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Book review: Shadows Return, by Lynn Flewelling

I first came across the Nightrunner series some years ago, after the US paperback edition of Luck in the Shadows found its way across the Atlantic, and was immediately taken by the protagonists, gentleman-thief “Lord” Seregil of Rhiminee and his young protégé Alec. They were the first realistic gay* couple I had encountered in fantasy, their slow-burning romance grounding but never overwhelming the stories of intrigue and magic. I was therefore slightly disappointed when Flewelling put aside her rogueish heroes to concentrate on her other trilogy set in the same world, and it’s taken me a while to get around to reading this fourth installment. It doesn’t help that I read some reviews beforehand that were less than favourable. Caveat lector!

Shadows Return picks up the story some months after the end of Traitor’s Moon, and finds Seregil and Alec back in Rhiminee and up to their old tricks again. However the past few years’ unhappy experiences have left Seregil a more sombre man who can no longer take delight in midnight adventures across the roofs of the city. When the opportunity arises to travel to his homeland and escort Princess Klia back to Rhiminee, therefore, he is more than happy to abandon his life of crime. However the past is never far away, and soon the two men find themselves facing old enemies – and new ones.

I can understand why some readers might find this book a little unsatisfying. After the opening scene involving a “nightrunner” mission from which Seregil and Alec barely escape with their skins – and reputations – intact, the story does rather slow down, focusing on the political machinations within Rhiminee. The writing is also a bit clumsy in places, with repetitive sentences and maybe a few too many attempts to remind readers of events in previous books. The latter is always a problem with series, however, and no solution is ever going to please all readers. In my opinion it’s worth pressing on to the meat of the story, where Flewelling  racks up the tension with gradual – and sometimes shocking – revelations about who the bad guys are and what they’re up to.

Another minor frustration is that, like Luck in the Shadows, this book is more of a setup for its sequel than a standalone novel. My impression is that Flewelling prefers writing long, long novels which then get cut into two volumes by her publisher. Unlike The Bone Doll’s Twin, however, this one doesn’t end on a frustrating cliffhanger, for which I was heartily grateful! On the other hand it does end somewhat abruptly, with a brief tie-up of the main plot and an even briefer epilogue that hints strongly at what the next book will be about.

In some respects, Shadows Return is a retread of Stalking Darkness; once again Alec is the helpless victim of a Plenimaran sorceror, humiliated and tortured for arcane purposes whilst his friends desperately seek to rescue him. However this time the familiar story is interwoven with a more powerful one about revenge, jealousy and forgiveness that pulls the previous three books neatly together before leading towards what promises to be a thrilling fifth installment. Far from being the “filler” episode that some reviews had led me to expect, I enjoyed Shadows Return much more than the rather slow-paced Traitor’s Moon, as evidenced by the fact that I read the entire book in a weekend, despite pauses to work on my own manuscript.

If you enjoy cloak-and-dagger fantasy with a dash of gay romance and haven’t read the three previous books – go and do so now, then come back for this one. I won’t say that they’re the best books you’ll ever read, but the central characters are engaging and as the series progresses Flewelling balances light and dark moods with increasing assurance. Having spent a very enjoyable weekend in the company of Alec and Seregil, I can’t wait to read Book 5, The White Road; expect a review of that here very soon!

* Strictly speaking, Seregil is bisexual, but the books are about his long-term relationship with Alec – previous liaisons with women are mentioned but seem to be mostly long in the past.

Book review: On Stranger Tides, by Tim Powers

I wanted to re-read (and review) this book this month, before the new Pirates of the Caribbean movie, on which it is very loosely based, comes out. I’m very glad I did, as it’s been many years since I first read it and the experience was quite an eye-opener.

On Stranger Tides was first published in 1987, and is the third (and most American-based) of Powers’ historical fantasies. It is set in the Caribbean in the early eighteenth century, where magic still survives on the remote fringes of civilisation. Penniless puppeteer John Chandagnac sets out from Europe to reclaim the family estate in Haiti from his usurping uncle, but en route the ship is boarded by pirates and John is forced to join their crew. Dubbed “Jack Shandy” by his new shipmates, he harbours dreams of completing his quest (and rescuing his fellow passenger, the lovely Beth Hurwood, who was taken captive in the raid), but he runs afoul of Blackbeard, who is searching for the fabled Fountain of Youth, the key to immortality. In true swashbuckling pirate fashion, Shandy learns to fight and sail a ship, kills the bad guys and gets the girl, facing European sorcerors, voodoo bocors, zombies and even Baron Samedi himself along the way – no wonder Disney wanted to steal the best bits to reanimate their own ailing franchise!

