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Book Review: The Spirit Eater, by Rachel Aaron

This time last year I read and reviewed The Spirit Thief, the first Eli Monpress novel from Rachel Aaron. For some reason I didn’t review book two, The Spirit Rebellion, but I enjoyed both enough to continue with the series. In fact I picked up book three, The Spirit Eater, when I was having trouble getting into any of the new books I’d picked up—I thought perhaps it would be easier to slip into a story where I already knew the characters. Thankfully I was right, and Aaron’s book broke my reading dry spell! Read more

Want to know a secret?

This week my friend Emma Newman’s second urban fantasy novel is being published. To mark the occasion she’s hidden a bunch of cool (magical?) objects on her website for readers to find, but you can steal a march by following the link below…

Any Other Name is the second novel in the Split Worlds series, following on directly after the events in Between Two Thorns. Cathy is secretly seeking a way out of Nether Society by helping Max and the gargoyle to investigate the murders in the Bath Chapter. When she learns more about the mysterious Agency which oils the wheels of life in the Nether it becomes clear that the privileged few are enjoying their existence at a price far higher than they realised. It’s time to change Nether society, but with assassins, Fae lords and revengeful fallen Rosas to deal with, can Cathy survive long enough to make a difference?

Join in the treasure hunt by visiting the Split Worlds website and read about the first of the secret objects!

Release date: 28th May US/Canada paperback, audio and e-book worldwide, 6th June 2013 UK paperback

Signed copies will be available from Toppings Books, Bath and Forbidden Planet.

Pre-order options

UK Print & Ebook

Amazon.co.uk | Book Depository | Waterstones

US Print & Ebook

Amazon.com | BarnesandNoble.com | IndieBound.org

DRM-Free Epub Ebook

On-sale May 28th 2013 from the Robot Trading Company

Pre-order the audio version from The Book Depository | BarnesandNoble.com

Friday Reads: Last Argument of Kings, by Joe Abercrombie

While the King of the Union lies on his deathbead, the peasants revolt and the nobles scramble to steal his crown. No-one believes that the shadow of war is falling across the very heart of the Union. The First of the Magi has a plan to save the world, as he always does. But there are risks. There is no risk more terrible, after all, than to break the First Law…

Warning: contains spoilers! Read more

Friday Reads: Red Seas Under Red Skies, by Scott Lynch

Having left Camorre after the deaths of their fellow Gentleman Bastards at the hands of the Bondsmagi, Locke Lamora and Jean Tannen are running a new scam in the Sinspire, a high-class casino in the city of Tal Verrar. Unfortunately the Bondsmagi haven’t finished with Locke yet, and he and Jean find themselves working—decidedly unwillingly—for a Verrari warlord with an ambition to rule the city outright. Temporarily abandoning the scam they take up their new mission, starting with a crash course in seamanship and a new cover identity as the dread pirate Orrin Ravelle…

Warning: here be spoilers! Because it’s otherwise hard to say what I liked (and didn’t like) about the book. And hell, it’s six years old, so I reckon many of my visitors will have read it already anyway. Read more

Book review: Babylon Steel, by Gaie Sebold

Babylon Steel is the eponymous heroine of Gaie Sebold’s debut fantasy novel, an ex-mercenary turned madam of a moderately up-market brothel. Desperate for an injection of cash to pay for her girls’ expensive tastes, Madam Steel takes on a commission from suave gambling-den owner Darash Fain to locate a missing girl, and unsurprisingly finds herself up to her neck in trouble, not to mention haunted by a terrible past that is gradually revealed during the course of the story.

I came to this book feeling a little uneasy, given the profession of the protagonist. There’s a tendency in the fantasy genre to romanticise prostitution and stress the willingness of the participants, when in reality the vast majority of women only turn to the profession out of desperation. On the other hand it was refreshing to read about female characters with a healthy, nay enthusiastic, attitude to sex, and there’s a pleasing lack of the rape’n’misogyny vibe that pervades so much fantasy. Also, who can fail to like an author who creates a pair of BDSM specialists called Cruel and Unusual?

Part noir, part sword’n’sorcery, this is a difficult novel to pin down. The “present day” storyline was complex in itself, weaving the plotline about the missing girl with the everyday problems of the brothel, including a sect of creepy puritanical priests who seem bent on driving Babylon out of business. Add in regular tension-filled flashbacks to Babylon’s past as a teenaged trainee priestess and it almost feels like too much story is being crammed into a relatively short book – and yet everything is woven together with a great deal of skill, reminding me of one of Terry Pratchett’s more intricate Discworld novels. Thankfully, after a few chapters I was sufficiently engrossed to read the whole book in four (work) days, so everything stayed fresh in my memory. This is not a book to put down and pick up at intervals!

