyable enough read, earning a decent four star review here. I was expecting something similarly entertaining and comfortable reading. Nothing too challenging.

And that is what this book offers.

Unlike Liars, which roams across England, The Plague Charmer takes place in a single village of Porlock Weir in Exmoor and the overseeing castle of Porlock Manor in 1361. A village and manor under threat from the onset of the plague and the change in focus to that isolated, tethered, claustrophobic atmosphere was an effective change. The horror of Sara and her family, locked up in their cottage to see whether any had contracted the plague – a genuinely horrific and, I am sure, historically accurate account – was a microcosm of the whole country.

Unfortunately, unlike Liars, it eschews the single narrative voice in favour of leaping – sometimes wildly and unpredictably – between a range of different narrators, sometimes only touching on one narrator for a couple of pages before launching into a  different point of view. We see multiple narrators: Sara, the wife whose family are ravaged by the plague and who watches her husband die and her sons flee; Luke, her son; Will, the dwarf cast out from the Manor and an outcast from the village – a character who owes a debt to George R. R. Martin’s Tyrion Lannister; Matilda, the devout, pious hypocrite; Lady Pavia, a dowager widow fleeing the plague in the Manor; Lady Christina, a disgraced young bride with a son born – somewhat inconveniently – less than nine months after her marriage. The novel, similarly, bounces between different ideas: the historical horrors of the plague; the supernatural threat of Janiveer, the mysterious woman who was rescued from the sea on the day of the eclipse in the opening chapters; the threat of religious extremism and cult.

Altogether, I was underwhelmed by the novel. None of the characters were particularly likeable and the writing was neither crafted nor subtle. Maitland never gives the reader time to settle into the voice of one character before changing again and again; and whole tracts of the novel – Luke and Hob’s story for example – were simply rather tedious and dull and not compensated for by the more tightly written final section.

Maitland does seem very historically convincing in the small details – the idea behind the character Will, the artificial dwarf, is an abhorrent concept, the comprachicos of Victor Hugo’ The Man Who Laughs – but was far less successful in this book than in the earlier Liars.

 

For various reasons – Ofsted, toddler, family visits – I’ve not been able to add reviews recently and am about to try to catch-up. Once again.

As an aide memoir to myself, to you – and a short cut to adding photos later, the books I’m yet to review are:

Autumn by Ali Smith: gorgeous, transformational, not (as advertised) a post-Brexit novel.

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The Bear and the Nightingale, by Katherine Arden: a dark and wintry Russian fairytale mythic novel.

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bear nightingale

Carpe Jugulum by Terry Pratchett, a re-read of my favourite and first Pratchett.

carpe-jugulum

The Boy In the Tower by Polly Ho-Yen, a young adult apocalyptic novel.

boy tower

We Are All Made Of Molecules, by Susin Nielsen: a young adult family saga.

molecules

The Plague Charmer, by Karen Maitland, an historical fantasy novel.

The-Plague-Charmer

It’s a Dresden File.

It’s Harry Dresden; it’s Jim Butcher.

Even after reading only the previous two novels, I already know what to expect.

It’s also a step up from the previous two novels in the series: the prose is still very, well, prosaic; Dresden is still a wise cracking hard boiled detective with magic; but the plotting and world have expanded here and it feels that there’s a more assured hand on the tiller. I have not been convinced that Jim Butcher knew whether to embrace the paranormal or the police procedural style of the first novel, but, with this one, he seems to side with the paranormal, expanding his mythology as well as his character list.

The first book touched on vampires but focussed on a single rogue sorcerer; the second turned the spotlight onto various forms of werewolves. This one has sprouted into a dozen other fantasy creatures. And so we meet (in the opening chapter) Michael Carpenter, a carpenter and crusader, who wields Amoracchius, a fabled mystical sword embedded with one of the nails of the Cross. We also meet Dresden’s Godmother Leanansidhe, a faerie who seeks to control Harry through a combination of seduction, bribery and bargaining.  The plot revolves round Harry’s efforts to confront the being dubbed The Nightmare which attacks people as they sleep and possesses them, binding them with a spectral spiritual barbed wire. Ghosts abound and are vanquished, rival clans and houses of vampires assemble and even a Dragon makes a cameo appearance. And, somehow, the overtly Christian and the Faerie and the mythological and the magical managed to complement  each other rather than conflict with each other.

It is not great writing – sorry Mr Butcher – but it is a fast paced and enjoyable read and is written with a playfulness and joy which is a pleasure to read. It is as if Butcher knew just how insane putting these multifarious ideas and mythologies together was, but did it any way.

