Fantasy Review: ‘Throne of Jade’ by Naomi Novik

Nathan’s Review:

Am I expecting too much from this series?  Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed the hell out of the first book.  Dragons in the Napoleonic wars just makes so much since.  How did this not happen in real life?  It certainly should have.  The series seems well researched and has the vibe of being intelligent historical fantasy, and yet…  And yet I can’t help but feel this has been a bit shallower than I expected, or at least hoped for.

Again the story follows Temeraire and Captain Laurence, this time as they travel to China.  The Emperor has learned that a mere soldier is riding around on a Dragon meant for royal hands only, and China wants their dragon back.  Going by sea, because going by air would have just been silly, once again half the book meanders along before getting to the main plot (lots of sea travel).  Once in China Temeraire learns how other dragons live, Laurence deals with politics and diplomacy, and the whole story is wrapped up with the most simplistic solution in a dragon book possible (outside of a dragon just eating everyone).

I am teased with a deeper book, but the author pulls back.   Temeraire sees a slave revolt, then starts looking at his own station in life and making comparisons.  Are we going to look a little deeper into the intelligence of dragons and what it means to use them as war engines?  No, Temeraire is placated with unspecific promises and lets it sit in the back ground.  Later on in China we see a poor dragon that barely earns enough to live.  Perhaps a look at the price of freedom for Temeraire to think about?  Not really, never thought about again.  We also contemplate the lack of speech and its correlation with intelligence after a sea dragon’s attack.  Net result?  A brooding dragon for a short time, then also forgotten.

Oh yes the ending.  Did I mention it was simple?  Incredibly simple.  The solution to the whole book’s issue came down to “let’s try this, think it will work?, don’t see why not.”  And yes, it worked.  So they traveled all over the world for a solution that came up in idle conversation.

Ok stop, enough negative.  The book was not that bad, I jumped right into the next one to finish of the omnibus.  Novik writes very exciting action when she gets to it.  Battles are easy to follow with strong visuals; they don’t drag on nor last even a page too long.  The battle with the sea serpent was good, a siege later on in the book was even better.  There were some interactions between people of different cultures that I also found interesting.  Some of the crew had no problem interacting with the strange to them Chinese culture, while others were more reluctant.

Certainly not a bad book and maybe it is even a very good book.  It very well may be that my expectations were set for a different book than the author had in mind.

3 Stars

Pauline’s Review:

This is the second book in the alternate history series about Temeraire, the dragon captured as an egg from the French and inadvertently hatched at sea and induced into captivity by the ship’s captain, Will Laurence. Where the first book focused on Temeraire’s growth and training as a part of the Aerial Corps, engaged in fighting the French during the Napoleonic wars, this book is about his personal history. For it turns out that Temeraire is a rare Chinese Celestial dragon, the egg was sent as a gift to Napoleon, and the Chinese are not happy about him being deployed in the war, ridden by a mere naval officer, and want him back. Relations with the Chinese are delicate, so Temeraire and Laurence are packed off to Peking to negotiate some kind of deal.

This book has the same characteristics as the first, being more about the formality of language and manners than action. There are some quite dramatic encounters, but these episodes are brief. The highlight for me is, as before, Temeraire himself, who is by far the most interesting character in the book. He has a refreshingly straightforward attitude to life, and time after time Laurence is forced to attempt to justify his own society’s customs and morals against Temeraire’s much more liberal ideas. These discussions are fascinating – Laurence is a product of his own era of history, and there are many ideas which he accepts without thinking, and others where he has absorbed his family’s somewhat different ideas (he is against slavery, for instance, even though it is still legal in Britain). For instance, it is fascinating to juxtapose Temeraire’s instinctive feeling that it is wrong to flog or hang a man, with the obvious need to maintain discipline aboard ship. The Chinese have very different ways of treating dragons, too, and Laurence is forced to acknowledge, against his natural feeling, that they do some things better than the west.

I have no idea how accurate the depiction of Chinese life of the era is, or whether the author has taken liberties, but it all seemed very plausible to me. There were some fascinating details, for instance the ceremony on board ship when crossing the equator, which the author mentions in passing without going into much detail. Both the Chinese delegation and Temeraire himself are mystified by the whole thing, but the author resists the temptation to info-dump all her research on the subject, writing as if we were of the period and would naturally know all about it. I rather like this minimalist approach, which suits the book very well, giving it almost an authentic air of having been written in 1806.

