Top reads of 2016

It was long and emotional, but the 2016 book year (that is, the most important kind of year) is now a thing of the much loved past. All that remains is the opportunity to reflect, and, of course, to make plans for 2017, however cautious and however loosely defined. Whether this involves committing to a new and improved reading goal, adding several exciting new titles to your ever-increasing TBR pile, or resorting to making your beverage of choice so that you might stave off the responsibility of compiling a 2017 reading list for just a little longer, change is upon us.

I pledged to read a grand total of 50 books in 2016, a goal that I later decided, while languishing painfully in the midst of a particularly long novel, had been innocently meant, but ludicrously ambitious. As it was, however, despite the occasional moment of uncertainty, through a startlingly beneficial combination of delayed train journeys and no small amount of stubborn commitment, I reached my goal, reading a wonderful 51 books.

Are you proud? I’m proud.

I enjoyed many of the books that my greedy little hands alighted upon, regretted my interest in a couple, and even abandoned some, too profoundly unimpressed to read any further. To my considerable surprise, I delved into more than one classic of my own free will – something of a novelty after my lengthy stint studying English Literature – rediscovered my love of sci-fi/fantasy, and even took the occasional cautious sojourn into the realm of non-fiction, buoyed by a similar compilation of Terry Pratchett’s work.

I did, naturally, have favourites. Some were unexpected – penned by authors I had not previously discovered, or structured in a manner that I do not usually find enjoyable – and others were familiar titles taken from the shelf for a comfortable re-read. They were as varied as they were numerous, and in attempting to pick my top read of 2016, I, well. Let’s just say that I struggled. A little.

(By that I mean: a lot.)

So I decided to pick a top ten, from which I could derive a winner. They are as follows (in order of consumption):

  1. The Dark Defiles by Richard K. Morgan
  2. Wolves of the Calla by Stephen King
  3. The Republic of Thieves by Scott Lynch
  4. The Vagrant by Peter Newman
  5. Treachery by S. J. Parris
  6. Lord John and the Hand of Devils by Diana Gabaldon
  7. Perdido Street Station by China Miéville
  8. The Trees by Ali Shaw
  9. Oliver Twist by Charles Dickens
  10. Wideacre by Philippa Gregory

From this list, I decided, with some solemnity, that my top read of 2016 had to be a book that was particularly memorable, and that I thought was genuinely incredible. It didn’t need to have won any awards, but it had to have a quality or aspect that more than adequately distinguished it from the rest, and that rendered it an appropriate occupier of the pedestal on which it would remain for the entirety of 2017. The ten titles listed above were considered at length.

Finally (drum roll please), I decided that my top read of 2016 had to be China Miéville’s Perdido Street Station.

Perdido Street Station is an incredible novel. From the profound diversity of the characters to the vivid grittiness of the landscape, it is well written, expertly crafted, and brilliantly portrayed. The imagery seethes with life, the prose is astonishing, and each chapter is more intense than the last, encouraging feelings of suspense, compassion and even heartbreak with undeniable skill. It is impossible to pretend at indifference when reading Perdido Street Station, and the novel is so richly detailed and so wonderfully immersive that there would be little value in even attempting to.

I honestly cannot recommend it highly enough.

Read more in my review here.

As for 2017, I do not yet know where my interests will take me, or what books I am likely to enjoy above all others. I do know, however, that my TBR pile contains the sequel to Perdido Street Station (which I clutched lovingly for some time), and that 2017 has the potential to be a fantastic book year.

I will always be grateful for the authors that make this possible, and whose work continues to inspire and delight.

Which book did you most enjoy reading in 2016?


Check out my most recent review here.

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Book Review: Dear Amy – Helen Callaghan

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My relationship with crime fiction, at one time both congenial and seemingly long-lasting, has suffered. We used to be very close (to the unutterable dismay of my presiding bank account), but, more recently, I decided that the characters are frequently too predictable, the details of the plot all too easy to anticipate and rarely well depicted, and, finally, in more general terms, that crime fiction is a genre that yields too fully and too regularly to tedious habit, and, subsequently, that it is one that I wanted very little to do with.

In short: I was considering divorce.

Although Dear Amy falls firmly into this bracket, it sounded both intriguing and unusual, a more creative contribution to a genre occasionally guilty of stagnancy. Having read the synopsis, I decided that even if it did ultimately prove to suffer the aforementioned weaknesses, reading it would be, at worst, a brief return to a genre that is in possession of many glorious attributes, but that no longer meets my expectations. A throwback, if you will.

Drum roll please.

