TV Review: Preacher – 1×03 ‘The Possibilities’

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AMC’s Preacher stormed onto our scenes, hitting hard and fast. Heralded by a number of increasingly vague trailers that hinted at the action but didn’t offer much in the way of detail, ramping up the sense of intrigue and anticipation, it came into play with all the subtlety of a battering ram, quickly and firmly establishing itself at the very top of many lists.

It hasn’t let up since. Frequently shocking and often controversial, it pulls no punches, and never shies away from difficult, controversial topics. It doesn’t allow for a quick and easy division of ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ in its plotlines, and certainly does not offer the scope for a breathtakingly simple identification of trope-heavy heroes and villains. As far as the characters are concerned, variety is the name of the game, and their motives are suitably dubious, preventing easy categorisation. They’re layered, complex and diverse enough to be realistic, but retain enough similarity to believably exist in a single community.

(Pause for breath.)

The third episode of Preacher is just as gleefully, shamelessly, unequivocally dark as the first two, gifted with a veritable boatload of oozing, evocative atmosphere. Entitled “The Possibilities,” the thematic focus of the episode seems to be on choices, and the ramifications. Some are made well, others badly, and from Jesse’s eventual acceptance of his odd new ability to Tulip’s insistence on pursuing revenge, there’s genuine and realistic diversity across the board. In this episode, as in the previous two, Preacher doesn’t fail to take into account some particularly harsh truths.

The pacing of the third episode is interesting, as it is primarily characterised by an intriguing mix of long periods of slow movement and relative inactivity, and then sudden bursts of shocking – and often violent – action. Preacher is heavy on blood and guts (metaphorically and literally, it’s like Christmas) and the structured pacing provides for a startling contrast between scenes, setting Preacher apart from shows that favour the consistent bludgeoning approach (that is the official term) of forty-five minutes of intense, death-defying drama. The weather in Preacher is oppressively hot, with little evidence of relieving rain or an occasional cool, stirring breeze, and this contrast between action and lethargy certainly has connotations of hot summer days. Preacher’s depicted weather goes a long way towards implementing a particularly anticipatory atmosphere, as in lingering heat tempers fray, and boiling points are reached absurdly quickly.

(I’m nodding approvingly.)

I thought this was a good, solid episode. Preacher has settled into a strongly recognisable pattern, featuring typically shocking material and a distinct fondness for exploring controversial topics and opinions with impunity. I thought the first episode dragged on far too long, bolstered with scenes that were useful neither for establishing the universe nor for developing the characters, but the second and third ticked along nicely, providing various new threads to existing plotlines, and further developing the introduced characters.

In the third episode, Cassidy chooses to reach out to the vampire hunting vigilantes, who, to his immense surprise, turn out not to be vampire hunting vigilantes at all, but rather a couple of blokes on the side of the angels with an inexplicable fondness for cowboy hats, Tulip (unsurprisingly) chooses to make another doomed effort to reach out to Jesse, and Jesse chooses, somewhat predictably, to yet again bewilder anyone and everyone by setting out on the long road to some sort of believed redemption, with the rest of the town getting dragged along behind him, regardless of their opinions on the matter.

Did I enjoy it?

Absolutely!

It was irreverent, unapologetically dark, and very well structured, furthering the main plotlines without losing sight of the all-important world-building detail.

However, it was also a little predictable. Tulip has been trudging the same path since day one, Jesse’s vacillating faith is par for the course, and Cassidy’s confrontation of the two blokes that he believes are stalking him is surely only to be expected, given his previously-aired prejudice against anyone reckless enough to hunt him down. As such, my favourite parts of the episode were the parts I couldn’t predict, which were in short the shock revelation in regards to the two taciturn antagonists claiming to be from ‘the government,’ and, subsequently, Cassidy’s interactions with the two men in question.

Cassidy’s major involvement in their plotline was nothing less than genius. Watching the three odd creatures bond over their shared beliefs (and general oddness) was decidedly entertaining, and inexplicably heart-warming. With many reasons to dislike each other, they nevertheless located shared ground, and despite mutual distrust, it was that shared ground that prevailed, an interesting response in a town in which violent behaviour is common on every day ending in ‘Y.’ The singularly bizarre nature of their conversation was great material, both entertaining and intriguing.

On a similar note, Cassidy and Jesse’s dubious testing of Jesse’s shiny new ability was also thoroughly amusing, and yet it did not lose sight of the darker options and consequences of what said ability might plausibly achieve.

(Cassidy may or may not be my favourite character. I admit nothing.)

As for what I didn’t like, it seems safe to say that I was simply a little unimpressed with the predictability of the rest of the episode, as the first two had, in every respect, been the opposite. This isn’t a major concern, but just my given reason for why I wouldn’t rate it as highly as the others.

