Wednesday 30 January 2008

Blood Engines by T. A. Pratt

This was the Kelley Armstrong bookclub book for January.

Sorcerer Marla Manson is in San Francisco with her companion Rondeau, looking for a magical artefact that could save her life. Back in her hometown of Felport, a rival for her position as guardian of the city, is preparing a spell that will destroy her. Unless she can get her hands on the Cornerstone. Unfortunately the sorcerer who had the artefact has just been murdered. He's only the first victim, and it soon becomes clear that if Marla wants to save herself, she's going to have to save San Francisco and the rest of the world first.

This is a problematic book for me to review. On the one hand it has clever and original ideas, beautiful imagery and witty dialogue. However, it also has some weak plotting, an incredibly heavy-handed beginning and a heroine who isn't always the most likeable or interesting character in the story. Although I fully intend to carry on reading the series I'm not sure whether I'd recommend it. It's one you're either going to love or hate.

First the stuff I had problems with.

The beginning is rather like being hit over the head with a mallet. It's very 'tell the reader what's going on by having two characters talk about a situation they're already aware of'.

Marla - Why are we in San Francisco again?
Rondeau - Well we're in San Francisco because of stuff you already know but the reader doesn't, so I'm going to repeat it for their benefit.

This info-dumpy style pops up throughout the story. Though it does become less intrusive.

Whilst the actual adventuring in San Francisco I loved. I found the whole reason for being there - chasing a MacGuffin - to be very weak. Causing me at several points in the story (whenever Marla mentioned the terrible spell her rival, Susan, was attempting to cast) to be on Susan's side, wishing she would just cast the damn spell already. Additionally the timing for this terrible spell felt contrived. Marla needed a reason to be in San Francisco and that was it.

I think for some people Marla as a character would be both a plus and a minus. Initially she appears completely amoral (one rule for her, a different rule for everybody else), but she has a strong sense of integrity not readily apparent. Indeed it's only as we come towards the end of the story that you appreciate she does have more depth than it first appears.

Now for what I loved about this book.

It had some of the most original stuff I've read recently in urban fantasy. People being killed by golden frogs and hummingbirds. Seers talking to sewer grates and trash cans to confirm their visions. Stealing a child's jawbone to use as an oracle in a jar. The train that doesn't go anywhere. The Possible Witch - possibly (LOL) my favourite scene in the book, very cleverly written. You have to concentrate on what TPW is saying because she experiences so many possibilities at once. A Giant Frog eating San Francisco. And loads more.

T.A.Pratt also has a way of painting a picture with words, so you can see the golden frogs hopping about the train station, or an impenetrable wall of hummingbirds.

The character of Bradley is fascinating. Initially dismissed by Marla as not having enough power for her to be interested in. He keeps crossing paths with her, kind of intentionally unintentionally. He inadvertently ends up at a sex party she's attending. Circumstances have granted him power, but he uses it in quite a convoluted way, in order to be able to cope with what he can do. Through him we get a completely different view of this world of magic and power, and of Marla.

Finally the dialogue, especially in the second half of the book is really well written.
"...we'll find the Parable Witch, or whatever her name is."
"If it's even a her. Or, rather, if it even appears to be a her. Because, honestly, it's going to be an 'it'."

Blood Engines starts off with a heavy hand, but the author's touch becomes lighter as you read through the story and are pulled into the world. Although at the end I find myself hoping a future book will follow B and Cole (a story I would be chomping at the bit for), I'm happy to see where Marla's arrogance and attitude will take her next.

Poison Sleep - Bk2 - Mar 2008

Tuesday 22 January 2008

Eyes of Crow by Jeri Smith-Ready

First in the Aspect of Crow trilogy. Eyes of Crow is a fantasy which takes place in an ambiguous setting. Possibly the far future following a cataclysm, or possibly set in another universe. (I'm just going by the book, if anyone knows for sure, feel free to let us know in the comments).

