Fantasy Review: ‘Lonely Werewolf Girl’ by Martin Millar

This is a reread of a favorite, but the first time I have reviewed it.

Describing this book is hard.  The underlying plot is a war of ascendency in an ancient clan of werewolves, set in modern Great Britain.  It is not a comedy, but often funny, and completely absurd.  Most of the book involves the politicking between two brothers involved in gaining the votes for a new Thane, but the moving parts involved include alcoholic werewolves, fashion obsessed fire elementals, a guild of werewolf hunters, and two college students who get caught up in all of it.

As I am a fan I am going to start the review with reasons a person may not like it, before I move on to all the reasons it is one of my favorites.  To start with, my copy has 235 chapters, at 560 pages, do the math.  Rapid fire doesn’t begin to cover it, not only are chapters short, but the author can use three paragraphs to focus on three characters in three different cities.  While the book isn’t “silly,” many aspects of it are completely absurd.  While the pieces fit, Millar isn’t Tolkien, and building the back story isn’t his focus(at one time why her cloths are gone in werewolf form and back in human form, the title character replies “I don’t know”).  Lastly, part of the rapid fire pace results in points being hammered repeatedly.  You will know that Kalix is lonely, college boy Danial is shy, and various characters are very beautiful, and you will be reminded of the fact often.

But if you can handle the unique style, then you may find a surprisingly great book.  While revolving around the title character, Kalix, the cast of characters is huge for the book size.  The rapid fire switching of viewpoints keeps the book from every becoming bloated, each chapter advances one(or more) of the many side stories that will eventually bring the main plot together.  The shear number of plot lines Millar is pushing is huge, but the most amazing part is as a reader, I never felt lost.  I knew what each character was doing, who they were sided with, and I never had to back up to past pages to remind myself of anything.  Even more impressive, despite several rereads I have still not found a side plot that wasn’t in some way resolved, and almost every named character mentioned in some ways advanced the main plot-line.

Characters were great.  While not every character was likable, all were entertaining.  Most books have one PoV that readers dread seeing.  Perhaps the fact that I never had to spend more than a page at a time with a character had something to do with it, but I truly enjoyed learning what was happening to every major player.  The fashion obsessed fire elemental(who looks like a super model and acts like a child) was a particular high light.  Moonglow, one of the college students, has a sweetness and kind heart that is infectious.  I defy someone to not have sympathy for the other college student, Danial.

The book had the right amount of humor.  It is a serious story (bands called Yum Yum Suguary Snacks aside), but i was chuckling throughout.  It also has the right amount of violence.  Despite a war being fought, there is not lingering on the ins and outs of battles or even particular fights.  The set up and aftermath is more important than details of who did what to who.

Lastly, despite leaving enough open for a potential sequel(which eventually came), the book reached a true conclusion.  Some may think the final showdown ended abruptly, but there was almost nothing about it that wasn’t foreshadowed subtlety throughout the rest the book.

Pros: Well crafted, and the handling of plot-lines is among the best I have seen.  Humorous and believable despite the absurdity of some situations.

Cons: Some dialog rings false.  Every single character is a true beauty, male and female.  Really?  Not one unattractive werewolf?

5 stars, a personal favorite.

 

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Fantasy Review: ‘Dragon’s Path’ by Daniel Abraham

This is the first of a proposed quintet (‘The Dagger and the Coin’), and is the author’s first foray into what might be termed mainstream fantasy, after the critically applauded but unconventional ‘The Long Price Quartet’. The dagger of the series title represents war, while the coin is economics – the twin approaches to conquest, or defence against it. The story centres around four main characters: Cithrin, a girl who is a ward of the Medean bank, shortly to achieve independence; Marcus, an experienced soldier; Geder, a low-ranking nobleman with a liking for speculative writings; and Dawson, a middle-aged nobleman with political tendencies. The plot jumps from one named POV to another.

