Category Archives: Review

Reviews of books, TV series and other fantasy media.

Review: The Etymologicon: A Circular Stroll Through the Hidden Connections of the English Language, by Mark Forsyth

I don’t know if you lot have noticed, but I’m a bit of a nerd. Last year I went to my local library and borrowed The Elements of Eloquence: How to Turn the Perfect English Phrase by Mark Forsyth and enjoyed it so much I bought a copy and then read it again. It now resides on my desk in my “reference” section. So when I spotted The Etymologicon by Forsyth in a bookshop a month ago, I had to go back on payday and buy it.

The Etymologicon is, as the title suggests, about etymology. Forsyth examines the roots of common words and how they connect to one another, in a familiar and engaging style that wanders this way and that through Latin, French, German, Chinese, Greek and all the way back to Proto-Indoeuropean. He fills his account with snippets and quotes that delight and amuse, such as this from the chapter “Dick Snary”:

I do love a pun, and I am impressed that Forsyth has found such an old one. And what better than some word-play to illustrate the history of a book that lists words in a book about the origins of words? Wonderfully approriate!

If you are looking for depth, this isn’t the book for you, since Forsyth lingers only long enough to impart the important information, plus perhaps a tangent or two and and an amusing story, before moving on to the next word. The benefit of this approach is that you never get bored and you’re always learning something new; if you want to delve a little deeper into a word, there’s nothing to stop you heading over to Google or Wikipedia, or Forsyth’s key sources (provided at the end of the book), to find out more.

I rate The Etymologicon 9/10. I thoroughly enjoyed reading it and heartily recommend it to anyone who’s a bit of a word nerd. It’s easy to dip in and out of too, so it would do nicely on a coffee table – or in the bathroom.

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Review: Arm of the Sphinx by Josiah Bancroft

After stealing an airship at the end of Senlin Ascends, Thomas Senlin and his crew still have plenty of hardships to struggle through and places to explore on their journey to find Senlin’s vanished wife Marya. They encounter outcasts, people who live on the edges of society, and people who hide in the shadows, as they continue to work their way up the immense Tower of Babel, ultimately seeking out a mysterious figure known as the Sphinx to get help in their search.

Arm of the Sphinx is the second in the Books of Babel series by Josiah Bancroft.

The fantastic original cover by Ian Leino

Where Senlin Ascends kept to a single point of view, that of protagonist Thomas Senlin, its sequel branches out. Senlin himself remains the primary point of view, but there are also numerous scenes from the perspective of other members of his crew. While this dilutes the focus of the story, it feels like it fits: Senlin is now responsible for other people besides himself, and those people are engaged in parts of the story Senlin never sees.

This widening of the perspective meshes wonderfully with the wider view of the world of the Tower of Babel: where in the first book, Senlin was a newcomer learning about the Tower, now he is an experienced hand with it, a leader to others, still learning but now seeing deeper than the surface level. There is a greater sense of complexity to the world that parallels the wider complexities of a larger cast of point of view characters.

Bancroft has a wonderful talent for building a sense of menace. The more Senlin learns, and the more we learn, the greater the impression that there is a lot going on beneath the surface, a sense of strange occurrences, subversion, manipulation – that nothing is quite as it seems.

There’s also a strong feeling of mystery surrounding the Sphinx in particular, but other characters the crew encounters too. Even as Senlin learns more, there are plenty of questions left unanswered, drawing the reader onward.

Each of the point of view characters is given the space, in their scenes, for the reader to learn about their motivation, their goals and the things that are or have been holding them back. This is balanced beautifully with the action and more tense moments to create a compelling tale that kept me on the edge of my seat, and my finger hovering over the screen ready to turn to the page so not a second would be wasted.

Arm of the Sphinx is a solid second instalment to the quadrilogy*, with all the wonder and exploration of the first in the series and a stronger feeling of sinister undercurrents. It is a natural progression building on the foundations created by its predecessor and full of promise for the rest of the tale.

I rate Arm of the Sphinx 9/10; it is an enthralling, exciting read and I look forward to reading Bancroft’s next book.

See my review of Senlin Ascends here.