The people of Asermos each have the gift of a different animal aspect, and each animal brings different talents. Rhia is bound to the spirit of Crow, a rare gift, which allows her foresight of death. Being a Crow is a great responsibility, charged with easing the passage of people to the Other side. It's a time of change in Rhia's life. She has to accept her gift - a thing which she doesn't find easy to do - and begin her training. But the Descendents (people who have abandoned the spirit animals and embraced the man made) are seeking to invade. Rhia will have to face her fears, the loss of both friends and family and death itself.

I'm not sure if it's good to be almost in tears within the first few pages of a book. (Actually I am, and it is.) But that's how quickly I was sucked into Rhia's world.

Although I found the introduction of the various animal aspects - bear, mouse, wasp, wolf, swan, spider, otter, wolverine, butterfly etc. - slightly info-dumpy. I think it was probably best to get this out of the way and make it familiar early, so it's in the readers head. And I admit that once I started this book I couldn't put it down.

Rhia has to leave her village of Asermos and travel to Kalindos to be trained by their Crow. There is a discord between the two villages which made me think of the ant and the grasshopper parable. The Asermons are an agricultural community, the Kalindons are more hunter/gatherers, living closer to the edge.

Whilst at Kalindos she begins a relationship with Marek (a wolf). Yet at the same time she's trying to find her way, to understand what being a Crow means. Her people are also having to deal with the fact that their very way of life is being threatened by the Descendents. Brings new meaning to the idea that you aren't given more than you can handle.

The world itself and its rules are incredibly well thought out. Each animal spirit gift has three phases. First when they accept the gift (I think), the second on the birth of a child, the third on the birth of a grandchild. With each phase increasing the power / potential of the gift. In this society people don't have children until they're ready, this shows they're ready for the next phase of their power. The consequences for going against this natural order can be harsh. As can the consequences of denying your gift. Both of these choices are explored in Eyes of Crow.

For me Eyes of Crow was very much about trying to understand your place in the world, when the world you know is constantly shifting and changing. Rhia resists change, she puts off embracing her spirit animal, and intially runs away from taking the necessary steps to becoming a Crow. But you don't blame her for her fear, and through the course of the book, she grows both emotionally and spiritually. We see her change from a girl to a young woman.

This is definitely another series I'll be following.

Also available - Voice of Crow (Bk2)

Thursday 17 January 2008

Iron Kissed by Patricia Briggs

When Mercy's former boss, Zee, is arrested for murder, she feels it's up to her to prove his innocence. Whether he wants her help or not.

The third in the Mercy Thompson series. Iron Kissed has two main plotlines. The first deals with Mercy having to make a choice between the two men in her (love)life. Adam - the Alpha of the local werewolf pack, and Sam her childhood sweetheart (also an Alpha). It's a decision she needs to make soon, before there's bloodshed.

The second plot is the mystery of the book. Several Fae have been murdered out at the Fae reservation and Zee takes Mercy there, to see if her 'coyote' nose can track the murderer. Although it initially seems like everything is resolved, Zee ends up being charged with murder and Mercy wants to put things right.

Although I don't think it's essential to have read the previous books in the series to follow Iron Kissed. You'd be missing out on two great stories if you didn't read Moon Called (Bk1) and Blood Bound (Bk2). Plus the build up to the Adam/Mercy/Samuel plotline is in those books. And a lot of the background as to how the Mercy Thompson Universe works and the relationship/family set ups of the various species groups.

One thing I very much enjoy about the series is how in each book we learn more about the characters and their relationships. One of my favourite things is how the dynamics of the werewolf pack is explored. In Iron Kissed I wish we could have spent more time learning about Honey and Peter, and Ben. For me, the scene between Ben and Adam at the end was one of the most powerful in the book, especially when Ben is having trouble expressing himself. I hope we get to spend more time with them in future books.

In Iron Kissed we learn more about the mysterious Fae and also how to deal with them. The fact that they can't lie but have their own special way of telling the truth. Which is interesting because ultimately that's how Mercy saves herself at the end of the story.
"It's easier to get forgiveness than permission."
For me this quote is at the heart of the book. In a way this has been Mercy's attitude since we first met her in Moon Called, and probably has a lot to do with growing up as a coyote in a werewolf pack. It's a very easy thing to say when you have no way of knowing what the consequences of your actions will be.

