Archive for September, 2012

Stephen Hunt – Secrets Of The Fire Sea

Thursday, September 27th, 2012

My fiftieth review of the year is Secrets Of The Fire Sea (2010) by Stephen Hunt. It is a steampunk novel that feels more like science fiction than fantasy as the fantastical element is small, although not absent. A mishmash of technology provides a mixed combination of the society of his world, which is quite different from any Earthly analogies. Overall this novel provides few insights in the world the story takes place, as its setting is located at a distant island at the edge of civilization.

Secrets Of The Fire Sea starts off as a murder mystery which through other storylines quickly evolves into a greater mystery. The plot develops rapidly with much happening within a short interval. Halfway through the novel the story changes as the greater mystery gets preference over the murder mystery. Hunt keeps his pace, all the while expanding his plot until it reaches a grand finale. The novel is a real pageturner and it certainly caught me as well.

There are two main protagonists from whose view the story is told although some of the side characters also get time to provide a greater perspective and more action. The better of the two is the detective who with his unusual side-kick forms a great pair that I enjoyed a lot. I certainly want to see more of them in the future. The other characters remain somewhat bland although Hunt fleshes them out sufficiently. The fast pace of the story and the steady revelations concerning the mysteries leave hardly any time for character development. This can be a choice and with the engaging plot it is not missed.

The novel is far from perfect. The plot shift halfway through the book turns the murder mystery into an adventure story. The whole murder mystery gets overwhelmed and its solution later on is presented on a side note, not having gotten enough attention with lost focus due to the adventure plot having taken preference. In the end both plot halfs do not get enough attention and combining them gives the novel as a whole a mixed mood that might separately be very enjoyable, but is not wholly satisfactory together.

That said I was quite impressed by the ideas and strong writing style of Stephen Hunt, who dodges a number of steampunk clichés, at least in this novel, and makes it much more substantial. Personally I envision steampunk to be more science fiction than fantasy, the latter being the more commonplace in a number of novels I’ve encountered the past years. As I’ve written in one or more of my blog posts certain subgenres get swamped by average or cliché novels that take advantage of the popularity but scorn the essentials of it. It causes me to avoid those subgenres although I usually go by my gut feeling (which is usually very accurate) to try something out that may be something better. Now with Stephen Hunt I have the feeling he gets the steampunk genre right and I certainly want to read more to discover if he can sustain that opinion. After completing the novel I discovered that Secrets Of The Fire Sea, although being a rather standalone novel, is the fourth novel of a series taking place in the same world. So I will have more to read in the near future. This one is certainly recommended.

Janny Wurts – Initiate’s Trial

Wednesday, September 26th, 2012

With an interval of 4 years readers had to wait the longest period for Initiate’s Trial (2011), the ninth book of epic fantasy series The Wars Of Light And Shadow by Janny Wurts. Hopefully Wurts will manage to keep her pace and not slow down as some other authors have done. The series started in 1993 and so will soon reach it’s 20th year as still several novels are planned. The story of the series also spans many years as many of the main characters possess extended longevity while most of the side character have normal life spans.

Initiate’s Trial starts many years after the previous book and as such all the old side characters are gone and new ones are introduced. As the story is told from several viewpoints the novels are marked by a relatively slow pace as Wurts gives every character whose viewpoint she uses sufficient attention. At times Wurts speeds things up with short notices, which she could have extended into chapters as well. Luckily she doesn’t.

The reason for this last comment is that Wurts’ writing style creates a lot of story and very little plot for the size of the novel. She has many related storylines to follow while she does not want to neglect either of them. Her style has not changed since she began, which is the typical early nineties prose of the like of Robert Jordan and Tad Williams, who also need a lot of words to tell their story.

While Wurts’ attention to her storylines and the great weave of her plot can be praised as they are of good quality, there is a lack of focus on the plot development. After nine books the separate plots of the novels have become repetitive. Although each story is different the main sequence is just another variation of what one has seen before. The main protagonist tries to avoid a clash with his rival who has many more stronger allies while a third party tries to twist the situation to their advantage. In the meanwhile the different characters go through certain trials. Of course there is a greater development which is part of the great weave, but I just wish Wurts would be able to create some different minor plot that would shake things up.

This repetition of plot themes combined with a slow plot development and the extensive of words to tell her story are the main reasons why I do not consider this series to be great or impressive. It is a nice read of good quality which keeps me entertained. It is better than average and keeps a steady level. I want to see how it will all end up, although I don’t expect any great surprises or twists. Wurts stays fairly traditional and somewhat old-fashioned. This is not a bad thing, it just sets the expectations at a certain level.

Charles Palliser – The Quincunx

Tuesday, September 25th, 2012

If you are a fan of the works of Charles Dickens you will find the right novel in The Quincunx (1989) by Charles Palliser. Although I have read only one novel of Charles Dickens I quickly felt the same atmosphere, style and themes from Dickens in The Quincunx, which takes place in the same time and environment as Dickens wrote his novels, although in his case he wrote contemporary novels. Either way it is a remarkable feat to do so more than 100 years later. In my case there is however a downside. I am no Dickens fan. I don’t like his style much, although my stance is more neutral than negative. I don’t rule out the possibility that I will try another of his novels.