In fact this book’s plot has so much in common with the very first Pirates of the Caribbean movie, The Curse of the Black Pearl, that it could almost have inspired it. At the very least it shares the same source material, with an early scene of the pirates telling stories around their beach campfire “of ships crewed by zombies and glimpsed only at midnight by doomed men”. Even the protagonist’s pirate name is awfully close to that of Jack Sparrow, and he does indeed become captain of his own small ship and spend a couple of long spells getting blind drunk on rum (or red wine if he can get it) on beaches. There’s even a character who could have stepped out of the original movie, a black pirate called Mr Bird who periodically shouts “I am not a dog!” for no apparent reason.

In some respects this is a very old-fashioned book: there is no strong language (beyond an occasional “damn” or “bloody”), with any actual swearing being referred to obliquely, and any feminist readers are likely to be disappointed by the passivity of the female characters. Beth Hurwood exists purely to be threatened by the bad guys and rescued by the hero, and the one potentially interesting young woman (a teenage Ann Bonny) makes only a couple of brief appearances. However all this is very true to the genre’s swashbuckling, “Boy’s Own” roots and detracted very little from this reader’s enjoyment, perhaps because the hero himself is a complex, well-rounded character: likeably naive to begin with, gradually coming to enjoy his new adventurous life but with a moral core that prevents him from descending into the savagery displayed by the other pirates.

Overall, I can heartily recommend this book to anyone who loves a good adventure story. It’s darker than the movies, but comedy is much harder to pull off on the page than on-screen, and Powers’ rich imagination more than compensates.

As an aside: The further I got into this book, the more I realised what an unconscious influence on my own writing it has been. The combination of history and the fantastic, the clash of New World and Old, even some elements of the magic, have all found their way into The Alchemist of Souls. Well, Picasso did say that “immature artists imitate, mature artists steal” :)

 

Book Review: Triumff: Her Majesty’s Hero, by Dan Abnett

I picked up this book from the Angry Robot stall at FantasyCon 2010, the day after meeting Marc Gascoigne, mostly because I wanted to check out the competition. However I then put it aside for some months, as I had revisions to do and I prefer not to read fiction whilst writing, in case I pick up unwanted influences.  Much as I love bad puns, I don’t want them creeping into a serious work of fantasy!

Triumff: Her Majesty’s Hero is a humorous alternate history fantasy set in the modern day – except that the discovery of real magic in the 16th century has halted technological progress in Europe, whilst other parts of the world have advanced with indecent haste. On the surface a utopian era for an England ruled over by Elizabeth XXX, in fact there are dark forces at work plotting the queen’s death. Plus ça change…

Her Majesty’s one hope is the hapless Sir Rupert Triumff,  a former sea-captain recruited by the secret service to uncover said plot. Triumff is an excellent swordsman (when his James-Bond-esque magical weapon can be persuaded to produce a rapier blade) but also a hardened carouser who turns up to duels badly hungover and seems to win more by blind luck than skill.

With its historical flavour, satirical anachronisms and cast of colourful characters, Triumff reminded me a lot of early Pratchett. Abnett may lack Sir Terry’s skill at writing eccentric elderly witches (Mother Grundy seems heavily inspired by Granny Weatherwax), but he compensates with great action sequences and an even more groan-worthy line in bad puns. There are also plenty of gems for the astute reader, like the play on J B S Haldane’s famous quotation, and some wonderfully over-the-top descriptions of the urban landscape.