*A previous version of this review refered to the Books of Babel series as a trilogy. Mr Bancroft has confirmed here that it is planned to be a series of four, or “foursie” as he prefers to think of it.

Review: Red Sister by Mark Lawrence

Red Sister is Mark Lawrence’s seventh published novel and the seventh I have reviewed, so regular readers may already have some inkling of what to expect from this review. Released in April 2017, Red Sister is the first book in the Book of the Ancestor series. It follows Nona, a young girl from a tiny village, taken in my the sisters of Sweet Mercy Convent – which is no ordinary Earth-style convent, but one which trains girls as fighters and magic users, according to their abilities. Alongside Nona, we are plunged into a world of strange powers and nuanced intrigues.

Red Sister’s striking UK cover

Where his previous two trilogies were set in the world of the Broken Empire, in Red Sister Lawrence has created a new world, and one which is magnificent in its originality and allure. It is a difficult, grim world, where the fight for survival is immediate and constant, and the threat looms quite literally on the horizon. But it is also a beautiful world, painted with icy landscapes, glowing magic and strange architecture. Each new element of it is revealed organically, as Nona becomes aware of it, so that there is never the feeling of exposition but rather a sense of revelation that pulled me forward to learn more with just as much power as did the plot and characters.

Red Sister’s gorgeous US cover

Nona is a fantastic protagonist for this story, perfectly crafted to meet the needs of the story and of the reader. She is self-possessed if inexperienced, confident and private. The path of her growth and development feels natural and intensely sympathetic. Her relationships with the other characters are nuanced, changing over time as she becomes more knowledgable and more confident in her role at the Convent, in a way that demonstrates her increasing maturity as time passes.

It’s hard not to think of the plot overall from a writer’s perspective, so in blunt terms I will mention that it has a solid structure, with a series of well-placed story beats that lead logically through the events, giving a satisfying ending that has a strong sense of where it came from. But that doesn’t do it justice: it is a crafted, woven, elegant plot, with action in all the right places (and that action of the “badass” variety), subtleties and hints beaded into the fabric. All of these little elements – the magic, the setting, the different characters’ roles within the convent, Nona’s skills and approaches – all come together to build something unstoppable and remarkable.

Though not a short book, there is nothing superfluous, nothing that does not have a place in the story; but also no holes for confusion to dwell in, just enough information for the reader to have a full understanding without hand-holding. There is space for the reader’s imagination, but not for ambiguity; a perfect pitch.

I have made no secret, in my previous reviews of Mark Lawrence’s books, that I am definitely a fan. It is, I assure you, well-earned praise, and none more so than for Red Sister. It is a whole and complete book, aware of its position at the beginning of the trilogy but also very much with a full story of its own to tell, and that told brilliantly. I try to avoid giving books a rating of ten, as I feel this should be reserved only for the very best fiction the world has to offer, but in this case I have no reservations: Red Sister gets 10/10.

My previous reviews of Mark Lawrence’s books:

Review: Senlin Ascends by Josiah Bancroft

Thomas Senlin is the quiet headmaster of a small town’s modest school, recently married to the spirited Marya. For their honeymoon, they travel to the famed Tower of Babel, the centre of civilisation – but are separated in the crowded marketplace at the Tower’s base. In his attempts to find Marya, Senlin meets a cast of rogues and mysterious figures, survives strange experiences, and rises through the enigmatic, immense Tower.

The gorgeous cover of Senlin Ascends is by artist Ian Leino.

Senlin Ascends is Bancroft’s first novel, published in 2013.

One of the real strengths of Bancroft’s prose, which I noticed early in the book, was how he used it to reveal Senlin’s personality. On the very first page there is a metaphor comparing shale hills to shattered blackboards, imagery that reveals that Senlin is a teacher even before his name is mentioned in the text. The book sparkles with these allusions, bringing its protagonist to life – and subtly revealing the changes he undergoes as a result of his experiences.

And what experiences they are. The Tower of Babel is a marvel, a world as complex as any I have read, stuffed with strange technologies and bizarre entertainments, social nuances and odd rules. It is populated by predatory merchants, smooth talkers, bitter cynics, self-deluding hedonists and sinister figures. Everyone Senlin meets wants something from him, one way or another, and so he has a difficult path to navigate to avoid the numerous pitfalls laid out for such tourists as he is in the beginning.