Some of Iron Kissed is very difficult to read. Patricia Briggs doesn't pull back, her characters have to deal with the consequences of their actions. Sometimes there isn't an easy solution and it isn't always easier to ask for forgiveness rather than permission. Especially when the person you have to forgive is yourself.

The temptation to skip ahead when reading this book to see where the story is going, is almost overwhelming. It's that good. But you must resist. It's a story that once you start reading you can't stop. The Mercy Thompson series gets better with every book and in my opinion it's one of the best urban fantasy series around at the moment. If you love urban fantasy and you aren't reading the Mercy Thompson series, then I really think you should be.

Wednesday 9 January 2008

Midnight Awakening by Lara Adrian

Midnight Awakening is the third in the Midnight Breed series. And I think I'm possibly the last person to review it. Following the events of Kiss of Crimson (Bk 2), Elise Chase has left the safety of the Darkhaven to seek revenge on the Rogues and Minions whose schemes led to the death of her son. But as the psychic gifts she uses to pursue her vengeance threaten to overwhelm her, it will take the intervention of the Breed warrior Tegan to bring her home.

I think for me this is the first story where I didn't feel the shadow of the Black Dagger Brotherhood. The Midnight Breed series is finally standing on its own. It helps that Lara Adrian writes such independent heroines, and also that we change locations, a large chunk of Midnight Awakening takes place in Germany. It places the series in a larger world.

Elise is another strong female character who knows her own mind, she's got a brain and she uses it. This is important, this story just wouldn't work with a heroine who wouldn't stand up to Tegan. There's a scene where Tegan chases Elise off by being his charming self, and she does run away. But, she also stops, thinks and goes back. That was a nice illustration of their characters.

The progress of Elisa and Tegan's courtship isn't simple, and it shouldn't be. They both have a lot of history and emotional baggage to deal with. It's realistic that it takes them over three quarters of the book to get themselves sorted out. And I think at the end, this gives us the most believable relationship of the series so far.

I think my favourite conversation between them, is the one about the brothel. :)
"I'm not afraid to go to a nightclub."
..."It's, uh, not that kind of club. You wouldn't be comfortable there. Trust me."
Her eyes widened in understanding. "Are you telling me it's a brothel?"

Although this story is very much focused on Tegan and Elise, and we don't dwell on the previous pairings, there are some moments with characters from the first two books. Tess helping Rio, Gabrielle taking photographs of the daylight world for Lucan - little touches that give us an insight into their relationships. Sterling and Elise come to an understanding about their relationship. I still find Chase (Sterling) to be the most interesting seconday character and I have to add here, that I KNEW Dante and Chase would end up as friends. :)

If I had any complaints it's that Marek who had such potential to be an outstanding bad guy is reduced to the status of pantomime villain. To me this feels like a wasted opportunity, and is almost too easy. I felt a little like the author thought, 'Oh, I've come up with a better idea, let's just scrap the first one.'

Midnight Awakening acts as a conclusion to the first three books, whilst at the same time the plotline is opened up with a new and more threatening danger awakened. I look forward to Rio's book to find out what happens next.

Saturday 5 January 2008

Exit Strategy by Kelley Armstrong

After Nadia Stafford took justice into her own hands, she had to leave the police force. She finally ends up becoming a hitwoman for a small mafia family, whilst at the same time trying to keep her tourist lodge solvent. However, when one of her hits is mistaken for the work of a serial killer, she joins forces with five other assassins to stop the killings before they are all exposed.

As a big fan of Kelley Armstrong's Otherworld series, I approached Exit Strategy with some trepidation. I guess I was slightly concerned I'd miss having the possibility of werewolves. I needn't have worried. :)

Kelley Armstrong writes characters who feel like real people, whether they're an ex-cop hitwoman, or the world's only female werewolf. In Exit Strategy this is made clear from the 'victim vignettes'. Two or three pages we spend with the victims of the serial killer before they're murdered, as they just go about their daily lives. In just a few pages they become real people, not just red shirts. By the time you get to page 287 and read about Gracie and Cliff you'll be biting your fingernails.

