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Afterworlds
Afterworlds
Price: £4.31

5.0 out of 5 stars An amazing book for anyone that loves writing or the literary world, 14 Jan. 2015
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This review is from: Afterworlds (Kindle Edition)
Afterworlds is two novels in one. Half of the book tells the story of Darcy, an eighteen year old who's just published her first novel moving to New York to try to make it as an author while falling in love, growing up and doing lots of rewrites and publicity tours. Every other chapter is Darcy's novel, a YA paranormal about a girl who becomes a "reaper" or "psychopomp" tasked with helping souls to cross into the afterlife, and who falls in love with a sexy Hindu death god (yes, really - makes a change from vampires, I suppose!).

I suspect that I wouldn't have particularly enjoyed either of these stories anywhere near as much if they were standalones. The paranormal novel was a fun but very standard example of its genre, and I'm not usually a massive fan of contemporary YA. But together, they worked brilliantly. I found it fascinating to see how the paranormal novel changed in response to both edits requested by Darcy's editor and her own life experiences. I've several books with extracts of a character's writing in them, but never one that gives you the whole book.

The paranormal sections were both a gentle mockery of and loving homage to the genre, while the "real" sections were a bit of an ode to the joys of writing, as well as something of a satire of the modern YA scene. To really enjoy this book, I suspect you've got to have read a few paranormal romances, good and bad, in your time, and either write yourself and/or be very involved in the world of Goodreads, book blogging etc. Some of Darcy's writer friends and rivals were clearly based on real authors - looking at the acknowledgements page might give some clues!

As I writer of paranormal novels myself, I kept veering between amusement and painful recognition. The way that Darcy ruthlessly takes places she's visited and snippets from conversations with friends and personality traits of people she meets and incorporates them into her book was so close to my natural way of working that it really made me smile when things mentioned a few chapters back in the "real" sections subtly cropped up in the paranormal sections. The pain of incorporating editors' comments was also beautifully well done, in particular the on-going debate about whether Darcy was going to change the ending of her novel to make it happier. The one extra thing I'd have liked to see would have been a few snippets of Darcy's first draft - the version we're reading is meant to be the final, published version, and it would be interesting to see how things changed, in particular the ending.

Away from the writing, I also really liked Darcy's romance with a fellow (female) author and the sheer wish-fulfillment fun of her life in New York. To get the most out of this, I think you need to suspend your disbelief with Darcy's own story just as much as with her paranormal novel. Yes, it's a little far-fetched that a very young, first time author would get taken on by the first agent she applied to, given a six-figure, two-book publishing deal, find a nice apartment, get a new circle of cool friends and generally have everything go near-perfectly for her in life and love. But then, it's also a little far-fetched that someone would become a psychopomp and fall in love with a sexy Indian death god, and in a way, I don't think the "real" story is meant to be any more realistic than the "imaginary" one. There are books about struggling writers desperately trying to get a break and that is not what this book is trying to achieve. That said, if just for my self-esteem levels, I might have preferred it if it was suggested that Darcy had tried a few agents before one of them bit or that she'd written another book before the one that sold, or even some suggestion that she'd done lots of editing to start with - she seemed to do NaNoWriMo and then press send!

I can see why not everyone enjoyed this book. The Darcy sections are maybe a little too much like one big in-joke for anyone who doesn't know what NetGalley is, and the paranormal novel sometimes treads a fine line between its need to be enjoyable in its own right and its need to show the faults with Darcy's writing and feel like a first novel. Personally though, this is one of my favourite books in a long time and really helped to remind me both of how hard writing can be, and of how much I love to do it.


Tithe
Tithe
Price: £4.99

3.0 out of 5 stars Nothing amazing or unique, but still a fun urban fantasy read with a dark and gritty edge, 14 Jan. 2015
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This review is from: Tithe (Kindle Edition)
I recently read a short story by Holly Black that blew me away, so I was really looking forward to reading one of her full length books. I enjoyed this and read through it quickly, but I was a bit underwhelmed.

There are two main things that separate this story of a girl dragged into an ancient conflict between two warring fairy courts from the average teen paranormal romance/urban fantasy.