I found the book slow to get into at first, but that is common with many fantasy novels, and this was easier to follow than many. But after a few chapters everything seemed to click into place, and the story picked up speed. It is still distracting, however, to hop around from one named POV (and plot thread) to another – just as you get interested in one part of the story you are whisked off somewhere else, perhaps less interesting. And some parts are definitely less interesting – Dawson, for instance. I much prefer not to know who the POV is in each chapter. It makes it much easier to stop reading, and harder to pick up again, if you think – ‘Hmm, another Dawson chapter…’.
It was hard to keep track of the politicking that went on in Camnipol, in Antea. The different factions and motives were not easy to follow, and it felt sometimes as if there was a whole subtext that I just failed to get. Why, for instance, was Dawson exiled but not Issandrian? I had a similar problem with the economics sub-plot in Porte Oliva, but this worried me less. I just assumed that if I took the trouble to work it out, it would probably make sense.
The four main characters build quite nicely in depth as the book progresses. Geder, in particular, is a fascinating character, and while his actions may seem horrifying they are always entirely understandable and (in some sense) justified. What he does to Vanai is a perfectly sensible solution to an economic problem, after all – what else is one supposed to do with an unprofitable vanquished city? – although the way he does it leaves something to be desired. Master Kit, of course, is clearly going to be significant somewhere down the line. Marcus and Yardem have a terrific relationship, and Cithrin is more complex than she appeared at first sight. It is quite fun to meet a female protagonist who is pragmatic about sex, and responds to setbacks by taking to her bed with as much booze as she can get her hands on and staying there until it’s gone. Even Dawson, for all his faults, raises a certain sympathy and his wife Clara is interesting too.
The world-building is not spectacular so far. It is yet another post-dragon, post-magic (more or less) world. The cities have interesting individual quirks, but the countryside in between seems pretty empty. The jade roads are intriguing, and the 12 created races are fascinating. At the moment they are merely ciphers, but presumably the differences will become important later. In particular, I suspect the Drowned will be crucial to something.
The plot rounds off with a flourish. Geder’s political success is, in retrospect, predictable but I failed to read the signs. On the other hand, Cithrin’s success is totally predictable and therefore dull. So she threatens the bank and the auditer promptly caves in? Rather lame. And the big reveal in the ‘Entr’acte’ was surely spotted by everyone long before. In summary, not earth shattering but a good and promising start to the series. Four stars. [First posted on Goodreads May 2011]

[Edited after a reread May 2013] Having just read the third book in the series, ‘The Tyrant’s Law’, I was disinclined to start reading anything new or different or (frankly) inferior. So I started all over again with book 1, and given that I hardly ever reread anything (so many books, so little time) this is a Big Deal.
What strikes me most is how well this reads for a little extra understanding. It’s not just knowing which characters will be important, recognising names of places and the foreshadowing of events, but so many scenes are perceived entirely differently because of understanding the full implications of the prologue (the identity of the apostate, the peculiar nature of his ability and the way he deals with that). There’s a lot of history, too, which makes far more sense when viewed from a couple of books further on. There are bits and pieces which whizzed by me previously: the prejudice against non-First-Blood races, for instance, which jumps out at me now.
The characters still fall into their original stances: Geder is fascinating, Cithrin is whiny and childish, but most of the time I like her, Marcus is still the laconic cynical ex-warrior with a tragic personal story (but I kinda like that trope) and Dawson is – yes, Dawson is still irritating and prejudiced and insufferably stuck in rigid protocol. I still don’t understand the whole plot business in Camnipol. How is it that Dawson and Issandrian were both penalised, when one of them stirred up an armed rebellion against the throne and the other ensured it failed? How does that work?
But still – great book, a brilliantly devised if controversial character (Geder) and that huge whoa! moment at Vanai. And I still love the way that Geder simply reverses into success in his clumsy, half-arsed badly-thought-out way. Hes almost a sympathetic character, with his oddly not-quite-one-of-us ways, always trying to please, always falling short, a disappointment to his father and the butt of everyone elses jokes. Terrific stuff. The plot is still half-formed at this point, but the characters just glow with life.

Reviews of Daniel Abraham

Expanse Series (Written as James S A Corey with Ty Franck)
Leviathan Wakes
Caliban’s War

The Dagger and the Coin
The Dragon’s Path
The King’s Blood
The Tyrant’s Law
The Black Sun’s Daughter (Written as M.L.N Hanover)
Unclean Spirits
Darker Angels

Long Price Quartet

Fantasy Review: ‘The Silence of Medair’ by Andrea K Höst

For those who say all self-published works are dross – this book is a stunning counter example. The manuscript spent an unbelievable ten years – I’ll say that again, TEN years! – languishing with a single publisher before the author withdrew it in disgust and self-published. You can see why they might have had a problem with it, because it’s very different from the average. It’s intelligent, thought-provoking and well written. It avoids cliches. It’s character-driven fantasy at its best. It’s also a cracking story. I loved it.


