Friday, 14 December 2018

Review: The Prince of Cats

The Prince of Cats is an adventure novel about a thief in a fictitious medieval Arabian city. We meet Jawad, our hero, in a dungeon, awaiting his fate. Instead of the executioner, a private guard comes to visit him, to interrogate him about the Prince of Cats - an infamous thief. Jawad offers up just enough information to be useful, so he is taken from the dungeon and put in the service of a rich trader. His task: to catch the Prince of Cats, and to protect the wealth of the merchant.

The novel does the handwaving, vaguely Arabic thing that some stories do - infatuated with the aesthetic, but not willing to locate the novel in one place or time. Its setting is basically the world of the tales of "Arabian Nights", only there is no magic, there are no djinn, and there is no Islam. It's not really a fantasy setting, nor history.

So we get street rats, slaves, guards, gangs of thieves, rich merchants trading silk and dyes, jewels and silver and gold. We get Arabic names and words (medina, haramlik, etc - I assume it's Arabic rather than Ottoman, but cannot be sure as I don't know any of the languages of the Middle East). And we get the threat of thieves' hands being chopped off, a lot of socialising over tea, and advances in astronomy and mathematics. On the other hand, we also get a gay character, and women characters who have a relatively high degree of autonomy and independence.

Between the setting and the adventure filled plot, the novel makes for an easy read. Jawad keeps his plans and schemes to himself, so the reader might see what he does, and get glimpses of his thoughts, but anything that relates to why he does the things he does, or what he plans to do, is withheld until it happens / comes to fruition. Even so, some plot twists are not hugely surprising.

What was a bit surprising is just how much Jawad gets put through the wringer in the book. Clearly, the author is of the Jim Butcher school of thinking, throwing his protagonist into ever deeper piles of shit, peril and torture. Unfortunately, I did not find that this made me feel more worried about the character, or more invested in him. He tries to play it cool, so as a reader, I shrug off his pains quite easily.

By far the biggest problem the book has is that Jawad has virtually no friends. He has some connection with two old men who both seem to suffer from the early stages of Alzheimer's, but they aren't his peers / mates, but acquaintances he feels fond of. He also slowly grows slightly attached to two people in the merchant's household, but keeps them at arm's length and ultimately proves himself unworthy of their trust.

The Thief of Cats is entertaining, but not brilliant, not breathlessly paced, not so engrossing that you can't put it down. Its characters are okay, but not charismatic or mysterious or memorable enough to feel very strongly about them. It's basically the sort of novel that you might get if you took The Lies of Locke Lamora, set it in an Arabian setting, and toned down all the  excitement by a notch, and took out any Locke-Jean bromance (and any other close friendship).

Fans of Harry Dresden novels are likely to find this book right up their street - it's on a par with that series.

Rating: 3/5

Monday, 3 December 2018

Review: The Mortal Word by Genevieve Cogman

The Mortal Word is the fifth novel in the Invisible Library Series. I happen to be a huge fan of the series, and have been since the start. In fact, a small quote from my review of the Invisible Library adorned the second novel as a recommendation blurb, which I was delighted about when I saw it. So it won't be a huge surprise that I enjoyed The Mortal Word.

In terms of plot, we join Irene as she's once again on a mission to steal an important book. This time, she's in a Austrian castle in a time of inquisition and witchhunting led by a sadistic paranoid Count, and she's in chains, in the dungeon, awaiting her interrogation...

It's almost a bit like the pre-credit sequences in old James Bond movies: a mini-adventure, featuring action, chases, peril and adventure. For a book about a Librarian Spy, it's a great way to start. After that adventure is over, Irene soon finds herself drawn into the main story. Her friend Vale (a Sherlock Holmes type) is needed to solve a murder at a peace conference between dragons (agents of order) and fey (agents of chaos). Irene is the Invisible Library's chosen delegate to the investigation, and she'll have to work with colleagues from the draconic and fey sides, and Vale, to prevent war, further murders, the end of the universe as we know it, all while trying to solve a murder in a post-revolutionary Paris.

