Book Review: Magic Bites – Ilona Andrews

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“Atlanta would be a nice place to live, if it weren’t for magic…

 One moment magic dominates, and cars stall and guns fail. The next, technology takes over and the defensive spells no longer protect your house from monsters. Here skyscrapers topple under the onslaught of magic; werebears and werehyenas prowl through the ruined streets; and the Masters of the Dead, necromancers driven by their thirst for knowledge and wealth, pilot blood-crazed vampires.

 In this world lives Kate Daniels. Kate likes her sword a little too much and has a hard time controlling her mouth. The magic in her blood makes her a target, and she spent most of her life hiding in plain sight. But when Kate’s guardian is murdered, she must choose to do nothing and remain safe or to pursue his preternatural killer. Hiding is easy, but the right choice rarely so.”

 

Okay. Time to get real. When I read the above, I was more than a little dubious. When I read the above and then studied the cover art, I was about ready to look elsewhere for my cheap thrills. But, it came highly recommended, had a bunch of excellent reviews, and, given that I would be renting a copy and not purchasing it, I figured the risk was minimal. If I didn’t like it, I could always abandon it.

I found a copy to buy from Amazon before I had even reached the twentieth page.

Magic Bites is sharply intelligent, brilliantly crafted, and fit to bursting with snappy dialogue. I was about as ready to abandon it as I am my own name. It was a wonderfully enjoyable read, every single thing that I wanted, and genuinely good fun, a rollicking roller coaster of a novel that doesn’t once slip from the tracks. My only complaint wasn’t even a complaint, but only that I could easily have read more, and would have liked it to be longer.

In short: I liked it.

The plot is, arguably, rather simple – the main character, a sharp-tongued mercenary named Kate Daniels investigates the predictably suspicious death of her guardian – but, personally, I think it works. The potentially rather simplistic nature of the plot aids coherency, ensuring that the narrative has a clearly defined beginning, middle and end (trust me, that’s an asset) and a tense climax; there are more than enough surprises to generate anticipation and tension, and the entirety is executed in a manner that’s neither predictable nor dull, and that suggests at a laudable amount of prior consideration.

As for setting, it is (I was about to say ‘in short’ for the second time until I realised that this is anything but short) urban fantasy at its finest, combing magical elements with realism to create a cohesive setting that is both complex and practical, a factor that is, arguably, missing from many other novels of a similar genre.

In Magic Bites, Andrews covers every single detail, from atmosphere to the practical differences between territory claimed by shapeshifters and territory claimed by vampires, creating a world so vibrant it practically leaps off the page. It’s easy to imagine, wonderful to explore, and, if there wasn’t enough to enjoy already, it’s populated by equally vibrant, three-dimensional characters.

From Kate Daniels, our swashbuckling heroine, who faces a colossal variety of problems from the need to locate the killer cutting a swathe across her hometown to finding a dress that will draw attention away from the practically omnipresent bandages, to Derek, a shifter saddled with a steadily increasing tendency toward sarcasm, Andrew’s characters are entertaining, intelligent, and fundamentally distinct. They have enough similarities to exist in the same world, and enough differences to inspire sympathy and interest. I felt drawn into their stories, and extremely interested in finding out what happens next.

Finally, I would be remiss in finishing this review without a nod to Andrews’ style. There’s a definable assurance to Magic Bites that I fundamentally enjoyed, a kind of sharp, knowing humour lending extra weight to every word. It was, ultimately, for that reason that I was so ready to sign up to the series after only the first twenty pages, and why I could hardly stand to put the novel down even once. It motivated a swift, thoroughly absorbed read.

It’s a special kind of narrative style that makes the pages fly by and leaves the reader eager for more, and that’s exactly what Magic Bites has. As such, I gave it 5 stars, and would have loved to give it more.

 

Book Review: Not a Penny More, Not a Penny Less – Jeffrey Archer

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“The conned: an Oxford don, a revered society physician, a chic French art dealer, and a charming English lord. They have one thing in common. Overnight, each novice investor lost his life’s fortune to one man. The con: Harvey Metcalfe. A brilliant, self-made guru of deceit. A very dangerous individual. And now, a hunted man.

 With nothing left to lose four strangers are about to come together – each expert in their own field. Their plan: find Harvey, shadow him, trap him, and penny-for-penny, destroy him. From the luxurious casinos of Monte Carlo to the high-stakes windows at Ascot to the bustling streets of Wall Street to fashionable London galleries, their own ingenious game has begun. It’s called revenge – and they were taught by a master.”

 

I had high hopes for this novel.

Unfortunately (I bet you saw this coming from at least a mile away), those hopes were dashed.

