The Fire Mages by Pauline M Ross is an imaginative fantasy novel which tells the story of Kyra, a young village girl with an ambition to become a scribe and have the ability to write spellpages – and leave her boring village behind. She meets interesting and mysterious characters, learns about magic, and travels far and wide as she learns more about magic, the politics of her home country, and herself.
Iron Winter is the third book in the alternate history Northland trilogy by Stephen Baxter, set in a world where the prehistoric peoples of Doggerland, a region of land which once linked Britain to the rest of Europe, built an immense wall to hold back the sea, and with it a powerful civilisation. Iron Winter follows the stories of several Northlanders and others, millennia after the wall was built, as they struggle to survive amidst the start of an ice age – with glaciers advancing, huge numbers of people migrating and great empires going to war. Pyxeas is a scholar in search of answers; Rina, once an Annid, a leader of Northland seeks to protect her family by migrating to Carthage. Her son Nelo likes nothing more than drawing and painting the people and landscapes that inspire him, but finds himself witness at the heart of the big events of the world.
With the multiple perspectives of characters experiencing different facets of the disaster, Baxter creates a depth to the story that grounds it in humanity. Each character has unique experiences of the advancing winter, and drives their own story – and influences those of others – through their desires, wants and flaws. This is not merely the story of climate change, mass migrations, plague, and empires in conflict, it is the story of individuals battling to survive, to understand, to record and to prosper under circumstances they are not prepared for and could never have predicted.
The weakness, with regards the characters, is emotional depth. While each character has goals and motivations, flaws and skills, they lack emotional depth. The sheer number of characters cannot be blamed for this, I think, since other facets of their personalities are clear. The result is that the emotional moments – the moments of loss and grief, of fear and revelation – don’t have much impact.
Iron Winter is quite a long book, dense with story and action. There are perhaps some scenes which could have been cut without much lost, and others which dragged, but overall the story is well-paced, with strong if emotionally shallow characters and plot lines which pull the reader onwards. The story feels organic, the plot developing naturally on the basis of the decisions of the characters.
I rate Iron Winter 8/10. It is a powerful and dramatic story with varied characters giving unique perspectives, but lacks emotional depth. It’s a good read, and a strong conclusion to a fascinating trilogy.
The Stockholm Octavo, by Karen Engelmann, is an historical novel set in Stockholm in the late 18th century. It follows Emil Larsson, a Sekretaire working in customs, who has been told by his employer that he needs to marry in order to retain and improve his job and his social position. The enigmatic Mrs Sparrow performs a mystical card reading called an Octavo for Larsson, giving him hints of eight people whom he must find in order to find the love and connection her vision has foreseen for him. Larsson’s story is set within a period of unrest and political intrigue which influences and is influenced by Larsson’s aims.
Okay so here’s the thing. It’s no secret I’m a fan of Mark Lawrence. I read his first book, Prince of Thorns, and I was hooked. I’ve reviewed every book as he’s released them – beforehand, in one case, since I managed to get hold of an ARC. I pre-ordered The Liar’s Key in September last year. Mr Lawrence has got a great voice to his prose, one that keeps me reading – this time round til 1:30am two nights running – and fantastically fun protagonists. There was never any doubt in my mind that once again he’d pull it off and I’d of course review his book and say it’s great. Which it is.
And therein lies the problem. There’s only so many ways you can say “this author’s great”. But I’ll see what I can manage.
I popped into my local library this morning, and saw they had a Mystery Books shelf – books wrapped up in brown paper, their titles and covers obscured. This is an idea I’ve seen on the internet a few times, and I’m thrilled my local library has latched onto it – though they’ve gone even further than some of the versions I’ve seen, and have given no information at all, where other libraries have given the genre, the title, or one or two key points of what sorts of things to expect. So I picked up one of the books, and I plan on adding it to my A Year for More Reading list.
