C.J. Cherryh – Gate Of Ivrel

June 8th, 2015

While I read some fairly recent novels by C.J. Cherryh I took little interest in her older works which seemed mostly science fiction. Before those however she wrote The Chronicles Of Morgaine, a fantasy trilogy (although she has written another sequel some years later), which is written in a somewhat different mold, as it is more in line with the style of those years, of the seventies, before fantasy took its first steps into the popular genre. With that I mean that the fantasy is more low-profile and character-focused instead of epic and action-focused. This does not mean the stories are not epic but the approach is more simplistic.

The first novel of the trilogy, Gate Of Ivrel (1976), is Cherryh’s first novel, and one would not easily recognize it as such. It has a mature style and a heavy atmosphere. Her characters are nowhere near stereotypes but rather mysterious and hard to approach. As it is not a long story she keeps the number of characters few, allowing her to focus on the characters.

While the series is called the Chronicles Of Morgaine the story is told from the perspective of her so-called sidekick. He becomes attached to her but he knows little about her and she discloses very little as sharing knowledge is dangerous. This choice is proven often as the sidekick is very uncertain and frequently gets separated from Morgaine, usually taken by his or her enemies, who try to cajole or seduce him for her secrets. Much of his development revolves around his divided loyalties and the choices he has to make.

The plot moves back and forth as Morgaine attempts to achieve her goal. As the story is told from the perspective of her sidekick Cherryh has to craft the plot in such a way that he maintains part of the main events. For much of the story she manages this quite well although the final sequence is rather chaotic. I am still not certain about the what or why. Part of the reason of course is because we only know and see what the sidekick does and this is often rather limited. It as least leaves space for speculation.

Gate Of Ivrel is an intriguing novel. There are several mysteries, much about the central character of Morgaine, and about the background of events. Cherryh does provide an introduction to provide the premise of the series for the reader and being able to understand sufficiently what is going on but there is much more to explore. It is not a grand or powerful novel. The setting is fairly simple and the main protagonist is not easily liked as he has serious personal issues, insecurity the most prominent of them. The central character of Morgaine is far more interesting but Cherryh made the choice to keep her a mystery which proves to be very effective as you want to read more.

Lois McMaster Bujold – Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance

June 6th, 2015

Despite the great popularity of her Vorkosigan science fiction novels Lois McMaster Bujold has only written new novels when she had the right story for it. As they are standalone stories she can set stories at different places within the timeline of the series although she has to take into account that these do not disturb future events. While the first set of novels had plenty of action, intricate plots and serious themes woven into them she has occasionally also written what can best be described as comedies. These comedy novels are also quite the fan pleasers as Bujold often brings back characters from past novels and adds in romantic elements.

You might already be guessing that I am making notes on these particular novels is because Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance (2012) is also one of these comedy novels. One might guess differently from the title and for the first few chapters of the novel I had a different idea as well, but the plot took a quite different direction than I had expected.

Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance is not much of a Vorkosigan novel in the literal sense. This is the story about one of the side characters. It is not the first time that Bujold has done so. The switch provides her with a new character to explore and develop better and she can describe the world in a slightly different way. We do meet familar characters of old again but these now play a different role as their relationship toward the main protagonist is different. As usual, Bujold makes a good job of it.

I may have said that is the story of one of the side characters but this is not entirely true. Only half of the story is told from his viewpoint. The other half is told from the viewpoint of a new character. As she interact intensively with the other main character he still gets much of the center stage. The pairing brings extra focus on the two characters, their relationship and their development throughout the story.

While this is a very enjoyable book for any Vorkosigan fan I have to be honest here that the plot is rather circumstantial. Initially I expected an exciting plot that would see plenty of action. Bujold however steers the plot in a completely different way with very little action. The bit of action that we do get at the end is more of a diversion to push certain developments into a necessary closure. Either way it is fortunate for the novel that Bujold did so because for the larger middle part of the novel the story is somewhat lacklustre in which Bujold follows some predictable course.

Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance is not anywhere close to the best Vorkosigan novels. Is it the worst? Bujold does not write bad novels or poor stories. This book is much of a fan pleaser and as a fan I had no regret reading it. She is still a superb story teller. Telling the story from this particular side character is something that makes the novel very worthwhile reading although it lacks some depth and it does not raise the side character much from his side character position. In a way that is a sad thing to see.