To sum up, I enjoyed the third episode of Preacher a lot. Thoroughly dark and frequently hard-hitting, it doesn’t make things easy for the viewer. There are no attempts to use a cleverly discreet camera angle by which violence might be implied but not explicitly depicted, and the viewer is obliged to see and understand everything in truly graphic detail, complicit to the violent acts that have been committed. With such a talented cast, and clever writing and production – in particular, I found the exceedingly varied dialogue admirable, as it is a rare show indeed that conveys more in the spaces between what characters say than in long, flowery speeches – even the parts that did not, strictly speaking, exceed my expectations, were still very good. It was a strong, entertaining episode that bodes well for what comes next.

(Please excuse me while I clamber down from this soapbox.)

 

 

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Book Review: The Vagrant – Peter Newman

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Every single review I have read on The Vagrant – and I’ve read a fair few, in the build-up and then the aftermath to my frenzied consumption of the novel – mentions the fact that one of the main characters is a goat. They usually talk at length about this topic, and often in profoundly flowery, descriptive terms. I have to admit, it’s getting a trifle repetitive. Thus, in a rather transparent and totally characteristic attempt to be Different™, I wrote an extremely long review without mentioning the goat once.

I then felt a little guilty, and subsequently revised my tactics.

If someone had told me before I read The Vagrant that I would, on finishing the novel, find myself to be A) unreasonably attached to a goat with an attitude problem and B) quite overcome to discover the sequel to The Vagrant was imminent, I would most likely have laughed, long and hard, coyote-style.

There are no half measures in literature appreciation, but I am an experienced traveller used to these waters.

Goats and children are all very well in theory, but I have found, in my previous reading experiences (she says loftily) that I rarely enjoy it when either children or animals occupy pole position. It reminds me rather too strongly of the books I used to like, and so I would generally prefer them to be kept neatly and appropriately to the well-maintained sidelines, if they are to be included at all.

In The Vagrant, however, they get knee-deep in the action and love every second of it.

But once I had finished The Vagrant, my stance on this matter had changed completely. His characterisation, complex, unassailable, entirely realistic and certainly not without humour, had held me spellbound. It’s engaging, intuitive, and genuinely enjoyable, and Newman does a remarkable job of bringing his world and characters to life.

I quite honestly adored every single line.

Peter Newman’s The Vagrant plays host to an impressive style. Deliberately sparse in some areas – the reader is not, for example, provided with the opportunity to delve into the private thoughts of any of the characters – it is also richly descriptive in others, and rests on a foundation of incredibly strong and furiously detailed world building. Undoubtedly unique in plot, structure and characterisation, The Vagrant therefore has much to commend it, not least of which is Newman’s writing style.

(Pause for breath.)

Granted, the plot is breathtakingly simple. The character of the vagrant is a man who has lost the ability to speak, irrevocably and permanently damaged by what he has endured. Nonetheless, he is a beacon of goodness and strength, though importantly not invulnerability, and has but one purpose: to reach a place named the Shining City, where he might find the one weapon that might turn the tide of the war. He is not without uncertainty, or questions, but he is also steadfast. With him he takes a baby, a pure symbol of innocence in a war-torn world, a goat, and, later, a man named Harm, who is drawn to his presence and never gets around to leaving again.

For all the vagrant’s goodness and gentle humour, the world they live in is far from kind, and his ability to improve it limited at best. Their enemies are far-ranging and powerful, the danger near constant, and his ability to trust even the power of his sword arm is often called into question. There are no easy questions, and certainly no simple answers. As simple as this seems, however, it is crisscrossed with various strands, given a particularly realistic complexity.

They’re a motley, ragtag group, and as such a combination quite common to fantasy novels. It is entirely expected for the hero to be in possession of several locked closets packed with skeletons, and a tragic past is practically required. A diverse team of non-heroes? Well, I’ve certainly heard that before. Off to save the world? Well, of course they are. But Newman’s careful, precise execution of those details is anything but predictable, and never stoops to what is just ‘expected.’ He is the master storyteller, and The Vagrant defies all expectations.

As such, while it may seem to meet the criteria for bog-standard fantasy fare, the exquisite detail with which it has been structured and actualised underlines the fact that it is of a quality that the genre as a whole is often claimed to lack.

The Vagrant is sci-fi/fantasy that is arguably at its best. It redefines conventions, refuses to be shoehorned, constantly poses difficult questions, and most of all brings to life a vision that soars far beyond the mundane without losing sight of what is entirely human. The Vagrant is extraordinarily personal, seated firmly in the human experience, and the detail with which the world is depicted provides stunning context and a rich understanding of the chosen setting.

