Book Review: The Vanishing Throne – Elizabeth May

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The Vanishing Throne, the second book in Elizabeth May’s debut series, is an intriguing fantasy novel with a considerable flair for the dramatic. Highly detailed and cleverly written, it’s a fresh and exciting contribution to the young adult genre, practically packed to the rafters – and beyond – with interesting concepts and mythology, vibrant imagery, and highly laudable characters of all shapes and sizes.

A female protagonist often brings about vaguely insidious concerns about ‘strong female characters,’ but the women in The Vanishing Throne have strengths that walk hand in hand with weaknesses, and over the course of the narrative, if either is ever proven to be stronger or more prevalent than the other, it is certainly not for long. Without exception, they experience a significant amount of varied character development, and defy simplified, careless categorisation. It’s impressive, not to mention refreshing, and even something of a blessing.

Phew.

Time for a coffee break.

The aforementioned female protagonist is Aileana Kameron, the Falconer from which the series is named. The previous novel concluded as she fell through a portal that she had failed to close, and The Vanishing Throne enters the game to narrate what happens after, as, under increasingly worse circumstances, Aileana is forced to fight for her life, her freedom, and the desperate survival of the tattered remains of the world she no longer belongs to. It’s a seemingly impossible struggle against seemingly insurmountable odds, uphill all the way, but Aileana is gifted with powers far greater than she could ever have imagined, and the potential to achieve truly exceptional things. From the ashes of her past she rises, stronger than ever and twice as deadly.

That was good coffee.

I enjoyed reading The Vanishing Throne. It had may admirable qualities, some of which I have rather over-excitedly mentioned in my dubiously lengthy introduction, it’s certainly well written, and it’s a laudable contribution to a genre that is – and possibly always will be – often tragically misunderstood, treated to a disdain that it certainly has not earned.

For starters, the characters are well defined and interesting, with enough variation to be realistic, and yet comfortably co-exist in the established setting. While the protagonist, Aileana, is really rather predictably in possession of a bog standard Tragic Past™, she is also able to recognise her own faults, determined not to yield to unhappy circumstance, and painfully aware of the consequences of her actions. She directs a great deal of effort towards helping those that she cares for, often in a typically self-sacrificing, heroic fashion, and attempts to shoulder the kind of blame that might more sensibly be shared around, but she is also unafraid of the connections she has to others, or of listening to the timely input of her own emotional reactions. As such, while her core traits are undeniably recognisable, especially in this genre, the complexity of her portrayal arguably lends her characterisation realism, and that is, undeniably, an asset.

(She says, nodding sagely.)

Additionally, I defy you to find a hero that doesn’t have at least a few of those seemingly indispensable heroic qualities, alongside a hefty portion of biting wit.

It’s practically legendary.

(See what I did there?)

The other characters are equally well defined, and although their characterisation is not explored quite as thoroughly as Aileana’s, that is entirely understandable from the basis that they do not occupy such a central part of the narrative. For their part, they are developed more than sufficiently, they are given opportunities to grow and change in distinct, variable ways, and they share the same admirable complexity.

The plot has a clear structure, and although it may yield to predictability on occasion – such as the eventual defeat of previously insurmountable forces – it is easily interesting enough to hold the reader’s attention, and cleverly imbued with many surprises. Enough detail is provided that a newcomer to the series isn’t left floundering, and at the same time, there isn’t too much dull recapping for readers familiar to the books to get bogged down in. The Vanishing Throne exists in the undoubtedly advantageous position of functioning well both as a standalone novel and as an effective part of the series in which it was written.

Boom.

In fact, the only negatives I could decide upon were the arguable predictability of the plot, and that the writing lacked some sophistication. This may be somewhat hypocritical to claim, given the limits of my own vocabulary, but I felt that more variation in the writing, and a greater effort to employ varied imagery and other similar tools of the trade would have given the multiple admirable components of the novel greater impact. Thus, I have given The Vanishing Throne four stars for the many commendable qualities mentioned above, but only four stars because of that final point.

Regardless, I would certainly recommend The Vanishing Throne – and have, already – and will be looking out for more of Elizabeth May’s work in the future.

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Book Review: Dark Blood – Christine Feehan

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Dark Blood, the 26th novel in Christine Feehan’s impressively lengthy repertoire, is a rollercoaster of a novel that sits comfortably – and really rather firmly – between the effortlessly welcoming arms of the paranormal romance genre. Featuring a whole plethora of gifted (and talented) individuals with increasingly labyrinthine lineages, Dark Blood is the story of Zev Hunter, an elite warrior with many delusions of grandeur and an increasingly archaic attitudes towards relationships in general and women in particular.

Oh, yes. It’s one of those.