This is actually a thought-provoking book in many ways, addressing a number of ideas head on, such as slavery versus voluntary service, and others less directly, such as the absolute will of an emperor versus the democratic monarchy system prevailing in Britain. It’s not a high-action book, although there are episodes of drama, but in some cases they feel rather bolted on as an afterthought to ramp up the tension. However, the tension between the British and the Chinese is nicely done, and the slow but definite way in which the barriers begin to dissolve and the two sides inch their way towards an understanding is beautifully described. In the end, everything hinges on trust, or the lack of it, and the resolution is both frighteningly dramatic and ultimately very satisfying. Once again, I enjoyed this book unreservedly, and although it wouldn’t suit everyone, for me it’s another five star affair. I’m almost nervous to read any further in the series in case this high standard comes crashing down. Can any author sustain the ideas and this level of writing for nine books? It’s hard to imagine.[First posted on Goodreads September 2012]

Books in the Series
His Majesty’s Dragon
Throne of Jade
Black Powder War

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Fantasy Review: ‘His Majesty’s Dragon’ by Naomi Novik

Nathan’s Review:

Oh friggen sweet.  Ok, so here’s how it is.  This stuffy British sea captain wipes the deck with a frenchie ship (ha, wipes the deck).  When they take control of the ship it has this giant egg on it, because it turns out there are dragons.  This egg is about to hatch so he makes his crew draw straws on who is going to be its best bud because these crazy people don’t want their very own dragon and it is a punishment or something.  But when the egg hatchets and the loser kid tries to talk with him the dragon is like, oh hell no I ain’t running with no lackey, where is the big dog on this boat?  He finds the captain and talks to him in perfect English saying, you and me man.

So Captain Laurence has this dragon, and doesn’t know what to name him, so he calls him Temeraire after some lame ship or something.  And the dragon is really smart, but because they are new they have to go off and train on how to be a useful in a fight.  Which is awesome, because I totally read all the Pern books and those dragons NEVER fought, they just flew around people and shot falling strings out of the sky.  But in this book Europe is at some war between the English and the French, and they totally load the dragons up with gunmen and bombs and attack ships and other dragons with them.
So here I am, all psyched out because Laurence keeps telling Temeraire about all these dragon battles, but the first two thirds of the book are about training.  Laurence is a Navy man, and he knows he is so much better than the hippies in the air corp, so he spends his time showing them how to be more duty bound and clean cut and the right way to do things.  It is okay though, he doesn’t always know what’s right, and sometimes other people have to call him out on it.  Like when he is shocked to see girls with dragons too.  Sure there wasn’t much fighting, but I guess I can reluctantly admit I was interested never less, because I am kinda a softy and Laurence and Temeraire are getting tight together.

Then bam, they get a mission.  And this Napoleon dude is craftier than people think, and he totally tricks everyone and now it’s up to the dragons to save the day, including Temeraire even though he isn’t trained all the way. And it is exciting, and I can feel the tension and hear the rifles and everything else I want in a battle.  There are different kinds of dragons doing different things, and Laurence thinks of them as ships and so he comes up with strategies no else thought of.  It was awesome.

I got bummed a little though, because Laurance was such a stuffy pants he was boring sometimes.  And it was weird how he was such a bad judge of character and so hoity toity but people still thought he was cool, even the people who didn’t like him change their mind.  And as cool as it was, sometimes my brain hurt when I tried to figure out stuff like how they could hold normal conversations while flying through the air and how people could hold so steady when riding a giant flapping animal and how many cows does a dragon have to eat a day and where do they all come from?

4 stars
Pauline’s Review:

This has a very simple premise: imagine the Napoleonic wars, but with dragons. It sounds mad, but actually it works astonishingly well. The author manages to capture the ethos of the times perfectly – the class system, the rigid formality of manners, the somewhat florid language – while still creating a fascinating work of fantasy.

The starting point is the acquisition of a dragon egg from a captured French frigate, which inconveniently decides to hatch while the British ship is still returning to port. Not wanting to allow such a prize to go to waste, the crew, or rather the officers (that’s the class system at work again), decide to see if the dragon will accept a harness. As it happens, it is the Captain, Will Laurence, who manages it and has to leave the Navy and join the dragon corps as a result. His regrets about this, which he regards as being cast out from good society, and how he comes to terms with his situation, form a good part of the book. It is interesting that he is now regarded as a pariah both by his own sector of society, including his family, and also by the Aerial Corps personnel, who see him as coming from outside their close-knit and unorthodox culture, completely untrained, and resent him walking off with a prize dragon when they have (in their own eyes) far more suitable and highly trained people.