Unable to gain any firm understanding of what was inside the character’s minds, I initially found it difficult to connect with them. As the novel developed and grew, however, I realised that I didn’t need it. Their personalities were clear, their decisions understandable for a variety of reasons, and, ultimately, the novel isn’t so much sparse as it is concentrated, to the exclusion of the unimportant, extraneous detail. The characters remain in the most significant position, undisturbed by entertaining but mostly unnecessary tangents into air versus land speeds, or yet another predictable variation on ye olde laser gun.

Newman’s characterisation is undoubtedly thorough enough to answer most questions, even without the opportunity to delve further, and his development of their story arcs is flawless. We see each character grow and change, responding and reacting to both internal and external pressures, and we witness improvement and disintegration on all sides. There are heroes and villains, but it is reassuringly not the case that one suffers while the other flourishes.

Lastly, The Vagrant makes explicit reference to wider themes such as morality and diversity, and plays host to a consistent and varied exploration of what humanity can possibly mean when the best practice for surviving the particularly harsh, war-torn world is to be profoundly self-interested.

The Vagrant will undoubtedly appeal to fans of sci-fi/fantasy novels, for it is an especially gifted example, but it shouldn’t be left there. Its good qualities are applicable across the board, and to identify it solely as a ‘good fantasy novel’ would be hopelessly reductive. I didn’t rate it highly out of sentiment, but because I believe it is genuinely fantastic, a compelling, exciting and thought provoking read.

In far less wordy terms: I read it, I loved it, and I can’t wait to get my hands on the next part.

~

In the blogger’s spare time, she is:

Reading: One False Move by Harlan Coben

Watching: HBO’s Game of Thrones

Listening to: Cheap Thrills by Sia

 

Fashion: Handbags

Yesterday, I bought a new handbag.

Not just any new handbag.

A beautiful handbag, in mint green and pink – soft leather, no less – and equipped both with the standard handle for easy carrying, and a longer strap when over-the-shoulder seems like a better idea. Quite aside from the eye-catching, stunning colours, every stitch is exquisitely crafted, and each pocket placed with absolute perfection. This handbag cannot be discounted as a minor accessory, and is certainly not easily forgettable. It demands attention, justifiably so.

Alternatively: this handbag is a gift that just can’t wait to start giving, and on this momentous occasion I’m the lucky consumer expertly poised to receive.

(Well, maybe not expertly. That’s a bit of a stretch.)

Buying a new handbag probably doesn’t sound remotely impressive, and certainly not exciting. As for “momentous,” well, that’s surely a word that we should be reserving for genuinely fantastic events, such as winning something other than a rather woebegone plant on the raffle, or managing to finish a walk in England without getting rained on. Not, under any circumstances, the purchase of something as profoundly commonplace as a handbag, at least not for anyone remotely sensible.

If any aspect of purchasing a new handbag is momentous (which is of course entirely dubious), it would surely be so in a way that should rightfully only be celebrated privately, among like-minded people, and with some degree of appropriate embarrassment. It may also be necessary for that small, exclusive group to convince themselves that they do remain utterly sensible, irrespective of any handbags that they may or may not have purchased.

But it was, in fact, a momentous occasion, as buying any handbag has the potential to be.

Let me explain.

You see (or I like to think you see, even if you probably don’t, and would rather be spared the hassle), this was in fact an expensive handbag.

No, not one of those.

Well, perhaps a little like one of those.

It wasn’t quite expensive enough to merit a panicked “it was an investment, really,” or even my particular favourite: “You’ll never see another like it!” It was, however, certainly pricey enough that when my bank statement finally drops with painful merriment through my door, I’ll be offered a clear opportunity to reflect on my poor decisions, and maybe even develop buyer’s remorse, should I be so inclined.

(I am, on occasion.)

It was, as I like to think some people, somewhere, for some reason, say: an Expense.

 As such, it can, under those somewhat dubious circumstances, be considered to be a luxury item, and my purchase of it at least some indication that I have Made It, whatever “it” is, and whatever “making it” happens to involve. This is, in simpler – and slightly less ridiculous – terms, an achievement. By purchasing an item that cannot be considered to be a necessity – although it was entirely necessary to me – I have clearly reached a previously elusive point of independence.

Additionally, as a buyer of handbags, as a pose to strange little ornaments or fridge magnets, I have been elevated to a group of people characterised by their interest and commitment to stylishness and fashion. A door has been opened; a new way to live revealed, and I stand poised on the threshold, finally in possession of the keys to the castle.