The novel begins auspiciously, as these novels tend to, with Zev regaining consciousness in a cave of warriors immersed in an ancient ritual. It is quickly revealed that he is of course there for a reason, and equally quickly it becomes clear that his problems are only just beginning. An old threat has emerged from the shadows of time, and only Zev and his new family have the power and ability (somewhat predictably) to stand against it. The stakes are high, the possibility of failure both increasingly likely and increasingly untenable, and the climax of the novel comes at the final long battle against a seemingly insurmountable foe.

Does this sound familiar to you?

If it does, that’s because this plot structure is a staple of paranormal romance, and not a particularly good one.

I didn’t enjoy reading Dark Blood. There were some good parts, such as the in-depth exploration of the functioning and application of magic in Feehan’s universe, the assurance in which the various paranormal aspects (of which there are many) are explained, and the structure of the novel in entirety, which is well defined and more or less convincing. Talking about the importance of a definable beginning, middle and end might sound ridiculously simplistic (read: clutching at straws), but with a complicated plot it can be the one thing that allows the reader to dig their way free of the mire, and subsequently have some hope of understanding what’s going on.

However, there were many more parts that, for a variety of reasons, I didn’t enjoy. So sit tight and relax, for all will soon become clear.

On the one hand, Feehan is clearly the master of her chosen universe. She navigates its many twists and turns with considerable ease, and her writing is arguably characterised by a sincere and considerable attention to detail. An assured writer, she melds interesting and varied language choices, intriguing imagery, and plot twists with aplomb, weaving her tale quite confidently.

Additionally, while Dark Blood is part of a much larger series, and features established characters that fans are likely to know from previous novels, Feehan doesn’t shy away from offering basic explanations of the trickier aspects, thus enabling any newcomers to the series to understand at least some of the mythology behind the action, while simultaneously taking care not to bore any readers that are, as they say, in the know.

(Does anyone actually say that?)

However.

The characters are almost entirely two-dimensional, the alleged ‘relationship’ that blossoms between the two main characters is dubious at best, and the plot is frequently circumnavigated in favour of increasingly pointless detours into badly written erotica. These scenes offer nothing to a) the plot, or b) the characters, and seem to exist solely to avoid scenes in which the two characters involved might otherwise be expected to talk. As such, the novel’s structure, while otherwise solidly defined and dependable, frequently loses consistency.

To make matters far worse, the relationship between the main character, Zev, and Branislava, which is apparently solely a matter of fate, begins with the clear assertion that the only hope they have of making the arrangement work is to take it slowly. Branislava has something of an unhappy history (this is a paranormal romance: someone had to) and it would be important to navigate it with care.

Five pages (at most) later, they’re bypassing Branislava’s entirely understandable trust issues with ridiculously forceful sex, during which no allowances are made for any difficulties she might have with such sudden intimacy. Zev dominates proceedings entirely, telling Branislava on multiple occasions that it is his needs that should take priority, and that as his mate she exists solely to see them satisfied. This is all justified by the repeated assertion that Branislava enjoys a rougher time of it, but given the number of times in which that is asserted after the act, not to mention the multiple occasions on which Zev forced Branislava into sex despite her stated reluctance, it was a little too dubious – not to mention a little too ugh – for me.

Piling on the insults, Zev continually refuses to allow Branislava to make a single decision without him, punishes her when she does, and is rendered immediately and viscerally furious when she attempts to suggest that he might be putting himself in unnecessary danger, despite the fact that he spends most of the novel doing the same to her. In the context of their relationship his caution might be considered to be understandable, but it is stated explicitly that it does not come from love, but, instead, the frankly rather insulting assertion that as he is the man in the relationship, he should be the one making the rules.

The problem here isn’t just that Zev dominates all aspects of their relationship, riding roughshod over any and every opinion that he does not share, but the unequal nature of the relationship in general. Branislava is not given any opportunity to reciprocate, and is treated to his disgusting possessiveness at every turn.

Taking a slightly different tack, the characters populating Dark Blood are two-dimensional at best. They’re all supremely overpowered, exhibit little in the way of complexity or depth, and there’s as much character development as might be found in my little finger (read: none). Additionally, in one spectacularly ridiculous case, the three villains happen to be in possession of names that would be identical except for one measly letter.

Inventive, that is not.

On a vaguely similar note, I quickly gave up trying to understand the increasingly complex familial relationships. Practically everyone in the novel is, to some degree, related to everyone else, and/or in a relationship with the few individuals that they are not. It comes across as both ludicrous and unnecessary, and it felt like far too much work to bother keeping track of.

Finally, then, I rated Dark Blood two out of four stars because it does have admirable qualities, including but not limited to Feehan’s impressive mixture of varied language and imagery to generate consistently vivid descriptions, and her discernible confidence and assurance, but I only gave it two stars because of the many negative aspects mentioned above. The characters could have been much more detailed, the plot could have been easier to follow, and there were many unnecessary scenes, all of which could have been removed without incident.

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Have you read and reviewed a novel by Christine Feehan? Drop me a line on Twitter and I’ll feature you in my next post!