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Book Review: The Girl who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making (Fairyland, #1)The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M. Valente

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I listened to the audiobook version of this story, narrated by the author. Valente brings her story to life fantastically.

I have been meaning to read this book for a long time. Despite the suspense, the book lived up to my expectations, and then some.

Valente is a talented scholar of myth. She draws symbols, tropes, and archetypes together with her own imaginings and arranges them into patterns that feel so right. As a reader you get the sense that her stories ought to be true because they make so much sense, and they resonate with the deepest threads of human storytelling.

'The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland...' could be enjoyed equally by children, teens, and adults. There are layers upon layers to the story, and everyone remotely interested in myths or fairy tales would discover something profound while reading this book.

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Book review: The Emperor's Edge, books 1–5

A few months ago I downloaded a free book to my Kindle. The cover caught my eye, and since it was free, I thought 'Why not?'. Of course, because it was free, I didn't read it right away. (Which I am very glad about, because at the time there were only four books in the series, and book 4 ends on a huge cliffhanger!)

The book is called The Emperor's Edge, and it is the first book in a series of the same name, by author Lindsay Buroker.

Anyway, last week I listened to a podcast interview with Lindsay Buroker over at The Creative Penn, and after hearing her talk about her books, I decided to give The Emperor's Edge a go. What followed was a five-day period in which I neglected to answer emails, get proper sleep and (gasp!) check Twitter because I was too busy reading.

The Emperor's Edge series is about a group rather like 'Robin Hood and his Merry Men'; misunderstood misfits who want to do good and help the Emperor, except the pesky bounties on their heads keep getting in the way. It is set in an industrial era secondary world with fantastical elements (magic, etc.). The group includes a female ex-enforcer (police officer); an assassin with an unparallelled work ethic; a womanising dandy with a near-unbeaten duelling record; an ex-alcoholic scholar with a tragic past; a mute ex-slave; and a punk kid with lots of magical talent but very little magical experience. The first three books each chronicle this group fixing a relatively stand-alone problem, although there is an overarching plot linking the three adventures together. Several months pass between each of these books. Books four, five, and the upcoming book 6 are a trilogy covering the same adventure, and book five, at least, started straight after the cliffhanger at the end of book 4.

These books are a lot of fun to read. This crazy band of misfits, however well intentioned, have more success blowing things up and causing mayhem than anything else. They destroy mansions, they destroy trains, they destroy underwater bases, they crash dirigibles . . . and garbage trucks . . . Except for a stolen police truck, not a single mode of transport that they acquire makes it to the end of the current book still in their possession and in one piece.

The books are character-focussed. Most of the plot hangs on an awkward and angsty little tangle of interpersonal relationships (not quite a love triangle, but more awkward than one because of who is involved in it). Although my credibility was initially stretched in this regard, particularly in the second book when our heroine was acting rather immature, Lindsay hit her stride portraying this relationship in the third book and I have been invested in it ever since.

The world-building is weaker than the character-building. All the places the characters visit are vivid and well described, but the reader is given very little idea of what is 'over the next hill'.

There are some problems I had with the books, especially the first two. There was one rather eye-rolling occurrence of hero-saves-the-girl-from-being-raped; and, as mentioned earlier, in the second book the heroine's behaviour made me think of some of the more stupid things I said around guys I liked when I was too young to know better. But even if these problems were mistakes, they helped to portray the main character's growth. By the fourth book Amaranthe is far too badass to cower and wait to be saved, and she's mature enough to begin to deal with the relationship she is in.

Occasionally I was jolted out of the story by an unusual typo or misuse of a word, such as 'accept' being used instead of 'except'. Although Lindsay Buroker hired an editor to help her clean up the books, my guess is that she did not also hire a proofreader.

Other than these few problems, I found the books engaging, addictive, and enjoyable. They are an example of an indie author who has worked hard to establish her niche and her brand, and whose works have rapidly caught up to the quality level of traditionally published books in the fantasy genre.

All five books are available from the main eBook retailers.


Book review: Seven Wonders

Seven WondersSeven Wonders by Adam Christopher

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Seven Wonders by Kiwi author Adam Christopher is a superhero novel set in the fictional city of San Ventura. The city, once plagued by supervillains, is now mostly peaceful thanks to the Seven Wonders, a team of superheroes. However, there is one remaining supervillain causing trouble in San Ventura: The Cowl. When Tony, an ordinary citizen of San Ventura, starts to manifest super powers, he decides to do what the Seven Wonders have been unable to do – defeat the Cowl once and for all.

