Saturday, 31 January 2009

'A Dance with Dragons' - What I think and some links...

Ok guys, true story time...

When George R. R. Martin was in London to sign ‘A Feast for Crows’, a few years ago now, I was tenth in line outside Forbidden Planet and excited about the prospect of meeting an author whose work I’d really enjoyed. Clutching my hardback copy of ‘A Feast for Crows’ I got to the front of the queue and just as I met the man himself I made the incredibly bad choice of opening my mouth and engaging him in conversation. Here’s how it went...

GRRM: Hi, how are you?
Me: Good thanks, you?
GRRM: I’m fine, have you been waiting long?

I could have gone two ways with this and I chose the wrong way. My answer...

Me: I’ve only been reading the books for the last couple of years so it’s not as if I’ve had to wait all that long for ‘A Feast for Crows’. So no, not long at all.
GRRM: (Sighing heavily) I was talking about the queue outside...

He didn’t really have much to say after that and neither did I...

That was a few years ago now (back in 2005 I think) and there has been no sign of the promised next instalment since then. If you frequent certain sites, on the net, then you will be only too familiar with some of the arguments that are going backwards and forwards about just why GRRM is taking so much time to get his act together...

Where do I stand on this? Firmly in the middle I’m afraid. Cop out? Probably... I’m as eager as the next fan for ‘A Dance with Dragons’ to be released and I will be sure to get myself a copy when it finally hits the shelves. The thing is though, I’ve got so many books to read in the meantime (I still need to finish off last year’s Erikson and Esslemont offerings) that it seems a bit, well... silly to be getting all riled up over one book that hasn’t turned up yet... I can wait and I’ll be reading other stuff quite happily in the meantime :o)

If you’re one of those people who have given themselves a stomach ulcer over GRRM’s continued commentary about his hobbies (I mean, like none of us ever surf the web when we should be working...) then have a look at these two links from
Shawn and Adam who offer some worthwhile thoughts on the subject and are well worth a look.

In the interests of impartiality here's a link to Finish the Book George, a blog that always makes me laugh while everything in the office is going to hell...

Have a great weekend!

Friday, 30 January 2009

‘Malekith (A Tale of the Sundering)’ – Gav Thorpe (Black Library)

While I love some of the detail that goes into the figures used in table top war gaming I’ve never really been one for the games themselves. Not only do they look overly complicated (with dice, tape measures and all sorts) but the price of these things is prohibitively expensive to say the least! (A shameless and tongue in cheek HINT for any publicity guys who may be reading this: Prove me wrong by sending me one of the starter games, e.g. Warhammer 40K. I’ll play the game and cover the results here. Hey, it’s got to be worth a go...)
The one thing that I do love though is the tremendous amount of detailed background history, to the gaming world, that can be found behind what happens on a tabletop. These aren’t just little figures being used in a game, there are literally thousands of years worth of animosity and confrontation leading up to it. As a result I love to pick up the occasional book from the Black Library and immerse myself in these rich and varied worlds. The fact that these stories are drenched in battle and, consequently, dripping with gore is an added bonus.
When Liz gave me a copy of Gav Thorpe’s ‘Malekith’ (thanks Liz!) I was looking forward to more of the same but, this time round, I think I bit off a little more than I could chew...

The Black Library’s ‘Time of Legends’ series tells the tales of events that took place thousands of years before current Warhammer history, ‘Malekith’ concentrates on the early history of the elves in the Old World. Following centuries of warfare against the forces of Chaos, the elves of Ulthuan must select an elf to succeed the dead king and guide their nation into a new (more peaceful era). Malekith, the son of the former king, is passed over and this decision will lead him to take a path that will ultimately doom the elves for ever...

‘Malekith’ sets out to win new fans, to the Warhammer line, by starting things off right at the very beginning and getting readers to jump on. The best time to start any journey is right at the beginning and ‘Malekith’ confirms this by offering the reader a condensed history of the elves and their migration from the island of Ulthuan across to the Old World. Along the way, alliances are made with the dwarves and we begin to see the emergence of Man as a species...
It’s a good approach to take in terms of giving the reader a perspective on what it must be like to be a long lived elf and see history unfold before your eyes (along with the rise and fall of civilisations). This approach also helps to explain some of Malekith’s actions towards the end of the book. If you can live for thousands of years then what is there left to do once you’ve done everything? The problem I had though (and it was a pretty big problem for me) was that I felt the pacing of the book suffered as a result of the immense time span involved...

The book left me with the feeling that both elves and dwarves (being long lived creatures) aren’t in too much of hurry to get things done and this came across as the story progressed. Decisions could take years to be made and their ramifications not felt for hundreds of years afterwards, it’s difficult to hang a story on a framework like that and I felt that ‘Malekith’ suffered as a result. Some overly descriptive passages also contributed towards this ‘plodding’ feeling although I reckon that Warhammer fans will get a lot out of these.

When things do get going though, ‘Malekith’ is worth sticking around for as the plot explodes into life in a flurry of Chaos and blood. The battle scenes are truly epic and Thorpe doesn’t give anything away until the final sword stroke has fallen.

‘Malekith’ is worth a look as well in terms of the character study it provides for its main character. Malekith is an elf who is loyal to his king but truly believes that his people would be better served if he led them himself. It’s an internal struggle that lasts for over a thousand years and Malekith is manipulated so subtly that he doesn’t even realise it’s happening (I didn’t realise it was happening...) The end result is a smooth progression, from hero to usurper, that ends in fire and blood...

‘Malekith’ is a slow read but one that’s ultimately fulfilling in the end. Now I’ve got an idea of what to expect, I look forward to checking out more books by Gav Thorpe in the future...

Seven and a Half out of Ten

Thursday, 29 January 2009

‘Human Nature’ – Jonathan Green (Abaddon Books)

Sometimes I like to read books that really challenge me and get me thinking. At other times, I prefer to read a book that gets me thinking but is the equivalent of sitting in a comfy sofa and watching a Sunday afternoon film on the TV. You know the ones that I mean... (I’m thinking ‘Zulu’ and ‘The Time Machine’ amongst others)
After finishing ‘We never talk about my brother’ I was in the mood for just such a book and as luck would have it Jonathan Green’s latest instalment in his ‘Ulysses Quicksilver’ series was perched at the top end of the reading pile. I’d very much enjoyed the last two ‘steampunk pulp’ exploits of the gentleman adventurer and was eager to pick up where ‘Leviathan Rising’ left off...

The Whitby Mermaid has been stolen from Cruickshank’s Cabinet of Curiosities and there’s only one man who can crack the case. No, not consulting detective Gabriel Wraith (although there’s more to him than meets the eye...) Whenever there’s a mystery to be solved you can be assured that Ulysses Quicksilver is never too far away! Who stole the mermaid? Does it have anything to do with the mysterious House of Monkeys? Who is the enigmatic master criminal known as the Magpie? The answers to these questions will lead Quicksilver to the town where the mermaid was found. On bleak moorland, haunted by a demonic hound, and in a reclusive industrialist’s mansion Quicksilver will find the ultimate truth behind the robbery and will find himself in the fight of his life...

‘Human Nature’ takes all that was good about ‘Unnatural History’ and ‘Leviathan Rising’ and combines this to form a book that all fans of the ‘Pax Britannia’ series will enjoy. There’s plenty of action to be had and it’s dealt out with break neck pace as our heroes dash across England in an attempt to solve a mystery that promises to be so much more than it’s humble beginnings. The background to the plot is worth mentioning here as Green does a fine job of portraying a grim and industrialised Britain that sits right at the centre of a mighty empire. Ulysses’ surroundings are bleak and smog ridden (while Green also does well to show the plight of the working class that keeps the empire running) which lends an oppressive weight to the plot itself.

It’s not just action that the reader gets as, with any ‘Ulysses Quicksilver’ tale, there is also a mystery to be solved. Actually there’s more than one mystery to be solved... It kept me guessing but only up to a point where it became obvious who the guilty party was, it then became a question of guessing the reasons behind his actions... The ‘Ulysses Quicksilver’ books are very much cast in a ‘boys own’ adventure vein and once you get your head round that then you can have a pretty good guess at how the plot will turn out, ‘Human Nature’ is no different in this respect. If you make a point of playing by the rules then there’s a danger that things will get predictable. To be fair though, the whole point of the book is that it makes a point of playing by these rules. It depends what you’re after I suppose. I for one was able to put the issue of predictability to one side and enjoy the book for what it was.

Ulysses Quicksilver himself is as dashing as ever, almost to the point of pastiche as Green seems to toy with the idea of turning our hero of the empire into a headline hungry fop! This doesn’t last long however as Ulysses is soon back to doing what he does best. I interviewed Jonathan Green a while ago (click on the ‘author interviews’ link and scroll down) and he described ‘Human Nature’ as one “that’s really going to put our hero through the wringer”. Having read the book I can see exactly what he means! There are some particularly tense moments for our hero (and one very horrifying moment) and it was good to see that Green isn’t afraid to send Ulysses down dark paths. He’s not invincible and it will be interesting to see how the ramifications play out in future novels.