One of the nice things about this series is that there isn't huge fluctuation in the quality of the novels. They are all good, pleasant fun. I'd swear that previous books tended to be a little funnier, but it could also be a case of my sense of humour getting rustier since the last book came out. Irene is highly competent but humble and self-conscious, as always, while the main plot is filled with enough action and suspense to keep the reader entertained. It's perhaps a little predictable (I pretty much knew who the baddie was from the start), but that in itself is comforting in a light entertainment read. (It's not as if one reads Harry Potter expecting the overarching story to be unpredictable and full of surprises).

I read the book having forgot some of the events from previous novels and had no difficulties with the story, so chances are it could be read as a standalone. The cast of recurring characters is small and the dynamic between them is fairly straightforward. I would still recommend starting with the first book and reading the series in order, as each book follows on from the one before, but a reader starting with this one won't struggle to get into the swing of things.

Rating: 4/5

Now, below the break a postscript / discussion:

Tuesday, 27 November 2018

Worldbuilders Annual Fundraiser 2018

If you are a fan of fantasy and science fiction books, chances are that you have come across the novels of Patrick Rothfuss. They're wonderful.

However, this isn't a post about his fiction. This is a post about his other wonderful work: the Worldbuilders charity fundraising efforts. Worldbuilders exists to raise money for charities that make the world a better place - primarily Heifer International, which helps families in poor communities by providing them with training and resources like bee hives, goats, chickens, cows, so that they can build up a regular income and a small business.

But Worldbuilders doesn't just ask for money. Worldbuilders offers fantastic goodies, which you can buy, bid on in auctions, or win through a massive raffle. There are literally thousands of books, games, paraphernalia, services for writers and other geeky bits of joy. So if you want something in return for doing good, you can either enter the lottery to win things, or buy stuff outright.

Have a look at Pat's blog posts about Worldbuilders. He's a nice guy who is running himself ragged trying to bring goodness to the world, and his achievements are phenomenal (even if he is wracked by anxiety about his efforts). Or read the summary on the Worldbuilders blog - it's the tenth anniversary of Worldbuilders this year.

This year, Worldbuilders runs from November 27, 2018 through December 11, 2018, and I decided to promote it here on my blog. 

Monday, 26 November 2018

Review: The Bedlam Stacks by Natasha Pulley

The Bedlam Stacks is a historical fantasy novel set in Victorian Britain and Peru. The narrator, Merrick Tremayne, starts the story as a crippled man, physically and mentally, living in a dilapidated former mansion with his vicious, even more crippled brother Charles.

Charles was crippled by polio: he may be snobbish, bitter and mean, but he rules the home with confidence and an iron hand. Merrick, on the other hand, was badly injured during a skirmish in China. A tall, strong man before the injury, this experience has left him a shadow of his former self, wandering around in a dream-like fugue and letting himself be bullied by Charles.

When Charles tries to ship him off to a parsonage and threatens him with sending him to an asylum, Merrick despairs. Fortunately, an old friend, Clem, pops by to drag Merrick away to go exploring and adventuring. Their mission is to smuggle some cuttings for cinchona trees out of Peru, as those trees are the world's only source of quinine, which is the only medication with any effect on malaria. Merrick's erstwhile bosses at the East India Company (recently nationalised and turned into The India Office) are desperate to break Peru's monopoly so they can get quinine cheaper by growing cinchona trees themselves. For the same reason, Peru is very keen not to let any cinchona trees, seeds or cuttings leave the country: Peru relies on this income. Merrick, it turns out, was a highly accomplished smuggler of plants prior to his injury.

Once Merrick and Clem reach Peru, the expedition soon finds itself in the hands of a native guide, Rafael, who is forced onto them by an overly polite, but unsettling and sinister landowner. The landowner calls everyone 'dear' and 'darling' while ruthlessly bullying Rafael and carefully threatening the others - I felt reminded of Leonardo di Caprio's character in Django Unchained.

As they trek through jungle and mountains, Clem and Rafael don't get along. Merrick, however, is fascinated by their unreadable companion. Then, the landscape starts to get strange...