In terms of plot, we are plunged directly in medias res as Dresden and Carpenter battle a ghost in a children’s home, learning that the boundaries between the mundane world and the otherworld has thinned, causing the increase in ghostly apparitions. Later, Dresden is summoned to the home of a police officer – with whom he defeated a demon-summoning sorcerer named Kravos earlier – who is under attack by The Nightmare, briefly reuniting with Karrin Murphy (who is again regrettably absent from the novel) and defeating the attack. Further attacks by The Nightmare show that it is assaulting those involved in defeating Kravos prior to the start of the novel, leading to attacks on Karrin and on Carpenter’s wife and on Dresden himself, consuming a large amount of his magical power. As with Fool Moon, we are given hints that Dresden is ridiculously powerful but fettered which is a little (and I’m sure intentionally) frustrating and not unlike Ben Aaronovitch’s treatment of Nightingale in the Rivers of London series.

Throughout the novel, the Red Court of vampires’ ball is built up as a central set piece, and it is here that we finally get to see a real hint at the extent of Dresden’s power, even though Susan Rodriguez, his girlfriend for wont of a better word, is captured, which forces the weakened Dresden into a reckless attempt to rescue her. Without adding spoilers, Susan’s fate is tragic and painful and I hope that she returns later in the series.

Just set aside any expectation for realism, strap in for a fun ride, turn off your brain and enjoy!

the-trees-by-ali-shaw-front-cover

This book might win the most striking cover award this year: the stunning autumnal russets and reds are gorgeous!

But you know what they say about judging books by their covers?

As a parent and as a teacher, we trot out that truism time and again but on what else are you going to judge a book? Well, the author is one other way and Ali Shaw was the author of The Girl With Glass Feet in 2010 and that was a book which has stayed with me hauntingly. The Trees looks like a heftier and heavier novel than that one – and I suppose length is as reliable a way of judging a book as any other – coming in at about 500 pages.

Just as with The Girl With Glass Feet, Ali Shaw’s The Trees inhabits the boundary between mythology and the mundane, between the fantastical and the real, between the magical and the ordinary. It is, I suppose, a magic realist novel although there is very little magic as such in it. A mythological realist novel perhaps. And the mythology does feel deliciously British: forests and trees and a return of the primal woodlands over which mankind has built and paved and lived. And a very abrupt and violent return of the forests:

Then the trees came.

The forest burst full-grown out of the earth, in booming uppercuts of trunks and bludgeoning branches. It rammed through roads and houses alike, shattering bricks and exploding glass. It sounded like a thousand trains derailing at once, squealings and jarrings and bucklings all lost beneath the thunderclaps of broken concrete and the cacophony of a billion hissing leaves. Up surged the tree trunks, up in a storm of foliage and lashing twigs that spread and spread and then, at a great height, stopped.
In the blink of an eye, the world had changed. There came an elastic aftershock of creaks and groans and then, softly softly, a chinking shower of rubbled cement.

Branches stilled amid the wreckage they had made. Leaves calmed and trunks stood serene. Where, not a minute before, a suburb had lain, there was now only woodland standing amid ruins. Some of the trees were flickeringly lit by the strobe of dying electricity, others by the fires of vehicles that had burst into flames. The rest stood in darkness, their canopy a gibbet world hung with all the things they’d killed and mangled as they came.

The violence is, to be honest, rather muted and mainly directed at the fabric of humanity’s world rather than the humans in it. Reference is made to deaths and it’s usually fleeting; very few deaths are actually shown in any detail.

It’s almost as if the novel arose from one of the many what if writing prompts that float around the internet. The how and the why and details of the trees’ appearance is almost irrelevant; how people deal with their appearance matters. And Shaw chooses a small and discreet group of travellers: Adrien, a self-loathing cowardly English Teacher (and a small part of me wrankles at that choice of career for our non-hero); Hannah, a nature-loving mother and Seb, her tech-savvy son; and Hiroko, an enigmatic Japanese girl with a knack for using a slingshot.

Adrien, Hannah and Seb leave their devastated home town and trek through the forest, meeting Hiroko along the way, as well as wolves, endangered mushrooms and kirin, a mythical creature which seemed partly unicorn and partly a woolly rhino. As well as “whisperers”, tiny creatures made from leaves and twigs and moss which seem to haunt the forest and Adrien in particular. And something darker that lurks in the heart of the forest too.