I genuinely enjoyed it. Helen Callaghan’s Dear Amy is well written, nicely structured, and cleverly paced, and could quite justifiably be provided with an admirable position on even the most highly regarded (and likely heaped) bookshelf. A startlingly compulsive read, it is assured and mature, neither circumventing in-depth explorations of the emotionally fraught scenes that feature in the narrative, nor avoiding delving into the painful and often far-reaching ramifications of the multitude of base cruelties that give rise to them. A suspenseful, gripping story, it is delivered with both delicacy and sensitivity.

(To paraphrase: I liked the thing.)

Dear Amy’s protagonist is Margot Lewis, a teacher and newspaper agony aunt. Her life is more or less predictable, aside from the unpleasantness of an impending separation from her husband, until she receives a strange letter addressed to ‘Amy,’ claiming to have been written by a victim of a kidnapping that took place many years ago. Margot initially assumes it to be a hoax made in spectacularly bad taste, but as more letters arrive, each more intense and desperate than the last, she is unable to dismiss them as meaningless. The possibility of a connection between the letters and a more recent disappearance is too important to disregard.

The answers that Margot finds, however, take a form she never expected, and the consequences for her own life are unutterably and decidedly severe. A vast, jagged hole is torn in her small, more or less predictable world, and emerging unscathed and unchanged from the ordeal proves to be impossible. With time running short and lives at stake, Margot struggles not to lose all sense of herself as everything she values and understands is thrown into painful confusion, and the actions she is obliged to take waver helplessly into dubious moral ground. Dear Amy‘s narrative is rife with deep, dark secrets and the darker predilections that give rise to them, and Margot cannot remain detached.

However, while the characters are realistic, often admitting to uncertainty and never devoid of weaknesses, Dear Amy is, unfortunately, comprised of rather too many gratuitous crime fiction stereotypes, to which the aforementioned moral uncertainty is an obvious example. Margot is easily identifiable as the tortured hero, replete with a tragic past and an absent family. These are familiar details, and lack originality.

Further, the novel begins with the conclusion of Margot’s marriage and ends with a burgeoning romance, a subplot that arguably offers little that is particularly original to the plot. It felt unnecessary and a little bit ridiculous, for the plot would have worked equally well in its absence, and while its inclusion was perhaps indicative of Margot’s eventual success and renewed certainty, I felt it detracted from the evocative imagery of Margot’s solitary struggle. Thematically, Dear Amy focuses on Margot’s journey, and the hard, uphill climb to the hidden truth. With the inclusion of the male romantic lead, her arc loses strength, for it is no longer herself that she depends on. This is again a familiar aspect of crime fiction, in which the protagonist is often paired off.

Fortunately, Callaghan’s prose offers no small remedy. Descriptive and intense, Dear Amy is vivid and immersive, and stacked high with explosive imagery and intense language. Some crime fiction novels suffer from a sparse style and a bland setting, given only some measure of life by the details of the plot and the driving force of the protagonist’s often-abrasive personality. Dear Amy is the opposite, powerfully written and expertly structured, with every aspect encouraging engagement and exciting suspense. The characters are realistic and varied, and her plot unusually structured.

I enjoyed the language, the imagery, and the broad strokes of the plot. I thought the concept was original and nicely crafted, and that it was suspenseful without being crass. However, I found some aspects of the plot to be too predictable, the romantic subplot uncomfortable at best, and the constant adherence to crime fiction stereotypes neither laudable nor unique. Finally, while Margot was an interesting and undeniably sympathetic character, she was too isolated, and very difficult to relate to.

(Maybe it’s a character flaw. Maybe it’s – never mind.)

Helen Callaghan is a brand new voice in the crime fiction world with an impressive turn of phrase and a brilliantly creative outlook on a genre that often suffers from descriptive brevity. Unfortunately, Dear Amy suffers from a number of predominant weaknesses alongside its many strengths, and as such, despite finding the plot genuinely riveting, I could only give it 3 out of 5 stars.

Book review: Perdido Street Station – China Miéville

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Perdido Street Station is evocative, hard-hitting, and startlingly intense. Wonderfully detailed, it is rich with explanations and explorations, and both structured and solidified by a strong dedication to establishing the facts on which the story hinges. There are no plot holes and no attempt to brush over details with the hand-wavy dubiousness that occasionally rears its extremely ugly head (no, uglier than that), and Miéville’s incredible prose is matched only by the truly admirable lengths to which he reaches in presenting and bringing to life his vibrant setting.

With impressively varied vocabulary and a plot that practically oozes from the pages, Perdido Street Station is provocative in its content, intriguing in its structure, and gloriously imaginative in its detail, rife with constant complications and frequent misdirection. Unpredictable and often brutal, the events of the novel leave no room for sentimentality (and even less for the shining hero), but yield not to the temptation to shock the readers above and beyond what is strictly necessary. There are no needlessly escalated scenes, and despite not inconsiderable savagery, the content is fundamentally believable, in the context both of the unfolding plot and the setting to which the reader is thoroughly introduced.