‘Human Nature’ does veer towards becoming predictable but above all else it’s very much a fun read (dark though) that fans of the series will get a lot out of. There’s enough background filled in so that it can be read on it’s own as well. I’m very much looking forward to seeing what else Jonathan Green has to offer...

Eight and a Quarter out of Ten

Wednesday, 28 January 2009

'The Briar King' - Greg Keyes (Guest Review!)

We're doing things a little bit differently today :o) You still get a book review but it's not me doing it...
A few weeks ago, Ana and Thea (of The Book Smugglers) cottoned on to the fact that I've never read any of 'The Sandman' books and dared me to fill in this gap in my genre reading. I was up for the challenge and if you head over to their blog you will see exactly what I thought...
Don't go just yet! You see, I dared them right back... I noticed that there isn't an awful lot of fantasy over at their place and dared them to read the opening book in one of my favourite fantasy series. Here's what they thought...

Title: The Briar King

Author: Greg Keyes

Genre: Fantasy

Publisher: Del Rey (Tor UK if you're in the UK)
Publication Date: January 2003
Paperback: 608 pages

Stand Alone or Series: Book one in the four book Kingdoms of Thorn and Bone series.

Why did we read this book: Graeme dared us, plain and simple! He noticed that we had a lack of high/epic fantasy reviews on our site, and threw down the gauntlet with The Briar King.

Summary: (from
Two thousand years ago, the Born Queen defeated the Skasloi lords, freeing humans from the bitter yoke of slavery. But now monstrous creatures roam the land—and destinies become inextricably entangled in a drama of power and seduction. The king’s woodsman, a rebellious girl, a young priest, a roguish adventurer, and a young man made suddenly into a knight—all face malevolent forces that shake the foundations of the kingdom, even as the Briar King, legendary harbinger of death, awakens from his slumber. At the heart of this many-layered tale is Anne Dare, youngest daughter of the royal family . . . upon whom the fate of her world may depend.


First Impressions:

Thea: When Graeme first dared us to read this novel, I was somewhat hesitant. I really do enjoy epic fantasy novels, but am reluctant to pick them up on my own without trusted recommendations. Ana and I are never ones to back down from a challenge—plus, we trust Graeme’s good taste in books. So it was with mixed feelings of trepidation and excitement that I opened this novel and plunged into the story.

The immediate thought that came to me while reading the first few chapters of The Briar King was: this kinda reminds me of the Song of Ice and Fire books (as they share the same multi-character cast and the by-chapter alternating viewpoints). That said, as I continued to read the novel it became abundantly clear that Mr. Keyes is no mere knockoff act—and I found myself immensely enjoying The Briar King. The world building is solid, the plotting strong, and the characters (with few exceptions) come across as genuine and well-written.

Ana: I love fantasy novels but will admit to read very little of the genre and I don’t even have a good excuse for it. When Graeme dared us, I was, how can I put it—giddy with excitement and when I read the summary for The Briar King I was even happier.

And the first few pages were already right up my alley—with a Prelude that has a mix of History, Mythology, Action, Humor and Characterization, all of the elements that make a book a Good One. The more I read, the more it became clear that Greg Keyes is a skillful writer and The Briar King an amazing piece of fiction.

On the Plot:

The Briar King begins with a literal bang, opening on a rain drenched army of tired and bleeding men, rotting in trenches while waiting for their orders to charge. Led by their Born Queen, the men attack the citadel of their demonic enslavers, the Skasloi. Though the humans emerge victorious, it comes as a great cost—in order for Virgenya Dare, the Born Queen, to wield the power to give mankind their freedom, she has also sealed the doom of the human race by setting in motion the slow, cataclysmic end of the world.

From this prologue the story jumps to over two-thousand years later in the time of Everon, and begins with a young princess of Crotheny named Anne. Playing with her best friend and lady-in-waiting Austra, six year old Anne stumbles upon a mysterious tomb that has lain silent and forgotten for hundreds of years. Anne realizes that the tomb belongs to her many times over great ancestor, Virgenya Dare, and Anne unlocks the silent grave. The story jumps again to a few years later, as Aspar White, holter of the King’s Forest discovers that something is amiss in his woods; something sinister is killing squatters, rivers and animals alike. On the road to finding what could be at the root of the deaths, Aspar comes across a young priestly novice, Stephen Darige, who has been kidnapped by bandits.

Within the first few chapters, we meet almost the entire cast—the story jumps to follow the pure of heart (but low of birth) squire Neil MeqVren as he is taken by his mentor and father figure Sir Fail to Crotheny to meet the King. There, the royal family is introduced: the now fifteen year old impetuous Anne Dare and her puppy-love Sir Roderick; her eldest sister the bitter Archgryffess Fastia; the beautiful, intelligent but shunned Queen Muriele and her dearest friend, the coven-trained assassin Erren; and the bumbling, tired King William and his untrustworthy brother Robert.

The novel continues to alternate in this fashion as these characters move along separate storylines towards an inevitable convergence. Someone is trying to destroy the female descendants of Virgenya Dare, and these characters play major roles as the end of the world is nigh, and the Briar King begins to wake from his slumber.

Thea: As with many first novels in a series, The Briar King painstakingly defines, builds and sets the stage for the main event. And what a beautiful job Mr. Keyes does with his universe in this opening novel! From the thrilling prologue (probably one of the best opening battle scenes I’ve read in a while), The Briar King screamed for my attention and never let go. While the setting (the usual western European/British model of monarchy, complete with forests, taverns, monasteries/covens and mountains) is pretty standard as is the overall plot conflict (the Dark is Rising and must be staunched by a few key characters in order to save the world), Keyes manages to imbue freshness to The Briar King because of his attention to details, locations and characters. There is no data dumping at all in this novel, which is no small feat. Instead of some contrived history lesson type of conversation, Keyes gradually shows all the nations and people of Everon through the perspectives of his characters; with his multi-character cast, we see things from the perspectives of a troubled King on the political level, a disinterested princess, and a priest and Holter on the ground level. The effect is ingenious, and I never once felt lost or that I was the victim of a massive information drop-load.

Every aspect of Keyes’s world came across as meticulously planned out and as a result, were fully genuine. I loved the color given to the different regions and nations of Everon, even if they were all pretty easily recognizable as other western cultures (Germans, Italians, French, etc). I also should mention that Keyes does a wonderful job at conveying these similarities through a skilful manipulation/creation of language! For example:

“Gozh margens ezwes, mehelz brodar Ehan,” Stephen said.

“Eh?” Brother Ehan exclaimed. “That's Herilanzer! How is it you speak my language?”

And then later:

“But--Eh Danka 'zwes, yah? Thanks.”

Ehan’s Herilanzer is a clever derivation from German. Many different languages are used in this novel, and what’s cooler is they aren’t merely random words thrown together that look pretty—there is an attention to different root languages on which each tongue is based.

While I think that Mr. Keyes does a brilliant job of taking fantasy tropes and making them his own, I did take some issue with the plotting. I have no problems with the main conflict in The Briar King for all of its apparent banality—I quite enjoyed the story and felt that Keyes breathes new life into what could have been a tired, dull tale. I did, however, feel that the pacing was unnecessarily protracted at times, and rushed at others. Keyes deftly moves from chapter to chapter, switching characters and storylines like popping PEZ, and for the most part this technique works to maintain suspense and keep readers on their toes—but not all storylines are created equally. I found myself impatiently reading through Anne’s trysts with Roderick in order to get back to the Holter and Winna’s death-defying escape from the Sefry; I became irritated with Neil’s reflections on his conscience and humble birth or Cazio’s numerous duels hustling for coin when all I wanted was to get back to Stephen, in the midst of making a major find in his monastery. By the last few chapters of the novel, so much happens with the climax of battles, secret assassinations and the waking of the Briar King himself—and it unfortunately felt rushed. I would have loved to trade off more of that initial exposition and less important sideplots for more meat with the main characters and the Briar King himself.

Ana: The dark is rising and when it does the world is going to change forever. As far as tropes go this one is right up there with the ragtag band of misfits that go around the galaxy fighting the evil empire or the reprobate rake that needs redeeming in the hands of a good woman. There is a reason these tropes are used and re-used – because when they are done right, they work. And in The Briar King, thanks to Greg Keyes’s writing skills, it does.

The plot evolves basically around the rising of the Briar King – which no one knows exactly what entails – and the problems at the house of the Dares, the current Queens and Kings of Crotheny. The basic plot is therefore simple but as Thea says, Greg Keyes, takes it and makes it his own. He expands it with intricate political scheming, with mythological history and the use of magic (and of dark magic) that appears in the most unexpected places for examples, in the Church as each novice earns a magical power as he is initiated; and there are plenty of twists and turns that I never saw coming (and I am usually pretty good at predicting plot outcomes).