The Bedlam Stacks does not read like a fantasy novel. It moves at the sedate pace of a historical novel and it is full of historical entities and characters. (Clem is the explorer and anthropologist Sir Clements Markham, one of whose books, a translation of Apu Ollantay, I reviewed a while ago).  Elements of the fantastic are introduced fairly gradually and deadpan, so the reader encounters most of them with the expedition, in a mysterious faraway place (darkest Peru). It might take some readers a while to figure out that they are reading fantasy, not history. Personally, I found it a bit weird and old-fashioned, this gradual revelation of the fantastic in our world. It felt like the author was somewhat interested in the real world and real history, but got bored and had to resort to adding more and more magical elements to create wonder.

Perhaps I would not have spent so much time taken aback by the interweaving of fantastical and historical if I'd liked the characters better. Merrick is not a very nice guy, when he regains his faculties. He's okay on his own, but bizarrely meek around Clem, and his past is hardly that of a decent man. Clem is a toff and a plank and a tosser in this novel. (I wonder if the real Clements Markham was anything like the obnoxious idiot in the book. I hope not.) The most interesting character is Rafael, but he doesn't feel real. He's a Catholic priest, but also somehow connected with native beliefs. At Martel's place, people respond to him as if he's terribly dangerous, but there is no reason why he should be seen that way. He occasionally makes bitter, hate-filled remarks about Indians that, from a white character, would be racist, but he is Indian himself, so it's ok. He's mysterious, unpredictable and interesting and, in the end, unconvincing.

The story progresses at a stop-and-go pace that is quite odd. Long periods of people stuck in one place happen, followed by some chapters where movement and tension occur. Then, as the tension goes up, the novel puts in some very long flashbacks to slow things down again. 

The Bedlam Stacks is an unevenly paced, confused novel, with characters who are intriguing but not quite likeable, and an unreality to the people that is tougher to swallow than the interwoven fantasy elements. It's not a bad novel, but it doesn't live up to the potential of its setting and ideas.

Rating: 3/5

Friday, 23 November 2018

10 Brilliant Books You've Never Heard Of: Perfect Gifts For Bookaholics

A couple of years ago, I wrote a list of Brilliant Books You've Never Heard Of. As Christmas is coming up, I thought it's time to update and expand the list!

Below are a few awesome books which even your bibliophile friends probably haven't read yet. These are books which probably never made it to a Waterstones 3 for 2 table, books which don't appear on the Goodreads shelves of avid readers I follow. Some are older books, which were moderately successful in their time, but which are largely unfamiliar to millennials. So, you know, perfect gifts.

Mood: Happy, Adventurous

For those who like fun-filled stories filled with thrills and adventure
The \ Occasional / Diamond Thief is a YA adventure scifi novel.

Kia Ugiagbe, is a 15-year-old girl on a distant planet. On her father's deathbed, he reveals a secret: hidden at the back of a drawer, there is a huge diamond. Her father, she realises, must have stolen it!

Fast paced, fun, and tense, The Occasional Diamond Thief is great fun. Kia is easy to root for: she's hard-working, not brilliant at everything she does, but dedicated. She has a sense of humour and just the right amount of cheek.

There is a sequel, which is just as good. Read my full review, then buy the books as a gift or for yourself!
The Dragons of Heaven is set in a world where superheroes and some kinds of magic are real.

Our hero is Mr Mystic. Able to control shadows and even drift from the 'real' world into a shadow realm, Mr Mystic is a fedora wearing, British-sounding, Chinese-magic-wielding martial arts expert. Oh, and she's also a woman, Missy Masters, who inherited the superpowers from the original Mr Mystic.

If you want a book that is fun, funny, thrilling, a bit romantic and sexy, joyful, whip-smart, and a good romp, this really should be up your street.

Read my full review, then buy the books as a gift or for yourself!

Mood: Literary, coming of age, but exciting

For those who like coming of age novels with complexity, warmth and a plot that moves. 
The Chicken Soup Murder is told from the perspective of Michael, a primary school boy about to move on to "Big School".

However, all is not well in his world. His best friend's father has recently died. His neighbour's dog has died. And now his neighbour Irma is dating a policeman, whose son bullies Michael.

Then, Irma dies, and Michael suspects foul play.

The Chicken Soup Murder is a warm, addictive, gently amusing novel about the everyday tragedy that is death, but also a novel about childhood and growing up.

