Archive for the ‘Fantasy’ Category

Kate Griffin – The Minority Council

Sunday, May 3rd, 2015

After three world threatening opponents The Minority Council (2012), the fourth novel in the so-called Matthew Swift urban fantasy series by Kate Griffin, revolves about somewhat more mundane issues. This is actually a good thing because, as I mentioned in my review of the third novel, The Neon Court, how often can you keep saving the world? It becomes a rather dull affair. An author needs to vary with her material and explore different venues. If you create an urban fantasy world which is quite different from the usual fare, why not invest in it and give it more depth and detail?

Griffin does this now by venturing a bit more into the magical society. The main protagonist, still stuck with certain duties and responsibilities, begins to grow into his new role as he is confronted with problems nobody (in this case the organization he himself is supposed to represent) is apparently looking into. So he does and this leads to a conflict with his own organization. He realizes he does not know that much about it as he has been trying to ignore it as he did not want those responsibilities.

The plot is much about evolution in the way the main protagonist is living his life. Now he has to take matters into his own hand and take up responsibilities. He does so on the basis of morality. What to accept and let be and what to act upon. While the main protagonist begins to grow up he is also faced with duplicity. People show different faces and trust does not seem so simple.

Although the previous novels did not hold back on certain grim events this novel holds certain brutal and shocking moments. While the previous novels sought a better and ethically satisfying solutions Griffin takes on a different course and chooses solutions that leave scars and thus make a greater impact.

Despite these rather nasty developments there are plenty of more uplifting moments and humorous scenes interspersed in the story that take away the strain for a short while and take things back to the mundane.

The plot in this fourth novel follows a different flow than before. Although the main protagonist does get hunted again it does take a while for it to happen and for once it does not hamper his other activities as it is easier to elude them. Instead there is one very reverbating chase sequence in which Griffin goes all out and which is far more exciting than all those before.

The Minority Council manages to give the series a good change from the usual fare and with it avoids becoming repetitive. It is not like she did a big make-over but the tone, approach and setup are considerably different from before. It certainly provides an incentive to read more, although for the moment it seems Griffin is done with the series. This one is again, recommended.

Kate Griffin – The Neon Court

Saturday, May 2nd, 2015

The third instalment in the so-called Matthew Swift urban fantasy series by Kate Griffin is The Neon Court (2011). After the second novel, The Midnight Mayor, the main protagonist has lost part of his control on his life and duties have been set upon him on different levels. Basically it means he is no longer a man on his own and this at least guarantees that the narrative follows a different flow and Griffin does so.

Although the main protagonist is thrown intro fray at the start for the third time in a row he is now not hunted or otherwise. He has established himself within the magical society now. While there is one case he does not want to get involved in and another he does it quickly becomes obvious that they are connected but not exactly how. The plot then revolves about trying to keep a conflict at bay while trying to counter a major threat to the city. There is a bit of misdirection in the plot and Griffin manages to keep things unclear until the final stage. Of course it helps that the pace is fast and events happen so quickly that the reader had little time to think about what is going on, but that is the idea of most urban fantasies. The story is a rollercoaster ride and you don’t really think about the logic of the plot as the story threads are so interwoven that it is already hard to keep up as they often are not directly related to each. Usually the protagonist has to juggle with several balls and solve each separately. Fortunately Griffin does not do it that crazy. The threads steadily converge as relationships become clearer which makes it a more gentler read.

As the story is told from a first person narrative there is plenty of room to develop the character of the main protagonist. With such a rapid plot development in which the protagonist has no time to think or consider his situation it can be hard to do and for one part it is so here as well. Griffin manages to make a difference because the protagonist is not alone anymore. He has something of an apprentice and his newly acquired duties also provide him with so-called assistents from the early stage. This makes room to develop somewhat of relationships between these characters as they stay along for the ride and are not just temporary companions. There is more comedy in the dialogue as each try to cope with the grim situations they are in. There was no lack of humour in the previous novels but now there is room to do more with it. The main protagonist himself is a bit more relaxed in his state of mind as there are elements of stability in his life now. To make some psychological development Griffin introduces a convenient magical concept that gives the main protagonist something to harry his thoughts. It does have the right effect although its idea is rather convenient and less believable.