In Perdido Street Station, the main character, Isaac, an innovative scientist, offers his not inconsiderable services to a strange, isolated creature motivated by just one thought – to recover the wings that were torn from him as punishment. The circumstances are murky, and the potential consequences even harder to parse, but Isaac is drawn irrevocably in by the ambrosia of new discoveries, and by the exciting prospect of delving into a topic that has yet to be adequately plumbed, and he agrees to do what he can.

He furthers his stipulated intention with confidence, wielding resources and connections without impunity. In doing so, an unanticipated chain of events means that Isaac unwittingly unleashes a creature far more powerful and dangerous than he knows, to tragic effect. Removing the threat calls for the combined efforts of many, and no few sacrifices, but abandoning the matter to the attention of others is untenable, when so many have fallen by the wayside. Isaac does not, strictly speaking, consider himself to be responsible, but he does what he can, regardless.

Miéville leaves no stone unturned (and they are wonderful stones) in his smooth prose. From his depiction of the setting to his extensive character development, he is in every respect a master at work. New Crobuzon, the city in which the events of the novel take place, is carefully defined and fully explained, as are the characters that live in its difficult environs. From the historical details to cultural shifts, New Crobuzon is richly inhabited, and should the reader be so inclined (I am absolutely always inclined, and cordially invite you to join me), the unrelenting amount of detail ensures that imagining all that transpires is no difficult task, aided not insignificantly by Miéville’s varied imagery. Reading Perdido Street Station is a singularly unforgettable experience.

The plot is, arguably, taken in broad strokes, simple and identifiable, but its execution is unparalleled, and the twists and turns to which it plays amiable host are decidedly unpredictable, taking the parameters of the novel far wider than an original impression of the plot might suggest. Perdido Street Station is not a novel that would benefit anyone to underestimate (you have been warned), and to bypass the spectacular content on that basis would be a colossal miscalculation.

The characters are detailed and extraordinarily well explored, and their personalities, motivations, and deepest, darkest desires are discernible from the text without being explicitly and/or clumsily shoved into the foreground. The reader is able to understand and connect to the various characters and the roiling setting with ease, and Miéville’s distinctive adjustments in vocabulary and sentence structure help to underline changes in perspective, thus aiding comprehension and eliciting a sense of sturdy realism. The most obvious instance of character development occurs, predictably, with Isaac, the protagonist, but it is by no means solely restricted to him.

Morality is a complex and unforgiving topic in the dark streets and dubious alleys of New Crobuzon, and survival so often predominates over friendliness, in accordance with practicality. Moral decisions are complicated by clashing cultures and personalities and thrown into vast uncertainty by conflicting personal beliefs, and the decisions made by the characters that err on the side of the angels – that is, Isaac, and the team he builds to fight the creatures that plague the city – arguably give rise to the most shocking ramifications, justified somewhat inadequately by reference to some vague greater good. As the catalyst of the novel’s events, Isaac can be interpreted as singularly responsible for the destruction, and his subsequent actions are not entirely morally pure.

This is not a world in which there are easy choices, and by generating unavoidable complexity, Miéville arguably presents Isaac as, on one hand, the hero that helps purge New Crobuzon of the creatures that stalk it, but, equally validly, on the other as a destructive force whose thoughtless experimentation and belief in his own superiority are directly responsible for the terrible situation in the first place. Miéville’s characters resist categorisation, and Perdido Street Station avoids the pitfall of presenting easily definable moral decisions and behaviours based solely on the notion of a ‘greater good’ and absent of a mature understanding that the consequences rarely behave in accordance with this prior determination of black and white morality.

I loved Perdido Street Station. I lost myself in its pages, and never really wanted to emerge. There are no happy endings, and the subject does not lend itself to easy, unbothered reading, but it would be a lesser novel if it had those things. It is truly extraordinary and startlingly evocative, pulling no punches and offering no apologies. It is also well rounded and admirable in its detail and structure, and the tremendously varied vocabulary, alongside an unutterably vibrant setting, ensures that reading it is an experience that registers on many exciting and unforgettable levels.

This is, in short, the kind of novel that I could genuinely conceive of reading multiple times, and discovering something – a detail, an idea, even a particularly intuitive description – wholly new and exciting each and every time. Reading it was an honour, and it is of course well worth 5 stars. For any fans of solid, immersive, and exquisitely imaginative fiction, I cannot recommend it highly enough.

Book Review: Under Orders – Dick Francis

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Dick Francis’ Under Orders is a gripping and fast-paced novel from a veteran author. Following the often unplanned and occasionally even dubious (shock, horror) exploits of Sid Halley, jockey turned Detective, it is heavy on drama and action, and has a considerable sense of pace.