Like many post-apocalyptic novels, the real threat to our main characters is from the other humans which they encounter rather than the wolves of the forest. In many ways, it feels a lot like The Walking Dead in parts: the forest is often just the backdrop, the people are the true horrors. How do you react when every social, societal and legal structure disappears overnight? Do you forge new bonds or do you reforge yourself and, if so, in whose image? What governs your behaviour when there is no judge but yourself?

Much of what I loved about The Girl With Glass Feet was the lyricism of Shaw’s language and there was less of that here. There was certainly a power to the language, especially in the more surreal vision that Adrien has of the earth and its creatures. But perhaps the quest structure, the driving narrative of the journey – in this case to reunite Adrien with his wife in Ireland – gave less opportunity for it. And I missed that and the intimacy of The Girl… The Trees has, by its nature, a global dimension which perhaps distracted a little from the character-driven prose of that earlier, first book. I liked the characters in general, although Adrien was a little tiresome and I wasn’t really convinced by his journey and Hiroko seemed a little two dimensionally inscrutable.

However, I am grumbling and nit-picking and I know it. It’s what us self-loathing English teachers do. This is a grand book and, despite the weighty length, a rapid read with a good pace. In fact, the modulation of chapter length was particularly effective.

But, no, a good cracking novel, touching on some of the mythological and fairy tale elements that I love.

Certainly good enough for me to be on the look out for the intervening book, The Man Who Rained.

Still trying to catch up on my reviews which have been delayed thanks to writing a whole bunch of schemes of learning for work and a delightfully full-on three year old daughter, I realised I’d missed this one.

The third installment of the Lady Trent memoirs – set in a fictional but faintly vwiled and recognisable worl, albeit one with dragons, actually did much of what makes review of the (in my opinion less satisfactory) Tropic of Serpents. The poor, abandoned son was brought back into the narrative and given a trip around the world; politics and soldiering, whilst present, were significantly less prominent; and there were dragons. Well sea-dragons, or sea serpents. And I’ve always been a sucker for stories at sea. It’s no Moby Dick, to be sure, but it’s a sea yarn and that’s cool. 

Brennan throws us quickly onto the voyage around the world on the eponymous ship, The Basilisk with only a brief prologue.

On board the ship, the local politics and cultural descriptions, which often bog down the narrative, are no longer needed and we get more dragons as well as the usual complication expected in a maritime novel: storms and excursions and shipwrecks and exotic strangers. Here, the stranger, Suhail, is well established and fleshed out. And in many ways he reflects Lady Trent: academic, eccentrlic, an outsider. His interest is, rather than dragons, the ruins of the lost and ancient Draconian civilisation.

With the shipwreck and forced stay on the island of Keonga whilst the ship is repaired, Marie Brennan gets a chance to explore another culture again. Think perhaps Hawaii? With dragons. One intriguing quirk in Brennan’s description of Keonga is that Lady Trent is classed as ke’anaka’i  – neither male nor female but dragonborn, which means that she acquired a wife to be accepted on the island.

Kidnapped princesses, well one of them anyway, a foreign army, caeligers and sky ships and hidden lost treasures intervene and brings the book to a conclusion.

There’s no real sense of danger, even though Brennan showed her willingness to kill off significant characters in the first book, but it’s a cracking and fun novel with a great pace and likeable characters.

I’m glad I was wrong in my assumption that this was a trilogy. The next book is The Labyrinth of Drakes which is already on my to-be-read list.

fool moon

Book Two of the Dresden Files.

Pretty similar to book one, really! Special Investigations, Karrin Murphy, Bob the Skull, potions brewed, magic used.

This time around, we have werewolves!

Seriously, there’s not much more to say: it’s smart and sassy, it’s got magic and werewolves. It is not high literature! It’s a decently written, fast paced, fun read!

Oh, you want to know the plot? Well, let’s see. A mutilated body is discovered with paw prints near by which were the footprints, Mr Holmes, of a gigantic hound. Or a wolf. Maybe.

Karrin Murphy, investigating the death, consults Harry Dresden and we discover two things. The dead man is an employee of the local crime boss, Johnnie Marcone, which generates its own subplot in which Marcone attempts to employ Dresden as protection; the wolf-prints lead Dresden to a group of youths, apparently led by the mysterious Tera West and possibly werewolves. And then another gang of werewolves are uncovered, the Streetwolves. And the FBI are involved, investigating Karrin Murphy.

