Thursday, December 19, 2013

REVIEW: The Warlock's Shadow by Stephen Deas

There is something so simple and comforting about this series, of which The Warlock's Shadow is book two of three. After reading the likes of N. K. Jemisin who really like to shake up their fantasy world building, it's nice to return to a bread and butter Medieval Europe setting.

The Warlock's Shadow feels oddly familiar at times, as though I could once again be reading about Pug or Kvothe. At a comparatively short 304 pages however, Deas wastes little time with the non-essentials and I think a more traditional setting has assisted him in this.

Book one, The Thief-Taker's Apprentice, had quite a low risk storyline, not really venturing into any unknown territory, but still providing an entertaining read. For this reason and the length, I would definitely shelve it amongst youth fiction.

The same can be said again for the first three quarters of The Warlock's Shadow, but by the last quarter Deas decides that he has had enough of that and completely ups the anti. As the title perhaps suggests, we see the introduction of magic, which darkens the tone of the novels significantly and adds a layer of complexity not yet seen. The story becomes somewhat more graphic with the corpse tally growing exponentially. But more so than any of that, it is the final chapter that sees the greatest change in this series - let's just say that not everything ends well for our protagonists. While book one concluded with a nice little wrap up, book two is a good old cliffhanger (luckily I have book three, The King's Assassin, sitting on my shelf!).

As predicted, there is nothing to be said against Deas' writing or story crafting, which is meticulous, well thought out and extremely easy to read.

This is such a great little series that requires little time and investment for a great return so I recommend it to all fantasy fans!

Monday, December 16, 2013

REVIEW: Ender's Game by Orson Scott Card

I'd only seen passing references to Ender's Game before I went and saw the film at the cinemas last week. I was so incredibly blown away by the film that I just had to read the book immediately. I will be talking a little about the film in this review too, so please be aware of potential spoilers.

I'm always amazed when fantasy books written decades ago can still seem fresh and relevant when read today, as if they were written this year. Ursula LeGuin's Earthsea books are a brilliant example of this, as is Ender's Game, originally published in 1985. Even though some of the technology in the book is no where near as spectacular as it is in the film (and is slightly reminiscent of the original Tron film) Card demonstrates incredible imagination and foresight for his time.

In my opinion the best fantasy and sci-fi novels aren't the ones with the best world building or magic systems, but the ones that use those elements as a platform to explore the human condition and/or psyche. I'm also a massive fan of really getting inside the minds of the characters and seeing a pure honesty as they grapple with conflict.

Ender's Game is a perfect example of this. Much like Katniss in Suzanne Collins' Hunger Games trilogy, we see the young protagonist struggle psychologically under extreme and unwanted pressure. While Katniss is interesting because she has little that is remarkable about her and is thrust into the spotlight circumstantially, Ender follows the child prodigy trope a little more closely. What is brilliant about Ender is how is constantly aware about what is happening and how he is being manipulated, but still struggles with his own inner demons.

I really appreciated how even though Card's characters are all incredibly young children, there is a lot of discussion and justification within the story on why. Through his characters Card also reflects on the exceptional and even unnatural state of the children and the concerns over their well being.

Another element that I enjoyed was the shift in perspective from beginning to end of the nature of the buggers, particularly within Ender. I think this was enhanced and therefore more successful in the film than in the book. Card creates the perfect enemy from the outset, which only sets us up for some beautifully tragic moments later on.

The final chapters were a little flat for me and seemed like Card wanted to get through as much story in the least amount of words possible. The film handled this much better, really playing up the climax for maximum investment and editing the story to a crisp and clean ending.

I have a feeling that the following novels in the series by Card won't be as good as Ender's Game (anyone?), but I am definitely going to give Speaker for the Dead a go. I will definitely be seeing the movie again though!

REVIEW: Mitosis by Brandon Sanderson

Mitosis is a short story (more like a chapter really) that follows on from Sanderson's most recent novel, Steelheart. I think it's really great in this digital age that authors can publish tidbits, short stories and novellas rather than being confined to conventional novels. Sanderson has been really successful in keeping the appetites of fans consistently sated through a number of shorter works including The Emperor's Soul, Legion and Infinity Blade: Awakening, all of which I have eagerly anticipated as much as his full length novels. Not only does it make his works richer, but it keeps a steady connection with his fan base.

Mitosis is a great little addition to the Steelheart story before it continues with book two, Firefight. I don't feel like I really need to go into all the things that makes Sanderson's writing brilliant. My only tiny reservation is that Sanderson was really quick to get back on the somewhat forced character motif bandwagon, such as David being really bad with metaphors.

You can get Mitosis as an eBook from your favourite online retailers.

Monday, December 2, 2013

REVIEW: The Killing Moon by N. K. Jemisin

I have to say right off the bat that The Killing Moon is definitely leaps and bounds above Jemisin's previous work, the Inheritance trilogy, which I liked, but had far too many flaws and frustrating elements to it. Jemisin's work has been consistently fresh and free from the regular world-building and magic-system tropes, but I felt her debut novels lacked logic and relied too heavily on just being able to make stuff up at the last moment.

Not only has she managed to remedy this completely in this novel, but I can hardly think of any flaws at all ... someone should start a slow clap for this woman.

Jemisin claims that the nation of Gujaareh is based off Egyptian culture, although if no one had told me, I never would have guessed. She does not immediately go for the imagery we all automatically reach for when we think Egypt; other than a city surrounded by desert sands. Jemisin draws upon Ancient Egyptian magic, which seamlessly blends religious and medical disciplines, but then also throws in some Freudian dream theory. Suffice to say The Killing Moon is worlds away from your popular medieval Europe fantasy setting. In her interview at the end of the book Jemisin goes as far as saying that she purposefully moves away from this setting as she believes modern fantasy has a fetishization with medieval Europe and that many authors over-simplify things and end up doing "Simplistic British Isles Fantasy Full of Lots of Guys with Swords and Not Much Else". Can't say that I disagree with her.

The religious and ceremonial beliefs of the Hetawa and that of two of our protagonists Nijiri and Ehiru are intriguing, but even more interesting is the way in which they are challenged by fellow protagonist, Sunandi. The followers of the dreaming goddess Hananja believe in a kind of ritualized killing that brings peace to the recipient and the benefit of dreamblood magic to everyone else. However outsiders like Sunandi simply see it as murder and Jemisin demonstrates how the strength of faith and belief moves each character and what happens when this is challenged.

The Killing Moon finds the perfect balance between delivering exposition and withholding information enough to keep the reader puzzling, without causing confusion or frustration (in excess anyway). There's quite a lot (like a lot) of foreign names and terms thrown in to the beginning chapters, which seems a little overwhelming at first, but quickly becomes more than manageable.

There are a myriad of small touches that add up to make this a great read. Each chapter begins with selections of text from Hananjan law, which gives just tidbits of information that enlighten previous and following chapters. Jemisin's also places an ambiguity on sexuality and in Gujaareen society there is no 'gay', only people who love who they love. All feelings are accepted and unjudged, which is a refreshing perspective coming from a society obsessed with labels and hetero-normalcy. 

The only thing I can say that is missing from The Killing Moon is the incredible passion and the constant need for more that great books instill in readers. Jemisin ticks all the boxes with this novel and leaves me incredibly satisfied, but I had very little emotional attachment to it. Considering this was one of the stronger points in her Inheritance trilogy, maybe she is just yet to find the right balance.

I'll be moving swiftly on to the last installment in this duology, The Shadowed Sun and recommend that you give The Killing Moon a go if you haven't already.