The premise and synopsis were promising, if somewhat familiar, suggesting at an intelligent, finely crafted narrative with lashings of witty humour and oodles of barbed dialogue. The usual fare, for this sort of novel, but familiarity does not always breed contempt, and, on this occasion, it didn’t seem to be a major, gut-churning problem.

In Not a Penny More, Not a Penny Less, a group of men conned out of a great deal of money decide to band together, in the name of revenge and brotherhood, to win back A) their money, and B) their respect, and ultimately live happily ever after.

Or something.

Naturally, they decide that the best approach is to become pioneering, if not fearless, vigilantes, and so they turn their not inconsiderable combined brainpower onto the target in question, a ruthless businessman with a heck of a reputation, a huge fortune, and a daughter that is absolutely devoted to, while simultaneously dismissing any notion of turning to the trained authorities without even a token discussion.

Their unity of purpose is breathtaking.

The novel begins with the con that deprives our would-be heroes of their money, and it is immediately made clear that this is a fundamentally dire situation. Among other things, the group face serious financial difficulties, and problems that will only escalate further. But their solution is Harvey Metcalfe, while he’s talented, experienced, and utterly ruthless; they’re just a disparate bunch of men with little in common.

They succeed, naturally.

But there’s little satisfaction, if any, to be found in the result. They deprive their prey, the aforementioned Harvey Metcalfe, of exactly what he took from them – down to the exact penny – but there’s no indication that the man even notices. There’s no fatal blow, no crushing destruction that will end his fame and fortune forever, and no indication that while our heroes swagger off towards the sunset, the villain is left bankrupt, bereft, and miserably belligerent.

Arguably, Not a Penny More, Not a Penny Less needed that climax. That fatal blow. Without it, coming to the end of the novel was about as enjoyable as reaching the end of the shampoo bottle halfway through soaping up, and it was neither what I expected nor what I could have any hope of enjoying. It might have bucked the trend, but it simply didn’t work. Rather than reaching a dramatic conclusion, Not a Penny More, Not a Penny Less fades to a finish, lacking conviction and decisiveness.

Unfortunately, the characters were similarly halfhearted. The majority were stereotypes, and the rest just plain dull, with a frankly rather ridiculous amount of detail on what school they attended aged ten and a half, and not nearly enough on why abandoning their responsibilities at a moment’s notice isn’t even a small problem. They lack shape, depth, and personality, and any motivations they might have for their actions simply glossed over.

Finally, the reason I have given this novel a rating of two stars rather than one is that although I was spectacularly unmoved by the writing, plot, and characters, there were, nonetheless, many clever aspects. Archer demonstrated a deep and consistent knowledge of his chosen focus, the various plans dreamed up by the aspiring heroes are, if not foolproof, at least entertaining, and the grand reveal of the identity of James’s newest girlfriend was arguably a much better story than the main plot. This wasn’t enough to redeem it, but it certainly bears mentioning.

Book Review: Hunt for the Troll – Mark Richardson

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“It all starts when a twenty-something software programming genius is visited while he sleeps by a mysterious figure referred to as the Troll. “We’re going to change the world,” the Troll tells the narrator.

 Soon we’re introduced to an assortment of off-beat characters: a red-haired, one-eared, female temptress; a pot-smoking tech reporter; a computer-generated Halfling; and a few venture capitalists who are all interested in finding the Troll. Mostly taking place in San Francisco, Hunt for the Troll is a quirky hybrid of mystery, pulp, and modern fairy tale.”

  Hunt for the Troll is an entertaining read. It’s intelligent, extremely well crafted, and undoubtedly unusual, with a clearly defined plot and set of very intriguing characters. A quirky blend of traditional genres, including mystery of the vaguely whodunit variety – think Agatha Christie, but with extra tech and potentially also leather jackets – and urban fantasy, and its masterful and consistent mix of technology and mysterious hand-wavy weirdness fits the bill nicely. Urban fantasy can be something of a dicey genre, in that everyone and their grandmothers have a different idea as to what it should include, but Hunt for the Troll, if nothing else, should definitely be counted.

The world building aspects, and established setting were major draws for me, as I found the mix of real-world scenarios, dodgy magic, and artificial realities intelligent, intriguing, and just plain fun. Hunt for the Troll bridges worlds with skilful, admirable ease, retaining cohesion in its storytelling when it’s often easy, in a similar situation, to produce something a tad fragmented. As a sincere advocate of the urban fantasy genre, I think that it is assured, convincing, well crafted, and unique, a fresh new take upon an existing and occasionally predictable pattern.