The Neon Court provides a new and exciting urban fantasy story that will keep the reader turning the pages. Griffin compensates the further reduction of fresh and new elements by providing the main protagonist with an apprentice and assistents who give him more regular interactions and not make him a lonely man on the run. The plot is also a bit more complicated as things are not everywhere what they seem to be and the overall violence can be considered to have lessened a bit. The only thing that did became repetitive is that there is again a major threat to the city that could destroy all. It can get a bit boring if the main protagonist has to save the world every time. One can write a plot that can be just as engaging and terrifying on different levels. There is actually another threat in the aforementioned conflict in which the main protagonist gets involved. From the title of the novel I had expected this conflict would be center stage with the named Neon Court the thing being explored and expanded to the readers’ interest. In that sense it is another misdirection because the Neon Court plays a relatively small role only in the events. They are just one of the parties involved and we learn very little about it. In that way there were some missed opportunities because Griffin chose to create bigger threat around which the plot really revolved. Overall Griffin maintains a steady level in the quality of her novels and that is a strong incentive to keep reading. Recommended.

Kate Griffin – The Midnight Mayor

Friday, May 1st, 2015

Kate Griffin continues her urban fantasy series (though without an official name dubbed the Matthew Swift series, after the main protagonist) with The Midnight Mayor (2010). The first novel, A Madness Of Angels, had many refreshing elements in regard to Griffin’s approach to the urban fantasy story. Now that the introduction is over the main question is if she can maintain that feeling.

Like A Madness Of Angels the novel can be read as a standalone story. In this regard her series seems different than the typical urban fantasy where there are often still many unquestioned things that could or have to be taken up in a later novel. This is not the case here. The plot is fully rounded with no significant open threads left open. This at least leaves it free for Griffin to decide if she wants to write more or not.

In a certain way The Midnight Mayor follows a similar structure in plot as the first novels. The main protagonist is suddenly thrown into the fray and does not know what is going on and he is hunted while he tries to figure out what is going on and the different parties involved try to decide which side to take. Even the setup of the adversary shows similarities to the first novel. Using similar plot structures is not that disturbing as there can be plenty of authors found who have done and do the same. The reader does not even notice it easily as he is just absorbed by the exciting story. It is only now, some time later, writing a review and thinking about the plot that I realize how much the same they were. It is thus not obvious as the story is packed with new ideas and players that do not make the plot easy to take notice off. It is only bad, in my opinion, if you already have the feeling you are reading a rehash while you are not even halfway. It’s that deja vu feeling. Fortunately there is no risk you will get that here so it is not a real issue.

Despite this being a story written from a first person point-of-view I did not really notice notable character development. You know his inner thoughts and how he feels the experiences he goes through as he tries to get a grip on the situation. Essentially he however remains mostly the same. It is only where he tries to make the better choice that makes a difference. Not that he did not try to do so before, but there was no choice to make. In this particular case he is presented with different possible solutions to defeating his adversary. When he rejects the more obvious and easier one he creates a new struggle and shows heart, which gives the story also more heart as well, instead of just being your typical urban fantasy plot. Griffin did a nice job in providing pseudo-hidden messages to set up this heart of the story. It is not entirely subtle but she weaves it into the usual prose that is used when writing from her main protagonists perspective.

The Midnight Mayor is a good follow-up to A Madness Of Angels. It does not have the new vibe of the first novel although Griffin adds in some new mythology and other elements to expand the world where it takes place in. It is certainly something she can explore further. It is quite solid and while it follows a similar plot structure the story has more heart in it which makes it a more uplifting tale. Recommended.

Kate Griffin – A Madness Of Angels

Thursday, April 30th, 2015

Kate Griffin has taken the definition of urban fantasy to a new level with A Madness Of Angels (2009). Whereas most of the urban fantasy novels found simply rehash familiar fantasy tropes in a modern setting, Griffin has made them evolve. For this she has used a simple concept for magic and applied it to the modern age. What resulted was urban magic, magic that originates, is defined and applied by modern technology and urban elements. That is as far as I will go in disclosing the essence of the novel. Just this evolution is enough to create a refreshing story in a familiar setting.

The story is told in a first person narrative. The reader thus only knows what the main protagonist knows although it is soon clear that something strange is going on. Fortunately the main protagonist is thrust into the scene without knowing what is going on and this allows Griffin to gradually recover the information to build up the background of the main protagonist as he tries to figure out what is going on and how it relates to his past. As the main protagonist is somewhat unusual this provides a compelling read.