Judith Tarr – Arrows Of The Sun

May 6th, 2015

I do not intend to start reading a fantasy series somewhere in the middle but sometimes you don’t have much of a choice. In this case the series is that unknown that it is remarkable that I found a novel of it in a second hand bookstore. Reading the whole series I would only do after I had judged one of the novels. Fortunately in this case the novel seemed to contain a fairly self-contained story. There are some references to earlier events and the role they play in the novel is such that it would be similar to any other true standalone novel.

Arrows Of The Sun (1993) by Judith Tarr is the fourth novel in the Avaryan Rising fantasy series. It is about the rulers of a multi-ethnic empire who have access to great magical powers although they cannot wield it that easily and there are plenty of others who possess magical powers. The magical system is broad and covers a range of elemental-like abilities. As this is a later novel in the series there are no explanations as particular introductions would have been provided in the earlier novels. In a way it is refreshing to figure things out from the provided information alone. The magic is not that unusual, for the experienced fantasy reader, that it may be hard to be make sense of.

The multi-ethnic character of the setting is a nice change from any usual fare as most characters are either darkskinned or have asian features. White-skinned people only play a minor role in the story. The cultural aspects within the world are also different and resemble the ancient Middle East and eastasian styles to some extent. As the plot focuses mainly on the asian part of the empire Tarr provides most details of that particular culture and she sets this up in a nice way. She does so to a certain degree so that it does not dominate the story too much.

Cultural and ethnic differences form a strong component for tensions and developments in the plot. The empire of itself has a rather modern nature. The laws are benevolent and social classes can easily be risen out of, with many women holding positions of power. One relatively new and large part of the empire is very much the opposite of this all. The plot iself is about the ruler trying to come to terms with this opposite part of his empire while a conspiracy tries to undo the union between their lands.

As is typical for many female fantasy authors Tarr keeps a strong focus on her story. We see different sides from a couple of viewpoints but they all tell parts of the same story while events unfold. In a way it is a waiting game. Who will break first and make an error? Even within the ranks of the so-called good and bad guys there is no absolute unity and each side tries to cope with varying attempts to influence events. Tarr works it out well and by also keeping staying close to a few central characters she lets them go through a considerable character development by imposing different kinds of challenges and changes to them. She does not hesitate to kill off characters that would not have been touched by most authors and for such a relatively old work this can be considered quite progressive.

I quite enjoyed the novel as it hold older type fantasy elements and new ones. The strong development of the characters resonated well and although not all characters were likeable I could make a connection to many of them. The empire, for so far as it was visible, felt a bit too happy-go-lucky, making an odd contrast with the so different recent addition it had made. I can only assume Tarr wanted to create a so strong contrast as possible to make the changes the main protagonists go through all that stronger. What the novel did succeed in was triggering my interest in reading more novels of the series. The separate books were not that easy to find online although two omnibus editions are quite available. I thus hope to read more on the Avaryan Rising soon.

Paula Volsky – The Gates Of Twilight

May 5th, 2015

Many fantasy authors build their world on analogies of Earth cultures as they make it easier to set up familiar environments and traits. This is not a bad thing although some cultures are overly popular like the Celtic, Norse, Roman and Greek ones. Paula Volsky takes on something different in The Gates Of Twilight (1996) by setting the novel in a land that resembles India in many ways although it has enough differences that cannot be called an exact copy. The era in which it takes place could be somewhere in the nineteenth century. There are some railroads but technology is sparsely available or mentioned so that it is hard to guess. What is similar is that the lands of India are occupied by a Western power that exploit it for its wealth although the rule can be considered benevolent and the occupied people live as they always have. Their former rulers have simply been displaced. The Western power however does not resemble any familiar culture and we learn too little about it to make some sound judgement.

The story revolves around two main protagonists with one on either side of the opposing nations. Both seek a peaceful solution to rising problems and are pushed into preventing escalation. Volsky touches on many themes within her story. There a different shapes of religion in which ones requires worship while the other aims for personal development. There are social conflicts and misunderstandings, tradition versus change and several others. Volsky presents them in a clear way without pushing them to the front. It is for the reader to recognize or discover them. While the two main protagonists are confronted with these situations it is not all clear how their development is shaped by them as we see little of how they were before. Both were already somewhat different and they simply adapt to the events that unfold while remaining who they are.

The plot follows a steady pace but it does not develop very fast. It does not slack down but events do not seem to occur very rapidly and there are few twists. In a way it is a fairly straightforward story that mainly aims to put the themes it wants to tell in it without making too much drama. Even so, we are not without certain powerful events that do captivate and make an impact. There is a bit of magic in the story and it mostly revolves around the religious element. It is both a curious and a mysterious thing as it plays a peculiar role that makes it stand oddly within the story. This is because it remains of a minor importance to the plot and the plot itself is, while engaging enough, not that special. As mentioned before Volsky could just have written a historical story taking place in India during British rule. It is only the magical element and the peculiar religion build around it that make it something different. If it had had a stronger presence within the story where it would make a serious change in the unfolding of events a true fantasy tale could have been written.

The Gates Of Twilight tells a well told story that will work well for readers who are not very familiar with Indian culture and its peculiarities. For those that do it will not tell many new things while the more defining differences in regard to the religion and the magic do not carry the story as they could. They play a central role but within the greater story their importance is low. The novel does not hold any real flaws. It is solid and well written while not creating any notable sparks.

Graeme Shimmin – A Kill In The Morning

May 4th, 2015

My 300th review is also a somewhat special one as the novel involved is an alternate history, a genre that I don’t read that much. The main reason for that is basically the so-called butterfly effect. From the turning point on the change will have growing side-effects the more time passes and often the author starts adding familiar stuff he likes although the plausibility is rather uncertain or the author simplifies thing in such a way that the complexity of history is pretty much ignored. These are things that annoy me so I am very picky towards such novels. Those novels that I have picked up with some alternate setting simply avoided trying to set up an alternative history. It is simply a different universe. Essentially I only want to pick up an alternative history novel if it is done well.

This particular novel I picked up after reading a review on another site. Usually I am not easily convinced to pick up a book there as I’ve found my taste to differe considerably from the reviewers there. In this case my instinct said I should give it a try. A Kill In The Morning (2014) by Graeme Shimmin is essentially a spy thriller in the mold of James Bond. The main protagonist is a similar hard-assed womanizer who does not refrain from violence. The early parts of the novel seem also to be the pulp-like type of story Ian Fleming wrote. Of course we are here dealing with an alternative history. In this case the Second World War did not really get started and Germany made peace before they got hit back. Shimmin plays his alternative history safe by setting the novel only a decade after the turning point. This allows for better definable possibilities with regard to what could have happened so things remain believable. The one similarity that did not change was that a Cold War does happen as well and that provides the familiar James Bond-like setting. In this case the enemies are not the Communists but the Nazis and unlike the Communists they do have a healthy economy to drive their technology programs, making the competition much harder. Here I should stop on disclosing the background of the novel and discuss some other elements.

The protagonists in the novel all follow familiar molds. Shimmin changes it a little by adding a stronger female element in it, giving it a less old-fashioned flavour and highlighting some different aspects in his alternative history. As I have read all the James Bond novels (with reviews on my site) I can only say he does a good job mimicking the way Fleming set up his characters although there is of course a large difference in style and prose.

Shimmin’s aim is however not to tell a James Bond story in an alternative history setting. To explain that I have to start spoiling a little more. If you are interested already, stop reading here.

Shimmin’s plot is far more cunning. Events unfold much more rapidly then expected and at about two thirds of the novel he kicks in the major twist of the plot. It comes with total surprise and while some would say it is not realistic it does fit perfectly within the Jamed Bond themes. What follows in the last third is a lengthy finale in which Shimmin crafts an engaging and exciting turn of events in which he carefully fits the pieces of the puzzle in place which will leave the reader with great satisfaction. In the end he adds a more than fitting last Bond cliche with a twist as a dessert.

A Kill In The Morning is based on a cunning idea which is executed perfectly. Shimmin manages to lull his readers into a familiar atmosphere by using typical James Bond elements to tell his story until he throws them into an unexpected plot twist at a point when they thought the story would follow the usual hectic but entertaining course over some rapids. Instead he gives them a major waterfall. I am actually unhappy that I am disclosing this in this review. It is more fun not to know there is a grand twist but without it I would have a hard job convincing others to read this novel. For that reason I gave the warning above. I can only say that this novel is very much recommended.

Kate Griffin – The Minority Council

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

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

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.