Read my full review, then buy the books as a gift or for yourself!
Konstantin is a biographical novel about a boy growing up in Russia,and becoming an oddball young man.

Konstantin is a boy with a huge imagination. After losing most of his hearing, he spends the rest of his life a bit removed from his peers. However, this is not at all a misery book. Konstantin is full of infectious enthusiasm, permanently fascinated, and brave, even foolhardy.

Beautiful prose and the energetic protagonist make this a joyful book. Read my full review of Konstantin to find out more.
Jasmine Nights is a coming-of-age novel set in 1963 Thailand. It’s the story of Little Frog / Justin, a 12-year-old boy from a very rich family. Justin is a somewhat eccentric, aloof boy. Then, he is gradually nudged out of his shell by his grandmother, and by the kids who live next door...

Jasmine Nights is a story touching on race and prejudice, finding out about sex, Thailand, the periphery of the Vietnam War, different social classes, but above all else, it is the story of a lonely boy becoming slightly less lonely and growing up a little. Amusing and complex, it reminded me of To Kill a Mockingbird.

Read my full review of Jasmine Nights to find out more.

Mood: Literary Science Fiction and Fantasy

For those who like their speculative fiction thoughtful and ambitious.
The Falling Woman is a classic that few millennials will have read. It won a Nebula Award in 1987.

Elizabeth is an divorced archaeologist on a dig in Central America. She can glimpse ghosts of the past, especially at dusk and dawn. One day, one of the spectres looks at her and starts to talk...

Diane is her daughter, joining her on her dig after a bereavement. Diane hasn't seen Elizabeth since childhood, and isn't sure what she has gone out to find.

The story builds up its world and characters one step at a time. Gradually, it gains tension, a sense of the uncanny, a foreboding feel... Read my full review, then buy the books as a gift or for yourself!

Sequela is the debut novel of a Scottish poet. It tells the story of a scientist whose job is to create sexually transmitted viruses (STVs). In this future, STVs have become fashionable: they indicate whom one has slept with. Each symptom pattern is linked to different powerbrokers, and every 'player' is trying to have the most rarefied rash pattern.

It's high concept, but really, this is a character-based thriller. The tension comes from social interactions, from office politics, from personal relationships and how they develop...  It's a unique and frighteningly convincing novel.

Read my full review of Sequela to find out more.
The Beauty starts years after all the women have died. Men and boys have survived, seemingly unaffected by the bizarre fungus plague that wiped out womankind. It's a very short novel. It's postapocalyptic, it's horror, it's science fiction and it's unlike anything I've read: it's full of ideas, atmosphere and the uncanny, and it sticks with you long after you'd finished reading.

Read my full review of The Beauty to find out more.
In Great Waters is set in an alternative history where merpeople are real. They are not like humans: fiercer, more direct, more single-minded. They can interbreed with humans, which results in physical and mental differences. Thus we meet Henry / Whistle, a crossbreed who is born in the sea but grows into adulthood among humans.

In Great Waters is outstanding because of its immersive, gradual worldbuilding. Tension builds up slowly: by the time your fascination is satisfied, the story has sneakily turned into a thriller that can't be put down.

Read my full review of In Great Waters to find out more.

Mood: Childlike awe and terror

For those who remember how big and wonder-filled and scary the world was when we were kids... or for kids.
Oy Yew is a tiny boy who grows up sustaining himself on crumbs and the smells of food. One day, he is forced into servitude, first in a factory, then in a country mansion. His comrades in slavery are other waifs, children who arrived as boat people on tiny rafts.

But things are about to go from bad to worse: How come there have been so many accidents lately? What secrets lurk in the sinister Bone Room? And why is Master Jep suddenly so interested in Oy's thumbs?

This is a fantastically atmospheric novel. It's uncanny and tender and beautiful.  Even as an adult reader, I was on the edge of my seat. Read my full review, then buy the books as a gift or for yourself!

What books would you add to the list?

Have you read any excellent, but underrated / not very widely known books lately? Add a comment, give some recommendations!

Sunday, 18 November 2018

Review: Lies Sleeping by Ben Aaronovitch

Lies Sleeping is the seventh novel in Ben Aaronovitch's Rivers of London series. Chances are, if you like urban / contemporary fantasy, you will have given this series a try by now. If not: go out and buy Rivers of London right now. It's the first novel, and the beginning of the best urban fantasy series ever written.