The plot is not much different from the typical urban fantasy page turner as the main protagonist is hunted from the start while he tries to set up his own hunt to discover what is going on. I have not read a lot of urban fantasy so I can only say that in comparison the plot is relatively straightforward. The main protagonist is not thrown from one crisis to the next in which multiple story threads struggle to remain on top. Instead the plot goes from clear to unclear in which uncertainties are removed as the different parties involved decide which side to take. It is in fact early on visible where the final confrontation is headed although Griffin keeps it in doubt a bit. There could be a major twist but as the story develops the reader sees that Griffin is not one to throw her story around to keep the reader off their footing. These are the weaker elements of the novel although others might prefer a less rampant plot. For me there could have been a bit more ambiguity. The good and the bad are too obvious despite attempts to make it seem not so clear.

The strength of the novel hinges on the very interesting main protagonist, whose approach and behavior follow unusual patterns, and the highly original urban magic used. Perhaps others have invented similar things before (and I may have read them) but these did not make their mark as much as Griffin has done. The range, variety and complexity of the magic are really great and thus make a strong impression.

I really enjoyed this novel. It is original in many facets and breathes a different kind of urban fantasy in comparison to the usual fare. Picking up the next novel in the series is a no-brainer. Much recommended.

Feminine compensation

Thursday, April 23rd, 2015

For some reason I seem to pick up more novels by female authors at second hand bookstores than as new editions. Here I have to add that I read quite more novels by men than women although I try not to be biased when I check up on a book. The thing is just that many female authors do often use a quite feminine style and typical themes like romance, triangle relationships and family. These do not automatically avert my interest. Foremostly it depends on how it is handled. Unfortunately, for me, there are more often similarities than fresh or different approaches.

Now I am digressing a bit here. My note on finding more female authors at second hand bookstores originates from the fact that those of which you find new editions often follow the popular trends and genres as these sell better. Finding female authors that don’t is usually a matter of luck when browsing through the shelves. On the second hand bookshelves there is no presentation or selection. It is a random collection of novels that have been put back into circulation and often they are older ones with titles which aim less on their target readers as older fantasy and science fiction (I have been talking about this genre actually) did not have such as they have done for the past 10 to 15 years. The chance is thus larger that I check something written by a female author.

I have picked up four novels, of which one is an omnibus of three, but two female authors of which I have read books before. This made picking them up easier. The first is the Chronicles Of Morgaine by C.J. Cherryh, consisting of Gate Of Ivrel (1976), Well Of Shiuan (1978) and Fires Of Azeroth (1979). Cherryh has written quite a bit of science fiction but those novels do not appeal to me. Another (later) fantasy series by Cherryh did appeal to me and I quite enjoyed then, enough to give this other fantasy series a try. It was cheap, I have to admit, so the threshold was low. The other novel is The Master Of White Storm (1992) by Janny Wurts. Although I did not enjoy her early work much I do enjoy her recent series. This novel seems to fall in between the two. It may disappoint or surprise. I picked it mainly up because I had not seen it before in any bookstore so getting it cheap pushed me forward to give it a try.

 

Brian McClellan – The Crimson Campaign

Saturday, April 4th, 2015

When writing a trilogy most authors opt for writing a single story, ending the first and the second book in something of a cliffhanger and starting the next one immediately afterwards, providing the reader with limited information on the situation. This causes the middle novel to not have either beginning or ending, making it often the weaker part of the novel, although one could say all three novels have their weaknesses and only work best when seen as a whole. The alternative approach that an author can take is providing story arcs within the greater story so that each novel has some closure, allowing for something of a beginning in the next novels.

In the case of the Powder Mage Trilogy Brian McClellan has opted for the second approach, although not in an absolute fashion. He did provide closure in the first novel by completing several major storylines. He does so far less in his second novel, leaving the story arcs in a greater measure of openess. Perhaps McClellan felt otherwise or perhaps this was the best way he could cut the greater story into a third part. I will only know after reading the third and final volume.

The Crimson Campaign (2014) retains the four character perspectives of the first novel with the fourth one remaining of a minor nature and one of three gets less attention. Much of the focus lies on two story arcs that cover the central war activities. The revolution is under threat from several levels and surprises hit from beginning to end. Nevertheless the story does not have the great dynamic of the first novel in which much was complicated and McClellan was able to tell a very engaging tale. The two story arcs that form the center of the plot are far more straightforward. It is win or lose and the little ploys that McClellan fits into them do not carry that great an impact. The main cause is that the reader has become accustomed to the magic systems of the world that McClellan has created: one with the common system of magic with its traits and the original powder magic that changes much of old balance. In the first novel we did not know exactly what it could do or what the limits were but now we do and McClellan does not introduce anything new. There is actually less magic in this novel. Much is left to common warfare.