This is important for many reasons, which will undoubtedly differ in each situation. The purchase of the first luxury handbag is ultimately a profoundly private experience, even if the mechanics happen publicly, defined by its considerable uniqueness. For me, it was the sense of achievement, the tangible proof that I had crossed some invisible boundary into a lifestyle previously beyond my reach that was the most important aspect (after the beauty of the handbag itself, of course). It heightened my self-esteem, proved my abilities, and gave me something to focus on for the future.

(Do I sound sensible yet?)

Honestly, don’t knock it until you’ve tried it, because you might just be surprised. (At the very least, you’ll own a new handbag, which in my experienced estimation is never a bad thing.)

Yesterday, I walked into a shop to buy a new handbag.

When I left the shop, handbag on my arm, everything had changed. The world, in which handbags that I could suddenly afford were made and bought, seemed a brighter place, and my position in it vastly improved and on all accounts really rather positive. Believing in myself no longer seemed so difficult, and I had clear proof that doing such wasn’t entirely unfounded.

Do not underestimate the power of the handbag.

It didn’t matter whether I had one handbag or twenty lying in wait to leap onto my arm, and it didn’t matter whether I spent more or less than average. The point was that I had been able to afford a luxury item, entirely on the back of my own efforts. I had shown that I could achieve in my chosen field, and that I was capable not only of achieving, but also of succeeding.

That is why buying my new handbag was a momentous occasion – it marked an important stage of my life.

Buying a luxury item isn’t a solution, and it can easily make the buyer feel worse, not better. But it is a valid option, and under the right circumstances, it can have the desired effect.

Today, I’ll probably buy teabags. I won’t emerge a better, changed person from the experience, transformed and reinforced by fresh belief in myself and in my abilities, but at least I’ll have tea.

~

In the blogger’s spare time, she is:

Reading: Shadow Warrior by Chris Bunch

Watching: AMC’s Preacher

Listening to: The FoolRyn Weaver

Book Review: The Dark Defiles – Richard K. Morgan

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The Dark Defiles is the third and final book in Richard K Morgan’s ‘A Land Fit for Heroes’ series, and it is an incredibly detailed, startlingly evocative, and wonderfully atmospheric fantasy novel gifted with an intriguing plot, extremely vibrant, well-written characters, and a premise fit for a King.

(Or a Queen.)

The Dark Defiles shrugs away every single trope that might be overly-optimistically applied to it, and utterly defied my expectations. It is unapologetically dark, inducing an admirable sense not only of intrigue, and despair at what might befall our plucky heroes, should the bad guys prevail, but also of sincere and worrying jeopardy, and the very real presence of the kind of consequences that the characters would surely struggle to come back from, if they even managed it at all.

(In short: this novel deserves a round of applause, and I’m leading the wave.)

The premise is simple. Powerful forces are gathering, poised to attack, and our ragtag band of heroes, anti-heroes, and those that loiter somewhere in the middle of the two groups move to defend against them, making a feverish, last-ditch attempt to save the world they know and understand, if not love. This is by all accounts standard fantasy novel fare, but Morgan’s execution is flawless, ultimately producing a profoundly original take on a familiar structure.

Ringil, the protagonist of the series, returns in The Dark Defiles, to grow, develop, and, of course, suffer, as the lengthy narrative draws neatly to a close. His path might be determined by the heavy weight of prophecy, but he refuses to yield, stubbornly clawing out a fate for himself. His story is then certainly not a happy one, in perfect keeping with the aforementioned delightfully dark atmosphere, but although he subsequently fits neatly into the ‘bloody tragic backstory’ trope that has become a staple of fantasy novels – not to name names, but I’m glancing in your direction, Robin Hobb – he is not defined by what he has suffered, or what he has yet to suffer, but by what he has achieved, instead, and how he has grown and changed as a result of it. Despite the constant sense of impending doom (and gloom), Ringil is written with arguably a palpable sense of power and potential, and, at least initially, of a destiny as yet unwritten.

Ringil is extremely well characterised (this is not flattery, I promise, but the truth as I see it), as is every other character. The Dark Defiles has interesting character arcs in abundance, in a kind of equal measures arrangement seemingly intended to prevent anyone and everyone from stumbling across even the slightest hint of a remotely cheerful ending. It’s decidedly satisfying, in the sense that it adheres not only to the stipulated dark and vicious atmosphere and general style, but also to some standard of realism, as Morgan’s depicted universe doesn’t seem the kind to subscribe to happy endings and friendly woodland characters, and as such including them wouldn’t mesh.

(Sorry, Disney.)