There is a certain amount of action, since the dragons are all trained for aerial combat as part of the war effort against the French, but the focus is very much on the characters – both the humans who live with the dragons, and of course the dragons themselves, who are very much characters in their own right. Laurence’s dragon, the Temeraire of the title, is in fact by far the most interesting character here, being highly intelligent and curious and somewhat radical in his politics, which puts Laurence rather on the defensive, forced to justify the customs he himself takes for granted. Laurence spends quite a lot of his free time reading to Temeraire, including scientific works which Laurence himself doesn’t pretend to understand, but the dragon does. It must be a bit like having a very precocious child, I suppose. The relationship is a close one, and there are some wonderful moments between man and dragon. To be honest, Laurence himself struck me as a difficult person to like in many ways, since he has very rigid ideas of propriety – a very prickly man – but his affection for Temeraire is charming.

The dragons are quite carefully thought out. There are various wild species which have been bred and cross-bred for aerial combat purposes for centuries, and different nationalities have bred their own varieties with different characteristics. Only some can breathe fire, for instance, and none of the British ones can, but they have a variety which can spit acid, for instance. Unlike the Pern variety, these dragons aren’t telepathic and they talk quite normally, but there is a very strong bond between dragon and handler, even if the handler mistreats his dragon (I found poor Levitas very distressing to read about). Nice, too, that there are female dragon handlers, although true to the times, this is by the choice of the dragons, not a blow for feminism. Laurence was quite shocked by the idea (but then Laurence is easily shocked, it has to be said). I also liked the idea that, since dragon handlers have much shorter lifespans than dragons, handlers try to arrange for a son (or daughter) to take over when they die, and there is a certain amount of pragmatic breeding of humans for the purpose – the author has obviously put a lot of thought into details like this.

The plot develops quite nicely, although it really isn’t particularly important. The objective is to describe the society of two hundred years ago as it would have been if there were dragons in the world then, and this the author does brilliantly. One could argue that access to dragons over many previous centuries would have changed history far more than is evident here – would there even be a Napoleon and a Nelson, for instance? But that hardly matters.

The writing style is perfectly in keeping with the period, and so is the behaviour of the characters. It might seem a bit slow, and not everyone would enjoy the formal language used, but I loved it. I liked the whole idea of the Aerial Corps, with its slightly informal air, and the way the larger dragons go into battle loaded with gunners and bombers and whole teams of crew, rather like a ship of the air. This makes the battles quite unusual, with attempts to board enemy dragons and hand to hand combat (with swords and pistols!) while strapped on to a dragon conducting his or her own form of combat. This is one of those rare books where I actually didn’t want it to end. Luckily there are nine books in the series to date, so those who want can indulge their enjoyment of Temeraire for quite some time. Five stars. [First posted Spetember 2012 to Goodreads]
Anachronist’s Review:

What I liked:

I loved the dragons, I really loved them or rather the great imagination of Ms Novik which supplied them with colourful hides, intelligence and power of speech. Temeraire is my most favourite dragon in fantasy fiction, I am not joking! He is sweet, loyal, he knows French, Latin and English, he loves mathematics, jewelry and reading! He can’t read on his own but his faithful handler and friend, Lawrence is always happy to oblige!My other source of joy: some dragons tolerate only women handlers! Yes, just imagine it: a lady straight from the salon of Jane Austen riding a dragon, EVEN being made an officer in the army! It was a dare but it paid off – the notion was great in practice but I do regret the women weren’t given a more pronounced role in that installment. Still I hope there will be more of them in the next ones and the author deserves kudos for the mere idea! It was as if equal rights for women were imposed on the English society some 200 years earlier, imagine that!

The book is really about the developing relationship between Temeraire, the Dragon won from the French in battle, and Captain Laurence. I admit that, at times the relationship seemed a little weird. Let me give it to you straight – there are the homoerotic undertones clearly present. Is the dragon Laurence’s lover? He is given gifts of jewelry, he had fits of jealousy, and does Laurence really call that 10-ton creature “my dear” time and again ? (pst pst – yes, he does). One time he even makes his beloved pet very excited indeed if you get my drift…it was an accident as Laurence didn’t know what he was doing but still…and you know what? It worked for me! These two had a very unusual dynamics – William does things like reading books to Temeraire, or giving him baths, that the other aviators just don’t do. And in his own, unassuming way, Laurence upsets the status quo. This isn’t, generally, a good idea if you happen to be in a military outfit—less so when it’s the nineteenth century. What can be said: I understood. I love my pretty, pretty dragons and I know pets can be pretty jealous as I am the owner of a very jealous dog!