First, the realistic bits and the female lead are very gritty - there's trailer parks and shoplifting and smoking and swearing. Our heroine is a high school dropout. From what I've seen in reviews, lots of readers are either offended by this or love its edginess. I was fairly ambivalent, but I appreciated the fact that the author had gone for a slightly unusual setting and characters.

Second, in a similar vein, the world of Faerie is incredibly dark (particularly for a YA book though even for an adult book) with all sorts of tortures and cruelties and depravities. I thought this bit was well done, with a real sense of both magic and danger created.

Beyond that though, the book felt a bit "same old same old" with a human girl who turns out to be special and a dark-but-sexy non-human love interest. Don't get me wrong, I love that sort of plot, and I still think authors can do new and interesting things with it, but here, there was nothing that really captured my imagination. For me, this type of book stands or fails on the strength of the love interest, and though Roiben-the-hot-Faerie had an interesting back story and internal conflict, he just didn't leave me besotted and swooning. Equally, I just couldn't quite understand the relationship that developed.

I liked some of the plotting and politicking, but some parts of the plot didn't quite work for me. In particular, it seemed a little inconsistent about what Kaye knew at any given time and a little all over the place in terms of some supporting characters' motivations and loyalties. The idea that Kaye had seen fairies since she was little rather than discovering their existence as a teenager was an interesting one, but it sometimes almost made me feel like I was missing a first volume, or at least a prologue, and sometimes made her a bit too blase about the whole thing.

Overall then, I wasn't wowwed, but this was still a fun read with a dark and gritty edge, and I'm giving the sequel a chance.


Station Eleven
Station Eleven
Price: £3.59

5.0 out of 5 stars A clever mingling of modern and post-apocalyptic story lines held together with real literary sensibility and a love of culture, 2 Jan. 2015
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This review is from: Station Eleven (Kindle Edition)
The central premise of this novel is that twenty years after a virulent strain of flu wiped out 99.9% of the earth's population, a troupe of actors and musicians are touring around north america performing Shakespeare plays and classical music in the new villages and towns where survivors (and those borne after the epidemic) have gathered. Their motto: Survival is not enough. In other words, just because things have got a bit post-apocalyptic doesn't mean that culture should be allowed to die out.

As well as chapters following this performing troupe, other chapters jump back to the days in which the epidemic was raging, and further back still, to some of the characters' lives in the last few decades when we still had electricity and civilization. The common connection linking together the different times and the rather disparate characters is a hollywood and Shakespearian actor called Arthur Leander who, rather ironically, dies on stage of a heart attack the day the terrible flu breaks out in the US, before anyone knows there is a problem. The panic and mourning and obituaries (including in the second to last ever edition of the New York Times) contrasts nicely with the eventual grim acceptance that nearly everyone is dying.

For a post-apocalyptic novel, this is a)surprisingly literary, and b)surprisingly cheerful. Unlike in most tales of people fighting for their lives, survivors have mostly settled down and made the best of things and are trying very hard to cling onto and rediscover civilization and technology, whether it's the cycle-powered computer or the handmade, super-local newspapers. As a result, I found this story of the perseverance of the human spirit and human achievement to be quite cheering.

The book deals with some big themes of art and humanity and the point of life, but it's also an interesting character study and never dragged or felt too heavy or pretentious. It combined the sci-fi feel of the outbreak and the scenes in the future with well-realised portrayals of twentieth and early twenty-first century life. And somehow, even knowing what was coming and what the survivors would suffer, it still made me care about the relatively petty problems of the people pre-outbreak.

For me, the weakest aspects were the comic books that give the book its name, obsessively created by Arthur's first wife pre-epidemic, and adored by one of the post-epidemic Shakespearean performers. I was also a bit underwhelmed by the plotline around the prophet - for people who'd already survived so much, this didn't seem like a major crisis or a very dramatic development. I guess the author felt a bit of action was needed, but I'd have been happy just reading about the theatre troupe's meanderings and details of life in the new world.

Overall though, a very original and compelling book that mingles futuristic elements with an interesting contemporary story and a genuine literary sensibility.


Stardust
Stardust
Price: £4.31

4.0 out of 5 stars Magical fantasy fairytale, 2 Jan. 2015
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This review is from: Stardust (Kindle Edition)
I'm a big Neil Gaiman fan, but while some of his books are numbered amongst my favourite pieces of literature, there are others that I've enjoyed but that have failed to hit the spot in quite the same way. Somehow, I'd never read this book, and having done so, I'm happy to report that while this isn't up there with his absolute best works, this has everything I want from Gaiman.