Peter Grant is a Detective Inspector by now, having worked his way up from rookie (and apprentice wizard) to trusted professional (and ok wizard, though it seems his magical abilities have plateaued and aren't growing much between volumes). At this point in the series, the support cast includes dozens of people, including lots of policeman officers, extended families of Peter and the Rivers, several scientists / medics, and even a few others who are learning wizarding through officially sanctioned channels. So even though I've read every book, I struggled a bit to keep track of who's who. I may have to re-read the series in one go at some point.

One of the reasons the cast is so enormous is that this is the book of a major police operation, nicknamed "Operation Jennifer", with the aim of sorting out the Faceless Man problem once and for all. Meanwhile, Martin Chorley, the Faceless Man (an evil wizard) is busy, busy, busy, scheming to achieve some big objective that might change the world (or London) forevermore...

So far, the series has largely been alternating between "Faceless Man" novels (the even numbered ones) and "archetypal myth" novels (the odd numbered ones). I have consistently enjoyed the ones featuring some archetypal, atmospheric, folkloric style myths more. The Faceless Man could have been interesting, I guess, but after a big intro, his mystique fizzled out quickly. Now he's just plain Martin Chorley, bereft of charisma or mystique, and not really the creepy supervillain that he started out as. More powerful than Peter, but easily matched by Nightingale. So an odd-numbered novel about him felt a bit like it's cheating me out of one of the good ones. (They're all good, but the ones with little or no Faceless Man are simply better).

So, big police operation, Faceless Man, cast list of dozens... Lies Sleeping is not the most accessible novel. Anyone unfamiliar with the series won't find much to enjoy, and those familiar with it need a really good memory. On the bright side, Lesley is in this a lot, and her former place has been taken by Guleed, so Peter has a kick-ass female sidekick again, this time with a hijab, but otherwise very old-Lesley-like. Even better, we meet someone similar to Molly, and the sub plot around her is the best thing about the book (aside from a cameo by talking foxes). Despite those highlights, the book has the usual faceless-man-novel problem of being complicated, messy, and feeling a bit by-the-numbers, so it's not one of the highlights of the series. But this is the sort of series where even the weak entries are not bad.

Bring on the next one!

Rating: 3.5/5

Monday, 12 November 2018

Review: The Singing Mountaineers: Songs and Tales of the Quechua People by José María Arguedas & Ruth Stephan

The Singing Mountaineers is a book about the songs and folk tales told by Quechua speakers in South America. Quechua being the language that the Inca empire required all its subjects to learn, this means people living in the Andean region, from Ecuador to Bolivia, but primarily in Peru.

Published in 1957, the book is sadly of its time. Sentences like "Since the Andean people have always been a singing, a poetically disposed, race, the songs have their own proud past." or "Their race is noted for its ancient skill in catching and taming animals instead of killing them, and birds and animals exist as possible friends, as integral living relations in the Indian world." caused me to cringe. There is useful information in the introduction, in between all the patronising, vaguely racist, noble-savage bullshit, but you may find your teeth grating as you read it: mine certainly did.

Fortunately, once the lengthy introduction is over, the songs and tales themselves are more interesting. Unfortunately, about half the length of the book is the introduction, which is a wasted opportunity. The most interesting thing of all, the folk tales, is frustratingly short. Of the 60 or so tales that had been recorded by the author in Spanish, only 17 (if I remember correctly) were included in the English book, much to my chagrin.

The tales were collected in the 20th century. Therefore, they are heavily influenced by Catholicism and the legacy of the conquistadors. Nonetheless, there are glimpses of a different culture, and a few tales seem like they could have been told, with relatively few changes, back in Inca times...

As a resource, The Singing Mountaineers is useful: English translations of Quechua folk tales and songs are not that easy to find. As a book, it's lopsided, with an overly long introduction that is filled with outdated thinking and attitudes, and not enough collected tales and songs. Nonetheless, it's worth reading, for any glimpse of authentic Quechua culture in English is too rare to ignore.

Rating: 3.5/5