Ultimately, however, it was the unique characters that compelled me to rate it as highly as I have. Urban fantasy novels often have a few recycled stock tropes that might be amusing for the first few lines, but often fail to delight, whereas in Hunt for the Troll, each and every character is three-dimension, well defined, and perfectly unique, in appearance, personality, and attitude. They’re varied enough to be realistic, and yet have enough common ground to plausibly be acquainted.

However.

(You know me, there’s always a ‘however’)

I found the narrator and main character, a genius software programmer – of course – to be about as unique as a tomato. His narrative voice added little to, well, anything, his personality and attitude woeful at best – although consistent – and his faux-humble posturing frequently irritated me. He felt like a Mary Sue, and in such an assured, and, dare I say it, excellent novel, he stuck out a mile.

I often have a few objections to make about the main character, but this went far beyond the occasional irritable huff.

Allegedly a genius in his field, he oscillates wildly between employment and unemployment without a care in the world, suffering very few negative consequences, earns a fortune from a millionaire for doing genuinely nothing, and is in possession of the worst work ethic I’ve ever seen. But, of course, he’s a genius, and everyone loves him – except, of course, his boss, who naturally misunderstands his delicate sensibilities – so all of the above makes him cutely eccentric, rather than obnoxiously odious.

Phew.

And that’s without even considering why it is that every single woman in the novel manages, in the space of roughly an evening, to turn into a nymphomaniac obsessed with taking the man to bed. All things being equal, he seems like a nice enough guy – when he’s not working – but there’s little to explain why all these very different women suddenly decide he’s better than sliced bread, and that all they want from him is, well, sex.

However.

I enjoyed Hunt for the Troll. I really did. The plot drew me in, the characters are exceptional, and the setting that they inhabit better still. It’s a masterful novel, an excellent foray into urban fantasy, and a damn good read. But there were aspects that I did not enjoy, and that’s not something I can ignore. As such, I gave Hunt for the Troll only four out of five stars.

Book Review: Fire Hawk – Geoffrey Archer

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“It begins in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq where Sam Packer is working undercover. He is arrested after learning that terrorists have been armed with Iraqi anthrax. Facing death, he is suddenly freed in a sinister deal between his Iraqi captors and his SIS masters, in which his ex-lover and fellow spy Chrissie is somehow involved.

Then begins a race against time in his pursuit of Iraqi dissidents bent on dragging the West into a Middle East war. The trail leads to Cyprus and Chrissie’s shocking demise, then to Ukraine and Washington. Packer has a dual mission: to prevent an anthrax attack on the American capital and to avenge the death of the woman he loved.”

~

Let me put it like this: if you like a traditional spy novel with copious amounts of intrigue, the occasional high-performing super car, and blindingly attractive women who may or may not be on the side of the villains, then Fire Hawk is the book for you. It meets all the usual criteria, invents some of its own, and harbours roughly a boatload (think cruise ship rather than canoe, and marvel on my exceptional wordplay) of suspense and enough plot twists to satisfy even the most demanding reader. It’s a richly detailed novel, and a worthy contribution to a genre that is, arguably, often overlooked in the pursuit of greatness.

At first glance, the premise seems both simple and familiar, arguably a rather worrying state of affairs. There’s the threat of war, for example, and destabilising rumours that prove to be shocking enough to send the entirety of the US into a frantic tailspin. As far as spy novels are concerned, this is far from uncommon. It could perhaps even be suggested that such incredibly high stakes are in fact a necessary component of the standard spy novel, without which they would seem somewhat lackluster.

However.

Fire Hawk’s plotline is far from predictable. It deviates constantly from the expected path of events, is highly detailed, and death-defying stunts – practically staple fare – are a rare commodity indeed. Instead, Fire Hawk focuses on the people involved, from the experts tasked to discover and prevent terrifying threats, to the ordinary people caught unwittingly in the crossfire. It is the joint, cohesive effort of the former that saves the day, not the last-minute stunts of the smartly dressed main character.

Why, it’s practically a feel-good novel.

That said, there is a main character, and his part is undoubtedly important. His name is Sam Packer, and – here comes the predictable part – he’s a spy. A good one, seemingly, although the novel begins with his imprisonment and torture, so for the first half at least it’s not quite certain as to what skills he is supposed to have (if any). Nonetheless, it is his subsequent release, the result of a somewhat dubious deal made with the West, and the information he provides – combined with that gathered from other sources – that leads the powers that be to suspect something rather sinister is afoot.

From there, it’s a cat and mouse game as our brave heroes – teams of specialists, mostly – struggle to save the day, just like any other spy novel. Except Sam Packer, the aforementioned main character, spends the majority of the novel searching for the person or people behind another character’s death, and, relatively speaking, much less time on saving the world. Sure, he’s present, and he plays a somewhat pivotal role, but he is far from the only participant, and arguably not even the most useful one.

