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Broken Homes (Not A Review)

POSTED ON August 6th, 2013  - POSTED IN Book Reviews, Reading

I don’t tend to write book reviews these days. A large part of that is because I’m now part of the industry and as a result have lost a little bit of objectivity. I know how much effort goes into a book, I know the anguish in trying to make a book all it can be, and as a result I empathise.

But I also unpick as I read. Too often I’m analysing and editing another person’s book as if it were my own. I’d move that scene forward, I don’t see the point of that character. It’s not that I think myself a better writer, I’ve learnt much from seeing how other authors do things, it’s just that writerly eye is almost always on, knowing how the magic on the page is constructed.

So it’s a joy when a book comes along that makes me switch all that off, just read and leave the analysis for later.  Ben Aaronovitch’s Peter Grant books are just that, a pure joy to read.

The Ocean At The End Of The Lane

POSTED ON June 21st, 2013  - POSTED IN Book Reviews, Reading

As a writer there are very few books I wish I could have written. My head is so full of my own ideas and nonsense that the voice of others isn’t something that interests me. Instead I dissect, tear open story like some mad doctor as I read and analyse its various organs. I’m sympathetic as I read and cut, I just want to know how things work.

Bookshelf Bombshells Rates The Four Realms As A “Buy It!”

POSTED ON April 10th, 2013  - POSTED IN Book Reviews, Reviews

Given how much writers struggle with putting together the synopsis of a novel, I’m starting to wonder, following this brilliant summary of the setup of The Four Realms, whether authors should employ reviewers to write them. I jest, of course, but this review does a really good job of getting ‘inside’ the setup of the novel.

They liked it and rated it a “Buy It” as well. This, as you can imagine, makes me happy.

“Drop that stack of romantic books about reluctant vampires and grab this harsh story of a vampire who would love to kill you—and the lovely old lady who will find a way to stop him.”

Review – Sea of Ghosts

POSTED ON June 22nd, 2011  - POSTED IN Book Reviews, Reading

Sea of Ghosts was very much a book of two halves for me. It’s an ambitious book that tries to do something a little different and when it works, it’s brilliant. When it doesn’t… well, we’ll come onto that.

I have a real love of fantasy that abandons or subverts the medieval world trope we’ve come to expect from the likes of Tolkien and Martin. Don’t get me wrong, those books definitely have their place but with books like The City & The City and a lot of what Angry Robot is doing right now, people are starting to question the borders between fantasy and science fiction.

Sea of Ghosts has a brilliant set up. The oceans are poisoned and rising. The environment is part of the threat to the protagonists and it makes for a very interesting world where society is forever building upwards. Add dragons, physics and guns and you have a very distinctive and engaging piece of world building.

Cast into this is Granger, an ex-elite soldier who is now hiding from the emperor he insulted. He now runs a prison and into this is thrown someone from his past that upsets the status quo. I didn’t think I would like this plot setup, but it was handled very well and I found myself engaging with Granger’s situation quicker that I thought I would.

For the first half of the book I’m brought deeper and deeper into the story, I go from liking this book to loving it, and then…

…the world breaks. And by that I mean, something that is made out to be such a threat, that I am led to believe is certain death (or a different kind of life), proves not to be. I feel cheated. I go from physically gasping at the end of a chapter to feeling I’ve been duped with a cheesy 1930s cinema serial cliffhanger.
Now I’ve had time to think about this and still it bothers me. Had I misinterpreted the threat? Was this a slight of hand by the author? I’ve thought about this a lot and I still feel cheated.

There’s another example as well, one that isn’t so much of a spoiler. We’re introduced to the concept of Void Flies, a weapon that can eat through cities. Indeed, we see them take out a dragon. We also see them take out a boat. But our hero who is on the boat? He wakes to find a few tiny punctures. Again, I feel cheated.
As a result, the second half, which moves the story and environment on, feels like a completely different book. In other circumstances I would be raving about that, but whereas the first half envokes Bioshock or a good version of Waterworld, the second half feels more like The Golden Compass and as a result it feels a little disjointed. Maybe that’s because, for me at least, I felt less engaged with the novel by this point.

Don’t get me wrong, a book as ambitious as this is always going to get mixed praise, and when it’s on the money, it’s brilliant. The problem is that Campbell seems almost determined to undermine his previous set ups and when he does it’s not some clever twist but a cheap “get out of jail free” card. Even so, I still enjoyed the book, I just felt I could have loved it.