It's basically a new fairytale, based around Tristran, a man living in the fictional village of Wall in the Victorian era. Wall borders onto Faerie, although the crossing is usually well-guarded. Unbeknown to Tristran, though his father is genuinely the solid farmer he's known all his life, his mother isn't the farmer's wife, but an otherworldly creature that this father met at the nine-yearly market, where the inhabitants of Wall and Faerie get to mingle. To try to impress his rather vain and spoiled love interest, Tristran sets out into Faerie to bring her back a falling star - except that the star turns out to be a humanesque woman. There follows a series of interlocking, fantastical plotlines in which various people are searching for the star, mostly with bad intentions, and a charming coming of age tale as Tristran becomes more of a hero and reconsiders his goals.

The world was beautifully created, and though as far as I'm aware, most of it was new, it genuinely had the feel of folklore. Characters both major and minor were well crafted, with both some wonderfully "boo-able" villains and others who were drawn in shades of grey. As you'd expect from Gaiman, it was all exceptionally well-written and very imaginative.

Although the various plotlines were neatly pulled together, I felt the ending trailed off slightly, but on the whole, I'd highly recommend this.


Delia Smith's Christmas
Delia Smith's Christmas
by Delia Smith
Edition: Hardcover

5.0 out of 5 stars Saved my first Christmas away from my parents!, 2 Jan. 2015
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Newly married in the summer, I was tasked with cooking Christmas dinner by myself for the first time this year, and this book was invaluable.

The book starts with Christmas cakes and puddings that you ought to be making in November if you're doing things properly, though I bought this in late December by which point it was a bit too late. Maybe next year...

There are then all sorts of recipes for party food and nice meals to serve around Christmas time, from roast ham to mince pies to homemade sausage rolls to mulled wine.

The bit I really wanted the book for, however, was the chapter called, "The Last Thirty Six Hours," which talks you minute by minute through cooking the Christmas Dinner, from early on Christmas Even, including breaks for watching a carol service, opening presents, having the neighbours round and having a glass of champagne! I followed this almost to the letter, making everything from scratch (cranberry sauce, gravy, stuffing, bread sauce etc) and it didn't let me down. So, so useful.
I probably won't follow it quite so religiously next time, when I'll hopefully be feeling a bit more confident and willing to experiment, but I suspect it will still be a useful guide.

Finally, there were some good ideas for what to do with various leftovers.

Overall, there's nothing very radical in here - the book is from about 1990 - and if you've been cooking Christmas dinner and catering for Christmas parties for the last twenty years, this may not be for you (though you'd probably still find one or two recipes that caught your eye). But if this is your first Christmas or you're not feeling wildly confident, I don't thing there's anyone better than Delia to guide you through it.


My True Love Gave to Me
My True Love Gave to Me
Price: £2.99

4.0 out of 5 stars Lovely Christmas stories of teenage romance, spanning a variety of genres and styles, with some very diverse protagonists, 2 Jan. 2015
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I wanted something fun, relaxed and seasonal to read in the run up to Christmas, and this collection of twelve romantic YA stories didn't disappoint. As is inevitably the case, I liked some stories better than others, but there were none I actually disliked and none that could be regarded as fundamentally bad stories. The editor really did do a great job of bringing together lots of varied but talented writers together, some of whom I already loved, some of whom I've been meaning to read, and some who were knew to me.

I'll come on to some of the individual stories in a moment, but firstly, a few thoughts about the book as a whole. Two things I liked were the variety of genres - some were fully-blown fantasy/paranormal, some were starkly realistic, and others were definitely set in the real world with real people, but had a bit of a fairytale feel. As long as you like YA and romance, there's probably something for you here. The second cool thing was the variety of characters and couplings. Anyone concerned about the lack of diversity in YA should read this. Most notably, there's a story featuring a gay couple, and what I really liked about it was that the fact they were gay was almost irrelevant. It wasn't about coming out or homophobia or anything, it was just a cute romance like the others, that happened to star two boys. As well as that, there were characters of pretty much all races and classes, and lots of romantic mingling between them - the cover of the American edition illustrates all of the couples, and one glance at that will show you what I mean. And although the big focus is Christmas, other December festivals also had a part to play. All of this never felt like it was some forced exercise in political correctness though, it just gave the stories a nice feeling of variety and realness.