A respected figure in the horse racing community, Halley was obliged to retire when he sustained very severe injuries. He now makes a living as an investigator of sorts, with a marked preference for marching to his own beat and taking the work wherever he can get it (bank holidays not included). In Under Orders, Halley, somewhat inexplicably finding himself at the distinctly uncomfortable epicentre of three seemingly disparate investigations – into online gambling, race fixing, and the tragic murder of a young jockey, respectively – attacks each with a mixture of gusto and belligerence in a high stakes race to find and apprehend the culprit. Whatever Halley uncovers will undoubtedly have severe ramifications for the horse racing community, and he acts accordingly.

That is to say, he doesn’t inject much (any) tact into his approach.

Halley soon discovers that the three seemingly unconnected events are not as disparate as they initially seemed to be. What’s more, there are a number of individuals with a clear interest in forcing Halley to abandon his efforts, and his investigations sidle into dangerous territory, putting the people he loves in danger. Desperate to find answers and protect those caught up in the crossfire, Halley bludgeons through every obstacle to connect the dots and solve the mystery in a tense and exciting no-holds-barred ending.

(Shocker.)

Under Orders is an adventure that just barrels along, packed to the rafters with intrigue. Any momentary relief to the tension afforded by the occasional intervention of a comedic or romantic interlude (yes, they do actually happen, I kid you not) ostensibly for character development, provide a startling contrast to the sense of danger and jeopardy that so utterly characterises the rest of the novel.

Under Orders is well structured and confidently crafted, and is in possession of a great many enjoyable aspects. I was most impressed by the consistently exhaustive amount of detail, the setting (the horse racing scene, jockeys here, there and everywhere) and Francis’ undeniable talent for storytelling. If the devil is in the details, then he is eagerly dancing to Francis’ tune, because Under Orders practically brims with solid, factual information. This arguably lends the novel an impressive sense of dependable believability, and this firm injection of cold, hard realism ensures that the setting, so well and vibrantly described, practically leaps from the page, enabling a fully immersive read. Francis writes about topics he knows, and his mastery of those topics is palpable.

Additionally, no prior knowledge of the ins and outs of horse riding is necessary, as Francis explains everything well enough that there is little opportunity to be left by the wayside, floundering uncertainly, lost in a maze of meaningless terms and the occasional thoroughly bewildering acronym.

(I’ve had enough of bewildering acronyms.)

However, Under Orders is a classic Dick Francis novel, by which I mean that, having read one, I am able to more or less perfectly predict the structure and ending of all the others. The protagonist is of standard stereotypical stock (alliteration intended), being brave, stubborn, and recklessly dedicated to finding and revealing the truth, there are clearly defined heroes and villains, the former of which succeed in their endeavours, and the latter of which are punished in accordance with their heinous crimes (feel free to join in if you know the words), and the characters on the side of the angels run into a whole world of trouble and a not insignificant number of generally unhelpful people, but nonetheless eventually emerge victorious.

Additionally, there is little evidence of moral complexity, either in the behaviour of the characters, or in the novel as a whole. There are a few vaguely acknowledged grey areas, but they’re not explored or developed, which felt a little like a missed opportunity. The result may be light-hearted enough to match the sense of pace and tension, but I felt as if the narrative suffered, lacking complexity, maturity and depth. Connecting with the characters is difficult without some insight into what they might be thinking and feeling, even with some suggestion of their most prevalent motives, and as such I had little to no emotional investment in their behaviour and situations.

The protagonists in Dick Francis’ novels are heroes, replete with tragic backstories and a list of glowing accomplishments. While they may occasionally suffer from a number of decidedly less admirable personality traits, those uncomfortable factors are typically subsumed by an overwhelming horde of the opposite. Every so often, Halley does or considers something that may be considered not to be undoubtedly pure and admirable, but the moral consequences are bypassed by the simple expedient of categorising anything and everything under the idea of some sort of greater good or higher truth. There is little in the way of character development, and the romantic additions felt utterly extraneous, and also a little ridiculous.

Unfortunately, the plot is equally predictable, leaving little uncertainty as to what the result might be. While Francis’ aforementioned talent for storytelling makes it an interesting read quite irrespective of the content, I felt that it was somewhat lacking, vaguely akin to what I imagine would be the result of a fairly lacklustre attempt to write by numbers. All the necessary aspects are there, and it is undoubtedly cohesive, but it needed a little something more to impress me.

In conclusion, I enjoyed reading Under Orders, but I was generally underwhelmed. It was in many respects too easy and too predictable a read, although the text and in particular the setting were detailed and vivid enough that it was thoroughly immersive. Sadly, I failed to connect on any level with the allegedly sympathetic character of Sid Halley, and I thought that more effort could have been expended to erase the damning predictability and inject some uncertainty into the conclusion. Therefore, despite enjoying many other Dick Francis novels, I rated it 2 out of 5 stars, and would not consider reading it again.

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

 

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!

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.