Additionally, Morgan touches upon many disparate (and interesting) themes throughout the course of his series, from concepts such as honour and loyalty, to considerations of friendship and family, and, especially in The Dark Defiles, discrimination and prejudice. He ticks many, many lovely boxes when it comes to representation, as several of his main characters, both male and female, admit to preferences that are not widely shared in their respective societies, and do openly suffer for their choices – this is no enlightened world of acceptance – but the bulk of their character development comes from other reasons and other choices, and as such they are neither defined nor eclipsed by their sexualities.

To take a slightly different perspective, although The Dark Defiles is the startling conclusion to an established series, it can easily be read and enjoyed by anyone unfamiliar with the context provided by the other two novels. Naturally, reading the first two will inform one’s reading of the third, and provide the enterprising consumer with a wealth of background knowledge that the newcomer will lack, but it can be enjoyed equally well in isolation.

(Which was, incidentally, how I enjoyed it, as I was late to the party yet again.)

In keeping with my general attempt at flattery, this is, again, a clear indicator of Morgan’s genius. His efforts at world building are exceptional, and his novels immerse the reader in entirety into his depicted setting. From small-town prejudices to farming practices, no stone is left unturned, no detail left to fall helplessly by the wayside, and the result is an incredibly detailed setting that is vivid enough that it practically springs off the page. Morgan’s mastery of intense imagery is particularly noticeable here, presenting a picture into which his equally vivid characters fit with consummate ease.

The plot is admirable for similar reasons, with arguably breathtaking scope, bringing together the numerous disparate threads from across the series into an understandable, cohesive whole. No character arc is left incomplete, no storyline unfinished and abandoned, and the conclusion is undoubtedly climatic, brimming with drama.

Morgan keeps the reader guessing until the very last page, and he doesn’t pull his punches.

Finally, then, I think it is at least approaching safe to say that I enjoyed The Dark Defiles. I expected to, of course, because not only am I extremely clever, it also sits squarely into one of my favourite genres, and as such is in possession of many of the attributes that I find to be particularly enjoyable in the books I read. On the other hand, however, I was surprised to enjoy it as much as I did, as despite a fundamentally intriguing premise and a decidedly persuasive blurb, I was concerned that it wouldn’t live up to my soaring expectations.

Needless to say, The Dark Defiles didn’t just live up to them, it exceeded them in entirety, blasting straight past (to infinity and beyond). I could not fail to give it five stars, and would not hesitate in picking up anything by Morgan in the future. This is an exceptional novel from a profoundly accomplished author whose contributions to the genre, and to fiction in general, just keep giving.

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.

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.

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

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!

Fashion: winter coats – yes or no?

In the really rather lovely confines of my over-active brain, this blog post is named: ‘the perils of winter, from the perspective of a woefully short individual with a marked distaste for fluff.’ But, in an effort to present myself as the well-adjusted, mature young woman that I certainly am not, I decided to rethink a little, a process that culminated in the title you have just (hopefully) read.

I hope you enjoyed it.

Anyway: to business.

It’s woolly coat season!

And if those words fill you with A) Fear, B) Loathing, or C) Fear and Loathing without a handy helping of Las Vegas to ease the burn (more’s the pity), then this post is for you.

Not just for you, but rest assured that you sit firmly inside the pool of my intended target audience.

You lucky thing.

My problem with woolly coats is a simple one: They just don’t fit.

Oh, sure, I’m small. But the problem isn’t that I can only find options that trail uselessly on the floor, collecting all kinds of rubbish and forcing me to strut back and forth like some particularly badly dressed extra from the latest historical drama. The problem is that I feel swamped inside them – and probably look it, too. I don’t wear the coat – the coat wears me, and it’s not exactly flattering.

In case that wasn’t enough, adding insult to grievous injury, the alternatives – think less fluffy, more buttons – seem to have been designed under the terribly problematic assumption that the individuals purchasing them are naturally located in far warmer climates despite the fact that they just happen to be buying a winter coat.

Ultimately, there are two main options for the brave individual sallying forth to purchase a winter coat:

  1. Drown
  2. Freeze

I shouldn’t have to tell you that this isn’t exactly an ideal situation.

Happily, there are other options, and I’m here to give you the salient details.

I’m practically your fairy godmother, just without the wings, the wand, or the magic.

  1. First up: layers. Cardigans, fleeces, jumpers, jackets over shirts over t-shirts – the whole nine yards. Whether it’s for the sake of fashion or because you like being able to feel your toes, this is clearly a viable alternative to the huge winter coat. Extra layers will generate extra warmth, and this option has the added bonus of a practically guaranteed additional cuteness factor.
  2. Settle for a jacket instead. Abandon the dodgy woolly coat with masses of fake fur and dubiously positioned buttons for something smaller but equally durable. Barber has been trying to corner the market here for years, and if you’re looking for high quality with an absence of fuss, they’re the brand for you. Alternatively, if Barber jackets sound a little too much like ‘ridiculous expense,’ there are plenty of other options for individuals with a more realistic budget, so don’t panic if high street options are a little out of your price range. Trade secret: they’re a little out of mine, too.
  3. Scarves, hats, and…wait for it…gloves! This option works on the same principle as option A). Layer up with accessories, covering exposed skin to generate extra warmth. This option also allows for the fashionably inclined to go all out, as well as meeting the basic need for warmth in bad weather, and there are many cute options, should that prove to be a concern.