On the other hand, there were some odd similarities between some of the stories which started to make them feel a bit repetitive. Nearly all of them featured some combination of an absent parent and an urge to leave (or in a few cases, to return to) their hometown. I couldn't decide if this was a request from the editor or a preoccupation of YA authors, but I really started to notice it after a while.

Onto the stories. I make no secret of the fact that as a rule, I vastly prefer non-realistic/non-modern stories to contemporary realism. Although i enjoyed the way this book let me dip my toes in the writing of some of the big name contemporary authors, most of my favourites were the more fantastical tales.

My absolute favourite was Krampuslauf by Holly Black, which introduced the Krampus, a character from folklore I was previously unfamiliar with. This is sort of your classic "girl meets mythical creature" tales, but it was really well done. I loved the portrayal of the dark, sexy and vengeful Krampus, but I also adored the heroine's imagination and determination to create magic around her. Lots of the story revolves around her attempting to organise a formal, glamorous NYE party in a trailer park, and I could so identify with that urge to make your life bigger and better than it really is through sheer force of will - see also the imaginary boyfriend she convinced all her friends about.

A close second with Kelly Link's The Lady and the Fox, which had an English setting (which made a nice change) and the feel of a Christmassy Victorian ghost story. It focusses on Miranda, whose mother was a stylist and friend to a top aristocratic actress, but who is now in a Thai prison). She lives with her aunt and uncle in a hundrum town, but every year at Christmas, she goes to visit the actress, her godmother, in her grand country house. The story starts when she is eleven and runs through a variety of glamorous Christmasses, until she's in her late teens. Each Christmas day, as long as it snows, a mysterious man, who seems to be an ancestor of the actress' family, appears in the garden. In early years, this is merely an interesting distraction, but as the years go by, Miranda can't get him out of her head. The writing and atmosphere were brilliant in this one, even if I'd have liked more backstory - this one really could have been a full-length novel - and struggled with the likelihood of there being snow more than once in ten years at Christmas in England!

Surprisingly, one of my least favorite stories was the most fantastical, and the one written by Laini Taylor, my favourite author of all the contributors. The Girl Who Woke the Dreamer was set in a different world, and as a result, wasn't actually very Christmassy. It was also just a bit too weird, even for my tastes and had a bit too much going on to really work as a short story.

My absolute least favourite was Polaris is Where You'll Find Me (Jenny Han), about a girl adopted by Santa as a baby who is now a teenager with a crush on one of his (hot, Tolkienesque) elves. I loved the premise, and the opening descriptions of the North Pole and the Christmas Ball, but then it just trailed off, went nowhere and ended abruptly.

Of the more realistic stories, I had two favourites. Firstly, Rainbow Rowell's Midnights, which was probably the simplest and most believable story of all, told the story of three successive midnights on NYE as the heroine grows older, changes, and fall more and more in love with a friend. This was a triumph of how to do a short story, packing so much emotion and character development into a few pages. I was really rooting for the heroine to get her midnight kiss, and it was also a great depiction of that weird time when old friends regather at Christmas after their first few months at university.

My other favourite was the lovely, if rather far-fetched "Welcome to Christmas, CA" (Kirsten White) about a girl working in a Christmas-themed restaurant in a small desert town. Things look up when the restaurant acquires a new chef, who has an unerring ability to tell what food will make a person happy. There's a very sweet love story, but there's also stuff about family and belonging and cultural identity and domestic violence, all of which is somehow tied up in a slightly forced but very enjoyable happy ending.

Angels in the Snow (Matt de la Pena) and What the Hell Have You Done, Sophie Roth? (Gayle Forman), were both about seemingly mismatched couples meeting for the first time while away from their families for the holidays. They were both nice enough stories with cute romantic stories and a bit of musing on race and class, but didn't really catch my imagination.

"It's a Yuletide Miracle, Charlie Brown", by Stephanie Perkins (who also edited the collection) is about a boy who works on a Christmas Tree lot trying to help an unhappy girl decorate her overcrowded flat. It was very romantic and from the writing and the characters, I can see why Perkins (who I've never read before) is so popular, but while I enjoyed this, it isn't quite the sort of thing I really enjoy.

