Archive for the ‘Fantasy’ Category

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.

 

It being March, the CILIP Carnegie Medal Shortlist has been announced and I’m embarking on the ritual of trying to read them.

This year, the list is:

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 It’s a funny thing about series. What is original and unique can become familiar and even – dare I say it? – stale as a series goes on. They become perhaps over-thought or overworked like a piece of dough that’s had the life kneaded out of it.

I wonder whether that’s what has happened with this book.

I have thoroughly enjoyed Aaronovitch’s Peter Grant series up to this point. The genii loci of the rivers of London created a mythic and original take on London; the Faceless Man was a formidably distant and shadowy nemesis; Nightingale was enigmatic; Grant himself was engaging and a pleasant narrative voice. Foxglove Summer, which bravely took Grant out of London, worked brilliantly by keeping a freshness which the return to London in The Hanging Tree seemed to lose.  

I mean, don’t get me wrong. It’s a good book in that slightly niche fantasy detective genre. It was just a little familiar and tired.

In this book, Grant is called in to what appears to be a drug overdose which implicates one of Lady Tyburn’s daughters – Olivia Jane McAlliste-Thames – as the supplier of those drugs. A convoluted series of plot twists involving a lost Principia by Newton dealing with alchemy brings in the newly reconstructed Lesley May and the Faceless Man who is eventually in this book unmasked but who, as usual, escapes in the end.

As usual, there are a couple of nice set pieces; Nightingale again exudes the potential for massive power but is never seen doing it; there’s the usual credible police procedures. And it was all decent enough. But familiar. A little bit by-the-numbers.

The other thing that really irked me was that Peter Grant frequently did things with other people and always uses the “Beverley and me …” subject construction. Always. I think without exception. Maybe I’m getting old and I know it’s to create a voice but it irked.

I will still follow the series through to the end: I am that invested in the characters. But I hope there’s some more joy and life in the next one.

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!

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.

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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’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

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Okay.

I confess.

I only read this and the next book (Library Of Souls) to complete a trilogy for my 2015 Reading Challenge. And because I was running out of time. I did complete them by 31st December… just a little slow blogging about them. Due in part to a busy Christmas and also to an abraded cornea which pretty much destroyed my ability to read and type or see generally since New Year.

So, this book picks up the story from Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children as Jacob – from modern day America – and his friends including Emma, Jacob’s girlfriend and his own grandfather’s ex-girlfriend – yes, you read that correctly – flee their invaded time-looped island back to 1940s war-torn Britain. There, they face the dual terrors of the war itself and of the hollows and wights who had destroyed their original loop-refuge.

Miss Peregrine herself – the children’s matriarchal ymbyrne – had been kidnapped, rescued but stuck in bird form. And there is a loose directionlessness to the plot as a result. They happen upon a lost loop inhabited by peculiar and talking animals, trip over a band of gypsies with their own peculiar child gradually becoming invisible, and generally head towards London with no real idea of what to expect or what to do once they get there. Carrying a child’s book whose tales and nursery rhymes spring out as plot devices from time to time seemed a little forced. A portable deus ex machina.

I had lower expectations of this than I did with the first and the book met them better. L It’s a good read. A decent tale. Riggs does have a tendency to tell rather than show and the horrors of bombing raids in London seemed a little two-dimensional as does the description of the hollows, the monstrous mindless, multi-tongued creatures. He also seems not to be so comfortable with the emotional relationship between Jacob and Emma as he is with the scenario he’s created and the range of characters and action scenes.

If I were to summarise a list of pros and cons, it might look like this:

Pros: imaginative concept, creepy photographs,  good pace.

Cons: slightly pedestrian writing, too much telling, lack of description; two-dimensional characters with unconvincing emotions, directionless.

There was, however, a significant and unexpected twist in the final chapters which I hadn’t seen coming.

Fair play, Mr Riggs, fair play.


  My first Discworld novel was Carpe Jugulum which is still my favourite, so it seems very fitting for me that my last (new) Discworld novel takes me back to Lancre, the redoubtable Granny Weatherwax, Nanny Ogg and Tiffany Aching.

Pratchett never finished this novel – not the half-dozen other novels which he appears to have been sketching out when he died on March 12th. It has been pieced together and different scenes stitched to one another like a literary jigsaw and it does show but it is such a fitting tribute to Pratchett!

It’s almost banal to be talking about the plot – elves invade Lancre; witches unite to combat them. The elven realm and glamour are familiar and well done; the descent into the Elf King’s Barrow was great: masculine, childish, hormonally self-obsessed. The Nac Mac Feegle provide the comic relief, as does a somewhat diabolical goat.

The heart of the novel, though, occurs maybe fifty pages in and took me by surprise. Granny Weatherwax died. The Iron Lady of Lancre, the anvil on which the moral compass of Discworld spun, died.

Is it just me, or has Death been notably absent from the Discworld novels recently? Probably understandable, considering Pratchett’s health.

The rest of the novel follows Tiffany Aching’s attempts to step into Granny Weatherwax’s shoes, maintain two witches’ steadings and combat the elven threat.

Granny Weatherwax’s death and the vignettes – the guttering of her life’s candle – of how her death was reflected across the Disc was so reminiscent of the tributes Pratchett himself received across Twitter and the blogosphere. It was incredibly poignant. It felt like a farewell from Pratchett. A graceful, unsentimental and respectful passing on. I can only hope that Pratchett experienced the same.

  

Ahhh… a new Patrick Ness publication is like a new China Miéville publication: an event to be savoured. 

Chaos Walking. A Monster Calls. More Than This. He writes science fiction, fantasy, dystopian fictions with drama, true emotion, real depth so well! 

So it’s difficult with this book. It’s fabulous. It really is. But it’s not quite there with those others. 

The basic premise is, you’re a normal teenage child, finishing school, looking forward to prom and graduation (yes, it’s set in America) and worried about trying to get a date… But your town is a hell mouth (for want of a better word; stealing deliberately from Buffy The Vampire Slayer). You’re not The One. You’re not Buffy. You’re not Willow. You’re not even Xander. You’re just trying to finish school and a whole lot of weird stuff is happening around you. 

It’s a GREAT premise! 

It mocks with a real but warm humour the trope and cliches of The Chosen One genre; it also works as an example of that genre. That’s a clever trick and shows a masterful touch. The antics of the “indie kids” which threaten to interrupt (or destroy) the graduation simultaneously irk and frustrate us, and thrill and excite us. The incident with the zombie deer or the possessed police are genuinely creepy. A tad clichéd but so well done – and sparingly and knowingly done – that it doesn’t jar. By golly, Ness is a writer so much in control of his characters and plot. 

The book suggests that we are important as people, even if we are not The Chosen One. We count. All our personal demons, fears and insecurities count every bit as much as the literal demons. Our small acts of courage and kindness and generosity are just as heroic as the demon hunting “indie kids”. 

Each chapter opens with a summary of what the “indie kids” are doing whether it be dying (frequently£, opening portals or battling demons. The chapter then reverts to the trials of Mikey, Mel, Jared and Henna. Dealing with eating disorders, unrequited love, obsessive compulsive disorder, overbearing, absent or alcoholic parents, the descent into dementia of grandparents, sexuality, identity and political differences.