Category Archives: Review

Reviews of books, TV series and other fantasy media.

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.

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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.

Review: The Wheel of Osheim by Mark Lawrence

I think I made it pretty clear in my review of The Liar’s Key that I’m a fan of Mark Lawrence. That being the case, it’s difficult to remain objective. I’ve been excited to read The Wheel of Osheim ever since I turned the last page in The Liar’s Key, and I was fortunate enough to be given an Advanced Reader Copy – cutting short that wait by several weeks. There’s a danger with such anticipation that expectations might be raised to unattainable levels.

And yet Mark Lawrence’s writing manages to attain them anyway.

wheel of oshiem

Now thoroughly swept up in the great events of the empire, womaniser and coward Prince Jalan continues to find himself pulled this way and that by his friends, the manipulations of his royal grandmother, and his own desires. But as the boundaries between worlds decay, the Dead King has more power to send against Jalan to try to seize the Liar’s Key. Jalan’s keen sense of self-preservation and his desires drive him onwards, until there’s nowhere left to go but the titular Wheel – a mysterious force around which the barrier between worlds is thinnest and a man’s fears can take physical form.

The Wheel of Osheim is packed with danger and darkness, yet manages to alleviate it with Jalan’s witty self-aware narrative. There is a depth to the darkness in the world of the Broken Empire, where necromancers can make powerful weapons from murdered babies and raise fallen soldiers to fight against their own comrades. The humour is therefore much-needed, and well-judged.

In this final volume of the Red Queen’s War trilogy, Jalan’s personality is given more depth. For all his self-awareness about his cowardice and vices, he is slowly revealed to have a touching blind spot. His continued refusal to see this even through his own narration of the story shows Lawrence’s skill in portraying the human condition. And as the threat against the Empire becomes inescapable, Jalan comes to accept the duties he has spent most of his life avoiding. In The Liar’s Key, Jalan found selfish reasons to do the right thing; now, when self-preservation is reason enough, he finds himself acting out of duty. He’s grown, little by little.

One again Lawrence has triumphed in creating a compelling tale full of magic, danger and unpredictable twists and turns. He ends the trilogy with a fittingly spectacular conclusion – one which, in what is becoming a tradition with Mark Lawrence’s books, saw me reading far into the small hours of the morning on a work night. Again.

It is with no reservations whatsoever therefore that I rate The Wheel of Osheim 10/10.

Review: The Dragon’s Egg by Pauline M Ross

The Dragon’s Egg is the sixth book in the Brightmoon Annals by Pauline M Ross. Like its predecessors it stands alone, introducing a new cast of characters and bringing in a few from previous books to help the protagonists along. As with the previous books, this latest fantasy adventure explores the strange magics of the Brightmoon world, and how the civilisation from before a mysterious ancient Catastrophe sought to preserve magic as they faced down their own extinction.

Disclaimer: I recieved an ARC (Advanced Reader/Review Copy) of this book in exchange for an honest review.

dragons egg

Continue reading Review: The Dragon’s Egg by Pauline M Ross

Review: The A to Z of You and Me by James Hannah

Usually I stick to fantasy on this blog, with occasional forays into historical fiction and science fiction. I’m making an exception for this book. Partly because I really just want to talk about how awesome it is, and partly because I read it as part of my attempts to read more books written by local authors – Shropshire authors.

The A to Z of You and Me by James Hannah tells the story of Ivo, a terminally ill 40-year-old looking back through his life as part of a game suggested for him by Sheila the nurse at the care home where he now lives. It’s a life of fun, regret, love, pain, friendship and crochet. As time runs out, Ivo uses the A to Z game to put things back together before it’s all too late.

a-z of you and me

Continue reading Review: The A to Z of You and Me by James Hannah

Review: The Fire Mages’ Daughter by Pauline M Ross

After reading The Fire Mages at the end of last year, I was eager to read more from Pauline M Ross, and I picked for my next read the sequel to that one, starring as its protagonist Kyra’s daughter, Drina.

Drina is a rather sickly girl with a strong attachment to her mother, so when she is summoned by the Drashona (equivalent to a queen) who wishes to assess whether she would make a suitable heir, Drina isn’t too happy about it. Drina finds herself trained as a diplomat, and in this role meets with the new living god of the Blood Clans – a mysterious people possessing a strange and threatening type of magic. When Bennamore goes to war with the Blood Clans, Drina must protect those she cares about and see through the complications to bring about peace.

fire mages daughter

Continue reading Review: The Fire Mages’ Daughter by Pauline M Ross

Review: The Fire Mages by Pauline M Ross

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.

fire mages pauline m ross

Continue reading Review: The Fire Mages by Pauline M Ross

Fridge logic of Star Wars: The Force Awakens (SPOILER WARNING)

Today I went to see Star Wars: The Force Awakens. And while it was an enjoyable film, full of pretty much exactly the sorts of things a Star Wars film should have – space battles, lightsabre fights, and so on – there were some things that really stood out when I’d had a little time to think about it, which undermined the story quite significantly.

This post contains major spoilers, so if you don’t want the film spoiled, do not read.

Continue reading Fridge logic of Star Wars: The Force Awakens (SPOILER WARNING)

Review: Star Wars: The Force Awakens (no spoilers)

We’ve been waiting a while for this one. When Disney bought the Star Wars franchise a few years ago we knew there would be more films. I was never quite sure what to expect, though. Would they be better or worse than the prequels? Would they be Disneyfied? Which beloved elements would be kept true to form – and which exploited for cheap recognisability? Would the creators have learned lessons from the prequels?

Star Wars the force awakens

Continue reading Review: Star Wars: The Force Awakens (no spoilers)

Review: Iron Winter by Stephen Baxter

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.

iron winter

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.