What I didn’t like:

I admit the narration was predictable – you could see plot twists coming a mile away – but that doesn’t make the story any less satisfying. Have I mentioned all those pretty dragons? And yes, the book is rather one big adventure than something character-driven but…the dragons!!!

Final verdict:

His Majesty’s Dragon is a fantastic combination of wit and humour with conflict and difficult decisions. It is also one of the best books featuring a dragon as a main character I’ve read so far. Paolini’s immature rendition of a draconian ‘plaything’ doesn’t even come close to this complex tale of love, loyalty and sacrifices. You may find some parts of the story hard going, but if you persist, it’s totally worth it. Personally I am in for another installment!!!Give me more dragons!!! Five stars!!!

Books in the Series
His Majesty’s Dragon
Throne of Jade
Black Powder War

Urban Fantasy Review: ‘Magic Bites’ by Ilona Andrews

‘Magic Bites.’  It appears to be a novel the urban fantasy style.  Something is missing though, something just doesn’t seem right.  Maybe it is just me, let me make a checklist.

-Interesting setting?  Huh, this one is here.  Wow, it is something quite a bit different too!  Sure it is mostly set in modern United States, but there is a twist.  Post-apocalypse, kind of.  Seems there was some sort of magic surge, came out of nowhere, ate portions of towns and changed everything.  Suddenly most the things that were once make believe are now real; vampires, werewolves, necromancers, and countless others.  Sure, there is the ‘everything and a kitchen sink’ approach but it too is explained, the magic feeds on people’s faith.  So if enough people think magic is X, then magic sometimes obliges them.  The magic of the world ebbs and flows as well, when a surge hit technology becomes useless only to work again when it recedes a bit.  Best I can tell the world is about 300 years in the future, but the magic has kept tech from progressing too much.  Ok, I think the book got this one right, moving on.
-Interesting protagonist?  Kate Daniels rocks!  She uses intelligence and cunning to work her way through this strange world, dealing with strange creatures all over the map.  She has a secret that gives her a little extra edge.  And when all else fails, she knows how to kick ass as well.  A particular scene comes to mind where a monster of a man (literally, he is a werewolf) grabs her and puts her back to the wall; Kate jams a small silver pin into his hand.  She won’t get pushed around, but her strength isn’t unrealistic.  What else is great about Kate?  Well, she is sarcastic as hell, unwilling to back down when she is right, still makes mistakes but learns from them, and through all that still seems to be a good person.  Absolutely the book got this right. 

So far all the pieces are there for a decent urban fantasy novel.  Having an interesting protagonist puts it ahead of the game in my mind.  But something still doesn’t seem right.  Hmm.

-Supporting characters?  Eh, a little weaker here.  Most the people Kate deal with are one-note types, but with this being Kate’s story that is forgivable to a certain extent.  The lead werewolf was a complete ass, but Kate knows this.  Her love interest was fairly boring as well.  Well, this could be what’s bothering me, but I think I am missing something more substantial.  I will keep searching.

OH!  I think I know what I was looking for!  ANYTHING RESEMBLING A LOGICAL PLOT!  Wow, there it is, I knew there was an important part missing for this to be considered a novel.  Some books are content to merely have plot holes, ‘Magic Bites’ must have felt the need to make those look like amateurs.  This book was a short 250 pages in paperback, moved quickly and flowed on the strength of Kate’s character so well that I almost missed that the actual plot line makes no f—ing sense.  The main bad guy had a plan so idiotic it defies explanation.  He is the one who tipped Kate off to how his own plan may be defeated.  With Kate being an important part his plan he let her keep digging at figuring it out rather than deal with her in the many opportunities he had.

Oh.  And the final battle was ridiculously anti-climactic as well.  Is there a page on TV tropes for ‘blacks out after battle and wakes in bed?’ 

3 stars.  But only because Kate Daniels is awesome.  I may read on at some point.   

Kate Daniels series
Magic Bites
Magic Burns
Magic Strikes
Magic Bleeds
Magic Slays

Fantasy Review: ‘Reaper Man’ by Terry Pratchett

The Complete Discworld Reread

‘Reaper Man’ is the best Discworld novel up to this point, by far.  While in ‘Mort’ we saw death go on vacation; the entire thing was a side plot played for humor.  Hehe, look at Death trying to figure out people while his apprentice is mucking up his job.  In ‘Reaper Man’ Death is forced out of his job, and now learning a little bit about people may be the most important thing he can do.