The setting is not your typical medieval fantasy world, either; it’s just one world—or plane—in a multiverse connected by portals and inhabited by a bewildering array of sentient species, from various human-like races to furry or scaly beings with more or fewer than the usual complement of limbs (or other appendages *cough*). It reminded me a great deal of the kind of SFF I read back in the eighties—Zelazny, Leiber and particularly Robert Silverberg’s Majipoor stories and Robert Asprin’s Thieves World anthologies—and owes far more to the American fantasy tradition than to Tolkien. Which is no bad thing, in my mind; the genre has become a little ossified. At times I felt it was almost too much of a rag-bag of creatures, with fey, vampires and were…somethings rubbing shoulders (and more intimate body parts) with beings that would have been more at home in a Mos Eisley cantina, but it does contribute to what’s basically a light-hearted setting under its sleazy, run-down façade of villainy and vice.

On the subject of race, I have to admit I’m a bit disappointed by the whitewashed cover. On several occasions it’s mentioned that Babylon is typical of her race in having copper-coloured skin, and if I recall correctly she also has a high-bridged nose, which makes her sound more Central American than white. The art appears to be a photo-realistic painting rather than a straight photograph (click on it for a high-resolution version), so there’s really no excuse for changing the character in this way.

Another minor gripe was the fight scenes. In order to convey the immediacy and chaos of combat, the narrative shifts into present tense and becomes disjointed, giving only glimpses of the action. I can see what Sebold was trying to do, but the technique was so blatant that it pulled me out of the story a bit. Of course this could just be me being a typical writer and noticing the skeleton beneath the story’s skin, but it really didn’t work for me.

These small issues aside, it’s an enjoyable book with an engaging protagonist and an unusual setting, and I will certainly be trying to find room on my TBR list for the sequel.

Friday Reads: Before They Are Hanged, by Joe Abercrombie

About this time last year I reviewed the first volume in Abercrombie’s First Law trilogy, The Blade Itself, having enjoyed it immensely. However with all the other demands on my time since I signed my own book deal, it’s taken me since then to get around to the second volume, Before They Are Hanged.

Warning: some spoilers!

Picking up where the first book left off, Before They Are Hanged follows four storylines: Bayaz’s expedition into the far west, accompanied by Logen Ninefingers, Jezal dan Luthar and Ferro Maljinn; Glokta’s posting to the southern frontier city of Dagoska, under threat from being retaken by the Gurkish; Major West’s campaign on the Union’s northern border, as the warlord Bethod pushes south; and Logen’s former companions travelling south into the Union, trying to avoid Bethod’s armies. It is very much a middle volume of a trilogy in the tradition of The Lord of the Rings, with the main purpose of moving its characters around on the map, presumably towards a final confrontation. Only Glokta’s storyline is neatly self-contained, bringing him back to Adua after the fall of Dagoska.

As before, Glokta is still my favourite character; he’s as cynical and self-deprecating as ever, unable to accept that he retains some shreds of decency even though he behaves in a decidedly chivalrous manner towards the women he encounters. I also enjoyed Jezal’s character arc, as the privations of the trek across the western continent beat this spoilt city-bred brat into a humbler, more mature man—albeit still with enough vanity to be mortified by his battle scars! Logen and Ferro are growing on me, as is the Dogman, but Bayaz remains an arrogant, unknowable figure who leads more through abject fear of his powers than from any inspirational qualities. Abercrombie’s prose is ironically at its most shaky when describing his best character: Glokta is sometimes little more than a collection of mannerisms, only rescued from tiresomeness by his dry wit. In contrast, the narrative voice of this novel is at its strongest in the chapters from the point of view of the Dogman, perhaps because the northern warriors are closest in speech to Abercrombie’s native Lancashire accent/dialect.

Whilst this is mostly an open-ended narrative encompassing several entirely separate storylines, there are little touches that tie it all together, such as the contrast between Jezal’s ability to grow and change versus Prince Ladisla’s total, tragic inability to do so. Another thematic link is how impulsive acts that make a lot of sense at the time can turn out to have unexpected consequences way down the line. I won’t spoil the major plot twists but in Abercrombie’s world, as in Middle Earth, the fate of thousands often rests on the decision to kill or spare an individual. In fact in this volume I felt Tolkien’s influence very strongly; we have a wizard leading a disparate group of adventurers across a continent, a beseiged city, ancient ruins, a mage-created race of violent humanoids who can be slaughtered with impunity…the parallels are numerous and sometimes a little too obvious.

