Tuesday, 12 October 2010

Absent for a Few Days!

Apologies, I'll be absent for a few days to a week due to, well, not having any way to post! :P However, I'll be keeping up with plenty of books to review when I get back.
I'm reading:
- The Aldabreshin Compass by Juliet E. Mckenna
- Memory by Lois McMaster Bujold

Saturday, 9 October 2010

Review|Sky Coyote - Kage Baker

A while back, I read Kage Baker's Company antology, Gods and Pawns, and generally enjoyed the concepts and storytelling therein. So, more recently, when I was browsing my local library, I decided to try out the main series. A few months after reading In the Garden of Iden, which I found readable, but hardly what I'd expected from the anthology, I decided to continue my read with Sky Coyote. Told from Facilitator Joseph's point of view, rather than Mendoza's - which turned the story into more of a historical romance than the science fiction I was expecting! - I'd hoped Sky Coyote would, on the whole, be a better book.

The series is set in a future in which both quasi-machine immortality and time travel had been invented: with complications. Immortality is a children only procedure, and unpleasant to boot. Time travel can't change recorded history: and only goes one way, into the past. One company, Dr Zeus, combine these techniques to create cybernetic immortals who preserve artifacts for the Company: unheard of in recorded history, they nevertheless turn up in the Company's possession. The Preservers and Facilitators preserve whatever they've been paid for: and this time, it's a Native American tribe, the Chumash. Joseph is scheduled to pose as one of their gods, Sky Coyote", to save the tribe before the colonisation of the Americas.

Unfortunately, this is where it alls goes wrong for me. Some will like it, but I really dislike historical innacuracy, unless it's actually been caused by, say, time travel or specified as an alternate history. It's one of the reasons why I like Temeraire. In Sky Coyote, however, the Chumash speak in such a contrived and modern way that I really couldn't stand the dialogue with them at all. They'd invented stocks and shares - despite the disadvantages of the Americas, and explicitly referred to them as such, as well as several similar things. I can't fairly review the book, I have to say, because this one, major aspect annoyed me so much, so I'm not going to give this a rating. It's a shame, because I rather liked the initial premise and the suggestion of the Company's darker aspects - no news comes from after the year 2355, for example, and operatives are being removed for "retraining" and not returning.

I'd only suggest Sky Coyote to someone who's confident of being able to ignore the history and focus on the rest. I couldn't do that, so there's no judgement or rating from me.

Wednesday, 6 October 2010

Interview|Juliet McKenna

Juliet McKenna is the author of The Tales of Einarinn, The Aldabreshin Compass, The Chronicles of the Lescari Revolution and is now working on a new series: The Hadrumal Crisis. I've reviewed several of her excellent books on the blog: just click the "Juliet McKenna" tag at the bottom of this post to access all of my posts about her books. She kindly agreed to do this brief interview with me, and here it is:

Welcome to the blog!

In your three Einarinn series, you feature a number of mages (from both systems of magic) as central characters - Usara, Dev, Naldeth and Branca, among others. Do you think that your very well-defined systems of magic - both Artifice and elemental - have enabled or helped you to do this?

Definitely. I’m fascinated by the idea of magic and how it might really work, in the broader context and on the personal level. Knowing how the underlying magic works means I can really explore the implications. How does having magical abilities affect an individual? What about different magical abilities? How does their essential character affect their magical powers? How do other people react to them? I can’t see how I could do so without that firm foundation.

Also, as a reader, I have to find whatever’s underpinning the truly fantastic in a story is believable. So that’s even more important for me as a writer. I’m also a natural planner-ahead as an author, so getting everything defined was an obvious first step. Which isn’t to say some fascinating unforeseen consequences haven’t turned up along the way.

Currently, do you have any plans to revisit the settings of Kellarin, the Aldabreshin Archipelago, or the location seen (I won't spoil this for non-readers!) in Western Shore in a future series?

I see potential story ideas in pretty much all of these locations – and more besides. Not all of the concepts are strong enough to support a novel though, not so far anyway. That ‘western shore’ is probably the most remote possibility in all senses. I’d like to revisit Kellarin someday, perhaps through short fiction to begin with, to bring those other ideas into focus. That’ll depend on what time I have spare for such projects.

As for the Aldabreshin Archipelago, the trilogy I’m currently working on is called ‘The Hadrumal Crisis’ and if you look at the maps, you’ll see just how close the Wizards’ Isle is to the northernmost warlords’ domains. Let’s not forget the corsairs lurking in those islands and also the fate of prisoners from the Lescari civil wars who’ve been sold down the river to the slavers of Relshaz. So, yes, you’ll certainly be seeing more of the Archipelago. Just not in the way you’re expecting.