While McClellan does not need to introduce his characters and his world he does not spend time developing the world any further. Instead he gives more focus to his characters and trying to develop them more. Unfortunately they are more of an internal kind than by interaction with other characters. The minor characters could have used some more development and thus lack some depth. It are the details that enrich a story and also give it depth when you can’t provide much in other places. It seems that McClellan has provided much of what he could and what remains are relatively minor things.

That all being said, The Crimson Campaign is not a weak middle book, certainly not when comparing to many other trilogies. It is however not a rather strong middle book either. It manages to provide a good follow-up of the first novel and a story arc to carry on its own with several nice twists that are found from the early parts until the last ones. As always there are some great scenes that will give the reader great joy and McClellan keeps his story well grounded and easily manages to conjure up the unique familiar atmosphere. All in all The Powder Mage Trilogy is an original story with a very different setting than the usual fantasy worlds. In a way that is a bit of a new trend in the fantasy novels of the past years in which fantasy novels seek to mix fantasy in an original world with a different level of technology than mediaevil. It is a refreshing trend that has gained my interest especially as the number of authors that create them remains limited.

The lost works of Robert E. Howard

Friday, April 3rd, 2015

I am a bit exaggerating with the title of this post. The thing is that Robert E. Howard is mainly famous for his Conan stories, which have frequently been republished, while some of his other protagonists have made some name of their own like Kull and Solomon Kane, although that would be more among the fans. Howard however wrote lots of stories during his relatively short life which in most cases were series focused on a central protagonist. These works are not that easy to to come across as they are republished far less often and not in great numbers so when one does find them you should not hesitate to pick one up.

I have now actually picked up three story collections. Like most of his stories they were written in the 1930′s but I will only refer to the collection edition that I got. All that I obtained were published in the 1970′s and in excellent condition. The first series is called Tigers Of The Sea (1979) and are centred around Cormac Mac Art, an Irish pirate during the Dark Ages. The second is Worms Of The Earth (1976), about a Pictish King fighting against Rome, and the third is The Lost Valley Of Iskander (1976), which focuses on Francis X. Gordon, better known as El Borak, a Texan gunman in early 20th Century Afghanistan. All three collections are barely 200 pages and not all are complete, although Howard left plenty of unfinished stories as well, so completeness is always troublesome when you are dealing with an author who wrote stories to get some quick money. Nevertheless Howard’s stories are quite unique despite their pulp nature as his prose shows great quality and power that has found resonance with many readers. For that reason it is worthwhile to collect his stories.

 

David Gemmell – Knights Of Dark Renown

Sunday, February 15th, 2015

Knights Of Dark Renown (1989) is one of the few standalone fantasy novels by David Gemmell. Of course even in his series many of the novels contain a self-contained story which can be read without knowing anything on the others. Sometimes characters return and the setting is often similar and that is what connects the novels. To be honest, Gemmell does refer to this novel in his other standalone novel Morningstar but the events lie thousands of years apart and neither of the two novels share much of its concepts except for one thing which might even seem coincidence as even on that point there are differences. I will not disclose it because it will spoil certain surprises.

Knights Of Dark Renown takes place in the generic mediaevil worlds Gemmell prefers to set his stories in. There are hard to pinpoint sometimes as Gemmell avoids going into details on the technology level. Sometimes they fight with bronze weapons, other times with steel and frequently the weapons are magical so it does not matter. As the title of the novel already hints at the central characters are knights and as such the story contains several elements regarding knighthood and battle armour which is what makes it different from his usual fare.

Another difference in this novel is the magical element. Usually it takes a minor place and the main characters are somewhat supported by magic, the wielder usually a mysterious figure. The nature of the magic is left to the imagination. This is not the case here. Gemmell shows more ideas on the magic used and several characters that are capable of powerful magic play an important role. In several cases they provide the point of view.

The novels holds a larger cast of characters than is usual by Gemmell and Gemmell switches viewpoint frequently so that the reader gets to see the story by more of them. This does give them more depth even though the time spent is fairly short. Gemmell manages to do a good job with it.

With so many characters one might think the story will not hold too much plot, but Gemmell puts on his usual fast pace and he uses the larger case to tell more details of what is going on. This gives the plot more depth and variety while it remains a true pageturner as there is much going on.

Knights Of Dark Renown may be one of Gemmell’s lesser known novels (it at least was to me), but it certainly ranks among his best. Here I do have to add that his average quality is quite stable and it is not easy to pick out the better and the lesser ones. This one is certainly recommended.