The alternating chapters from the different character’s points of view are at the same time building up tension towards the climax and peeling back layers of the story adding up suspense as we (and the characters) gather the necessary knowledge of what is happening. It is all very ingenious and I was extremely impressed at the writer’s craft – even though at points, it did feel that the pacing was unequal and that some of the chapters were unnecessary. Although, all things considered these chapters were somewhat important for characterization if not for the plot – even if I was impatient with some of them, in the end I felt that nothing was lost and all things fell in place and every single information was put to good use.

Also worthy of note is the presence of romance and humor in the story – even in the darkest moments the author manages to insert a funny line that just fit and a bit of love here and there I am a sucker for those.

The Briar King is clearly a “first” in a series – the whole book is a HUGE set-up but as far as set-up goes this one is solid foundation on which to build the remaining chapters and as a reader I could not ask for more.

On the Characters:

Thea: As with the plot aspects, Mr. Keyes favors fantasy clichés with his characters. There’s the gruff on the outside but softie on the inside Holter; the brash, outspoken Princess who is Chosen to change the fate of the world; the Knight with the purest of hearts; the Novice Priest with his knowledge and wisecracks; the daring, down on his luck swashbuckling Rogue (also equipped with a good heart in the right place); the dastardly scheming Brother, and his plays for the throne; and the strong-willed, beautiful but frigid Queen, well steeped in court games and intrigue. It’s like a top 40 playlist for NOW Fantasy.

And yet, as with his world building and plotting skills, Mr. Keyes manages to take these fantasy tropes and make them compulsively readable. Even if their classifications are simple and stereotypical, their motivations are what drive these characters and set them apart from their labels. In fact, my favorite character was one of the most clichéd—the Holter, Apsar White as the typical gruff woodsman, a reluctant hero set to make things right in his King’s forest. Heck, when we first meet Aspar, he’s drinking ale in a tavern! But his motivations, from his begrudging affection for both Winna and Stephen to his derision towards the Sefry make him a tangible, fully dimensional character. The only missteps in my opinion concerned young Anne Dare and Neil MeqVren—though I generally liked Anne and her storyline, there were times when I was reading a conversation and would think to myself that no fifteen year old girl would know that or speak like that.

Similarly, Sir Neil left me pretty cold. In Mr. Keyes’s universe, characters seem to fall head over heels in love rather quickly, and the storyline involving Neil and a certain lady love (I won’t spoil it) felt, to me, rushed, contrived and unnecessary. In general, I felt Neil was the flattest of the characters—predictably noble-hearted and virtuous, sticking to his vows at all costs and fighting valiantly and bravely to protect his queen. He’s literally your Knight in Shining Armor. Gag.

Far more interesting to me are the flawed characters—who will always be more genuine than a knight on a white horse. King Wilm’s reluctance to get his hands dirty, Queen Muriele’s steely resolve, Erren’s sternness, Cazio’s bragging, Anne’s brattishness, Stephen’s sly humor…it’s all good.

Ana: The Holter. The Novice. The Princess. The Squire – the four players that are the heart and soul of The Briar King – the ones that carry the story with alternating chapters and interconnecting storylines. There are others like the King or the Queen but I can’t help but to think of a game of chess where sometimes the most important pieces are really the pawns and all of them clearly have their place in the overall arc that is being set up here.

I am a reader that favors character-driven books over plot-driven ones and I was ecstatic when I realized that The Briar King was both – those are the best books.

I thought that every single character was carefully built with their motivations and most important of all – each has its own story arc. Brilliantly done, each character arc is at the same time individual and collective. Aspar, the Holter for example is in search of revenge and ends up finding love but also is honor-bound to find out what is hurting the forest of his King; Sir Neil, the Knight who must conquer his own heart to fight for his Queen and is in the middle of things (granted, he was boring – I have to agree with Thea here, his love story with the character that shall remain unnamed came out of nowhere and I was so surprised I jumped and wondered if I had skipped pages); Stephen, The Novice, who is in search of Knowledge and needs to walk his own faneway and find his own power but ends up finding a plot with dire consequences for the kingdom; Anne, the Princess, the one that has the longest way to go, from girl to woman and has an important role to play when all is say and done.

Out of all of them Stephen and Anne were my favorites. Anne who started as a girl who simply did not care about anything and had much to learn and before the books ends she does. And I really liked this passage when the Queen tells Anne:

“Most people in this kingdom would kill to live your life, to enjoy the privilege you hold. You will never know hunger, or thirst , or lack for clothing and shelter. You will never suffer the slightest tiny boil without that the finest physician in the land spends his hours easing the pain and healing you. You are indulged, spoiled, and pampered. And you do not appreciate it in the least. And here, Anne, here is the price you pay for your privilege: it is responsibility. “

Similarly Stephen also had a long way to go from a naïve novice to finding corruption and cruelty within the confines of the monastery – the scenes that took place in there were some of the best in the book. Stephen was also the character that added the most humorous passages – especially in relation to Aspar:

“Stephen Darige composed a treatise in his head as he rode along, entitled Observations on the Quaint and Vulgar Behaviors of the Common Holter-Beast.
This pricker-backed woodland creature is foul in temper, mood, and odor, and on no account should it be approached by men of good or refined sensibility. Politeness angers it , civility enrages it, and reasonableness evokes furious behavior, like that of a bear that, while stealing honey, finds a bee lodged up his – “

The villains are terrifying and I thought highly impressive that their motivations are still left open for interpretation and we still simply don’t know what the heck is going on.

From the fantastic 4 to the villains to the cast of secondary characters – the King, the Queen, their daughters, Cazio , Errem the lady assassin etc – you will be in good company should you decide do pick The Briar King up.

Final Thoughts, Observations and Rating:

Thea: I thoroughly enjoyed this book, from its intricate setting and wonderful (for the most part) characters. Plus, at its heart, it’s just a damn good read. I loved the little twist at the ending and have already added book two, The Charnel Prince to my Amazon cart. Thanks for the wonderful recommendation, Graeme!

Ana: I am at my happiest when a book has a good balance between plot and characterization such as this one. Even though it is plain that this is a huge set up and many things are yet to come, The Briar King was a thoroughly enjoyable novel on its own. And the cliffhanger? In one word: ¨%$$&(%#!!! Book 2 is already added to my Amazon cart as well and Thea and I are already planning another joint review! Hey Graeme, up for another dare?

Additional Thoughts:

Thea: My mass market paperback copy came complete with a two page map, which instantly has me salivating. I love maps. I want maps. Especially in books where so many locations and travelling adventures are used. While I hear that the original map in the hardcover is freaking sweet, my version of the map totally sucked. It is squished onto those two pages, very dark, and the names fonts are nearly illegible in what seems to be a pt. 2 font. And in italics. Gaah! How frustrating. I’d recommend trying to find a good used copy of the hardcover if you like maps with your reading.

Ana: We both really enjoyed The Briar King…are there any other fantasy books of this sort anyone can recommend for our continued reading pleasure?


Thea: 8 Excellent

Ana: 8 Excellent


No worries, I'm really glad you enjoyed it :o) As for another dare? Bring it on... ;o)

Tuesday, 27 January 2009

‘We never talk about my brother’ – Peter S. Beagle (Tachyon Press)

Do you ever get that feeling when all you want to read is something short and sweet? Something that will keep you ticking over on the journey to work or something that you can just dip in and out of over a quick lunch break... That’s the mood I’ve been in just recently and ‘We never talk about my brother’ was the slimmest looking book on the shelf (a slender two hundred and eleven pages long), ‘just the job’ I thought.
How wrong I was... ‘We never talk about my brother’ is not a book that can be easily put down. In fact, it is one of those rare books when I ended up wishing that my commute (which I hate with a passion) could last just five minutes longer. It’s a book that is easy to get into but not so easy to escape, I didn’t want to escape.

However, as with any short story collection, not everything hit the spot. By special request, I’m going to take this one story at a time and tell you a little about what I thought...

Uncle Chaim and Aunt Rifke and the Angel.
I think Beagle took a gamble here by starting his collection with a story that starts really slowly and doesn’t speed up. Stick with it though, it’s worth it. I’m not sure who the story was meant to be about and that was part of the charm that it held for me. This is one that I could go back and read over and over again.

We never talk about my brother.
And once you’ve read this story you will understand why. Could a network anchorman be an Angel of Death? If he is then what does that make his DIY store owning older brother...? This story shows very well what happens when two deus ex machina clash but it is also a tale of family and the responsibilities of an older sibling. It builds up slowly into a crescendo of a climax which I wouldn’t have noticed if it hadn’t been pointed out to me right at the end (it’s only a few words long). Very intense stuff.