In The Aldabreshin Compass series, the Archipelago has an intricate system of divination, using both the "Heavenly" and "Earthly" compasses. Are any of the omens and methods of divination based on real world research and traditions, or just your imagination?

The Aldabreshin system of divination started as background detail in The Swordsman’s Oath, drawing on the various divinations I’d come across in my studies of Ancient Greece and Rome, where it was, to some people at least, very influential. When I was planning the Aldabreshin Compass series, I knew I had to get the specifics defined, for much the same reasons as I define my systems of magic. By then I also had the benefits of the research I’d been doing into symbols as I used the Forest/Mountain runes through the first series of Tales.

So I brought all that together with some further research into the Tarot, the I-Ching, palmistry, the interpretation of dreams and all sorts of other divination from folklore around the world. I also read up on the history of the zodiac as we know it today and used bits of the original Babylonian framework to hang these other ideas on.

It’s all come together with a coherence that’s fascinating in itself and really useful for me as a novelist. It also presents some intriguing challenges when what the heavenly or earthly compasses are telling a character is at odds with what I had planned for the story. I have to stay true to the character’s world view, so that’s definitely where my imagination and lateral thinking skills get called upon. What I might have planned can end up in the bin.

Hadrumal, in your books, is constantly forced to maintain wizardry's wary balance with mainland life. Do you see this as realising the realistic consequences of magical abilities, and, if so, did you set out to do this, or did it turn up along the way?

I saw this balancing act would be necessary from the outset. Magic, fundamentally, is power and power is slippery stuff. Life at the top of any society can be remarkably precarious, especially if the folk on the lower levels of the pyramid get too resentful, scared, impatient, hungry, educated... Ask the ghosts of emperors from Ancient Rome to early twentieth century Russia, and consider what regimes like North Korea and Burma/Myanmar have to do to enforce their control nowadays. Assuming my wizards don’t want to become tyrant-sorcerers, they have to tread carefully.

That said, I’m realising there’s only so much an Archmage can control, even with magic and astuteness. Add to that, the events of all the books so far have been developing a momentum of their own as far as the wizards are concerned. Plus there are always unforeseen events and unintentional consequences. As it happens, this combination has now resulted in The Hadrumal Crisis...

Thank you very much for the interview! I'm certainly looking forward to this new series, as magic has always been one of the most interesting elements of Einarinn.

Monday, 4 October 2010

Review|Irons in the Fire - Juliet E. McKenna

Yes, I have been doing quite a few reviews of McKenna's books recently! This will probably be my last for a while, until I get Blood in the Water - the next book. Irons in the Fire is the start of a new fantasy trilogy, exploring another area of the world of Einarinn: the warring duchies of Lescar. Each Duke desires the throne of this broken country, but the constantly shifting alliances, lead-adulterated coinage, and a peasantry broken by constant levies for the duchies' mercenaries combine to make it an impossible goal for each. It sounds typical, but the worldbuilding is actually fairly extraordinary, with the ever-changing politics of Lescar shown very well, as well as each of their rulers' machinations - and the determination of others to profit from the chaos.

And this is where we meet our protagonists. A band of Lescari exiles, strategies for Lescari freedom are constantly pored over and rejected: and the use of elemental magic in these wars is forbidden by Archmage Planir. But what about Artifice, the magic of the mind? The Archmage has never claimed any authority over that... The setup is slow, as the characters, from very different reaches of life, meet and discard ideas to put and end to this. However, in the book's second half, the action soon speeds up, as Sorgrad and 'Gren - two characters from The Tales of Einarinn - get involved. I can't really spoil it further, but let's just say the the plan is simple, but the result exceedingly fun! Although you don't need to have read any of McKenna's previous series, you'll probably get more out of the references, and especially of the Mountainborn's history, if you have. If so, you'll spot the pair early on: they're fairly prominent, and fun characters.

Our other main characters are Tathrin, a scholar currently working for a fur trader, Aremil, a crippled scholar himself, and one of the conspirators from the beginning, and finally, the mistress of Duke Garnot: as well as several other recurring viewpoints, like Duchess Litasse and Karn. Although Aremil fits several stereotypes, though I won't say which, the way in which he's dealt with is constantly surprising and not cliched in the least, Tathrin, meanwhile, adapts surprisingly quickly to his new situation as a co-conspirator, and an outlook on Sorgrad and 'Gen's more... colourfully pragmatic actions!