Review – Rivers of London

POSTED ON February 13th, 2011  - POSTED IN Book Reviews, Reading

I read Rivers of London at a bad time. I’d just read Gardens of the Moon by Steven Erikson and absolutely loved the book, feeling it a pinnacle of post-Tolkien fantasy. I raved about that book.

So of course anything I read after that was going to feel like a come-down no matter how much it delivered, right? Except Rivers of London didn’t feel like a come-down at all, and I feel that’s testament to just how good a book it is.

Sure the long sentence construction threw me but only for a page or two. That’s one of the strengths of this book. It grabs you from the start and whisks you along, and you in turn keep turning pages. I’ve found myself longing to get back to this book in-between reads.

It’s X-Files meets The Bill premise is a simple enough one, it even sounds slightly corny. But it’s carried off very, very well. The characters are likable, and the story twists and turns so much that you feel you’ve read a lot larger book. Yet despite all the story, it never loses direction nor momentum.

It also has its funny moments, those wry little asides and observations that make you smirk. I’d worried seeing one of these examples because in that case it was laced with sexual innuendo and those types of jokes can get old very fast. But I need not have worried, it’s not overdone, and the central character of Peter Grant is very likable.

There’s also a lot of information in these pages. Peter is presented as a bit of a facts nerd very early on in the story. As a result, when he relays information about a location or person, it doesn’t feel like an infodump. It’s actually something you look forward to, as it adds rather than detracts from the story.

As a result, London is really presented with character. Arronovitch has managed to capture the spirit of London, and not just in the titular rivers. I had great fun having Google Streetview open as I read, viewing the locations as I read them. Sure there’s probably a bit of artistic license in there, but you got the impression that these were all locations the author knew.

I think this novel is just crying out for sequels (the next is due in April thankfully), but more than that, I think if the BBC or ITV did a TV Series based on the characters it would be a massive hit. Either way, I hope it carries on for many, many more books.

Liz De Jager and Amanda Rutter were the people responsible for recommending this book to me, and I thank them for it. It really is a fantastic book and I’m already looking forward to the sequels.

Review – Gardens of the Moon

POSTED ON February 10th, 2011  - POSTED IN Book Reviews, Reading

I fear this review is going to be a little worthless. You see, as a writer or critic we have some experience of the tools of writing: the character arcs, the themes, the worldbuilding, and so on. We’re able to unstitch novels and look at these component parts, judging each on its own merit. Hence we end up with reviews that say “I loved the characters, but the story was weak”.

However, there comes times when books are so enjoyable you just get lost in them, unwilling to unstitch them because you feel that in doing so you’d break the illusion, that it is somehow wrong. Instead, you just want to enjoy them. If we believe that a book could be, as is often said, “not for someone” so must it hold that some books ARE for some people.

I had that last year with Mark Charan Newton’s City of Ruin. There was a book I thoroughly enjoyed, that pushed my specific buttons. Books like that are rare, especially for any Fantasy writer – who, by and large, write because of the absence of the type of books they want to read.

I started reading Gardens of the Moon about a year ago. I’d been warned it was a tough read, throwing you right into the middle of things, and that most people quit after 200 pages. It became apparent within a few pages that this was a book I would love. Dirty, gritty fantasy with epic mage battles in a time in Fantasy literature where the fantasy is understated in order to up the ‘realism’. Don’t get me wrong, I love some of those books, but as I read about mages throwing waves of magic at a floating citadel, huge chunks of rock crashing into the city below, it re-enforced something I believe. Stories can be real and gritty and still have magic in them.

Yet, I too got around 200 pages in and stopped. I was trying to read too many other books at the same time, and here was a book that not only required but appeared to deserve my undivided attention.

I’m amazed not more fuss has been made of Steven Erikson. Here’s a man who has told a 10 book epic, has told his entire story, delivering each book on time. Can the same be said of Martin, Jordan or Lynch? Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to start another of those “how dare the author be late in delivering his books” threads, just marvel at the fact an epic fantasist has done it. And it’s in the fact that I do marvel at Erikson’s accomplishment I realise I’ve become a fanboi.