While The Quincunx breathes in the same way as Dickens novels, there are a number of major differences. I will name the three most notable ones. The first is the tone of the story. Dickens’ stories contained a character going through bad and good times, experiencing different sides of the mid-nineteenth century Victorian society in England. There are also moments of light comedy and you know the main character is going forward. In The Quincunx the story sees very few good, or rather reasonable, times. There is very little cheerful about the story, it is actually quite depressing. As Palliser like Dickens wrote a large novel, the road is long. I can stand some negativity in a novel, but if it goes on for too long, it gets harder to keep going.

The second main difference is the detail of the setting. Dickens kept the details commonplace, mainly touching on familiar grounds the reader would be easier able to relate to. The Quincunx shows an impressive amount of research of the period and times, introducing sides and details of the society I hadn’t been aware of. He brings it in a natural way and I could only think it to be true. The story also includes extensive descriptions and discussions of the economical, financial and judicial (obviously all related) systems of the times. This all makes the novel more complicated and impressive.

The first two differences already make The Quincunx a harder reader than the average Dickens novel. The third difference takes the story to a different level. The plot is of a grand complexity that drives the reader forward and keeping him attentive. A number of mysteries form the core of the plot which drive the story and the main character. It is here that Palliser provides the reader with a greater challenge. The main character has to figure out the mysteries on his own based on often contradicting tales from characters involved in the plot and who don’t know the whole picture themselves.

It doesn’t hurt to disclose these things in my review. I started reading without being aware of it, while it would have made me pay more attention to all the revelations. It was only at a later stage in the book that realized the intention of the author and by then I didn’t remember enough to draw my own conclusions.

An opinion on this book is hard for me. As I don’t really like Dickens the style was not much too my taste. The depressing overall story made it hard for me to keep focus while the complex mysteries, a thing I love, drove me on. Because of my weakened focus I was not able to keep my attention all the time, so I didn’t enjoy it as much as I perhaps could have. I will let the review reader judge for himself.

Last of all I do would like to address some of my views on the plot. These might be spoiler-ish, so I put the warning here. It might be interesting for those who have already read it to read my view. It is not that I have that much to say. After I read the novel and the author’s afterword I looked up some commentary on the web. During the reading I noted some inconsistencies in the explanations. These were partially caused by the main character ignoring certain details and drawing his own conclusions, causing his own research to follow a different path. It was quite clear I was dealing with a untrustworthy narrator who also didn’t see the whole picture. This was even more obvious as the author, as he admitted in his afterword, had left out certain details. There was no single conclusion to the mysteries and different interpretations were possible. A challenge to the reader and it also addressed the notion that a story should not provide all the answers. Being able to discuss it adds a different dimension. My opinion thus is that there is no single answer. Each reader can decide on his preferred answer and be satisfied with that.

Robert V.S. Redick – The Red Wolf Conspiracy

Monday, September 24th, 2012

My first impression after reading the back cover of The Red Wolf Conspiracy (2008) by Robert V.S. Redick was that it would focus on the ship on which events would take place. Instead the ship itself would take a lesser role and the plot took center place. In fact quite a large portion of the story takes place on land.

The fantasy elements in The Red Wolf Conspiracy, the first novel of The Chathrand Voyage, take some strange shapes. Redick introduces several quite different ideas concerning magic, myth, races and creatures and mixes them together. To me they seemed somewhat out of place with each other. They could have easily been split apart and for as far as the novel goes they form independent components. Maybe a greater picture will be drawn in the later novels. I can’t tell yet.

The story itself keeps a good pace, not too fast or too slow, switching between several points of view, although there are two main characters. Redick pushes his plot forward so that at the end of the novel he is able to get to a satisfying conclusion while providing plenty of entertainment. Redick doesn’t manage to include much character development, even within the plentiful plot development. This is not a flaw, as stories can be plot or character driven, although in my opinion he created ample opportunity to do so.

The tone of the story is somewhat grim and dark. There is no clear good or dark side and the reader is not sufficiently informed to create a clear opinion of his own. It all remains dubious which caused me a lack of attachment to one of the sides, although the main protagonists, who play a relatively minor role in the greater affairs, get a favorable view.

There are a number of quirks in the story. I already mentioned the different fantasy components. Another one relates to some of the minor characters whose behavior does not always fit and who also don’t seem to be able to live up to the status they are given. While stearing clear of clichés throughout much of the novel, Redick sometimes does fall for them, which forms a strange contrast with the overall atmosphere. Especially the ending had some oddness to it as if Redick forced the plot conclusion to the story. There is a conclusion and while it is satisfactory it does not complety do so either.

The Red Wolf Conspiracy is a quite original fantasy story that certainly makes for something different. It is fairly well written and did not contain big annoyances or flaws except for the earlier mentioned quirks. I expect I will read more to find out how the rest of the story will turn out, so for that it is recommendable.

Wet appetite

Monday, September 3rd, 2012

Making up titles for my purchases is no easy feat as I am basically just buying books randomly. Finding a common theme does help and that’s where I got my title this time. Two fantasy novels provide it. The first is The Red Wolf Conspiracy (2010) by Robert V.S. Redick, the first book of The Chathrand Voyage, which focuses on a ship and the voyage it is taking. The second is The Secret Of The Fire Sea (2011) by Stephen Hunt. The title says enough, although I’m uncertain how much water plays a role in the actual story.

I had The Red Wolf Conspiracy on my Possible List of books that may be interesting and if the price is cheap enough then I should try them. That was the case here. The same so for The Secret Of The Fire Sea. It was on no list and is a new discovery. It was intriguing enough without containing back cover descriptions that repulsed me, so I decided to give it a try. You never know.