Seven Wonders is a story about the unexpected paths that personal journeys can take. The reader is kept guessing about the motivations of certain characters right until the end of the book.

I enjoyed Seven Wonders, although not as much as Empire State. I liked how the characters were not black and white, despite how that is often the case in the superhero genre. It relied on cliches, but not so much as to remove the fun from the book.

As much as I enjoyed the story, I wish that it could have been packaged and delivered in a different form. In my opinion, it doesn't quite work as a novel. The story is too episodic. Some people have said they would have preferred this book to be a graphic novel. I don't think it would have been necessary to illustrate it: Christopher's descriptions are detailed enough that the visual cues wouldn't have been necessary. But I do think that the story would have worked better if delivered in an episodic format, e.g. a podcast series or a chapter-by-chapter release on subscription.

Seven Wonders is a fun read for anyone interested in the superhero genre.

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This is the last of my posts for SpecFicNZ Blogging Week 2012. See the list of other Blogging Week posts here.


Book review: The Iron Wyrm Affair

The Iron Wyrm Affair (Bannon & Clare, #1)The Iron Wyrm Affair by Lilith Saintcrow

My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Well, to be honest, this is the first book for which I have downloaded a sample to my Kindle, bought the full book, and then had an unsatisfying reading experience. Usually the samples are enough to filter out books I won't like. I don't often write bad reviews for books, but I'm going to make an exception for this one.

The Iron Wyrm Affair is set in a Victorian London-esque fantasy world. It chronicles how a sorceress called Emma Bannon and a "mentath" called Archibald Clare (basically Sherlock Holmes by another name) team up to thwart a trio of intertwined evil plots.

I bought this book because I enjoyed Phoenix Rising and The Janus Affair by Pip Ballantine and Tee Morris, and I thought The Iron Wyrm Affair would be a similar sort of book. Unfortunately, whereas Phoenix Rising and The Janus Affair are true steampunk, The Iron Wyrm Affair is more "slap some gears on it and call it steampunk".

I had various other complaints about the book:

Lack of satisfaction

The Iron Wyrm Affair jumps back and forth between the two characters on a chapter-by-chapter basis. Saintcrow often ends chapters on cliffhangers. This in itself isn't a problem. But when she switches back to a character, instead of being greeted with the resolution to the cliffhanger, the reader instead finds that the character has already solved the problem, and the narrator proceeds to tell the reader what happened "off screen" in a short summary. In other words, a lot of the most interesting action happens while the reader isn't "looking". This makes for a most dissatisfying reading experience!

No understanding of logic

Which, let's face it, is a big problem when one of your characters is supposedly a walking computer / logician. When Archibald Clare is fighting another "mentath", his foe is described as "blasting him with pure logic". Um, what? When the worldbuilding specifically states that what a mentath can do is as far from magic as you can get? What does that even mean? The author seems to have been unable to come up with something for Clare to do, so she defaulted to a magic-like battle because that was what she was comfortable with. Clare's 'deductions' are also poorly realised.

Meaningless props and plot points

Rampaging mecha! Why? Er . . . because they're cool!

Offscreen baddies

As I mentioned earlier, there were, the reader is told, three evil plots to be thwarted by our heroes. But in only one of these was there a proper confrontation with the enemy. In one of the other plots, a secondary character takes out the bad guy OFF SCREEN and we don't even find out who was paying him or what the ultimate goal was. Hell, we never even SEE him! And the third plot we don't even have any evidence that it existed, other than that the characters told us it did, and there were bits of infodumping throughout the book to support their hypothesis. Again, not a satisfying conclusion.

Muddled storyline

The story gets so muddled and nonsensical towards the end that it honestly reads like a first draft. This story needs significant assistance from a structural editor, assistance which it apparently didn't receive.

All in all, I found little to redeem this book. I wouldn't recommend reading it. But it has made me think about what makes a good book, and where stories can go wrong, and I appreciate that lesson.


Book review: Empire State

Empire StateEmpire State by Adam Christopher

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Superheroes, parallel dimensions, and noir – oh, my!

Empire State is the tale of two cities, reflections of one another – New York, and the Empire State. Neither of these cities are the one we know in our world. In New York, war is being waged between two rocket-powered superheroes who used to be the best of friends until they had a falling out. In the Empire State, a grim city suffering under Wartime restrictions, a private detective is hired to find a missing woman. These stories are linked together in a most puzzling manner.

Empire State kept me guessing – the overall picture of what is going on remains tantalisingly just out of reach for most of the book. I enjoyed the unusual combination of elements; while noir+superheroes has been done before, as has superheroes+parallel universes, noir+superheroes+parallel universes was just enough different to be fresh. I also enjoyed Christopher's attention to small details and his ability to capture the essence of a character or a scene with them. He is clearly a keen observer of human behaviour. Everything from the way characters walk to how they light their cigarettes or drink their drinks is carefully considered.