Whilst both Abercrombie’s and GRRM’s books are often described as “gritty”, I for one find the former far more palatable than the latter, largely because of the difference in attitudes to women characters. In A Song of Ice and Fire, rape and other violence against women is commonplace and (more importantly) rarely punished; in The First Law, the opposite is true. Of course bad things sometimes happen to good people, but the overall tone is upbeat. For all their violence, Abercrombie’s novels are not “grimdark”, at least not in this reader’s estimation—and for that I’m heartily grateful.

Given the length of my TBR list, it will probably be another year before I get around to reading the final volume in the trilogy, but since that’s about the same pace that Joe’s books are being published, it’s not really a problem. On the contrary, it’s something to look forward to…

Friday Reads: The Whitefire Crossing, by Courtney Schafer

Dev is an outrider: a talented mountaineer who helps scout out potential rockslides and avalanches for merchant convoys crossing the Whitefire Mountains. He also has a nice sideline smuggling illegal magical items from the mage city of Ninavel across the border into Alathia. But when he’s asked to smuggle a person across the border—a young man named Kiran who turns out to be an apprentice mage fleeing his abusive master—Dev finds himself having to risk his own life and those of his friends, or face breaking the promise he made to his dying mentor: to save a young girl from being sold into prostitution.

I confess that the main reason I picked this book up is that Schafer was one of the other debut authors on the recent blog extravaganza that I was involved in. I tend to prefer my fantasy low on magic, and I’ve also found that I don’t enjoy descriptions of wilderness travel that much, so the premise of this book didn’t set me afire. However I’m glad I didn’t let my prejudices stop me, as it turned out to be an enjoyable read—to the point of being difficult to put down!

For one thing, Schafer has a light touch with detail and resists the temptation to which many writers succumb, of being so in love with their specialist subject that they do the literary equivalent of cornering you at a party and boring your socks off. There are some descriptions of climbing, and a lot of obvious knowledge of mountain conditions, but for the most part these are merely the framework for the human story of Dev and Kiran’s desperate flight from Kiran’s master.

As for the magic, I’m no aficionado but it didn’t seem all that different from what I’ve seen in countless other fantasy books. However as with the climbing it wasn’t wrapped up in too much jargon or described in obsessive detail, so it didn’t get in the way of my enjoyment of the story. The jargon that is used has a distinctively Russian flavour, though it was hard to tell if this was specific to the small group of mages using it or a wider aspect of the worldbuilding. Still, it made a refreshing change from the usual Latin-based magical vocabulary, which has seriously worn out its welcome thanks to Harry Potter. Also, the master mages are deliciously psychopathic in a way that makes complete sense, so that they are at once utterly despicable villains and yet chillingly believable people.

What sold the book for me, though, was the combination of two charming lead characters and a plot that never lets up the tension for long. Dev’s passages are told in first person, in a laconic, fairly modern idiom that soon had me hearing Jensen Ackles as his voice! Because of his well-developed character, his inner conflicts didn’t come over as whiny or angsty (as they can so often do), but as the voice of a man embittered and frustrated by the unfairness of life. By contrast, Kiran’s scenes are told in third person, with the result that his voice doesn’t come out as strongly as Dev’s. I’m not clear on the reason for the different approach, though it may be that Schafer needed a certain detachment from Kiran in order to make him more morally ambiguous, or possibly to avoid any whininess and excessive self-pity, since he’s both less sassy and street-smart than Dev and a survivor of far worse childhood abuse.

As for the plot…at the beginning of the book, Dev and Kiran don’t trust one another at all, leading to a lot of interpersonal conflict to spice up what could otherwise be a somewhat dull travelogue. And even when they do reach a measure of mutual friendship, that’s torn apart again by the complex scheming of the mages and smugglers, all of whom are trying to take advantage of Kiran’s flight over the border. I confess I didn’t see the final twist at the book’s climax coming, and yet Schafer had set it up nicely. The pace slackens towards the end, as the consequences of Dev and Kiran’s actions are played out, but the denouement also serves to introduce an interesting new character whom I hope will appear again.

One minor gripe I had was that in addition to the very welcome asterisks between scenes (I read this in ebook format), PoV switches were marked by the character’s name in brackets as a header. I didn’t feel this was necessary, given we have only two PoVs and they are pretty distinctive. Also, because PoV breaks often happen mid-chapter, it just looks less elegant than George R R Martin’s chapter-named-after-PoV approach. There seems to be a definite trend on the other side of the Pond for editors to want to simplify things as much as possible for readers—c.f. Jon Courtenay Grimwood’s recent account on SF Signal of the combined UK/US edit of his book—so I don’t know whether the headings were in the original manuscript or added by the publisher, but I for one felt patronised by the device.