Even though Nadia is the protagonist (and ES is written in first person), we don't find out exactly what happened to her when she was younger. We know it's something terrible, but she's not exactly honest with herself, let alone other people. And there's a feeling throughout the book that this incident was a precipitating event, that through other decisions she's made in her life, has brought her to her present position. (Wow - compound sentence there.) We learn part of the story of this triggering event, and we can surmise more as we experience her nightmares and what she shares with Jack. But she doesn't allow herself to think of what happened, though it clearly still troubles her.

So Nadia as a heroine is a bit of an enigma. Even though we're in her head, there are still parts of her that remain a mystery. And I liked this. I liked having to think about her motivations. As a hitwoman she's decisive and professional, but there's something inside her that's not functioning quite properly. I'm hoping we gradually find out more about her in upcoming books. I wonder if she'll ever have to confront all the things she's denied.

Of the other hitmen - Jack, Evelyn, Quinn and Felix - we spend most time with Jack, who is Nadia's mentor, and Evelyn who was Jack's mentor.
...Jack said, "You saw my note, right? It said 'wait'."
"That was a note? I thought it was a haiku."

Jack brings new meaning to the word taciturn. Whilst he uses the minimum number of words to get his point across, and none if he can say what he wants to non-verbally, his presence looms large on the page. He remains a complete professional, focused on the job at hand, and yet there is a chemistry between him and Nadia that is almost tangible - probably moreso because the two of the them don't acknowledge it. Yep, I think I'm gonna be a Jack/Nadia shipper.
"He's an old man," Evelyn said..."Flash him some T and A, and he'll tell us everything we want to know."
"Great," I said. "We'll find you a push up bra and a mini skirt."

Evelyn is one sharp old lady who knows what makes people tick. You underestimate her at your peril. It's clear that she cares for Jack. Whilst she states an interest in mentoring Nadia, I wouldn't put it past her to have other motives.

And, yep, there is loads more dialogue I want to quote, but I'm gonna stop there. :)

One of the most memorable scenes for me in Bitten (Otherworld Bk1) has nothing to do with werewolves. It's the scene where Elena is pursued by a killer through an airport parking lot. You were there with her. And Exit Strategy has a similar feel. Would I recommend this book to everyone - no. If the reason you read Kelley Armstrong's books is for the urban fantasy element, then this one might not be for you. If on the other hand it's for her dialogue, and the way she makes characters come alive on the page, then give it a try.

Friday 4 January 2008

2007 review and Book Club

So I've already done my favourite new authors of 2007 - Ilona Andrews, Jeri Smith-Ready and Jennifer Rardin.

Of books I've read from my established authors my favourites would be - Kelley Armstrong - No Humans Involved, Exit Strategy, Lynn Viehl - Evermore, Patricia Briggs - Moon Called, Blood Bound, Elizabeth Vaughan - Warlord, Nalini Singh - Caressed by Ice.

Special mention to The Time Traveller’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger, which I read way back in January. This would make my favourite top 5 books ever, and I think it's the book I tried to persuade most people to read. But I didn't include her as one of my new authors, because I'm not sure if another book by her would have the same impact that TTTW did. Hope that makes sense.

In total, if I've worked it out correctly. I read 63 books in 2007. Fewer than I thought and my TBR pile keeps getting bigger.

What will I be reading in 2008?

Still on the lookout for new urban fantasy authors. And I'll be keeping up with my established favourites as well.

At the moment I'm reading Blood Engines by T.A.Pratt. This is the Kelley Armstrong book club book for January. I'll be following the bookclub again this year, I've found some great authors through the club and I think there's only been one book that I really didn't like. Books for the rest of the first half of the year are:-

February - Iron Kissed by Patricia Briggs
March - The High King's Tomb by Kristen Britain
April - Tangled Webs by Anne Bishop
May - From Dead to Worse by Charlaine Harris
June - Grimspace by Ann Aguirre