Beer Buckets and Baby Jesus Myra McEntire)was about a trouble causing teenage boy being forced to help with the local nativity play as a sort of informal community service. I found this one a bit cheesy, to be honest.

Star of Bethlehem (Ally Carter) is a rather strange story about a girl who is running away from something, swaps plane tickets with an Icelandic exchange student and ends up staying at the latter's ex-boyfriends ranch, and claiming to his family that she's the Icelandic girl. I had very mixed feelings about this one. It was very sweet and nicely Christmassy and I really wanted to find out what was going to happen, but both the premise and the resolution were a bit far-fetched.

Your Temporary Santa is the abovementioned story featuring a gay couple, by David Levithan, who I've been meaning to read something of for ages. There was actually relatively little romance here - it was about a guy dressing up as Santa to keep the magic alive for his boyfriend's baby sister. Very Christmassy, very adorable, and an interesting change of pace not only because of the sex of the characters, but because unlike all the other tales of new romance, they were an established couple and their real fondness for each other was very touching.

Overall then, this is definitely worth a read next Christmas, and it's also introduced me to a number of author's whose full-length books I'm now keen to try. It's also worth pointing out that there are some lovely illustrations even in the Kindle edition, but I have it on good authority that the actual book is gorgeous and well worth buying.


The Fault in Our Stars
The Fault in Our Stars
Price: £2.49

4.0 out of 5 stars A realistic-seeming portrayal of teenage cancer, but with lots of humour, romance and literary fun in amongst the tragedy, 2 Jan. 2015
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A contemporary, realistic novel aimed at the YA market about teenagers living with/dying of cancer didn't really seem like the sort of thing I'd enjoy, but I've never known a book be recommended by so many different people with varied tastes, so I eventually decided to give it a go.

While i'm not sure I'd say I enjoyed it exactly - the subject matter means its not really a book to be enjoyed - it's definitely an impressive piece of work. The author doesn't shy away from all the gory physical and emotional details of living with cancer, but his characters are people as well as cancer-sufferers, and he manages to suffuse their story with lots of humour and romance.

For me, a lot of the reason this worked was the sharp, likable first person narrator, Hazel, and the clever and believable voice in which she told her story. Permanently hooked up to an oxygen machine due to the treatable but uncurable lung cancer that she knows will kill her sooner or later, she hates the cliches of the brave and noble cancer sufferer about as much as she hates being forced to go to her support group. She prefers a combination of watching trashy TV and reading pretentious novels, particularly "An Imperial Affliction," a literary novel about a teenage cancer-sufferer, which ends mid-sentence.

To some extent, the book just gives us an insight into Hazel's everyday life - having her lings drained, arguing with and bonding with her mum, socialising with but feeling disconnected from her old school friends - but the main strand is her burgeoning relationship with Augustine, another teenage cancer victim who's lost a leg (ruining a promising basketball career) but does at least seem to have been cured. The sweet episodes of new romance are undercut by Hazel's knowledge that before long, she's going to die - so is it really fair to let someone fall in love with her?

I liked the romance itself, which progressed naturally and felt believable. That said, I struggled a bit with Augustine, and for me, in a book with a great lead and some strong supporting characters, he felt a bit forced. Despite his humanising love of computer games and love/hate relationship with basketball, he was ridiculously pretentious, always trying to be that bit too clever with how he put things. Some people have commented that they found that unrealistic in a teenage boy. I wouldn't go that far - I've met plenty of teenagers who think and in that sort of way - but I just found it a bit irritating. I could never quite picture him in my mind or form the bond you need to feel with the romantic hero to really enjoy a love story. Even so, their relationship was ultimately both quite cute and quite moving.

The other main plot line was about Hazel and Augustine trying to find out what happened after the end of the abovementioned "An Imperial Affliction," by trying to track down the author. I'm in two minds about this one. The parallels and differences between the real novel and the fictional novel were interesting, and quotes from the latter allowed the author to make some of his points in a slightly different way. It also served as a jumping off point for musings on the nature of fiction and the extent to which an author is all-knowing. On the other hand, it sometimes felt a bit too meta, and I struggled with the character of the author even more than with Augustine.

Overall then, this was a worthwhile read, and I would join the legions of people recommending it, though be warned that inbetween all the humour and romance and literary cleverness, this is ultimately quite upsetting - however much it's played with, this is fundamentally still a teenage cancer story. That said, this was four rather than five stars for me. It just didn't quite get under my skin and wow me quite as much as it seems to have wowwed many other people.


Doomsday Book (S.F. Masterworks)
Doomsday Book (S.F. Masterworks)
Price: £4.31

3.0 out of 5 stars Wonderful historical sections sit uneasily alongside ridicolous futuristic chapters, 20 Dec. 2014
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Having studied history at Oxford University, a tale of time-travelling Oxford historians sounded like the ultimate in wish fulfillment, and I had high hopes for this book. In the end, I was left with extremely mixed feelings, mainly because there are two plotlines running, and it was hard to believe they formed part of the same book or were even written by the same author.

Some chapters follow Kirvin, a history student in the Oxford of 2054 who is granted permission to travel back to 1320 for historical research. Time travel by historians has become almost commonplace, but no one's ever gone back so far or to such a potentially dangerous and culturally different time. This section wasn't perfect, but it was very strong - if this had been the entirety of the book I'd probably have given it four stars. I loved all the preparation Kirvin undertook, from learning languages to breaking and dirtying her fingernails. I also enjoyed the fact that a lot of this preparation was in vain - despite the best efforts of top professors of medieval history, Kirvin's clothes and way of speaking just weren't quite right. It was an interesting commentary on how much we can ever really know about the distant past, and it felt like a more realistic take on timetravel than lots of books where characters get by speaking modern English and wearing fancy-dress shop clothes.

This section struck a good balance between showing just how different people of the 14th century were in some ways, while still making them relatable and suggesting that ultimately, humans are humans, regardless of time, place or class - some traits, positive and negative, transcend time. A rather cliched bitchy mother-in-law aside, the historical characters were well developed and nuanced - I particularly loved the two young daughters of the Lady of the Manor that Kirvin becomes a sort of nursemaid to. It's worth bearing in mind that the story moves very slowly. For hundreds of pages, it's mostly scene-setting and interaction between characters, before suddenly taking a turn for the dramatic towards the end. As a history fan, I actually enjoyed just spending time in the past, but if you're looking for lots of action throughout, look elsewhere.

Weirdly, despite the strong character development elsewhere, I felt like I never really got to know Kirvin. Does she have family? Friends? Apart from history, what is she interested in? Why is she fascinated by the early fourteenth century rather than any other period? Right to the end, she felt like something of a cipher. It was also irritating that having gone to so much trouble to get there, she then spent most of her time worrying about how to get back, rather than soaking up the experience. Some of this story was told in first person, in the guise of Kirvin recording her observations into an implanted recorder. Other parts were told in conventional third person. Frustratingly, sometimes the exact same scene or piece of information was relayed in both section. Overall though, I enjoyed this part.

The problem was the other, alternating half of the book, which focussed on "present day" (well, 2054) Oxford caught in the grip of a flu epidemic while Kirvin's tutor worries about whether she's made it the the right time and place, whether she had the flu and whether, with the time machine's technician infected and unconscious, they can bring her back. I though the tutor, Mr Dunworthy, was one of the most sympathetic and well-developed characters in the novel, and potentially, this section could have functioned as a great parallel to Kirvin's experiences of a 14th century epidemic while racheting up the tension by reminding readers she might be stuck in the past forever. Instead, it consisted of people panicking for no particular reason and failing to process the plot one iota (mostly by trying to phone people and getting an engaged line and/or passing out before a crucial fact can be passed on) and repetitive, not very funny attempts at Carry On style farcical humour that felt utterly out of place. I'm all for a bit of black humour in the middle of a crisis, but the demanding bell-ringers and overbearing mother and irresistible ladies-man felt like they'd been parachuted in from a different novel, and completely ruined any sense of drama.