I do have a few small complaints about the book. First, it seemed as if there were just a few too many elements incorporated into the concept. If merely a single thing had been trimmed, the book might have been a more settled read. My other complaint is the logic of the timelines and people's ages. The only thing that I think needed to change for it all to make sense would be for the character Nimrod to be 20 years older than he was.

But all in all, I found Empire State a fresh and enjoyable read, and I am looking forward to Christopher's next book, Seven Wonders.


Book review: books 1 & 2 of the Shattered Messiah trilogy

The Last GoddessThe Last Goddess by C.E. Stalbaum

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book caught my eye in the Amazon Kindle fantasy genre list. I wanted to try a self-published fantasy novel, so I downloaded the sample, and then quickly bought the whole book.

The Last Goddess is about an 'information broker' (read: spy/smuggler) who purchases, amongst some ancient artefacts, the body of a woman held in stasis in a coffin. This woman is apparently the Kirshal (Messiah), hidden for a thousand years, and is prophesied to bring about a new age. Of course, there are many people who would like to get their hands on the Kirshal for various, not always benign, reasons.

I found this book to be a gripping, enjoyable read. I was swept away by the story quite thoroughly. However, there were a few things about it that irritated me:

  1. Some of the characters and dialogue forms (particularly the banter) have obviously been copied from the TV series Firefly. The main character is called Nathan Rook. I kid you not. For the first third of the book, I felt uncomfortable with how the characterisation was depending on Firefly as it is not what I would consider an honest practice; but from then on the characters started to stand on their own two feet and become interesting in their own rights. The author should have gone back to the beginning of the book during revisions and updated the characterisations to match the end of the book.
  2. Many conversations were at least twice as long as they needed to be. Characters argued back and forth for too long and rehashed old ground far too often. While this is normal in real speech, dialogue in fiction is supposed to be a shorthand approximation.
  3. Sans map, I found it difficult at the beginning to keep straight in my head which faction was which. It didn't help that in this book the reader has to keep track of both nations and religious groups which don't overlap neatly. Also, there were some names which were too similar to each other; I kept getting Edehans and Ebarans muddled up, even though they were very different groups of people!

Despite the flaws, I enjoyed the book. It is as good as a lot of traditionally published books I've read, and better than many!

The Last Empress (The Shattered Messiah, #2)The Last Empress by C.E. Stalbaum

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I bought The Last Empress, the second book in the Shattered Messiah trilogy, shortly after reading book one. I have to say, although this book was just as gripping as the first book, I didn't think it was quite as good overall. I have two reasons for this:

  1. There were too many POV characters and plot threads for the size of the book. It jumped around about as much as a Wheel of Time book, even though it was less than half the length. A few of the plot threads could have been trimmed.
  2. The book was a lot darker than the first, which isn't in itself a bad thing. This extra darkness was added in part through the characters making a lot of stupid mistakes. Unfortunately, some of those mistakes were out of character and were unbelievable considering who the characters are. The two main mistakes that bothered me were Rook not being overly concerned about Aston, and Selaste letting the four mages go behind enemy lines. These mistakes lessened the characters, and showed them to be idiots.

Despite these issues, I am looking forward to reading book three when it is published.

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Book review: Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World

Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern WorldGenghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World by Jack Weatherford

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I listened to the version of this book. I purchased the book because I wanted to learn more about non-European history. With the exception of my enthusiastic yet patchy knowledge of Japanese history, so much of what I have learned about the past, whether at school or otherwise, is heavily Euro-centric. I am keenly aware of the gaps in my knowledge, and that my worldview must be biased because of it.

Genghis Khan and the Making of the Modern World started by recounting what is known of the early life of Genghis Khan, or Temudjin as he was known then. It moves on to how he gained rule and founded his Empire, and recounts his conquests. The book doesn't stop with the death of Genghis Khan, but rather follows the Empire under the rule of his sons and grandsons, until the breakdown of the Empire several generations later. The book also details some long-standing influences the Mongolian Empire had on global culture. For example, Genghis Khan was the first ruler to try to establish a common writing system that could be used to write any language; and the Mongols established many of the major trade routes throughout Asia.

The research sources used in this book are not always reliable, but the author takes the time to mention when there are doubts about the veracity of a claim. Therefore, the reader or listener has an idea of how likely it is that the events in the book are true as portrayed. I appreciated this honesty.