Before I unwrap it, I’ll describe it: it’s a hardback, maybe about the same size as most of my hardbacks, though not very thick. What I assume is the front (it’s got the sticker with the catalogue number on that side) has the cover jutting out further than the back, so it’s probably been well used. So let’s see what it is then.
I’ve unwrapped it to reveal The Bishop’s Tale by Margaret Frazer. On the cover is a picture of a wooden chalice and a walnut, standing on a surface covered with a green cloth; in the background is a wooden cross on a wall. Quotes on the back cover indicate it’s historical fiction, so it sounds like it might fit in nicely with the Cadfael books I was reading over Christmas and New Year.
Inside, the last dates it was borrowed are May 2013 and May 2012, so it’s not been a popular loan recently, though there are multiple loans for every year from 2006 to 2010, and the stamp suggests it’s mostly been housed in a different library in the county, in a town much smaller than my town. There’s a page listing books by the same author, twelve of them, so this isn’t the first in the series.
The blurb on the inside cover – mentioning death and mystery as investigated by a nun – suggest I might be right about it fitting right into the same vein as Cadfael.
Time to get reading.
I started reading The Ocean At the End of the Lane by Neil Gaiman on Sunday evening. I stopped reading it when I could no longer keep my eyes open, having got more than half way through. Yesterday, on Tuesday, I finished reading it half an hour after I got home from work. So it’s safe to say I enjoyed it.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane starts with George, a man in his forties, having come from a funeral and returning to visit the place where he grew up. What he finds there is a duckpond which is also an ocean, and the key to memories of a time when he was seven and he learned that the world was more magical, and more dangerous, than he realised. The book contains menacing beings, enchanting visuals and a family of very intruiging women. And also several cats.
It is a powerful story about memories, about childhood, and about how perspectives change between childhood and adulthood. I also think it is about belief: belief in friends, in oneself, and to a certain extent in things that aren’t seen.
It’s taken me as long as it has to write this review because it’s very difficult to come up with new and different ways of saying “it was awesome” for the length that I usually like to write a review. When writing is this good, it’s hard to pick out anything in particular to comment on; it’s hard to think about the writing at all, when it is written so seamlessly that mere words go unnoticed within the magic of the story.
So I suppose that makes a good starting point: the flow and pacing were spot on. There was no part where I felt the writing moved too slowly or too quickly for the content of the story. I finished this book in three sittings, and at the end of each I stopped for reasons which are not the fault the book – sleepiness, dinner being ready, and, okay, yes, the third one is the fault of the book; there was none of it left.
The only occasions I did have enough self-awareness to notice the writing was twice when I noticed how well chosen particular phrases were to give an impression of a visual in a masterful economy of words.
One of those visuals, of a scattering of candle flames and silk, really encapsulated one side of the magic of the world: it is full of enchantment and wonder. It is beautiful and beyond reason, and there is a comfort to its presence. The other side of the magical world mirrored it perfectly, with sinister creatures which felt genuinely creepy and dangerous, even before they actually became dangerous.
The Ocean at the End of the Lane gives also a very good example of how a prologue and epilogue can be used effectively to frame a story, while being both relevant to it and slightly outside it. They brought the story full circle, and gave insight into the characters and the world which could not be told from the perspective of the seven-year-old George.
This is a book I want to read again. It’s definitely going on my favourites shelf (the top shelf, alongside Howl’s Moving Castle). I am not at all surprised that it won the National Books Awards 2013 Book of the Year award. And after everything I have written above, I suspect you will not be surprised when I rate it 10/10.
Prince of Fools is the fourth novel by Mark Lawrence, and the first of the new Red Queen’s War series. It takes place concurrently with the Broken Empire series, which I’ve reviewed previously (here, here and here). Prince of Fools follows Jalan Kendeth, one of several princes of Red March, a self-confessed coward and womaniser, who finds himself at the mercy of mysterious spell which magically binds him to a Viking named Snorri ver Snagason, who is on a rescue mission northwards. They battle mercenaries and undead beings, as Jalan seeks ways to break the spell and run away home. They even – briefly – encounter the Broken Empire protagonist Jorg on the way, along with a few other characters from that series.