The other major problem with this section was the technology, or lack thereof. 2054 has time travel and fairly advanced medicine, but it doesn't have mobile phones, answer phones, or any sort of publicly usable computers or internet. The book was written in 1992, and it's a little unfair to blame the author for not predicting the future, but the Oxford portrayed here feels outdated even for the nineties, nevermind the future - I'm sure my Dad had a mobile in the early nineties. If she wasn't going to introduce lots of exciting technology, the author might as well have overtly set the book in an alternative 1992 where time-travel had been invented but nothing else had changed. If the lack of mobile technology only come up once or twice, I'd just have gone along with it, but literally 50% of the 1954 section of the plot hinged on characters trying and failing to get hold of other characters on the phone This would have been utterly dull if it was set in 1950, but in a supposedly futuristic society, it really jarred. I'd give this section one or at a push, two stars.

On balance, if you like history and are comfortable with books that don't involve huge amounts of action, I'd cautiously recommend this for the historical sections, but we warned about the dire futuristic bit.


Prince of Fools (Red Queen's War, Book 1) (Red Queen's War)
Prince of Fools (Red Queen's War, Book 1) (Red Queen's War)
Price: £9.97

4.0 out of 5 stars The fragrant rather than thorny variety of dark fantasy, 5 Dec. 2014
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In the opening chapter, our "hero" Prince Jalan is fleeing through a window after being caught in flagrante by his latest lover's terrifying brother. It quickly becomes clear that both the illicit sex and the running away are pretty standard for the caddish Jalan. But at least he has a relatively soft landing: "I vaulted down into the bushes, which were thankfully the fragrant rather than thorny variety. Dropping into a thorn bush can lead to no end of grief."

The reference to Lawrence's earlier series, Prince of Thorns, is clear, as is the insinuation that this is going to be a different sort of book and a different sort of protagonist altogether. And on one level, this is true. Being in Jalan's head is certainly less traumatic than being in Jorg's - where the latter is driven by revenge and a lust for power and will kill anyone who stands in his way, the former is interested only in sex and luxury and gambling, and will run for his life from anyone who stands in his way. For the first third or so of the book, the whole tone is lighter, and is genuinely quite funny in parts.

To some degree, this relative lightness of tone is maintained throughout - even in the darkest situations, Jalan is never a man to take life too seriously. But on the whole, as the book goes on, some of the sinister edge from the earlier books starts to creep in, and the last few chapters have some plot points that practically seem darker than anything the author has ever written.

This book runs more or less exactly parallel to Prince of Thorns (and I'd guess later books in this series map onto later books in the other). As a result, there are no direct spoilers for the other books, and technically, I guess you could read this book before the Thorn books - but I think you'd miss out on the explanations of the world in those books and the knowing comments in this one. My favorite parts of this book were where the two plot lines interacted - notably Jalan's trip to Ancrath, which happens to be on the day that Jorg returns to confront his father. This section had me laughing out loud and holding my breath in equal measure, and it was great to see the same events from a different perspective. Jorg and Jalan get as far as being in the same room as each other, but never actually interact - I'm hoping they'll do so in later books in this spin off series. The bad side of the parallel stories approach was that if you know how Emperor of Thorns ends, it takes some of the urgency away from this plotline, and it's slightly frustrating not to move forward.

Apart from Jalan (who really dominates proceedings - like Lawrence's earlier series, this is very much a character driven work) there are two key players. Firstly, Snorri, a giant, super-strong, unbeatable viking, with strong ideas about honour and bravery. There could hardly be two people more different than him and Jalan, but from a combination of his bravery, Jalan's cowardice and a hefty touch of magic, they are forced to go off adventuring together, odd-couple/buddy-movie style. I always enjoy characters who can fight anyone, and this was no exception.

Secondly, while Jalan gives his name to the novel, his grandmother gives her name to the series, and although the Red Queen doesn't appear much, she utterly intrigued me. I noticed her name cropping up several times over the course of the Thorns books, and as the only named female ruler in the Broken Empire and someone that even Jorg's even-more-psychotic-than-his-son father seemed a little scared of, I wanted to hear more about both her and about her adviser, the Silent Sister, who similarly seemed to unnerve all of the other terrifying magicians and "dream-sworn" characters working behind the scenes. "Do I have to be a monster? Do I have to be a new Queen of Red?" Katherine asks at one point in King of Thorns. But to be Jalan, she's basically just his batty old granny, who has an irritating habit of distracting him from womanising and drinking by summoning him to her throne room to witter on about necromancers and emperors. As a result of seeing things through Jalan's eyes, we never really get to understand her, but throughout the book, it is heavily suggested that's she's playing everyone and driving events across both series. I looking forward to learning more about her over the course of the series, and establishing just what she was up to at the end of Emperor of Thorns.