On the other hand, the hardcore alternate historian in me was a little irked by the world-building, which sometimes felt like a patchwork of fun ideas that didn’t quite hang together. Despite the Anglo-Spanish coalition, there’s little indication of what happened to America, and the high-tech culture of Beach seems to exist purely in order for Abnett to throw in references to mpIII players, VisageBook and so on. Also, the omniscient point of view makes it difficult to get attached to any of the characters, a situation not helped when Triumff disappears undercover during the latter part of the book, with secondary characters getting the lion’s share of the action in the lead-up to the finale.

Flaws aside, though, Triumff is an entertaining bedtime read, and if I wasn’t tied up writing my own 16th-century fantasy series for the next two years, I’d probably be looking out for the promised sequel, The Double Falsehood.

Book Review: The Fallen Blade by Jon Courtenay Grimwood

I was very excited when I saw this book was coming out: I love alternate history, Venice is one of my favourite cities (the book I’m working on is set there in large part), and it sounded like an interesting twist on the hoary old vampires-vs-werewolves trope. In all these respects I was not disappointed. Unfortunately it was not all moonlight and roses – but more about that later.

The Fallen Blade tells the story of Tycho, a young man of about seventeen who finds himself in early fifteenth-century Venice with no memory of his past and, worse still, strange inhuman abilities he does not understand. Even his name is given to him by the Venetians who find him, based on the first, garbled words he speaks.

As mentioned above this is an alternate history Venice, where Marco Polo returned from China to seize power and end the old republic, replacing it with a hereditary dukedom. Now his great grandson, Marco IV, sits on the throne of Serenissima, but the young duke is apparently mad, and his mother and uncle vie for power behind the throne. Chief amongst their retainers is Atilo the Moor, aging head of the Assassini, who sees in Tycho the ultimate assassin and his future heir.

Tycho is not so pliable, however, and resists his masters at every turn. When he comes up against a krieghund, one of the Holy Roman Emperor’s werewolves, he discovers there is a secret magical war going on behind the mundane politicking…

There’s a lot to enjoy about this book. The world-building is fresh and intriguing, hinting at a broad canvas that will be pursued in subsequent books. Grimwood’s Renaissance Venice is suitably filthy, smelly and brutal, appropriately enough since what we mostly see is its seamy underbelly. But there were aspects of the writing that, for me at least, were less successful.

Firstly, I found the prose hard to follow in places. Grimwood is a little too fond of sentence fragments and odd punctuation, and the point of view lurches between omniscient and close third person in a way that reminded me of nothing so much as shaky handheld camerawork, the focus always seeming to shift away from a character or the action of a scene at a crucial moment. Add this to the large number of characters and plot threads being thrown at the reader in the opening chapters, and it makes for a disorienting kaleidoscope of imagery. The storytelling does eventually settle down to a clearer rhythm and builds to a set-piece action climax – only to be spoilt by a deus ex machina resolution to Tycho’s seemingly impossible mission.

Far more off-putting, however, was the constant catalogue of violence against the female characters in this novel. For a good two-thirds of the book, scarcely a chapter (and there are a lot of them) goes by without a young woman being abused, violated or, in the worst cases, horribly murdered. Admittedly few characters in this book escape violence and abuse, least of all pretty-boy Tycho, who spends so much of the book naked that one is frequently shocked to discover he is clothed in a given chapter. A certain amount of violence is expected in a book like this, but it is the unremitting, brutal and often sexual cruelty towards the girls that leaves this female reader with an unpleasant taste in her mouth.

Now, one could say this is a historically accurate portrayal of a highly misogynistic culture, but surely it is the prerogative of the artist to pick and choose his subjects and arrange them according to the effect he wishes to produce? In this case, the effect was that I only continued reading the book in order to be able to give a fair and balanced review.

Overall, I feel disinclined to recommend this book, or to read the sequel. A pity, as Tycho is an intriguing character and I would like to know more about the Fallen. Not enough, however, to wade further through the fetid canals of Grimwood’s Venice.

Book Review: The Court of the Midnight King, by Freda Warrington

I confess this isn’t a recent book – it was published in 2003 – but it was recommended to me by someone after a discussion about alternate history fantasy, and it provoked a sufficiently strong reaction that I felt impelled to review it.

*** As is inevitable, there will be mild spoilers! ***

The Court of the Midnight King is set in the fifteenth century, during the reigns of Edward IV and Richard III. The Wars of the Roses is one of my favourite periods of English history (close on the heels of the late 16th century), which is why I followed up on my friend’s recommendation.