The plot becomes terribly convoluted and faintly ridiculous at times and Harry Dresden is thrown around like a dog’s chew toy from one group to another: arrested by the police and FBI, rescued by the Alphas; kidnapped by the Streetwolves, rescued by the FBI. Different groups of people are different forms of werewolves. The most powerful of which may be Harley MacFinn, a loup-garou, who we do get to see in full murderous carnage-driven wolf form tear apart a police station. MacFinn is also Tera West’s boyfriend. A decent editor could have trimmed some fat from it all. But, at the end of the day, it’s a whole load of werewolves!

Butcher does linger just a little too long on the female form for me. A little bit like that creepy uncle at family get-togethers who doesn’t quite meet your eye. I suppose it is inevitable and unavoidable with werewolves and transformations that nudity occurs. Tera West in particular is naked an awful lot and described a little too much – distracting the police who were guarding Harry’s home by parading past them naked for example. She was, however, an engaging and captivating character (as well as being naked): unlike the other werewolves and hexenwolves and loup-garous, Tera West was a real wolf who could transform into a human. Her transformation in the final confrontation was actually very effective and well-delayed by Butcher as we suddenly saw her full power and grace

“Where the other wolves were fast, Tera was fast and graceful. Where the others were quick, she was quick and elegant. She made them look like amateurs.”

Will I read more of the series? Yes of course I will! It’s got all the intellectual bite of a popcorn kernel but sometimes that is all you need! It is the written version of sitting down with an MCU film on. Switch off and enjoy the ride.

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I tend to have three books on the go simultaneously most of the time: an audiobook for the drive to and from work; a thoughtful, dare I say literary, book for when I’m at home; and a just-entertain-me book for when I don’t actually want to think too much.

We all need a just-entertain-me book to hand.

And Sanderson does that for me and does it well.

And that’s great. I’m under no illusion: the Mistborn books are not great literature. But that’s fine. It’s a detailed and fun magic system in a pretty original and fun universe and, on those times when you need to get your geek on, there’s apparently a whole interlocking Cosmere and multiple forms of Investiture to explore.

Anyway,  in brief, the novel picks up the tale of Waxillium Ladrian – lawman and errant nobleman – and Wayne – master of disguise, thief and sidekick – about six months after the end of the slightly disappointing Shadows of Self.

This time, our heroes are sent beyond the city of Elendel – which had become a slightly confining locale – into the wider world which was a distinctly good move. In fact into a much wider world: entire continents in fact. Which makes sense: the end of the original Mistborn trilogy remodelled the entire planet after all.

We also glimpse a reinterpretation of the Lord Ruler whose powerful magical repositories the book is named after. He becomes – in the mythology of a different race – the saviour of men whose lives are threatened by the remodelling of the planet which was so bountiful to the city of Elendel.

The usual stuff is here: some slightly over blown set piece battles, nefarious uncles and henchmen, turncoats, traitors and spies. There are a few scenes which don’t work terribly well, usually humourous ones, such as the party’s first night in the hotel which seems to simply be an excuse for each character to compete for who is the most extreme. Some parts were quite touching: the romance between Wayne and MeLann the kandra is quite sweet; as is War’s growing fondness for his fiancèe, Steris.

It is just a good romp with plenty of fun and action.

If that’s all you expect, it delivers!

And there may be a hint that Kelsier – the Survivor – may be alive somehow somewhere.

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I am coming to adore Frances Hardinge!

I’ve only read this and Cuckoo Song to be fair, but there’s something about her
imagination and her writing which chimes with me: dark, intensely personal, yet somehow mythic at the same time. She captures a sense of wonder,  of terror, of awe which is simultaneously so childlike and so mature.

And she does write girls who are struggling to find their own identity really well!

Here, Hardinge branches away from contemporary fantasy to historic fiction with a fantastical edge. Perhaps magic realist. But not quite. She’s a hard writer to pigeonhole into a genre – as if that is ever a meaningful thing to do in any event! Anyway, the novel opens with Faith Sunderley consoling her brother Howard on a ferry to the island of Vale as her father,  Reverend Erasmus Sunderley – famed naturalist – and her mother Myrtle busy themselves elsewhere.

We are transported whole-heartedly into this provincial Victorian post-Darwinian world. Science strives against religion; women strive against patriarchy and each other; children strive to find themselves. Reputation and courage and a coquettish sexuality become the currency with which her characters compete.

The move to the island is shrouded in mystery for a large portion of the book, as is a mysterious plant brought along by Erasmus.