I’m told that subsequent novels get better, which fills me with excitement and makes me want to dive into the next book. I must show restraint. The plan is to read all 10 books over the course of the year, each book separated by a few other reads. I will pace myself, Erikson is not someone whose novels can be raced through.

His worldbuilding is as thick as treacle, his ensemble ridiculously epic, yet with each character having their own arc. It might be possible to question how they manage to cross and intertwine paths so often were it not for the intervention of Gods being made plainly clear. A game of chess is afoot and we can currently only see the pawns. If I’m honest, and this is a hard pressed criticism, the characters were sometimes understated, to the point that it sometimes became difficult to individualise them. I find myself wondering if Abercrombie levels of characterisation would have enhanced the novel or detracted from it. With characters such as Kruppe, the potential is there to turn the character dial to 11. Yet, I found myself loving the characters, so perhaps this is another example of how Erikson demands of the reader.

The plot is also a thing of art constantly twisting and turning, characters crossing paths, to the extent that I found my writerly sense of trying to guess where things were going shutting off. I just wanted to enjoy the ride. And enjoy it I did.

There are so many wonderful moments in this book: from fantasy rocket launchers to dragon battles in the city, all unexpected. I found myself saying “I love this book” aloud every ten minutes or so.

Gardens of the Moon, for me at least, represents the pinnacle of post-Tolkien fantasy. This is the type of fantasy I want to read. For some, it’ll be too demanding. I understand this. This book is not for everyone, but it most certainly is for me.

Review – The Name Of The Wind

POSTED ON January 20th, 2011  - POSTED IN Book Reviews, Reading

The Name of the Wind tells the life story of Kvothe, a legendary hero, and goes about showing the more realistic story behind the legend. It’s a book about deconstructing legends and in that sense, it’s a book about story.

The problem for me is that a novel must have plot. It must have a beginning, a middle and an end. It must have that arc of story that weaves and pulls threads together. The Name of The Wind doesn’t have a plot. Oh yes, there’s certainly a progression of story as we follow Kvothe growing up and the story at the Whetstone gives scaffolding to the novel, becoming a pseudo front and end.

The trouble is that in order to deconstruct legends, the book has to sacrifice plot. If it didn’t Kvothe’s life would be a little too neat and the book just wouldn’t work. However, for me at least, instead of just taking a little blood, it kills it on the altar. And that ruins the book for me.

There’s some great and very clever metafiction out there. The French Lieutenant’s Woman is probably my favourite. And part of me just thinks that Rothfuss could have been smarter and delivered a ‘proper’ novel that deconstructs myth.

When I was 8 I wrote my first fantasy story. Whereas most stories pupils wrote in school were two or three pages long, mine was 18. It must have been pretty good for an 8 year old as they typed it up for the school library and encouraged me to write more. What I did was extend the story with extra adventures to create a story over 100 pages in length. This was little more than a series of unconnected stories featuring the same characters. Then they did this and then they did that.

And The Name of The Wind reminds me of this, because it feels like that story. Then I lost a talent then I gained a talent. A series of almost independent adventures, sometimes almost repetitious in nature as Kvothe makes his way through university. If there is no plot to advance per say, then surely the function of these episodes is to highlight character. But we’ve seen Kvothe in these circumstances before, they don’t seem to advance character.

If this was a genuine memoir, they’d be forgiven, lives don’t fit nicely into novels. But this is fiction pretending to be a memoir, and I find myself thinking “surely, they could be condensed and streamlined a bit without losing that sense off the randomness of life, that illusion of memoir”.

Now I do think that it’s clever that as a reader we overlook this because we subconsciously accept this as a memoir. Despite all my problems with it, I don’t think this is a bad book. In fact I did enjoy it.

Most of the book is told in the first person and ordinarily that would start to tire very quickly, but there’s a real sense of the storyteller to Kvothe, that makes the chapters slip by. Now maybe because I’m editing right now and developing a critical eye but the amount of adjectives in dialogue attribution gave me the feeling that the voice was covering up a multitude of sins. It stops me saying I think this book was well written, yet doesn’t stop me saying that the book was an easy read. Perhaps this is part of Kvothe’s voice and another ‘meta’ thing. I hate saying it bothered me, but it really brought me out of the story at times as much as I wish it didn’t.