The opening is, surely, how all fantasy novels should begin: not by parachuting the reader into the middle of a battle, or some gruesome moment intended purely to shock, but quietly, with the main character in her setting, then adding in the mysterious background, some magic and a threat, to draw you in. But then this is an unusual book in a number of different ways. Many of the events which other writers would turn into a whole trilogy – a massive magic-induced disaster, an empire threatened by invasion, an escalating, seemingly unwinnable, war, a desperate race to find a magic gizmo to turn the tide, and then, miraculously, actually finding said gizmo – all happened five hundred years in the past, and are revealed only briefly in passing. The author even resists the temptation to put them into a prologue. Instead, the story starts some months after the primary character, Medair, has returned with the gizmo, only to find that centuries have passed, the invaders have become the establishment and she herself is the outsider. Her sense of dislocation, and how she adjusts to the new regime, form the substance of the book.

The created world is not outrageously original, just the standard-issue pseudo-medieval arrangement, with a few little touches to make it different, and happily no hackneyed taverns, assassins, thieves, whores and the like, and no gratuitous violence or sex. So this is a relatively civilised and orderly world, where the complications are political rather than societal. And unlike many low-technology worlds, there’s a relaxed gender-neutrality in operation. Women can, and do, become soldiers, heralds, mages, whatever they have an aptitude for. They can inherit empires, too. I get tired of the patriarchy thoughtlessly assumed in most fantasy.

And there’s magic, of course. Oodles of magic. There are mages and adepts (which may be the same thing, I’m not clear about that) who have quite powerful abilities, and there are also magical artifacts. There is also ‘wild magic’, which is hugely, earth-shatteringly powerful (literally) and very unpredictable. I liked the way that magic can be sensed in some physical way, some kind of feeling that allows a character attuned to it to know that magic is being used, and sometimes what kind, and where, and how powerful it is. That was neat.

But it has to be said that sometimes the magic borders on being deus ex machina. The heroine gets into a tricky situation and has only to reach into her dimensionally flexible satchel and pull out some magic gizmo or other to effect her escape. Or else another character waves his or her hands around and – pow, she is magically constrained to do something or other. Is it really deus ex machina if we know ahead of time that the satchel contains magical gizmos, or that the character is a mage? Not sure, but it certainly made a very convenient plot device. On the other hand, it allowed the heroine to use her own self-reliance and not be dependent on a bloke turning up with a sword or a spell to rescue her. In fact, she was usually the one rescuing the blokes.

The heart of the book is the nature of the Ibisians, the invaders of five hundred years earlier, now the establishment. Medair’s hatred and mistrust of them is still fresh, and the scenes between them crackle with tension, as she tries to adjust her strong and perhaps legitimate feelings to this new world order. The issue is complicated, too, by the other countries and factions still fighting against the new rulers. Where exactly do her loyalties lie? She has the magic gizmo which will destroy the invaders, but are these people still her enemies five centuries later? These themes – of loyalty and oppression and enforced compliance and the nature of colonialism – weave throughout the story.

This part of the book is beautifully done. The subtle and not so subtle differences between the world Medair remembers and the current one are neatly drawn – the architecture, clothing, food, mannerisms and customs – so that we first see the invaders through Medair’s eyes as strangely alien beings, and only gradually begin to soften towards them as we get to know them better. It becomes apparent that five hundred years of assimilation has worked both ways, and these Ibisians are not the same as the enemy of Medair’s own time.

The plot revolves around Medair’s struggles with her own antipathies and growing respect for the Ibisians, so there is a great deal of introspection and (it has to be said) downright angsting going on. There were a few moments when I wished she would stop agonising and just get on with it. But fortunately there was enough action interspersed with the angst to keep things rattling along. There were a few places where I wasn’t too sure what was going on, where a little more explanation or description would have helped. Occasionally the complex hierarchy of the Ibisians caught me out (all the ranks begin with a ‘k’, so they begin to blur together), and sometimes I wasn’t even sure which character Medair was talking to. But these are minor issues, which never seriously affected my enjoyment. This is a great read, a story with an intriguing premise, unexpected twists and plenty of action. It’s also that rare beast, a fantasy novel with a truly strong female lead character who’s not remotely a stereotype. I recommend it. A good four stars.[Originally posted on Goodreads December 2011]

By the same author

Stained Glass Monsters

Fantasy Review: ‘Harbinger of the Storm’ by Alliete de Bodard

Harbinger of the Storm is the second book in the Obsidian and Blood series, and is an very good continuation of the series.  For those unfamiliar, the series is a historical fantasy set in the Aztec Empire, an empire where magic is everywhere and common, and where the gods have an active part in life.  It is also a series of murder mystery, but with magic.  Like the first book, the story is told in first person from the point of view of Acatl, the High Priest of the Dead.  Where the first book was at its core a murder mystery, the second book ups the stakes to the fate of the world itself.