Although ninety-five percent of the story is told from the point of view of its medieval characters, the narrative is interrupted at intervals by brief scenes set in the present day. August, a history undergraduate, having become obsessed with Richard III after watching a DVD of Laurence Olivier in the Shakespeare play, starts having vivid visions of the lives of two young people, Kate and Raphael, whose world is a 15th-century parallel universe seemingly contemporaneous with our own. For them, magic is real and a matriarchal goddess cult still survives alongside Christianity, albeit under increasing pressure of persecution. As the story unfolds, we see a very different Richard of Gloucester from the one portrayed by Shakespeare: handsome, unswervingly loyal to his brother Edward, loved by practically everyone who meets him. And this is where the book started to go awry for me.

Everyone (apart from his political enemies) loves Richard. August the undergraduate is besotted by him, neglecting her 12th-century coursework to investigate the contradictory evidence in the historical record and fantasising about nocturnal visitations from her dark prince. Raphael idolises Gloucester, who took him in after his family were killed during the conflict between Edward IV and Henry VI. And Kate, mother of Richard’s illegitimate son following a brief but passionate teenage liaison, is too infatuated with Gloucester to marry Raphael, even though she loves him and it is the best way to secure her family’s estate.

Now, I’m as much a sucker for an angsty romance and unresolved sexual tension as the next girl – and I confess that the scenes between Kate and Richard were some of my favourites – but the unremitting adoration and somewhat naive pro-Ricardian stance (as in, Richard was far too good a man to have murdered his nephews) began to cloy after a few chapters. And this is a substantial book.

It didn’t help that the framing story interfered with my suspension of disbelief. Every few chapters I was being reminded by the author that the story I was reading was apparently the imaginings of a modern-day girl (I say apparently, because in the end the two worlds do meet). It felt like I was reading Ricardian fan-fiction, with Kate as August’s self-insertion (or is August the author’s self-insertion?). Good fan-fiction, but with that irritating note of adolescent wish-fulfillment.

Add to this the (from my perspective) wearisome amount of time devoted to the female characters’ personal lives at the expense of the turbulent politics of this alternate history Wars of the Roses, the anachronistic proto-feminism of the Wiccan-like Motherlodge , and not forgetting costume descriptions that sounded uncannily like Richard et al had been dressed by The Black Rose rather than Berman’s and Nathan’s – and my cynical side began to get in the way of my enjoyment. There were times, heading towards the middle of this book, when I could have cheerfully thrown it across the room!

It’s a pity, because The Court of the Midnight King is beautifully written, evoking the ethereal beauty of the English landscape and carrying its scholarship and period knowledge lightly. I really wanted to like it, and by the end I kind of did (mainly because I can’t resist a satisfying HEA), but I’m not sure I’ll pick up another of Warrington’s books in the future.

Book Review: The Sword of Albion, by Mark Chadbourn

I thought it was about time I did another book review focusing on my own corner of the genre. I’m still catching up on my reading, so at first it will be books that have been out for a while, but hopefully I’ll be more up-to-date soon!

My next “victim” is The Sword of Albion by Mark Chadbourn (published as The Silver Skull in the US).

Disclaimer: I have met Mark and he’s a lovely bloke, but I will try not to let that influence my review. After all, I’ve met other very pleasant authors whose books I was not impressed by, and I’m sure there are books I like whose authors are not so nice.

The Sword of Albion is the tale of Will Swyfte: swordsman, adventurer, rake, and England’s greatest spy. He is famed throughout the kingdom, thanks to ballads and pamphlets – so how can he work in secret when everyone knows who he is? The truth is that his real work is against an Enemy who have long known his identity, and his fight against them requires more than stealth and a ready rapier.

The story ranges from London to Edinburgh and down into the Iberian Peninsula, culminating in the attempted invasion of England by the Spanish – the famous armada of 1588. The action moves relentlessly from set-piece to set-piece, dragging the reader along in Swyfte’s wake as he is repeatedly captured and makes another dramatic escape. Think James Bond meets Pirates of the Caribbean; not only would this make a great movie, but since Chadbourn is a scriptwriter as well, it reads like a great movie.