Rothfuss’ world is very rich and the ambling nature of the story means the reader can really wallow in the worldbuilding. Kvothe is also a wonderful character. We see the world through his eyes, yet never once did I tire of the voice. I also really liked Denna. I’ve had some real problems with female characters in fantasy of late and I loved how Denna was a well-rounded, individual, interesting character who was always Kvothe’s equal (sometimes even more) rather than just a damsel in distress. I love the wind motif that seems to be attached to her but was slightly disappointed when this hadn’t amounted to anything by the end of the novel.

Indeed I think the characterisation (and the rich worldbuilding) in this novel is what saved it for me. I was prepared to read through more financial transactions than the US stock market as Kvothe lost and gained talents, because I loved the characters so and wanted to find out what happened next.

I’m not a critical reader. I like what I like even if it is stupid and dumb. The Name of The Wind isn’t stupid or dumb by any means, and I can see why this is seen by many people as one of their favourite all-time fantasy novels. I can also see why some people hate this book. For me, looking critically at it, I do think it’s an ambitious yet deeply-flawed novel.

The sequel, due this year, will be interesting and a book I’ll probably read eventually. I think for me, it’ll either validate or totally destroy my views on this book. If I’m honest, I’m fine with either way.

At the end of all this, after all this criticism, I can still say that I enjoyed the novel. I doubt it’ll be in my list of books I recommend to new fantasy readers as must-read classics but neither am I going to tell them to avoid it either. Instead I imagine many a long discussion about this novel for years to come.

Review – Retribution Falls

POSTED ON December 28th, 2010  - POSTED IN Book Reviews, Reading

The cover quote from Peter Hamilton says “Retribution Falls is the kind of old fashioned adventure I didn’t think we were allowed to write any more” and I think it’s very true. It’s mixture of strange lands, airships and magic cutlasses makes it at time feel like a fantasy novel, a steampunk novel and a swashbuckling adventure.

In essence the story is your classic “a job too good to be true” story that sees the crew of the Kitty Jay on the run from both the law and the Captain’s ex-girlfriend. And as the crew tries to clear their name and find out who set them up, they come to bond as a crew.

And yes, this does feel like Serenity. So much so, that for the first few pages, I found I couldn’t read it without thinking I was reading fanfic with the names changed. The comparison was so strong I was even able to make character substitutions. But as the chapters rolled by, I was able to see past the comparisons and find well-rounded interesting characters, that like our hero Frey, you come to love.

Don’t let the similarities ward you off reading this book though, because it’s something we rarely get in genre these days, a fun book. There’s certainly some deep characterisations and emotional depth to the book, but it’s trying to sell you an enjoyable and entertaining read rather than some ideal.

There are some bits that do feel shoehorned in. Fray’s cutlass gets a showing at the beginning then hardly gets mentioned until the end when it suddenly becomes of major importance. I also had an issue with Trinica Dracken’s backstory which is too long to go into here but is an issue wider than just this book concerning strong female characters that I’m preparing a separate blog post about.

For me, what this book is, is the SF I was missing as a teenager. As much as I tried to get into SF, I always found it a little dry (I still do, having just given up on an Ian M Banks novel.) But what Retribution Falls is, is an adventure. It’s fun, it paces along, it has some memorable characters, and really delivers what it sets out to. It’s certainly not the deepest book out there (although I thought the section on leg cramp very insightful) but you can’t fail to pick this book up and not enjoy it.

Review – The Shattering

POSTED ON December 16th, 2010  - POSTED IN Book Reviews, Games, Reading

As a rule, I don’t have a problem with Tie-In Fiction. I’m very much in the “you like what you like” camp and don’t think you should ever be ashamed of your reads.

The argument against tie-in fiction is often that it is of a lesser quality, that because it is work for hire, authors don’t give it the same attention they would their own creation. I don’t think that’s necessarily true any more.

However, I have encountered more than a couple of tie-ins which fail to capture the spirit of the property on which they are based, and just come across as “My book with characters from X in it”. I’m specifically thinking of a few Star Wars novels but (though I’ve not read it), I’ve heard a few people say this accusation could be levelled at the new Michael Moorcock Doctor Who novel.

The Shattering is a World of Warcraft novel, and specifically it’s the story of events leading up to the latest expansion, Cataclysm. There’s been a surprising amount that hasn’t been explained in-game, and this book serves as an explanation why certain racial leaders have changed, some zones have changed hands and there’s strife within the factions themselves.