Throughout the novel there are intriguing hints that there is something a lot bigger going on than a man in search of his wife. The Tower is a complex world populated by chess masters and manipulators such that Senlin was entirely unprepared for – as was I when I began reading. It drew me on, even as the core plot of Senlin’s search for Marya did.

I rate Senlin Ascends 9/10. It is an engaging adventure set in a wonderfully detailed world. I look forward to reading Arm of the Sphinx.

Review: The Second God by Pauline M Ross

The Second God is the seventh book in Pauline M Ross’s richly fantastical Brightmoon world, and serves as a sequel to The Fire Mages’ Daughter. Five years after a devastating war with the Blood Clans, Drina, her lover Arran and her husband, Ly-haam the living god of the Blood Clans, have settled into a routine, but when a second living god appears in the Clanlands and a mysterious golden army attacks Bennamore’s neighbours in the east, Drina, Arran and Ly must bring all their powers to bear, united as one, to protect Bennamore and aid its allies.

the-second-god

One characteristic held by many good books, I think, is to want to keep reading it after you’ve already finished it. That is how I felt last night as I climbed into bed – “just one chapter, maybe two, then I’ll go to sleep,” I thought, before remembering I’d already finished reading it. That’s not to say the book felt incomplete – far from it, it ended brilliantly – but that I could easily continue reading more in that world, and in Ross’s style, if there were more to read.

Ross has a great strength in her style of prose. It’s engaging, well-paced and eminently readable. She has the skill to know when plain language is needed, but the vocabulary to expand when the scene calls for it.

The Second God is a well-balanced adventure. Drina’s position within society, as the Drashona’s heir, lends itself to the political elements of the plot well, and Ross skillfully avoids the pitfall of making the political elements dry or uneventful, masterfully weaving in these parts of the story with the more hands-on aspects of Drina’s role: flying about the world on the back of a giant eagle to observe, discuss, fight or learn.

Whenever I read books by Pauline M Ross I am delighted to explore more of her world. It is an abundantly complex world about which there is always more to discover. Its magic is enchanting and it is filled with cultures whose development and society are influenced in different ways by that magic and its various facets, as well as geography and history. The beauty of the world is enhanced by the optimism with which Ross writes – even when circumstances are dire and threats loom, there is still a sense of joy and hope which brings a refreshing contrast to the gloomier outlooks of a lot of modern fiction.

As with all of Ross’s works, The Second God explores romantic relationships within different social frameworks to those found in Western Earth cultures, and this time takes it a step further than The Fire Mages’ Daughter by adding a new magical component. But as always, the romance is perfectly integrated into the plot, an essential element of it. As someone who tends not to read the Romance genre, I felt it was handled well.

The Second God is an exciting, captivating read showcasing Ross’s signature positivity, unconventional romance and inspired worldbuilding, with a strong plot and enjoyable characters. I rate it 9/10, and eagerly await the next one.

I received a free ARC in exchange for a review; and can only apologise that the review was so late.

Review: Empire Games by Charles Stross

Empire Games continues the Merchant Princes series, following on 17 years after the events of the earlier books. While the previous books’ protagonist, Miriam, continues as a major character, Empire Games introduces a new protagonist, Rita Douglas, a freelance actor living in a high-security America that’s aware of parallel timelines and extremely paranoid about terrorist attacks from world-walkers. Recruited by the Department of Homeland Security because of her world-walker genes, Rita finds herself railroaded into the role of a world-walking spy. But there’s a lot more going on in the parallel timeline than the US government anticipated.

empire games cover

Continue reading Review: Empire Games by Charles Stross

The Legend of Korra rewatch: book 1, episode 5: The Spirit of Competition

Now that we’re well into the series, with all the key components set up in previous episodes, episode 5 should have given a sense of the true threat of the antagonist, Amon, and his Equalist movement. Instead it felt like a slow-down, a filler episode.

There are two threads running through episode 5: the love triangle and the probending tournament. They’re quite well interwoven, with the emotional impacts of the former affecting the latter. But there’s no real threat. Let’s get into it.

