Archive for December, 2013

Phyllis Eisenstein – In The Red Lord’s Reach

Sunday, December 29th, 2013

In The Red Lord’s Reach (1989) by Phyllis Eisenstein is a less typical work of fantasy although it treads familiar paths. It is her second novel about the minstrel Alaric. The protagonist is a bit of an outcast and wanders the world, supported by an unusual magical ability. He is molded in the typical fashion of a minstrel. He is no fighter and somewhat of a pretty boy who seems to prefer the easy life.

Eisenstein quickly overturns the setup. Events unfold quickly in a tragic nature and the main protagonist is in reality more lost as he has less to choose than he desires. On one side the main character, from which eyes the reader only sees the story, is fragile and there is a certain amount of connection. Eisenstein portrays him very well and he is quite different from the common fare of fantasy characters. On the other side he can sometimes be frustrating as he chooses too often the weaker choice as his character is not that strong of heart. This is made even stronger as he is set along side characters that are strong and have a decisive mind.

The setup of the story is episodic of nature. Each chapter has a miniature plot of its own as if it is almost a string of connected short stories. This not always the case, but it could have been so. For a relatively short novel much happens, especially compared to todays heavy tomes. As this novel was published in 1989 it of course is from the period before fantasy became more mainstream and popular for a greater market. This different flow is rather refreshing and reminded me of the older works of fantasy from the sixties and seventies.

The plot, thanks to the episodic nature, allows the reader little time to predict the course of events. Looking back some things were to be predicted. One early on learns the characters of the main protagonist and he will make the choices one expects. Some just happen in a different way and at a different time. It is the way that Eisenstein has structured the novel that you don’t really spend time on deliberating about that. She keeps a steady pace and doesn’t waste any words. After each chapter, or episode, the reader is more thinking about what has happened than what will happen next. That is a particular quality and difference.

In The Red Lord’s Reach is not a great novel that will leave a big impact. Nevertheless it is a small gem, being quite different than the usual fare with many small things that will make an impression. I of course already knew this as I had read the first novel, Born In Exile, already, although this has been many years before. It was however sufficient in leaving its mark that when I happened to notice this novel in an online bookstore that I wanted to read more.

 

Mark Charan Newton – Nights Of Villjamur

Saturday, December 14th, 2013

It is always tricky when you start reading a series with the second book as there is a serious chance much of the essentials of what has happened before is disclosed in too many references by the characters. Fortunately this is not the case with Legends Of The Red Sun by Mark Charan Newton. I recently read and reviewed the second and third book of the series and each were fairly standalone although some minor references to what happened before is usually unavoidable. Most of the plot of Nights Of Villjamur (2009) proved to be quite different than what I might have guessed.

Here I should kick off with the fact that much of story setup was rather similar to the second book, City Of Ruins. It may seem weird that I am comparing the first book to the second but I cannot escape it. I would have done the same if I had read the books in the right order. A strange murder case forms the starting point of the story and the way it progresses is in several points analogue to the investigation of the second book. The characteristics are of course different, but I had the feeling of deja vu. The second part also follows paths that to some extent are the same. It is fortunate that it is only one of the storylines.

While the murder investigation thread is daftly done the other threads vary in quality. One thing that I should remark is that the text on the backcover of the book gives away a major plot point that happens only halfway in the book. Any surprise is gone beforehand as you can already guess on some of the mysteries early in the book. What bothered me mostly was that the major conspiracy lacked any tension. Newton gives everything away early on and there are no surprises. A stark difference between how he developed the plots in the later books.  There is a lack of subtlety and intelligence that wasn’t presented in a very good way. At times things just seemed somewhat silly while the actions were gruesome. The characters involved simply disappointed me now that I finally got to know them.

The other threads worked better and the characterization was on a decent level, allowing me the learn some characters better that I had not gotten the chance to in the later books. Still they were lacking a bit. Newton didn’t seem to have enough story or time to make more of them. The end of the book was wrapped up surprisingly fast and easy. Perhaps I had gotten a stronger idea of the situation based on the third book which took place in the same location. Of course a writer can improve so it could be that Newton simply did a better job the second time around.

It is hard to say something about the world building when you have read the sequels already and there are few surprises left. Nevertheless it is a unique world with peculiar creations which are a mishmash of familiar fantasy elements. It is an ages old world in which a variety of things have survived from different pasts so you there a strange combinations at times. It has a different flavor than the usual fantasy fare so for me that is always something I am interested in.