This may seem like a small thing to be harping on about. In fact, it probably is. But that doesn’t make the above factors any less important, because it is often those ‘small things’ that make all the difference in comparing a hit and a flop.

Or maybe I’m just sleep-deprived.

Regardless, I felt that it was a nice touch. In too many spy thrillers, the main character appears to be the only person doing any work at all, and the only hope of saving a threatened civilisation. He swans around – heroically – and brings every single thread to a neat ending by the penultimate chapter. It’s admirable, it’s conclusive, and, not to put too fine a point on it, it’s fundamentally unrealistic.

In Fire Hawk, none of that happens. Sam Packer doesn’t save the day in a haze of bullets and pithy one-liners. Neither does he walk off into the sunset with the woman of his dreams hanging on his arm and laughing girlishly. It is a team of people that ultimately save the day, each contributing something unique to the effort, each an expert in their own field, and as I’ve previously mentioned, it is their cohesive, tireless effort that breaks the case wide open. Sam Packer, on the other hand, isn’t even responsible for kick starting the initial investigation into the alleged threat, despite being at that time heavily involved.

To conclude, Fire Hawk has the usual features of the traditional spy novel in abundance, but it uses them in a way that can arguably be considered to be unique. It is as such a refreshing take on a somewhat predictable structure, and one that I found particularly enjoyable.

Book Review: Floodland – Marcus Sedgwick

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Surviving in a devastated world…

Zoe, left behind in the confusion when her parents escaped, survives on the island of Norwich as best she can. Alone and desperate among the marauding gangs, she manages to dig a boat out of the mud and gets away to Eels Island. But the island, whose inhabitants are dominated by the strange boy Dooby, is full of danger too.

The belief that she will one day find her parents spurs Zoe on to a dramatic escape in a fable of courage and determination, set in the watery landscape of England as it could be if the sea levels were to rise.

 Okay.

Picture this.

The world, as you know it, has changed.

Shocker.

England, previously more or less a haven of temperate weather – with the occasional warmer summer or frosty January to liven things up a little – has surrendered to the inexorable (not to mention terrifying) progress of climate change, and has been reduced to a few piecemeal, unconnected land masses surrounded by a frankly rather uncomfortable amount of water.

So what do you do?

You run, obviously, as soon as it becomes clear that this problem is neither minor nor easily solvable. Where you run doesn’t matter – to your parents, to safety, to higher ground, and eventually to the boats that come to rescue you – as long as you do.

But what do you do when the boats stop coming?

That, among others, is the question that Floodland answers, and, trust me, it ain’t pretty.

~

Zoe, Floodland’s young heroine, is forced to fend for herself in an increasingly unsafe world after her parents are rescued, and she is tragically left behind. At first, life goes on as normal – or as normal as it can be, with her parents gone, and danger creeping steadily in – but as the water keeps rising, communication with other islands dwindles to nothing, supplies run low, basic infrastructure comes to a grinding halt, and, to put it somewhat concisely, things go from bad to worse.

 Quite aside from the engaging, tense plot, in which the danger is very real, very present, and, after the initial fear caused by the rising sea levels, almost entirely human, Floodland is an intelligent and assured foray into the human psyche by an author that genuinely knows his stuff and isn’t afraid to use it. Sedgwick’s novels delve constantly into difficult topics and tricky questions, investigating aspects of the world we live in that we would, arguably, rather not think about quite so explicitly. It’s unapologetic, relentless, and masterful, not to mention refreshing.

In fact, the only reason – yes, for once I have exercised restraint and have found one solitary reason – that I failed to give Floodland a 5-star rating is because I felt it was a little sparse. On the one hand, the stripped-back style was refreshing, leaving nothing but the taut, charged movements of a group of people forced consistently to extremes to survive in a world that had turned against them. But on the other hand, however, it made it exceedingly difficult to understand the characters, or believe their motivations. As a reader, I felt divorced from the action, and alienated from Sedgwick’s world.

Additionally – I apologise, but this is actually a connected point, so I’m totally justified – I felt that Sedgwick created his futuristic, vaguely post-apocalyptic world solely with broad strokes. There was no detail in the descriptions, little conversation, and, in short, not much to go on. Again, it was somewhat justifiable in that the reader is restricted to the main character’s perspective, but on the other hand, it is also justifiable to wonder if she might have known a little more than the reader is offered, given that some time passes through the duration of the text. Ultimately, it felt little like reasonable suspense used to amp up the tension, and more like unnecessary scarcity.

Finally, with an interesting premise and plot, a unique style, and characterised by Sedgwick’s typical bravery in regards to difficult topics, Floodland is, at the very least, an interesting read.