It's a fun book with a slow start and some surprisingly moving sequences, which I'd recommend, not as like reading, but definitely for those with a bit of time to spare and looking to get into a finished series.


Saturday, 2 October 2010

Review|Chaosbound - David Farland

Yes, it's taken a while! But before my review, a quick apology - Chaosbound is not the last book in the Runelords series, which I had previously thought it was. Unfortunately, I won't be reading further into this series - a pity, since I loved the first four books and would highly recommend them to anybody in search of an epic fantasy with some morally grey areas as well.

Chaosbound backtracks from the plot of the previous novels of the Runelords' second arc. Abandoning Fallion and Talon, we return to Myrrima and Borenson, two characters from the first arc changed considerably by time - and now the impact of the binding of two worlds into one. Borenson merges with Aath Ulber, a beserker and a giant among men. Borenson's son, Draken, has also fallen in love with the daughter of some ex-noble squatters on the Borenson estate. However, within a few pages of the two fathers' agreement to co-operate, Walkin is completely decharacterised into a designated antagonist, as he attempts to murder Borenson and his family for salvage. This gives Borenson an excuse to show off his new beserker rage, and for pretty much every other character to become terrified of him, and now even Walkins' daughter regards him as "petty and mean". I particularly dislike this approach to characterisation, especially as the two characters could have presented a more ethically gray argument by co-operating with their different attitudes. Instead, any difficulty is resolved by one attempting to murder the other. As Borenson leaves "Landesfallen" for the mainland, he becomes engaged in humanity's land stand against the wyrmlings.

Compared to the first books, focusing on some definite threats, but also the reactions of humanity, Chaosbound is a book painting in black and white, and little else. The wyrmlins have eyes that are "soulless and cruel". In the viewpoint of one of them, they actually aim to do evil. I mean, just how black can you get? The world/s have also become a little overmagical for my taste. Now, I like both high- and low-magic worlds, but the Runelords really only worked well with a few magical abilities and creatures: rather than the sort of extreme spells that have characterised the recent novels. I loved the forcibles - irons that could transfer an attribute from one person into another, leaving the first wholly bereft. It was an excellent, simple system that really worked in context. Aath Ulber's use of it - to create a "super-warrior" - is completely contrary to the first series, as even Raj Ahten, with thousands of times Borenson's endowments (transfers of attributes) failed. Furthermore, even the ending seems tacked-on.

Ultimately, for me, it's a disappointment. However, some may enjoy the high, slightly mixed-up magic setting, and Aath Ulber's journey through the changed world, but for me, it's a step down from books 1-4. It's still readable and some parts do work well, but overall, it's not a great book for me. :(


Friday, 1 October 2010

Review|The Assassin's Edge - Juliet McKenna

Yes, I know I promised to review Chaos Bound next. :) I'm still in the process of reading it, so, while I'm doing so, here's a slightly older review to tide you over! I recently reviewed The Gambler's Fortune by the same author, so I was anxious to see if Juliet McKenna's conclusion to the Tales of Einarinn could live up to its predecessors in the series. While The Gambler's Fortune is certainly accounted a good book, The Assassin's Edge is equally definitely a great one. And I'll explain why in due course, but first, a quick synopsis:

The final volume of the Tales of Einarinn cannot be described in detail - to reveal more than a bare handful of facts will almost certainly ruin the plot. Still, I'll give it a try. Livak and Ryshad are now residents of the Kellarin colony, and even most of the mercenaries, kept on to defend the settlement from any Elietimm invasion, have traded in their swords for farming implements of their choices. While Temar D'Alsennin endeavours to avoid his duties, more serious things are at stake: the first ships of spring will not be arriving, and the Elietimm are back at work. While this threat must be dealt with, a more permanent solution must now be found: and from the title, it might not be hard to guess.

So, what makes The Assassin's Edge a great book? Firstly, the characters experience genuine development: Temar and Allin especially are fun to watch, and newer characters, such as Naldeth, grow into fully-fledged protagonists. Secondly, I thought the magic system could become static after the upheavals of the first few books. I was, happily, wrong. New discoveries are made in a believable - and interesting - manner, and certainly do not serve the role of a deus ex machina: solving the plot in a handy, never-before-described way. Thirdly, the mages get some truly heroic moments, which I thought were lacking slightly in The Gambler's Fortune, and Sorgrad and 'Gren return once more to create relatively amiable havoc.

Although the scene in which one plot thread is resolved is a little concise, this really is the only flaw to the book, making it a definite:


Highly recommended - if you've read the earlier books.