Like the first book this novel is surprisingly accessible.  My knowledge of Aztec mythology is minimal, yet I never lost track of the deities or their corresponding priests.  The author is very good at dropping just enough information to keep you from getting lost, without ever slowing the story down with it.  Pacing is important to me, and this is another strength.  Acatl starts off investigating a grisly murder, and quickly gets involved in something much larger.  Escalating amounts of danger, more and more politics, and a showdown with a couple gods follow. 

While I enjoyed this novel a lot, I struggled with the magic system a bit more this time around.  In a land where gods play an active part it is hard to criticize the pure amount of magic that affected the characters, but at times it overwhelmed everything else.  Example, while the world was coming down in the form of star daemons,  Acatl and others conveniently find a loophole in a ceremony to replace a necessary Priestess who can slow the damage. 

The world is just as brutal as before, with sacrifice being a necessary part of life.  Some gods required certain animals, some human, and almost all spells require some kind of blood immediately at hand(Acatl is described cutting his earlobe numerous times).  There is no modern morality spin on this, the gods require blood and it is never second guessed. 

I enjoyed Acatl’s voice a lot more this time around, the brooding inferiority complex is mostly gone.  I was hoping for more grown from his apprentice, Teomitl, who remained a brash, impulsive young noble.  I was also surprised by the complete disappearance of women characters.  The first book had a couple of strong women who did all they could to influence events, despite the patriarchal society.  In Harbinger I counted three females, none who had a any real influence on the story. 

Pros:  As easy to read as dime store paperback murder mystery, but a lot more intelligent.  A very interesting main character, and a nice blend of building on the story, while keeping it contained in one book. 

Cons: The magic got overwhelming, and Acatl made is discoveries at just the right time a bit too much this time around.

3 stars

Followed by ‘Master of the House of Darts’

Series Review

Fantasy Review: ‘Vessel’ by Tominda Adkins

Vessel, Book I: The AdventThis book has been on my radar for quite a while, and I have no idea where I first saw it.  I have no history of reading self published works, but the premise of this one intrigued me enough take the plunge.  In this case the author has found a new fan.

Book one in a series(though fairly self-contained), this is a fairly unique take on vampires.  Told in first person, the main character Jordan is a personal assistant to the worlds biggest pop-star, Jesse Cannon.  Her life, and several others, is thrown into chaos when her boss learns in a very abrupt fashion that he is one of five men who make up the Vessel.  Details are fuzzy, but the Vessel is the worlds defense against Hollows(vampire like creatures that in essence are pure death).  The five strangers who make the vessel converge around the tour bus of Jesse, followed by hollows and a secret society.  From there the book has some pretty standard series set up tropes, coming into power, learning the back story, and meeting bigger and badder villains.

The books biggest strength is the conversational style of the narrator.  She is easy to read, sometimes witty, and a lot of fun  She is an easy character to like(although the same can be said about most the authors characters).  I was also impressed on how much back story was inserted without feeling like info dumps interrupted the flow.  I know a lot about the realities of this world, especially for such a short book.  Also, despite following some tropes to set up the series, the story line never feels trite.

There are some issues.  The most glaring is some awkward switching between first and third person, when the entire book is supposedly narrated by Jordan.  As Jordan is a mere mortal among demigods, she should not have a lot of the knowledge she passes along(such as the order of minor actions that take place when she is not around, and more importantly, what people are thinking).  There were a few editing problems, the most glaring being a section in which some piece of dialog is missing, because two characters jump to a conclusion that the conversation doesn’t even suggest.  That said, the author obviously had an army of proof-readers, as I was expecting more errors of this type in a self-published work, so color me impressed.

Pros: A very enjoyable narrator (when not jumping between first and third person), and fairly unique story, and quite a bit of wit.

Cons: The switching narrator thing was the most jolting.  At times it felt the author didn’t know if she was going for a humorous book with a serious plot, or a completely serious plot where the humor disappeared for stretches.