Overall, I found this book to be a fascinating and informative listen.

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Book review: Introducing the Honourable Phryne Fisher

Introducing The Honorable Phryne Fisher (Phryne Fisher, #1, #2, #3)Introducing The Honourable Phryne Fisher by Kerry Greenwood

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I downloaded the sample of this book to my Kindle after reading a review, and quickly ended up buying it.

This book is an omnibus of the first three in Kerry Greenwood's long-running Phryne Fisher books. The series is set in Melbourne in the late 1920s and follows the adventures of a rich (with a poor background) fashionable flapper detective with loose morals and yet a strong sense of justice. It features a wide cast of strong women very different from one another, and an assortment of awesome men from various walks of life. If there's one thing these books do, they demonstrate that strength comes in many forms, and can be found in many places.

In each book Phryne and her associates solve two crimes. If you are looking for intriguing, intricate mysteries, you won't find them here: I don't read a lot of mysteries, and yet even I could call most of the outcomes. But even still, the ways in which Phryne & co. go about their investigations and the shenanigans they get up to are fun and diverting to read about.

This book is highly recommended for a fun weekend read.

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Book review: the Inheritance Trilogy

I've recently read the Inheritance Trilogy by N. K. Jemisin. I'd heard good things about the trilogy, and so my expectations were quite high. The books met those expectations with flying colours.

You know how some books can be put down and returned to later, and some books you just have to read all in one gulp? All three of the Inheritance Trilogy were 'gulp' books for me. I had some late nights while reading these. Not that I am complaining. I love it when a book picks me up and shakes me like that.

The Inheritance Trilogy is set in a world where the three Gods and their numerous children, the Godlings, are not vague distant beings, but rather live in close and frequent contact with humans. The books are set some time after a terrible war was waged among the Gods and Godlings, after which the losing side was bonded to become servants of the ruling human dynasty. The trilogy follows the after-effects of the war, and details how the wounds that the war left begin to heal. Each of the three books follows a different main character, something that I am not usually fond of, but which works very well for this series.

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms

The first book in the trilogy follows Yeine, a young woman from the north who is also related to the royal family, the Arameri, that rules over the empire. Yeine is summoned to court to be a pawn in a dangerous political game that will lead to the throne for one of her cousins, but certain death for herself. Instead of playing the part of the poor pawn, Yeine becomes enmeshed in the affairs of the captive God and Godlings held in the palace, and their bid to finally win their freedom.

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms is a great introduction to the trilogy, and quickly demonstrates Jemisin's writing strength – getting into the minds of her characters and dealing with the psychological implications of the events in the book in a convincing manner. Her weakness is also quickly apparent; Jemisin is not as good at describing the physicality of the world her characters move in as she is at describing the internal landscapes of their minds. This particular combination of strength and weakness leads to a writing style very different from the bulk of epic fantasy fare. I found the change refreshing.

The Broken Kingdoms

Ten years after the events of The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, a blind painter called Oree Shoth, who can see magic even though she can't see the world around her, finds a God in her rubbish heap. Oree is plagued by Gods, so doesn't think too much of her find. She simply takes him in and feeds him. But this particular God is nothing but trouble for those who know him, and Oree is soon caught up in a plot that she doesn't understand but which only she can stop.

As I mentioned above, Jemisin is better at describing her characters' inner lives than the external world they live in. This writing style is exceptionally well-suited to telling the story of a blind person. For this reason, The Broken Kingdoms was my favorite of the trilogy. All the elements of the story and the overall feel of the trilogy came together most harmoniously in this book.

The Kingdom of Gods

Many years after The Broken Kingdoms, the trickster child Godling Sieh has a bit of a problem: he's growing up. Sieh must learn how to be mature despite his own nature, and how to accept the responsibilities that have been dealt him. In the process, he uncovers truths that will shake the world of the Gods to its very core.

This book ends the trilogy with a bang, one that will linger with you as you ponder over its philosophical implications for days after you finish the book. It draws the plot threads of the series together, and although it does not tie them all neatly, it leaves the story in a place where we can be sure that the resolution we want will happen at some stage in the future. This book also introduces a fascinating internal conflict for the main character, Sieh, one that is beautiful and thought-provoking in its simplicity and poignancy.

Jemisin has an individual writing style. I liken it to a sketch by a master artist; although the scenery is indicated by the barest of lines, the face of the subject is worked in such exquisite and realistic detail that the viewer finds the breath caught in her throat as she looks at it. The characters' motivations and psychology are so well crafted that any writer will want to study these books to try to figure out how she did it.

