Reviews

Bearers of the Black Staff by Terry Brooks — book review

August 9, 2011

Legends of Shannara: Bearers of the Black Staff by Terry Brooks. Orbit, '7.99

Reviewed by Elloise Hopkins

The protective wards, that have kept the lands safe for 500 years since the demon-led war are failing. When the bearer of the black staff, the mysterious Gray Man, Sider Ament, discovers this it is up to him to warn the valley dwellers of the coming evil and to prepare for battle. Throw in a set of twins, an elven princess, trolls, killer hounds, some impressive firearms, friends with special powers and a magic staff, and you have a classic recipe for a fantasy story.

Part one of the Legends of Shannara duology, Bearers of the Black Staff tells of the momentous burden that is the black staff: a magical artefact with great and untold powers. For those new to Terry Brooks, this is a perfect introduction to his style, and existing fans will recognise the author's hallmarks.

At the start of the book, the pace is fantastic, and characters are introduced with ease as unexpected events swiftly disrupt the course of daily life in the once-safe valley haven. Towards the end it did taper off a little and there is rather a lot that will need to be taken up in the next instalment of the series, The Measure of the Magic; so I now await the conclusion.

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Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor — book review

August 9, 2011

Daughter of Smoke and Bone by Laini Taylor. Hodder & Stoughton (Sept 2011) '14.99

Reviewed by Rhian Bowley

I demand that two new laws are immediately passed. 1) More books set in Prague. 2) More books by Laini Taylor. Read this and you will understand. With its secretive streets and tall spired towers, the Czech city perfectly suits this gothic, fairytale romance. The pages burst with art and romance, legend and tragedy, with fog and with teeth. Secret portals that cross the globe in a flash. Real angels on the Charles Bridge. This book could not have been set anywhere else.

I was nervous coming to read this ' I adore Taylor's earlier work. This new book, about a girl with naturally blue hair, brought up by monsters, at art school in Prague ' it sounded too good. She has 'true' and 'story' tattooed on each wrist, decorates her flat from Parisian flea markets and wears a necklace made of wishes? And she has kung-fu skills? Too cool. My expectations were bound to ruin it. The book sat on my desk for a week while I tried to calm down.

And then I started it, and ... finished it in less than 48 hours. Finished it breathless, tears in my eyes, aching to read the next part of the trilogy. Which I'm not sure has even been written yet. So, Laini, hurry up, dear. I need more Karou, and more of the secret worlds she is part of.  I want more Morocco, more Prague and much, much more time with her divinely handsome love-interest. I have to find out how the fierce war is won, and who wins it. I hope it's the monsters. You will too.

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Anno Dracula by Kim Newman — book review

August 6, 2011

Anno Dracula by Kim Newman, Titan Books '7.99

Reviewed by Mike Chinn

If you've never read Kim Newman's original vampire mash-up, now's your chance ' as Titan Books reissue this slightly revised edition. Taking the conceit that Dracula won, whilst Van Helsing and his band of vampire hunters are either dead, vampires themselves or damaged goods, Newman launches into a fun Victorian drama.

Characters both real and fictional rub shoulders: the Diogenes Club ' under Mycroft Holmes' guidance ' plots to subvert the Count (now married to a vampire Queen Victoria and styling himself the Lord Protector); London's criminal 'lite ' including Moriarty, Sebastian Moran, Fu Manchu and Raffles (the latter pair never actually named) ' fume as Jack the Ripper's vampire-killing threatens their own empire. In the middle ' charged by both sides ' Charles Beauregard and vampire elder Genevi've Dieudonn' try to stop Jack as Newman gleefully name-checks characters both familiar and obscure (Drs Jekyll and Moreau, Rupert of Hentzau, Graf Orlok, Count Iorga, the Karnsteins, Florence Stoker' It goes on).

And in the days where we expect our DVDs to include extras, this book includes a set of annotations to explain the origins of some of the more obscure characters; as well as a bulging acknowledgements section, afterword, alternate ending (told you it was like a DVD), part of a script based around the book, an article on Jack the Ripper as vampire, and a short story. Phew. Buy it; you know you want to.

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Dangerous Waters by Juliet E. Mckenna — book review

August 6, 2011

Dangerous Waters by Juliet E. Mckenna. Solaris '7.99

Reviewed by Elloise Hopkins

The land is rife with civil war. Archmage Planir watches from afar adhering to the ancient rule that forbids magic in war, but rumours of rogue wizards spread, and innocent lives are in danger. Corrain and Hosh, hardened soldiers captured in the line of duty, are enslaved upon a foreign vessel. Desperate for escape they await the perfect moment to make a bid for freedom, but their actions have a price.

Lady Zurenne, betrayed by those closest to her and unable to claim rights over her own household in the male-dominated society of Halferan, must place her trust in others if she has any hope of preserving her life and the safety of her daughters. An unwitting victim of circumstance, the promise of aid comes from a soldier with a sullied reputation, and a wizard, Jilseth, the powerful Archmage's necromancer. But are either trustworthy or do they have their own ambitions too close to heart?