Bolin is so adorable.
Bolin is so adorable.

The episode starts with snow, showing the passage of time and developing a cosy atmosphere. As the Fire Ferrets come in for a team huddle to discuss their training session, looks between characters reveal that Bolin likes Korra, Korra like Mako, and Mako feels uncomfortable. After the training session ends, we see Bolin’s terrible but endearing flirtation technique. He later discusses Korra with Mako, and it’s clear from Mako’s responses, in which he compares Korra to Asami then tries to put Bolin off dating Korra (telling him it’s a bad idea to date teammates, which is good advice but backed up by an ulterior motive) shows that Mako isn’t committed to dating Asami and has feelings about Korra. Korra’s subsequent conversation with Jinora, Ikki and Pema demonstrates she’s interested in Mako too.

By this point, the whole first five minutes of the episode has been focused on romance, with the probending side of it taking a background role. Finally some tournament action starts (and I’ll go into more detail about that in a moment), but it doesn’t last – after Korra is unconvincingly rejected by Mako, she goes on a date with Bolin for fun.

Yeah, Mako doesn't look like he's focused on his relationship with Asami at all.
Yeah, Mako doesn’t look like he’s focused on his relationship with Asami at all.

But before their next match she gets in an argument with Mako about their feelings for one another, kisses him and breaks Bolin’s heart when he sees them. This leads to poor teamwork in the probending arena, before they all realise it’s not worth it and make up. At the end of the episode, the romantic situation is effectively reset, as if none of it happened.

Poor brokenhearted Bolin
Poor brokenhearted Bolin

This romantic subplot is the problem I had with this series the first time I watched it. We’ve got a love triangle here, and it’s so predictable. But it’s also so unnecessary, and that goes doubly for this particular episode. If we just have Bolin start to see Korra as a friend instead of a romantic interest organically through simply knowing her better, and keep Korra and Mako with unacknowledged mutual crushes, very little would have needed to be changed in later episodes to keep the romantic subplot alive. I don’t feel a romantic subplot is necessary at all, but someone did and I can understand the motivation on that, but I think its role in episode 5 is so overdone for cheap drama.

And without the romantic subplot there would have been more time in this episode to set up Tahno and the Wolfbats as a great tournament rival.

So let’s get back to earlier in the episode: at the end of the Fire Ferrets’ training session, Asami brings the new uniforms. She’s tied into the Krew through her father’s sponsorship of the team and her romantic involvement with Mako, and it’s clear she will continue to be an important character, though in this episode she’s still a minor character.

At the team’s first match, the commentator mentions the improvement they demonstrate, and attributes this to more training, as evidenced by the Avatar’s withdrawal from active duty in Councilman Tarrlok’s taskforce. We get the impression that some time has passed and that Korra has been hard at work focusing on her training. The Fire Ferrets’ convincing win illustrates this, and they’re through to the next round.

The Fire Ferrets celebrate their first win
The Fire Ferrets celebrate their first win

When Korra and Bolin are out for a date, Korra finally meets Tahno for the first time – though if she’s been reading her newspapers cover to cover, she’ll already be aware of him as his photograph was in the paper in a previous episode. Tahno is the leader of the White Falls Wolfbats probending team, the reigning champions of the tournament for the last three years, and this encounter shows him as arrogant, vain and not above using underhand tactics, like trying to bait Korra into hitting him, which would disqualify the Fire Ferrets from the tournament.

Tahno thinks he's so smooth
Tahno thinks he’s so smooth, but really he’s just slimy.

It’s a sign of Korra’s restraint, of her personal development under Tenzin’s guidance, that she refused to be baited – but she’s not lost her attitude, and rather than getting into a fight that would have cost her team dearly, she got Naga to roar at Tahno, showing him that she was entirely capable of standing up to him without breaking any rules.

And he's not as brave as he makes out, squealing with fear at Naga's roar.
And he’s not as brave as he makes out, squealing with fear at Naga’s roar.

The Fire Ferrets go on to their next match in a state of disorder thanks to arguments and resentments arising from the romantic subplot – Bolin feeling betrayed by Mako, Korra and Mako angry at one another in spite of their kiss, Korra feeling guilty for having hurt Bolin. They do not perform well, but are saved at the last minute, going through as a result of Korra’s sheer strength and the skills she has learned as a result of their intensive training.