Death isn’t the type to do nothing when forced on holiday, so he sets off to be useful.  Widow Flitworth needs a hired hand for her farm.  There is perhaps no one more qualified in the world to bring in her crops than the original reaper.  Newly rechristened Bill Door takes the job.  The story starts with typical Pratchett progressions; neighbors getting Bill drunk, a little girl seeing him as the skeleton he really is, and Bill meeting THE FUTURE (a newly invented combine harvester).  But of course eventually Bill is going to be confronted with the possibility that his new friends and family can die; and eventually Bill has to decide if he can break his old prohibition on meddling.

Everything about this storyline is perfect.  Bill’s evolving thoughts are organic, the tenderness between him and Miss Flitworth is one of the sweetest things I have ever read.  The conclusion was perfect.  Never again will a barn dance be mocked in my household, for I have seen what they really are.  Death is still Death, he still knows his duties in the end; but he will never forget what humanity means after this book.

5 sta…

Oh wait.  There was another part of this book.  Wow, this may be the weakest Discworld novel so far.  So Death is forced out of a job, and this means that people stop dying.  Among these is good old Windle Poons, who being a wizard knows when he is going to die.  Except he doesn’t.  Because he can’t, there is no Death.  After bumbling around a bit trying new ways to kill himself (haha, he jumped of a bridge and didn’t drown) Windle eventually falls in with the other undead of the city, organized by zombie Reg Shoe.

Meanwhile the rest of the Wizards are trying to figure out what this overstock of life force is doing, as little snow globes popping up everywhere eventually turn into shopping carts.  From there they try to grow into a city mall.  Because people not dying leads to shopping malls?  And this must be stopped for some reason.  Honestly, at no point do I get what Pratchett was doing here, but I am guessing he was big enough at this point that editors happened to other people.

Look, I won’t tell you there were not bits of hilarity in these scenes; the bickering of the Unseen staff, Mrs Cake, swear words turning into little monsters.  But it was unnecessary, absurd, and made zero sense.  I could have done completely without this half of the book.  Focusing on the Reaper Man side of things would have been perfect.

What do you do if the same book is 5 stars and 2 stars?

3 ½ stars it is.

Fantasy Review: ‘Soulless’ by Gail Carriger

No matter how bad the party, it should be considered rude for a vampire to attack a guest.  It is just unlucky to try to feed on a house guest that has no soul; a too forceful push with Alexia’s parasol and now the party has a dead vampire.    Enter BUR investigator Lord Maccon, a werewolf in which Alexia has no spark, romantic interest, or desire to get to know better.  No way would these two ever be interested in getting together, after all they have so many differences and it would never work.  Just can’t happen, aww, get the idea?

I would have hated this book if at any time the author had ever taken it serious.  My lack of history with romance novels (paranormal or otherwise) left me unprepared for the sheer amount of weak knees, neck nibbling, and “I love him I hate him” seen here.  But the author really knew how to play it, it was so over the top at times that it made giggle at times, and at others I may have actually blushed.  More importantly, I actually began to root for the romance at some point in the story.
Hidden around the romance aspects was a pretty damn good alt-history fantasy.   Vampires, werewolves, and other supernatural beings have actually been accepted into British society.  They follow strict rules, do their best to self-police, but also fall under the jurisdiction of the BUR (Bureau of Unnatural Registry).  Alexia is a rare ‘soulless’ being, the natural antithesis to the supernatural.  Her mere touch will take the undead back to mortality as long as contact is maintained; in the past people like her acted as hunters of the supernatural.  By being involved in the killing of a vampire she is dragged into something deeper; supernaturals are disappearing and no one is sure why.

I am not sure how to describe my feelings about this book.  I certainly enjoyed most of it.  The light tone never quite entered parody territory, but was still often humorous.  Every major character started as a caricature (aloof spinster, manly man werewolf, over the top gay vampire), yet over the course of a short book each was proven to be much more than they seemed.  Especially the over the top vampire, who often played to expectations in order to hide in plain sight. The plot was a very over the top as well, with the bad guys being either evil or clueless.  Alexia was a fun character, usually independent despite occasionally mooning over Maccon (Not really fair, Alexia is not a mooner, but she does think about him all the time).

The biggest issue I had with the book was the nature of being ‘soulless.’  Why did it prevent Alexia from appreciating art but didn’t seem to affect her emotions?  As anti-supernatural device it works, as a state of mind, not so much.  The lack of serious nature the book had can only be returned in kind; enjoyable yes, but this is certainly not a book that will stick with me for any length of time.  Also, the absolute horror found in the baddies lair doesn’t really fit with the light hearted nature the rest of the book shows, and the characters lack of seriousness while in said house of horrors doesn’t fit at all.  And when it is all said and done, half the book is taken up by a completely telegraphed romance with zero real intrigue.  With the outcome never really being in doubt, I wanted to start skimming whenever the two were in the room together.