Because of the lightness of the scenery descriptions (as mentioned above) and the complexity of the character Oree Shoth, The Broken Kingdoms is by far the best book of the series. It does not matter that the world is hazy; Oree is blind and cannot see it anyway. I think this was an elegant matching of character and writer, and it is something that has made me think: what kind of character would suit my writing style? I'm not sure.

Learn more about N.K. Jemisin:
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Book review: The Janus Affair

The Janus Affair (Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences, #2)The Janus Affair by Philippa Ballantine and Tee Morris

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I have quickly become a huge fan of The Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences series by Pip Ballantine and Tee Morris. I first heard about the series through – I followed a link to the first story in the Tales from the Archives podcast series that supplements the books, loved it, and pre-ordered book 1, Phoenix Rising.

Oh, how I enjoyed Phoenix Rising. The LOLing, and the squeeing, and the re-reading of favourite scenes. I’ve spent the last year dying to get my hands on book 2, The Janus Affair. When I finally had a chance to read it the other day, I read it all in one gulp, staying up until 3.30am on a work night to finish it – 3.30!

The Janus Affair is somewhat different in tone from Phoenix Rising – now that we are familiar with the world, the scope opens out and more characters are drawn in. We get a better sense of the day-to-day life at the Ministry, and for agents Books and Braun. Stakes are raised, secrets are revealed faster than I was expecting, and Ballantine and Morris demonstrate that they are brave enough to put their characters through the metaphorical meat grinder.

There are a few little plot niggles that caught my attention – dropped plot threads (the children!), improbable leaps of logic, and mis-matches between spoken words and thoughts (unless certain characters were lying about certain things). But these problems did not hinder my enjoyment of the book. It is so much fun to read, I was able (despite being a pedant) to overlook those problems for the sake of the story.

What I most enjoyed about the book is that the authors have proven that they are not going to make the same mistake that TV police procedural writers often do – you know, that mistake where they seem to think that the “will they, won’t they?” question is the only possible tension that could be added to a budding romance storyline. Instead, Ballantine and Morris have gathered a whole collection of other tensions not directly related to that question and thrown them into the mix. I can see the complexity these myriad tensions create paying off well in the long run, and coming together to form a most satisfying and iconic relationship arc.

If you are a fan of steampunk, historical fiction, X-Files, spy stories, romance, explosions or, most particularly, all of the above, then I’ll wager that you will love this series as much as I do.

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Book review: Empire

Empire: How Britain Made The Modern WorldEmpire: How Britain Made The Modern World by Niall Ferguson

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I listened to the version of this book, sold under the name Empire: The Rise and Demise of the British World Order.

The information that is present is informative and well-presented. There were, however, notable omissions: he glossed over the indignities suffered by subjugated races a little too quickly in some places; and from his coverage of the Victorian period onwards, he was very obviously biased in his pro-British viewpoint, to the exclusion of other viewpoints.

All in all, I learned a lot from this book, and in the future I will look for other texts to fill in the gaps that Ferguson left.

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Review of Ganymede by Cherie Priest

Ganymede (The Clockwork Century, #4)Ganymede by Cherie Priest

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I very much enjoy the Clockwork Century books by Cherie Priest. I have read all except the novella Clementine. Ganymede is not my favourite so far (that would be Dreadnought) but it's still a very good book.

Book structure/writing:

The book is told in 3rd person limited, following two protagonists in alternating chapters. I often have trouble reading such books in a decent amount of time, because each time the viewpoint changes I put the book down. Ganymede was no exception. I started reading it last year, but I only finished it yesterday. This is a problem with me rather than with the book, but it did affect my experience of the book.

Speaking of the viewpoint, in the last few chapters when the two characters are in the same place, the viewpoint shifts from one character to the other between paragraphs. At first I thought this was a viewpoint error in the story, but as it happened again and again, I came to realise that Priest had done it on purpose. It was a strange viewpoint to read: 3rd person limited but where the reader is privy to two charaters' thoughts rather than just one. I'm still not sure about what I think of the effect.


Ganymede is an interesting story with plenty of action, humour, and tension. It also acknowledges a lot of societal issues that are often ignored in Steampunk, such as racial tensions and gender relations. The story doesn't attempt to 'solve' these issues; it simply agrees that the issues were present and relevant, and then moves on.

All in all, I found it to be an enjoyable read, and I only wish that the view point changes hadn't jolted me out of the story and that I'd been able to read it quicker.