To wrap things up – do you see what I did there? – if you happen to be someone that doesn’t like woolly coats, don’t worry. You’re not alone. And there are other options that are both viable and sensible. It might take a little more work to accumulate what you need, and there will always be those tall, statuesque goddesses drifting around in oodles of fur, but you can look good too – and, trust me, you will.

Go forth, my friends, and conquer.

~

Do you have something to say about winter fashion? Drop me a line on Twitter and I’ll feature you in my next post and/or shower you with my eternal devotion.

Book Review: Act of Treason – Vince Flynn

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Act of Treason is the ninth book in Vince Flynn’s best-selling series, and a consistent, assured, and expertly crafted novel featuring the very best aspects of the genre. The protagonist is Mitch Rapp, a familiar figure from the previous novels, and a gifted assassin with a profound and well-documented interested in violent behaviour, and Act of Treason follows Mitch’s movements as he makes a tough play against a deadly new threat.

Election Day fast approaches, but the news of the hour is death. The presidential candidate’s motorcade is attacked, killing the candidate’s wife, and it is on the sympathy vote that he rides to a sad sort of subdued victory. The nation is thrown into disarray, shocked and scared, and the responsibility falls to Mitch Rapp to discover those responsible and deal out his special brand of kamikaze justice.

All in a day’s work.

I found Act of Treason to be an enjoyable read. The premise was intriguing, the plot itself contained enough surprise twists to retain my interest, build anticipation, and generate a consistent level of tension, and the setting was detailed enough to leave me thoroughly convinced. Flynn’s knowledge of his chosen genre is extensive, and in Act of Treason he exhibits this to great effect, from the precise details of Rapp’s weaponry – including his personal reasons for carrying it – to each carefully identified geographical location, Flynn avoids leaves nothing to chance or assumption, nothing unexplained.

It is a masterful effort with an undeniably positive result, lending a complicated narrative coherency and a sense of realism.

Alternatively: I liked it.

Secondly, apart from the occasional sojourn into the (generally rather unhappy) life and times of the other characters involved, the reader is primarily privy to Mitch Rapp’s perspective, and is, as such, offered a unique insight into his complex psyche. His motivations, both generally, and in the context of each specific case or mission, are outlined in full, and his various ‘personality quirks,’ from his stated desire to not only bring death to terrorists, but also a deep, prevailing gut-wrenching fear to those terrorists still loitering in the land of the living, to his preference for blondes, are made increasingly clear as the reader proceeds through the narrative and/or the series. He’s a detailed, well-defined character, with clear parameters and a distinct personality.

However, he’s also something of a stereotype, the bog-standard action figure that’s an expert in every field and that doesn’t have weaknesses so much as he has things that he is slightly less good at. His personality, backstory, attitude form a recognisable structure, and it is, arguably, a touch dull. Additionally, the other characters are even worse off, generally lacking the definition and detail conferred upon Rapp.

Find me an assassin without a tragic past and commitment issues, and I’ll take you out for coffee (I can’t afford dinner).

The settings, on the other hand, [i]were[/i] interesting. As I have already mentioned – possibly more than once – Flynn’s writing typically exhibits an impressive attention to detail. Act of Treason is a prime example of this, exhibiting the admirably wide scope of Flynn’s knowledge and interest, as well as his exceedingly thorough approach. The settings are all real places, and Flynn describes them extremely vividly, taking note both of the basic knowledge and the small seemingly inconsequential details that really breathe life into a narrative. Mitch Rapp may have no appreciation for those small factors, but I do, and Flynn’s imagery is detailed enough that I could almost be there to watch the events of the narrative unfold.

(Not that I’d want to be – the death count is high).

Finally – the end is nigh, dear reader, so have strength – I rated Act of Treason four out of five stars for the many admirable points mentioned above, including but not limited to an intriguing premise and plot, a strong attention to detail, and a laudably strong understanding of the chosen topic and genre. But I gave it only four stars because I think that the characters could have been better defined and developed. It is a strong novel from an equally strong author, however, and fans of the genre are unlikely to find anything unimpressive about it.

