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: