Saturday 29 December 2018

Review: The Dragons of Heaven by Alyc Helms

I was in the mood to read something fun. After browsing the unread books on my Kindle for ages, I decided to re-read, instead, and it's been a while since I first read The Dragons of Heaven. Fortunately, the book was as good as I remembered.

The Dragons of Heaven is set in a world where there are superheroes, alliances of superheroes, magic, myths, and monsters. Missy, our protagonist, is the grand daughter of Mitchell Masters, a.k.a. 1950s superhero Mister Mystic. His gift (and her inherited power) is to tap into the shadow realm, which is useful for cloaking the face, for hiding from sight, for drawing forth demonic monstrous shadow creatures, and, if the shit really hits the fan, for diving into, traversing the hellscape while trying not to be noticed or destroyed by monsters, and emerging elsewhere.

The novel is told in chapters alternating between two strands: "then", and "now".

Then, a few years ago, teenage Missy first dallied with the idea of turning masked vigilante. After an early foray goes disastrously wrong (she gets shot by a professional superhero), she makes her way to China like her grandfather before her, to find a dragon who might teach her martial arts and Chinese mystic powers and stuff.

Now, a plot involving triads and assorted villains is under way, a plot which Mr Mystic gets entangled in while trying to fight crime in Chinatown.

The Dragons of Heaven is, as the cover promises, "A hell of a lot of fun." It's got a huge sense of humour, a massive dose of fan-love for all kinds of geeky fiction (Missy references Narnia, Princess Bride, The Last Unicorn, etc. etc. etc.), and a deep fascination with the superhero genre. At one point, Argent, this world's SHIELD, force Mr Mystic to work together with a very Captain America-like hero. At the same time, this is a world where superheroes are into their second or third generations, and it's openly acknowledged that many heroes of previous generations were sexist, racist, dinosaurs, in some of their attitudes.

The final ingredient is (Asian) mythology, with dragons, fox spirits, ogres, man-eating witches, very different unicorns, and more. Sometimes, mixing lots of settings / ingredients in a story can be a bit gimmicky, but Alyc Helms succeeds at bringing everything together into a whole that is as engrossing, and as enchanting, as Neil Gaiman's Sandman - i.e. she's up there with the very best of mythblenders. The fox spirits were particularly memorable. Fortunately, her style is a bit more light-handed than Gaiman's: the novel is genuinely, joyfully funny, especially early on. It includes one of the funniest romance / courtship / seduction plots I have ever come across.

If there is a flaw, it is that one sequence stretches the suspension of disbelief a bit far. Dragons? Magic? Monstrous shadow dimensions? No problem. But the exact conditions under which three trials are faced and endured? Ouch. OUCH. Jesus Christ, OUCH!!! Nope, not buying it. Impossible.

Well, and the beginning, even on the second read, felt a little disorienting. I took a while to properly get the alternating then-now chapters. Sure, I should have paid closer attention to the word before each chapter, but I wonder if perhaps the Kindle formatting was off (there were no whitespaces between scenes within chapters, so maybe the chapter intros have bigger "Then" / "Now" tags in print than they do on Kindle, too. All I can say is that the Kindle version felt confusing and visual cues were missing or not noticeable enough).

Anyway: The Dragons of Heaven. Superheroes, mythologies, humour, romance, grand adventures, all in a novel that is pacey, exciting, and full of memorable and likeable characters. In a word, awesome. Highly recommended.

Rating: 5/5.

PS: I also wrote a review of The Dragons of Heaven the first time I read it.

Thursday 27 December 2018

Review: Empty Graves by C.L. Raven

Empty Graves is the latest novel by Cardiff based writers and entertainers CL Raven. I first encountered them at a small horror convention in Cardiff, where a workshop allowed writers to pitch story ideas. CL Raven, identical twins, were very charismatic and memorable, as was their pitch. I have read a few of their short stories since then, and quite enjoyed the comic horror ones.

Empty Graves is the story of Lachlan Ketch, a young man who has just reached adulthood. He is also Edinburgh's latest hangman, somewhat reluctantly continuing the family business. One night, he comes across the Greyfriars Gang of graverobbers, in flagrante delicto. They force him to choose between joining them or becoming a corpse himself. Needless to say, he chooses life, even if it means digging up bodies to sell them to Edinburgh's medical schools for teaching and research purposes.

I was a bit surprised by Empty Graves. I expected to be reading a popcorn entertainment comic horror novel about the dead rising (as zombies) during the time of the graverobbing heyday in Edinburgh - basically, Zombieland meets Burke & Hare. Instead, it turned out to be a historical (romance) novel about a hangman and a bunch of graverobbers, and a forbidden love. There was very little supernatural horror and no zombie uprising at all. Somehow, I must have gotten the wrong idea from the book's description.

That said, the novel was engaging and I enjoyed reading it. CL Raven are writers who enjoy overt drama, a grand canvas, and bold strokes in their writing voice. Some readers might use words like corny or cliché, or moan about "show not tell". Those readers would be missing the point. CL Raven's stories are written with a flair that relishes a dramatic sentence. You can almost hear the movie score going dum-dum-daaaaah!, and the narrative voice could be the frontman in a circus or travelling show enticing you to part with your tuppence and enter the spooky haunted house / ghost train. Is it cheesy? Sure, but so are superhero movies, zombie stories and the London Dungeon tourist attraction...

... which made it a bit surprising that the story is very well researched, authentic, and well grounded in its reality. Historical novels can sometimes be slow moving snoozefests. Empty Graves isn't. It succeeds at bringing a point in time to life, and keeps enough corpses and grotesque incidents and action in the tale to keep the merry mixture bubbling nicely in its cauldron. It's not as filled with humour as some of CL Raven's other writings, which is a pity, but it aims for (and achieves) historical accuracy instead, which is perhaps a bigger challenge than chasing laughs.

However, it's also a book that would have benefited quite a lot from an editor. There are many obvious edits and polishes that would have made the book better. Reading Empty Graves, I kept wanting to get out a marker pen to highlight bits that needed tweaking: in particular, dialogues needed tightening. Sometimes, I lost track of who was saying what. Sometimes, characters didn't have natural conversations, but seemingly delivered exposition or narration at each other in a way that felt nothing like speech. Sometimes, conversations went in circles or echoed previous conversations, leading to a sense of repetition. All of these things would have been easy to fix with a bit of tlc from a good editor, so it's a bit of a shame they weren't tidied up before the book was published.

Nonetheless, Empty Graves is a novel worth trying - if you don't mind a narrative voice that's carnivalesque, and a historical novel spiced with elements of horror.

Rating: 3/5 (a good editor could have lifted this rating by at least half a point).

For an idea of the sort of things CL Raven write, check out this reading:

Saturday 22 December 2018

Review: Tree Talk by Ana Salote

Tree Talk is a science fiction fantasy novel told from the perspective of an ash tree in a wild(ish) back garden. Ash lives her life in a way that does not have consciousness, but which involves a sort of communing with other plants, and a calm, plant-like way of being aware of the world outside her reach. Then one day Charlie, a little boy, touches Ash, magically awakening a mind. In the book, they call it gnosis, and Ash soon finds out that she is not the only non-human who has it.

Any story told from the perspective of a tree (as a first person narrator, no less) is very likely to hit upon matters environmental sooner or later. Fortunately, Tree Talk allows itself to take it slowly: much of the first part of the book is Ash forming a mind and a connection with Charlie and his family, observing the wider world through his experiences (while Charlie perceives the garden through Ash's plant sentience).

As with Ana Salote's other novels (Oy Yew), there is a tenderness at the heart of Tree Talk. Ash's experience of the world is initially one of affectionate, caring naïveté. Charlie, too, starts out this way. However, this is not a kind world, and we get a sense that things are going badly wrong. Ash learns to watch TV, which brings her more and more bad news, while Charlie soon gets a sense that one of his neighbours is not a nice man, with evil designs upon the garden...

Even so, this is a joyful book. Ash using her now-conscious mind to watch TV (and teaching other plants consciousness, who also then become rather fond of watching TV) is very endearing, especially because of her particular interests...
"My favourite programmes were the soaps, because they put together two things which fascinated me: stories and human behaviour. Brooke Farm is the best soap because it has the most weather in it."
(Her penchant for soap operas also leads her to think of events around her in soap operatic terms. Later she worries a lot that Charlie might risk a coma when he starts having sneaky adventures, because in soaps, comas are frequent consequences to dramatic events...)

While the novel is very much Ash and Charlie's story, there are other important characters. Wilfred the rat is wonderfully cynical about humans, and fierce. Emma, Charlie's mom, is all too credible as an overstretched woman struggling to raise a child while the world economy goes down the drain. This is a novel where we glimpse very adult problems through the partial perceptions of a tree and a young boy, and it works very well at building suspense (the reader fears what decisions Emma will take when someone offers her much-needed money for the garden).

All that said, the novel cheats when it comes to delivering an outcome of its more global problems and questions. It's largely a science fiction novel set in the near future, but the problems of the world, it seems, have no chance of being addressed without a fantasy solution. To resolve a science problem with a fantasy solution is cheating, and I grumbled a lot when I saw where the book was going.

There's lots of interesting stuff going on early in the book, including some utopian thinking about communities, and the book is brimming with thoughts about humanity and the world, so I had hoped for a much more complex treatment of its themes in the second half. Instead, Tree Talk feels more like children's literature by the end, much more so than it does in the beginning. That said, it's still a much more intelligent nature-themed book than, say, the movie Avatar...

It's still a beautifully written, gently amusing, kind novel, with a rare and interesting perspective.  I very much enjoyed reading it, even if I grumbled at some parts near the end.

Rating: 4.5/5

Thursday 20 December 2018

Review: Swordheart by T. Kingfisher

Swordheart is a romantic adventure novel by T Kingfisher (a.k.a. Ursula Vernon) set in the same world as the marvellous Clockwork Boys duology.

Halla, our heroine and a respectable widow, starts the novel locked up in her room, imprisoned by her awful relatives. Unfortunately, she has inherited a fortune after caring for a curmudgeonly collector and rogue uncle for years. Said relatives (by marriage) don't want to let the fortune leave the family, and so they are preparing to force her to marry her clammy-handed, limp cousin-in-law.

Seeing no other way out, she tries to kill herself with an old sword that has been hanging on the wall for years. Only, as she draws it, a warrior magically appears: Sarkis, servant of the sword, is sworn to protect its wielder.

Swordheart is a fairly straightforward romantic adventure. Halla is likeable, naive, filled with child-like curiosity and wonder, downtrodden and very not-confident. Sarkis is a fierce warrior, not blessed with the greatest patience in general (but a huge amount of patience with Halla, even if he tends to mutter under his breath and bang his head against any nearby solid surface a lot), and generally up-tight and upstanding and cut from the very same cloth as Clocktaur Wars' paladin character.

Their adventure is basically a journey along a road to the nearest town (some days' travel away) and the nearest city (a few more days of travel), and back. There's a lot of travelling along that one road in the story, with a few small and big adventures along the way.

Swordheart is a story on a different scale from other T Kingfisher and Ursula Vernon novels I have read. There's no big quest, no saving-the-world shenanigans, no ticking clock. Instead, it's a story of two characters, both eminently likeable, developing feelings for each other, while having a few adventures along the way. The book leaves and breathes with Halla and Sarkis and the reader's investment in them. They're likeable, but as currently bitter curmudgeon, I did not feel the "awwww" that I was supposed to feel. I would bet that other readers (and, I suspect, women readers in particular) will feel much more warming of their tender hearts at the book.

This book is made of fluffy huggy things and the old TV movie Pride & Prejudice moment when Colin Firth's Mr Darcy is shirtless and all flustered. Curmudgeons beware!

Fortunately, there is a gnole in the book (yay!), it is full of the author's delightful sense of humour, and the Vagrant Hills are awesome. Altogether, there's just enough swashbuckling mayhem and laughter to keep even curmudgeons like myself engaged and interested.

Rating: 3.5/5. A bit too sweet for my palate, but good.

Friday 14 December 2018

Review: The Prince of Cats by D. E. Olesen

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: