Saturday, 27 August 2011

Review: The Mermaid's Madness

Title: The Mermaid's Madness
Author: Jim C. Hines
Premise: Take a darker view of the classic fairytales.
Plot: When dark magic drives a mermaid princess insane, it's up to Danielle, Snow and Talia to save the day. Sort of.

I can't deny that Madness, just like Stepsister Scheme, is an entertaining read. It's perfect for the entertainment factor and I loved some of the new characters - paticularly the dryad captain. And just like Scheme, Hines puts a much darker spin on the classics and comes up with something refreshingly original and, surprisingly, realistic.

I picked this up after Scheme's disappointment because I hoped it might be better. In a lot of ways, it was - the characters continued to develop and there was plenty of realistic there-may-be-no-happy-ending vibes going on. But I didn't like it. At all. I forced my way through because I don't like abandoning books once I've started them, but this doesn't read like a book meant for adults or even older teens; the style is childish and that just makes it clash horribly with the often-adult content. Which is depressing, because as I said with Scheme I adore the idea of this series and love the characters dearly, but I just can't put up with the writing style to try the third book. Probably most people would enjoy this, but I like the writing style to match up with the story itself, and it just doesn't here.

Rating: ***

Review: The Peach Keeper

Title: The Peach Keeper
Author: Sarah Addison Allen
Premise/Plot: Paxton Osgood is restoring the Blue Ridge Madam, origonally built by Willa Jackson's ancestor. Left to fall into ruin after some great scandal, it's rebuilding will bring together a host of unlikely friends - and unearth some unexpected secrets.

I loved all of the other Allen books I've had the privilege to read, but reading Keeper was like sludging through molasses. Oh, the characters are great - I paticularly loved the minor characters, actually - but where's the story? The beautiful writing - and the quick visit from someone from Garden Spells, one of Allen's earlier books - doesn't make up for the fact that Keeper barely has a plot.

On the other hand, maybe it does and I just kept looking for the magic. Magical realism is rarely my thing, because I prefer out and out fantasy. While there hasn't been any in any of Allen's books, the beautiful prose and playful enchantment has been enough to keep me satisfied - especially since what magic there was always played a significant part in the story. That doesn't happen here. In fact, I'm pretty sure I missed the magic, if there was any to start with. (Unless it was in the fortune-telling-by-coffee, which was pretty epic but really only had a passing mention, alas).

So maybe this is a really good book, and it just didn't agree with me. Unfortunately, that still means it's not getting a high grade from me.

Rating: ***

Review: On the Edge

Title: On the Edge
Author: Ilona Andrews
Premise: Between our world and the magical world is the Edge, a thin strip of a boundary between the two.
Plot: Rose is a denizen of the Edge with a spectacular gift that makes her prime breeding material for minor lords of the Weird, the magical world alongside our own. But she just wants to be left in peace to raise her two younger brothers - one a werecat and the other a necromancer. Sadly, yet another lord come courting and an infestation of demonic magics aren't going to let her be...

This is a nice, fast-paced little book written in a style very similar to the Kate Daniels series - in fact, the main characters in both books are pretty much the same as well. The only thing that stops Rose from being Kate are their different backgrounds. Rose doesn't own a sword and doesn't kick ass like Kate does, but she has the same temper, spunkiness and a power of her own that she has to keep mostly secret. Not that I think Rose's similarity to Kate is a bad thing. I love Kate! I'm just sayin'.

The two worlds are very, very different - the Edge itself reminds me a little bit of the idea of 'down South', like in the Sookie Stackhouse series but more redneck. And with an awful lot more magic. As with the Daniels series most of the worldbuilding comes about through telling, not showing, but the first-person narrative stops that from being annoying. The focus is definitely more on the characters and their relationships than the worldbuilding, but a)this is the start of a series that will probably mean we get more world development as the series goes along, and b)the characters are awesome. I loved the way Declan's personality was introduced via the three challenges Rose set him, and I loved the dynamic of Rose's family (even if it is pretty dysfunctional).

To be honest I preferred that - the relationships and the focus on the characters - to the actual plot. I don't usually like the romance plotlines in urban fantasy, but I was far more interested in Rose and Declan's relationship than I was in the problem of the evil-magic monsters and their cause. I can't put my finger on why, but I found that pretty boring and thought that the villian was two dimensional at best. But it's a good book for a lazy day and for pure entertainment factor, so four stars it is!

Rating: ****

Tuesday, 23 August 2011

Review: Ariel

Title: Ariel
Author: Steven R Boyett
Premise: Some years ago came the Change, turning everything from guns to engines into museam pieces and bringing magic into the world.
Plot: Pete and Ariel, his unicorn companion, travel constantly across the much-changed America. The arrival of the griffin-rider, however, will spark off an adventure that will change them forever.

I was intrigued by the premise and loved the look at what would happen to society without technology. The general conclusion seems to be 'very little good', since it's agreed among the characters that there must only be a few thousand people left in the States. Pete's family, for example, were lost to him on the day of the Change - and I like that he didn't know what happened to them. In fact there are plenty of questions in this book, with most of them (realistically) not getting answered. For example, no one knows what caused the Change and even Ariel, one of the magical creatures who showed up on that day, doesn't know what happened or where she came from before that.

I had mixed feelings about the very traditional approach to mythology, though. Mostly this is because I like my fantasy unique; however the premise and world are unique enough to justify it. Ariel, for example, can only be touched or approached by a virgin. On the other hand, it's not so traditional; Ariel can also talk, which is absent from the classical mythology. Boyett's creatures and magic are all very believable, with many things not being understood or explained by Pete (and thus, to the reader). One of the most believable aspects of the book is the teasing and difficulties Pete endures because of his virginity, although it's refreshing that he thinks it's worth it.

Both Pete and Ariel are very well-developed characters, as are the handful of minor characters who alternately help or hinder them. The motives of the bad guys weren't really clear or believable to me, but the response they garnered was, and I liked the thinking-outside-the-box thing that the good guys used to find a way to defeat them - especially the hanggliding!

However it's that development of the main characters that made the ending completely unrealistic for me. Pete's actions were completely out of character and turned what should have been a happy ending into a tragic one, which is why I'm giving Ariel four stars instead of five. Pete's actions didn't make sense, especially after he'd worked so hard to achieve his goal. Boyett copped out trying to give the book a satisfactory close - but it wasn't satisfactory at all!

Rating: ****

Review: A Discovery of Witches

Title: A Discovery of Witches
Author: Deborah Harkness
Premise: Witches, vampires, and daemons live alongside humans in our world.
Plot: When Diana, a witch determined not to use her powers after the death of her parents, accidentally finds a magical book hidden for centuries, she unlocks an ancient mystery that could bring about an inter-species war.

I wish I could give this book a million stars. Since I read Discovery earlier this year, I have been fruitlessly searching for anything else that could come close to the awe-inspiring imagination, worldbuilding, historical research, and amazing characters that make up this book, because after reading it it took a very long time before I was able to enjoy anything else. It packs that much of a punch.

The epic majesty of Harkness' writing will give you shivers. There's an amazing blend of science - especially in terms of genetic research - and magic, and history here, all of which are approached in a very unique way. I caught myself thinking that it was what Twilight could have been, but that is very derogatory and doesn't do it justice; by that I meant that the vampires here are realistic creatures, so much so that you find yourself looking at well-dressed French men with a suspicious eye. Harkness portrays them as somewhat animalistic; Diana makes several links between vampires and wolves (although there are no werewolves in this book). True, there is a vampire love interest, which has been done many, many times, but the originality of Harkness' vampires made me, at least, forget that it was almost a cliche.

I think one of the best things about Discovery is its length. It is a huge doorstep of a book, which means that there is plenty of space for exquisite description and worldbuilding, and that there is no simple, straightforward plot. Everything is realistically complex, with plenty of hidden mysteries and questions to keep you glued to the pages. Diana, the first-person narrator (except for the occasional third-person chapter from Matthew's pov) is a fantastic character; stubborn, very intelligent, curious, driven, and a genuinely good person. I absaloutely adored her perspective on everything from magic (which she firmly rejects) to vampires, and it was refreshing to have a character who didn't jump at the chance to be involved in some centuries-old mystery. Diana actually pushes away the magical book when it comes to her, rather than grabbing hold or even showing some curiousity. And I loved the idea of a vampire who's a genetic scientist - as well as a host of other things that are slowly revealed. The layer upon layer of personality and history in Matthew's character makes sense for someone who is several hundred years old, and is something that most authors don't think about when having semi-immortal characters.

Diana and Matthew, though the focus of the novel, aren't the only wonderful characters - in fact, aside from the assigned bad guys, there wasn't anyone, major or minor, who I didn't adore. I approved of Diana's lesbian aunts for more than just because it's great to see minority characters; they are witty, shrewd, occasionally hilarious and very supportive (well, mostly. They don't like their neice dating a vampire!) Same with the daemon characters; although they, of all the three magical races, took something of a backseat I still adored the ones we were introduced to, paticularly Matthew's friend Hamish, who is not only bookish and wry but the first person we see smack Matthew upside the head - figuratively speaking. Occasionally he needs it!

Yes, this is a character-driven book, and I've seen reviews that hate Discovery for that. But I think those people are missing the intricate plotlines - the mystery of the book, the questions about the genetics of magical creatures, Diana's hidden powers, the developing romance between Diana and Matthew, the machinations of the bad guys, the question mark over the death of Diana's parents and the laws ruling that witches and vampires can't be together. There is plenty of plot, all of it so beautifully written that towards the end I would only read a page or two a day, so I could make it last. There aren't words to do Discovery justice; I can only wait with baited breath for the next book in the trilogy, because until then nothing else will come close.