Thankfully Korra's a good enough waterbender, and has luck with her opponents lining up in a row, and manages to make a last-second knock-out.
Thankfully Korra’s a good enough waterbender, helped by luck with her opponents lining up in a row, that she manages to make a last-second knock-out.

With some more time in the episode created by the removal of the romantic subplot, it would have been possible to see more of the Wolfbats, including seeing them in action in the arena against another team – it would, after all, have been a good idea for the Fire Ferrets to observe other matches in order to identify their opponents’ strengths and weaknesses. And not just in the arena, but outside it too – how do they interact with fans or treat other teams in public encounters? The show runners could have built up a picture of the threat the Wolfbats pose to the Fire Ferrets, and perhaps go more into Tahno as a direct rival to Korra.

Instead all we see is the confrontation in the restaurant, and the Wolfbats’ opponents being taken off in stretchers after the shortest match ever, which all happened off-screen while the Fire Ferrets were getting over their earlier romantic conflicts.

08-taken-out-on-stretchers

Overall this episode feels like a step down. Fluff. There’s a dangerous criminal out there who is capable of removing a person’s bending, a man with thousands of followers willing to do actual harm to bending leaders and in particular the Avatar, and what does that Avatar occupy her time with? Crushing on Mako and trying to win a competition. The commentator might appreciate her attitude to training, but I can imagine various journalists writing scathing articles about the Avatar taking time out of fulfilling her duties to Republic City to play a game.

Without the romantic subplot of this episode, there was a lot more it could have achieved in developing Tahno as a character. It could have also acknowledged the threat Amon poses, perhaps with reports that Equalist activity is down, or that a prominent Equalist has been captured or an Equalist hideout has been raided and resources captured – something to show that Tarrlok’s taskforce is active, that the threat is currently reduced and that as such it would not be too inappropriate for the Avatar to focus on probending instead of stopping Amon.

Without Amon even being mentioned, and Korra’s activities attempting to stop him barely being brushed upon, there isn’t any sense of threat in this episode. The romantic drama feels empty and pointless, especially once it’s been resolved. And Tahno and the Wolfbats don’t feel like a serious threat even just to their tournament chances, even though they’re reigning champions, because we don’t see them fighting and cannot compare it to the Fire Ferrets’ matches.

Hopefully episode 6 will be more exciting.

Amon. Fear him. Or, you know, forget all about him for an episode.
Amon. Fear him. Or, you know, forget all about him for an episode.

The Legend of Korra Rewatch: Book 1, Episode 2: A Leaf in the Wind

Apologies for the delay in posting this. I’ve had some problems with my DVD playing software that are now, hopefully, resolved.

The goal of this episode seems to be to introduce two of the series’ main characters: Bolin and Mako, the probending brothers that make up two thirds of the Fire Ferrets. This has been done with a self-contained episode that doesn’t mention the main conflict in the show – Amon and the Equalists – but it does feature prominently Korra’s core personal conflict, her difficulty in learning airbending, and another major theme, Korra in conflict with a figure of authority. Using these conflicts in a scaled-down version of the overall series is an effective way to establish them and their importance in Korra’s story.

It’s a well-structured episode too. It opens with a reminder of the first episode, narrated by the same voice actor as the probending announcer, with the visuals in sepia tone with visual artefacts to give it a feeling of being old, a nice little nod to the time setting of the series, an industrial, almost modern world.

01 sepia opening
All images copyright Nickelodeon. Used under fair use for review purposes.

Continue reading The Legend of Korra Rewatch: Book 1, Episode 2: A Leaf in the Wind

Review: Touch of Iron by Timandra Whitecastle

Touch of Iron is the debut novel and first part in the Living Blade series by Timandra Whitecastle. It follows Nora Smith and her twin Owen as they flee superstition and rumour in their home town and find themselves caught up in a dangerous quest for a legendary weapon, mixing with an exiled prince, a mysterious half-wight, rough warriors and sinister magic-users.

I was given an ARC of this book.

touch of iron
That’s a pretty damn awesome cover.