Dangerous Waters takes place in a now familiar world with some already known characters tangling with exciting new ones. Wizardry, war, intrigue and countless personal struggles, play out in a classic fantasy narrative that gallops along and leaves us wanting more. McKenna's writing gains strength with each series and this is definitely my favourite book so far -- recommended for fans and newcomers alike.

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The Steampunk Bible by Jeff Vandermeer & S.J. Chambers — book review

August 6, 2011

The Steampunk Bible by Jeff Vandermeer with S.J. Chambers. Abrams '16.99

Reviewed by Selina Lock

The first time I saw this book I went "Oooh, pretty" because it is a beautifully designed object, as I would expect from a reference book on Steampunk. I read it from cover to cover, but it is also designed for dipping into.

Vandermeer and Chambers do a good job providing an in-depth but whirlwind tour through their definition of the Steampunk genre. The amusingly titled chapters flow well. The book moves from comparing the writings of Wells and Verne, acknowledged Grandfathers of the genre, through to 1980s re-inventors Powers, Blaylock & Jeters to more recent writers like Cherie Priest. I was pleased to note an interesting chapter on Steampunk inspired comics. Further chapters delve into the world of Steampunk makers/tinkers, artists, fashion, bands (who knew there was such a thing?) before coming back to films and TV, and ending with the future of Steampunk. The emphasis on art and fashion provides a wealth of interesting photographs and illustrations to liven things up.

Steampunk to me suggests Victoriana and steam-powered mechanisms, but I must admit to never having thought about the punk aspect. This volume suggests factions involved in the scene vary, from those interested in the aesthetic to those that incorporate the punk ethic, including a focus on sustainable technology and a DIY attitude. Theories put forward for the rise of interest in Steampunk suggest it is a reaction to the turmoil of technological change, the rejection of a throwaway culture and the desire to explore those issues in a historical setting, all the while rejecting the unpalatable aspects of that setting, such as imperialism and racism.

I'll certainly be seeking out books mentioned in this volume, though I don't think I'll be buying a pair of goggles just yet. If you're at all curious about Steampunk history and culture then I'd highly recommend this book.

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Welcome to Bordertown edited by Holly Black and Ellen Kushner — book review

August 6, 2011

Welcome to Bordertown: New Stories and Poems of the Borderlands edited by Holly Black and Ellen Kushner. Random House $19.99

Reviewed by Jan Edwards

When Terri Windling's Borderland and Bordertown appeared in the late '80s she was not the first by any means to imagine a place that lay between the Realm and the World. But her Bordertown is the construct said, by many, to define the roots of modern Urban Fantasy. Her Bordertown is a land filled with runaways and lost souls in search of those things that we desire the most and never quite manage to attain. That is not to say that this is a volume filled with unremitting angst. It isn't. Its streets are dark and its inhabitants most often darker, yet filled with music and art and esoterica -- that fills us with wonder. If anything the overriding theme of this collection is of dawning realisations and acceptance.

The content dives between short fiction and poetry (and even one short graphic-story) by many of the biggest names in urban fantasy: Jane Yolen, Neil Gaiman, Charles de Lint, Emma Bull, Ti  Pratt, Will Shetterley, Patricia McKillip and many more. Most deal with the rigours of being a 'noob' in the city. In Charles de Lint's 'A Tangle of Green Men', it's all about the getting there; and why. And though most are seen from a World dweller's perspective, 'Incunabulum' by Emma Bull shows what it is to be from the other side, from the Realm, with all of the resultant expectations made of her protagonist by Worlder noobs.

But then expectation is at the root of all that occurs in the streets and back alleys of Bordertown. In amongst the dirt and the fight for survival is the music and the art that make it all worth the while. This is Urban Fantasy as it should be. Excellent collection. Highly recommended.

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The Circle Cast by Alex Epstein — book review

August 6, 2011

The Circle Cast by Alex Epstein. Tradewinds Books '8.95

Reviewed by Misha Herwin

Morgan La Fay is one of the most powerful characters in the Arthurian legends. She is also one of the most mysterious. In The Circle Cast, Alex Epstein gives his take on where she came from and why she played the part she did in Arthur's life. He concentrates on her early life, the missing years, skilfully weaving together a blend of magic, legend and history to give a very convincing picture of Britain in the Dark Ages. The Roman legions have gone, the barbarians are invading and the whole country is plunged into chaos leaving the way open for the rise of a new and legendary leader. Against this background Morgan is faced with questions about who she is and what she wants from her life.   

Alex Epstein is a screenwriter for film and television and the novel is written in short scenes with very straightforward dialogue, which could easily be adapted into a script. The writing is spare, there is little description, but for me the main characters lack depth. For example I would like to feel more for Morgan and have some insight into what she herself is experiencing. However there is plenty of dramatic action and unexpected twists. The ending in particular gives the impression that there will be more to follow and I would certainly want to read on.   