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Review of The Hunger Games

The Hunger Games (The Hunger Games, #1)The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I was surprised by just how addictive this book was, especially considering that it had a few things about it that I would normally classify as negatives. For example, I'm not usually a fan of present tense fiction, but the first person present POV of the book only took me a few chapters to get used to, and then after that I found the POV to be most appropriate for the story. What it lost in description, it gained in immediacy. Another negative was that I got the impression throughout the book that if I met the main character, Katniss, in real life, I would not like her. She is a cold and calculating character, and callous with other people's emotions. But again, this worked for the story because of the world that Katniss grew up in. It seemed natural that she would have developed in such a way.

All in all, I found the book most enjoyable, and I will be reading the next two books in the trilogy.

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Book review - Hellbent by Cherie Priest

Recently (well, OK, a week and a half ago) I finished reading Hellbent by Cherie Priest. Hellbent is the second book in Priest's 'Cheshire Red' series (the first book, Bloodshot, came out early this year).

I became a fan of Cherie Priest through her Steampunk books, which are so full of awesome that I was willing to give anything written by her a go, even if she started writing goddamn vampire urban fantasy. Which is exactly what she has done with the 'Cheshire Red' series. Bloodshot and Hellbent aren't her best books. But you know what? They really aren't all that bad, either. I quite like them, and as I'm so over vampires right now that is quite an accomplishment.

It sure helps that Priest's vampire, Raylene Pendle, is more like the vampires of old, i.e. not sparkly and really rather dangerous. It also helps that Raylene is a crook, not merely some dopey human's love interest. And another thing that helps? Her sidekick is an ex-Navy Seal Cuban drag queen. Yup. A large hulking man who moonlights as dancer 'Sister Rose' and then goes out after the moonlighting dressed in black, breaking into places, and beating shit up. What a character.

If this particular combination of elements sounds interesting, I'd definitely recommend checking the series out.

Hellbent is a book that made me ponder something interesting about writing styles. First, some background: I have a bad habit. A horrible, nasty habit. My lack of 'won't power' often makes me read the ends of books before I get to them. I know! What a stupid thing to do. You will not believe how many books I have spoiled for myself by doing this. Usually it happens when I realise that I really need to go to bed, like, right now. But I can't bear the thought that I am going to have to wait until the next day before I find out what happens next. So I glance forward a bit. Then a bit more. Before I know it, it is not only an hour past my bed time, but I have spoiled the end of the book. Again. What a dumb-arse.

Now, I did this very thing with Hellbent. And yet, for the first time in I don't know how long - years? ever? - it didn't matter. Yes, I knew what was going to happen at the end. But that didn't adversely affect my reading experience one single bit. Why not?

Most books (or most English language books, at least) build up towards the climax. The destination is the goal, if you will. I found that Hellbent is a book that doesn't follow this trend, or at least not for me. Hellbent is more of an 'enjoy the journey' kind of book. Is that a good thing or a bad thing? I'd rather just say it is a Thing that I noticed, and it is interesting. Also, I sure like that I now have an example to refer to of a book that 'stops to smell the roses'.

Book review - Goliath

What can I possibly say about Scott Westerfeld's Goliath that would do the book justice? For starters, there are many people out in the wilds of the interwebs talking about this book at the moment, no doubt many of them far more eloquently than I. Secondly, what could I say that wouldn't contain spoilers for books 1 and 2 in the series, Leviathan and Behemoth?

Briefly, the 'Leviathan' series is a YA trilogy loosely classified within the steampunk genre, although I'd say it's influences are far broader than that. It is set in an alternate reality version of World War I, where the two main factions vying for control of Europe are the Clankers (Germany, Austro-Hungarian Empire, etc.) whose technology is based on machines and diesel engines, and the Darwinists (British Empire, Russia, etc.) whose technology is based on genetically engineered creatures. By machines I mean 'giant walking robot tanks' and by genetically engineered creatures I mean 'flying sky-whale dirigibles'. Um. Wow.

The story follows two protagonists: Deryn Sharp, a scottish girl masquerading as a boy so she can serve aboard the Leviathan (the aforementioned sky-whale); and Aleksandar of Hohenberg, the young son of Franz Ferdinand, the Austrian Duke whose assassination sparked World War I both in our world and in the world of the books. Alek and Deryn meet aboard the Leviathan, and proceed to tumble headlong through the events of World War I, as those events fall farther and farther away from our own history. If you want to learn more about the series, visit this page at Westerfeld's website.

Now that I've finished the trilogy (and gasped all my gasps, and squeed all my squees) the thing I'd like to talk about is a certain aspect of Scott Westerfeld's writing that struck me, particularly in Goliath. I haven't read any of Westerfeld's previous work, so I don't know if this is something he does all the time, or if it is particular to this series.