Will Swyfte is not an arrogant mysogynist like Bond, however. OK, so he indulges in wine and women (sometimes to excess) to blot out the memories of the terrible things he has to do for Queen and country, but at heart he is a romantic, haunted by the memory of his lost love. His companions, though getting much less of the limelight, are also complex, well-drawn characters with believable motivations, though some are decidedly less sympathetic than Will.

The historical setting is well-drawn, with enough detail to satisfy the Elizabethan buffs amongst us without slowing down the action. The filthiness and smelliness of London is sometimes laid on a little heavily, but it does provide a contrast with the elegant, blossom-fragrant citadels of Spain.

I have only a few small quibbles, mostly the nitpicking of a fellow writer that will probably go unnoticed by other readers. There are a few places where information is repeated, or spelt out in narrative immediately after it has been explained in dialogue. And in one scene, Will somehow manages to hold a rapier to a bad guy’s throat and simultaneously whisper in his ear – pretty impressive with a blade that was normally around 36-40 inches! (I assume he is using the tip, since rapiers were not terribly sharp near the hilt). My attention did start to drift a little during the sea-battle, but that sort of thing is always hard to do in a novel. It wasn’t badly written – quite the contrary – but every time the action shifted away from Will towards ships in combat, I just wanted to skip ahead to the next bit of derring-do :)

I was also a little disappointed that the Enemy resorted to mundane physical torture, when they are so good at the psychological kind, but I guess it had to be clear that they were capable of inflicting horrible torments on those Will cares about. On the other hand, kudos to Chadbourn for writing torture scenes that didn’t give me nightmares. He sensibly focuses on the interrogation that is the point of the scene, rather than gratuitous descriptions of the torture itself. Books being so much more intimate a medium than film, it takes very little to make a strong impact on the engaged reader.

In summary, this is an entertaining page-turner with strong, sympathetic characters and a fascinating, terrifying setting – what more could one want from a fantasy novel? I for one am eagerly looking forward to reading more of Will’s adventures…

Book Review: The Lies of Locke Lamora

I’ve just finished reading “The Lies of Locke Lamora” by Scott Lynch, and I have to say it’s pretty damned good. I’ve tried to avoid spoilers in the following review, concentrating instead on Lynch’s writing…

“The Lies of Locke Lamora” is the first in a projected series of seven books detailing the adventures of The Gentleman Bastards, a gang of thieves and conmen from the Venice-like city of Camorr. It’s a ripping yarn full of larger-than-life characters, something akin to “Moll Flanders” meets “Pulp Fiction”; mostly light-hearted but with moments of savage violence, as befits the protagonist’s devil-take-the-hindmost attitude to life.
The mix of traditional fantasy elements (pre-gunpowder weapons, mages) with vaguely SF/clockpunk elements like the advanced architectural technology of the long-departed Elders, the intricate Heath-Robinsonian human inventions and the pseudo-science of alchemy combine in a heady mix of otherworldliness, making Camorr a city you’ll remember long after you close the book. If the description is occasionally a little heavy-handed (please, Scott, can it sometimes be just the wind, not the Hangman’s Wind?), it’s still damned impressive for a debut novel, especially from someone who is still under 30.

Only one thing really takes the edge off an otherwise great book: the dialogue. I’m not at all averse to swearing, but in “Lies” it is at times overdone and inappropriate. It’s one thing for the Gentleman Bastards to be effing and blinding amongst themselves, but the Bondsmage? Don Salvara? Considering that the city is sharply divided into the haves and have-nots, the frankly rather unimaginative swearing sometimes gives the dialogue a homogeneous, classless (or rather lower-class) flavour that spoils the overall effect. The characters’ voices become almost indistinguishable from one another at times, and sound anachronistic to boot, like Lynch had been watching a lot of Quentin Tarantino movies to get in the mood.

Judging by things he has said in interviews, Lynch is a fan of “Serenity” and presumably “Firefly” (the tone of the book reminded me very much of the show). IMHO he should study Jos Whedon’s work a bit more closely: learn how to write really cracking dialogue and most importantly, be a bit more creative with his cursing!