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The Demon Left Behind by Marie Jakober — book review

August 6, 2011

The Demon Left Behind by Marie Jakober. Edge $14.95

Reviewed by Rhian Bowley

Imagine that demons exist, not in some hell dimension but here on Earth, alongside us. Not as evil, scaly things, but as non-corporeal spirits with a 'Prime Directive' which stops them from interfering with humans. Usually. This is the set-up for Marie Jakober's latest novel: a demon's first-person account of a time when she got much more involved with us 'Visibles' than usual.

On a reconnaissance mission to gather information about our affairs, a likeable young demon has gone missing, and must be found if our heroine is ever to regain her position in society. None of the standard demon-tracking methods have worked so, in desperation, she takes on physical form and turns to a human for help. As she experiences daily life in a physical body, starting with curry and music, she begins to change the way she thinks about the world.

I wish that Wye-Wye, the missing demon so frequently referred to, had a more elegant name. But if he has fighting skills like his brethren here, fast enough to be unseen and unhampered by physical trifles like time and space, I wouldn't tell him that to his face. The narrator is, perhaps deliberately, hard to warm to, with a tendency to over-explain, and patronisingly refers to 'our fashion' and 'you Visies'. But Jakober writes some beautiful material on the nature of existence, when she discusses physical and spiritual reality with the human who is helping her. By this point her sensory explorations have taken her, naturally, from curry onto rum and into the small hours. Late-night metaphysical chats feature here more often than fighting, and the slow pacing and intellectual preoccupations make this different from much other urban fantasy.

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The First Collected Tales of Bauchelain & Korbal Broach — book review

August 6, 2011

The First Collected Tales of Bauchelain & Korbal Broach by Steven Erikson. Bantam Press '11.99

Reviewed by Jason E. Rolfe

The First Collected Tales of Bauchelain and Korbal Broach explores the murderous lives of necromancers Bauchelain and Broach, and their hapless manservant, Emancipor Reese. 'Blood Follows', 'The Lees of Laughter's End', and 'The Healthy Dead' are dark and deeply twisted tales that take place within Steven Erikson's Malazan Empire. While they are standalone stories, they are rife with the same madness and the magic of the Malazan Books of the Fallen.

Erikson, whose epic brushstrokes so brilliantly fill a much broader canvass, colours these novellas with an artistry equal to the task. The tales are well told and narrow in scope, seamlessly interweaving their twisted plots and plethoric characters into the vast tapestry of Erikson's imagined world. The stories possess the same intricate iniquity readers have come to expect from Erikson. The title characters have a morbid appeal that succeeds in drawing readers in. Much like Emancipor Reese, readers are swept along by the two dark sorcerers, unwilling, or perhaps unable, to break the spells they have cast.

Told with the same darkly humorous style Erikson demonstrates so well in 'Blood Follows', 'The Healthy Dead' reveals something as yet unseen, or perhaps lost, in Erikson's previous work ' social context. Through the morally devoid, clearly murderous and undoubtedly monstrous necromancers, Bauchelain and Korbal Broach, Erikson gives voice to the dangers of fundamentalist belief. Erikson continues this trend in more recent works like 'Crack'd Pot Trail', but it is in 'The Healthy Dead' that he firmly establishes himself as an author of relevance. 'The Healthy Dead' is an important work, undeniably laced with the same macabre madness fans of Erikson have grown accustomed to, yet filled with a social purpose that clearly demonstrates the author's real-world relevance.

The First Collected Tales should be read, both by fans of Steven Erikson and dark fantasy and by those unfamiliar with both.

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Those Who Fight Monsters: Tales of Occult Detectives — book review

August 6, 2011

Those Who Fight Monsters: Tales of Occult Detectives edited by Justin Gustainis. Edge $14.95

Reviewed by Jan Edwards

This is a fun book that showcases a stream of noir-detectives of the supernatural variety.  That's not to say that all of the detectives are paranormal (though some are certainly non-humans) but their case load is always in that arena. Demons and vamps and were-wolves and mages, and just about every other kind of law-breaking nasty you can think of.

Essentially, Those Who Fight Monsters is a showcase for the various supernatural gumshoes and homicide detectives published, as novels, by Edge, so I imagine that many of the people drawn to reading it will already be familiar with at least some of the writers and their creations. But the whole point of this kind of collection is that in buying it, because you know one or more writer, you'll find new writers that you hadn't come across before. 

It would be hard to pick any stories as favourites, though Julie Kenner's demon-hunting soccer mum in 'The Demon You Know' is huge fun, as is Simon R Green's 'The Spirit of the Thing' (the 'composite' character names raised a few sniggers before the story even started ' read it and you will soon see what I mean).

Those Who Fight Monsters is a solid, if small, selection of urban fantasy detectives as you'll find anywhere. An excellent way to sample-before-you-buy the individual novels.

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