The Tale of Junko and Sayuri.
A cautionary tale of how getting what you wish for can cost you everything. Interestingly though it doesn’t come across as saying that you should be content with what you have. Advance by all means but don’t overstretch yourself. This one grew slowly on me; Sayuri’s shape shifting ability is never overstated and thereby avoids becoming the focal point of the story. The climax completely wrong footed me but there turned out to be a really good reason for it... I felt like I’d read this one before but I was still hooked right up until it ended.

King Pelles the Sure.
In the introduction to this story, Beagle mentions that Darryl Brock described this tale as the best anti-war story he has ever read. On the one hand I can see where he is coming from but, on the other hand, the stupidity and short sightedness of the king was emphasised a little too much to make the reasons for war truly believable. ‘King Pelles the Sure’ is a compelling read though, especially for the redemption that it offers at the end.

The Last and Only, or, Mr Moscowitz Becomes French.
I think this was my favourite of the bunch. A man comes back from holidaying in France only to find that he is slowly becoming more French in every way. No explanation is given for this, only a remorseless march towards an inescapable conclusion. This is a tale that is partly whimsical and partly sad but touching the whole way through.

A ghost challenges the new tenant of a flat to a duel. The prize? Ownership of the property and a beautiful woman. The weapons? Bad poetry (truly bad poetry)... I liked the concept and the build up but felt a little let down by the duel itself which became a showcase for bad poetry rather than an actual duel. If you’ve got the weapon in your armoury then you use it straight away, you don’t save it up for last...
The poems were awful though.

The Stickball Witch.
Not a bad story in itself but I found this to be my least favourite of the bunch as it slipped into the ‘real world’ a little too much and lost something (as a result) when compared to the more speculative nature of the others. Not bad though if you take it purely as a ‘childhood tale’.

By Moonlight.
This is another tale that’s a slow starter but is worth sticking around for, a highwayman (on the run) meets a priest who is older than he looks and has a tale to tell... ‘By Moonlight’ offers a beautiful look at the world of fairy ‘under the hill’ and then leaves everything hanging in a state of potential upheaval with a deliberately vague ending that has still got me thinking about what could have happened next...

Fantasy is my thing but ‘Chandail’ didn’t really do it for me on that score, possibly because (as it’s a short story) I didn’t really have much time to get a feel for the world itself... As a story of mercy, and putting the past behind you, it’s well worth sticking around for. The spin placed on the established ‘mermaid myth’ is very interesting as well.

One thing that all the stories share is their pace which can be rather slow at times. This isn’t a bad thing though as it gives Beagle time to gradually set the reader up for what is to come at the end, the climax isn’t necessarily the finale...
Not all of the stories worked for me but there was enough in all of them to make this an enthralling collection that I’m glad I picked up. I might just have to search out more by this author...

Nine out of Ten

Cover Art - 'Deathtroopers' (Joe Schreiber)

I've shamelessly stolen this from Dave's Blog (thanks Dave!) as it is so cool that I just had to...

Apparently, Joe Schreiber's 'Deathtroopers' is the first horror novel to be set in the Star Wars universe and is due for a October 2009 release from Del Rey. I'm not a big fan of Star Wars novels these days (apart from the 'Republic Commandoes' series) but I'll be keeping an eye out for this one...

Check this out...

What do you think?

Monday, 26 January 2009

‘Dragon in Chains’ – Daniel Fox (Del Rey)

As I’ve already mentioned on the blog, if there’s one fantasy archetype that I don’t mind seeing over and over again it’s the (not so humble) dragon. I’m an unrepentant ‘dragon fan’, that’s all there is to it. All it takes is the smallest mention that a dragon might appear, during the course of the plot, and I’m there for the long haul. I’m also developing a bit of a taste for fantasy that’s based in an Oriental setting, whether it’s Daniel Abraham’s rather good ‘Long Price’ books or Alison Goodman’s not so great (but still entertaining) ‘The Two Pearls of Wisdom’. I’m finding this setting fresh (not having read much of this stuff) and ‘fresh’ (for me) always means that there are new worlds to explore and that’s a good thing.
All of this meant that I came to ‘Dragon in Chains’ with a feeling of healthy anticipation. A fantasy novel with an Oriental setting and a dragon, could anything be cooler than that? Well, as it turned out, a lot of things could be cooler but (at the same time) I think I’ve found another series that I’ll be keeping an eye on.

The small island of Taishu is set to be the scene for confrontations between armies and something a lot larger... A young emperor arrives on the island and immediately begins to make preparations for his last stand against the rebels massing on the coast. It’s not just the rebels he must concern himself with though as the islanders are growing resentful at his presence. If this was all the emperor had to deal with then perhaps it wouldn’t be so bad but then we have the dragon...
A dragon lies beneath the strait that separates Taishu from the mainland, bound by chains that a community of monks must keep charged with magic. When pirates slaughter the monks, their duty is passed on to a maimed slave who must fight a constant battle with the dragon inside his own head. If he should fail then the dragon will rise and the death toll will be unimaginable...

‘Dragon in Chains’ had me hooked from start to finish, despite its best attempts to make me put it down and try something else instead. Its beautiful descriptive language (no time for quotes, I’m doing this at work) can really immerse you in the world, and what’s going on in it, but also has a nasty habit of running away with itself sometimes and getting too involved in what it’s describing. It’s a fine line to walk at the best of times and I guess that sometimes you’re going to take a tumble... The upshot is that the (sometimes) overly descriptive prose really slows things down and makes you feel like not a lot is happening. This isn’t true at all but more on that later.
From a world building point of view you could say that ‘Dragon in Chains’ really goes into great depth to create something full of detail and life. From a storytelling point of view, it has a habit of shooting itself in the foot...

I found that ‘Dragon in Chains’ had plenty going on with plenty to cater for fans of politicking and action. This is a world at war so you cannot escape the machinations that come with this! By bringing the Imperial Court to Taishu, Fox gives his readers a wider selection of the populace and is able to show us how they are all affected by the twists and turns of the plot. Fans of character based fantasy won’t miss out either with plenty of time (a little too much maybe, see what I said earlier about pacing...) dedicated to getting inside the heads of the main characters, you may not agree with their actions but at least you get to see why they make the decisions that they do. Later events will make some of these decisions all the more tragic...

In the meantime, the dragon casts a long shadow over the plot even though she is chained to the bottom of the seabed. Her power is only too evident in that even the slightest movement from her wreaks havoc in the world above. What will happen if she gains her freedom...? As far as that question goes I was left wondering if it was perhaps answered a little too early considering that this is the first book in a trilogy. The spectacle, surrounding this answer, is worth it though.

‘Dragon in Chains’ is a book that could do with some serious editing to speed things up but it’s also a book that I was able to totally lose myself in over the last few days. I’ll certainly be around to see if there’s an improvement in the next book (that and I want to see what happens next!)

Eight out of Ten

'Caligula' Giveaway - The Winners!

Thanks to everyone who entered this competition! I'm afraid there could only be three winners though (better luck next time everyone else!) and they were...

Melissa Symonds, Carshalton, UK
Mark van Vollenhoven, Netherlands
Adrian Marley, Co. Louth, Ireland

Well done guys, your books will be on their way very soon!

Sunday, 25 January 2009

Giveaway! 'Haunted Heart: The Life and Times of Stephen King'

Thanks to the good people at St. Martin's Press, I have two copies of Lisa Rogak's biography of Stephen King to give away to two lucky readers (US and Canadian entries only I'm afraid...) If you're a fan of King then this could be for you!

Entering is as easy as ever. All you need to do is drop me an email telling me who you are and what your mailing address is, I'll do the hard bit and pick two winners ;o)

I'll let this competition run until February 1st and announce the winners on the 2nd...

Good Luck!

Saturday, 24 January 2009

The 'I got my picture taken with Robert Rankin!' Link up bonanza...

Others have already blogged about the Gollancz multi author signing event (and a lot better than I could...) so I shall take up the role of giggling fan boy and gush about how I got my picture taken with the amazing Robert Rankin (who is just great). He insisted on me doing 'rabbit ears' behind his head (it must be a tradition, or ancient charter or something)

It wasn't just all about Robert though, David Devereux (whose book was being launched) did some sterling work signing books and posing for photos with Mark Chadbourn...

I'm off out in a moment so here's a few links to keep you going ;o)

The Book Swede reviews an Angela Carter Short Story...

Gav has a Dragonfly Falling Promo happening at his blog. I've been looking forward to this book and hope to pick it up soon...

Larry draws our attention to the Finalists for the BSFA Awards.

Thrinidir reviews Robert Silverberg's Son of Man.

SQT has an amazing giveaway where you get to Pick What You Win.

Finally, Ken shows us a rather amazing looking Trailer for the upcoming 'Coraline' film. I quite fancy seeing that :o)

Not many links today I'm afraid but all the links on my blogroll are full of goodness, check them out!

Have a great weekend!

Graeme gets comics!

Only a couple though, I spent far too much money on books (at the Forbidden Planet signing on Thursday) and couldn’t quite stretch the bank balance to cover everything else that I wanted!
Without further ado, here’s what I came home with...