Rating: *****+

Thursday, 30 June 2011

Review: Divergent

Title: Divergent
Author: Veronica Roth
Premise: In a world very different to our own, society is divided into five groups, each of whom value one trait above all others; Candor (honesty), Abnegation (selflessness), Erudite (intelligence), Amity (peace), and Dauntless (courage). 
Plot: When Beatrice leaves her family faction of Abnegation for Dauntless, she has no idea what will await her - especially since she doesn't truly belong to any faction, but is one of the feared and hunted Divergent...

There's a very good reason that Divergent is being hailed as the next Hunger Games. Actually, there's several. For one thing, the writing styles are very similar; first person pov from teenage girls in Dystopian settings, who make difficult choices for themselves and for the greater good. For another, they're both very, very good books. Divergent is fast-paced, addictive with very tight writing - I finished the whole thing in a single day because I couldn't tear myself away from it. Watching Beatrice transform from an uncomfortable, somewhat timid little girl into Tris, who is strong and confident, is wonderful - the kind of well-handled character development that most YA tries for but fails to accomplish, Roth makes look easy. Tris' personal storyline, training to earn her place in Dauntless, runs alongside a deeper one involving political enmities between factions and the reality of the secret, dangerous Divergent - people who don't truly fit into any faction, having the abilities and traits of all factions.

It's a brilliant idea, to divide the world up into factions like Roth has done, and I loved the careful world-building. There are plenty of questions left here and there, and I suspect Roth intends to write more books in this world, even though I'm not sure how, since Divergent seems to finish pretty strongly all on its own. But back to the world-building - the close examination of what courage really is manifests itself in the different aspects of training that Tris and her peers have to go through, and Roth takes a good hard look at the line between good and evil. One of the most powerful scenes in the book is when Tris' father critisises her for killing someone. Tris asks if she should have let the enemy kill her instead. Roth never takes the easy way out but looks at every choice and issue from several points of view - several times Tris acknowledges that a more selfless person, or a kinder, nicer person, would not make the choices she does. And yet not once did I think she made the wrong call. It's impossible to have ever been a teenage girl and not identify with the issues that face Tris, and with Tris herself. She's a wonderful character, faintly reminiscent of Hunger Games' Katniss, but not very. 

Brilliantly original, frightening and raw, with fantastic characters, I really loved Divergent and hope there'll be more.

Rating: *****

Review: Anno Dracula

Title: Anno Dracula
Author: Kim Newman
Premise: Dracula was not killed at the end of Stoker's novel, but survived to marry Queen Victoria and spread vampirism throughout Britain. 
Plot: An ancient vampire and political catpaw must work together to track down 'Silver Knife' - Jack the Ripper killing vampire whores.

This is a fantastically original, entertaining and thought-provoking novel that I absaloutely loved. I adored the premise and loved the idea of vampirism becoming something normal and acceptable in Victorian England - in fact, by the end of the novel vampires are almost completely in control of the country, which is pretty scary just on its own. The ramifications of the virus are examined in detail, with brief glances at the concept of 'bloodlines' - Guinevere, one of the novel's main characters, is a vampire even older than Dracula but from a completely different line, with none of the 'taint' of Dracula, and she's not the only one. 

Now, I never read Stoker's Dracula - I'm not good at concentrating with the classics; they all tend to bore me pretty quickly. But Sedger, Stoker's hero, is here portrayed as Jack the Ripper/Silver Knife, killing vampire prostitutes in some crazy revenge for the loss of his beloved. And the Silver Knife plotline dominates the novel - at least on the surface. Running alongside it are political storylines, with various people examining the growth of the vampire population and what it means for England. There are plenty of riots and conspiracies, including one surrounding the infamous Ripper Letters, and a silent war going on between the 'English' vampires - that is, the army and police force turned in the modern day, and those Dracula brought with him from Transylvania. It's all very complicated and wonderfully interesting, switching between the povs of several key players and some minor ones, first person and third, to give us the full picture of what exactly is going on.

One of the tiny details I loved most about Anno was the mention, and sometimes inclusion, of other famous historical or fictional characters, such as Oscar Wilde and Sherlocke Holmes. They don't at all play a major role, and really are only mentioned in passing, but I loved it!

I don't think I can stress enough the complexity of Anno; it's Newman's ability to braid so many different plotlines, social levels, and implications together that make this an amazing book. Yes, the characters are good, although I wouldn't say that most of them are all that likable. There wasn't really anyone who had my sympathy anywhere in the novel. But I wanted to know how everything ended, whether or not Silver Knife would be discovered (Jack the Ripper never was, after all), and how the growing conflict between vampries and humans would resolve itself. This is actually the first book in a series, but I think it can be read as a stand-alone: the ending certainly slams the story shut with a bang. One that I really didn't see coming!

Newman really doesn't flinch away from the raw, visceral aspect of either the murders, vampirism, or Victorian life in general. I've no idea how historically accurate it all is, but it's a very believable, realistic world that sucks you in right up until the very last page. Pardon the pun!

Rating: *****