Surprisingly, the amount of content the book needs to cover actually works against it in many ways. With two factions, the book has to walk a tightrope of ensuring both are equally catered for. The characters have been well established in Warcraft lore so as a result, character development is done via a quick bit of exposition. It’s difficult when working in another universe to show character development, and I will give credit that some was attempted here, but even Thrall stepping down as Warchief felt more about moving chess pieces around on a board than some form of natural character growth.

Golden tries to tie all the threads together through the use of Anduin Wrynn, a secondary character, and here is where there is the most character development. But ironically, the inclusion of the hearthstone (a feature in-game to return you back to your home inn to save you running all the way back) meant whenever Anduin was in trouble, you just felt he could hearth out of there. As a result, I never really felt the character was in threat, and therefore I didn’t find myself caring about him as much as I would have otherwise.

In the end, Golden just has too much to do here. There’s too much careful balancing and moving characters into position to really spend much time developing characters. As a result it feels like a very constrained novel. It’s plot gymnastics over actual story.

There’s also an awful lot of exposition, telling us what a character is like rather than showing us. I cannot read the passage below without each instance of the word ‘had’ ringing like a church bell in my ear.

“Drek’Thar had always had prophetic dreams and visions. It was a gift – a spiritual sight, as he no longer had physical sight. But since the War Against the Nightmare, the gift had grown teeth. His dreams had worsened during the dreadful time, and sleep promised not rest and refreshment, but terror. They had aged him and turned him from one who had been old but strong into a frail, sometimes querulous elder. He had hoped that with the defeat of the Nightmare, his dreams would return to normal. But while the intensity had lessened, his dreams still were very, very dark.”

I guess the important thing is that Golden has written a Warcraft novel rather than a novel with Warcraft characters in it. There’s a sense she really understands this game and its world, and that can’t be said for a lot of tie-in fiction. This is a book that is primarily for Warcraft fans, as I think general readers will just see some of the flaws I mention above. Which is a shame, I think had Golden had been able to tone down the exposition, give time for characters to develop naturally and worry less about giving both factions equal page space, she’d have turned out a much better novel.

As it is, I think fans of the game will find it a good Warcraft novel (which is the aim here). Sadly, it’s not a book to convince the general populace that tie-in fiction can be of an equal quality to original fiction though.

Review – The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo

POSTED ON December 1st, 2010  - POSTED IN Book Reviews, Reading

It was both a blessing and a curse that I came about the audiobook for The Girl With The Dragon Tattoo. Crime doesn’t tend to be a genre I read a lot in, but I’m pretty genre agnostic when it comes to reading. So when a newspaper was offering the audiobook for free as part of an offer, I snapped it up for a rainy day and stuck it on my iPod.

That rainy day came recently when I found myself in need of a good audiobook to keep me company during a particularly boring piece of the day job. I flicked through the audiobooks section of my iPod, saw it sitting there and thought, “I’ll give that a go.”

What I didn’t realise is that this free audiobook was in fact the abridged version. Hence the curse. It means that some of the issues I had with the book concerning some very clipped dialogue and the occasional odd bit of pacing, are probably attributable to the hack and slash of the abridged version. Had I known, I probably would have got the unabridged version. But that said, if it hadn’t been free there’s a good chance I would never have attempted to try this novel out.

So I’m unable to analyse this book fairly, but I have to be honest, what started as a rather boring story of libel, morphed into a really great mystery such that by the end I was sorry to see the characters go. I didn’t find it a book that reached out and grabbed you, but one that grew on you.

There’s a real undercurrent of S&M to the book, and in many ways this is where the true horror of the novel lives. It also helps give the book a bit of a dark edge to it that punctuates the moody atmosphere.

The characters, disgraced journalist Blomquist and sociapath Salander are beautifully flawed and together make for an interesting chemistry. The mystery itself is a little more mundane and I was surprised when it appeared to be resolved so early (again this might be due to the abridged version). The resolution also felt like the weakest part to me, with the antagonist coming across as a little comic book and tropey.

Yet still, I found that I was drawn more and more into this book as I progressed, and it’s stuck with me well after the end. I just wonder how much better it would have been in the unabridged version.

I think I will check out others in the series, but if I elect to go for audiobooks you can be assured that they won’t be abridged.