Book Review: Prince of Fools – Mark Lawrence

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Mark Lawrence’s Prince of Fools is the first novel in ‘The Red Queen’s War’ series. Introducing Jalan Kendeth, a more or less shameless ne’er do well that also happens to be of royal blood, and Snorri, a fierce and extremely capable warrior, Prince of Fools is an assured fantasy novel that’s vastly entertaining, exceedingly well written, and gifted with particularly interesting characters of any and every variety.

What’s not to love?

War is coming (sooner rather than later), and the various players are moving into their starting positions. For many, it’s just a theory – and not a particularly good one. For Jalan Kendeth and Snorri, however, it is all too real, and they are destined to face it head on. Obliged to abandon his regular Princely duties – whatever they might be – in favour of a destiny he neither likes nor understands, Jalan and his companion depart on a wild jaunt to Snorri’s homeland, where they take their first stand against the terrifying forces arrayed against them.

I found Prince of Fools to be extremely enjoyable. The plot was well crafted and intriguing, developing naturally as the tension built, the setting was immersive and vibrant, brought to life by Lawrence’s detailed prose, and the characters were excellently put together and profoundly entertaining. With multiple threads to the plot, and a steady increase in scope and a breadth, this is a novel that requires the reader to concentrate very seriously on the details.

(If I give you any advice, dear reader, it is to always concentrate on the details)

The setting was equally impressive, and, due to the vivid imagery and exquisite attention to detail employed by Lawrence, fully immersive. It’s extremely well crafted, and not only has Lawrence taken care to outline the highly relevant aspects – such as the money lending business, and the popularity of the opera (trust me, they’re relevant) – the smaller details are not left to fall by the wayside. This is a fully fleshed-out setting that allows the reader to feel fully involved, and the perfect backdrop to the unfolding action.

The characters are richly detailed, with positive qualities, flaws, clear motives, discernible patterns of thought, and even seemingly genuine opinions as to what might constitute an enjoyable evening. This doesn’t sound like much, but Lawrence doesn’t fall into the pitfalls of one-dimensional characters, and that is worth mentioning. They occasionally veer into recognisable tropes, but Lawrence handles their character development so well, and with such aplomb, that it simply isn’t the case that they are in any way predictable or dull.

Jalan Kendeth, one of the two main characters, is the typical loveable rogue with a side dish of self-serving cowardice, and, over the course of the narrative, he manages to discover his suspiciously MIA conscience, and, would you believe it, some heroic tendencies. His is an extremely recognisable character arc, but Jalan doesn’t miraculously transform into a good person. He changes, but he still has flaws. He still has issues. He still isn’t the golden-haired hero of the hour and the day. He’s still Jalan Kendeth, he just also happens to get the job done, which is far more than can be said for the Jalan Kendeth that we begin the novel with.

That, folks, is the kind of character development I live for.

Similarly, Jalan’s travelling companion, Snorri, who, due to a decidedly unfortunate series of events (yes, I went there), ends up bound to Jalan for the foreseeable – and not so foreseeable – future, is the epitome of the warrior trope, preferring physical solutions to high-brow discourse whenever they happen to run into trouble. He even has a Tragic Backstory ™. Throughout the novel, however, he learns not only to trust Jalan, and to respect his (occasionally ridiculous) opinion, but also that however much he’d prefer to go it alone, he needs the support, and that the war that he intends to fight is much, much bigger than one person – however tough. Again, this is development, and not the kind that ends in a drastic change of personality.

Finally, then, it would be remiss of me to end this lengthy review without some consideration of the narrative voice. Jalan leads the charge on this one, as it is his perspective that the reader occupies, and it is through his voice that we take in the story. Jalan is entertaining, endearing, and endlessly clever, a self-confessed coward, and from the very beginning the reader is encouraged to sympathise with his plight – or, at the very least, to laugh, in a kindly sort of way. I think it’s particularly convincing, and by the end of the novel, at which point the reader is able to discern the significant change in Jalan’s personality, I was a firm believer in his good qualities – while still being aware of the not-so-good ones.

Arguably, this is the masterstroke.

I often talk at length about writing style, and the influence it has on any piece of work, and Prince of Fools is a good example of why. Prince of Fools is an exceptionally detailed, exceptionally well written fantasy novel, with many fine qualities, but it is not the only one. There are many fantasy novels out there that have those good qualities too, and maybe even more of them. Arguably, what sets Prince of Fools apart is the narrative voice. Instead of knowing all alongside the omniscient narrator, we learn as Jalan learns, and, arguably, that is one of the many ways in which Lawrence encourages us to take his side.

I rated Prince of Fools highly for all of the reasons listed above, but ultimately it is because of the narrative voice that I felt obliged to bequeath it five stars, and it is because of the narrative voice that I will be dedicating myself to finishing this series.