B.P.R.D: The Black Goddess #1

I’ve always fancied seeing what all the fuss was about B.P.R.D (Bureau for Paranormal Research and Defense) and, as the opener in a story, this looked like as good a place as any to jump right in. Maybe I should have started somewhere else as the fact that ‘Black Goddess’ appears to lead on from another storyline made me feel like I was in at the deep end and struggling to stay afloat! I had a look for ‘Black Goddess’ on the Dark Horse website and found the following,

The Black Goddess is the second of three arcs pulling together threads from the beginning of the series -- and leaving the B.P.R.D. and the world forever changed.

I guess that will teach me! The comic itself is all about setting things up for future events and it looks like I’ve got some reading ahead of me if I’m ever going to catch up... In the meantime though, I’ve got a lot of time for Guy Davis’ atmospheric artwork and I particularly like the character of Johann Kraus (a disembodied ectoplasmic spirit that has to live inside a containment suit). Can anyone tell me where I should start with B.P.R.D?

Amazing Spiderman #583

I have never picked up a Spiderman comic until now, one look at the cover and you’ll know why I did this time ;o) I’m not American but it’s hard not to get caught up in the ‘feel good’ attitude towards Obama’s presidency and buying ‘Amazing Spiderman 583’ was my geeky way of getting in on it all ;o) As a quick aside, this cover isn’t the one that I ended up with (yellow background, no flag) but it was the only one I could find via Google. It’s a shame then that the story itself isn’t that good, a ‘who’s the real president?’ story that is resolved quickly and with little real fuss. I actually prefer the other story, ‘Platonic’, which looks at Betty Brant’s friendship with Peter Parker. Talking of which, I don’t read Spiderman but was aware of him revealing that he is Peter Parker. Betty Brant doesn’t seem to know though and neither does Obama, what’s going on there?

I couldn’t say for certain whether #583 is a cynical attempt by Marvel to cash in on what’s going on but I can say that it’s still a cool thing to have in your collection. It might even tempt me to pick up more Spiderman comics in the future...

Friday, 23 January 2009

‘The Last Guardian’ – David Gemmell (Orbit)

Since I’ve started posting reviews on David Gemmell’s work, a couple of people have asked when I’m going to start reading outside the world of the Drenai. Hopefully this review should help a bit! Part of the reason I started to read Gemmell’s books again was not only to revisit some old favourites but also to pick up some of his books that I’ve never got round to reading. I’ve never read any of the ‘Jon Shannow’ books and Orbit were kind enough to send me a copy of ‘The Last Guardian’, any book that has a picture of a cowboy fighting off a lizard on the front will (more often that not) find it’s way to the top of the reading pile!

The Earth has tilted on its axis and life hasn’t been the same since. The landmasses of the world are covered in water from oceans that are now drained, providing new land for the survivors to settle on. This is a dangerous new world where strength rules (and who is quickest on the trigger) and dangerous technology lies waiting to fall into the wrong hands.

‘I can wear my white robes and pray in peace. The evil can dress in black. But there must always be the grey riders to patrol the border between good and evil...’

Jon Shannow is the Jerusalem Man, a man on a quest for meaning in the city of God. The two guns in his hands mean that no-one will stop that quest and he will also take time out if he feels that sin is in particular need of being rooted out and destroyed. When the gateway between past and present is opened, Shannow will find that he is the only one who can stand between two worlds and make the decision that will spell doom for either one or both...

Gemmell’s novels are books that like to proudly display their influences on their sleeve and ‘The Last Guardian’ is no different. The ‘Western’ influence is clearly apparent from the start and I also felt that Jon Shannow had an air of King’s ‘Roland of Gilead’ about him, especially when I found that Shannow is referred to by that name. A cowboy on a quest in an apocalyptic world/a world that has ‘moved on’...? Bearing in mind that the ‘original Roland’ was around long before King took up the name maybe it’s not such a big deal after all but it was still interesting to note...

‘The Last Guardian’s’ influences are plain to see but, once again, it is what Gemmell does with them that makes the book stand out in it’s own right. What looks very much like a retelling of the motivation behind John Lennon’s murder (at least that’s how it looked to me) is used to show the futility of killing someone to ensure that you are remembered. Gemmell likes to give his readers something to think on and the message here is that if you’re going to be remembered for something, make sure that it’s something worthwhile...

‘The Last Guardian’ is only two hundred and seventy five pages long and I picked it up, a couple of days ago, as I thought it would be a relatively quick read. I was totally wrong as Gemmell doesn’t waste any words; packing those pages with plenty of things going on and plenty of insight into the characters driving the plot forward. The plot is a little more thoughtful than others, of his, that I’ve read so far; concentrating on characters rather than events. As a result, things proceed at a slower pace than you would expect but when the guns start blazing the pace soon picks up and Gemmell writes with the intensity he is known for.

For such a short book, Gemmell is able to give the reader a lot of time to get inside the heads of all the main players. As the lead character, Jon Shannow gets the most time on the page and his ‘Clint Eastwood’ exterior hides a character who is becoming a victim of his own reputation. Even if Shannow wanted to settle down he couldn’t as he is aware that there will always be someone who will want to test themselves against him. Shannow is also starting to feel his age and, paradoxically, this means that he cannot settle down and stop.
Heroism is one of Gemmell’s favourite themes and ‘The Last Guardian’ shows that heroism can come in many guises, all of which are of equal importance (‘feel good’ reading if ever I saw it, which isn’t a bad thing). Speaking up when you don’t want to (although you know it’s right) can be just as important as facing down overwhelming odds armed only with a revolver.

By the end of ‘The Last Guardian’ I was left feeling that the book wore its influences a little too obviously for my tastes. On the other hand though ‘The Last Guardian’ was a book that I was completely engrossed in and I’ll be searching out the other two books, in the trilogy, in no short order. My first attempt at reading outside the ‘Drenai universe’ (for the blog) was a success.

Eight and a Quarter out of Ten

Thursday, 22 January 2009

Shameless Plug! 'Eagle Rising' - David Devereux (Gollancz)

This post was originally going to be a review but then I realised it would be impossible to be objective about a book that I've been giggling over due to the fact that not only do I make an appearance in 'Eagle Rising' but I also die in a particularly gruesome manner (seriously, I felt a little sick reading it)...

Bearing this in mind, I thought that I'd go down the 'shameless plug' route instead. I'm pretty sure that David won't mind ;o)
'Eagle Rising' has been on the shelves for a few days but the official launch date (and party, which I'll be going to) is today. I thoroughly enjoyed the continuing adventures of Jack and if you enjoyed 'Hunter's Moon' then I reckon you'll get a lot out of 'Eagle Rising'.
Here's the blurb,

Jack's back! And this time he must face a terrifying supernatural threat from Europe's recent past. Someone has been mad enough to revive the most terrifying evil of the last 60 years. And only one man is bad enough to stop them. Eagle Rising takes Jack to the rotten heart of big business and the dark secrets of a neo-nazi magical sect intent on giving the world back to a terror from the darkest days of the 1940s. Jack must infiltrate the closed corridors of big business and reach the core of a conspiracy amongst some of the most high-powered city executives in the country. A cabal of business men with occult interests and an insane hunger for the return of an old and dark order.

Like I said, well worth a look :o)

Wednesday, 21 January 2009

‘Evil Ways’ – Justin Gustainis (Solaris)

Or ‘how I found out a little more than I really needed to know about where a white witch keeps her wand in case of emergencies’... I won’t give the game away but it made me wince!
Justin Gustainis’ ‘Quincey Morris’ series is only a couple of books old but I’ve heard good things about it so far. Justin also got in touch to ask if I wouldn’t mind pointing people in the direction of a free excerpt on Fantasy Bookspot (which I did, here’s the post with the link) and I thought why don’t I give the book a go myself? One book through the post later...

White witches are being hunted down and killed and Quincey Morris finds himself in on the investigation by way of a series of murders where young children are having internal organs forcibly removed. Quincey’s partner, Liberty Chastain, is a white witch who’s just foiled an attempt on her life so this investigation has an added edge to it...
All the clues lead to one Walter Grobius, an eccentric billionaire questing for immortality with a wizard who will use black magic to ensure that Grobius gets his wish. Walpurgis Night is the night when all plans will come to fruition and Quincey and Liberty must be on top of their game to stop hell being unleashed on earth...

Gustainis takes a step away from regular urban fantasy fare to give his readers a world where fey creatures exist but it’s human magic users that make up the ‘otherworld’ that exists at the edges of daily life. As a result the ‘fey element’ makes up a very small part of the plot, leaving the reader with a story based very much around human motivations. I got a lot out of this approach as grounding the book in the real world made the ‘supernatural moments’ stand out all the more when they arrived. A book that features an appearance from the Devil himself needs moments like that to go with a bang and ‘Evil Ways’ certainly delivers on this score!