Light hearted, a lot of fun, and at times very witty.  The writing is smooth and never clunky, and the pacing is very quick even with the romance due to the banter.  But almost nothing in the books needs looking into very deep or it may fall apart.  The quasi-science the bad guys were trying to pull went right over my head, and I am not sure it was meant to be dissected at all.  If taken for what it is, it can be an enjoyable read.

3 stars

Fantasy Review: ‘Emilie and the Hollow World’ by Martha Wells

Why, oh why, can I not enjoy a book by Martha Wells?  She does so many things right.  When it comes to quality of writing she is much better than many others I enjoy.  One could never accuse her of being trite or cliché; every book is original and unique.  Yet I can’t seem to enjoy her work.  ‘Death of a Necromancer’ was interesting enough, but left me bored.  I barely was able to get through ‘The Wizard Hunters.’  Wanting to give her one more chance I was happy to see her trying out a YA book; maybe this time I would feel the magic.

‘Emilie and the Hollow World’ is a quick little read about a young girl who stows away on a journey to the center of the world.  Found too late to be put back ashore she is put under the eye of Lady Marlende, who has put together the trip to rescue her father.  Pursued by her father’s rival looking to steal the glory, the crew meet a few fantastic creatures and are dragged into a possible war.  Adventure awaits!

Once again Wells does so many things right.  Emilie is a runaway, but not from a cliché ridden horrible backstory.  Her home life is… disappointing, not full of starvation and abuse.  Lady Marlende is a strong, capable women doing fairly well in a patriarchal society.  The crew is a varied group.  Emilie seems smart enough, though at times she wavers between clueless and the smartest one around. She is also the very opposite of a Mary Sue.  Sometimes she is helpful, but she doesn’t discover any super powers or a long lost destiny.  For the most part she is just along for the ride.

And right there is where I think I started having issues with this book.  With maybe one exception Emilie, the title character, could have been left right out of the story and it wouldn’t have mattered.  I often complain about unnecessary secondary characters, but not often do I feel the title character is unneeded.  (Side note, I am reminded of a book in which the story was told by a mouse watching all the events going on, but never affecting them.  Anyone else remember this?)  In some ways this is more realistic, the teen girl doesn’t over take the entire trip.  But at times the crew seems to be crediting her with the successes, and I just don’t see what she did.

The ‘alien’ species that the crew meets in the center of the earth are also problematic for me.  They take the Star Trek approach, looking different but in reality completely human in nature.  That could come down to the YA nature of the book, but I would have liked to have seen at least a small amount of culture shock upon meeting.

I guess I just don’t know what the point is.  There was very little wonder and awe in the center of the world, with human like aliens involving the crew in human like problems.  It is Emilie’s story, but she is more bystander than participant.  And once again, Wells takes some interesting ideas and leaves me cold.  I got to learn to stay away.

3 stars.  Mostly based on a strong beginning. 

Review copy received from NetGalley.

On the other hand, Pauline loved ‘The Cloud Roads,‘ so your mileage may vary.

Fantasy Review: ‘Johannes Cabal the Necromancer’ by Jonathan L Howard

Johannes Cabal already sold his soul to the devil.  He did it years ago, without regret, in order to gain the secrets of necromancy.  The problem is he belatedly realized he needs it back.  Not because he is worried about his soul, but his experiments just are not working without.  So down to hell he travels to get it back.  A wager is offered; a wager is accepted.  Johannes must round up one hundred souls, signed on the dotted line, to get his own back.  He has one year to do it, and a traveling carnival to do it with.

Cabal is not a nice guy.  He is not a ‘bad guy’ per say, that would imply caring about others in some way.  But if people are in his way, he pushes them out of it.  Knowing he needs someone to help him figure out other people, he brings on his brother and the Cabal Bros Carnival is born.   Between the two of them a hundred souls may just be doable.

Obviously a mixture between’ Faust’ and ‘Something Wicked This Way Comes,’ the author crafted a very enjoyable tale here.  Always a bit tricky to do with an unlikable protagonist, it was Cabal’s path of discovery when it came to basic human nature that drove the story.  The writing is above average, and the meta references were subtle enough that they would stand out like a sour thumb if a reader didn’t know the source.  While mostly focused on the travels of the carnival a few interesting diversions were included, with a funny little duel with a megalomaniac warlock providing something different.