Overall: a very entertaining and assured debut, and I’m looking forward to reading the sequel, The Tainted City, which is due out in October. Although looking at my TBR pile and my writing deadlines, I may have to wait rather longer than that…

Friday Reads: Sharps, by K J Parker

I’ve been meaning to try K J Parker’s work for some time, based on my own love of historical fantasy and the urging of friends whose opinions I respect, so when I heard there would be a standalone novel about a fencing tournament, I immediately resolved to buy it. By happy chance I managed to win a copy of the paperback in a Twitter giveaway before the ebook came out, and devoured it in under a fortnight (which is fast, given how little reading time I can spare these days).

Sharps is the story of a motley group of fencers sent on a tour of a neighbouring country in an effort to foster friendly relations in the aftermath of a war. Each has his or her reason for going—or more accurately, for being coerced into going—and initially they are very much at loggerheads with one another, always bickering and complaining about the shoddy treatment they get from both their own government and their foreign hosts. Parker’s characters aren’t your typical fantasy heroes; apart from the ex-soldier and professional fencer Suidas Deutzel, they’re mostly pampered middle/upper-class youngsters who are completely out of their depth in the cut-and-thrust world of international politics.

The central characters are well-rounded and engaging, which is fortunate since Parker throws you in at the deep end, dropping in the names of political factions and historical events with no explanation, at least when in the point-of-view of characters who don’t really care about such details. After a few pages I decided to trust Parker to explain the important stuff in due course, and let the rest of it just drift over my head. There’s a lot of this world that’s alluded to but never seen or described in detail, and I’m interested to see how this connects with Parker’s other books (apparently some of the characters appear in earlier novels).

If there’s one word that sums up this book it’s schadenfreude. I’ve seen complaints that Parker’s writing style is emotionally detached but honestly, that’s the only sensible approach to this kind of biting satire. If you didn’t laugh at the absurdity as disaster piles upon disaster, you’d weep for the poor characters caught in the middle of it all. It’s been quite some time since I’ve smiled (and even laughed out loud) so much whilst reading a book.

Sharps has no discernable magic and no non-human or supernatural beings; the only thing that makes it fantasy is that this is a wholly invented world (although with its Western and Eastern Empires that use Latin and Greek respectively, and a religion based on worship of the Unconquered Sun, it almost feels more like alternate history). If the thought of having to read about politics and (God help us) banking in between the action scenes sends you running, this may not be the book for you. If, on the other hand, Nightwatch and Monstrous Regiment are amongst your favourite Terry Pratchett novels but you fancy something rather more gritty and cynical for a change, I strongly recommend you give it a try.

Friday Reads: Casket of Souls, by Lynn Flewelling

Casket of Souls is the sixth installment in Lynn Flewelling’s long-running Nightrunner series of fantasy novels set in a roughly 17th/18th-century-esque milieu. Whilst recent books have seen protagonists Seregil and Alec travelling widely, Casket of Souls finds them back on familiar territory in the city of Rhiminee, and back to their old ways. Seregil, a very minor nobleman distantly related to the royal family, is an accomplished spy and cat-burglar and, with his young companion and lover Alec, has served the crown loyally for years. However with a war dragging on and food shortages in the city, tensions are running high, and it’s not long before the two young men find themselves in the midst of a conspiracy to usurp the throne. And as old friends of one of the rival claimants, if they don’t find solid evidence of the traitors’ plans they could be arrested themselves.

Added to their problems is a sudden, mysterious plague afflicting the poorer parts of the city; a plague with no known cause or cure. Most of the victims are children, a fact which especially touches the gentle heart of Alec. As the deaths mount up, Seregil and Alec find their loyalties torn between unmasking the conspirators and protecting the city’s children from the plague; even the best nightrunners can’t be in two places at once.

Casket of Souls marks a return to the intrigue and derring-do of the earliest Nightrunner books, as well as the unpleasant magics that are a trademark of Flewelling’s world. The first half unfolds quite slowly, as is somewhat inevitable in this kind of plot where all the pieces have to be put in place before they can make their moves, but the pace picks up as the net tightens around Seregil, Alec and their friends.

It’s not all deadly serious, thank goodness. There’s a particularly fun scene in a gambling house (let’s just say it will please the fangirls no end!), and though a number of characters die, the story lacks the angst and bleakness of recent outings.