3.5 stars, and I will be on the list for the next one.

Fantasy Review: ‘Red Country’ by Joe Abercrombie

Red Country is a standalone within an already established fantasy universe.  It MAY be possible to read without having read The First Law, Best Served Cold, and The Heroes, but there would be huge chunks of back story missing.

Abercrombie is my favorite of the new group of “gritty” fantasy authors, and has improved in each book.  To enjoy his writing a reader will need to have a dark sense of humor, tolerance of a high body count, and be OK with the knowledge bad things happen to not just good people, but all people in this world.  If this interests you, start reading The Blade Itself, then when you have caught up come back to this review.

While the First Law trilogy was a complete deconstruction of fantasy cliches, Red Country is a blend of Western trope deconstruction(as in the Wild West, Louis L’amour, and the movie Unforgiven) and a fantasy world slowly moving into the start of an industrial age.  The basics of most westerns involve an early murder, abduction, or robbery, then a posse goes out to round up the bad guys, and justice is served!  This is the blueprint the book follows, while twisting every piece of it.  The posse includes as many bad guys as good, the ‘savages’ are people doing what they can to hold onto what they have, and women do more than stand around waiting for the cowboys to do everything.  And if you know this author, you know the definition of justice being served may not be the same for every character.

One of my favorite aspects of this book was the subtle way that each chapter had a theme of sorts.  Examples include a chapter that jumps between POV’s quickly, showing several minor characters thinking about what reasons they believe themselves to be the best man in the company, or a chapter in which several characters have something uniquely high stake on the line. 

The book is humorous at times, fairly quick paced, and does a TON of fan service in bringing back old characters.  While the plot is well contained, in a lot of ways it is obviously a wrap up of series-long story lines in preparation for the next trilogy. 

This author’s earlier works have been criticized for the way women or portrayed(or in the case of First Law, not portrayed at all).  I am the wrong person to discuss this in detail, but will point out that Abercrombie seems to be trying to improve on this.  Including the main character there are multiple females who advance the plot, all with different lives, motivations, and various amount of ability to change their destination within a still patriarchal society.  

Pros: Quick pacing, humor, a well done blend of genres(despite the lack of guns it really does feel like a western), more of what the authors fans already like. 
Cons: A strange betrayal plot in the early going doesn’t pass the logic test, some characters did very little to advance the plot.  The dark world view will certainly not be for every reader.

4 stars, a very enjoyable continuation of the series.

Series Review: ‘Crossroads’ by Kate Elliott

A great epic fantasy that stands out from the pack, Crossroads should be a must read for most.  Set mostly in a world know as the Hundred, Elliott stands out from the pack in creating unique cultures.  The author spend time actually thinking through how different cultures would act and think, including how each would have divisions within it self.  No pseudo-europian cultures here, each one is hand crafted.  They each have differing opinions on matters such as slavery, women’s roles, and even homosexuality.  It makes for a unique read.

Elliot also writes engaging and interesting characters.  If anyone can be called a main character, Mai would be it.  And through the three books we watch her grow.  Always smart, we see her sold into a marriage, grow into the marriage, and eventually turn into one of the strongest personalities in the book.  Her final chapter in book three endeared her to me greatly.  We also see major growth in Joss, a Reeve(judge and Eagle rider, which is not near as corny as a it sounds in this world), from an alcoholic to reluctant leader.  Perhaps even better, we see some characters grown and change their mind, like one slave trader, while others hold on to their prejudices thorough he whole series.  It makes character growth much more believable.

The pacing of the books should be quick enough that people who prefer action stay involved.  A war sits as the back drop of the whole story, and both sides are shown in the war.  Some soldiers are sadistic, some human, and often they fight on the same side.

I only have a few downsides, and they are minor.  There were a couple of botched editing jobs(and for me to notice them, they were bad).  One was a timeline issue in the first book, the other were a couple conversations in the third where who was speaking got garbled.  I also felt that the second book introduced too many characters that got forgotten in the third.  If a person is given a PoV, I would like to know what happened to them(This may be remedied by new books in the same world at a later time).  Along the same vein, a more complex world was introduced, but never really worked with (Wildlings, firelings, and other “races” are talked about, even seen, but never given the space that is needed).

All those are minor squabbles though, as the entire series is excellent.  Go out and read it!   

Book 1: Spirit Gate
Book 2: Shadow Gate
Book 3: Traitor’s Gate