It is difficult to review this book without comparison to the Broken Empire series. Where Jorg was violent and ambitious, the narration of Prince of Fools via Jalan’s point of view has more fun to it. Wittier and with a lively frankness at times. For those who frowned at Jorg’s darkness, Jalan’s morality may be more appealing; he is no golden paragon, but he does not have Jorg’s murderous ambition. That’s not to say he’s any less driven – just in different directions. I find Jalan an enjoyable character to follow, fun in many respects, with a depth to his personality that lends him interest and promises that the remainder of The Red Queen’s War will be just as good.
While Jalan himself doesn’t match Jorg for darkness, the book overall does. Lawrence has developed some very sinister undead beings that inspire horror on more than one level. Their inclusion lends the plot great menace and reiterates what was revealed in the Broken Empire trilogy, that the world in which these stories are set is a very dark, broken one indeed.
With a smaller core cast and a strong secondary character, I felt that Lawrence did better than he did in the Broken Empire series in showing the personalities of characters beside the protagonist. Snorri’s personality came through very well, both the highs and lows of his character – such that it’s clear that he has as much depth to him as Jalan.
The plot was strong, with a sense of direction from the outset that gave the story the feeling of there being a definite goal, even if it wasn’t initially clear what or where the goal was. The events that paved the plot’s path were neither predictable nor dull, but made sense in the context of the story and kept things moving, while revealing character for both the key figures. The story ended well, with action and menace, darkness and lightness, and the promise of fresh adventure and different kinds of challenges in the next book.
For someone who has read the Broken Empire, there were some references back to that series, without taking the story off course to allow for them. A few little references to things outside that series, too, gave reward to wider readers of fantasy, or even anyone aware even of general culture, again in a manner which did not detract from the story or characters but which would produce a laugh. I won’t spoil them, but I did enjoy the circus sign and the name of the longboat they travel on.
Overall I rate Prince of Fools 10/10. I cannot find fault with it. Well paced, populated with interesting and varied characters and in particular a protagonist with depth, a plot with adventure sometimes exciting and sometimes dark – and occasionally both. A world which grows in depth and darkness with every chapter. And promise that The Red Queen’s War will continue to possess the same strength and enjoyment as it continues.
The Tattered Banner by Duncan M Hamilton tells the story of Soren, a young man living on the streets who, after a fight with a merchant, finds sponsorship from a wealthy aristocrat to learn sword fighting at the prestigious Academy, a ticket out of his old life and into a new life of fighting, diplomacy and politics.
The Three Fingers of Death by Tristan Gregory is a short fantasy tale set in the same world as The Swordsman of Carn Nebeth, which I previously reviewed here. Jon the smith, briefly seen in the earlier story, seeks out a master to teach him parts of his craft that have been largely forgotten, shunned because of the involvement of magic.
I read this story very quickly – all in one day. The prose is accessible and the tone is gentle, making this story very easy to consume. It has quite a storyteller-like voice. Where in Carn Nebeth, the voice was quite immediate, this is more of a “sit down by the fire and listen to my tale” sort of voice, and because of the time scale involved – the story takes place across years – this voice fits well.
The first book in the Heartland trilogy, Under the Empyrean Sky by Chuck Wendig is a Young Adult novel. It tells the story of Cael, a dissatisfied young man living in a dystopian world where wealth floats on sky flotillas and below on the ground inedible predatory maize corn is grown for fuel. Cael and his friends fight for survival, seek to improve their worsening lot in life, and dream about escaping the Heartlands and living in luxury in the sky above.
Under the Empyrean Sky has good momentum, carrying the reader forward in a manner than defies and denies sleep. The pacing is fast – perfect for the intended audience (which is a bit younger than me) – but with enough space left for character development, establishing the world, and the all-important suspense.