This is Cabal’s story throughout, though his brother has surprising depth for his low amount of page time.  Toward the end an adversary of sorts is added, but he provides us more insight into Cabal than he ever develops as a character.  The denizens of hell on the other hand are entertaining throughout.  The devil is crafty, but bored in hell.  Demons are powerful but petty.  And a paperwork queue just to get into hell provided me with laughs more than once.
For a book about the collection of souls there is very little soul collection present.  We see Cabal work the first stop of his horror show, and from there see almost nothing until the end of the year.  I can’t decide if I like this decision or not; on one hand it certainly keeps unnecessary details from turning the book into a slog, on the other the author is clever enough I think I would have enjoyed seeing how some of the rubes were tricked.

 Cabal is a clever man throughout, and occasionally even becomes likable, so I found myself rooting for him by the end.  When he does something truly horrible, it actually shocked.  It also led to an ending as good as anything I could have hoped for.  Some parts were foreshadowed fairly heavy for the reader, but I think most will still find a few surprises.

This was a quick read, and not a deep read.  But it was a very entertaining read by an above average writer.  It works just fine as a stand-alone, though it does have two sequels at the time of this review.  Strangely enough, the second book seems to be in steampunk style, which was not seen at all in this book.  Huh, guess I will find out eventually.

4 stars.

Fantasy Review: ‘Dusk’ by Tim Lebbon

‘You have read books by Joe Abercrombie, George RR Martin, KJ Parker?’
‘Sesame Street.”  — With full apologies to anyone involved in the Princess Bride.

Truly this was a dark, dark book.  Immediately turn back if you don’t want your book to start with the slaughter of a town, move on to the slaughter of a village, and follow that up with a journey through a sin filled city.  As would be expected the book will follow a couple of dubious personalities, including a branded thief and a self-described whore.  Even the plants get in on the action, with nasty carnivorous tumble weeds roaming the land.  The last book I read that tried to be this dark was ‘A Dance with Cloaks.’  Unlike that dark outing, I actually enjoyed this book quite a bit.
Magic is gone from Noreela, it disappeared when two lovers corrupted it and did their best to take over the world.  Defeated three hundred years prior, they were exiled and exist only in legend.  The land itself is wilting away without magic, and the landscape is littered with the corpses of ancient machines that ran on it.  But everything changes eventually.  The insane red monks, dedicated to eradicating even the memory of magic, scent a new source and begin to move.  Rafe, the young man burdened by this development, finds himself racing from the monks and others with a collection travelers of dubious trust worthiness.

This is a book about the journey and what is happening in the world.  The strongest influence would appear to be Fellowship of the Ring, thought the mage lovers reminded me a lot of The Black Company.  Much of the word count is used to describe action sequences, strange creatures, or the history of the land.  The history is fairly compelling, and if not completely unique, at least is a different blend of several influences.  The red monks were incredibly interesting, acting in a ring wraith role. 

Looking for interesting characters that grow and develop relationships?  Eh, this ain’t your book.  Most the characters are archetypes more than human, and several in the traveling group could have been left out completely and it wouldn’t have affected the book.  I stopped counting the number of times someone referred to Rafe as a “farm boy;” I could never figure out if the author was doing it with tongue in cheek or not.  If anyone could be considered a main character it would be the branded thief Kosar.  Cliché with his heart of gold, he at least is memorable.  Rafe is a vessel, never a character.  A librarian exists only to suffer an attack, and a druggie just kind of follows along.

There was one character that I really enjoyed however.  Hope, self-described whore and witch, made the book work for me.  Maybe it is because she reminded me of Granny Weatherwax (other than the prostitution), but she was smart and capable and fun to read about.  Early on she throws a spider at someone that she dyed to a bright color.  Why?  Because she is a witch and that is the kind of stuff people expect.  Her protectiveness of Rafe is at times selfish, at others completely selfless.  She is conflicted but hopeful.  Unlike most fantasy sex workers, she is not sexualized or glamourized or beautiful.  Her history is present, but so is the large amount of information she gleaned from former clients.

There was enough here for me to want to read the next book.  The overriding darkness will turn many off, and usually I wish for more from my characters.    But something kept me hooked throughout the entire book.  Lebbon is pretty good with the language, providing a great vision of his world.  Yes, I think I liked it due to a mixture of Hope, the strong visuals, and completely awesome red monks.  As would be expected, most questions are left unanswered by the end of the book, though the book titles, “Dusk” and “Dawn,” should provide some clues as to what can be expected next.