So what can I say about the book as a whole? It is weaker in quality than the next two books in the series. If I had read this book first I might not have picked up the next installment very soon. It is nice and original, but not impressive due to some weaknesses in the plot and the characterization that simply make the story not solid and engaging enough. It can be that the way he told the stories in the later books were more to my liking than how he set up this first novel, while others would see it the other way around. I can only say that things get much better, at least in the second book, so if you enjoy this one well enough, you should certainly go for the next.

 

Kate Elliott – Traitors’ Gate

Friday, December 13th, 2013

The third and final installment of the Crossroads trilogy by Kate Elliott is Traitors’ Gate (2009). It is the conclusion of an original fantasy tale in a world that is quite different from the usual. The central setting of the story has an unusual history which has had a strong effect on the behavior of the people living in it. While their society is breaking down into great brutality, there is still a core holding up the old values and traditions.

It is this cultural difference that partially drives the plot development of Traitors’ Gate as the old clashes with the new. Change will occur but can the peaceful land be restored or will it be lost forever? Something that was kept somewhat hidden before now is revealed. The nature of the threat is quite different as it seems from the outside and the solution is rather low key, reducing the drama and the size of the events. In fact, the finale of the first book turns out to be the grandest, with the second moving much lower and the third even a bit more. In a way this is surprising and certainly a change from the usual fare. The downside is that much becomes shallow and hollow although how it is achieved is provides a turn of its own.

To prevent the plot from turning into a simple story Elliott throws in a number of surprising twists that change much of what the reader might have expected. Either so, Elliott already showed her hand at doing so in the earlier novels so the reader is aware that she does dare. Nevertheless somewhat of a happy ending is provided for as the twists also allow some mechanisms to fall into place to provide a course for the future. In these ways Elliott provides extra depth and careful handling of the plot. However, they did remind me of the way she twisted the ending of her Crown Of Stars series as there are certain similarities. A writer should take care not to use the same tricks to end the story.

As there is more story to tell Elliott has less space to spend time on her characters’ development. There is plenty that happens but it is not as much driven by the characters as before. There is actually a bit of repetition as the same seems to happen to a character several times as if it were some running gag, although it of course doesn’t feel that way. It seemed as if Elliott needed to move the plot in certain ways and the way to do this was by putting a character into the same position several times as if that seemed to be the best solution. That was a thing I did get a bit annoyed about. In several cases a risk is taken and almost every time the action was blown. It was simply too coincidental and rather obvious plot contrivances. Of course this can happen but in this story it happened a bit too much and too easily. They were some of the minor weaknesses to the series.

In my reviews of the first two books I already summarized much that is too be liked about this series. Foremostly its original setting and cast of characters. There are also the really surprising twists and unorthodox plot development. Elliott puts the drama in different places than one would have expected. This does result in a different feeling and a mixed satisfactory read. Overall this series is much more solidly written than her previous series in which the quality varied a lot in each book. Here there is much more balance which allows for a constant engaging read. I don’t categorize it as one of my great reads but it is certainly good and of high quality. Recommended.

 

Kate Elliott – Shadow Gate

Wednesday, December 11th, 2013

Middle books of trilogies are always complicated to review as they always suffer from the typical judgment of how they manage to stand on their own while having no real beginning or end while they still need to connect the greater story of which many threads will still be incomplete at the end.

Shadow Gate (2008), the second book of Crossroads, by Kate Elliott is no exception. Elliott takes a different approach to tackle the above mentioned problem by introducing a number of chapters containing flashbacks of a few characters so that some independent short stories are told and backstories that were not convenient to be covered in the first book have their space and time now.  These flashbacks allow more variation and more satisfaction for the reader who learns more of things that were a kind of mystery before.

The downside to this approach is that there is less space for story development in the present. Elliott gives more attention to the characters and how they cope with changing circumstances. Another reason is, and I now speak in hindsight, is that Elliott does try to provide a kind of finale for this middle book, but what she has in mind also slows the story development. To keep the pace evenly divided between the flashback stories and the main story she creates a meager finale that does not have the impact it might have. Overall Elliott does not seem to aim for great drama and conflicts and steers into more of a middle road. It is gentle reading with light excitement in which the reader already knows how it will turn out although there is still the slight possibility Elliott might choose another path, because sometimes she does and those are the little twists that make more of this story.

What still stands in this second novel is the original setting and world-building which is explored a little more. The characters all stay far from cliché and are interesting and intriguing when we can only observe them. The fantastical elements remains restricted and very limited. It is merely a minor component required for building the story setting.

So can I say this middle book stands out among its brethren? Not really. Elliott makes some interesting attempts to make more of it but the mini-finale is meager compared to the finale of the first book. There is not enough subtlety and surprises to give it sufficient body. It is a fine middle book that sets things up nicely for the third and final book. It is a pleasant read which will entertain in its refreshing environment and well-crafted characters.