This approach also meant that it was refreshing to read an urban fantasy where the hero isn’t wrapped up in the middle of unresolved feelings for the local were-wolf pack leader/head vampire etc. That’s not to say that sex doesn’t play a part in ‘Evil Ways’ though, the difference here is that its role is found in certain black magic rituals and as a way for black magic practitioners to exert control over their victims. Gustainis doesn’t leave a lot to the imagination here and this wasn’t something that sat well with my reading of the book. There’s a difference between using sex to create an atmosphere, in a book, and using it to drive the plot forward. Gustainis was all about the atmosphere whereas I prefer to see it used to drive the plot. It’s purely a matter of taste but I think it’s still an important distinction to bear in mind. To be fair though, Gustainis does create an atmosphere that fits in well with the plot’s dark subject matter.

The plot itself doesn’t throw up an awful lot in the way of twists but there was still plenty that kept me interested and Gustainis does well in keeping the outcome shrouded in doubt (although I could guess what was going to happen) right up until the very end. Special mention has to go to Gustainis making reference to a certain Chicago wizard from another urban fantasy series. Two worlds collide and it’s done in such a way that you hardly notice... All of the characters playing a part are interesting to get to know but don’t offer much to the reader in terms of investing yourself in them. I got the impression that Gustainis’ writing style was more about recounting events rather than getting right inside the heads of his characters. While this works up to a point, it felt like there was a wall between me and Quincey/Liberty etc and this left me feeling a little detached from the book as a whole.

I had some issues with ‘Evil Ways’ but there is enough good there to make me want to give the next book a go and see if this is a series worth sticking with. The excerpt from ‘Sympathy for the Devil’, at the back of the book, looks pretty good as well...

Seven and Three Quarters out of Ten

Tuesday, 20 January 2009

‘Busted Flush’ – Edited by George R. R. Martin (Tor)

One of my News Year’s Resolutions is to finish reading all those books that I never got round to last year, I may have to take a leaf from Aidan’s book and do a ‘pile of shame’ post (I never got round to finishing ‘Toll the Hounds’, shame on me...) We’ll see how I get on...
First up is ‘Busted Flush’, the latest in the George R. R. Martin edited ‘Wild Cards’ series and one of those books that I’d been looking forward to for ages but hadn’t picked up until now. If you enjoyed ‘Inside Straight’ then I think you’ll get a lot out of this one...

Following the events of ‘Inside Straight’ (quick recap: a reality show for superheroes leads to super powered intervention in an international incident in Egypt) the UN have set up ‘The Committee’, a team of young ‘Aces’, to assist in trouble spots around the world. During the course of the book, ‘super powered UN intervention’ is required in stopping genocide in the Niger Delta, aiding a hurricane ravaged New Orleans (and where have all those zombies suddenly appeared from...?) and getting to the bottom of what caused a freak nuclear explosion in a small Texas town. The definition of ‘intervention’ will also be explored as Middle Eastern countries with-holding oil leads to armed confrontation.
While all this is happening, members of ‘The Committee’ will find out that life as a superhero isn’t as clear cut as it would first appear. Everyone is trying to use you for their own ends and this means that hard decisions will have to be made...

As a sequel to ‘Inside Straight’ it’s hard, in some respects, to judge ‘Busted Flush’ on its own merits and not to compare it to its predecessor. I found that I couldn’t avoid doing this and I ended up coming away with the feeling that ‘Busted Flush’ hadn’t quite met the high standards set by ‘Inside Straight’...
Whereas ‘Inside Straight’ came across as fairly tight plot wise (with one main plot and a couple of sub-plots driving the story), the plot for ‘Busted Flush’ branches out a lot more and I had problems with this. When several plot lines fit really tightly together it makes the one plot line that doesn’t stand out even more. This was very much the case with ‘Busted Flush’ where three plot lines worked really well together but one came across as only being in the book to introduce another ‘Ace’ for the next book. I can understand that not every mission is going to link with another but the fact that this one obviously didn’t at all made it feel a little... awkward when everything else dovetailed so perfectly.

There is no denying that super powers are a very cool thing, I’d be very surprised if anyone reading this wouldn’t want a superpower of their own (I know I would)! However, if you fill up a book with superheroes then you’ve got to be careful not to overdo it and end up with a book where the reader becomes blasé about all the amazing powers on display. I thought ‘Busted Flush’ fell down slightly here with what came across as a ‘How do we stop this super villain? Let’s introduce a hero who’s even more powerful!’ approach... Some of the tension was lost here as what we were left with were super powered confrontations so equally matched that they ended off in standoffs where not a lot actually happened... Thank goodness they tied off the ‘Little Fat Boy’ plotline when they did otherwise who knows what ultimately powerful Ace they would have had to introduce next!

Despite all this though, ‘Busted Flush’ is an enjoyable read where the plot races along and you are left with plenty to think about. Whereas ‘Inside Straight’ was all about the adrenaline burst and ‘feel good feeling’ of an impromptu mission successfully concluded, ‘Busted Flush’ is more about how repeated missions can become a ‘daily grind’ that gets you down. It’s interesting to see how certain Committee members react to the constant stress (Drummer Boy in particular) although perhaps certain others could have been examined a little more closely (Earth Witch who looked like she was in danger of burning out, it would have been interesting if the authors had decided to look at the dangers of overusing powers...)

Whereas ‘Inside Straight’ starts proceedings from a clean slate, ‘Busted Flush’ draws on the prior history of the ‘Wild Cards’ universe to flesh things out a bit. This is done gently, so as not to totally lose new readers, but I was left thinking that I would have got a bit more out of the book if I’d done some background reading beforehand...
The pace of the story doesn’t give you too much time to worry about this as the world seems to be in a constant state of crisis and ‘The Committee’ have their work cut out staying on top of it all. The machinations of various ‘covert agencies’ add an extra element of uncertainty to proceedings, especially when various characters don’t realise that they’re being used...
On top of all this, you have plenty of high octane ‘superhero smackdowns’ where things get very intense very quickly! The tension may not be there (as I mentioned earlier) but these events still make for one hell of a spectacle.

‘Busted Flush’ falls foul of the ‘difficult second album’ trap but still makes for a very entertaining read in the meantime. There’s plenty here for fans of the series to get into, I wasn’t so sure but there’s still enough here to leave me eager for the next book....

Eight and a Quarter out of Ten

Monday, 19 January 2009

Giveaway! 'Caligula' - Douglas Jackson

Thanks to me being audited, at work, I didn't have time to finish off my review of 'Busted Flush' (look out for it tomorrow instead) but hopefully this should do in the meantime... :o)

Thanks to Transworld Books I have three copies of Douglas Jackson's 'Caligula' to give to three lucky winners (it didn't make the 'Gizmo Reading Pile' yesterday but it's not far off!). Here's the blurb...

Gaius Julius Caesar Augustus Germanicus, the third Roman Emperor, is better known by another name: Caligula, a name synonymous with decadence, cruelty and madness. His reign was marked by excess, huge building projects, the largest gladiatorial battles Rome was ever to see – men and animals killed in their hundreds – conspiracies, assassination attempts and sexual scandal.

Rufus as a young slave grows up far from the corruption of the imperial court. His master is a trainer of animals for the gladiatorial arena. Rufus discovers that he has a natural ability with animals, a talent for controlling and schooling them. It is at the arenas that Rufus meets his great friend Cupido, one of Rome’s greatest gladiators.

It is his growing reputation as an animal trainer and his friendship with Cupido that attracts the cruel gaze of the Emperor. Caligula wants a keeper for the imperial elephant and Rufus is bought from his master and taken to the imperial palace. Life here is dictated by Caligula’s ever shifting moods. Caligula is as generous as he is cruel, he is a megalomaniac who declares himself a living god and simultaneously lives in constant fear of the plots against his life. But his paranoia is not misplaced, intrigue permeates his court, and Rufus and Cupido find themselves unwittingly placed at the centre of a conspiracy to assassinate the Emperor.

Does it sound like your kind of thing? Are you a UK or European resident (they're the only people who can enter this one I'm afraid...)? If you've answered 'yes' to both of these questions then simply drop me an email (address at the top right hand side of the screen) telling me who you are and what your mailing address is. I'll let this competition run until this coming Sunday (25th January) and announce the winners on the following Monday...

Good Luck!

Sunday, 18 January 2009

The 'Where's the snow I was promised?' Link up spectacular

The weather forecast promised me snow, I'm looking out of the window right now and I can't see any (I like snow)... On the bright side though, a lack of snow should make heading off into town a little easier and we do have plenty to do while we're there.
Here's some links for you to be looking at in the meantime...

Ken reviews The Hero of Ages, a book that I've been having real trouble getting into. He's also got Questions Five for Hal Duncan...

Robert has been getting various authors to review 2008/preview 2009 and it's Jasper Kent's turn today...

Graham Joyce to write Doom 4? Apparently so... Thanks to Aidan for pointing this one out!