3 ½ stars

Steampunk Fantasy Review: ‘Healer’s Touch’ by Deb E Howell

This is billed as a steampunk fantasy, but don’t be fooled. The steampunk elements are negligible. In reality, this is a romance with a fantasy background. Since the heroine is seventeen and there’s a bit of a love triangle, I suppose it’s YA, too. The book has perhaps the most cliché-riddled opening I’ve ever encountered. The main character is an orphan with mysterious powers. She makes a living on the streets as a pick-pocket [*], disguised as a boy. Despite the disguise, twice during the first couple of chapters she suffers violent attempted rapes. She is betrayed by a former friend, arrested for a murder she didn’t commit, and condemned to death. But she escapes and manages to run away. It’s all pretty familiar stuff. It just needs a prophecy, a magic sword and a quest to complete the set (maybe that comes later…). And yet, despite the predictability, I kept reading, which is, I suppose, a testament of sorts to the author’s writing ability, if not her originality.

[*] Why oh why do orphaned children always end up on the streets in fantasyland, their only option thievery or prostitution? Did their parents have no friends who might help them out? Is the town so lawless that orphans are simply abandoned to their fate? Is there really no honest work to be had?

The biggest interest for me is the main character’s magical ability. Llew has the power to heal herself when injured, but only by drawing the life force from some other living thing – human, animal or plant. This is such an intriguing power that I really want to know more about it. Then there’s Braph, a man with a mysterious background who is clearly searching for Llew, for reasons unknown. (Horrible thought: maybe she’s the secret heir to the kingdom? No, surely not.) Less intriguing by far is the romantic interest. We know he’s the romantic interest from the start because Llew comments on his nice ass, and mentions how handsome he is. Needless to say, he dislikes her on sight.

The plot isn’t much to write home about, but it’s serviceable. Llew picks up with a group heading north to the only port on a long, thin island-continent (really? no other suitable place?). There are encounters with highwaymen, Braph the Mysterious and the law, since Llew is still wanted for murder, and now witchcraft, since she used her magic to escape hanging. This is all good fun, and there’s the expected moment where Llew’s less-than-convincing boy disguise fails, and her new friends pop her in a frock for dinner. Cue much ogling from the men. There are some logic fails: a day when they appeared to have lunch twice, a bedroom scene segues to the garden and back again, and a time on a boat when Llew needed a living being to draw energy from, and everyone forgot about the horses in the hold. But still, things rattle along nicely, with one misadventure after another.

In a shock twist (not), the group includes the romantic interest, Jonas, who despite being a mean, cynical killing machine, immediately gets the hots for our heroine. He also shows his sensitive side, bringing her cloths when her period starts, giving her cute little hugs when she’s down and cuddling in bed in a heroically non-libidinous way at night. I began to wonder when they would start doing each other’s hair. But this does highlight the biggest problem I had with this book – the characters don’t behave in believable ways. When Jonas and Llew sneak out at night to meet up with Braph, a man known to be hostile and with probably evil intentions, how do they pass the time while they wait for him to show up? Sharpening their knives, perhaps? Discussing tactics? Hiding so they have the element of surprise? No, they lie down in plain view and get all hot and steamy. And when a child is accidentally killed, everyone acts like it’s the greatest tragedy ever, and Jonas is so distraught he gets wildly drunk. This is the man who says ‘I’ve killed… dozens, hundreds.’ Then when Braph does eventually turn up, no one recognises him or gets even remotely alarmed. There are any number of oddities like this.

I found this a very frustrating read. On the one hand, there’s some wonderful magic, solid world-building and an interesting steampunkish vaguely western feel to it. The author’s writing style is neat and unobtrusive, and the plot moves along at a fair canter. On the other hand, the romantic element pops up at the most inopportune moments, and the characters just don’t behave rationally. There are also aspects that aren’t explained well (or perhaps I just failed to get it, I don’t know; I never did work out quite who Emylia was – friend, relative or paid chaperone?), so there are a number of wait-did-we-know-that? moments along the way. Better editing would have smoothed out some inconsistencies and odd hiccups, filled in the strangely sketchy minor characters and produced a better flow. But despite all the issues, I kept reading, sneaking a chapter here and there when I was supposed to be doing something else, until the ending lost me. Sadly, the last few chapters are littered with unlikely events, coindidences and outright deus ex machina. For those who can enjoy the romance, the interesting setting and a terrific magic system, and don’t mind the implausibilities, this would be a great read, and it’s clear the author can write, but for me it just didn’t work. Two stars.