There is plenty to enjoy in Mark Lawrence’s Prince of Fools, and I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Book Review: Irenicon – Aidan Harte

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“The river Irenicon was blasted through the middle of Rasenna in 1347 and now it is a permanent reminder to the feuding factions that nothing can stand in the way of the Concordian Empire. The artificial river, created overnight by Concordian engineers using the Wave, runs uphill. But the Wave is both weapon and mystery; not even the Concordians know how the river became conscious – and hostile.

 But times are changing. Concordian engineer Captain Giovanni is ordered to bridge the Irenicon – not to reunite the sundered city, but to aid Concord’s mighty armies, for the engineers have their sights set firmly on world domination and Rasenna is in their way.

 Sofia Scaglieri will soon be seventeen, when she will become Contessa of Rasenna, but her inheritance is tainted: she can see no way of stopping the ancient culture of vendetta which divides her city. What she can’t understand is why Giovanni is trying so hard to stop the feuding, or why he is prepared to risk his life, not just with her people, but also with the lethal water spirits – the buio – that infest the Irenicon.

 Times are changing. And only the young Contessa and the enemy engineer Giovanni understand they have to change too, if they are to survive the coming devastation – for Concord is about to unleash the Wave again.”

 

This is a novel about a river.

No, really.

Decades ago, the river Irenicon tore through Rasenna, effectively dividing the city into two, and thoroughly terrifying its citizens. The feuding factions occupying the city more or less carried on with business as usual – working during the day, and attacking each other at night – but the river, a huge, relentless force that had torn so easily through their city, couldn’t be ignored, and their daily lives had to adjust to accommodate it. Since then, Rasenna and Concord have maintained a complex relationship, and even at its most cordial, the danger and the threat presented by that strong city linger.

This premise certainly does not suffer from being overly simplistic. In fact, it’s the exact opposite. There are enough distinct, and, dare I say it, intriguing threads to satisfy even the most demanding reader, it provides a clear indication of what direction the novel is likely to travel in – without spoiling the ending, which shouldn’t be as rare as it is – and more than adequate space for a great plot and brilliant characters.

However.

(Drumroll please)

I’m still, sometime after finishing Irenicon, not quite sure how I feel about it. To put it absurdly simply: I opened the book expecting one thing, and what I found was entirely different. While that was not necessarily bad – and, for many reasons, it was very good – I was ultimately faced with a narrative that, instead of meeting or exceeding my expectations, somehow circumnavigated them to run wildly in the other direction, leaving rose petals drifting in its wake.

The problem with the plot was twofold. On the surface, Irenicon is a particularly interesting succession dispute. Sofia, heir apparent, is faced with a whole host of enemies, several long-standing and frankly rather ridiculous traditions, and seemingly ironclad internalised prejudices on her way to success. It’s a long, uphill battle to the top, and the odds are certainly not in her favour. But Irenicon is also about the man that falls in love with her, an Engineer – not the usual sort, might I add – sent from Concord to build a bridge that will enable them to continue taking over the world. And, reading it, I wasn’t quite sure which I was supposed to be more interested in. They are the two obvious main characters, but their narratives do not combine well, and that damages the cohesion of the novel.

On the other hand, the world building in Irenicon is, in a word, exquisite. Everything from the widest concept, to the smallest detail, shows evidence of being considered at length. It’s incredible work, and really brings the novel to life, vivid enough to draw the reader straight into the action. I almost felt as if I could really be there, peering around a building to spy on the action, and that is not something to be taken lightly.

Additionally, the characters are vibrant and exceedingly well crafted, without a stereotype in sight. They’re three-dimensional enough to feel realistic, and they fit their world to perfection. Sofia might easily have turned into the archetype ‘strong’ female devoid of all feelings, but she doesn’t, and it is the combination of her sympathetic, quick-thinking outlook and her fighting prowess that arguably enables her to save the day.

However, Sofia’s narrative quickly turns into a Romeo and Juliet snoozefest that we know and loathe. Star-crossed lovers are a perfectly respectable narrative trope, but I expected her character development to arise from the actual plot, not from her inexplicable interest in the Engineer sent from Concord. To add insult to grievous injury, said Engineer’s character development arises from the plot developments that exist alongside the realisation of his all-consuming love for Sofia.

There’s a clear imbalance, and it’s not one that I liked.

Ultimately, then, I liked many aspects of Harte’s Irenicon. It’s well written, the world building aspects are exceedingly admirable, and there are many excellent characters, all of which undergo significant development throughout the course of the narrative. For the problems mentioned above, however, I was unable to give it 5 stars.