In conclusion, most of what made Lawrence's earlier series so interesting is present and correct here - the writing, the setting and world-building, the strong characters. I really enjoyed reading things from Jalan's point of view, but he ultimately didn't grab me quite as much as Jorg. He was still very different from your normal fantasy hero, but there wasn't quite that "oh god I'm supporting the villain" shock and thrill. This is still an absolute must read for fans of the other books, but for those new to this author, I'd definitely read them first.


Emperor of Thorns (The Broken Empire, Book 3)
Emperor of Thorns (The Broken Empire, Book 3)
Price: £6.40

5.0 out of 5 stars Some issues, but still a strong end to a unique series, 5 Dec. 2014
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I absolutely loved the first book in this trilogy for its strong writing, its interesting setting (medieval meets post-apocalyptic) and above all, its ultra-compelling protagonist, Jorg, a man who enjoyably blurred the lines between anti-hero and outright psychotic villain. Book Two, while still an enjoyable read, seemed to meander slightly, and didn't grab me quite as much. It will probably depend on taste, but for me, this third and final installment ranked somewhere between them.

Half of the alternating chapters flashback in time by a few years and continue the story, began in book two, of Jorg's travels round the Empire, developing his power and knowledge and learning more about "the builders" and their technology. This fills in some of the blanks that left that end of Book Two slightly confusing, notably where and how Jorg got a gun. Like before, this aspect was very episodic and there were some parts I definitely enjoyed more than others. A little pruning would potentially have been useful here.

The other half is in the "present" and was much stronger on the whole. Miana, Jorg's child bride, is now fifteen and pregnant with his heir, congression, the four-yearly event where all the kings gather to attempt to elect an emperor from amongst their numbers (so far unsuccessfully) is upon us, and the Dead King, merely hinted at in earlier books, is basically attempting to take over the world and fill it with dead things. As this brief summary suggests, this section is action-packed and dramatic, and it provided some of the best show piece scenes in the whole series, even if at times, I sometimes felt the author almost had too many plot lines running simultaneously.

There was a lot of character development going on here, which left me torn. On a technical level, I admired the way the author humanised Jorg and had him start to feel regret for his earlier actions and concern for others. On the other hand, I have to admit that I missed the driven psychopath of book one. Indeed, while I accepted him gaining a conscience, I could have done without him gaining self-doubt. His absolute drive and self-belief made him a fascinating character to me. That said, I loved the strength of his feelings for his new baby - genuinely touching. And considering these feelings, and considering how he tends to react when people mildly inconvenience him, I was waiting with baited breath to how he'd react to someone who tried to kill his son. Let's just say I wasn't disappointed.

As far as other characters went, most of the "brothers" took a relative back seat here, but it's still a strong supporting cast. I loved Miana (one of the few people who ever feels like a match for her husband) and I was hoping they'd develop a strong relationship and he'd get over his weird teenage crush on Katherine. She was a little more interesting in this book now she'd developed dream powers, but I still couldn't understand the depths of his obsession, especially with what feels like the perfect woman for him at his side and pregnant with/mothering his child.

I can't give too much detail without spoiling some plot points, but there were some scenes I was almost certain would be in this book, based on all the rules of storytelling, such as Jorg having a final showdown with his father or some combination of seducing/killing/conclusively getting over Katherine. I got the impression that the author avoided these scenes to avoid cliche, which is understandable, but I felt that the novel lost something as a result. Sometimes things become cliches for a good reason.

The ending was conclusive and suitably dramatic and mostly hard to predict (although I figured out one of the key plot point a few chapters in). On the other hand, the ending was extremely complicated and convoluted, and left me wondering what the hell had just happened. Still, you certainly can't accuse the author of giving readers a cop-out.

That feels like quite a lot of complaints for a 5-star review of a book, but that really sums up how I feel. It was a great read, well-written and unusual. I admired the way it took risks and though for me, some of them didn't quite work out, I'd rather a few brave plot choices that I didn't enjoy than more of the predictable same old same old. As with the rest of the series, this isn't for everyone, but if you'd read this far, I'd definitely recommend this as a fitting, if sometimes frustrating, conclusion.


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