Wednesday 27 January 2016

Spark & Carousel by Joanne Hall

Spark and Carousel is the story of two youngsters. Spark is a former apprentice of a powerful sorcerer, on the run. Carousel is a former street rat, making her living as street acrobat, working for one of the gangs of the city.

It's also the story of the two sorcerers trying to find Spark, the city's ruling family and their youngest daughter, with substantial  story arcs involving merchants, landlords, gangmasters and other inhabitants of this world.

From the book cover, with its dusty colour palette and a font that just screams Old West, you might expect to read a novel about the frontier, about fantasy cowboys and Injuns. This expectation would be misplaced. The story does feature some travelling, but most of it takes place in a big city, full of taverns and inns, street rats and markets. It's a fantasy world, but with its river barges, noble families / petty aristocracies,  and a sense of relative stability, it feels distinctly more European, more akin to pre-industrial Southern Europe than the Wild West.

There are some things that make Spark and Carousel stand out from other fantasy novels. We meet characters of every class, from the lowest street rats to the highest aristocrats, and it is the interactions and intersections between the different characters's lives that drive much of the plot. Each character has reasons for the things they do. There is evil, but it is not the evil of a moustache-twirling villain. Instead, the evil is a bi-product of characters' actions and desires. Some is unleashed by accident, other evil deeds start out as self-defence, against oppressive and abusive situations. On the other hand, some of the 'good guys' are distinctly flawed. Noble, a black gang  master, inspires and demands great loyalty and strives hard to earn and repay this loyalty, but he is also a pimp and a gangster, perfectly ruthless in the pursuit and punishment of the disobedient. Finally, there is realism that rarely appears in fantasy novels: we see Alzheimer's ravaging one character. We see prostitution handled convincingly. Spark and Carousel is surprisingly complex for a fantasy novel, and, despite its small independent press publication, not at all run-of-the-mill. .

In other aspects, Spark and Carousel is following current trends. It is quite grimdark: there's violence, rape, incestuousness, toxic family relationships, etc. The aristocracy could have come straight from a George R R Martin novel, while the lower classes could be meandering into a Brandon Sanderson one without raising an eyebrow. There's sex that's enjoyable for women in the book, as well as persecution-free bisexuality and homosexuality. Basically, it's a novel that would probably not have been written this way twenty or thirty years ago.

The story starts well and keeps up a solidly entertaining pace throughout. Despite having many characters, they are handled well and as a reader, it's easy to keep track of who is who. The story doesn't quite stomp on the plot accelerator like others do, but neither does it have any chapters that drag. As every character is relatable, there are no chapters that you put off reading. (Song of Ice and Fire and the initial First Law trilogy have a mix of viewpoint characters, some of whom I just didn't want to read about. Spark and Carousel does not have that problem - but neither does it have a Tyrion or a Glokta whose chapters I'd devour, hungering for more...)

In terms of the writing, I would put it on a par with the novels of Joe Abercrombie. There's less of a sense of humour in Spark and Carousel, and the characters, while memorable and charismatic, are not quite as larger-than-life as Abercrombie's, but they feel more real and believable as a result. If I had to sum it up in one glib sentence, I'd describe it as "Juliet McKenna meets Joe Abercrombie".

A solidly entertaining, good book for those who enjoy reading fantasy and don't mind grimdark elements.

Rating: 3.5/5

Saturday 16 January 2016

Nimona by Noelle Stevenson

Nimona is an eye-catching graphic novel, adapted from a web-comic. The cover shines with friendly colours and a smooth, warm look and feel. All art is a matter of taste, but when I first saw Nimona in someone's hands, something clicked and I immediately wanted a copy of my own, without knowing anything about the story,

The story starts out with gusto: a villain, Lord Blackheart, is joined by Nimona in his lair. She claims to have been sent by an agency, to be his new sidekick, but he does not believe her... when she finally wins him around and accompanies him on his nefarious crimes, he soon finds her fiercer and more ruthless than he ever imagined - but also oddly adorable.

From the first page to the last, it's full of affection for its characters, which shines through in the art, the characters' facial expressions, the story. Nimona is very child-like, Blackheart, though aloof, is quite gooey inside, and their nemesis is a lot more concerned with his appearance and reputation than with his deeds or his true inner self.

Of course, any story with a villain as its protagonist needs a sense of mischief to work, and Nimona has plenty of that. This isn't like Wicked (the book), pseudo-literary and boring. It's more along the lines of Despicable Me and Megamind, except it doesn't shy away from violence and lethal collateral damage.

As you might guess from a book which lists its selling points on its back as "NEMESES! DRAGONS! SCIENCE! SYMBOLISM!", the tone of the story is light and filled with enthusiasm. It has that slightly quirky tone of a tale written for (or by) young people who grew up with LOLcats, ALL THE FEELS, emojis, animated gifs, SQUEEE, Hyperbole and a Half, internet subcultures, cosplay and an extrovert love of playfulness. It maintains the playfulness and quirky mischief for quite a while, but as the story heads for its big showdown, things get a little more serious.

Personally, I did not love the final act. The tone shifted a little farther than I'd liked towards taking itself seriously. Some aspects did not quite work for me... but for other reviewers, the ending worked well. It's definitely a matter of personal taste.

All in all, a graphic novel I'm happy to recommend. Well worth a read!

Rating: 4.5/5

Sunday 10 January 2016

Grave of Hummingbirds by Jennifer Skutelsky - Book Review

Grave of the Hummingbirds starts out with a gruesome discovery: a dead body. To the young man who discovers it, it looks like an angel. The dead woman has huge black wings on her back...

Set in a fictitious Latin American country, recovering from a fictitious dictatorship, with fictitious heritage and native tribal rites, the novel is not quite like other crime thrillers. A serial killer is on the loose, dark secrets haunt the place, but the plot isn't for the most part a chase. Instead, our main characters live and reminisce. Only when, a year later, history looks set to repeat itself, does violence and a race to prevent further killings flare up again.

An atmospheric start is followed by quite a bit of moping. Then, as the book changes gears and becomes a thriller, the plot starts to rely very heavily on ghosts and spirits, on omens and dreams. Without the supernatural (and some massive coincidences), the plot would not resolve itself at all. This does not make the book comparable to Neil Gaiman (which the blurb implies). I have not read Gabriel Garcia Masquez or Isabella Allende, but I doubt their stories work like Grave of Hummingbirds. There is a massive difference between magical realism and cheating. Grave of the Hummingbirds, unfortunately, cheats.

There is another source of reader frustration. One particular character is "simple" in some scenes, but clever and well-educated in others. There is absolutely no consistency at all.

Grave of Hummingbirds showed a lot of promise at the start, but sadly it collapsed in on itself with inconsistent characterisation of a main character and a plot which used a lot of cheating devices to resolve itself. However, it's a quick read and quite entertaining.

Rating: 2.5/5