Throughout the series, the story switches back and forth between Deryn and Alek's viewpoints. Also, these two characters at various times have all sorts of secrets or pieces of information they are keeping from one another. Yet when we are reading a chapter from, say, Deryn's point of view, we the reader can tell when Alek is thinking about something Deryn doesn't know, and we know what he is thinking. Without Deryn finding out what that thing is. Without Westerfeld putting his voice into the story and telling us. Without bashing our heads with the information. If you have read the book or are meaning to read it, look closely at chapter 10 to see what I mean. We know exactly what Alek is thinking, even though Deryn clearly has no clue.

This knowledge is woven in softly, deftly, and we the reader feel like we just know it intuitively. Of course that is not the case; Westerfeld is doing it on purpose. I'd sure like to know how he does it. I would be thrilled if I could somehow add that trick to my writing toolbox.

Mini-reviews of some kiwi-authored books

This post is part of the SpecFicNZ blogging week.

As I mentioned in my last post, this year I joined SpecFicNZ, the national association for speculative fiction writers. (Speculative fiction is a catch-all term for the three ‘what if’ genres of fiction: science fiction, fantasy and horror.) Since joining the association I’ve found that there are writers in and from New Zealand getting their non-YA spec fic novels published after all.

Brief aside here. I never thought that there weren’t people writing spec fic in New Zealand, and I never thought that people here would be bad at writing it either. That would be a stupid assumption, because spec fic from overseas sells well here, and people tend to write what they like to read. It’s just that I learned a few things while I was studying for a Diploma in Publishing back in 2008. First, publishers in New Zealand in general don’t want to publish genre fiction. I had the opportunity to ask some publishers about this, and they told me matter-of-factly that genre fiction doesn’t sell in NZ (untrue) and that genre fiction never has the same literary merit as literary fiction (also untrue). Secondly, I was told by many speakers while on the course that, apart from a very, very few exceptions, overseas publishers do not publish books by New Zealand authors. I don’t know why I took this as gospel when I knew that what they were saying about genre fiction was bull crap, but I did. I therefore assumed that there weren’t published books for adults of the type I like to read written by New Zealand authors. Well, it turns out there are, because although my first point is true, the second is not, and people are getting their books published overseas.

Anyway, back to the topic at hand. Through SpecFicNZ I became aware of spec fic books out there in the wild written by New Zealand authors. This year I’ve had a go at reading some. Below are some mini reviews of kiwi-authored books I have read recently. Please keep in mind, although I have pointed out any issues I had with these books, I enjoyed reading each and every one of them. Any negatives were more than outweighed by the overwelming positives. 

The Heir of Night by Helen Lowe

I actually read The Heir of Night before I joined SpecFicNZ. I first learned about the book from the Christchurch Writers’ Festival pamphlet (the festival never went ahead because of a pesky earthquake you might have heard of).

The Heir of Night is the first book in an epic fantasy series. It takes some standard tropes of the genre (a half-forgotten foe about to return after a long time, young people forced to leave their homeland and ‘find themselves’, a magical object-finding quest) and combines them in such a way that it feels just enough different from what has gone before. There is something deliciously sci-fi-esque about the origin of the world the book is set in, which is always a plus for me (I love fantasy/sci fi combos). I’m not too sure yet (this is only the first book of four) but I think it looks like there is going to be something left-of-centre about the foes, a plot twist perhaps. I’m looking forward to it.

The best things about this book for me were the two main characters, Malian and Kalan. While some of the other characters were still a little bit flat, these two were very engaging and I cared a lot about what was happening to them. I’m looking forward to book 2, The Gathering of the Lost.

Tymon’s Flight and Samiha’s Song by Mary Victoria

These are books 1 and 2 in Mary Victoria’s 'Chronicles of the Tree' trilogy. They are set in an incredibly original world - a ginormous tree with a canopy the size of a continent! The people living in this tree do not even know that such a thing as ground exists. Fascinating stuff. The cultures of the various people who live in the tree are also quite different to standard epic fantasy fare - there’s not much that feels Western European in these books. Rather, the various societies feel more like Eastern Orthodox or Islamic. What a refreshing change.

Tymon’s Flight is essentially a coming of age story. It gripped me from page one and didn’t let me go until the end. Off the top of my head, I’d say that Tymon’s Flight has been my quickest read this year. (As an aside, I am on to my second copy of Tymon’s Flight. I lent the book to a friend, and in the 6.3M earthquake on 13 June his bookshelf fell over and crushed the book. So now I have a new copy.)

Samiha’s Song is quite a different book in tone. Now that the protagonists have come of age, it is time for them to enter the adult world properly, and be exposed to all the hardship and injustice that can entail. It was a harrowing read, and I took a long time to get through it. But what happened in the book was the right thing to have happened at that point, and in the end I did find it a satisfying read. I think I enjoyed it as much as I enjoyed Tymon’s Flight, just in a very different way.

There were a few things about Mary Victoria’s writing that got on my wick a wee bit. She used too many said bookisms, and descriptions of how things were said were too often given after the line of speech they described. These occasionally jolted me out of the flow of the story. Also, her villains were a bit too ‘Mwa ha ha, I am evil!’ and their lesser associates generally had something unpleasant about their appearance, such as greasy hair or an unchecked weight problem. This made the villain POV chapters a bit cartoon-like. But this is Mary Victoria’s first published series (and goodness knows my writing has more flaws than that). I’m sure her writing will mature over time. I’m looking forward to the last book in the series, Oracle’s Fire, which comes out next month.

Geist and Spectyr by Philippa Ballantine

Geist and Spectyr are books 1 and 2 in Philippa Ballantine’s epic fantasy series. They are set in a world plagued by various ghosts and spirits that break through from another dimension and cause all sorts of paranormal mayhem, such as possessions and hauntings. There is a religious order that has given up the belief in gods (wow, what an idea) called the Order. The Deacons of the Order now devote their time and energy to exorcising these spirits. The book follows two Deacons, Sorcha Farris, a gruff cigar-smoking, alcohol-drinking beautiful redheaded woman in her mid to late thirties, and Merrick Chambers, a very young and green-behind-the-ears man who has just been made a full Deacon. The third main character is Raed, the ex-Emperor’s son in exile, who happens to be possessed by the spirit of a very large, very dangerous lion-shaped creature from the other dimension.

The story line? Lots of stuff happens. In quick succession. There’s maulings, explosions, conspiracies, frantic sex, oh, and maulings. Did I mention the lion is dangerous?

Over all, I found Geist to be a bit too frenetic in its pace, but Spectyr wasn’t so bad in that regard. I felt like I could keep up, at least. Sorcha and Merrick are great characters to follow; so much fun. Raed, not so much. So far, he’s a bit of a cardboard cut-out. He just didn’t seem to have much of a purpose other than transporting the lion around in his head and being Sorcha’s release valve. But something happened at the end of Spectyr than makes me think that is not going to be the case in the 3rd book, Wrayth. He has been given a purpose. And I think that plot line is going to be interesting. I just wish it had started sooner.

Again, despite having a few issues with the books, I really enjoyed them. It’s a great world and I’m looking forward to Wrayth and Harbinger.

Phoenix Rising by Pip Ballantine and Tee Morris

OK, so, I’m going to add a disclaimer here: I love steampunk. If you’re not so keen on it, you might not agree with my opinion of this book. What is my opinion, you ask? This book ROCKS! Loved it, loved it, loved it.

Like The Heir of Night, the authors have used a lot of cliches. In fact, they’ve used a ton. But I just don’t care because it was so very much fun to read.

The story is set in a steampunk London. The heroes are agents in the Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences, a British Empire-wide clandestine organisation that investigates things the government and Crown are not willing to openly admit exist. Such as ghosts, secret societies and dangerously magical objects. Y’know. Cool stuff. Agent Wellington Thornhill Books is the archivist for the Ministry. His typical work environment is in the basement of the Ministry headquarters, in the archives, amongst the stacks. Agent Eliza D Braun, ex-pat kiwi, is a field agent with a close loving relationship with explosives. And guns. And in general anything that goes boom. When Eliza’s conduct gets her in a spot of hot water with the boss, she gets demoted. To assistant archivist. Needless to say, she’s not too happy with the arrangement, at least not until she finds the room full of unsolved case files. All those mysteries, waiting to be explored . . . irritated posh toff (but handsome) archivist in tow.

I understand that the authors were asked to add a lot of extra material after they had turned in the manuscript. Unfortunately, this shows in some areas where there are odd artifacts of this process. This is not the authors’ fault - their editor should have tidied the manuscript up better. I’ll give you an example: In one chapter, Books is getting dressed while thinking. He looks over his shoulder at his old service uniform hanging in his wardrobe. Then, on the next page it is established that he has broken into someone else’s house to get changed in order to lose any tails he had picked up. Um, then why were his clothes in the wardrobe? It makes no sense. Oh well.

All in all, the patchy editing is my only complaint. I enjoyed this book so much, and you won’t believe how much I want the next one, Of Cogs and Corsets. Goddamn, I want a Tardis.
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