Touch of Iron is also one of the books involved in Mark Lawrence’s Self-Published Fantasy Blog Off 2016.

Okay, so, first I’ve got to say this: I love Nora. She is such an enjoyable protagonist to follow. She’s full of fire, she’s exciting, she’s relatable and she’s immense fun to read about. I found myself thinking “yeah, right” when she’s told not to do something and rolling my eyes when she did it anyway – then grinning stupidly as I read the antics she got herself into and how she got herself out of them.

And there are plenty of antics to be had. The world of The Living Blade is a magical and dangerous place, a beautifully crafted setting bringing in elements of real-world places and times as well as being inspired by the rich array of worlds fantasy has to offer. It truly is a fantasy world in the best traditions of the genre, melding human communities, dramatic landscapes, dangerous threats and unsettling beliefs into a remarkable setting that frames the story beautifully.

The story is fast paced and full of action as Nora and Owen criss cross the continent pursuing their dreams, fleeing their fears and chasing down the Living Blade with the exiled Prince Bashan, who seeks to wield it to reclaim a throne stolen from him. The witty, engaging narrative makes for enjoyable reading that drew me in and wouldn’t let go – not that I wanted it to.

Whitecastle has included numerous tributes to some of her favourite fiction too, but in subtle ways you wouldn’t notice unless you were a fan too. Including a few allusions to my favourite animated TV series, Avatar: The Last Airbender. They’re well done – enough to make me smile upon recognising them, without disrupting the flow.

I am thrilled to have been offered the opportunity to read Touch of Iron and enjoyed every moment of it. Once I started it was hard to put down, and in fact this may be the fastest I’ve read a book this year – under 36 hours from the first page to the last, and then I read the afterword because I didn’t want to put it down! It can hardly be surprising, therefore, that I rate it 10/10.

I hope Touch of Iron does well in the Self Published Fantasy Blog Off.

A quick note about my reviews

I am being spoiled at the moment with my reading material. Utterly utterly spoiled. Every book I read is an absolute gem, whether it is a fantasy epic by one of my favourite authors, an historical adventure romance by a debut author, or a non-fiction tale of the author’s love for Iceland (no ideas? Check out my Goodreads page.)

That makes me a little worried. If I keep telling my readers that the book I’ve just read was fantastic – 9 or 10 out of 10, 4 or 5 stars – will you stop believing me? Should I seek out books that other reviewers didn’t much care for so I can put in a 6/10 to balance things out? Should I divide my ratings into fractions and suggest a book is 9.5/10, 8.75/10, 9.3141592/10? Of course not. That would be silly and quickly cease to be useful. It would be all too easy to plunge into ever more decimal places as I weigh up whether this book, that I think is 9.5, is better or worse than that last book that I gave 9.5 to, and should it thus be a 9.3 or a 9.4? I want to spend my review time reviewing, not agonising over a number.

I will reiterate, though, that my reviews are all unpaid (though I do accept Advanced Reader/Review Copies where offered), that they all reflect my feelings as honestly as I can convey them, and that, as with all reviews, they are subjective. They are my own interpretations and impressions, from the point of view of an avid reader and a writer (I hate that phrase “aspiring author”; I write. Every single day. Those of you who follow my monthly updates to my One Million Words challenge know that.)

I try to consider different aspects of each story – the characters, the plot, the prose, the pacing, the worldbuilding. After I finish a book I intend to review I create space afterwards to let my thoughts settle. This is because, the moment I finish a book it is all aswirl in my mind, the mood of the final pages – the excitement, elation, victory, suspense or sadness – dominates my feelings. With some I wait a week or more, but usually it’s a day or two – long enough to sleep on it, to let it sink in, to give my mind time to catch up with the words my eyes might have raced over in my enjoyment.

In the end, though, it does come down a lot to taste. I don’t claim to have the most refined taste, but I am not inexperienced in reading fantasy. I do hope, though, to find that at least some people out there possess a similar taste to my own when it comes to fantasy books and the styles and voices of the authors in this genre, and find my reviews helpful for deciding whether or not to read something. Just as I have found where my tastes align with a blogger, a friend, or my sister, that I can therefore take recommendations on the reasonable expectation that I will agree.