Kristen reviews Miles, Mystery and Mayhem by Lois McMaster Bujold.

The Book Smugglers have got a 'Manga Appreciation Week' going on right now. Just scroll down from the top, it's all good :o)

I'm reading Justin Gustainis' 'Evil Ways' right now, Mark has posted his review of Black Magic Woman.

The Deckled Edge has a review of The Chronicles of Master Li and Number Ten Ox for your reading pleasure.

I'm one of what must be a very small group of people who have never watched 'The Sopranos', 'A Slight Apocalypse' Brings me up to speed.

And finally, James really didn't like Alien versus Predator 2... He also has some more News about the David Gemmell Legend Award (which I still need to cast my vote on...)

What am I doing? I finished 'Busted Flush' over the weekend so expect to see my review posted in the next few days. Here's a little look at the books I'm going to be reading next (Gizmo helped out)...

Thanks to Calibander for reminding me that 'A Madness of Angels' was lurking in the book pile. I've bumped it up and will be giving it a go soon ;o)
Have a great weekend everyone!

Saturday, 17 January 2009

What I’ve been watching this week...

As you’ve probably gathered the last couple of weeks have been all about me going on a massive reading binge that shows no signs of abating just yet. I did manage to find time to watch a couple of films though (although my ‘Planet of the Apes’ marathon remains strictly in the planning stages, I’m trying to get Sue to withdraw her veto on the ‘Graeme gets a whole KFC bargain bucket to himself’ proposal...)
Here’s what I’ve been watching...

‘Iron Man’

‘Iron Man’ is one of those films where you come out of the cinema feeling like you’re ten feet tall and could take on anyone. Watching it on my TV at home though was an entirely different affair (with the best will in the world, my TV will never be able to do the same job as a cinema screen/sound system). ‘Ironman’ is still great fun to watch but it felt a little muted this time round. When the action is toned down (although it’s still great fun to watch) you realise that this is essentially a film where the main character spends most of his time building one of two robotic suits, the ‘robot action’ doesn’t take up as much time as you think... An upshot to this was that I realised just how cool Robert Downey Junior was as Tony Stark, he pretty much carries the whole thing as far as I’m concerned. The downside to this is that I realised just how annoying Gwyneth Paltrow was as Pepper Potts... I wanted her to get crushed by Obediah Stane...

Having said all that though, any film that has a jet powered man outracing fighter jets and a bone crushing showdown between men in robot suits is pretty damn cool as far as I’m concerned! :o) Bring on ‘Iron Man 2’! Actually, bring on the ‘Avengers’ film as well...

‘Day of the Dead’

For a long time, there has been a gaping hole in my ‘Romero Zombie Films’ collection... not any more! Thursday night was all about watching ‘Day of the Dead’ while Sue was out. I’d still rank ‘Dawn of the Dead’ as my personal favourite but ‘Day’ makes for compelling viewing. It got to the point where I was stopping the film to check on strange noises that I kept hearing outside. Zombies are tenacious creatures so you cannot be too careful!

The zombie uprising has gone way beyond the point where humanity can strike back; with around 400,000 zombies to each human the safest place to be is underground and that’s where our heroes are. An underground research facility houses scientists (looking for a cure to the zombie plague) and the soldiers assigned to guard them. Things are getting desperate though with supplies running low and the soldier’s new commander, Rhodes, deciding that he will take full control of the operation. In a George Romero film there is only one way that this can all end...

As with Romero’s other zombie films, ‘Day of the Dead’ explores the consequences of mankind’s inability to work together in the face of impending doom. Everyone has their own agenda, which they focus on to the exclusion of everyone else, and more often than not there is a dark element to this agenda. The soldiers revert to barbarism (and ‘might takes right’) in an attempt to cope with the demands of this new world while the scientists slip further away from reality by concentrating solely on their task. Dr. Logan, ‘Frankenstein’, is the best example of this (especially when you see inside his lab) but some of the work that he does with the zombie ‘Bub’ shows us that there is a lot more to these zombies than meets the eye.

The tension gets higher and higher, as the film goes on, until things reach their inevitable bloody climax. I’m not sure why Salazar let the zombies in though but it makes for some good viewing (definitely not for the squeamish!) Zombie films don’t get an awful lot better than this :o)

Have a great weekend!

Friday, 16 January 2009

‘Bone: The Great Cow Race’ – Jeff Smith

Last year saw me pick up ‘Bone’ for the first time and I absolutely loved it. ‘Out from Boneville’s’ mixture of ‘epic fantasy meets the real world’ (albeit a ‘real world’ inhabited by tiny people with huge noses...) had me in fits of laughter and when I wasn’t laughing I was left feeling really moved by some of the emotion on display. There was never any doubt that I’d be back to read the second book and the only surprise is that it took me so long to get around to it, I blame Christmas myself...
I got round to it in the end though and am very glad that I did, ‘The Great Cow Race’ is another great read and there is no way that I’ll be leaving it this long before checking out the next book...

The Bones are now settled in the valley with varying degrees of happiness; Fone Bone is still living with Thorn and Granma Ben while Phoney and Smiley are working at the Inn in Barrelhaven. Things aren’t going to remain quiet for long though. Phoney has a fool proof plan to rig the upcoming Cow Race (and get rich quick) and throw the whole village into disarray. If that wasn’t bad enough, there are ominous rumblings in the woods... the rat creatures are ready for war again...

‘The Great Cow Race’ is full of everything that made ‘Out from Boneville’ a real pleasure to read. The characters are as whimsical as ever and it’s fun to see how two of them in particular (Phoney and Smiley) remain blissfully unaware of their situation and seek to impose their personalities on their new surroundings. Smiley Bone doesn’t seem to have a care in the world and makes his mark by being infuriatingly happy at everyone. It’s Phoney Bone who makes for really entertaining reading though with his long running campaign of fraud and misinformation to get rich off the villagers. The way that Smith builds this up over the course of the book is very funny indeed. Not as funny as the sight of an elderly woman defending her title as ‘Cow Race Champion’ though and the totally serious way Smith goes about presenting this situation makes it even funnier. When you add a rat creature attack to the mix, the ‘Great Cow Race’ becomes an event truly worthy of your time!

The bits that really had me going, in all of this, though were the continuing musings and adventures of Fone Bone. There is something really touching about a little guy (with a big nose) who loves Moby Dick almost as much as he loves the heroine Thorn. How is he ever going to tell her though? Writing a love letter is never easy at the best of times and having your muse interrupted by rat creatures ends up making things even more complicated. Fone Bone never gives up though and this makes him even more endearing to the reader.

‘The Great Cow Race’ comes with even more hints of a larger story yet to be told and you’re left with the feeling that big events are just around the corner. I won’t be leaving it so long, this time, before I find out what happens next. ‘Bone’ seems to keep getting better and better, I’m really looking forward to seeing where the series goes next.

Ten out of Ten

A Friday Morning Question For You...

Because I haven't finished 'Busted Flush' in time to get a review up today/I really cannot be bothered to do the work that is piling up on the desk/I want to get to know my readers by getting them to answer geeky questions... :o)

A long time ago, in a galaxy far far away, civil war erupted between the tyrannical Galactic Empire and the freedom fighters of the Rebel Alliance. Not so long ago, in a galaxy that was... well... this one..., millions of children around the world watched spellbound as the Imperial and Rebel forces duked it out for the fate of the galaxy. I was one of those kids and I bet you were too.

My question is this, if you were fighting in the galactic civil war which side would you choose? Imperials or Rebels? With my impeccable English accent, and my complete inability to shoot straight, a career in the Imperial Fleet beckons...
How about you? Comments please! :o)

Thursday, 15 January 2009

‘Starship: Rebel’ – Mike Resnick (Pyr Books)

If you give me a science fiction novel that’s full of talk of ‘LaGrange points’, the effects of travelling at relativistic speeds and other highbrow concepts (to me anyway) I’ll give it a go, quite happily, but half of it will go straight over my head. I’ll spend that time waiting for the story to start.
Give me a science fiction novel where proper science gets a brief mention but is then pushed to one side in favour of aliens with weird names, space battles, galactic heroes and conversations via ‘sub-space radio’…? I’m in my element!
My name is Graeme and I’m a Space Opera fan…
Mike Resnick’s latest instalment, in the ‘Starship’ series falls firmly into the Space Opera camp (with a side helping of Military sci-fi) and I loved it…

Following the events of ‘Starship: Mercenary’, Captain Wilson Cole (with his ship the ‘Theodore Roosevelt’) now heads up the largest military force on the Inner Frontier. His collection of ships has actually grown so large now that he is beginning to find that prospective clients can no longer afford his mercenary services and some hard decisions are looming on the horizon…
Before Cole has to confront these decisions however, tragedy strikes and he finds that his focus has now shifted. Where he used to avoid the Republic (who has a price on his head) Wilson now finds himself declaring war on them. His fleet is outnumbered and outgunned by a Republic Fleet that is millions strong, not odds that Cole would choose but odds that he is happy to take on…

‘Starship: Rebel’ is unashamed space opera at its most entertaining. Right from the very beginning the reader is thrust into inter-planetary warfare and the machinations of the alien inhabitants of Singapore Station who are constantly scheming ways to make a quick buck. It helps if you’ve already read the preceding book in the series (‘Starship: Mercenary’) but Resnick layers his text with enough explanatory passages so that the first time reader should have little trouble getting into the story very quickly. This approach is a good thing as the pace of the tale shoots along like one of Resnick’s starships. There is always something happening, even in the quieter moments, and the stakes are high the whole way through. The climatic battle is epic in scale and Resnick takes a novel approach in describing some of its later stages. I’d never really stopped to consider what happened to all the wreckage in such a battle but Resnick obviously has with his depiction of a battle in space that descends into a war of attrition amidst floating piles of scrap.