The conspiracy plot is perhaps wrapped up a little too hastily, but that may just be because I read the last third of the book so fast! Even though you know it’s all going to work out OK in the end (Flewelling has more sense than to kill off characters with such an ardent following), there are enough deaths that the threat to our heroes is palpable and you have to keep reading to be absolutely sure.

Overall I think this may be my favourite book of the series so far. Such a pity then that there will only be one more!

Afterword

When I found out the title of this latest book, I couldn’t quite believe my eyes. Lynn had already blurbed my own novel The Alchemist of Souls, which seemed coincidence enough. However it seems there’s some kind of psychic bond going on between us, because although the particulars are very different, there are an awful lot of parallel elements between the two books, from the conspiracy plotline to the acting troupe with their new theatre, and of course the magic hinted at by the title. What’s more, I know Lynn had just about finished revising her own book when I sent her mine,  so any similarities are entirely coincidental, honest!

Friday Reads: The Emperor’s Knife, by Mazarkis Williams

Since I’m trying to read more books this year, I’ve decided to take these book reviews out of my weekly schedule (in which posts go out every Tuesday) and post them on an irregular Friday schedule as and when I finish a book. Hopefully that’ll be at least monthly, but it’s likely to vary.

The Emperor’s Knife is one of a flush of Middle-Eastern-inspired fantasies that came out in 2011 – an encouraging trend, since that milieu has been sadly neglected in the genre despite being a rich source of myth and story formerly very popular in the West. The setting is a secondary world rather than the historical Middle East, but with its deserts, grand viziers and palace intrigue it manages to capture an Arabian Nights feel whilst allowing Williams a broader palette for storytelling.

The central conceit of the book is the Pattern, a magical analogue of the elaborate pattern of a Persian rug. The Pattern is generally believed to be a disease: once it appears on a victim’s skin (somewhat like a tattoo), the person either dies or becomes a kind of zombie, physically alive but with their old personality gone. However there’s literally much more to the Pattern than meets the eye, and the characters of The Emperor’s Knife became enmeshed in it in ways they never imagined.

Four main characters carry the narrative: Prince Sarmin, who has been kept locked in a tower since childhood as a secret backup in case his brother the emperor fails to produce an heir; Eyul, the emperor’s Knife, i.e. assassin; Tuvaini, the obligatory scheming grand vizier; and Mesema, daughter of a nomad chieftain and intended bride of Sarmin. These four offer very different and often opposing perspectives on events, and the frequent switches between the four helps to keep the story moving along even when not much is happening in an individual’s timeline.

The narrative pace did sag somewhat in the second quarter; it felt like Williams was struggling to fill the time whilst all the pieces moved into position, resulting in several scenes where characters had long conversations that didn’t amount to much. It didn’t help that some of these conversations were almost too realistic, wandering around a topic that neither character wanted to discuss—or even think about—directly, and in one case I was left very confused as to what was actually going on. However once everyone got back to the capital city the pace started to pick up and I read the second half of the book in a couple of days.

Also, whilst the characters were generally interesting and well-developed, I felt that the assassin Eyul lacked something. Maybe it was just a combination of the aforementioned confusing scenes, Eyul’s own repressed personality and my being unwell whilst reading the book, but his emotional arc didn’t quite work for me.

Flaws aside, though, there’s a lot to enjoy in this book. Prince Sarmin is a delightfully gender-reversed Rapunzel, spurred into action by unexpected visits to his lonely tower, and Mesema is the kind of strong female character I love to read about: not a “kickass warrior babe” male fantasy but a resourceful young woman coping admirably with the scary new world she’s been thrown into. Also, the magic of the Pattern is pleasingly organic, woven into the fabric of the world, its mysteries unrolling before the reader like a…(OK, enough with the Persian rug metaphors! Ed.) *ahem*

In summary, if you’re looking for an action-packed fantasy epic you’re going to be disappointed by this book. If on the other hand you enjoy a character-driven tale of political intrigue as subtle and intricate as the Pattern itself, I can strongly recommend it. It’s a solid debut, and I’ll certainly be picking up the next book in the series.


A tiny gripe about the ebook edition (at least, the one I have): there are no asterisks or similar symbols marking scene breaks, which given the frequent point-of-view switches makes for a slightly uneven reading experience. I appreciate that ebook formatting is still something of a dark art and that inconsistency across platforms is inevitable, but there’s really no excuse for omitting such a simple but vital typographical feature. Publishers, take note!