And we are introduced to the microcosm of the island: phrenologists,  photographers and prelates; scheming wives, a hint of a love that then did not dare say its name, ratting and archeology; the faithful, the faithless and the superstitious. All the details – especially perhaps those deliciously macabre details of the mocked up post-death photographs in a world without PhotoShop – were so utterly convincing.

And evocative.

Hints and teases of layers of symbolism lay behind almost every image in the book. Nothing ever pinned down by a clumsy exposition. The feeling I was left with is that, like the lie tree itself, these layers – perhaps these leaves – of subtle whispery layers of meaning would burn away with too much sunlight. Enjoy the teasing.  Enjoy the evocation. Don’t try to pin down a single meaning because you’ll lose so much more!

The mystery persists in the book until, that is, the Reverend Erasmus Sunderley dies and Faith discovers his notebooks and the fantastical truth: the plant feeds off lies and its fruits contain visions of truths. Her father’s big lie was a fraudulent skeleton of a nephilim; the truth he sought was of the nature of God and man.

Big topics for a purportedly young adult book!

The novel is – in part – a detective mystery seeking to uncover the truth of Erasmus’ death. It is a meditation on the power of narrative. It is a coming-of-age story. It is a multifaceted jewel. A pomegranate of a book.

There was so much to love in it! But what particularly moved me was Faith’s reconciliation with her mother: distance and coldness became active disgust on her father’s death; but, as Faith became more aware of the constraints put on women by the patriarchy, there was a genuine mutual respect and warmth between the two.

It is a delight of a book and deservedly won the Costa prize this year and – all things being equal – should garner a clutch of other prizes too.

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I’m not going to dwell long on this review: it concludes the story begun in Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children and continues in Hollow City from which this book continues directly. It is also my last book of 2015, and Miss Peregrine was my first book of 2015 so it gives my year a nice symmetry.

It also doesn’t take long to read.

Having entered London in Hollow City, Emma and Jacob narrowly avoided being abducted by the nefarious Caul, Miss Peregrine’s evil brother. The other children from the first two books are abducted.

Rather than flee, Jacob and Emma with the help of Addison – a peculiar talking dog – track the wights to another time loop, a labyrinthine Devil’s Acre, where they are assisted by a somewhat taciturn boatman named Sharon. Tall, gaunt, with a hood. Sharon. Really, Riggs? You couldn’t have made him more like Charon? Dangerously close to Percy Jackson territory.

Anyway, within Devil’s Acre, various atrocities are discovered: drug use, slavery and crime.  We also find more allies in the form of Sharon and Bentham.

The depictions of Devil’s Acre were pos
sibly more vivid than those of London in the previous book. And this one had a stronger plot: find the wights’ base,  rescue everyone. Somehow.

Again, this is a strongly paced novel preferring action to emotion and that’s where the writing is strongest especially in the assault on the wights’ fortress. I also did enjoy the full awakening of Jacob’s peculiar gift: not just to be able to see the hollows, nor to be able to communicate with them but actually merge with their consciousness and maintain full control over an army of them.

The ending of the book – which so many people have praised – I found difficult. I don’t normally do this but…

HEREAFTER BE SPOILERS. ..

Jacob wins. Everyone is rescued. A mythical time loop containing the additional second souls which give peculiar people their gifts is discovered. Bentham who was also Miss Peregrine’s brother betrayed Jacob *boo! and then betrayed Caul *yay! The mythical time loop is destroyed with Bentham and Caul in it.

Okay.

So the world of peculiardom has died? The thousands of souls contained in the library and which create peculiars had been destroyed. So I’m expected to celebrate what is essentially a genocide? A mass extinction of innocent souls?

And Jacob is from the present with a family to which he would like to return; but has fallen in love with Emma – his own grandfather’s ex – who is from 1940 and would age to her true age within a few days of being out of a time loop. She can’t be in the present; Jacob can’t bring himself to abandon his family in the present. That’s a nice conflict as a writer. A little clumsily handled perhaps. But a nice conflict. The hero who saves a world he cannot share.

So how does Riggs resolve it? The destruction of the time loop containing the library of souls stops the aging-forward problem. And no one knew. So on the day, the very moment, that Jacob is about to be institutionalised because of his ‘delusions’ about the peculiars, they turn up and rescue him. And can live happily ever after.

I just found that far too trite. Too convenient. Too deus ex machina.

And then there’s the Hollow – the first one that Jacob bonded with – which we learn retain an aspect of consciousness – left in Bentham’s house having its blood and tears drained indefinitely to power the Panloopticon device?

Maybe I’m reading too much into what is, essentially,  a kids’ adventure book. But the ending bothered me.0