Sometimes though, it felt like the pace of the novel was covering up deficiencies in the plot itself and, in this respect, ‘Starship: Rebel’ falls foul of the conventions it follows as an example of ‘pulp space opera’. While the journey is entertaining enough, I was never in any doubt that Wilson Cole and his crew would win through at the end of the day. They are obviously ‘good’ while the Republic that they are fighting is obviously ‘bad’ and we all know who will win a ‘pulp battle’ between good and evil... This meant that certain confrontations and ‘set piece moments’ became nothing more than vehicles to showcase Wilson’s heroism and did little else to add to the plot itself. To be fair, the payoff is that Resnick spends plenty of time fleshing out Cole’s character but the demands that the plot places upon Cole sees him depicted as a typical ‘square jawed heroic starship captain out for justice in a lawless galaxy’. This fits in well with ‘Starship: Rebel’s’ pulp roots but it would have been nice if Resnick had been able to get under Cole’s skin in other ways as well...

Despite these issues, if you accept ‘Starship: Rebel’ for what it is (fast paced and entertaining, but a light read...) then I think you’ll have just as much fun with it as I did. I’m looking forward to seeing where this series goes next.

Eight out of Ten.

Wednesday, 14 January 2009

‘The First Chronicles of Druss the Legend’ – David Gemmell (Orbit)

David Gemmell’s ‘Legend’ concentrated on the effect that one man’s legendary reputation had on a castle under siege whilst showing us how his fight to reconcile that reputation with the onset of age. What it didn’t do though (at least, not much) was to give the reader an insight into the history of Druss the Legend himself. There are references to the Battle of Skeln Pass, and the fact that he tracked his kidnapped wife halfway across the world to rescue her, but these references aren’t explored in any depth. That’s fair enough as they wouldn’t have added much to the story itself and the approach Gemmell takes shows Druss in the light that’s intended. It doesn’t matter where he came from, what matters is that he’s a hero right now.
Still, it would be nice if those gaps in Druss’ history were filled in. Wouldn’t it? This is what ‘The First Chronicles of Druss the Legend’ sets out to do and does very well...

Long before the events of ‘Legend’ (long before Druss gained the reputation that would follow him in ‘Legend’ in fact) Druss was nothing more than a simple woodsman; his unusually violent temper held in check by Rowena, Druss’ wife whom he loves more than anything else.
When Rowena is kidnapped by slavers, Druss becomes a man hell bent on her safe return. Half the world lies between him and his wife (and the obstacles he must face are innumerable) but none of this concerns him. A legend will be born from this journey and Druss’ life will never be the same again.

To begin with, ‘The First Chronicles of Druss the Legend’ comes across like a video game due to the repetitive nature of its sub-plots. Druss must overcome an obstacle to get to his wife, Druss overcomes obstacle but his wife has been taken away again, Druss proceeds to the ‘next level’ and starts again. Sometimes it left me wondering if Gemmell felt he had to drag this one out, a bit, to layer Druss with enough heroic deeds to merit Druss’ reputation in ‘Legend’. Was this book a victim of Druss’ ‘larger than life’ persona, was Gemmell left feeling that he had to justify the reputation that he had given Druss? Ultimately I don’t think so but that was how it came across to me at times...

There is also the fact that, by going back in time to fill in the gaps of Druss’ story, Gemmell robs Druss’ exploits of their tension. If you’ve read ‘Legend’ then you will know how ‘The First Chronicles’ has to end (although I shouldn’t assume that everyone has read ‘Legend’, if you haven’t then read ‘First Chronicles’ beforehand).
Having said all that though, I was also left wondering if Gemmell deliberately wrote ‘First Chronicles’ when he did because the end result was that he was able to devote the whole book to it’s intended purpose, a character study of his greatest creation.
In ‘Legend’, Druss can come across as a polarised character that sees things in black and white with no hint of the grey in between. By taking the character back to the very beginning, ‘First Chronicles’ charts Druss’ development and shows the reader that not only are there good reasons why Druss ended up as he did but that is also a moral ambiguity to his early actions. Druss wants his wife back and is prepared to do anything to achieve this, the only reason he agrees to adhere to the ‘Warrior’s Code’ is so he can get the help that he knows he needs. Druss’ battle with the darker side of his personality is illustrated vividly in his battle with the evil that lurks within the axe he carries, even more so as it is the final obstacle that he must face before he can be with his wife again.

On top of all this, ‘First Chronicles’ sees Gemmell giving his readers a hefty dose of what he does best; namely epic warfare that is soaked in heroism from both sides. Another aspect to Druss’ character is that he is pretty much an unstoppable force of nature and Gemmell shows this off to good effect by pitting Druss against awesome odds and having him club them into submission. You may know how a scene will end but you’re more than happy to stick around for the ride and the rush that it brings! It’s also interesting to see Gemmell poke a little bit of fun at the conventions that go to make up a hero through perceptive observations from the bard Sieben. Sometimes it’s not just deeds which go to make up a hero, it’s how they’re recounted (and embellished) afterwards...
Druss is also a charismatic leader and this is displayed in the course of the climatic Battle of Skeln Pass. There may be echoes of the battle that inspired ‘The 300’ (and I can’t remember its name, help?) but Gemmell makes Skeln Pass all his own through use of characters that we have come to know and love over the course of the book.

‘The First Chronicles of Druss the Legend’ overcomes some early obstacles to become a gripping read that fills in the background of an iconic figure in fantasy literature. If heroic fantasy is your thing, and you haven’t already given this book a go, then you could do worse than give it a go.

Eight and a Half out of Ten.

Tuesday, 13 January 2009

‘One More Bite’ – Jennifer Rardin (Orbit Books)

So there I was, all ready to write a lengthy introduction about how there’s something about the Jaz Parks series that keeps me coming back for more despite it being an urban fantasy series disturbingly similar to most of the other urban fantasy series that are doing the rounds. Then I looked at my review of Rardin’s ‘Bitten to Death’ and realised that I’d said everything that I wanted to say over there...
The bottom line is still the same though having finished Rardin’s latest. ‘One More Bite’ is a fun light read but didn’t really do it for me...

The death of a prominent vampire terrorist (not naming any names just in case you haven’t read the last book yet) leaves a power vacuum that his former allies will fight to fill. The CIA wants the balance to be maintained and this leads to a trip to Inverness, for Jaz and her team, to prevent the assassination of the local coven leader. Things are never as simple as that though and soon Jaz will find herself taking on ghosts and demon princes in a faceoff that is far more than it seems...

‘One More Bite’ was a book that only took me just over a day to read but not necessarily for all the right reasons. Over the course of the last four books, we have been treated to the main character (Jaz) agonising over whether she should go for it and embark on a relationship with her vampire boss. A dilemma that could be solved with a yes/no answer took four books to be worked out... ‘One More Bite’ is a book where things are resolved but it is also a book that introduces more dilemmas for Jaz to agonise over. While some people might say that this is inevitable (any relationship will throw up problems after all) I’m found myself firmly in the ‘angst is all well and good but how long can you realistically drag it out for’ camp. If a character does nothing but whine for several books then I’m eventually going to lose all sympathy for her... This is what ultimately led to my skim reading some of the more angst laden passages, that and the reading about precisely how Jaz feels when Vayl looks at her. You’ve told me once already, I don’t need to be told again (and again)...

It’s a real shame that the book came across in this manner as it detracts from what is a fun and fast paced plot. While the plot itself feels a little recycled (another special ops mission that’s more than it first appears) Rardin does well at bringing all these pieces together and injecting them with enough energy to keep the plot moving quickly and the reader asking questions. Rardin also subscribes to the theory that you can’t have too many explosions, double crossing and otherworldly creatures in an urban fantasy novel. I also subscribe to this theory and, as such, ‘One More Bite’ was a treat to read as far as spectacle was concerned.

If you’ve enjoyed the ride this far then ‘One More Bite’ will dose you up with more of the same though. For me though, ‘One More Bite’ suffered from an overdose of introspection and angst. A solid effort that could have been a lot more...

Seven out of Ten